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Pull You Into Me

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January

His first introduction to Merlin Emrys left him less than impressed. Much less. Late afternoon had become evening far too quickly and he was running magnificently late for the party. Spending the previous half hour back at his flat desperately trying to concoct a believable excuse for his absence probably hadn’t helped this tardiness. However the skinny twig of a man who had just rudely breezed past him definitely wasn’t helping matters and Arthur, who was not in exactly the best of moods, felt his ire rising by the second. Nobody ignored him.

“Excuse me!” He demanded loudly, knowing he sounded haughty but not giving a damn.

The tall man in front of him gave an almost comical squeak of surprise, spun around awkwardly on long gangly legs, and almost dropped the leaning tower of books in his arms. Arthur just stood there as the man gaped vacantly at him, waiting for the annoyingly familiar flicker of recognition that always appeared when people met him for the first time. He swore he could almost hear cogs turning as the man tried to place him. It never normally took people this long.

“Is the sight of a customer really so shocking? Business must be slow,” he quipped sarcastically.

The look of confusion finally lifted from the man’s face and Arthur waited for his reaction. Most people either began giggling as they rushed at him or blushed bright red, got tongue tied and refused to meet his gaze. He wondered which option this man would pick. As it surprisingly turned out, he did neither as his expression softened into a rueful grin and he shrugged a shoulder.

“So you’re a customer, huh? I thought you looked a bit overdressed to be robbing the place,” he replied, lilting accent marking him out as a local to the area.

“We closed about an hour ago. Feel free to come back tomorrow but right now these aren’t getting any lighter so if you’ll excuse me,” he added when Arthur continued to stare at him incredulously as he hefted the increasingly unstable pile in his arms.

“The door was unlocked and the sign still said open,” Arthur pointed out irritably. People never ignored him. It just wasn’t done.

“Must have forgotten. Sorry about that. If you could just switch it to closed for me on your way out that would be great, thanks,” the man called as he turned his back and actually began walking away.

“Excuse me! Do you have any idea who I am?” Arthur demanded, moving to follow him on pure instinct.

“No but I’m beginning to suspect you might be a bit of a prat.”

“What?! You can’t talk to customers like that.”

“And yet I believe I just did.”

“Do you want me to report you to your Manager.”

“I am the Manager. I’m also really tired and I’d like to go home so please either start talking to me like a human being and not your personal servant, or leave.”

Arthur stood frozen with shock. He could distantly feel his jaw was hanging open but seemed unable to master control enough to close it.

“Okay well while you consider your options I’m going to go ahead and do something useful like shelve these. You let me know when you’re ready to be civil.”

Arthur raised a hand in his direction, stopping him. “Wait. I…apologise, alright? I need you to help me find a present for someone…please. How’s that? Civil enough for you?”

“Guess it’ll have to do. So about this present then,” he trailed off.

“Yes.”

“Well it’s like the t-shirt says,” he told Arthur, pointing to the white lettering across his chest that had been previously covered up by books.

‘I’M A BOOKSELLER, NOT A TELEPATH – YOU NEED TO TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT’

“Well seeing as this place is a bookshop I would have thought it obvious.” Arthur snarked and the guy sighed. “I want you to find me a good book.”

“This place is filled with good books. You’re going to need to be more specific. I’m not going to recommend the same book for your eighty year old granny that I would for your twelve year old brother. See? You have to match the book to the person. This isn’t a one size fits all type of thing.”

“It’s for my friend. Today is her birthday?”

“How old is she?”

“I’m not sure. Around the same age as me.”

“She’s your friend but you can’t even remember how old she is? Or is she a new friend? Potential girlfriend? Are we trying to impress her with your startlingly highbrow book tastes?” he teased.

“No. Nothing like that. We used to date but it got…complicated.”

“You broke up and yet you’re still buying her birthday presents. That’s either really sweet or kind of stalkerish.”

“It’s nothing like that. She’s having a party and I have to go. It’s a work thing, you know?”

“Can’t say I do. Bookselling tends to involve more dusting and paper cuts than swanky parties,” he snarked back.

Arthur sighed tiredly in defeat. “Look this clearly isn’t working. Forget it. I think I saw a Tesco Express a few streets back. I’ll just get her some flowers or something.”

“No wait, I’m sorry. This girl is clearly important to you. She deserves better than a cheap bunch of flowers. I’m guessing you don’t know any of her favourite authors?” the man paused and looked to Arthur who nodded mutely. “Oh well, fiction in general is always a risky present. Such a high chance they’ll already have it. So non fic it is. Any particular subject? Does she like cooking? Or art? Is she crafty? Sporty? Fond of any particular celebrities of figures from history?”

Arthur thought back over the many years they’d spent side by side at the fan meet and greets. How he’d always sat there, smile screwed so tightly onto his face that his jaw ached for hours afterwards, and watched Gwen interact. She asked questions and actually listened to the answers, smiling and frowning and caring about everything that people chose to tell her.

“She likes people. Likes to hear about their lives. She cares, you know, and not just because people tell her she should.”

The guy looked thoughtful for a moment, held up a finger and then dashed towards the back of the shop to grab something. He passed a glossy black hardback book over to Arthur for inspection. There were several collage style art pieces dotted around the front cover and in the middle was the title ‘POSTSECRET’.

“So there is this guy called Frank Warren in America and he asked people to write down their deepest darkest secrets on a postcard and send it to him to share with the world. He puts some of them up on his blog every week and this book is a collection of some of the best that he’s received over the years. Some of them are hilarious and some are really sad but it’s a nice collection of little snippets of peoples’ lives. What do you think?”

Athur tried for a smile. “Sounds great. Could you gift wrap it for me?”

“Sorry we don’t really do that here. Trust me, if you saw my present wrapping capabilities you’d know why.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do? I’ve got to go straight there and I’m almost an hour late as it is. She’s going to think I’m not coming at all. Please.”

“Well, since you said the magic word. I’ve got some ribbon. I could tie that around it and maybe curl the ends,” he offered.

Arthur considered complaining but decided against it. The guy was trying to help, and the way he bit his luscious lower lip as he concentrated on the task did strange things to Arthur’s insides. Now was so not the time for these feelings. He did his best to push back the rising blush, distracting himself with locating his credit card.

“So how much do I owe you?”

“Call it £10 but we don’t take cards. I’m afraid I’ve already cashed up for the night so I don’t have much change.”

“I’ve only got a £50 note,” Arthur replied with a sigh pulling the note out and offering it to the incredulous man. “Think of it as a tip.”

“Forget that. No one tips that big. Or at least not while both parties are fully clothed,” he replied, muttering the last part to himself as Arthur let out a startled little noise.

“That was not a suggestion. Or a come on. This is a perfectly respectable bookshop,” he informed Arthur tartly.

“Look just take the cash and I’ll come back another time. You can start me a tab and next time I’ll ask you to recommend some books for me,” Arthur offered before he could think better of it.

Where had that come from? He was meant to be leaving as quickly as possible. Not trying to find reasons why he had to come back again soon. Clearly it had been far too long if a dopey smiling boy of a man could have this affect on him.

“Okay but in that case you’d better take something for the road,” the man replied, casting his eyes around the counter until they fell upon a pile in the corner.

“Here you go: ‘The Demon’s Lexicon’. Demons, dancing, mysterious bad boys, secrets and lies plus evil magicians. What’s not to like?”

Arthur took the book dubiously. The cover was darkly shaded and featured a rather moody looking young man in profile. Figuring he had nothing to lose he grabbed both books and rushed from the shop without so much as a goodbye.

 

****

February

Arthur had honestly not planned to return. Sure the guy had been funny as well as irritating, and kind as well as rude, but it wasn’t like Arthur had any reason to go back there. The world was full of irritable booksellers. There was even a whole TV show dedicated to the phenomenon. And it wasn’t as if Arthur needed to collect on the rest of his money. There was plenty more where that came from, after all.

Heck he hadn’t even intended on reading the bloody thing that guy had palmed off on him last minute. Sure Gwen had loved her present. And he was grateful, but all it meant was that the man was good at his job. No big deal.

A week later he had been stuck at JFK and going steadily out of his mind with boredom when remembered he still had that spare book lying around in the side pocket of his travelling bag. After debating making a magazine run and concluding the trashy headlines would only make him more depressed he’d finally given in and started reading.

The book was good. Really really good. Funny and clever and utterly absorbing in the way that the everyday modern world blended with that of the fantastical. And it had real relationships. Not just flowery pretty ones between boyfriends and girlfriends but complicated ones between siblings and children and parents. There were genuine mysteries that he couldn’t figure out, and only a fear of ruining it stopped him from skipping ahead to make sure everything turned out alright.

It was only thanks to his harried PA of the week coming to find him that he made the plane at all that day. The second he’d stowed his luggage he was straight back into the book, not even pausing to flirt with the stewardess or order a drink like he normally would. Hours later when everyone else around him was fast asleep he blinked away tears as he silently ranted and raved at the ending in his mind.

The second he was through passport control in London he strode to the nearest bookshop like a man possessed, desperate to find his next fix, his next slice of pure escapism. But there were so many to choose from. They couldn’t all possibly be as good. How was he meant to pick when he didn’t even really know what he was looking for? In desperation he asked the lady behind the counter for help but she had clearly recognised him. Falling rather more on the insane giggling end of the scale that measured people’s reaction to him, she had been of no use at all. He had given it up as a lost cause five minutes later when she seemed far more interested in getting his autograph than finding him anything.

A series of seemingly never ending interviews, promotions and castings kept him in London for more than a week before he could finally return to Cardiff. By this point he really was feeling quite oddly desperate to regain the feeling he’d had that day. The ability to shut out the world for hours at a time and silence all the nagging odious thoughts in his mind. TV and films just didn’t do it for him anymore and he missed the feeling of quiet balance and serenity that the book had brought him so very much. Even on that final day his escape had been touch and go, his father clutching more and more of his freedom greedily. It was therefore quite a good deal later than he would have liked when he actually made it back to the bookshop.

His spirits sunk considerably upon seeing the CLOSED sign hanging on the door, but then rose as he noticed that the lights were still on. Hammering on the door in desperation he felt relief flood through him as the same odd looking gangly man from before appeared at the back of the shop and made his way towards him. Arthur felt his breath catch strangely at the sight of him. He had long assumed himself to be immune to the charms of beautiful people. Beauty was hardly a rare trait in the world of films, being pretty much a prerequisite for success. But this guy had an odd otherworldly quality about him. Long limbs stretched into tight dark jeans and a black t-shirt that today advised Arthur ‘NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS MOVIE’. His ears were frankly ridiculous, his cheek bones too sharp and his lips far fuller than any mans should be. Despite these logical observations Arthur found himself unable to look away and he watched the guy carefully, looking for any sign that the man had figured out his identity since their last meeting.

There was some sort of flash of recognition behind the man’s large blue eyes but he looked vaguely annoyed to see Arthur again, not pleased. This was better than he’d been hoping for.

“We’re closed,” he told Arthur quite sternly, looking irritated as he made no move to open the door.

“Please,” Arthur begged in desperation. “I loved that book ‘The Demon’s Lexicon’. I need the next one.”

“We’ll have to order in the sequel. I sold our last copy this afternoon.”

“Can’t you find me something else?”

“We have these things called opening hours, sir. Ours run from 9 to 6 everyday but Sunday. You are welcome to come back then like everyone else,” he insisted and turned to leave.

Arthur banged on the door is desperation. “I’ll pay you another fifty. Anything you want, but I need something tonight. Please.”

The guy stopped at that and fixed him with a look normally only bestowed on small children and the emotionally unstable.

“Please. I never knew books could be good like that. I just need something to tide me over. Anything you think is good. I’ll take it,” he continued, pulling out his wallet.

The guy gave him a very serious once over and then slowly opened the door.

“Well get inside then. The neighbours probably think I’m dealing drugs from the way you’re carrying on,” he said, ushering him into the pleasant warm smell of old paper, wood and dust.

“Here’s what’s going to happen. I will find you one good book. You will then quietly leave and agree that next time you will come back during our normal opening hours. I know that you probably think you’re special and that the rules of us mere mortals do not apply to you, but they do. So you will not turn up here like a crazy person at all times of the night and make demands. Right?” The man picked up a book and Arthur nodded eagerly.

“Okay. This right here is one of my favourite books. It is timeless and amazing. It features the most beautiful woman in the world, a prince, pirates, giants, fencing, true love, killer rodents, poison, revenge and miracles. And it’s funny. If you do not like it you should not come back here because there is nothing further I can do for you.”

“What’s it called?” Arthur asked reaching out for the book.

“The Princess Bride,” the man said, handing it over.

Arthur reached for his wallet but the man waived him off, indicating he should leave right away before he changed his mind. Arthur made sure to hurry from the store without so much as a backwards glance.

 

****

March

Merlin had just hit the start button on the microwave when the battered phone in the corner let out an annoyingly familiar trill.

“No, no, no, please be the outside line,” he begged the annoying object, shoulders slumping in defeat as he glared at it, willing the noise to change tone.

One more rendition and all his hopes were dashed. That was definitely the internal line and that meant that his peaceful lunch was looking less and less likely by the second.

“Staffroom,” he ground out, snatching up the handset.

“Merlin? We’ve got a Service Call 5.”

And…crap. Merlin never had managed to keep the codes straight in his head. They hardly ever used the bloody things anyway. He couldn’t understand why they were using them now unless…

“I’ll be right there. Do they look violent? Should I bring Cenred?” he asked anxiously, preparing himself to race downstairs and rescue the girls from an angry customer.

“Cenred?” the puzzled voice queried. Merlin decided it must be Freya. Elena could never be that calm. There was a pause as Merlin held himself poised for movement, but then she huffed a laugh and he relaxed. “Dangerous situations are a Service Call 3, Merlin.”

“Is it Crazy Cat Lady again?” he asked, taking a random guess. “Because it is so not my turn to deal with her.”

There was a sigh. “I give up,” she muttered and then Elena’s excited voice came on the line. “It’s a Service Call 6 too, Merlin. Totally a Service Call 6.”

“You guys are just making this up now. What the hell’s a Service Call 6?”

“Just get your cute little arse down here. He asked for you,” she replied excitedly.

“Who did?”

“Mr Service Call 5 AND 6,” she paused and then sighed in exasperation when he didn’t instantly respond. “You are so lucky I’m your friend. Service Call 6 is Service Call Sexy, remember? Look I’m not kidding. There is a hot, sexy guy down here and he wants you.” She let out a little muffled squeal and he looked at the phone in disbelief.

“He asked for me by name?”

“Well no. He asked for ‘the guy with the weird ears’, but who cares? He’s famous!”

Merlin gave one last longing look at the microwave and sighed. “Fine. I’ll come down,” he told her, cursing this mystery man already.

Elena had been intercepted by a customer by the time he emerged onto the shop floor although she did send a blinding smile his way as he passed. Freya on the other hand studied him coolly.

“He’s over by Fantasy. Don’t you want to go say hello?”

“I want to eat my lunch. That’s what I want,” he grumbled.

“Well I don’t think Ellie will ever speak to you again if you don’t at least talk to him,” she teased.

“Is he really that gorgeous?”

She tilted her head, considering the question. “Yeah he’s pretty, but he knows it.”

“Great, just great,” he muttered as he made his way down the ramp and over to the Fantasy/Sci Fi/Horror corner.

Honestly the guy had to pick the most secluded corner of the whole shop. Giving up on the hope of just casually drifting by to access the situation Merlin took a deep breath, steeled himself and turned the corner.

“Oh it’s just you,” he exclaimed, before he could stop himself, as he caught sight of Mr Moneybags from the other day.

The guy jerked upright from where he had been considering, Merlin saw with some disappointment, the Vampire Porn shelf. He would have to point him to something better later, but first he had a celebrity to meet and greet. Strangely enough he couldn’t see anyone else around.

“Have you seen anyone famous around here?” he asked in a hushed whisper, causing an instant reaction in the man.

His jaw dropped and he regarded Merlin with the oddest expression. Merlin frowned when no reply seemed forthcoming but then he remembered the guy’s previous diva like attitude at being ignored.

“Sorry. Sorry. Obviously I’m very happy to see you back again. And during our normal opening hours, no less. Welcome to the world of normal mortals,” he said, grinning wryly. “It’s just that I was trying to have lunch but some famous jerk was asking for ‘the guy with weird ears’ which apparently means me. So now I have to say hello. Only I can’t actually find him.”

“He called you ‘weird ear guy’?” the man responded, looking deeply shocked.

“Yeah.”

“Bastard!”

Merlin laughed. “Thank you! I mean not exactly the best way to start a conversation, is it? By insulting someone’s ears. I mean I’m sure there are loads of other ways to describe me - Skinny guy? T-shirt guy? Going for the ears just shows a complete lack of imagination.”

“Obviously this guy isn’t a writer. Do you know anything about him?”

“Just that he’s famous and hot,” Merlin replied and the guy snorted. “Probably wouldn’t recognise him anyway. I’m rubbish with faces,” he added and the guy’s smile widened.

“There was a guy at the counter earlier but I think he left.”

Merlin shrugged. “Oh well. Can’t have been that important if he didn’t even know my name.”

“Guess that’s something I should know then,” the guy prompted silkily, and Merlin realised the guy was flirting. With him. This was new.

“Huh?” he mumbled incoherently, distracted by his discovery. And this was possibly why no one ever flirted with him.

He tried again. “Well what have you been calling me?” he asked, attempting to do the flirty tone thing back but the guy looked uncertain all of a sudden.

“Uh…Bookshop Guy of course. Like in that first book you gave me.”

“So if I’m Alan does that make you Nick?” Merlin teased.

“Can’t say I’m filled with dark thoughts and homicidal rage, so probably not. I’m Arthur,” he said smiling.

“No way!” Merlin gaped and the smile wavered. “I’m Merlin.”

“Seriously?!”

“Fraid so. Blame my mother. Huge fantasy fan. How about yours? ” Merlin asked as the other man’s grin tightened somehow.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t even know your own mother’s taste in books? God you really are hopeless,” he joked carelessly, but then stilled as a look of deep hurt flashed across the other man’s face. “Arthur?” he questioned hesitantly, suddenly horribly certain he’d stumbled into something sad and private.

“My mother…she died. When I was born. Just before Christmas,” he admitted, gaze skittering away as his jaw clenched.

“Well…shit.”

Arthur chuckled humourlessly at that. “Most people say they’re sorry,” he informed Merlin haughtily.

“Sure. But just…God that’s so fucking sad,” he replied, emotion choking his voice as he put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder consolingly.

Arthur just stood there staring back at him as if frozen to the spot. Moments later he seemed to shiver before he withdrew from the contact.

“I’m going to go now,” he said, still looking lost and uncertain.

“Wait,” Merlin gasped, automatically reaching out. “You never said what you thought of ‘The Princess Bride’.” He knew it was a flimsy excuse but somehow he just couldn’t let this man walk out the door. Not yet.

He seemed to come out of a daze at the question. “It was good. Funny and tragic and true. Just what I wanted. Perfect escapism.”

“True? It features a rhyming giant, killer rodents and a Zoo of Death. Not exactly things you find in everyday life.”

“I meant the relationships between the people. True love and true friendship. It’s…comforting to read about, I guess. Who doesn’t want that?” Arthur replied simply and Merlin had to bite his lip to contain his grin.

“This is going to be so much fun,” he said and Arthur gave him a puzzled frown. “I love recommending books for people who get it,” he explained. “Fantasy isn’t about killer monsters and magic spells. It’s about people. Things happen and they change because of it. A ‘good book’ is good because it makes the reader invest in the characters. Some you love, some you hate. Doesn’t matter as long as you’d feel something if the author killed them off.”

Arthur stared at him and he gave a little shrug. “I’ll find you a couple of books for today, but you should give me your details so I can order that other book for you.”

“You want my number?” Arthur asked sounding slightly incredulous, all signs of his previous fragility once again deeply buried.

“I said it before and I’ll say it again. That was not a come on. This is a perfectly respectable place.” Merlin removed a small notepad and pen from his back pocket. “Now your name and number please sir, while I find you something decent to read.”

It didn’t take him long but Merlin was still relieved to find Arthur where he had left him. He didn’t know why he’d half expected him to be gone, but their whole conversation today had seemed edged by some strange sense of finality.

“Here,” Arthur said passing over the notebook. Merlin shoved it back into his pocket distractedly.

“First we’ve got some more fantasy,” he said, holding up a copy of ‘Good Omens’. “Demons, angels, the nature of good and evil, lots about friendship, a little about love and the apocalypse.”

“Next we have ‘Looking for Alaska’. It’s real world teenage fiction so the only demons are emotional ones. It’s mostly about friendship and growing up. It’s funny and very very sad. You’ll never look at a tube of toothpaste quite the same again, and if you skip ahead at any point you will utterly ruin the magic of this book. So don’t, okay?” he told him very seriously before handing both books over as if they were treasured children.

“Are all booksellers so weird?” Arthur asked, looking at him sceptically.

“Only the good ones,” Merlin replied with a cheeky grin which Arthur shared before nodding at the notebook.

“I mean it,” he said and Merlin felt his brow wrinkle in confusion, but he didn’t elaborate. “Do I owe you anything?”

“No I’d say you’re still good for a few books yet.”

“I hope so Merlin, I really do,” he replied, so oddly serious and somehow sad that Merlin didn’t know what to say. “Thanks for this,” Arthur added vaguely and then he turned and left.

Merlin sighed and began making his way back to his now cold lunch. Elena gave him an odd look but he decided to deal with her later. He’d had his quota of odd already for the morning. It wasn’t until he’d finally sat down that he remembered to check the notepad. Surprisingly Arthur had left his name and a mobile number. Underneath he’d written: CALL ME WHEN YOU KNOW.

 

****

“To listen to the message again press 1. To save press 2. To delete this message, press 3.” The cheerful automated voice instructed and Arthur groaned with frustration for what seemed like the tenth time that day.

No doubt about it. The whole situation was completely ridiculous but could lead to only one conclusion. He was obsessed with Bookshop Guy. With Merlin.

He never should have gone back. Returning once had been idiotic enough but twice, the second time during normal daytime hours, had been just asking for trouble.

He had been feeling bored and, though he was loathe to admit it, rather lonely all week. Suffering through one of his rare downtimes between films when everything just went quiet for a few weeks at a time. After rising for insanely early calls for months on end, and having every minute of his day dictated to him, the abrupt lack of routine always left him at a loss with far too much time on his hands. Suddenly he had hours of free time and nothing to fill them with but his own empty company.

After spending five days curled up in his flat alone he had concluded his only options were to venture out or go steadily more insane. Shunning the city centre with its gawking crowds he decided to go for a walk. Few ever remembered that the world renowned beauty Igraine Pendragon had once been Igraine Du Bois, a normal girl from a quiet part of Cardiff. But Arthur often felt comforted walking the streets where she had grown up. Sometimes he would sit in Bute Park, stare at the river and wonder if she had ever done the same. When things became particularly bad with his father, harsh angry words finally replaced with terse silent months of heavy disappointment, he would sit there and imagine a different world. One where his mother sat beside him on the bench, holding his hand and reassuring him that it was okay to be himself because, unlike his father, she could love him anyway.

He had been wandering mindlessly for close to an hour, hood pulled up and eyes downcast, when he finally turned a corner and realised just where his traitorous feet had brought him. There on the opposite side of the street was Dragon Books looking warm and inviting. It was only then that he realised just how chilled he was, and had been for some time. The day was cold and damp with the overcast sky colouring everything a rather depressing grey. In that moment Dragon Books looked like salvation and he wanted it. He wanted the pure escapism offered to him from every shelf and the sense of hope that came from connecting with the guy who worked there. The one who talked to him like he was a real person and not some sort of coveted mythical creature.

The second he stepped through the door he’d realised it was a mistake. The man was nowhere to be seen and the muffled voices from the back of the shop were decidedly female. He should have left then, walked home and anonymously ordered a whole tonne of books online. But that wouldn’t get him what he really wanted.

With a deep sense of dread he had approached the counter where two women stood chatting as they labelled books. The blond women spotted him first and within a second he knew everything was well and truly over as her eyes widened comically. The book she had been holding dropped from her fingers as she nudged the other girl and let out a little excited squeal. Right at that moment he’d wanted nothing more than to flee, but he felt rooted to the spot with sad disappointment at having his sanctuary tainted.

The other girl had regarded him steadily from behind dark kohl rimmed eyes, her expression giving little away.

“Can we help you?” Her voice was deceptively calm in stark contrast to her friend who appeared to be silently hyperventilating next to her.

“I’m looking for someone,” Arthur said hoarsely and then coughed to clear his throat. “He’s the manager here.”

Her only reply was to raise an eyebrow as she studied Arthur. After a few moments he could feel himself squirm under her assessing gaze.

“Is he here? Tall bloke. Funny looking…” he trailed off, motioning to his ears as her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“He’s at lunch.”

“Oh,” he muttered quietly, disappointment flooding in.

“We could call him,” piped in the other woman suddenly, her voice high and excited. Her friend glared at her but she gave her a very unsubtle look right back.

“I’ll just go browse over there,” he told them, indicating the opposite side of the store.

Only the weight of their gaze on the back of his neck stopped him for rushing straight for the door. As he caught snatches of the phone call his desire to escape, before the guy turned up and shattered his hopes of normality, only increased. It had been a tough month and sometimes, sad as it was, he’d clung to the pleasant memory of his guileless smile and teasing laugh.

He’d been hunched over fighting off a panic attack at his indecision when the guy appeared. And then to Arthur’s delighted amazement he still hadn’t recognised him. So Arthur had played along, feigning puzzlement and then shock at this imaginary rude celebrity’s terrible behaviour. And he had replied with a laugh, joking and smiling as Arthur was filled with need. In that moment he’d wanted him…wanted Merlin and his easy presence to never leave. Leaning in almost unconsciously he’d laughed and joked right back.

But then one little silly comment had ripped away the illusion, throwing the truth right back in his face. Merlin knew nothing about him and the ease with which they interacted could never last once he found out. No one ever asked him about his mother. The story of her death had been headline news after all. But never in over two decades of muttered condolences had he ever been so comforted as by Merlin’s unnaturally honest reaction. And then he had touched Arthur, and it had been a true battle to stop himself from leaning into the comfort. When most people touched him he knew full well it was only for their benefit, they wanted to know they could. He couldn’t remember the last person who had done so not to selfishly possess, but rather to caringly soothe him.

It was at that moment that he’d realised he really had to leave. He couldn’t have Merlin. He shouldn’t have allowed himself to be distracted with harmless chatter. He shouldn’t have stuck around to receive more books, more smiles, more memories of good times. And on top of all that he definitely should not, in a million years, have ever given out his actual mobile number. It had been crushingly stupidly hopeful.

“To listen to the message again press 1. To save press 2. To delete this message, press 3.” The same voice repeated, so cheerfully unaware of the awful decision she was forcing him to make.

With a heavy heart he moved his thumb towards the number 3. He needed to rid himself of all delusions. Merlin was quite clearly an exceptionally special human being but nothing had changed. He was still the same person and, no matter how much he might wish it, he couldn’t have Merlin. If he had any sense of self preservation he would take this as an opportunity to delete all delusions otherwise from his mind as well as his phone.

Not yet.

He pressed 1.

“Hello!...Uh yeah…hi. So…I guess you’re kind of massively famous then. Good to know. Elena, my friend from the bookshop, is going to tease me about this forever, you know. But I just wanted to say…I never would have said that…about your mum…if I’d known. I’m really truly sorry. Really. But anyway…I’ve ordered you that book. Ellie, who is apparently a massive fan by the way, says you’re probably off shooting in South Africa by now but I’ll hold it for when you get back. Um…hope it all goes well. See you soon and…oh shit, sorry…this is Merlin by the way…uh Bookshop Guy. Um…bye!”

Unable to stop the smile that spreads across his face he finally gives in and presses 2.

He is so totally and utterly fucked.

 

****

April

The bell over the door jangled loudly, effectively cutting off Arthur’s hope of a quiet entrance. Although he considered, as Gwaine gave him a cheeky shove when he froze on the threshold. The whole strength in numbers plan seemed a little silly in retrospect but, despite Merlin’s reassuring message, he was worried things would suddenly be stilted and tense between them now that Merlin actually knew who he was. Why he had thought having Gwaine around to witness the inevitable awkwardness would help, was anyone’s guess. Clearly a moment of panic induced stupidity on his part.

Grabbing Gwaine’s arm before he could stride off and disappear he glanced around. Luckily it turned out the place was pretty much empty apart from the goth girl who had spent his previous visit frowning at him as if he were a puzzle that needed solving. He put on his best ‘I’m approachable and so happy to be here’ smile and opened his mouth to enquire about Merlin’s whereabouts. She merely quirked an eyebrow at him and indicated the back of the store with a long lace covered sleeve.

Nodding his thanks he dragged Gwaine along with him until he caught sight of Merlin at the till helping an old lady. Arthur couldn’t help his grin as he caught sight of his t-shirt. Today it proclaimed: ‘I LIKE BIG BOOKS AND I CANNOT LIE’. Arthur wondered if his whole wardrobe was made up of book related slogan shirts. Drifting closer to wait he began to gather that things were not going well.

“No, no I’ve already told you his last name is Dean. T-O-L-A-M-Y Dean,” the woman announced to the world in general, her already loud voice rising as she spelled out letters with exaggerated patience.

“I’m very sorry madam but I can’t find anything by someone of that name. I’ve even checked Amazon,” Merlin replied levelly, fingers flying over the keyboard as he frowned at the screen.

The lady made a dismissive loud and shook her head. “Honestly young man, in my day booksellers actually knew something about the books they sold. They didn’t need one these stupid things to tell them everything. They actually had brains,” she replied, gesturing irritably at the computer.

Arthur watched in amusement as Merlin glanced up from the screen at that and finally caught sight of him. Merlin managed a quick smile in his direction before the lady let out a noise of extreme dissatisfaction and his attention snapped back to her.

“Are you quite certain about all the details you’ve given me?” he questioned patiently, keeping his tone carefully level.

“Of course! I’m old not stupid, unlike some. I saw it in the window of Waterstone’s this morning. As I’ve already said, it’s got a red cover and it’s by that chap T-O-L-A-M-Y D-E-A-N. I can’t believe you don’t know him. He’s got a show on the BBC. Honestly, what do they teach you in school these days?” she demanded, clearly not planning to give up anytime soon as she leaned forward aggressively.

“Excuse me m’am,” Gwaine completely shocked Arthur as he stepped forward and tapped the woman on the shoulder. She whirled on him angrily and jerked away as if he’d struck her, but his mate just grinned charmingly and continued.

“Sorry to interrupt but do you possibly mean Ptolemy Dean? P-T-O-L-E-M-Y with a silent ‘P’? He’s on that show on BBC4 called Restoration,” he offered politely as Merlin’s fingers flew over the keys again.

“What?” he asked at Arthur’s incredulous expression while they waited.

“There’s no way you watch BBC4,” Arthur muttered. All these years he was sure, if anything, his friend was far more of a Channel 5 type of guy. Reality TV, low budget disaster films, porn and documentaries with titles like ‘Me and My Twenty Pound Tumour’.

“I’ll have you know I’m actually surprisingly deep,” Gwaine announced with his custom cheeky grin.

“Mate, you’re about as deep as a puddle,” Arthur returned.

“No he’s right. It is Ptolemy with a ‘P’. Strange name, huh?” Merlin confirmed with a smile which was not returned.

“So you do have a copy then?” the woman pressed.

“Well no but we could order it in for you.”

“My husband’s birthday is tomorrow. Can you obtain it for me by then?” she asked, her tone icy.

“Well…no. I guess you could always pop back to Waterstone’s,” Merlin said with a surprisingly pleasant smile.

“So this entire conversation has just been a waste of my time. After all this, I’m going to have to walk all the way back into town with my bad hip. Is that really what you’re telling me?” she demanded, leaning across the counter and really getting in Merlin’s face.

“Well that’s kind of up to you. You could choose to walk back into town or you could call it a day, go home, put your feet up and have a cup of tea. The ball really is completely in your court,” Merlin replied tonelessly with a smile, not backing up an inch.

Her shoulders hunched, and for an awful moment Arthur thought he might have to step in, but then she gave an aggrieved sigh and stormed out muttering, “see if I ever come back to this bloody place ever again.”

Merlin finally let the polite smile drop as she slammed out of the shop. Sagging a little, he rested on his elbows and regarded them both.

“Behold gentlemen, the general public. Gotta love them,” he began, but was interrupted as the girl in the black lace dress popped up suddenly behind them.

“Because it’s technically against the law to beat their tiny brains in,” she announced, hefting a large book as she strolled around the counter to rest against Merlin. He slung his arm around her shoulders and glanced at the book.

“A children’s encyclopaedia, Freya, really?” he questioned, looking disappointed.

“What? It’s still brand new and shrink wrapped so any blood would come right off,” she told him with a smile.

“The poor man,” muttered Gwaine suddenly, breaking the spell that had held Arthur immobile and unable to look away from the couple.

“Oh don’t worry about dear Merlin. He’s much tougher than he looks,” she informed them, leaning in to kiss her colleague’s cheek in what Arthur thought was a rather possessive manner.

“Actually I was thinking about that old baggage’s poor husband. To be married to her…that poor man,” Gwaine replied thoughtfully and the charged moment was effectively cut short.

“Well you sure saved the day. You know you’re in the shit when neither Amazon nor Google find anything. So all I can say is thank you Mr…” Merlin asked smiling.

“Knight. I’m Gwaine Knight but please just call me Gwaine,” he replied doing that flirty smile Arthur knew so well.

God the man really would flirt with anything that moved. Normally Arthur couldn’t care less, but the waves that were passing between the two men were beginning to irritate Arthur. He had not come all this way to be ignored, and Merlin had barely even glanced in his direction. Trying to restrain himself from kicking his stupid git of a friend he cleared his throat meaningfully. The bemused look the girl (who was still draped all over Merlin like a coat) was giving him was really not helping. Suddenly time seemed to snap back into focus as there was a loud crash from the next room and a female voice swore loudly.

“Oh buggering bollocks!”

“Elena? Everything alright?” Merlin called with a wince.

A second later the blonde woman from before stuck her head round the door, biting her lip. Her hair looked hastily backcombed and the rather oversized glasses sat slightly askew upon her nose as her shocked wide eyes took in the scene. She gave a rather sheepish grin and nodded her head quickly before making her way over to them, wobbling slightly in her mary janes.

“Hello,” she greeted eagerly, looking between Arthur and Gwaine, clearly slightly star struck as she held her hands behind her back.

“Elena? You okay? That’s not blood it is?” Merlin questioned worriedly as he made his way towards her, motioning to the front of her cardigan which did bare a slightly worrying stain.

“Hmm? Oh no that’s been there since lunch. Don’t worry I’m fine. Just a little bit of blood. All mine! And I didn’t get any of it on the books or anything,” she assured them.

She swung her left arm around and gave them a thumbs up sign, then gasped in shock at the stream of blood that was now running down her hand in a steady trickle.

“Shit!” she exclaimed faintly as she blanched and swayed on her feet, necessitating Gwaine to reach out and steady her. She giggled and stared up at him.

“My hero,” she sighed and he laughed, keeping a firm grip on her.

“Oh Ellie,” Freya muttered in exasperation as she pushed the kick stool over and got her seated before she disappeared off into the back of the store.

“Elena, what do I always tell you?” Merlin prodded as he knelt down in front of her, wrapped a bag around the cut and got her to hold it tightly with her other hand.

“Umm. Don’t talk to strange men. But he’s not strange Merlin…he’s Gwaine. Isn’t he lovely,” she stage whispered to him dreamily, which caused Gwaine to smirk and Arthur to roll his eyes.

“I was thinking more about how you should always sit down, apply pressure to the wound and wait for me,” he chided, touching her face softly.

“But then I might have missed Gwaine and…”

“Yes, yes I know. He’s lovely. Just try not to throw up on him while I go find the first aid kit, okay?” he told her with a smirk as he watched Gwaine subtly take a step back.

Arthur followed him as he made to leave the room.

“Shit I’m sorry. I’m just not very good with blood. You’d think I’d get used to it but…,” he heard her tell Gwaine before they were too far away.

A minute later he was facing Merlin in the quiet of the staff room. Now that they were away from the chaos Arthur felt oddly shy, his brain sluggish and still trying to process the unexpected turn of events that had been his afternoon.

“So…,” he began but was very glad when Merlin interrupted him.

“Sorry about all that. It’s really nice to see you again. And I think you’ve pretty much made Elena’s every dream come true by bringing Gwaine along. She’s loved him for approximately forever. Although…sorry that must seem really creepy to you. I know you guys must have all these women claiming they love you when you’ve never even met. God even to me that sounds kind of psycho,” he babbled anxiously until Arthur felt the need to reassure him.

“It’s fine. Honestly. I very much doubt Gwaine could ever dislike the attention. And Elena seems…” he trailed off, trying to find the right words and failing.

“Elena is quite possibly the most accident prone person in the whole known universe. Wherever she goes chaos is sure to follow. But she is also the kindest soul and one of the sweetest people I have ever met. You have absolutely nothing to worry about.”

“Right. That’s…good,” Arthur replied, glancing away as another stilted silence fell between them. Unable to ignore this new foreign awkwardness he prodded, “you do get that Gwaine and me…we’re just normal people, right? People always make a fuss but we’re not actually all that special.”

“Well I don’t know about you, but Gwaine seems to have a fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of BBC4 architects. That seems pretty special right there,” Merlin joked back with a smile, but the horrid lump of bitter sadness in Arthur’s gut just wouldn’t budge and he had to prod a bit more.

“I’m still the same person you met that first night Merlin. I haven’t suddenly changed.”

“The man I met that first night was a pompous selfish arse. The Arthur I’ve got to know since then is far nicer. Let’s see if we can keep you that way, huh.” Arthur continued to look at him doubtfully. “It’s fine Arthur, really. I’m still me and you’re still you. This doesn’t have to be weird unless we make it so.”

Arthur studied his face carefully, looking for signs of deceit but couldn’t make any out behind the bookseller’s good natured easy smile. He gave a muted sigh of relief and nodded his agreement.

“Now that’s sorted we really should get back out there. I doubt Elena’s going to bleed to death, but I was actually only half joking about the puking part, and I don’t think Elena would ever forgive me if I allowed her to puke over her favourite celebratory ever. Even if he is also just a normal person underneath it all.”

 

****

 

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
Subject: Hope that address is right. You have terrible penmanship.

So go on then, you must have had a chance to finish that last book I recommended you. What with the attack of the killer old lady, followed by Elena’s death throes and then you distracting me with your identity crisis we never quite got round to it.

I had been hoping for a nice quiet afternoon you know. Should have known better. Thursdays are always tricky. Should have kept my guard up.

Still, I can’t believe I forgot the most important question of all: How much did you love ‘Good Omens’? Pratchett’s most accessible work + Neil Gaiman = pure brilliance, right? Hope you agree otherwise we may have to have words.

*

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
Subject: Sorry, do I know you?

Apologies for the late reply. We’re a bit behind schedule which is never good. It’s been all long days, longer nights and frayed tempers lately. As for the book, of course I loved it. How could anyone dislike a book that begins with chattering satanic nuns and has a blurb declaring that the world is going to end next Saturday - just after tea? Pure comic genius. Did find myself sympathising rather a lot with Dog. He starts out this terrifying hellhound and has to change completely just because his master wants him to be something else. Hardly fair, is it?

*

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
Subject: Ha bloody ha! Also - should I be worried?

Of all the hundreds of characters in that novel you identified most strongly with Dog – Satanic hellhound and cat-worrier? Pretty sure a shrink would have a field day with that. You’ve got problems my friend. Hope they’re not really as serious as they sound. Should I start sending you chew toys or what?

*

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
Subject: Shut up!

Shut up you condescending bastard. You’re my friend and that means you’re the one person not allowed to analyse me. Get more than enough of that from everyone else. Plus I’ll have you know that I never said Dog was my favourite character. That honour actually goes to Crowley – the Angel that didn’t so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards. How cool was he? Though I’m afraid, as my friend, that would make you Aziraphale.

*

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
Subject: We’re friends now? Also - I’m Aziraphale?????

So you consider me terribly posh, English and almost certainly gay. Thanks mate. Thanks a lot. ;-p

*

 

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
Subject: Course we’re friends. Do you think I exchange emails with everyone I meet?

Well I actually meant both of you are obsessed with books…but Welsh is practically the same as English, right?

*

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
Subject: So I’m special? Aww!

I dare you to say that to a Welshman’s face, you English nancy!

*

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
Subject: You’re a regular little snowflake of uniqueness. Congrats!

Make me!

*

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
Subject: Shut up!

Prat!

*

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
Subject: No you shut up!

Arse!

*

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com

Clotpole!

*

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk

…Clotpole? Really?

*

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com

Yes clotpole! Come over for dinner the next time you’re in town and I might explain it to you.

*

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk

So desperate for the chance to insult me to my face? I’ll text you when I get back. Not long now. Maybe a few more weeks.

*

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com

I’ll text you my address.

*

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk

So…it’s a date.

*

TO: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk
FROM: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com

Great. :-) Elena’s going to be thrilled.

*

TO: Merlin Emrys themagicbookman@gmail.com
FROM: Arthur Pendragon theonetruking@yahoo.co.uk

Elena?

 

****

June

He’d only been back in the country a few hours, having barely slept a wink on the plane despite the very comfortable First Class booth. He knew from long experience that the jet lag would be brutal once it caught up to him tomorrow, and he knew he should be heading straight back to his apartment to rest, but he couldn’t resist sending the text first. He had been unable to fully escape the nagging itch of possibility ever since that throw away comment in amongst the petty squabbling.

Bitter experience had long ago taught him not to hope for things. Expectations were so often tied to disappointment after all. But he just couldn’t help but hold his breath as he gave the universe one last chance not to disappoint him.

Just arrived back in town. Got any plans for dinner?
AP

AP? Somebody’s been watching far too much Sherlock.
Sundays are the day of pizza and dumpster cake.
You are welcome to join us.
YouKnowWho

 

Voldemort?
Never saw Sherlock. Think I was abroad back then.
Dumpster cake? Should I be worried? Is this code?

 

Nope – but I am magic ;-p
Can’t have this. You’re English! Must see Sherlock. I’ll find the DVD.
Now you have to come find out. 123 Castle Road.

 

****

 

He looked up to catch his driver watching him in the mirror.

“Girlfriend?” he asked amiably, flicking his eyes back to the road.

“What? No!”

“Sorry. You just looked so…” he paused.

“What? I looked so what?” Arthur challenged irritably. He and his drivers never chatted. This was just uncomfortably weird.

“Happy. Sir. You looked happy.”

Arthur took a minute to consider this then brushed it off. “Castle Road. Quick as you can.”

 

****

 

Castle Road turned out to be a long straight row of neat terraced houses in a quiet part of town. Arthur waited a breath to take in the cheery yellow front door, the colourful flowerboxes that lined the concrete path, and the many bikes chained to every available inch of railing, before he gathered his courage and knocked. For a moment there was silence and then the cheerful blond woman from the bookshop was right in his face, pulling him inside with surprising strength.

“He’s here!” she yelled out shrilly to the house in general before she began babbling at him like an excited puppy. “Oh hello Arthur. Welcome welcome. So you found us alright then. Nice to see you again. No Gwaine this time, huh?”

He stepped back to give them some space but she just followed him. “Fraid not,” he murmured and gasped in surprise as she punched him on the arm.

“Oh well guess we’ll just have to make do with you tonight. Hope you like pizza because we’ve already ordered. Oh God you’re not allergic to cheese, are you?”

Struck dumb for a moment he managed to shake his head before she was off again.

“Oh that’s good. I knew a girl at school once. Lovely girl but she just couldn’t do dairy. Really. It gave her the most terrible wind. The whole thing was quite dreadful,” she confided as he glanced around desperately for an escape route but none appeared.

“So what have you brought us then?” she asked, finally stepping back in time to see his empty hands clench as his heart sank.

Merlin finally appeared at the top of the stairs and descended quickly in a t-shirt that declared ‘LIFE IS SHORT, READ FAST’. He made his way over to them, threw Elena a look and clapped an arm around Arthur.

“Hello there mate. Glad you could make it,” he declared with gusto even as Arthur tensed in surprise and shied away.

“Sorry, sorry,” Merlin apologised a second later, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. “I’m kind of a hugger but I’ll try to repress it if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“I forgot to bring anything for dinner,” Arthur replied, unable to get over the fact that he’d made a faux pas already. It wasn’t like he went to dinner parties at peoples’ houses all the time. Most dinners he attended took place in exclusive restaurants where bringing anything with you would just be weird. “I could nip out quickly before the pizza gets here.”

Merlin dismissed his unease with a wave if the hand. “Really don’t worry about it. You must be exhausted. Where have you just flown in from? Somewhere hot I’m guessing by the state of your tan,” he asked, holding his skinny marble pale arm next to Arthur’s for comparison.

“LA.”

This reply obviously thrilled Elena as she darted back in front of him all wide eyes and eagerness. “Was it for that war film that’s out next year? I saw a trailer for it the other day. It looks great. Is it true we get to see your naked arse in this one? Do you actually do your own arse shots or is there someone there to be like your stunt arse?” she babbled intently as Arthur felt his own eyes widen with shock.

Merlin’s jaw dropped and then he howled with laughter. “Oh Ellie. Where do you get this crap? No more internet for you, I think. It’s rotting your brain.” He gave her a small push to move her out of Arthur’s path and then steadied her when she stumbled. “Why don’t you give Arthur a chance to catch his breath and go see what Freya’s up to. Won’t be long till the pizza gets here.”

With a last look back Elena jogged away up the stairs, only almost tripping once. Somewhere upstairs a door slammed and then there was the sound of vague high pitched squealing. Merlin winced at the sound and then gestured for Arthur to follow him down the narrow hallway.

“Sorry about that. She’ll calm down soon. How about we get you a drink? We’ve got beer, tea, water or this weird green stuff that Freya claims is healthy. Take your pick.”

“Tea please. Are you sure you don’t want me to go out and get some wine of something?” Arthur asked again but Merlin waived him off, indicating he should take a seat at the breakfast bar against the far wall.

“Do you live with all your employees?” he asked noticing that most of the photos stuck haphazardly around the rather bright red walls featured either Merlin, the two girls from the bookshop or another dark haired boy.

“No just Ellie and Freya. Will, who you’ll meet later, works at the café next door. And there are several other booksellers who don’t live here. It’s a just a bookshop I promise, not a cult.”

Arthur snorted. “Isn’t it a bit weird though? Most people hate their boss,” he argued good naturedly.

“Well then I guess they’re just lucky that I’m so lovely, aren’t they. But really, it’s nice. I’m lucky because I’ve got my mum, but the others…their families aren’t exactly close, you know. Sometimes you’ve just got to form your family from those around you.”

Arthur was saved from having to answer this bizarre statement as the doorbell rang. There was a noise like a herd of elephants stampeding down the stairs followed by a muffled curse.

“She’s fine,” another voice, Freya this time Arthur guessed, called out.

“Pizza!” Elena trilled out just before Freya overrode her with, “It’s just Will.”

There was a shriek and a booming voice demanded, “What kind of welcome do you call that?”

“The only one a stupid git who keeps forgetting his key deserves. Now put me down you great oaf” Freya replied as she emerged into the kitchen slung over the new guy’s shoulder.

“Ah it’s good to be home. Hello my lovelies,” he greeted grinning and then pulled up short as he caught sight of Arthur for the first time. “And random stranger. Honestly Merlin what have I told you about bringing strange guys home.”

“We’re only allowed to do so if they bring their hot female friends with them,” Elena announced cheerfully, carrying a large black bin bag which she placed on the counter carefully.

“You are such a pig,” Freya told the leering newcomer, slapping at him until he put her down.

“Ow evil pixie. Use your superpowers for good not evil,” he snapped at her playfully before he turned his sceptically assessing gaze on Arthur.

“So are you that fancy celebrity fella that Elena kept putting on the bathroom wall?” he asked and Arthur tensed. Had all Merlin’s ignorance of his identity been a pretence? He glanced uncertainly at Merlin but he was still watching the drama between his friends play out with a relaxed smile on his face.

“I knew it was you stealing them, Will. I want those pictures back,” Elena demanded.

“Hey, I was having a hard time relaxing in the bath with beardy weirdy over here leering at me.”

“Gwaine is not a beardy weirdy!” Elena replied looking like she wanted to stamp her foot but Will just ignored her and turned back to Arthur.

“No offence meant mate. Just didn’t know Merlin had developed a beard kink,” he commented good-naturedly as Arthur felt his eyes widen with shock. Freya hissed a wince softly through her teeth and Merlin was watching him intently.

Completely oblivious to how he had just effectively outed his best friend Will continued, “Good move shaving it off though. It’s taken years off. You look like a completely different person.”

“Idiot. He is a completely different person,” Freya whispered at him.

“Oh. Sorry mate. What can we call you then?” he asked stretching out a hand for Arthur to take.

“Arthur,” he replied meeting the firm grip as he watched the man for sparks of recognition. It didn’t take long before his eyes widened as the easy grin dropped from his face and he hurriedly pulled his hand back.

“Pendragon. You’re Arthur Pendragon. Well fuck me,” he muttered before one of the girls sighed and they dragged him out the room.

The sound of whispered voices and muffled exclamations drifted back to him but he was focused on Merlin who was staring at his feet and shuffling awkwardly.

“Sorry about all that. Will’s just…Will. Not much we can do about it,” he offered hesitantly, and Arthur felt himself needing to make things okay again.

“Just to check. That wasn’t him propositioning me, right?” he tried and Merlin let out a weak laugh.

“No, no. Will’s very much the straight bloke of the house, don’t you worry.”

“I’m not worried, you know. It’s all fine. Really,” he offered just as Merlin began, “You don’t have to stay,” but then broke off.

“Oh good. I’m glad,” he told Arthur with a relieved smile.

“Well I can’t possibly leave yet. You lured me here with the promise of dumpster cake and I can’t possibly leave before I’ve had some.”

“Well it’s a good thing I brought home extra then, isn’t it,” Will announced, strolling back into the kitchen and not looking at all contrite to have been listening in.

“Ooh is there chocolate fudge cake?” Elena asked, looking hopefully at the bin bag.

“Well it was a close thing. Vivian was all set to take the lot but then I reminded her that guys don’t like girls with a fat arse.”

Freya looked at him scornfully. “Honestly Will, what have I told you about using women’s body issues against them?”

“That it will get me sent straight to the Special Hell?”

“Oh stuff that,” replied Elena, “Vivian’s such a snooty cow. Such people just don’t deserve chocolate loveliness.”

Arthur looked at the plastic bag doubtfully. “You didn’t actually fish that out of the bin did you?” he asked, imagining one big squelchy mess inside with a grimace.

“No, no. The key with dumpster cake is to intercept it before it ends up in the dumpster,” Will told him sagely as he tore open the bag to reveal several plastic containers.

“Every Sunday as part of our deep clean we have to remove all the unsold cake from the past week. It’s still fine but we have to start every Monday with new stock. We’re not allowed to sell the excess cake so the owners let the staff take the leftovers home with them as a thank you for having to be at work on a Sunday.”

“So it’s still okay to eat. Still in date and everything?” Arthur queried sceptically.

“It’s better than just alright. It’s at the height of its freshness. Come tomorrow it would be old and stale but tonight it is perfect,” Elena thrilled staring at the containers dreamily.

“Plus it’s free which I’m sure adds to the flavour,” Merlin added with a laugh.

“Can we start now?” Elena begged.

“Aren’t we having pizza?” Arthur asked.

Freya raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh live a little. Life is short. Sometimes you have to eat dessert first,” she challenged.

“Come on Arthur. Let’s go sit down. The guys will bring the stuff,” Elena told him, grabbing his arm and leading him into a cosy blue room with a large fire place and washing drying in one corner.

“Oh please excuse the drying underwear. It’s all clean I promise,” she told him as she caught him staring. Embarrassed he quickly sat down in the chair facing away from that particular corner.

Their place was so different from his own apartment here in the city. His was spacious and cool with clean lines in careful shades of non colour much the same as when he had first bought it on his 21st birthday. Their place was small and almost cramped with all the stuff it held, painted in random colours without any appearance of clear colour scheme. Everything from the frayed rug on the floor to the peeling paint showed wear and tear and the imperfection of daily life. He should hate it, but instead there was something strangely comforting in the chaos. It felt like a proper home.

“Honestly. Anyone would think you girls were princesses, the way you order us guys about,” Will complained as he carried a tray over to the wobbly coffee table in the middle of the room.

“Just for that you can sit alone on the beanbag,” Freya informed him as she dragged the coffee table nearer to them, lay down some forks and pulled Elena and Merlin down on the couch beside her.

“I always get the beanbag,” he protested.

“Well it’s not my fault no one wants to cuddle you,” she replied and he stuck his tongue out at her.

“You’ll cuddle me, won’t you Merlin?” Will asked, making puppy eyes at his friend and Arthur couldn’t help but laugh at the show.

“Course mate. Just not right this second. Later, yeah?” Merlin replied, playing along.

“Oooh. Will and Merlin sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” Elena sang teasingly.

“Honestly Ellie. I thought you wanted cake. Not a floor show,” Freya protested.

“Well we’re in a room full of cute boys. Why can’t we have both,” she replied, glancing at Arthur with faux innocence as he shifted awkwardly.

“Let’s just stick with the cake for now,” Merlin interjected tapping her lightly on the leg.

“Fine. So this is how dumpster cake works: we put all the cake in the middle and everyone gets a fork and then we have to say something about our week. You tell us something good or bad or funny that happened and you get a share of cake. We keep going round and round the table until it’s all gone,” Elena explained as she handed out the forks.

“Mostly we just bitch about all our awful customers,” Will chipped in.

“Don’t worry. It’s fun really. Kind of like therapy but with cake,” Merlin offered at Arthur’s worried look. He was not naturally a sharer. At all. In fact there were hundreds of secrets that he was contractually obligated to keep to himself. And now these near strangers just expected him to bare his soul just like that.

“Me first. I need chocolate,” Elena announced, picking up the tub containing a large chunk of brown gooey cake.

“So Mr Creepy was back in the shop again this week. You remember I told you about the guy who wanted a book on naked photography and then asked me if I’d ever thought about modelling? Well this time he claimed wanted a book on ‘sensual’ massage. Only the first time he asked he pronounced it ‘sexual’ massage and then acted all innocent when I called him on it. And I swear he spent the entire conversation staring at my tits and doing this weird lip licking thing,” she told them before stuffing several large bites of cake in her mouth and chewing angrily as Merlin put his arm around her. Arthur felt his ire rise at the thought of some slime ball bothering someone so sweet.

“Poor Ellie. Well two strikes he’s out. Come get me next time and I’ll tell him he’s banned for good,” Melin said, giving her a comforting squeeze but she shrugged him off looking defiant.

“Don’t you dare! I’m just waiting for him to work up the creepy courage to actually try to cop a feel. The second he does that I’m going to kick him in the balls and beat his arse up. That’ll teach him not to perve on poor innocent shop girls.”

“Fine. Fine. Just try to make sure I’m there as a witness for when the police come to take you away,” Merlin told her with a sweet grin.

“Well I can’t say I’ve had any particularly pervy customers this week, but our favourite Time Waster is back,” he continued as the other three groaned and Arthur felt the need to ask, “What’s a Time Waster?”

“Time Wasters come in many forms. Some are just lonely souls who need someone to talk to, some come in for the thrill of nicking things, some just enjoy rearranging our shelves and leaving random piles of books in strange places, some are drunk and funny, some are drunk and angry but all of them have almost no interest in actually buying a book. So it’s more or less a waste of time to even try,” he explained.

“And what sort of Time Waster did you have this time?” Arthur prompted.

“Was it Cathy the Crazy Cat Lady?” Will asked with glee.

“Good guess. Yes it was. Cathy is both a rather lonely soul as well as a drunken one. Sometimes she’s in a happy mood and she sings. But this week she was feeling quite cross. Apparently Lady Jemima, one of her many many pet cats, has developed a cold and she really wanted to tell me all about it. It must have been a good ten minutes before Mordred finally came to rescue me by claiming there was an urgent call from Head Office,” he paused and looked at Arthur conspiratorially, “we don’t actually have a Head Office, but she doesn’t need to know that.”

“I can’t believe Mordred the Saturday Boy actually had to rescue our esteemed leader,” Elena muttered with a smile.

“Don’t knock Mordred. I know he looks at you like he can read your mind but the little old ladies love him,” Freya prompted. “But not nearly as much as they love our dear Merlin. Come on now don’t hold back. I saw Betty hand you that biscuit tin. What did she make you this time and why didn’t we get any?”

“Betty is one of our favourite regulars. She’s this little old lady that lost her husband a few years ago and she’s been courting Merlin ever since with her amazing baking skills. What was this time you sneaky git? Flapjacks? Fairy cakes?” Elena continued.

“Flapjacks but you wouldn’t have wanted any. I think she’s gone and mistaken the salt for sugar again. But never mind, her gratitude is all the thanks I need. Apparently the latest Mills & Boon ‘The Duke’s Virgin Mistress’ was a big hit. Now if I could just convince her to stop asking about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ my job would be a lot easier.”

“You should just give in and sell her a copy. You never know. Might give the old girl a thrill,” Will advised with a shrug and Arthur realised he was a bit lost.

“Fifty Shades of Grey is the latest BDSM bonkbuster,” Elena confided to him, as if such things were perfectly normal conversation topics.

“Will she’s about eighty. I doubt that’s her thing. And if it is, I’d really rather just never know,” Merlin replied looking vaguely traumatised as he picked up another dish containing some sort of fruit tart.

“Well I wish I had sweet little old ladies bringing me baked goods,” Will griped. “All I ever get is abuse. This is wrong and that’s wrong and why is it taking so long?” he mocked, making his voice all high pitched and whiny. “I’ll tell you why it takes so damn long. It’s because nobody actually wants to drink bloody coffee. They all think they do, but really they want to cover any hint of coffeeness under layers of sugar and syrup and cream. They mumble things at me like: extra hot, large, non fat, vanilla latte with an extra decaf shot, caramel drizzle and whipped cream, and get huffy with me when I have to ask them to repeat it. Are they stupid? Do they not realise that I can totally turn my back and spit in their drink if they piss me off? God I hate coffee!” he declared to the room at large with pure venom in his voice.

“So you’re finally going to give up being a coffee monkey and join us at the bookshop?” Freya asked him sweetly as she passed over another tub of cake.

“Fuck that. You guys actually have to have conversations with the idiot public. I just have to take their drinks orders. If anything I want a job further away from them, not closer,” he grumbled stabbing his cake vengefully.

“Oh poor baby,” Freya cooed sarcastically. “Well I actually had some lady’s kid spit up on my favourite dress this week, and it wasn’t till hours later that you unobservant bastards even noticed. You let me walk around for half the day with sick down my back. I ask you, seriously, what is it about me that screams child friendly? Why do they always assume that just because I have a uterus of my own I must be good with kids? Really?!”

“Okay, okay. I promise no more Kids work for you. For at least a week. Can’t have you going all homicidal on the parents,” Merlin soothed, patting her hair before he handed her a muffin. “They’re one of our most lucrative groups, after all,” he added and she chuckled.

Finally Elena turned back to look at Arthur and his smile fell. He still didn’t know what the hell to say. “So go on then Arthur. How about you?” she asked excitedly, clearly expecting him to say something interesting and funny.

He’d always hated interviews. Always been paranoid about revealing too much or failing to offer anything of interest at all. This was his job. He had to be funny and relatable at all times, while constantly maintaining just enough mystery to seem intriguing and desirable without being judged as aloof or arrogant. It was a bloody tough balance to maintain at the best of times, but it wasn’t like he could actually tell them that.

“Oh I don’t know. Filming isn’t half as interesting as people think. My life’s quite boring really,” he deflected offhandedly.

“Fuck that! You’re a bloody film star mate. There’s no way that you don’t have hundreds of stories to tell. Stop holding out on us,” Will demanded.

“Will, leave him alone. This isn’t an interrogation. He doesn’t have to tell us anything,” Merlin responded instantly, glaring at his friend who just rolled his eyes and looked away with disdain.

The overly familiar weight of pressure settled in Arthur’s chest at that, catching him completely unprepared. He had let his guard down this evening. Allowed himself to just enjoy the moment, the banter and the rare comforting warmth that came from being included as part of a group. And now it was all going to be torn away because he couldn’t just open himself up like them, constantly throwing their ugly selves off a precipice with a surety that no matter what, their friends would catch them. Trusting that they could still be loved despite all their dark secrets and pain.

“Don’t you want a piece of dumpster cake?” Elena asked softly, looking slightly hurt at the rejection as she held out the last remaining box and he almost shook his head. But damn it he did. He knew he didn’t belong in the world of dumpster cake and true friendship but, right at that moment, he really really wished he did.

“Oh fuck it!” he swore softly, taking the box from her and finding comfort in her instant encouraging smile.

“I have not had cake for I don’t even know how many months. I never get dessert when I eat out, ever. Even if everyone else has some sort of pudding I just get coffee because I know how hard I’d have to work in the gym to burn it off and I already waste whole hours of my life there everyday. I have done for years, most of my entire life. The second I let myself go even the slightest little bit the whole world notices. There are entire websites out there you know featuring nothing but me. Except that it’s not actually me the person it’s just parts of me. People want to gawk at my chest or my abs or hell even my bloody arse, and they discuss me like I’m a piece of meat and pick me apart. ‘Has Arthur Pendragon let himself go?’ The magazines scream with a picture of me in fucking chain mail. So I get told I need to ‘get in shape’ and I do. And then those bloody hacks come out with ‘Arthur looking worryingly thin. Eating disorder or drug problem? You decide’” he forced out bitterly from between clenched teeth, keeping his eyes resolutely on his lap so he wouldn’t have to see their expressions of disgust.

He jumped as a warm hand landed on his shoulder and his head shot up to see Merlin out of his seat and hovering over him looking concerned.

“I remember that photo,” Elena told him leaning over to touch his knee soothingly. “You were in a bright red tracksuit coming out of Tesco and you really didn’t look good. We…your fans…including me, were really worried about you,” she told him, sounding so genuinely distraught that he had to reassure her.

“Course I looked awful. I’d just flown in from the other side of the world, spent all day doing press events followed by an incredibly gruelling night shoot. I was on my way back home to sleep when they caught me by surprise. I really hadn’t planned to be there, but sometimes even big famous film stars just need loo roll and a pint of milk. Underneath it all we’re just normal people you know. We have feelings and sometimes the constant comments get a bit hard to take. Even the ones that are well meant,” he replied, smiling in desperate hope that they would understand.

“Oh here. Have my cake,” she told him in choked up voice as she foisted her box onto his lap. “And I’m really very sorry for asking about your arse earlier. That was so inappropriate and totally none of my business whatsoever. Forgive me?” she pleaded.

“It’s fine Elena, really. Don’t worry about it,” he told her, squeezing her hand until she gave him a wobbly smile.

It was just after that that the doorbell rang. Will jumped up to get it with a grateful cry. “Pizzas here, thank God. By the time I get back I expect you all to be finished talking about Pendragon’s arse. That’s not something all of us want to be thinking about. Don’t you agree mate? No straight bloke should have to hear about Arthur Pendragon’s perfect arse” He directed the final part to the baffled looking delivery guy on their front step. The man handed over his cargo, swiped the money and left very quickly, giving Will an odd look over his shoulder.

“Will we’ve been through this before. If you terrify the pizza guy he’ll refuse to come round anymore and then you’ll be forced to cook.” Merlin walked over to shut the door Will had left open as he rushed back to his bean bag.

“Oh please God no. Why should the rest of us suffer for Will’s offences?” Freya muttered with a dramatic shudder at the thought.

“Shut up you witch. Not like your attempts are that much better,” Will replied loudly, ripping open a box and practically inhaling his first slice. The others began sharing out the rest of the pizza onto plates between them while Will looked on, guarding his box. “So what are we watching tonight then? Nothing featuring Pendragon here I hope,” he stated as Elena let out a disappointed little noise.

“I told Arthur we could watch Sherlock since he hasn’t seen it yet,” Merlin announced with finality.

“Ah the epic bromance that is Holmes and Watson,” muttered Freya, clearly content with the choice.

“Forget that! They need to get together and have lots of cute little babies,” Elena interjected, causing Arthur to frown. He was considering pointing out the fact that both characters were in fact men but Will interrupted them again loudly.

“Eew! Keep you fucking Omega!verse fantasies to yourself, you sick and twisted fangirl,” he declared to the room at large with disgust.

“If you think it’s so nasty how come you know so much about it? I think someone has a secret kink,” Elena replied hotly and Arthur watched in puzzlement as Will actually blushed. He glanced at Merlin with a frown seeking an explanation but the man simply winced.

“Trust me. If you don’t know already, chances are you really don’t want to,” he muttered low enough for only Arthur to hear as he leaned closer.

Arthur knew he should probably be paying more attention to the argument across the room, but suddenly all he could focus on was Merlin’s extremely beautiful blue eyes. Someone cleared their throat, breaking the trance, and as Merlin went to sit back down Arthur couldn’t help but notice Freya glaring at him challengingly with one eyebrow raised. Thankfully the DVD began then, giving him an excuse to look away but several times that night he felt her probing gaze and had to force himself not to squirm.

 

****

A couple of hours later that evening he decided to grab a quick glass of water on his way back from the bathroom but this proved difficult as he spotted Freya in front of the sink, up to her elbows in bubbles. Pausing in the doorway he had just made the snap decision to leave her to it when she spoke without looking at him.

“You could help me dry.”

Arthur bit back a sigh and managed to only grimace slightly before he strolled over, picked up a flowery tea towel and got to work.

She chuckled softly. “You were debating whether you were too important to help with the dishes, weren’t you?” she questioned, giving him a sidelong glance. “I’m glad to know you decided you weren’t.”

“Course not. No one’s too good to do the washing up,” he replied, turning his best charming smile on her but she just shrugged and looked away.

“Oh I wouldn’t say that. For example, I’m willing to bet the Queen has never washed a plate in her life.”

“Well she is the Queen. Being the sovereign of an entire country has got to have some advantages,” he offered, concentrating on the crockery in front of him in order to get this done as soon as possible and escape.

They worked side by side in silence for a while as Arthur waited for her to say something else and give him some clue as to what she wanted but she gave none. He probably should have left the matter alone, but rather a lot of adrenaline was buzzing through his tired system, giving him Dutch courage enough to bring things to a head.

“You don’t like me,” he stated into the silence leaving no doubt in his tone.

She stopped what she was doing. “And it bothers you,” she challenged, echoing his tone as she turned to look up at him, staring him straight in the eye.

“I just don’t understand why. What have I done?”

“It’s not anything you have done. It’s what I think you’re going to do in the future.”

“And what’s that exactly?” he gritted out, attempting to remain calm and patient as she held him with her gaze.

“I worry that you’re going to hurt him. I’m sure you think his life is happy and simple but take it from me, Merlin has already had far more than his fair share of heartbreak, and I worry that knowing you is only going to bring him more,” she told him simply, the certain conviction of her tone grating on his last nerve.

“Look if this is some sort of weird mind game because you feel the need to mark your territory,” he snapped back but she interrupted him.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Merlin’s like my family. My very best friend or the brother I never had.”

He frowned at her in genuine confusion. “So I don’t get it. You want me to what? Piss off? Leave him alone?”

She reached out at that, her fragile little fingers biting into his arm. “No Arthur. I want you to be a far better man than I think you are. What I want, is for you to prove me wrong.”

Arthur sucked in a harsh breath to snap out a reply but found he didn’t know what to say. Freya seemed satisfied as she released him and returned to her task, the beginnings of a smile on her face.

“Maybe there is hope for you yet after all,” she remarked as he continued to gape at her incredulously.

Luckily Merlin chose that moment to pop his head round the door.

“What are you two doing in here?” he asked looking so happy and carefree that all possible excuses stuck in Arthur’s throat.

“Oh just talking about the Queen,” Freya replied breezily, pulling the plug out of the sink and drying her hands on Arthur’s tea towel.

Merlin wandered over and slung an arm over her shoulders, leaning his head against hers as he looked at Arthur with concern. “I hope you haven’t been terrorising our guest. Arthur might not come back,” Merlin chided, tapping her cheek playfully as they stood there together.

Arthur watched the easy way she leaned into the contact and knew he wanted those privileges too. Wanted someone…wanted Merlin to be so unselfconsciously tactile with him as well.

“Don’t be an idiot Merlin. Of course I’ll be back. You guys have showed me the wonders of dumpster cake. How could anyone ever consider a bit of washing up anything less than fair payment for that,” he replied, looking defiantly over at Freya.

Merlin looked rather confused by that for a moment but then rallied with an “awww,” as he pulled Arthur into his other side.

Arthur started in surprise as he felt Freya’s arm slide around his waist lightly, but she simply smiled in response to his questioning gaze as Merlin laughed and pulled them both in tighter to form a hugging huddle.

Arthur was suddenly unbelievably glad that he’d decided against going straight home that afternoon as he allowed the coiled tension within him to ease, basking in their warmth.

 

****

 

July

Merlin awoke blearily to the persistent sound of buzzing in his ears and the taste of something very nasty and possibly dead in his mouth. Cracking open a reluctant eye and wincing, he was met by the rather surprising sight of a pair of feet barely inches from his face. Grimacing in anticipation of a nasty shock he propped himself upright and glanced over at the bottom of the bed, trying to get some clue as to the identity of his unexpected bed mate. A huge sigh of relief escaped him as he caught sight of Arthur, sleep creased and looking decidedly irritable as he swore softly and pulled the pillow over his head dramatically.

Oh yes, it was all coming back to him now. Elena had needed a non-stalkerish opportunity to see Gwaine again and so had announced to all of Facebook that they were having a party. No one had been more surprised, however, when this plan actually worked and he’d turned up with Arthur in tow. Elena, bless her clumsy little heart, had enthusiastically announced her joy by proceeding to spill her drink all over her intended crush. Instead of getting mad as she teared up in embarrassment, Gwaine had simply removed his shirt and made a joke of it.

“If you wanted to see me shirtless you could have just asked.”

They had been pretty much inseparable the whole evening after that, Will’s protective glower from across the room growing at a comparable rate to Elena’s smile. Eventually his best friend had recognised the matter as a lost cause and had proceeded to get very drunk and dance the funky chicken. Arthur had been slightly horrified, but Merlin had assured him this was perfectly normal Drunk Will behaviour, and had offered him another drink in order to erase the sight from his memory. At the point that Elena and Gwaine had started making out on the couch and Will’s dance had progressed to its rather terrifying somewhat naked conclusion, he and Arthur had looked at each other and decided the only thing for it was shots. Lots and lots of shots.

So that explained the worrying taste in his mouth and Arthur hungover and in his bed, but the insistent buzzing remained a mystery. This puzzle was solved as a minute later as Arthur’s stupidly shiny and expensive smart phone fell off the bedside table and crashed to the floor. Cursing loudly, Merlin kicked Arthur and rolled over, hoping the bloody thing hadn’t smashed. Arthur would be devastated. Merlin had just grabbed it when it began to vibrate angrily in his hand and he let out a sigh of relief. Stabbing at it he raised it hesitantly to his ear.

“Hello?” he croaked and then coughed to clear his throat.

“Arthur?! Oh thank God. Why can you never pick up your fucking phone,” a harried female voice screeched at him before he could hold the phone away to check the caller ID.

“Morgana?” he questioned aloud, trying to remember where he knew that name from.

“You’re not Arthur. Why the hell do you have my brother’s phone?”

Well that solved that mystery. Although Merlin wouldn’t have thought the cool and ever so slightly terrifying corporate suite he’d met in the bookstore could sound quite so panicked. He tried prodding Arthur’s knee with his foot but only got a faint grunt and half hearted arm swipe in reply.

“It’s Merlin – Arthur’s friend from the book shop. Arthur’s kind of asleep right now. Can I take a message and have him get back to you?” he offered as politely as possible.

“No you fucking well can’t! Uther’s been rushed to hospital in Bristol and Arthur needs to get over there now. He’s much closer than I am and I’m sending a car. I need you to wake him up right now,” her frantic yelling was cut off as Arthur grabbed the phone from him and Merlin realised he’d had the thing on speakerphone.

“Morgana? What’s happened? Is he alright? Is it his heart again?” Arthur asked, his tone far calmer than his frantic expression.

“I don’t know but you need to put down your boytoy and get there right now. I’m just leaving London so I’ll be a few hours but I can have a car with you in about half an hour. Where the hell are you Arthur?”

Merlin was dimly aware of Arthur relaying his address but his mind just kept repeating the phrase ‘boytoy’ over and over in his head. What was that about? Now was probably not the time to correct her, but why did she even think that?

Arthur ended the call and then began stabbing buttons as he paced agitatedly.

“Fuck!” he swore a moment later as he gave up on the phone and sat down heavily on the edge of the bed.

“I can’t believe Gwaine’s turned off his bloody mobile. Stupid wanker! Just when I need him,” he muttered dragging his hands through his hair, every line of his body taut and tense.

“I’ll bet he’s holed up in his love nest with your mate and I need him. I can’t…What if it’s serious…I don’t…” he broke off and stared at Merlin pleadingly as if he’d know what to do.

Taking a deep breath Merlin reached over to pluck the phone from Arthur’s tense grip, putting in down on the bed beside them. He worried his lip in thought for a second before coming to a decision and gently pulling Arthur to stand. He put his hands solidly on the man’s tensed shoulders, trying to send soothing waves through his touch.

“Come on we need to get dressed. You can have the shower first and I’ll go make us some coffee.”

Arthur’s eyes shot up at that to meet his gaze and he did his best to look calm and matter of fact.

“We?”

“Well obviously I’m coming with you.”

“What? No Merlin. You don’t know…it’s going to be a fucking media circus. I can’t ask that of you. It’s going to be awful and my father…,” he trailed off, hanging his head in defeat again.

Merlin reached out to gently cup his clenched jaw. He could feel the muscle jumping in it as Arthur tried to hold everything back.

“I don’t care about that. You need a friend so I’ll come. That’s all there is to it, alright?” he told him simply as if no other possibility existed.

Arthur nodded his head slowly, sinking into the comforting touch and if to gather strength then pulled away quickly and turned his back on Merlin.

“Thank you,” he exhaled softly, still facing the wall before he strode away.

 

****

In what seemed like no time at all the car arrived and he bundled into it after Arthur feeling rather scruffy in old jeans and one of Will’s gigantic hoodies. Arthur in comparison looked coolly closed off, sitting there in yesterday’s smartly tailored party clothes, over sized aviator sunglasses neatly obscuring all traces of previous vulnerability. They rode in closed silence all the way to the Severn Bridge before Arthur finally broke and pleaded quietly, “tell me it’s going to be okay.”

Merlin stalled for time by reaching out and interlocking their fingers. “Almost there. Not long now,” he finally managed, unable to bring himself to lie. Ultimately he knew it wouldn’t help Arthur. The lies and empty platitudes hadn’t comforted him after all. So instead he just smiled tightly and squeezed his hand to show him no matter what, he wasn’t alone.

As they finally drew up to the hospital entrance, and the driver raced round to open the door, Merlin finally realised just what Arthur had meant by media circus. Shouted questions overlapped each other, cancelling out the words to become a block of discordant noise as lights exploded from every angle and people pushed forwards only to be jostled back, like the ebb and flow of the tide. But then Arthur was disappearing out the door, leaving Merlin no choice but to follow him, trying to stay afloat amongst the shouting jostling waves. Several times he almost lost sight of Arthur’s back as he was swallowed up by microphones and cameras, everyone desperate to get their own piece of the star. Just when the claustrophobic crush seemed too great, like he might sink and drown on dry land, they were finally expelled through the front doors which slid shut behind them, replacing the previous commotion with a hissing silence.

Merlin, ears ringing as if there had been an explosion, glanced over at Arthur and noticed that the stalwart man had stopped walking and was just standing in the entrance way, chest heaving as if he’d run a race.

“Hey. You alright?” Merlin asked quietly, stepping closer to shield him from the gawking stares.

“God I hate them,” he ground out in a tense whisper, “bloody vultures every single one.”

Merlin didn’t know what to say to that. The thought of being mobbed like that everywhere he went was slightly terrifying but this was Arthur’s life.

“Come on mate. Let’s go find your dad,” he offered instead, glancing around for an enquiry desk.

It turned out his search was unnecessary as Merlin heard crisp heeled footsteps and spun to find a neatly tailored women in a sharp skirt suite headed straight for them, a decidedly pinched expression clouding her features.

“Arthur. It’s about time you arrived. We’ve all been waiting for you,” she informed him coldly without so much as a glance in Merlin’s direction.

“I came as soon as I heard Catrina and I’m here now,” Arthur replied in low clipped tones.

“Not a moment too soon. The press are clamouring for a statement and it has been all I could do to hold them at bay. Now you are finally here I will call them into the conference room right away.”

“You want me to hold a press conference right now?” Arthur asked, his tone holding none of the incredulity that Merlin felt at her words.

“People are worried. You are needed to reassure them. I have already written your statement. Since time is short you won’t have time to learn it but I’m sure you’ll be able to turn on some of your famous charm,” she insisted.

Removing his glasses to tiredly rub his eyes Arthur gave a short sigh as his shoulders slumped and the fight went out if him. “Fine,” he bit out and turned to follow in the direction she gestured. Merlin felt his temper, which had been building steadily through the exchange, finally snap as he strode in front of the pair and forced them to stop.

“What is wrong with you?” he queried, glaring at the woman who merely lifted an eyebrow and looked at him as one might a strange insect.

“Who is this Arthur? What does he think he’s doing?”

“He’s standing right here,” Merlin replied angrily before the other man could answer. “And he’s not moving until you tell us what the hell is going on. We’ve rushed over here because we were told something awful has happened to his father and all you can talk about is a damn press conference.”

“Arthur please tell your little friend to get out of our way. We need to get to the conference room right now.”

“No! Right now you’re going to tell us what the hell happened and then you’re going to take us to Arthur’s father. He’s here as a concerned son, not to act as your damn spokesperson,” he blurted incredulously, feeling his face heat but not caring.

“Arthur!” the women barked, one word seeming to convey many as Arthur drew himself up and turned to stare her down.

“He’s right Catrina. Your conference can wait another half hour. Take me to see father and then I’ll do what you want.”

“He won’t be happy to hear you’re being difficult,” she snapped at him, clearly unwilling to relinquish control of the situation.

“I don’t care what you tell him. I need to know he’s okay. Please can you just give me that.”

She tsked angrily and sent one final heated glare in Merlin’s direction before finally conceding the point and leading them to the lifts.

“Your father suffered chest pains early this morning. He phoned the front desk of his hotel who panicked and called 999 before apparently calling every journalist in the local area. Crowds gathered as your poor father suffered the indignity of being carted off in an ambulance. Already a score of people have uploaded pictures and I’m sure within the hour rumours of your fathers death with be circulating,” she explained tetchily as the lift climbed to the fifth floor.

Merlin felt Arthur’s fingers suddenly clutch at his elbow and if to steady him. “Death? My father’s dead?” he croaked out and Merlin felt his own breath catch.

“Of course not. Don’t be stupid! But you know what the press is like. A famous film director suffering a mild bout of angina isn’t nearly so thrilling.”

“So that’s all. He’s going to be fine?” Arthur asked and Merlin wanted to strangle her as she merely shrugged a shoulder.

“They were still running tests when I had to leave him to find you,” she informed him as they emerged from a long corridor into a room lined with ugly purple chairs.

“But they don’t think it was another heart attack?” Arthur pressed as she glanced around dismissively.

“If you would cease your incessant whining perhaps I could go find out. Wait here while I try to find someone around here with half a brain. If my observations from earlier prove correct, I may be some time. Stay here and don’t go wandering off. I don’t want to have to waste time again looking for you,” she commanded tartly before striding off without so much as a backwards glance.

“Who the hell was that?” Merlin asked as soon as she was out of earshot. “My God, you’d think we were about twelve.”

“I think I probably was the first time I met her. That’s Catrina. She’s been my father’s personal secretary for years. I’m pretty sure she fancies herself as my step-mother,” Arthur said, slumping down into a chair and leaning back to regard Merlin.

“Well she’s certainly evil enough for the role. Is she dating your dad then?”

“I doubt it. She’d very much like to get a proper hold on the family fortune but I think she might be getting on a bit for the old man’s tastes. He’s probably just shagging her when nothing prettier turns up,” he replied, sounding rather unconcerned about the whole matter.

“Well I hate to tell you this, but I suspect she’s not your greatest fan either,” Merlin joked, dropping into the uncomfortable chair next to him.

“Oh I don’t know. She tried to seduce me once when I was younger,” he remarked and Merlin felt his face contort in horror.

“That is so twisted I don’t even know where to begin. Oh God please tell me you didn’t.”

Arthur looked at him with a carefully neutral expression for several seconds before finally wrinkling his nose and snorting.

“No of course not. I was sixteen - young, naïve and horny as hell but even then I knew enough to run a mile when she tried to go all Mrs Robinson on me. Do you want to know what’s really sick? I think she was actually doing it with the hope of making my father jealous. How creepy is that!”

“God what a troll!”

Arthur laughed at that but it sounded forced. “That thing you did when you stood up to her…it was,” he sighed and looked away, cheeks colouring slightly.

“Amazing,” Merlin offered with a grin. “Courageous, no fantastically brave. I know. One day they shall write books about my greatness. Merlin versus the Troll. What do you think? Will it be a bestseller?”

“Well it’ll definitely be a work of fiction, I can tell you that.”

“Oh bugger off. Did you not see the look she gave me? She was one step from removing her shoe and trying to squash me like an annoying bug.”

“And yet you didn’t back down,” Arthur said, smiling with true warmth in his eyes.

“Merlin could never back down when his king needed him,” he joked in reply, trying to repress the multitude of feelings that Arthur’s smile brought about.

“Well Merlin, what this king really needs right now is some coffee. How about it, do you think you could magic some up for me?” he asked, getting out his wallet.

“From treasured sorcerer to put upon servant in one minute. Sire you wound me.” He mimed getting stabbed and sunk down in his seat.

“Well at least I’m a generous king. Get something for yourself too, yeah,” he said, passing Merlin a £10 note.

He looked at it in annoyance. “The vending machines aren’t going to accept that you know. I’ll have to go find the canteen.”

“Well go on then. I’m not exactly going to expire from loneliness in your absence.”

“You sure?”

“Oh fuck off and get me a coffee, you lazy bastard,” he demanded, giving Merlin a shove.

He was almost round the corner when Arthur called his name.

“I’m…I’m really glad you’re here,” he told Merlin softly, all of the previous joking wiped from his face.

“You’re welcome,” Merlin replied seriously and then added a little bow. “Sire. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll be here,” Arthur replied because, despite everything else Arthur was, and always would be, that competitive bastard that just had to have the last word. Smiling at this knowledge Merlin rolled his eyes and headed out in search of coffee.

The search took longer than he had hoped this hospital being, in the spirit of hospitals everywhere, a veritable warren of almost identical beige corridors with far too many doors. Still he was rather worried when, upon his return, Arthur was nowhere to be found and Catrina was sat in his place looking bored as she flicked through a magazine.

“Where’s Arthur?” Merlin asked to get her attention when she didn’t acknowledge his presence.

For a moment he thought she was going to ignore him completely, but then she spied the coffee and held out a perfectly manicured hand expectantly. Merlin glared back at her but she just raised an eyebrow and waited. Finally giving in, he handed her his own half full cup with a sigh.

“Room 203 down the hall,” she informed him with a vaguely dismissive hand gesture that indicated he should get out of her sight.

Merlin turned and hurried away. As he grew closer to the door the sound of muffled raised voices reached him and he sped up his pace. All sound ceased however as he knocked on the wooden door.

“Come!” a commanding male voice barked a second later.

Merlin stepped into the expansive private room and glanced around nervously. There was a middle aged man sitting propped up on the bed and glaring at Merlin like he was trying to set him on fire with his mind. All Merlin could see of Arthur was his back as he stood at the foot of the bed, shoulders set and tense and head lowered slightly. He started as Merlin reached out to touch his arm in concern and looked over at Merlin with tired eyes.

“Who is this Arthur? Why is he here?” the man demanded, fixing Merlin with an assessing gaze that made it clear he was not impressed.

“Father. This is…he’s my…Merlin,” Arthur replied quietly, stuttering over the words and seeming so unnaturally scared and unsure that Merlin tried to put an arm round him.

“He’s your Merlin?” Arthur’s father almost hissed the words and Arthur squirmed away from Merlin’s touch, refusing to look at him.

“Please father, think of your heart,” Arthur murmured, making placating gestures with his hands as the man on the bed glared at them angrily and shook his head.

“I have tolerated your indecent tendencies up to now because you have at least had the common sense to be discreet. But this! Throwing your obscene choices in my face like this while the whole world is watching. No Arthur, you will not bring shame on our name this way. I will not allow it.”

“Father,” Arthur pleaded and Merlin winced at the desperate tone as the grown man in front of him seemed to shrink back.

“No! There is nothing more to say. You are going to do your duty in front of the press and then you will leave. I have no wish to discuss this further.”

“But Father. Surely I should stay.”

“Why? So you can flaunt your ‘lifestyle’ at me some more? No Arthur, I do not wish to see. You’ve already made me ashamed to call you my son, and right now I do not have the patience to tolerate you. Go home!” The man’s rant finished at a mild roar and Merlin watched in astonishment as Arthur turned and fled from the room without another word. Feeling his forehead crease in confusion at the events of the last few minutes he hurried to follow him.

Arthur hadn’t gone far. Only a few meters down the corridor he was leaning against the wall as if he needed its support to stay upright, staring down at his shoes and biting his lip.

“Indecent tendencies? What the fuck?” Merlin asked incredulously. “Since when do you have indecent tendencies? And what the hell does that even mean?” he wondered out loud and then let out a gasp of surprise as Arthur slammed him harshly back into a door, looking around them anxiously.

“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up. You don’t know anything so just be quiet before you make things worse,” he hissed, leaning right into Merlin, his face an awkward picture of furious and upset as he worked his jaw and stepped away.

“Come on,” he snapped over his shoulder as he strode away and Merlin, who was still frozen to the spot in shock, didn’t instantly move to follow him.

Later as they sat on opposite sides of the car on their way home Merlin was still trying to figure out exactly what had happened. After his rather unexpectedly violent display Arthur had refused to look at him, barely even glancing his way as Catrina led them back through the maze. They’d deposited him backstage in the conference room, still unwittingly clutching the now cold coffee. He’d just snapped out of his baffled daze enough to finally locate a bin when Arthur emerged, looking even more closed off as they were hustled through a side door and out into a waiting car with barely a word. It had now been a good half hour and Arthur showed no signs of breaking the tense silence to bridge the increasing gap that was opening between them. Instead he sat curled in on himself, arms crossed and body tilted away, staring despondently out the window. Merlin was just beginning to despair at the silence when Arthur suddenly jerked upright and began knocking frantically on the privacy screen between them and driver.

“Pull over! Right now!” he demanded desperately, looking suddenly even paler than he had at the hospital.

The car barely had time to come to a stop on the hard shoulder before Arthur yanked the door open and was scrambling out. Merlin caught the miserable sound of him retching a moment later and jumped out after him. Seeing his friend crouched over and heaving, he rushed over to support him but every attempt was shaken off with a noise of discomfort. Finally he gave up and went to fetch some water instead. He emerged from the car a moment later to find Arthur sitting on the damp ground looking miserable, chest heaving as he stared blankly at the ground by Merlin’s feet.

“Hey. It’s okay,” Merlin soothed as he crouched down and offered Arthur a tissue, being careful not to touch him this time.

Arthur took it and then accepted the bottle of water he was passed, all the while staring fixedly ahead of him.

“Arthur?” Merlin tried again, growing worried as he reached out to touch his shoulder.

For a moment Merlin thought he might shrug him off again but this time Arthur allowed it, leaning into the touch as Merlin began to rub soothing circles on his upper back through the thin blazer.

“I don’t want to talk Merlin. Right now…I just can’t,” he said shakily, finally acknowledging his presence.

“Okay. That’s fine. Let’s just get you home,” Merlin replied as he helped his friend back into the car. The second they were back inside Arthur attempted to get away but he was shaking so badly with cold and shock that Merlin followed him, slung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him down into his side.

“Shush now. It’s okay,” Merlin murmured, stroking Arthur’s hair until the tension left his body.

Merlin kept up the soothing motion and waited patiently to see if Arthur would confide in him but all he got was a soft sigh as Arthur burrowed closer and fell asleep. They remained that way for the whole journey back to Cardiff until the car stopped outside Merlin’s house and Arthur jerked awake with a start.

“You alright? Do you want to come in?” Merlin asked softly as Arthur retreated back and shook his head.

Merlin began scrambling out of the car but then at the last moment he tried to lean back over for a last hug but ended up tripping over the central foot rest. Moist breath ghosted over Arthur’s ear for just a second as Merlin fell against him, brushing a warm hand low on his stomach.

“Sorry, sorry,” Merlin mumbled retreating quickly as Arthur blushed bright red.

“Just remember whatever that crap with your father was about I care about you, alright. I’m always here if you need me. You just have to ask,” Merlin told him earnestly, staring at Arthur through the open car window with concerned eyes.

 

****

Much later that night as sleep once again proved fleeting Arthur finally gave in, taking himself in hand hot and heavy under cool lonely sheets. Echoes of Merlin’s soothing voice promised things he knew he didn’t deserve as he rocked, desperate and alone.

 

****

August

It was over a month after that day with his father at the hospital that Arthur realised Merlin still hadn’t asked for an explanation. It must all have seemed very strange to an outsider who didn’t know the history between him and Uther but Merlin hadn’t pushed for details once. Normally a person finding out his secret was proceeded only by their swift silent exit from his life but Merlin was carrying on as if nothing bad had occurred. He knew he should be reassured, that Merlin was a good person and this silence was probably nothing more than him trying to show Arthur that it wasn’t a big deal. But every single conversation that concluded without the question of his sexuality even being hinted at made something within him tense. It was as if he were sitting on a ticking bomb and this avoidance only served to delay the inevitable pain of detonation.

It was with this in mind that he logged onto his computer and let out a sigh of relief that Merlin was already online. Quickly he clicked the link to open a chat window and tried to smile as Merlin’s happy face popped up a second later.

“Hey. How’s it going?” Arthur asked, steeling himself to finally have ‘the conversation’ but Merlin instantly took them off on a tangent.

“Hey you. So tell me then is ‘Cloud of Sparrows’ the best samurai book ever, or what?” he crowed and Arthur sighed.

“Must we always talk about books?”

Merlin’s face fell quite comically. “Oh no. You hated it. Was it the preacher? Because I told you his sanctimonious life is toast in the first hundred pages or so. You did promise to give it a chance after I told you it’s got samurai, cowboys, monks, geisha, ninjas and prophetic visions.”

“Merlin!” Arthur interrupted before he could lose his nerve, “Are you ever going to ask me?”

“Ask you what?”

“About what my father said. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Merlin asked quietly.

“Don’t you think we should?” Arthur snapped back.

He opened his mouth but had no idea what to say. Growling in his throat he dragged his palms over his eyes and wished he’d never said anything. He wasn’t good at it - this talking thing. He didn’t even know where to begin and Merlin was looking at him expectantly.

Finally Merlin took pity on him. “Okay so apparently you’re gay. So am I and a whole other bunch of people, Arthur. It’s really not such a big deal.”

“It’s not that simple,” Arthur muttered.

“Well no, I can see how your father’s reactions haven’t made things easy for you but everything he said is complete bullshit. Wanting to date men doesn’t make you indecent or a bad person. You do know that, right?”

“I don’t date men, Merlin.”

He frowned at that. “Really? Because your father seemed pretty certain that I was your boyfriend. What was that about then?”

Arthur sighed. “I told him I was dating a guy in Cardiff and then you showed up. He’s always trying to set me up with actresses that I can’t stand so just this one time I told him that I was seeing you. I never expected you to actually meet.”

“But we’re not dating, right? Not really? That isn’t what this is?” Merlin asked with a little laugh and Arthur felt like he’d been punched in the gut. Merlin’s tone made the whole thing sound absurd and Arthur’s heart clenched with bitter disappointment at the blatant dismissal.

Unfortunately when Arthur didn’t respond instantly Merlin tried another tack, “Did you honestly make me into your pretend boyfriend without even asking? Am I going to have to give interviews on what you’re like in bed? You’d better tell me what to say. Or I could make something up. Should I say you’re a sex God? Or a really sensitive lover? Boxers or briefs? The world will want to know,” he carried on as if the situation was hilarious…as if Arthur’s fucked up life was one big joke.

“Shut up!” he hissed, desperately holding back a sob. “You have no idea. No idea what it’s like. Fucking random guys whenever I can’t stand it any longer. Praying they won’t talk because I’ve paid enough for their silence or if I’m lucky that guy from the club is just too wasted to care. Having panic attacks that my luck is going to run out and the paparazzi are finally going to catch me. That one picture or one fucking kiss and tell could ruin everything I’ve worked for. So I date women I hate because it’s what the world expects of their macho action hero. But then I get tired and lonely and I hate myself. Do you know what that’s like?” he cried hoarsely, horrified to feel scalding moisture run down his cheeks.

“Oh Arthur,” Merlin sighed as Arthur scrambled to cut the connection but Merlin noticed. “Arthur wait! Seriously don’t hang up yet. I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.”

“You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like for you. My big coming out experience featured nothing more than snogging Rhys Jones at the bus stop on a dare.”

“What happened?” Arthur asked before he could help himself.

“Nothing much. Rhys decided he preferred girls after all and the postman saw us so pretty much the whole village knew by lunchtime.”

“That must have been awful,” Arthur murmured. He couldn’t stand the thought of an entire village gossiping about him.

“Wasn’t so bad. I was this awkward little fifteen year old, not some scary leather queen. Only a few people even cared. To this day half of them probably still think I’m dating Will, which kind of wrecked his chances with the local girls (or at least that’s what he likes to claim), but nothing really awful happened.”

“But what about your mother. Surely she must have been upset?”

“Not really. She’s always been very practical. She picked me up from school that day and asked me whether I thought I might want to kiss anymore boys. I said yes and she sent me along to my uncle Gauis who’s our local GP. He gave me a pack of condoms, this gigantic bottle of lube and quite possibly the most detailed and embarrassing lecture on gay sex in the entire history of time. I think my face was so red that day as I left his surgery that I actually glowed. But he seemed to take it in his stride. Very few things fluster my uncle Gauis. He mostly just raises an eyebrow at them until they go away,” Merlin told him seriously and Arthur laughed again, beginning to feel just a little better.

“You are careful, aren’t you Arthur, with these random guys?”

“Yes of course,” Arthur replied shrugging away painful memories.

Except when I’m too wasted to care or they’re too impatient to be gentle.

“I don’t like to think about anyone hurting you,” Merlin murmured as if Arthur had spoken aloud.

“Aww. Do you love me Merlin?” he mocked carelessly, desperate to regain their easy meaningless banter.

“Of course,” Merlin replied without leaving a beat and Arthur’s heart just about stopped with shock. “I love all my friends.”

“Well I hope you’re not expecting me to love you back. Not sure I’d even know how,” he declared brashly and watched as Merlin gave him a sad understanding smile.

“That’s okay Arthur. I’ll just have to love enough for both of us. But no matter what I am your friend and that means you have to tell me things, the good and the bad. I’m not going to suddenly hate you just because you’re not perfect. That’s not how this works.”

He really didn’t know what to say to such an offer so he just nodded quickly and tried to move on. “I’m sorry to have dragged you into this mess with my father. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s not that big a deal. I’d quite like you to spend more time in Cardiff with me. If using me as an excuse gets you that I don’t really mind. Hey, do you think he’ll try to bribe me to stay away from you like parents always do in those films? How much do you think I should ask for? £10,000? £15,000? How much do you think he’d cough up to protect your honour?”

“You’re nuts Merlin. Goodnight.”

“Night Arthur. Love you.”

Arthur chuckled at that. “If he does offer I don’t want you taking a penny below £50,000,” he informed him and signed off to the sound of Merlin’s laughter.

 

****

September

Arthur’s steady spiral of night time despair was abruptly disrupted with a harsh beep as a flashing box popped up on his computer screen.

CALL FROM themagicbookman – ACCEPT / DECLINE?

Dragging himself upright with a pained hiss he dragged a hand through his hair and hoped the low lighting would cover just how awful he was sure he looked.

“Hey Bookman. How’s it going?” he asked, attempting to smile into the tiny camera next to the bright red light.

“Hey you. Finally managed to escape the circus for five minutes to get some lunch. Thank God. There’s only so much overanxious parent I can take. You know ‘my sweet darling is almost four and they can’t read – whatever am I to do?’ I’ll tell you what you should do lady, give your poor kid a break and wait a few years for them to grow up,” a harried looking Merlin ranted back, rolling his eyes.

Arthur smiled, his heart rushing with gladness that he’d answered the call. This right here was exactly what he needed. Tales from normality rushing in and warming the cold ache of loneliness under his breastbone.

“Oh yeah. And I bet you told her just that.”

“Are you kidding me?! Of course not. Do I look like I want to get my head bitten off? I sold her an Early Years phonics set and tried to politely remind her of the importance of keeping bedtime stories fun.”

“Another day another happy customer?” Arthur prompted, trying to keep a straight face in light of his friend’s obvious exasperation.

“Hardly. She looked right down her pointy nose at me and said just because my parents had obviously held low aspirations for their child didn’t mean she should do the same for hers,” he informed Arthur, pursing his lips and assuming what he clearly thought was a snooty expression and accent.

“God what a bitch!”

“Don’t worry I gave her the finger when she turned to leave. I love working in Kids but the parents do my head in after a while. I figured it was probably time for a break before the after school rush. Freya offered to keep an eye on things for me and the mums never give her half as much grief anyway.”

“I think it’s all the black she wears. Doesn’t exactly scream child friendly. They’re probably scared of her. Wouldn’t it be better to leave Elena in charge? She might drop things on the kids but at least she does it with a smile.”

“I’d love to but she’s abandoned us all here in Cardiff to visit your mate Gwaine in sunny Spain.”

“Again?” Arthur questioned incredulously and then chuckled at the rhyme.

“I know. At this rate I’m fully expecting them to send out those awful joint Christmas cards those sickeningly in love couples think are cute. You know, Merry Christmas love Gwelana.”

“Gwelana? Really?”

“That’s what me and Will decided. It was either that or Elwaina. What do you think?”

“I think you’re just both boringly single and moping over the fact that you’re not going to get to bash Gwaine’s head in to avenge Elena’s honour.”

“Hey that threat was all Will remember. I most decidedly am not the brawn in this scenario. Mine is a very much more intellectual path. Will is the muscle in this friendship.”

“So you fancy yourself a Vizzini to Will’s Fezzik. How about me then? Does that mean I get to be Inigo?” Arthur queried as he glanced at the now battered copy of ‘The Princess Bride’ that was comfortingly familiar, sat there on his bedside table.

“Are you currently seeking a six-fingered man?” Merlin asked seriously before his face cracked into a smile, obviously pleased by the random book reference.

“Not right at this second, no. It’s rather dark outside for quests of revenge.”

“Shit, sorry. I forgot you’re on the opposite side of the world right now. It must be like midnight there. I’m so sorry. I should let you get to sleep. Can’t have our leading man looking all zombie like on camera tomorrow,” he replied and Arthur’s heart clenched as the smiling face in the box glanced away obviously seeking to close their session.

“It’s more like three AM actually,” he said quickly and Merlin paused.

“What the hell are you doing online at three AM?”

“What do you think?” Arthur replied, playing for time before he’d have to tell Merlin everything.

“Oh my God. Were you looking at porn?” he asked in a deeply scandalised voice. “I can’t believe you answered my call mid…you know. That is so nasty. Hands right now mister! Either you show them to me or this conversation is so over.”

Arthur quickly reached out to comply wiggling his fingers in front of camera, unable to stop the burst of laughter that bubbled out of him before it was cut off with a pained gasp as he clutched at the accompanying stabbing pain in his side. Merlin’s teasing expression quickly turned to concern as he leaned into the camera as if this would help him better examine his friend.

“Hey Arthur, are you okay mate?” he asked hesitantly, worry clear in his tone.

Arthur sighed painfully and ran a hand through his hair. He has been dreading this. This awfully sincere concern that always caught him by surprise. The look of genuine worry and anxiety over his wellbeing that made him feel like someone had kicked him in the gut and poured concrete down his throat. Still it was no good denying it now. There was no way Merlin would let something drop once he got like this.

“No, not really,” he managed to choke out in a tight voice. No matter what he wouldn’t let himself cry. He couldn’t.

“What the fuck, man? You let me ramble on about my stupid crap when you’re seriously hurt. What the hell happened?”

“I’d have thought you’d know all about it by now. Surely it must be all over the gossip sites even if it hasn’t made it into the papers yet,” Arthur deflected, trying to get his traitorous emotions in check.

“How should I know? You know I don’t read that crap,” he argued and Arthur’s heart gave anther lurch. He knew all about Merlin’s disdain for the fickle world of celebrity. And he loved him all the more for it.

He felt his bottom lip wobble and bit down on it, glancing away as he blinked back the burning moisture gathering behind his eyes.

“Hey Arthur it’s okay,” Merlin murmured reassuringly as Arthur shook his head, refusing to look at the camera.

“It must be something really embarrassing if you don’t want to tell me. Well if you won’t say I’m just going to have to guess.”

“Oh I know. You were attacked by one of your rabid screaming fangirls. I warned you all those shirtless scenes in your last film would send them on a lecherous rampage, didn’t I,” Merlin joked, obviously trying to lighten the tone as he studied the computer screen thoughtfully.

“No that can’t be it. I can’t see any obvious love bites. But what else could it be? I just don’t know…unless…oh no. You fell and broke your perfect arse didn’t you? And now you’re worried that this year you’re going to be unable to defend your title and Gwaine’s arse is going to get named Most Perfectly Peach Like in its place. Well don’t worry mate I’m sure there’s something we can do. Maybe a butt transplant? Not here of course but I’m sure somewhere in LA they’ll be a surgeon who can…” he trailed off, finally noticing Arthur’s less than impressed glare.

“Honestly Merlin where do you even get this crap? I haven’t broken my bloody arse,” Arthur informed him, trying to sound exasperated but failing.

“But you did fall?” Merlin queried quietly, completely serious once again as Arthur nodded.

“There was this scene with the horses that went wrong and before I even know what’s happened there are these paramedics strapping me onto a backboard and loading me into an ambulance. And I guess I must have been in shock because everyone seems really far away. Suddenly my father’s there and he’s freaking out, shouting about spine damage and that’s just the scariest thing ever,” Arthur tells him, feeling his voice shake but unable to stop now that he’s begun.

“And no one will tell me what’s going on, but they keep poking and prodding me and it just hurts so much. After what seems like forever and a gazillion tests they finally confirm that it’s okay because I’m not actually paralysed for life. My head injury is painful but not life threatening and the worst of it is really a couple of broken ribs. So right now I’m pretty much one enormous bruise and even breathing hurts, but all in all it’s not that bad,” he finished, trying his best to sound flippant.

“Oh Arthur. I wish I’d been there,” Merlin told him, looking like he desperately wanted to reach through the screen and touch him.

“Oh yeah and what exactly could you have done?” he challenged.

“I could have held your hand so you weren’t alone,” he said and Arthur felt his lip tremble again. Merlin really is far too earnest in his kindness.

“And I’d have told your father to shut the fuck up.”

Arthur snorts at that and smiles again. “I bet you would have too.”

“Well why not? It’s not like he doesn’t hate me already.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re hardly alone. He left me at the hospital, you know. Once they confirmed I wasn’t actually paralysed he told me not to worry about shooting for a few days and then stormed out muttering about rearranging the schedule for later in the week.”

“Bastard!” Merlin swore vehemently and Arthur felt oddly comforted.

“It’s okay Merlin. I’m back at the hotel now and they’ve given me a whole bunch of painkillers so I’m fine really. I can’t seem to sleep but other than that, there’s no real reason for you to worry your simple little head, okay?” He finished with a forced smile as the sudden silence stretched between them.

Finally Merlin gave a relieved sigh and nodded. “Okay. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Amuse me! This conversation has become far too boring and serious. I require entertainment. Jump to it,” Arthur commanded using his haughtiest tones to deflect the seriousness of the question. Merlin seemed to take the hint.

“Oh good. I was getting worried there for a minute but the situation can’t possibly be that bad if you still have the energy to be quite such a prat,” he joked and Arthur frowned at him seriously.

“Merlin!” he warned but the other man just laughed.

“Okay, okay. Just let me think. We can’t all be hilarious on command you know.”

“Oh I know. I haven’t told you about our latest ordering disaster, have I? A couple of weeks ago I had to pop out to the bank for a bit. So I put the ‘Be Right Back’ sign in the window and locked up. When I get back I discover Will had taken it upon himself to use his emergency spare key and open the place up for me. Not only that but while I was away he’s apparently taken a phone call. A publisher similar to the people who brought us LOLcats are bringing out a new line for Christmas and they want to know how many to send us.”

“LOLcats?” Arthur queried.

“You know, that damn picture of that cat that is really happy about getting a cheeseburger. First they were all over the internet and then they appeared in book format. The perfect gift for every idiot who doesn’t have a clue what the hell to get someone. Will loves them but I’m fairly sure they mark the beginning of the end for humanity.”

“You’re such a book snob!”

“In this case yes I am. It’s stupid entertainment for the lazy masses. Oh and Cathy the Crazy Cat Lady. I think she probably bought half our stock by herself. But anyway. I’m really annoyed at Will because he knows he’s not meant to answer the phone. Nothing good ever comes of it. But he tells me to chill because he only ordered five so it’s hardly the end of the world. A week later we get a delivery. Only Will hasn’t ordered five books. He’s ordered five boxes. I now have about fifty copies of this damn book, and do you know what it’s called?”

“What?”

“Pets with Tourette's,” he replies, each syllable dripping with disgust and Arthur has to clutch his ribs as he can’t help but laugh.

“Seriously this thing is just page after page of cute fluffy animals swearing. I thought LOLcats was bad but this thing is ten times more offensive. And in so many different ways to so many different people. The distributor won’t let me return them so I have to put them out. Within a week I’ve had ten complaints including one hysterical phone call from a lady whose young daughter is apparently now scarred for life and won’t stop repeating what she read. Not even Cathy the Crazy Cat Lady will buy a copy – not enough cats you see. What the hell am I meant to do with these bloody things?”

“Well I guess we know what Will’s getting for Christmas,” Arthur laughed.

“For the rest of his miserable life. The git. Honestly, what on earth could I have possibly done in my last life to end up with such a twat for a friend?”

“I don’t know mate. Still at least you’ve got me to make up for it, right?” He laughed but Merlin looked oddly serious suddenly.

“Yeah. Well you’d better take care of yourself. No more crazy stunts for the foreseeable future, do you hear me?”

“Alright killjoy. I’ll be the perfect invalid I swear. Anyway, hadn’t you better get back to running the place? You never know Will could be ordering more things as we speak,” Arthur teased, feeling warm and pleasantly sleepy at long last.

“Not if he values his bloody life he won’t. But you’re right, I’d better go. You’re back in a few weeks, right? I find myself with the overbearing need to give you a gigantic bear hug but you’re a bit far away right now,” he confesses, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Well Arthur supposes it is. Merlin’s his friend and friends hug, right? He hopes so because a Merlin hug, all warmth, clean soap and sharp collarbones, sounds about the best thing in the whole world right now. Grinning he tries to downplay his longing with a dismissive, “yeah not long now, you gigantic girl,” but he suspects Merlin knows anyway because his answer is surprisingly tender and soft.

“Call me if you need anything. And don’t forget Arthur, whatever you may think, you are loved. Always.”

With a last warm smile Merlin cuts the connection before Arthur can even think about a reply.

 

****

October

It all starts to go wrong about a month later and it starts with zombies. Not that there’s a big zombie apocalypse or anything. But they do bring Percy into Arthur’s life and once he knows about him Arthur finds he just can’t forget.

It begins innocently enough. Arthur gets offered a leading role in the next big zombie epic and before the audition he wants to do a bit of background reading to get in character. So of course he texts Merlin.

Have been offered a part in film with brain eating zombies. Cool, right?
Need reading material ASAP!

 

V cool. Luckily for you zombies are big atm.
Pretty sure it’s Percy’s area of expertise.
I’ll ask him and get back to you.
Talk tonight? :-)

 

Percy?

 

Fellow bookseller. Genius! And hot!
Sure he can find you something great for your research.
We’re going out later but I can squeeze you in @ 7.

 

Fine. 7 it is.

 

Arthur pressed send distractedly and then collapsed back into his chair as if someone had slapped him. Who the hell was Percy and why didn’t Arthur know all about him? Apparently he worked with Merlin but Arthur had thought he knew all of Merlin’s booksellers and their life stories by now. Merlin was always telling him every banal detail about those around him – Helen was a single mother and couldn’t work weekends, Mordred had a crush on a girl at his college, Cenred was secretly a gigantic softie who loved chick lit – the list went on and on but showed no evidence of a Percy. Surely that exclusion meant something, and it probably wasn’t anything good.

He was unbearably anxious and distracted the rest of the day, forgetting lines and unable to focus on even simple instructions. By the time it was over he wasn’t quite sure who was more frustrated - him or everyone who had to be around him.

So he was not exactly in the best of moods when he opened the chat window and caught sight of Merlin looking shower flushed and happy.

“Hey there!” Merlin greeted cheerfully and Arthur felt himself scowl.

“Hello.”

“So we’ve put our heads together and I think you’ll really love the books we’ve come up with. We’ve got a zombie apocalypse told through mixed media, a teenage perspective with samurai swords and brothers who have issues (cause I know how much you love that) and finally, a zombie love story. I know I know, you’re probably thinking ‘eew gross’ but it’s beautifully told. I was kind of reluctant when Percy recommended it to me but actually the main character is really funny despite the whole, you know, zombie thing.”

“Sounds like Percy is full of good ideas,” Arthur growled sullenly.

“Oh he totally is,” Merlin replied with a little quirk to his mouth that made Arthur want to punch the screen.

“And you said he’s hot too.”

“Arthur don’t tell him I said that. I’ll never hear an end to it,” he scolded, sounding scandalised as someone out of shot laughed loudly.

“Is someone there?” Arthur demanded.

“Just the man in question. Hey Perce come say hi to Arthur,” he called, turning his chair.

Suddenly a gigantic shirtless bear of a man appeared behind Merlin draping an arm around his neck and ruffling his hair in a fond gesture. He glanced at the screen and gave a short wave before leaning down to whisper something to Merlin that Arthur didn’t catch but made Merlin laugh.

“Okay. Okay. Don’t look so cross. I’m not ignoring you. He’s going now,” Merlin offered upon seeing Arthur’s heavy frown. The man with the unbelievable muscles disappeared from the frame and there was the sound of a door shutting.

“Was he naked?” Arthur asked before he could help himself, sounding slightly shrill even to his own ears.

“Of course not. He’s wearing jeans. Honestly what’s with you this evening? You seem all tense.”

“But he was shirtless, don’t try to deny it, I saw.”

“Well yeah but I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m sure you’ve seen a man’s chest before. I know Percy’s is impressive but there’s no need to act like such a prude.”

“Why was he shirtless? What were you two doing?”

“Well if you must know we were right in the middle of a massive orgy. Soon as you hang up we’re going to get back to ravishing each other,” he informed Arthur in a deadly serious tone and then squawked hysterically as Arthur felt his jaw drop.

“Oh mate, your face! Seriously?! For God’s sake don’t be so dramatic. I told you we’re going out, remember? He just needed to borrow some deodorant. He’s got a load of stuff in the bathroom since he’s practically moved in he’s here so much, but apparently he forgot deodorant. Couldn’t leave him at Will’s mercy, could I? He still uses Lynx because all the adverts have convinced him that using it will help him get girls. Stupid idiot!”

“What do you mean he’s practically moved in? Why have you never mentioned him to me before?

“Well it’s been awkward you know. I didn’t want him to overhear us talking about him.”

“So he’s been around during all our conversations. Even our late night ones?” Arthur prodded, a sudden dread going through him at the thought that while he’d been baring his soul to Merlin alone there had been someone off in the wings smirking at his problems.

“Well yeah. I guess so. Probably for the last couple of months or so.”

“Months?”

“Well I don’t know really. Sometimes it seems like he’s been here forever. You know. He just fits in really well. He’s a very easy going sort of bloke,” Merlin replied, confirming all of Arthur’s fears.

“Right.”

“What’s this all about? You’re acting really weird tonight. Everything okay? Did you have a bad day shooting or something? Is your dad being a total dick again?” he asked, sounding so genuinely concerned that Arthur knew he had to end this soon or he was really going to embarrass himself.

“No it’s fine. Everything’s fine Merlin,” he returned dismissively, glancing away.

“Well that’s…good I guess. So shall I send you those books tomorrow? Every action hero needs to know how to fight the zombie hordes so you’d better get studying, right?”

“Yeah. Look Merlin I’ve got to go.”

“Really? We’re not leaving for another half hour. I was hoping we could catch up. Can’t call you my friend if you don’t tell me your every problem, remember?” he joked and Arthur winced at the memories surrounding that declaration. Reminders of things he would never have thanks to nobody’s actions but his own.

“Not tonight, eh,” he managed to get out, swallowing past his now raw throat.

“Arthur?” Merlin made his name a question, staring down at him intently as if trying to figure something out. “Okay but we’ll talk again soon,” he promised and Arthur could only nod.

No we won’t.

“Goodbye Merlin,” was the final thing he said.

 

****

December

Arthur groaned and thumped his pillow in annoyance. Today was his 30th birthday, shooting was finished for the week and he was alone in his hotel room in a foreign country. All he wanted was a few more hours of blissfully oblivious sleep before he had to once again pull himself tightly together and face the day. The complete bastard at the door rang the buzzer again, holding it down for longer this time before beginning to play, what Arthur guessed, was meant to be some sort of tune. Finally giving in to the apparent fact that this person was not going to go away, Arthur arose and considered trying to find his robe in amongst the many piles of washing. Giving up quickly he decided it was his damn birthday and he’d be half naked if he wanted. This mystery person would just have to deal with it.

“This had better be bloody fucking important!” he raged through the door but got no reply. Taking a quick peek through the peep hole he got a shock as Gwaine’s cheeky face grinned back at him. With a sigh he cracked open the door and regarded Gwaine with his best thoroughly unimpressed look.

“Hello Princess! Isn’t it a lovely day,” the man greeted him enthusiastically, shouldering his way into the room and glancing around.

“Well it was, but then you turned up.”

“Aww did you not like my rendition of Happy Birthday for hotel room buzzer. I composed it just for you.”

“Is that what it was meant to be? I thought someone was trying to tell me the place was on fire,” he grumbled sleepily and then noticed Gwaine was still pacing around as if looking for something. “What are you doing?” he asked incredulously.

“Just checking for hookers. Don’t mind me,” Gwaine replied, as if this were a perfectly logical reply.

“Why on earth would I have hookers? More to the point, why would I invite you in if I did?”

“Oh you know, you famous film star types - it’s all about the hookers and the drugs.”

“Sorry. Gwaine I’m all out of both. Why don’t you try your own place, seeing as you too are one of these famous film star types?”

“Nope none there either. I’ve had to give up my roguish way since Ellie agreed to take me on. Turns out she doesn’t want to share me. But seeing as how I don’t want to share her either, the bargain seemed ultimately fair.”

“So you’re still with her? You? After all this time? God she must be a good shag,” he leered sleazily just to be unpleasant and then felt bad picturing her sweet face.

“She is actually. Best I’ve ever had, seeing as once we wake up together I actually look forward to spending the day with her. Doubt you can say the same about any of yours lately,” Gwaine replied, challenge edging his words.

Arthur shrugged his agreement, attempting to remain casual in his acknowledgment. Since having decided to cut Merlin out of his life completely a few months ago everything seemed to have sped up rather than slowed down, as he’d feared it might. Days working and nights lost drinking smashed together until his recollections were all a blur. A string of nameless faces, stolen kisses and frantic fumbling all sought to fill the gap in his life that, despite years of practice, he found himself unable to deny anymore.

“Why are you here Gwaine?” he asked tiredly, suddenly overcome with the desperate desire to let unconsciousness claim him again. To not have to care about anything for just a few more hours.

“Because I am your friend and no matter how much of an arse you become, I always will be. Because I know you need people far more than your stupid emotional constipation will ever allow you to admit. And because, God damn it Arthur, today is your thirtieth birthday and the thought of you celebrating it alone is so fucking sad that I think I might cry,” Gwaine told him, shaking his head sadly as he reached towards Arthur who roughly shook him off.

“Awfully presumptuous aren’t you? How do you know I don’t have plans? Do you really think I’ve nothing better to do than spend the day with a hanger-on like you? I’ve got open invitations to every decent club in this city. They know how to treat a star, though I guess a nobody like you wouldn’t know. VIP areas, as many free drinks as I want and swarms of beautiful eager girls.”

“So what, your big plans are to do exactly what you’ve been doing every other night for the last few weeks? Wow that sounds special. So you go out, get drunk, party and find someone to screw.”

“A woman,” Arthur interrupted angrily.

“What?”

“You said I’ll find ‘someone’ to screw but I’ll have you know I only screw women. What do think I am?”

“I think you’re so bloody screwed up it’s not even funny, but it’s okay because I’m here and we’re going to sort you out.”

“Seriously?! What is this? Some sort of intervention?”

“No it’s just me. I’m worried about you. I know how this business fucks with your head but the way you’ve been shutting everyone out - it’s not healthy. You don’t have to be alone. You have people who really care about you. Not because you’re this big famous film star with more money than sense, but because they love you no matter what.”

Arthur felt his blood boil at this obvious falsehood as he balled his hands into fists and tried to hold back from lashing out. How could Gwaine do this? How could someone, who claimed so earnestly to be his friend, throw the very things he wished were true but weren’t so uncaringly in his face?

“Who cares Gwaine? Where the fuck are all these supposed people?” he demanded angrily, nails imprinting little half moons into his shaking hands.

“They’re in Cardiff you blind idiot, waiting for you to get over your pathetic little temper tantrum and come home.”

Something exploded within Arthur at hearing the rolling turmoil he’d been suffering through dismissed so casually. He saw red and before he’d even thought it through he was lashing out at his oldest friend. The scuffle that followed was embarrassingly brief as Gwaine (who was now the star of a string of successful boxing films) ducked reflexively and knocked Arthur off balance with a single jab. He fell heavily to the floor and glared up at Gwaine, panting quick angry gasps.

Gwaine just stared down at him sadly. “I’m going to go for a walk while you cool off. Make sure you’re still here when I get back. I think there’s a lot we need to talk about,” he said as Arthur refused to meet his gaze.

Gwaine gave a sigh before turning to leave quickly, shutting the door quietly behind him as Arthur sank back onto the floor.

Sometime later Arthur was startled out of his unseeing daze as the buzzer rang again. Stretching numb limbs Arthur clambered to his feet and approached the door, reluctant to face another confrontation.

“Come on Arthur, let me in,” Gwaine called, in what Arthur felt was an inappropriately cheerful tone.

“Why should I? Last time all you did was shout and hit me,” he responded sulkily.

“Hey that wasn’t my fault. You tried to hit me first.”

“You deserved it!” Arthur snapped.

“Why? All I did was tell the truth. You on other hand called me some very nasty things,” Gwaine replied chidingly.

“Oh yeah, like what?”

“You called me a hanger-on AND a nobody. My delicate little actor feelings could have been terribly hurt you know,” Gwaine wailed dramatically through the door at a volume that was far from discreet.

Arthur felt the dark clouds lift from his mood as he swung open the door to find his friend standing there, smirking at him knowingly as he hefted a large parcel in his arms. Giving the package no more than a cursory glance Arthur dragged him into the room and shut the door before his friend could cause a scene.

“Well you called me emotionally constipated,” he replied irritably but Gwaine only smiled at him.

“Don’t worry. I hear it’s a common complaint amongst you English public school prats. Don’t worry, we can work on it.”

“Oh yeah? So what, in your infinite wisdom, do you prescribe Dr Knight?”

“Whiskey, my friend, preferably rather a lot of it.”

“So let me get this straight. You’re here to stop me going out and getting pissed with lots of beautiful ladies because you want me to stay here and raid the mini bar with you instead?” Arthur queried sarcastically.

“Who said anything about the crap in the mini bar? I happen to have an extremely nice and very expensive bottle which I purchased from duty free just for you and your little crisis,” he told Arthur as he passed over, what Arthur had to admit was, a very nice bottle of whiskey. “Happy birthday mate!”

“Thanks I think. But really, I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss. My mental state is just fine, thank you very much.”

“Really, because that’s not what Ellie has been telling me,” Gwaine insisted, walking over to sit down in the lounge area of the suite. Arthur followed him with a huff.

“Just because you’re shagging her doesn’t make her the font of all knowledge you know,” he protested, sitting down and trying to get a better look at the mysterious box Gwaine had brought with him.

“She says you’ve been ignoring Merlin. That he’s been trying to get in touch with you and you haven’t responded once.”

“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Merlin hasn’t contacted me in ages. We’ve just drifted apart,” Arthur insisted, trying to forget all the increasingly worried messages that had preceded the current silence.

“I hear that tends to happen when you ignore someone completely for what, two months?”

More like three.

Arthur attempted to shrug nonchalantly, like he hadn’t clung to every single anxious text and message, worried that it would be his last piece of Merlin, until finally there had been no more to cling to.

“It’s none of her business anyway. Now that she’s finally bagged herself a celebrity I thought she might stop obsessing over my life like some stalker fangirl,” he countered snidely.

“I get that you’re upset but you need to stop being such a dick.”

“Why? Because you love her?” Arthur sneered dismissively.

“Well yes there is that,” he replied calmly and chuckled as Arthur’s eyes widened in shock. “But mostly it’s because this whole thing was her idea because she’s worried about you too,” he continued, indicating the closed box on the table in front of them.

“What is it?”

“Birthday presents for you from Cardiff. I’m delivering them, but it was Ellie who kept insisting how important it was that you get them today so you’d know that people are thinking about you on your birthday.”

“You’ve been in Cardiff then? You’ve seen him?” Arthur questioned, wishing it wasn’t so very obvious who he was talking about as Gwaine sighed.

“Yes but we’re still far too sober to do this talking thing. Soon fix that though,” he told Arthur as he located a couple of glasses, poured them each a generous measure of whiskey and clinked his glass. “Come on. Booze, then presents and then we sort your life out.”

Arthur complied taking a generous swallow of the fiery liquid before he reached out to lift the lid on the box with trepidation. Inside right at the top there was a large photo of everyone holding out a giant banner on which someone had scrawled ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY ARTHUR’ in large slightly uneven letters. Instantly his gaze sought out Merlin right in the middle, sporting a grin. Initially Arthur thought he looked slightly sad around the eyes but dismissed it a second later as wishful thinking. Will was glowering next to a laughing Gwaine and Elena, and Arthur felt his own expression harden as he caught sight of the giant that was Percy, perched on the edge of the line next to Freya.

Removing the photo for closer examination later Arthur discovered several garishly wrapped parcels.

“Open the round one first,” Gwaine instructed, “it’s from Will.”

“Should I be worried?” Arthur asked, thinking of the man’s expression in the photo.

Hesitantly he peeled back the paper to reveal nothing scarier than a round plastic tub of Celebrations chocolates. There was a scrawled note taped to the lid. It read:

Elena says I have to give you something whether I think you deserve a present or not.

So consider it my present to you that I haven’t taken all the best ones and resealed the lid.

Don’t know why you’re acting this way and I don’t care.

Merlin is unhappy. You need to fix this or you’ll have me to answer to.

Will

“Okay maybe try Elena’s next,” Gwaine tried, seeing the expression on his face and passing him an envelope.

Arthur opened the very pink card. It had a giant birthday cake covered in candles on the front and inside Elena had written in neat purple pen.

Dearest Arthur

Despite everything I hope that you are well and that this is all just a silly misunderstanding.

I know we talked about how we (fans) shouldn’t judge you (celebrities) because we don’t know what’s really going on but we’re worried about you. I’m sure you have loads of friends, but if you need someone to talk to I’d always listen. I love Merlin but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you too.

Anyway, I hope you have a fantastic birthday with Gwaine.

Your friend (and fan) forever,

Elena

“Elena wanted to bake you a cake but we persuaded her this was slightly more practical to travel with,” Gwaine told him as he passed over a fairly small neatly wrapped rectangular package. “That one’s from Freya.”

Pulling open the corners Arthur was surprised when a thick CD case wrapped in a letter fell out. He glanced at Gwaine but the other man only shrugged. Unfolding the letter he found the plastic case actually contained an audio book called ‘Guards, Guards’. The cartoonish picture on the front didn’t really look like Freya’s sort of thing so he looked to the letter for an explanation.

To Arthur,

‘Guards, Guards’ features one of my favourite characters of all time: Samuel Vimes. The novel starts with him drunk and lying in a gutter, utterly useless and pathetic. By the end of the novel he has become a hero and even battled a dragon. Throughout the series he goes on to become one of the most important characters.

I’ve always found the Discworld series very comforting and Pratchett is best enjoyed through audio book.

Hopefully it will serve as a reminder that however bad things are, the choice to remain in the gutter or strive for something better is always in our own hands.

I hope for both your sakes you chose to rise.

“You alright?” Gwaine asked as Arthur continued to frown at the letter for long minutes after he had finished reading.

“Just trying to decipher what she means. On the one hand she insults me, but then she gives me advice. Does she hate me or what?”

“With her who knows,” Gwaine said with a shrug but Arthur found it harder to just brush aside. “Don’t you want to see what Merlin sent you?” Gwaine asked after a few more minutes of contemplation.

“Merlin sent me something?” Arthur asked, his worries from moments ago completely forgotten.

“Of course he did. It’s his damn fault that this box had to be so big. Had to persuade them to put it in oversized luggage and everything. You’re lucky they let me.”

“Well being a celebrity has to have some perks,” Arthur remarked distractedly as he removed the final large and oddly shaped package from the box. Merlin hadn’t been joking that first night. His wrapping abilities truly were terrible, different types of paper overlapping to create a strange patchwork effect that was held together with far too much tape. Ripping off the last of the paper revealed a large red soft toy dragon with a strangely knowing expression. It was wearing a mini yellow t-shirt and Arthur felt his lips slip into a grin as he read the message on it: ‘BEWARE R.O.U.S’.

“What’s a R.O.U.S.?” Gwaine asked, staring at him with a puzzled expression.

“Rodent of Unusual Size. It’s an in-joke from The Princess Bride,” Arthur replied, searching desperately in the remains of the packaging for any sort of note or card.

“You can stop looking, you know,” Gwaine said and Arthur felt his heart sink. “Merlin gave me the card for safe keeping just in case.”

Arthur took the offered card, not daring to open it right away. He took another large swig of his drink, feeling the burning liquid course through him, and then tore open the envelope.

Hey you - Happy Birthday!

Guess it’s been a while now, huh? I hope you’re doing really well and that life is good.

Hope you like your present. He’s very cuddly. That’s one of the first things my mum said to me after she met you that time, you know. “That boy needs more cuddles.” At the time I thought I’d be the one to give you them, but as things are at the moment I thought you might appreciate a cuddle alternative. And of course Kilgarrah (that’s his name, don’t ask) is a Princess Bride fan.

I wish things weren’t so weird between us so I could be there for your birthday but I’m sure you’ll have fun with Gwaine. Try not to let him make you drink too much. The man has an iron stomach few can match.

Did I do something wrong? I wish you’d just tell me, if that’s the case. I know I’m sorry for whatever it was.

I miss you. Really. There’s this Arthur shaped hole in my life and I need you to come back and fill it. Please.

I’ve been reading all these really great books. You’re missing out.

All my love (whether you still want it or not)

Merlin

“So what did your very own One True Love have to say?” Gwaine asked, trying to sneak a peek but Arthur closed the card firmly.

“Don’t call him that. Merlin’s not my anything. If he belongs to anyone it’s Percy.”

Gwaine’s eyebrows shot up at that remark. “Sorry mate, but I don’t think Freya likes to share anymore than Elena does.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Freya and Percy, or as I like to call them, Little and Large. You know! Cardiff’s latest greatest workplace romance. He was a shy philosophy student with muscles of steel but a heart of gold, she was a scary goth girl with far too much eye makeup. He warmed her heart by offering to run all the Kids Storytime sessions. She baked him brownies to say thank you. It’s a truly epic tale. Would make a great romantic comedy.” He paused. “And you’re still doing that impression of a gasping fish. Why is that?”

“Percy is Freya’s boyfriend?” Arthur asked one more time, just to be sure.

“Must say you’re a bit slow today mate. You didn’t happen to hit your head earlier, did you?” Gwaine joked but Arthur fixed him with a glare. “Yes, Percy is Freya’s boyfriend. Though I really don’t see what that has to do with anything unless…” he trailed off, staring at Arthur incredulously.

“Bugger!”

“You can say that again, you bloody halfwit. All this diva drama is just petty jealousy? And jealousy over something that never actually happened, at that! I take it all back. You don’t need whiskey. You need someone to slap a lick of sense back into you, you fucking moron.”

“It doesn’t matter though. So it’s not Percy. It’ll only be some other bloke one day. It’s not like I can have him even if he his single,” Arthur replied.

“Why the fuck not?” Gwaine questioned heatedly.

“Don’t be dumb Gwaine. The press would eat us alive. I’m Arthur Pendragon. I can’t be queer. Think of the scandal it would cause.”

“So?” his friend prompted looking decidedly nonplussed.

“What do you mean, so? I’ve spent my entire career becoming the ultimate action hero. Men like that don’t take it up the arse.”

“Your very existence does seem to contradict that last statement, you know,” Gwaine butted in only to be glared into silence once more.

“The papers would have a field day and I’d never work again.”

“So some people would say some mean things - ‘boo hoo, poor you’. It’s not like they don’t make up a tonne of crap as it is. Not everyone would hate you. I guarantee you most of the world wouldn’t even give a damn. And even to those that did, you’d be old news as soon as some other celebrity got arrested, or had a nose job or hell, even just got caught without any knickers. Really mate, your ego is quite staggering if you think otherwise.”

“But you do admit I wouldn’t work again, I’d be sacrificing my career that I’ve spent decades building,” Arthur pressed.

“I don’t know mate, maybe. This business is ridiculously fickle. But don’t you think you’ve given up enough for it? So you’ve given it thirty years of your life, so what? Yes you’re rich and famous but you’re miserable and alone. You hate your life, don’t even try to deny it. It’s your birthday and all you wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep. Is this really how you want to spend the next thirty as well?”

“So you really think it’s that easy? I just show up on his doorstep, the soundtrack swells and we all live happily ever fucking after? I’m still me - so bloody screwed up it’s not even funny. How could someone like Merlin ever love me?”

“I don’t know why. I just know that he does. Idiot clearly needs his head read, if you ask me.”

“I’ve really blown it, haven’t I?” Arthur asked morosely, reaching out to hug the red dragon.

“Says who? You’re not dead, neither is he and it’s almost Christmas. Sounds like the perfect time for a last minute dash to the airport to me.”

“Gwaine. It’s three days to Christmas. All the flights are going to be fully booked no matter what I do.”

“Well then, aren’t you lucky that you have an extremely kind friend with a return ticket,” Gwaine told him with his best roguish smile as Arthur dropped the dragon and threw his arms around his friend instead.

“Elena is so going to kill me,” was all the man said as he hugged him back.

 

****

 

A day later Arthur was back being buffeted by arctic winds in a snow covered Cardiff as he made his way up the path to 123 Castle Street. He was ready for this. He’d spent the whole plane ride home (Gwaine hadn’t even booked business class, the cheap bastard) and then the taxi ride over here planning their reunion.

Unfortunately the movies were yet again to let him down, as the man who opened the door turned out not to be his beloved, but rather his slightly caustic friend Will and he did not look at all filled with Christmas cheer.

“Is Merlin here?” Arthur asked, looking over Will’s shoulder hopefully.

“It’s almost Christmas, mate. Merlin’s gone home.”

“Oh,” Arthur remarked, turning to leave in disappointment.

“Wait!” Will called, beckoning him back. “I’m just about to leave for Ealdor myself. I’ll give you a lift. Just wait here a sec,” he said before promptly slamming the door in Arthur’s bewildered face.

That sec turned out to be more like ten minutes as he left Arthur shivering on the doorstep, but eventually he emerged giving a nod as if Arthur had passed some test. He then indicated an old battered green car with peeling paint and torn seats. With a sigh Arthur got in.

They were almost completely clear of the city, lit up suburban streets quickly giving way to dark empty fields as they joined the motorway heading north. The silence slowly grew ever more cloying as Arthur sat there, dimly trying to recall just how far away Merlin’s home town actually was. Glancing dubiously at the ancient banged up tape player he weighed up the pros and cons of turning it on. Surely anything had to be better than this choked stillness. Even if he was sure it would turn out to be screeching death metal or some sort of repetitive indie shit. He was just about to reach out a daring hand when Will gave a loud sigh and cleared his throat.

“The thing you need to realise about Merlin, is that he’s sort of fucking fantastic. Like honest to God amazing,” Will began and Arthur felt his heart sink.

“Will, I know. We really don’t need to have this conversation,” Arthur interrupted desperately. He so did not want to do this.

“He found Freya freezing to death on a street corner. Her family had kicked her out and she had nowhere to go. Merlin brought her back to ours and let her lock herself up in his room for almost a week. Even when she finally emerged she would barely speak. Merlin just smiled and kept telling her that she was safe.”

“He was rushing to catch the last bus home when Elena tripped and fell. Everyone else just sighed in annoyance and walked round her, but Merlin actually ran all the way back down the stairs to check she was alright. He missed his chance to get home carrying her back to the station to make sure she got her ankle treated.”

“As for me. Well Merlin saved me too, I guess. Even though I didn’t deserve it. Way back in junior school – we must have been eight or nine and I was an absolute prat to Merlin. We all were. He was poor and weird looking, stupidly smart and far too polite, so naturally all the teachers loved him. Not like me – a right gobby little idiot I was,” he paused, smiling ruefully in remembrance and Arthur was so tempted to make a smart remark and point out nothing had changed, but Will obviously wasn’t finished his strange speech.

“There was this one teacher, Mr Llewellyn, and I guess I must have done something to piss him off because he really couldn’t stand the sight of me. One afternoon we had to take this test but I really needed the loo. He wouldn’t let me leave – guess he thought I was trying to cheat or bunk off or something. Anyway, after about an hour I just couldn’t hold it anymore and I pissed myself right there at my desk sitting opposite Merlin. The bell rings and everyone is packing up to go home but I know the second I get up everyone is going to know what I’ve done. I’m about to miss the bus home, but I can’t get up because I’ll be the laughing stock of the whole school. So I’m just about to burst into tears when Merlin comes back with so many paper towels stuffed down his jumper that he practically looks pregnant. He starts mopping up my piss without a word and I’m about to die of shame when he smiles at me and says ‘hey at least you didn’t poop your pants’” Will pauses there, still keeping his eyes firmly locked on the road ahead of them, refusing to acknowledge Arthur even as he laughs before continuing his tale.

“That was our go-to line for years, you know. Whatever crap thing happened ‘at least we didn’t poop our pants’.

“Anyway, by this time I’ve missed the bus and I can’t walk home so Merlin gives me his gigantic coat. Just the week before I was teasing him about this coat, calling him a creepy bat freak. But now he lets me wear it as he takes me back to his house. When we get there he puts my wet clothes in the washing machine and then makes us both baked beans of toast. He lends me his Superman pyjamas, and we sit on the couch and watch TV until his mum gets back from work and drives me home. And he never tells a single soul.”

Arthur stares at him, frowning. “So what Will? Is this your way of telling me you’re in love with Merlin? Cause frankly that’s just creepy,” he protests, feeling wrong footed and unsure. Will’s cheerless snort does little to reassure him.

“God! For such a posh git you sure are thick. I wish I could be in love with him. I’d love it to be that simple, but he’s like my brother. The thought of kissing him, let alone anything else is just so gross and completely fucked up. But more than anything I want him to be happy. I want someone amazing to love him and treasure him.”

“And you want me to be that person?”

“Well to be completely honest, I was hoping that my best friend’s man would be slightly less of an English fuckwit,” he replied frankly, seeming completely unfazed by Arthur’s gasp of surprise. “But, as Freya keeps telling me, this whole thing really isn’t about what I want. It’s about what Merlin wants. And for some reason, God help us all, the person Merlin wants is you.”

Arthur didn’t know what to say to that, and Will seemed content now he’d told his creepily touching story. They relapsed back to their previous uncomfortable silence. Thankfully it wasn’t long after that, that Arthur spotted a lit up sign welcoming them to Ealdor. A couple of minutes later Will stopped the car outside a tiny bungalow bedecked in dancing Christmas lights.

“This is it,” Will announced, making no move to leave the car.

“Aren’t you coming?” Arthur asked.

“I’ve got to pop round and see my mum first but I’ll be by later. Tell Merlin I’d be perfectly happy to beat you up if he wants,” he replied in the cheery but somewhat threatening tone that was classic Will.

“Right…thanks,” Arthur muttered, barely shutting the door before the car sped away.

Snow crunched under his feet as he made his way up the path to the door half hidden behind a giant Christmas wreath. Taking a deep breath, he raised the knocker and let it fall. Those moments waiting seemed to drag on forever but then suddenly Merlin was standing in front of him, looking adorable in flannel pyjamas and a t-shirt that read ‘KEEP CALM AND TURN THE PAGE’.

“Arthur?” He never knew that one gasped word could hold so many questions, and suddenly it was as if all the air had been knocked from his lungs.

In reply Arthur unfastened his coat to show Merlin the t-shirt beneath. It read ‘AS YOU WISH’

“You love me?” Merlin whispered in wonderment, as if it were a delicate thing that would disappear if he weren’t careful.

Arthur nodded solemnly. “I really really do.”

There have been many truly great kisses in the history of the world but this, sadly, was not one of them.

Arthur surged upwards at the exact moment than Merlin leaned over, causing Arthur’s nose to collide rather forcefully with Merlin’s chin and suddenly their perfect moment was ruined by Arthur’s swearing. But then Merlin pulled away looking concerned, and Arthur decided he just couldn’t have that.

Leaning in more tentatively this time he proceeded to attempt to kiss the worry right off his friend’s face. He began by placing a chaste brush of lips over the frown line on Merlin’s brow, before dedicating his efforts to Merlin’s beautifully luscious mouth. Soft lips parted under his careful attention, and any attempts at forming words were quickly thwarted as Arthur darted forward to lick delicately into the delicious warmth. Their panted breaths mingled and Merlin gave a delectable little moan. Encouraged, Arthur was just about to deepen the kiss when a flash of light exploded behind his semi closed eyes and he swung around, anxiously seeking the source.

“Oh my boys. That was just the cutest thing ever. I’m so making it my new wallpaper,” cried Elena before she ran upstairs clutching her mobile phone.

“Merlin?” Hunnith poked her head out from around the kitchen door as Arthur guiltily stepped away from her son, attempting to look a little less kiss drunk.

“Mrs Emrys,” he greeted stiffly, but she just beamed at him in amusement.

“Hello Arthur. I love the t-shirt, and I’m glad to see the mistletoe is seeing some action, but do you think you could possibly shut the door before you return to snogging my son? You boys really are creating a terrible draft,” she replied before retreating back into the kitchen with a wink.

Arthur let out an embarrassed little snort and glanced at Merlin questioningly. “She knows?” he asked, gesturing to the message on his chest.

“Who do you think first read it to me?” Merlin replied, gathering Arthur to him and holding him close.

Arthur’s heart just about exploded with happiness right there and then. This wasn’t just everything he’d ever dreamed of. It was so much better.

 

****

 

Later that night after hugs, and dinner, and tea, and stories, and a great deal more Merlin kisses, they lay together cocooned in the warmth of Merlin’s tiny bed.

“So what are you going to do now?” Merlin asked softly, warm breath tickling Arthur’s cheek.

“Absolutely no clue,” Arthur replied with attempted cheer that clearly fell false because Merlin only hugged him tighter.

“Are you scared?” he whispered.

Arthur considered lying, but gave it up quickly as pointless. “Bloody terrified.”

“You don’t need to be. I’ll always love you no matter what, remember.”

“In that case I shall sail the seven seas in search of my fortune, battle giants and brave R.O.U.S just for you.”

“Oh my God! I am so not Buttercup,” Merlin exclaimed, poking him in the ribs.

“Well you are very pretty,” Arthur replied.

“Oh go to sleep, you soppy arse,” Merlin laughed before leaning in to kiss him one more time.

“As you wish.”

 

THE END