The sudden dull thud that sounded just behind him almost had him jumping out of his skin (and he might have emitted a sound only dogs could hear, but he wasn't going to own up to it and the dogs were almost certain to keep his secret).
Merlin whirled around, whipping out his arms in front to defend himself against... a rock. Huh. He lowered his arms slowly, in case the rock decided to attack anyway. He was fairly certain that rock hadn't been there before.
"What on earth...?" He kicked it with the toe of his converses. It did not sprout legs and jump him, so he kicked it some more.
Merlin looked back to see if Morgana knew where the rock had come from, and found that during his forage into the bush, Morgana had made a friend. A tall, broad, scary-looking-from-behind friend. She looked none too pleased either. Deliberating between weird animals in the park that had rock slinging powers versus perhaps some sort of mugging happening right in front of him, Merlin opted to leave the wildlife for now and head back to the bench (although, he was pretty sure Morgana wasn't going to be the one coming out of an encounter like that worse for wear anyway, should anything untoward actually happen).
"Is there a problem?" he asked, approaching carefully. He really wished he had his Toast Launcher right now.
The stranger turned and gave him a broad, open grin beneath a fuzzy beard. "Hello!" Then he performed some sort of complicated coughing manoeuvre, and more gruffly repeated his greeting.
"Hi..?" Merlin said warily.
"I'm—" And he coughed again. "I'm Leon Knightly," he said scratchily.
Merlin surmised that Leon had a nasty cold, and debated stepping backwards, but decided not too because he would look like he was afraid (or worse, rude). He really hoped Leon wasn't contagious.
"And what are you doing around here Leon? Don't you live far, far away from here?" Morgana asked snippily and with obvious familiarity (thank goodness for that. Merlin was certain that he was not able to take Leon's broad shoulders and muscled arms in a fight that didn't involve remote controls).
"Just um. You know." He coughed again, poor sod. "Looking for you."
Merlin looked at the knowing glance Leon tossed at Morgana, and the returned pointed stare and defiant posture, one pointy nail tapping a staccato on crossed arms.
"Well," Merlin said chirpily, hefting his bag back onto his shoulders and shifting uncomfortably. "I'll um, I'll go look for that phone and leave you lovebirds to it then shall I?"
"No!" They both shouted, prompting Merlin to sit down on the bench very quickly. He didn't like being shouted at by formidable women and grizzly men who were twice his size.
"I'll—" Leon cleared his throat. "I mean, Morgana and I will go find it. You sit right here."
The unsaid 'where I can see you and you cannot make passes at my girlfriend' went duly noted, which Merlin communicated with a manly nod (he also would've tried to communicate 'I'm gay and quite frankly, your girlfriend is scary and asks a lot of embarrassing questions', but was afraid it would only make the situation worse). There was a half minute more of the couple staring at each other with various eyebrow movements, before Morgana reluctantly lifted herself off the bench and grumbled at Leon as they disappeared behind the trees. Merlin then politely turned his attention towards his iPod and ignored whatever noises were emanating from their general direction (sort of shout-y and rustle-y, like clothes being— well, anyway, he wasn't listening).
He was so good at distracting himself in fact, that he almost jumped out of his skin again when Leon clapped a hand on his shoulder (his skin did not appreciate that at all. It rather liked housing all his innards).
"Come on then," he said, voice penetrating through his earbuds, strangely deep and gruff (did the cold get worse due to the activities behind the trees?) "Let's get a drink."
"How long is this campaign of misery going to last Penn? You've gathered all this information, you're spamming the blog twitter widget thing constantly — are you actually planning on doing anything with it?"
"I ask the questions around here Dusty! When are you going to get rid of all that bloody fuzz on your face?"
"Oh, um. Never."
"And that's what she said, Drivethru fans."
"And don't you forget it. Anyway, this is why I've opened the lines. What do you think I should do, Drivethru fans? Call through with your suggestions!"
"You mean you really haven't thought this through?"
"I mean, that I will take suggestions on board and use them to flesh out my own, undoubtedly well thought out plans."
"I really just can't see this ending well."
"Nonsense! Nothing about this could possibly end badly for me."
"I meant for me."
"Well. That's just a bit selfish."
"Pot calling kettle, etcetera. Hello Linda, you're on the line."
"Hi hi! I've been following on the widget thing, but you haven't told us how good looking he is! If he's cute, you should totally ask him out for a drink!"
"That doesn't really... Sound like much of a strategy for revenge to me Linda."
"But thanks for calling in. What about you Tom, what do you think? Tom?"
"You there Tom?"
"Must've lost him to some other radio show that's actually law abiding. What about Robert? What's your advice for Penn?"
"Well I think you should pay people to go up to him and tell him like, douchebags wear scarves."
"Oh! That's actually quite a good one Robert, I'll keep that in mind. Sarah?
"Hey guys, love the show!"
"Thanks Sarah, you got anything to share?"
"Oh yeah! I was thinking you could drive him crazy by leaving him cherry flavoured lollipops. Those things are revolting!"
"Could be a little hard to achieve, don't you think Sarah?"
"I trust in Penn's creativity."
"Well thank you Sarah, so do I!"
"Thanks for calling Sarah. Next we have Elizabeth on the line. Hello Elizabeth?"
"Good evening gentlemen."
"Why, good evening to you too milady. Have you any advice you'd like to share with Penn?"
"Yes I do. I've two grown boys, and let me tell you; when they were young, their idea of courtship was pulling pigtails and pushing girls into the mud. I'll tell you what I told them: that is not the right way to win someone's affections — and if you're going so far as taking creepy photographs it is perhaps time to get some— some balls and do something about it."
"Well said Elizabeth, thanks for that."
"Drivethru fans, I'm beginning to worry that we're not quite on the same page about this revenge business."
"On the contrary Penn, I think you are the only one who hasn't caught up to where the rest of us are yet."
"Don't try to be witty with me Dusty, I will cut you."
"Ooh, quivering in my boots Sire."
"No sarcasm either."
"Why don't you outlaw fun while you're at it."
As they headed into Merlin's local pub, Morgana started smiling something horrid.
"Is... something funny?" Merlin asked warily. They three of them spied a free booth opening up, and rushed to claim it. Well, Merlin and Leon rushed, Morgana strutted very purposefully and glared at anyone who appeared as though they were thinking about moving in on it.
"This is just where I first saw you the other night." Morgana said, elegantly falling into the cushy seats. "You don't remember, Merlin?"
Before he could try to do just that, Leon very loudly proclaimed that a drink was in order and slid beside Morgana, leaving Merlin to fetch the first round and give them some alone time. He took the familiar walk up to the bar where Heath greeted him impishly, taking his order.
"Not trying to pick up guys at the bar tonight, hey Merlin?"
Merlin gave him a crumpled look. "Heath, I don't know what you're talking about."
Heath shrugged, and made some further comments about drowning rats and toilets but all Merlin could do was nod and try to look like he knew what Heath was on about. While he was waiting for their order at the bar, he turned back to inspect the two sitting at the booth. Morgana had put her hand where (Merlin assumed) Leon's thigh was (though for some reason Leon was glaring at her with a pinched look on his face). They looked to be in furious conversation, and Leon would twinge occasionally (what a trooper, coming out even when he was obviously feeling sick). He was about to head back when he noticed Lancelot heading towards the feuding couple. Morgana looked surprised, and Leon got up to pat him on the back, offering him a seat. Merlin signalled Heath for another glass and carried the pot back carefully.
"Hullo Lance. How do you know Morgana and Leon?" he said, carefully unloading the jug and glasses on the table.
"Oh, we wor—"
"Work together." Leon interrupted. For some reason his voice was free of cold (and sort of familiar sounding?). He must've eaten a throat lozenge.
"At Mercia?" Merlin inquired, taking his place next to Lancelot. "All of you?"
"Mercia? Mercia. Yes. Where we work. All of us." Leon replied. Merlin blinked. Even though his voice had gotten better, he was obviously still delirious and ill.
"I don't know about that." Morgana cut in.
"Yes you do. Because Arth— I. I will take you shopping. And I will pay for it." Leon and Morgana exchanged long, lingering looks.
"Then I suppose I do work at Mercia." Morgana said finally, pouring herself a pint.
"What do I get for working at Mercia then?" Lancelot asked, looking on amusedly.
"A salary." Morgana and Leon said in unison (well, Morgana said 'a pitiful salary', but still. Scary couple's telepathy!).
Merlin hid his smile behind his beer. Leon and Morgana seemed made for each other, though they were probably prone to fighting, breaking up and getting back together. He obviously wasn't able to draw this conclusion from personal experience, but he had (been forced to) read a few old Cosmopolitans in the GP waiting room. As the night wore on, Merlin was able to share a few of his own work stories with the Mercia crew (none too exciting, but Morgana, Leon and Lancelot had a bit of trouble weaving a story together between the three of them that didn't confuse Merlin considerably regarding either location, people involved or even where equipment was placed in their studios. Maybe he just had to be there), including the odd bloke who came in last week.
"What do you mean by odd?" Leon asked abruptly. Throughout the course of the night, Merlin still had this niggling feeling that he knew Leon from somewhere. ("Must have one of those faces." Leon had replied, voice gruff once again. Merlin had given him a throat lozenge and pitied him for having to deal with a perpetual cold).
"Well um, at first I thought he was a shoplifter, because he kept skulking behind the racks where I couldn't see him? Anyway, he was a bit shorter than me, blond—" And here he was experiencing some deja vu from the park, but he quickly pushed those thoughts aside. Leon looked at him intently, so he kept going with his tale. "But he didn't look like he was browsing. It looked like he was waiting for me to walk out the back, you know, so he could steal things. Come to think of it, Freya did mention some guy loitering outside the other day— um, anyway, I walked up to him and asked him if he needed any help, and he wouldn't look at my face, so I thought hang on, he's really very shifty."
"Absolutely. Should have called the cops on him. I urge you to do that next time," Morgana wisely advised.
Lancelot took more of a humanitarian's view. "Maybe he was a bit shy?"
"Um," Merlin vaguely remembered some rather good looks and a confident walk. "No, he didn't look the type..."
Morgana whispered something to Leon that made him laugh. She then motioned Merlin to keep going.
"Well, I was going to keep an eye on him, so I was rearranging stock near where he was standing when he just took a whole bunch of shirts off the rack, all different styles and different sizes, and went up to the counter to pay for them. I asked him if he wanted me to get him the ones in his size but he just muttered something about 'needing a lot of shirts ok, is that a crime?', took all the shirts before I could bag them, and then left! It was like, reverse kleptomania! Instead of stealing a whole bunch of things he didn't need he decided to buy a whole bunch of things he didn't need. It was very strange. Maybe he needs some impulse control?" Merlin took a sip of his beer. "Good sales figures for that day though." He remembered that because both girls had patted him on the head before he left. (He had been both touched and offended. What was he, a dog?)
"Obviously crazy," Morgana said decisively.
"Maybe he was thinking about how to come on to you, but panicked and fled?" Lancelot said, eating a pretzel. Merlin looked at him balefully, then confiscated his pretzel bowl.
"Not you too," Merlin sighed. "Look here, even if he was gay, he did not look like the sort of guy who would want to go out with me."
"That's not true Merlin," Morgana placed a hand on his wrist. "You're lovely."
And Merlin appreciated the thought, he really did, but Morgana was with Leon, and she was wearing relationship tinted glasses spurred from her own exceptionally lovey-dovey thing with Leon, and had become some sort of matchmaking madwoman who accosted people in parks, trying to figure out which one of her mates she could set them up with. She was so nice, wanting to share the joy of being in a happy relationship with everybody else.
He popped his hand on top of hers. "You're a very nice person Morgana."
Leon and Lancelot sounded like they were choking into their drinks (backwash, ew).
Then Morgana started to ask Merlin about his car preferences (Aston Martins? Bentleys? Maseratis?), at which point Leon tapped his (fake? Fake right?) Rolex and loudly declared the evening over. As they stood up to go and Morgana went off to powder her nose, Merlin couldn't resist asking, "do you know the guy she's on about?"
Lancelot and Leon looked at him, then at each other, then back at him, pensive. Then they looked towards the ladies toilets, and put up their hands in surrender. "We've been threatened under pain of death that we're not to tell."
At which point Merlin started to feel a little concerned. He patted his Optimus Prime for courage.
'Well, that settles that,' Merlin thought, brushing his teeth for bed. He knew he wasn't much fun to look at. He smiled ruefully at his plain reflection in the mirror and patted his face dry, turning off the light and clambering into bed. He smothered his face into the pillow and massaged his chest, willing his mind to clear of silly thoughts. Of course he wasn't Bar Guy — he'd already done the math in the park! Stupid hope receptors in his stupid brain. His alarm clock rolled away from his thrashing until it bumped into Optimus Prime, standing tall and proud and all save-the-world-from-Merlin's-stupidity like, at which point it decided it had run far enough and promptly collapsed into itself. Merlin turned off the lamp and set his iTunes on his sleep playlist.
'Of course it's not me,' he thought drearily. He lay through three Imogen Heap songs before falling into a fitful slumber.
Merlin quickly x-ed out of the page (why had he set that as his homepage anyway?) and logged into his student portal. After his foolish assumptions the week before, Merlin decided he would not be furthering the madness any longer. He needed to do lots and lots of schoolwork and earn lots of money to pay for bills and things and not— not have idle daydreams about being the target of an internet manhunt!
To clear his mind of his first world problems, he had gone to visit his mam on the weekend. It had been lovely, except for when his mam brought out the pictures of all the nice boys she had bumped into at Tescos.
"Aren't they a bit young for you mam?" he had said, pausing mid slice into his roast beef. "I mean um, you go get them! You uh, new age, independent woma— um, cougar you."
She had patted his hand fondly as she passed him yet another slice of home made bread. "Oh my lovely, daft boy, they aren't for me. Although I'll be very content to look at them about the house once you've decided on one."
She had pushed the mash to one side and sidled over to show him the photos she had taken on her iPhone. "Now how about this one?" she started gleefully. "His name is Tony and he's got a double major in economics and history and a lovely, spacious penthouse in Moria! He also has an ear fetish! Doesn't he look like a naughty boy, Merlin?"
There was a time when he had thought no harm could come of teaching his mam to use new technology. He mourned that innocence daily. Also, he decided he would never introduce his mam to Morgana.
He fled his mam's house after dinner to go visit Gaius, only to be invited to eat the older man's signature porridge. Suddenly remembering something he had to do with Will, he ran for it.
"Mate, I was going to get with a girl tonight you know," Will had grumbled, setting out the blankets on the couch. It was a blatant lie, Merlin could tell. Will was three kinds of hung over and was in no condition to woo anybody, let alone convince a girl to take her clothes off for him.
"Just her panties is enough! Jesus, what kind of bloody complicated sex are you having Merlin? Oh that's right, you're not having any
"You're a wonderful friend Will. I cherish our friendship."
"Yeah whatever. Just don't make any loud noises and flip the cushion over to the side that doesn't have any stains alright?" Then he had stumbled off and crashed on the kitchen table.
He looked at the couch in a horrifying new light and opted to sleep on the floor. (But really, there was a high probability no place in that flat was untarnished).
Prior to boarding the train back to the city the next morning, he had popped back by Gaius' in time to avoid another helping of breakfast porridge.
"It's not going to kill you!" the physician had roared.
"I'm not taking any chances," Merlin had grumbled, and gave Gauis a big hug to placate him. The old physician had smacked the back of his head before crushing him a bit too tightly about the ribs.
"Now off with you," Gaius shooed him, suspiciously rough sounding. "And don't forget to ring your mam when you get back! She's driving us insane!"
Merlin scampered off, hoping Gaius was using the royal "us" (it works that way doesn't it?) and really meant that his mum wasn't going up to random strangers in the supermarket telling them about her beloved son that has forgotten about his poor mam now that he's living in the city and would they be on the gay market by any chance and like to see some pictures?
He plugged in his earphones as soon as he hopped onto the carriage, and settled into a seat next to the window. He had intended to take out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
to keep him company on the ride home, but vetoed the idea two minutes into the trip when his head decided the window had properties not unlike a comfortable pillow. He promptly fell asleep, as his night as Will's was not very restful (even thinking about what could have transpired on the bit of floor he had deemed a safe enough sleeping area had kept him up most of the night. Meanwhile, Will snored peacefully on the kitchen table, bloody bastard). He was awoken sharply after an abrupt stop and start, and surreptitiously checked himself for drool (scarves were very handy for that chore if need be). He was at Moria station, about fifteen minutes away from where he needed to get off, so Merlin decided to tough it out and stay awake.
He stretched out bonelessly, turning his neck and hearing the satisfying cricks as he yawned. Sliding back up his seat, he met the very blue eyes of the girl sitting across the aisle. He smiled politely and she returned it.
"Do you want one?" she asked.
"Want what?" he enquired, tilting his head a little sleepily.
"A lollipop." She started to unwrap one, offering it to him. "To match everyone else."
Merlin blinked. He took the offered stick gingerly, and looked around the carriage. There were a lot more people on board than when he'd fallen asleep (which made sense because he had gotten on at Ealdor, basically at the end of the line) and there was something peculiar they all had in common.
Skinny jeans (black).
Converses (also black).
Checkered Scarves (mostly black and white, with a few daring individuals venturing into red territory).
The train was full of extremely similarly dressed youths, of which Merlin blended into seamlessly. He wondered if there was some sort of convention somewhere, or if an internet event was taking place in the carriage, like the world record for most people in a train carriage in skinny jeans eating lollipops (kind of weird, but hey, Guiness).
"I love the DriveThru, don't you?" the girl said around her lollipop. And now that he had been made aware, he noticed that she was also done up in converses, skinnies, and red and black checkered scarf around her neck. "I hope Penn gets his man. It's so romantic don't you think?"
Merlin nodded, confused but not willing to upset the locals with his ignorance. The Drivethru? Were Penn and Dusty doing a broadcast from the carriage or something? Before he could ask her to elaborate further the girl had already moved on.
"By the way, those are some fantastic blue contacts! Much better than mine. Where'd you get them from?"
By the time he had to get off at Castle station, he still hadn't convinced her that they were his actual eyes.
Merlin was bagging another scarf and another military jacket when he noticed something familiar-looking poking out of the customer's Hungry Hungry Hippos canvas bag.
"I've just finished reading that! Not as good as the original, but I'm really looking forward to Natalie Portman as Elizabeth," he said as he handed the customer his hands, smiling. "Enjoy the rest of your day!"
The customer sneered at Merlin, sniffed, then strode out of the store. Merlin's jaw dropped.
"What was that all about? I was just being nice!"
Freya stuck her head out of the break room and asked, "What's this about Natalie Portman? Is it that rubbish book you were reading aloud to us last week?"
While Freya and Gwen had been busy working on a new design (and thus communicating to him in grunts and monosyllables as they toiled over their fabrics and patterns) he had decided to read them Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
, because if he had to talk at them, there may as well be copious amounts of groaning zombies involved.
"I don't care about her Chinese lineage!" Freya had whined, taking in the pant leg of the coveralls closer to Merlins calf, again. "And stay still, or so help me I will prick you to death."
"That's what he said," Gwen had muttered on his other side.
When the girls were exhausted, Freya would start hurling abuse and Gwen began to make innuendos (bad ones, yes — but for Gwen to utter such filth was on par with that scene in Sense and Sensibility
, the one with the whole "oh my, he's touching her ankle, oh the indecency of it all!" stuff, which, by the way, he was forced to watch repeatedly while being in coverall prototypes at the girls' flat the night before. The horror, he could not have begun to explain).
"It's meant to represent another set of class distinctions," Merlin had begun to explain, but Freya had shushed him very loudly and Gwen had started to laugh uncontrollably at the word 'class'. The girls had worked well into the night, while he had planted face first in the cast off fabrics pile in front of Alan Rickman's face. Then the terror began anew when his shift had begun that afternoon. The girls entrusted Merlin with minding the till all by himself as they sequestered themselves in a sewing frenzy, holing up in the tea room and taking the biscuit tin hostage.
"I mean, it's absurdly popular at the moment. Loads of kids at uni are reading it," Merlin shouted from the register, frowning slightly. "What's his problem?"
Freya merely grunted, picking stray threads out of her hair. Then Gwen came out bearing the finished product (dark green coveralls with loops for a faux tool belt in orange and 'slave to the wage' stitched in cursive on the front, to be worn over a grey hooded t-shirt) and the incident was forgotten as the girls proceeded to spend the rest of his shift playing dress up with their favourite Ken doll (otherwise known as Merlin).
The problem with having a lot of time on your hands and living in the internet age was, sooner or later you was sure to became some sort of facebook stalker. Facebook was clearly managed by hell's minions, filled with temptation and mindless spamming and flash games that took too long to load. Temptation, in this instance, presented itself as the gorgeous display picture and several photo albums of one Arthur Pendragon, who,
1. Had blond hair
2. Was (sort of, it looked like) friends with Morgana
3. Had been that strange customer with a spot of reverse kleptomania
4. Was possibly outrageously rich and, most importantly,
5. Way, way out of his league (as in, it was not even possible to see the parking lot of the stadium from where he was standing).
And Merlin told Morgana so, when (for some inexplicable reason) she was blocking his way into his own bathroom.
He had come staggering home in the coveralls to see Lancelot and Leon parked on the sofa, four glasses of wine out on the coffee table (he loved that Lancelot was such a considerate soul). The two had been in an unusually chatty mood, asking him about his day, about his plans for the week, and if he were German, would he want to eat Paul the traitorous World Cup predicting octopus? Merlin had to beg off after that, wanting to wash his face of shop, and maybe change his clothes (they smelt a little of the pile of fabric in Freya and Gwen's sewing room, but mostly of shop), which led him to the bathroom that Morgana was unknowingly blocking him from. The beautiful woman stumbled a bit (must be the combination of stilettos and wine), bracing herself on the doorframe of his en suite.
"I know what you're doing Morgana." he said, slightly accusative.
Her voice wavered. "Y-You do?"
Merlin then remembered his manners and helped her back to the sofa, telling her sternly, "You can't set me up with your friends. And you might want to take it easy on the wine, it's only eight."
"Merlin! Wine loves me!" she admonished, gracefully oozing onto the sofa, pulling him down beside her. "What's this about then?"
"I have a horrible dating history," he lied. "Also I saw your photos on facebook and hyperventilated a tiny bit. Please don't match make me."
"How about we talk about this some more down at the pub?" Leon growled out, wringing his hands together meanfully. Right, no sitting close to Morgana then. Merlin inched away slowly.
"Yes, let's go down to the pub, Merlin. Call Gwen and Freya and ask them to come out too, we'll make a night of it," Lancelot added. Merlin narrowed his eyes at his roommate.
"Oh no, mate. We've got to have some words about that." Merlin would have continued, if not for Lancelot's guilty retreat to the kitchen with the wine glasses and Morgana's firm grip on his arm.
"No, none of that. It's Friday night, let's go out and have a drink," she urged.
"Yes, at the pub," Leon reiterated, standing up.
His unsteady trek home after being manhandled for two hours by Gwen and Freya (they obviously didn't learn to treat their toys with care growing up) made the idea of walking anywhere else, even to the pub, seem like far too much effort. Merlin gave them a tired smile. "Um, actually, if it's all right with you, would you mind if we stayed here? It's been a long day."
"Oh, well," Morgana and Leon looked at each other lustfully (their lust sort of resembled panic, but that wouldn't have made much sense so indeed, Merlin thought it must be lust).
"Sorry Merlin," Lancelot said, coming back from the kitchen. "There aren't any drinks left. We shouldn't be staying in like boring old sods on a Friday night anyway."
Merlin wasn't good at saying no, especially when being outweighed three to one. He heaved a sigh and got up. "Alright then, let me just wash my face and wake myself up."
"No!" Morgana and Leon shouted at him vehemently. Merlin sat down again immediately. He really didn't like it when both of them raised their voices at him.
"There's no need to do that Merlin," Morgana said soothingly, coaxing him to his feet. "And something's, er, broken in your bathroom anyway." She led him to the entrance way and pointedly looked at his shoes.
"Something's broken?" Merlin asked, confused as to why he was obediently slipping on his converses.
"Yes. The um—" Morgana began.
"Soap dispenser." Lancelot said helpfully.
"Right. Soap everywhere. Frothing up from underneath the door and everything. We just finished cleaning it up for you so, don't go in there right now." Leon said with finality.
Merlin frowned. He was sure he had fixed that soap dispenser after he'd tinkered with the Toast Launcher. Then again, that could easily have been the source of the new problem.
"Well, thank you," he said, looking down at his shoes. The click of Morgana's scarily high stilettos went past, as did the soft padding of Leon's brown leather loafers. There were a shiny pair of black dress shoes next to his Converse-clad feet. "New shoes Lance?"
His roommate paused, wriggling his sock clad toes. And then started to slip into them. "Yes, yes they are. Excellent observational skills Merlin."
"This is all nice and well folks, can we get a move on to the pub now please?" Morgana asked with a hint of impatience from the hallway outside. Merlin quickly took a step out, not wanting to get shouted at again. Lancelot was still putting on his shoes.
"Got your keys right Merlin? I'm just going to leave my keys right here. In the blue bowl next to the door," Lancelot yelled out, shutting the door in a needlessly violent fashion. Merlin wished Lancelot would treat their shared flat with more care. He would have told him so, but was too busy trying to get rid of the loud ringing noise in his ears caused by Lancelot's hollering and door slamming.
"Lance, I am right here
. Please don't shout at me." Merlin frowned, rubbing his ears with gloved hands. "More importantly, regarding your behaviour towards Gwen..." And he proceeded to chastise Lancelot on his way with the ladies, especially one who roomed with Freya, who was rather vocal about the almighty power of woman, the evil of strangers and the eviler evil of drug lords all the way to the pub.
"Up to your old tricks again I see. Just make sure the drinks go down your throat and not on someone's face, alright Merlin?" Heath told him, tilting his chin in the direction of Merlin's booth as he slid over the second jug of the night. His friends were all drinking hard, Leon and Morgana especially (they must have had trying days at their work, just like him). He slipped a fuzzy look of confusion at Heath, not bothering to respond to the cryptic remark, before carefully easing the tray into his hands. In all honesty, Merlin was getting to the stage past pleasant tipsiness, and he probably shouldn't be drinking any more unless he wanted to embarrass himself, or fall asleep at the pub.
Which is why, when next to Lancelot's gorgeous dark (could induce spontaneous bodice-ripping) hair he spotted a very broad back topped with a head of blond hair that was so fluffy it begged to be tousled through and mussed up (like messing up the fur of a dog. Merlin loved dogs, but his mam was allergic), he was only able to conjure up a wobbly pout to shoot at Morgana as he set the jug down.
Of course, the only spot left was the one next to Arthur Pendragon, his facebook stalkee.
No wonder Morgana didn't want him to stay home! She had already planned to set him up. He shot a betrayed look at Lancelot, who smiled weakly and poured Merlin a pint from the pot, sliding it in front of the empty seat. He puffed out his cheeks at his roommate. No more drinks, his arse!
Carefully, he sat himself down and exchanged a small smile with the blond man (and then a scowl at Lancelot). The man nodded regally back at him, which made him fumble to hide behind his beer. He took a large drink of it, sneaking a glance sideways in a way he hoped was really subtle. And yup, just as gorgeous as his facebook purported, no photoshop there. The black tee the blond wore was stretched tight over his broad chest, neck a tan expanse of skin as he took a drink. His were hands larger than Merlin's own around the glass, nails neat and trimmed. Merlin told himself he was only smearing the back of his hand over his mouth to get rid of the remnants of his beer.
Three pair of eyes looked at them expectantly. Morgana's sharp nails tapped out an impatient tattoo against the table top.
"Don't be a tit Arthur, introduce yourself to him!" Morgana hissed a moment latter, slapping the table loudly.
"Oh, um, actually. I sort of already know?" Merlin told his drink. There was a bit of spluttering around the table (everyone must be on the wrong side of sober, clearly) as Merlin hesitantly extended his hand and raised his eyes, mustering up a smile. "Hello Arthur, I'm Merlin. I've seen your name come up in Morgana's feed on Facebook."
He decided not to bring up their brief previous encounter, in case the other man didn't remember and thought he was weird for remembering that and possibly into him or something. Which, clearly, not possible, even if he had spent a good fifteen minutes clicking through the album titled 'Days on the Beach' (there was white sand wherever they had taken the photos, and Merlin had been entranced by the endless, glistening lean expanse of — um, white sand).
"Oh?" Arthur's voice was rather strangled. He shook Merlin's hand quickly, heating up his cold fingers for only an instant before letting go, and then rubbing the the hand on his jeans. Like being in contact with Merlin's hand was diseased or something (not that Merlin was at all hurt by the action, not at all). "S'a bit stalkerish init?"
Morgana and Leon glared at the blond, mouths gaping a little while Lancelot simply frowned.
Arthur's rather strong cockney accent rattled Merlin, as did his words. He slowly lowered his hand and quietly returned it to his drink, feeling himself flush (he hoped everyone would think it was from the beer).
"Arthur," Morgana ground out, warning. "This is why I don't take you anywhere."
"Talk about pot calling kettle." Leon shook his head sadly, taking a gulp of his beer.
Merlin rather appreciated their support, but in truth he did
feel like a stalker (in that facebook sense) so he simply averted his gaze and emptied the rest of his pint in small sips. As if in apology, Arthur took his glass and refilled it (either that or he simply didn't want Merlin to talk. But Merlin was an optimist).
"So," Merlin ventured, breaking the awkward silence that had descended on the table. "Going anywhere nice for the holidays?"
Conversation and drink flowed easily after that. Well, for everyone but Merlin. He had been ready to drop at the start of the night, and downing that last pint had definitely been a mistake. He let the hum of conversation relax him, leaning his head back into the squeaky cushioning of the booth for support. He felt himself blinking languidly as Morgana bitched at length about some miserable bint called Nim, Arthur pitching in to correct her here and there. Then the topic rounded to bitching about their week at work, Leon especially disgruntled about taking some calls from the media he found distasteful. Merlin could feel himself resting his eyes longer and longer between blinks, until finally he was gently jostled awake by his pillow moving beneath his cheek.
Merlin frowned slightly, kneading his face into the soft upholstery and nestling closer to the source of warmth. The pointed clearing of a throat jolted him all the way awake, neck snapping almost violently. Oh no,
he thought, mortification muffled through the haze of sleep. I fell asleep while my friends were talking to me.
Which was horrible, because he liked them a lot and didn't want them to think he fell asleep because he thought they were boring or anything like that. Except that when he opened his mouth to apologise, a yawn came out instead. He massaged the cheek that had been resting on the pillow, trying valiantly to wake up some more. As the throat clearing continued, Merlin sought out the source of the noise and found it to be emitting from Arthur Pendragon's tight-lipped mouth, as the blond pointedly rolled his shoulder and straightened his (rather distracting) form-fitting black tee. Oh dear,
Merlin thought despondently. That was obviously not happening.
Not that he thought anything would
happen, or had been hoping to make a good impression or anything like that. He also was not thinking about how nice and warm Arthur's shoulder had been, or the heat coming off of his side, or anything to do with the blond at all.
"Sorry Merlin," Morgana murmured, her face a guilty expression to his right. Poor Morgana, how was she to know Merlin was rubbish at this meeting attractive people thing?
Well, except Merlin did tell her.
"You really must have been tired. I shouldn't have made you come out."
"It's all right Morgana." He yawned again. "I'm a big boy."
"Time to go home Merlin," Lancelot said, getting up from his seat.
"Okay," he replied obediently, rubbing his eye of sleep with the heel of his left palm. First that stupidity from the previous week, and then the stupidity from tonight. He was more than ready to go home.
"See him home won't you Arthur?" Morgana ordered. "Us grown ups have to talk."
"Har har," Arthur said, mouth twisting. Lancelot set himself back down, a rueful smile on his face, shrugging his shoulders at Merlin. Coward.
"That's alright, don't trouble yourself, I'll be fine." Merlin fought down another yawn and stood up precariously.
"What'r'ya sayin', drunkard," Arthur sighed, steadying him with a hand on his arm. He put the other on the small of Merlin's back, the heat of it scorching through the fabric of the coveralls. "Come on then. See you lot later, yeah?"
Assent chorused from the three traitors, and they left the establishment. The bite of the cold outside woke Merlin up slightly, prompting him to wind his scarf over his neck a few more times.
"Um, thanks for this, it's really nice, um, you didn't have to." Thankfully, Merlin's teeth chattered, cutting off his blathering. Arthur still hadn't taken his hand away from Merlin's back, and it was the only place on his whole body that really felt warm. "Blimey it's cold."
"It wouldn't be so cold if you had more meat on your bones. You're incredibly bony," Arthur muttered. His palm pushed at Merlin's back, as if propelling him forward and away. Merlin stepped out of heated space around Arthur, stung. His rubbed his uncovered arms, uncomfortably aware of how gangly and spindly he was. He desperately sought for something to say, to change the subject.
"So, um, Pendragon? That's an interesting name," Merlin offered. "Sounds a bit familiar."
"Really?" Arthur said, drawling out the cockney so the word became five syllables instead of just two.
"Yeah, like, the Pendragon banks?"
Arthur sighed. "Oh yeah. S'my dad's. Hey, turning here." His skin seared where Arthur's arm came curling around his waist, catching Merlin as he stumbled at the abrupt movement.
"Oh right. Thanks." Merlin should have been leading the way since it was his home he was returning to, but of course he didn't, and now he looked absent-minded and
awkward. On top of that, in spite of the cold he was still on the verge of slumber. He had the sinking feeling that he was actually leaning closer and closer into Arthur's side. "So you work in a bank?"
"No, s'my dad." Arthur's voice had a hint of bemusement in it. "'N you work inna shop?"
"Um, yeah," Merlin mumbled. Arthur's hand had come to a comfortable rest on his hip, just on top of the bone. Merlin was decidedly not thinking about how nice it felt. "How'd you know that?"
"Well, M-Morgana told me." Arthur stuttered. He must have been feeling the cold too. "Anyway, can't be much good if you're goin' 'round like that."
Merlin suddenly felt wide awake.
"Y'know. Just lookit them things, ain't hardly gonna keep you warm now init? 'N they're ratty 'round the edges." Arthur said evenly, fiddling with one of the 'ratty' threads on the strap of Merlin's left shoulder with his free hand to make his point. Merlin felt a pool of heat curl up unpleasantly in his stomach. "You look so cold."
Well. That was definitely
that. Maybe he was bit lacking in the muscles department, and maybe his hair wasn't all nice and fluffy looking (or combed half the time), but there was not one thing wrong about anything that Gwen and Freya crafted.
Merlin shrugged both of Arthur's arms off of him. The hands hovered as Merlin stomped forwards a ways in front of the blond and whirled around to face him.
"You," Merlin glared, incensed. Arthur's blue eyes blinked at him, utterly perplexed and looking lost. "You are an incredibly rude arse
He stomped down hard on Arthur's trainers (didn't Lance have a pair like that?) and stalked off home, furious.
"Good song, Temper Trap's Sweet Disposition. Now, Penn was imparting some very interesting information during the break, which I think he should share to all the listeners, so out with it Penn."
"What? No! No, it wasn't interesting at all. Extremely dull and banal DriveThru fans, you wouldn't want to hear about it."
"Now now Penn. Documenting your exploits and all that. It's sharing time."
"Well, um... DriveThru fans, this may surprise you somewhat, but at times I can be a little... insensitive."
"Quiet Dust, I'm talking. Anyway DriveThru Fans, I might have... done something, in the realm of insensitivity. You see last night there was this guy—"
"BG. Bar Guy. Get with the times Penn."
"Uh huh. Anyway, last night, I may have quite possibly been slightly insensitive towards Bar Guy. Before you judge me though—"
"I'm always judging you."
"Before you judge me, can I just say that I wasn't completely to blame. I was completely distracted at the time."
"I don't like your tone Dusty."
"Pray tell us why you were— distracted then."
"Well, he was extremely unkempt."
"Unkempt. Really. What, are you OCD now?"
"No! I was just, his scarf was all frayed at the ends, and his coveralls had these loose threads hanging from them, and his hair was extremely fluffy!"
"So— you were distracted by his hair."
"Wha— No! No, I was like, it was the cat in me, alright. Bar Guy had, like dangling pieces of string! My feline instincts were fully focused on pouncing on those pieces of string."
"Are we going to get in trouble with the censors again?"
"Not like that you dirty slag, honestly. I was just — preoccupied. With the threads. I had to touch them, okay, it was a horrid compulsion."
"So basically, you were touching BG and his... threads."
"He made me do it!"
"Right. Something tells me he was unaware of your apparent feline heritage."
"So I'm a tactile person. That's not a crime is it? I like touching things. Let's open the lines, DriveThru Fans, call and tell us when you couldn't help but touch something."
"Yes, I'll give you Ellie Goulding's debut album Lights if your story involves some sort of hot appliance. Or, if you tell Penn this touching business of his has nothing to do with his feline ways or supposed tactile inclinations."
"That's unfair Dust. Certainly even you can attest to how very tactile I am."
"Please Penn. When was the last time you touched me without it being a manly pat on the shoulder or to cause me some form of physical pain?"
"Yes, well. That's because it's you. Only your mother's willing to touch you without incentive."
"That's not what your sister said last night."
"Oh, is that the time? Better get through another song before we get to your calls!"
Morgana started choking on her latte.
Merlin was immediately on his feet, patting her soothingly on the back. Morgana waved away his concern with a hacking cough and, with only a smidgen less grace than usual, accepted a napkin from a nervous looking waiter.
"Went down the wrong way?" Merlin said sympathetically.
"Um yes," Morgana wheezed, rubbing her throat. Merlin cautiously returned to his seat, and not because he was waiting for Morgana to go off on another coughing fit, but because sitting down meant more talking (read: interrogating). Earlier that day, Morgana had stormed in, automatic doors receding in her wake, and demanded Merlin accompany her on his tea break (why Morgana didn't have better things to do on a Monday was a question burning Merlin up inside, but he was hardly game enough to question her about it).
She soon schooled herself into her normal dignified visage, and picked up her teacup nonchalantly.
"Can't believe they're letting such indecency be put on the air for public consumption," Morgana said steadily. "I suppose you don't listen to it."
"Um..." Merlin bought some time sipping at his own drink. He was afraid to give the wrong response. Though, while being grilled by Morgana, everything was basically the wrong answer wasn't it?
"I do sometimes. Not much lately though." Because I am riddled with the shame of my outrageous conceit
, he didn't say.
"Can't blame you," Morgana said, sniffing daintily. "That Penn character is obviously a straight jacket shy of an insane asylum."
Merlin cleared his throat, eyes shifting. "You don't think it's... romantic?" Then hurriedly waved his hands about. "Not that, I mean, it's just what all the girls are saying. On the street."
"Merlin." Morgana elegantly laced her fingers together, resting her elbows on the table and leaned forward, gazing at him intently. "You think it's romantic? Being courted in public, pictures printed in the paper, being hounded by the press, people saying what they damn well please without consideration for anyone's feelings at all?"
Merlin stared, a little incredulously. He wanted to point out that none of what Morgana had listed had actually happened, but she had sounded so profoundly bitter, her fingers twitching and back stiff, lips pressed firmly together and eyes still alarmingly intent on Merlin's own that he decided against it.
"That's the horrible thing about fame these days," Morgana said breezily, as if she had not just pinned Merlin to his seat with her gaze, finally leaning into the backrest of her chair. "Nobody is newsworthy unless they've been caught cheating on their wife or been in an adult video."
Merlin chuckled uneasily, feeling a bit like Godzilla had picked him up and shook him around while happily smashing Tokyo under his dinosaur feet. He didn't know that much about Morgana yet, but he had never seen her look so resentful, and then so resigned. It made him want to shoot toast at whoever could have done that to her. Instead, he searched for something to say to bring Morgana back out of her bad memories.
"I don't know, I think it's a bit amazing actually. The whole Penn business I mean," Merlin said hurriedly, nervously twisting his teacup in his hand. "I mean, just look." He gestured out the window. Half the people walking by were dressed just like the people on his train ride back from Ealdor. "You could look at it like, I don't know, people following a fad I guess, but." Merlin shrugged. "It's inspiring, That this many people care about— are touched by this ridiculous Bar Guy business that they've written it all over their clothes. It's like, they're supporting Penn with their whole being or something. And he's really— I think he's really brave. He's putting himself out there in the public domain, without caring what everyone thinks. It's pretty... incredible..."
Merlin trailed off, completely embarrassed. He'd just gone off on a long spiel that Morgana probably didn't care about. He didn't dare look at her in the face, feeling the flush spread through his entire body as he stirred the remnants of his tea into a whirlpool.
After the most agonising moment of Merlin's life, Morgana finally responded.
Her voice was stern, her face like stone. Merlin waited for her swift judgement on his outdated/obviously-from-the-country naive way of thinking, when her face broke out in a cheerful smirk.
"You my dear, are far," she repeated with more emphasis, "far
too good for my brother."
Merlin blinked, smiling hesitantly.
Merlin returned from his tea break with Morgana in a much better mood than when he left.
That all sort of came crashing down when Freya and Gwen beamed at him from the counter, holding a box of Truly Awful Things, smiling and batting their eyelashes doefully.
"Girls," he sighed at them, resigned, letting them have at him. "You do realise I'm
not a girl right?"
"Oh Merlin, stop being such a grouch," Freya demanded, stepping back and eyeing his hair and wrists critically. "Gwen, I think we'll need to put a thicker belt over the skirt."
"You said it wasn't a skirt!" Merlin protested at her retreating back. Gwen smiled at him, blatantly unsympathetic.
"It's not," she lied. "And you look fetching."
"All the boys will come to the yard," Freya cackled delightedly, brandishing another belt. She cinched it loosely over his hips (serves her right if it falls down, Merlin thought unkindly. His hips certainly weren't able to stop its descent if the belt was keen on meeting up with the floor). After Gwen and Freya hmmed and hawed for a few more minutes, they declared him fit for work and went on their evil, giggly way to the tea room, leaving him with express orders to stand in the front of the shop where he was clearly visible through the windows.
After which, of course, Arthur Pendragon decided to come in.
Merlin couldn't help pursing his lips. "Welcome," he ground out. "I'll be with you in a minute sir," and turned his back to the blond arse pointedly, returning to his conversation with his customer about their coveralls actually being out of stock at the moment, just missed it by half a day, but they should be back in stock by Wednesday and if they'd like to leave their details he would contact them straight away when they got in.
When he had drawn out the conversation for as long as he was able, Merlin steeled himself, trying to remember all the nice things Morgana had told him about Arthur being contrite and apologetic about his behaviour the night he'd sort of walked Merlin home.
("He came home in a huff and sulked in a corner all night." Morgana had howled in laughter.
"You live with him?" Merlin had asked curiously.
"Our parents had an extremely messy divorce." Morgana had shrugged, as though it explained everything. It really didn't.)
"Can I help you sir?" Merlin smiled stiffly, as the blond man stared blankly at him. "I'll need to remind you that exchanges and returns are not possible after seven days from the initial date of purchase."
Arthur flinched, then tossed back defiantly, "Merlin, r'ya such a giant girl ya feel you hafta announce it wi' a pink headband 'n a jingly charm bracelet? Not that tha skirt ain't a dead giveaway."
Merlin refused to give Arthur the satisfaction of seeing him hurt or angry. "If you need any help I'll be over there," he said, and walked determinedly over to the women's section, hanging up new dresses in the space where the coveralls had been. He focused very carefully on each item, making sure the folds were draping just so, and was definitely not aware of Morgana's (step? Half? Half adopted? Their family tree was very confusing without a flow chart) brother stalking around the store before coming to stand next to him five minutes later, eyes downcast.
"...I shouldn' 'a said that," Arthur said mulishly. Merlin felt the situation not unlike being in primary school, but unable to stop himself.
"Why not?" he bit out. "You've made it quite clear you don't think much of how I look, how I dress, or how I work for a store that isn't any good except to buy things from on a whim."
!" Came the outraged hiss from Freya. Gwen, being observant and a great believer in pacifism, led Freya back into the tea room and shut the door behind them.
"I didn' mean it the way it came out!" Arthur insisted. "Honest. I jus' had a bit ta drink 'n it came out all wrong." A pause. "'N just now I was all embarrassed 'cause I got made."
Merlin cursed his inherent niceness and turned to face Arthur properly. The blond took this as a reconciliatory gesture and smiled at him earnestly, extending his arm to rest his hand on Merlin's shoulder, squeezing. "I didn' think ya remembered really."
Merlin turned away slightly, smoothing out the next dress and biting his lip. "You're still rude."
He shrugged, chuckling. The sound sent a jolt of heat straight to Merlin's stomach. "Yeah. M'sorry," Arthur said, sounding much more sincere this time. Merlin told himself that was the reason why he was conceding, nothing to do with how Arthur had slid his hesitant, warm palm to his back, underneath his left shoulder blade.
"Alright. Apology accepted." He gave the blond a shy smile, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. Arthur smiled at him even more brightly, red mouth revealing white teeth, and Merlin fumbled with the next dress out of the box. He rescued it and stared intently at the hanger, making sure it met the rack safely. "So, how did you know where I worked anyway? Morgana?"
"...Yeah." Arthur said after a pause. "'N speakin' a work, I hafta leave but, I wanted ta come in 'n see ya—"
Merlin flushed. Arthur had probably not meant anything by that. He told his heart to stop skipping beats when it had no business doing anything of the sort.
"—'N to give ya this, as 'n apology." Here, Arthur reached his free hand into the deep pocket of his coat, and pulled out long, silver scarf, covered in blue fleur de lis monograms. It looked insanely expensive.
"I can't take that Arthur, the apology was enough." Merlin protested, hands flying up and waving about. Arthur simply unwound Merlin's current scarf and slid the cool, expensive fabric in its place. Merlin couldn't help the involuntary shudder as the cold cloth rubbed against his neck. He was horribly red, he could feel it.
"Doesn't go with the pink headband," Arthur murmured, breath ghosting Merlin's flushing cheeks. "But it matches your eyes."
Merlin was still too stunned with surprise to respond to Arthur's cheery farewell a minute later, could only watch as the blond left the store with a spring in his step and a curl to his mouth. He figured out how to close his gaping mouth a moment later, and came to his senses, noting he was rubbing the scarf between the pad of his thumb and forefinger. Arthur had been so close to Merlin's mouth, he had been sure...
A wolf whistle sounded low from beside him.
"That man is incredibly smooth," Gwen declared, impressed.
"That man is incredibly rude, you mean," Freya muttered from his other side. "Was he insulting the shop Merlin? And he took your scarf as well!"
He looked around him, slightly dazed, and he realised she was right. Why did Arthur do that? What was this scarf made of anyway? What kind of work necessitates leaving at three in the afternoon? Is rudeness somehow cancelled out by charm? Questions spun around dizzily in his mind, the utmost one being: why the hell hadn't he asked for a phone number?
What actually came out was:
"Where did you learn to whistle like that Gwen?"
Well, it had
been very impressive.