Tuna was looking up at Arthur with a threatening glare, but Arthur refused to loosen his grip on her. He needed her. She was his only source of comfort. She was also his motivation for leaving his house for the first time in two months.
Morgana usually did his shopping for him. She did it begrudgingly, but she did it nonetheless. She bought his food, his shampoo and toilet rolls, and fresh litter. But on her most recent trip, she had forgotten cat food. And then she'd promptly set off for the airport to go to Italy with her boyfriend.
Thoughts of Morgana's trip to Italy were enough to make Arthur's grip on Tuna lethal. She was dating Leon, one of Arthur's oldest friends, and Leon was going to propose on their holiday. Arthur had helped Leon pick out the ring - on the internet, of course. And Arthur had promised Leon that he would be the best man, which also meant promising to see a therapist so that he could leave his flat for things like tuxedo fittings and rehearsal dinners without collapsing in a fit of blind panic.
He had already made an appointment. He had also already come up with at least a dozen different reasons not to go and two dozen different excuses he could give to Leon to explain why he hadn't gone.
But this was different. Tuna needed food. She couldn't live off water and table scraps. And Arthur was her owner and she depended on him for stuff like this - stuff like fresh water and plenty of food and a clean litter box. If he didn't get up and go outside and buy her food, she would starve.
Arthur couldn't let his cat starve.
"Okay," he said bracingly. He lifted Tuna off his lap and set down on the floor. She immediately jumped back up onto the couch and curled up against the arm rest. "Oh, sure," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "You'll cuddle with a cushion, but not with me. Maybe I will let you starve."
Tuna just closed her eyes and rested her head gently on her front paws. She was a picture of innocence and sweetness. Arthur sighed and leaned down to pet her ears one last time.
"Wish me luck," he whispered. Tuna just purred contentedly.
"Okay," he said again, straightening back up and moving toward the door. "Wallet, check. Shoes, check. Keys, check. Mobile, check. Um." He glanced around his flat, trying to find anything he had forgotten, anything that could delay his departure, or maybe cancel it all together.
All he saw was Tuna curled up on the couch.
"Off we go, then," he muttered, opening his front door and stepping out onto his front step.
But that was okay. He had been out here plenty of times - to open the door for Morgana and Leon or to accept pizza deliveries. His front step was no problem.
He closed the door quickly, before he could escape back inside. He locked it and checked the doorknob twice, then turned to face the street. There was the usual flower cart opposite his house, and the cafe next door had put tables outside so people could enjoy the summer weather while they ate.
Arthur took a deep breath and tried not to think about how hard and fast his heart was pounding, or how his stomach was churning in a way that suggested he should head for the nearest toilet instead of the nearest shop, or how his whole body was screaming "RUN." He ignored all those things and stepped down onto the pavement.
He could barely breathe - he could barely think - but his feet moved him toward the shop around the corner. His gait felt jerky and awkward and he was sure that everyone was looking at him. He clenched his fists against the burning sensation of dozens of eyes on him, staring and judging and mocking.
The only thing that let him make it all the way to the shop was the steady litany of "fuck you, fuck you, fuck you," running through his head. This was his neighborhood too and he had every right to walk to the shop around the corner if he felt like it, even if he hadn't done so in over two months and even if he walked like some sort of weird zombie Frankenstein.
The shop was too brightly lit and had dry, almost stale air. But it had empty aisles and Arthur ducked into the first one he came across. Of course, he found himself staring at tampons, but he couldn't bring himself to care. He needed a moment, a moment to breathe and relax and remember why he had come here in the first place. His cat was depending on him. All he had to do was buy the cat food, pay for it, and go back home. The whole trip should take less than 10 minutes, less than 5 actually, but it already felt like an hour had passed since he had left his house.
He was exhausted. All he had done was walked around the corner, but he felt like he had just run a marathon. His body was weak and his heart was still working in double-time and all he really wanted to do was sit down - preferably back on his own couch.
But before he could go back home to sit on his couch, he had to buy cat food. And, maybe, if he happened across them, his favorite cookies. Morgana hadn't bought them, even though they had been the first thing on the list he'd given her. He knew why she hadn't bought them - it wasn't like he got in much exercise to work off the extra fat and calories - but he still wanted them. Besides, he deserved a reward for what he was doing. He hadn't been able to leave his house in two months and he honestly felt like he should get some sort of treat for making it into the shop at all. He could have given up halfway and turned back, but he hadn't. He had made it all the way to the tampon aisle, and for that he was going to buy himself cookies.
Slowly, Arthur made his way down the aisle to the back of the shop, where he could see all the signs for what products were where. Pet food was all the way on the other side of the shop. Arthur headed toward it, focused only on how delicious the cookies would be after such a stressful ordeal.
Arthur checked his mobile as he made his way across the shop. No one had called. No one had sent a text. The only two people who made regular contact with him were out of the country. They were on holiday, enjoying the sun and the foreign architecture and the good food. They were off being well-adjusted individuals doing what well-adjusted individuals did. They were off leading normal lives, leaving Arthur to fend for himself - and for Tuna.
An old lady with poor control of her trolley almost ran into Arthur - almost ran over Arthur, really - and he had to take refuge in the baby food aisle until his heart descended from his throat.
He put his mobile away and closed his eyes to take a few deep breaths. If he had to deal with one more person on this trip, he was going to have a full-blown panic attack. And that meant lots of tears and hyperventilating and, if it got really bad, vomiting all over the tiled floor. He was already sweating far more than he should have been, considering how much cold air was being blasted through the shop's air conditioning.
"Fuck it," he muttered, peering around the edge of the baby food aisle. He was just going to have to power through it - he would speed walk to the pet food, grab everything he could carry, pay at the self service till, and get the hell home.
Making sure that he was well out of the way of any wayward trolleys, Arthur hurried along the back of the shop until he reached the pet food aisle. It was gloriously free of people. He grabbed two bags of dry food, several cans of wet food, and then sped toward the front of the shop.
Arthur stumbled back against some shelves and stopped breathing. He clutched the cat food to his chest and clenched his eyes shut, willing himself not to cry and not to hurl all over the man who had just walked into him.
"I'm sorry," the man said quickly. "So sorry. I wasn't looking."
Arthur said nothing, just opened his mouth to suck in as much air as he could. His throat felt like it was closing up and he was pretty sure his legs were about to give out. The muscles in his thighs were trembling and it was spreading to his arms. He slid shakily down the shelves until he could sit on the floor, the cat food still pressed tightly to his chest.
"Are you hurt?" the man asked anxiously.
Arthur shook his head, his eyes still squeezed shut. They were burning with unshed tears but he wasn't going to cry on the floor of the local shop in front of a stranger.
He tried to speak, to ask the man to just go away and leave him alone to collect himself, but all that came out was a strangled noise.
"You're shaking like a leaf," the man said as Arthur started gasping and panting.
Arthur let go of the cat food and leaned back against the shelves, stretching his neck up and trying to remember how to breathe properly.
"Jesus," the man muttered. Arthur heard and felt the man kneeling next to him and he want to scream, but couldn't. "Just - yeah, just breathe," the man said. His voice was tense and worried and Arthur wanted to sink into the shelf and disappear.
"I'm fine," he choked out, his words harsh and broken.
Arthur felt the man's hand on his arm and he tried to move, to jerk away, but he was frozen in place, shaking and barely able to breathe.
"Is he on drugs?" someone asked in a bored voice.
"No," the man said quickly, tightening his grip on Arthur's arm. "He's fine, we just need a minute."
"Are you sure?" the bored voice asked. "I can call the police."
"We don't need the police," the man insisted. "I told you, we just need a minute."
After that, there was silence. Arthur managed to take in a long breath through his nose, which allowed him to relax enough to shake off the man's hand.
"Sorry," the man said gently. "Are you all right?"
Arthur just nodded and continued focusing on breathing. His throat was loosening up, which would have been good if it weren't for the fact that it meant that tears started streaming out of his closed eyes.
"Shit," he whispered, wiping his eyes quickly. "Shit, I'm so sorry."
"You're sorry? I'm the one who should be sorry."
Arthur shook his head and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. "Not your fault," he muttered. He sighed and closed his eyes again. He had been exhausted before but now he was downright drained. He could easily fall asleep right where he was.
"You're, um... you're not on drugs, right?"
Arthur shook his head. "No. I'm not on drugs. I just have, um... a bit of an anxiety problem."
"Well, I'm sorry I walked into you. I wasn't exactly paying attention."
"It's fine. I wasn't either." Arthur opened his eyes, wiped them one last time, and then looked at the man. He had short black hair and cheekbones the likes of which Arthur had never seen before and - Arthur almost stopped breathing again - delicate and kind blue eyes. The man was searching Arthur's face, checking that Arthur was all right and breathing properly and not dying of panic. All Arthur could think about were those eyes. He couldn't even tell if they were dark blue or light blue - they seemed to change every time he decided. But the exact shade of blue didn't matter because their expression was so gentle and concerned and beautiful.
The man's brow furrowed and Arthur blinked and looked away.
"Sorry," he muttered. "Um. Yeah, sorry."
"You can stop apologising," the man said quietly.
Arthur nodded and shifted up on his knees. "I should... get home."
The man nodded and jumped to his feet, then pulled Arthur up.
"I'm Merlin, by the way," he said, holding out his hand.
Arthur shook it. "Arthur. Um. Thanks for... sitting with me," he mumbled, then leaned down to pick up the cat food he had dropped.
"It's no problem. My best mate from back home gets panic attacks, so..."
Arthur nodded and glanced toward the front of the shop. He really didn't want to leave the pet food aisle and risk bumping into - or even talking to - any more people. But he wanted to go home - he didn't even want to bother finding the cookies anymore.
"What's your cat's name?" Merlin asked, casually putting his hand on Arthur's back and guiding him out of the aisle.
"Tuna," Arthur said, trying not to look or sound as pathetic as he felt.
Merlin laughed. "Tuna? Really?"
"Yeah. I don't really know what I was thinking when I named her, but... I've never come up with anything better."
"How long have you had her?"
"A few years. Um - six. Yeah, six years."
"What colour is she?" Merlin asked as they reached the self service tills.
"Grey. Um. Don't you have shopping to do, or..." he trailed off as he set down all the cat food, embarrassed that Merlin felt the need to escort him around.
"Just this," Merlin said, holding up a tiny package that Arthur hadn't noticed him holding.
"Birthday candles?" he asked blankly.
Merlin smiled. "Yeah. My friends are hosting a birthday picnic for me, but they forgot candles. Texted me to pick some up on my way over. I mean, I guess I can't complain, since they're having a whole picnic for me. Still, it's sort of silly buying your own birthday candles, isn't it?"
Arthur turned away and started scanning his cat food items and dropping them into plastic bags. "It's your birthday?"
Merlin smiled and rubbed Arthur's back gently. "Yeah."
"Well. Let me buy them for you."
"What?" Merlin asked blankly.
"The candles." Arthur reached out and took them out of Merlin's hand. "As a present. And a thank you."
"You don't have to," Merlin said, trying to take them back.
Arthur scanned them before Merlin could snatch them away, then dropped them into a bag. "It's no problem, really. Happy birthday."
"Thanks," Merlin said softly. "You didn't have to do that."
"They're just candles." Arthur paid and then pulled them back out of the bag. "Here. Happy Birthday."
Merlin just stood there, one hand still on Arthur's back and the other hanging at his side.
"What?" Arthur asked, feeling his heart stutter back into alarm.
"Are you all right to get home?" Merlin asked gently.
"Of course I am," Arthur said quickly, feeling his face heat up. "I'm just around the corner."
Merlin grinned widely. "I'll walk you, then."
"You don't have to," Arthur protested, shoving the candles into Merlin's hand. "Really."
"I want to," Merlin insisted.
He lifted his hand off Arthur's back and Arthur frowned slightly at the loss of contact. It had been nice. And comforting.
But then Merlin used that hand to press the birthday candles back into Arthur's hand.
"You hold onto them," he said, wrapping his fingers around Arthur's hand and not letting go.
Arthur stared down at their hands, taken aback.
"Is this okay?" Merlin asked, sounding unsure for the first time.
Arthur found himself nodding and adjusting his hand so that the birthday candles rested comfortably between their palms and their thumbs overlapped.
Merlin smiled at him, then started heading for the door. Arthur followed, cat food in one hand and Merlin in the other. Once they were outside, Arthur tugged Merlin in the direction of his house.
There seemed to be less people outside than there had been on his way to the shop. He could feel less eyes on him, in any case. And he wasn't chanting "fuck you" in his head. Instead, he was thinking about the way Merlin's thumb kept brushing his own, and how Merlin's fingers were playing with his knuckles.
"This is me," he said when they reached his front step. Reluctantly, he pulled his hand out of Merlin's to fish the key out of his pocket. "Are you late for your picnic?" he asked, pushing the door open.
"No, I've got time."
Merlin followed Arthur inside and into the kitchen. There, Arthur crouched down to fill up Tuna's bowl with food. He stayed on the floor until Tuna ran in, then scratched her behind the ears as she started eating.
"You seem much more relaxed here," Merlin said as Arthur stood back up.
Arthur nodded and unpacked the rest of the food. "Do you have the candles?"
"In my pocket."
Arthur scratched his arm nervously. "Do you have to go?"
Merlin shrugged and stepped closer so that their shoes were touching. "It's my birthday picnic. I can be late if I want."
Arthur smiled and forced himself to look up into Merlin's kind eyes. "You're like... weirdly nice."
Merlin laughed. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"I mean it as one," Arthur said, blushing. "I don't know if I've ever met anyone like you before."
"You don't know any nice people?" Merlin teased.
"Not anyone so nice that they would help a random distressed stranger in the pet food aisle, no."
"Well, it was my fault you were so distressed in the first place," Merlin said quietly. "Plus, I liked you hair."
Arthur smiled awkwardly. "What?"
"Your hair," Merlin said, leaning forward. Arthur licked his lips. "I like it."
"Can I come over and cook for you sometime?"
Arthur blinked in surprise. "What?"
"Well, I was going to ask you out to dinner, but then I figured that a date might be more fun for you if it's here, instead. And I wouldn't want to insist that you cook for me, and ordering pizza isn't very romantic. So. Can I come over and cook for you sometime?"
Arthur couldn't help but smile. His pulse was picking up and he was getting hot all over and his palms were sweaty - but he wasn't panicking. He was excited.
"Can I?" Merlin asked, nudging Arthur's nose with his own.
"Yes," Arthur said quickly. "Yes."
"Good." Merlin licked his lips and nudged Arthur's nose again. "Can I kiss you?"
"Yes," Arthur said, grinning.
"Good." Merlin paused and Arthur's heart skipped a beat - and then he pressed their lips together.
Before Arthur could properly respond, Merlin's pocket vibrated.
"Damn," he said, stepping back and pulling out his mobile. "I guess I should go."
"All Right," Arthur said, trying not to sound too disappointed. "Should I give you my number?"
Merlin nodded and typed the numbers into his mobile as Arthur recited them.
"Okay," he said, pocketing his mobile again. "I'll call you about that dinner."
"Good. Have fun. Happy Birthday."
Merlin grinned and moved in for one more swift kiss, and then he was gone.