Merlin is an anxious person.
He gets anxious about asking for a ticket at the train station, about making a deposit at the bank, about ordering a drink in a bar. He gets anxious when someone looks at him funny on public transport, or when groups of people laugh as he walks by, or anytime anyone tries to talk to him on the street. He gets anxious with his friends and anxious with his neighbours and even anxious with his own family.
His mum called him shy when he was little. His friends at school did too, and reassured him he’d grow out of it. You’ll come into your own at secondary school, they said. Then, you’ll come into your own at university. Then, you’ll come into your own in the world of work.
Merlin never came into his own where shyness was concerned. And it became obvious that shy was far too gentle a word for the crippling nerves he felt during most social interactions.
It’s not just social. He worries about getting ill a lot. That he’s got some horrible disease that’s already ravaging his body, and by the time he discovers what’s wrong it’ll be far too late. He thinks about his mum dying a lot too. He texts her three or four times a day, and calls most evenings just to hear her voice. She knows what he’s doing but she’s kind enough not to bring it up directly. Just tells him about her day in her calm, reassuring voice until the knot in his stomach has loosened a little.
The fear always comes back though, when he’s lying in bed alone at night and a hundred worse case scenarios are marching through his head. What if she gets cancer? Or some degenerative disease? What if she drops dead of a stroke? It happened to Will’s dad five years ago, and he was healthy as a horse. What if she gets Alzheimer’s and can’t remember who Merlin is? She forgot the name for the kettle last week, and he’s sure she loses things more than she used to. What if it’s already happening? Will he have to move back home to take care of her and watch her fade away before his eyes?
Some nights, Merlin drives himself to tears with thoughts like this. Occasionally he’s even so wound up that he has to vomit. His stomach hurts all the time, and it’s hard to eat anything at all without making it worse. Eventually it gets so bad he goes back to the doctors. They change his anxiety meds again, and give him all the usual warnings. One a day, keep an eye out for unusual side effects, don’t drink any alcohol.
He intends to obey. He’s not big on alcohol anyway; not since university when it became too much of a convenient crutch at parties and social gatherings. The killer hangovers the next day weren’t worth it and he eventually just stopped accepting the invitations to go out altogether. Easier that way.
But he can’t turn down the invitation to the Friday night office drinks. He only started at the company three months ago and he’s made excuses every single week so far. This time Gwen spends the whole day working on him, and she’s the one person that even he can’t feel nervous around, so he ends up agreeing to stay for one drink.
He intends to get an orange juice but someone includes him in their round in an act of mistaken largess, and he gets stuck with a bottle of Peroni. He doesn’t want to drink it but what if someone noticed? And got angry that he was wasting a drink bought for him? And yelled at him, or made some horrible cutting comment that everybody heard and agreed with?
None of his imaginings are likely but it doesn’t stop them being scary so he sips away, and takes the next one offered to him as well. It’s fine for a bit, Gwen’s beside him chatting a mile a minute, and he manages to throw in the odd comment as a contribution. But then Elena comes and pulls her away to dance and he’s left standing alone at his table. He gazes at his beer, trying to stop a flush creeping up his face, wondering if everyone is staring at the idiot left on his own. He knows that a few of his colleagues are at the bar, and a couple more on tables behind him, he could just walk up and join them. It wouldn’t be a big deal; no-one would think it odd behaviour.
Yet the mere thought of it sends panic shooting through him, and his chest gets tight. He can’t just walk up and interrupt someone’s conversation. What if they all glare at him? What if they ask who he is? He hasn’t talked to many people in the company yet, he’s not sure anyone outside of Gwen even knows his name.
He can’t do it. He gulps at his beer instead, trying to work up the courage to slip out of the door and go home. The exit’s all the way across the room though, what if someone sees him go? And he’ll have to say goodbye to Gwen or she’ll think he’s unforgivably rude…
A cheer goes up and he turns to see Elena has ordered a huge round of Jägerbombs. Someone plunks one down in front of him and he necks it before he can think it through, hoping for that old familiar numbing effect that alcohol lent him in his Fresher days.
It doesn’t work. Instead of calming him down, he can feel his heartrate getting faster. He clenches his fists and tries to focus but it doesn’t really seem to work.
He hears voices singing behind him and he glances back to see Arthur Pendragon and Mordred from Accounting are belting out some old power ballad, eyes alight with laughter. The sight only panics him more. Arthur always makes him nervous, he’s Merlin’s line manager and swings by his cubicle occasionally to check how he’s “settling in.” Merlin has to admit that Arthur’s been nothing but pleasant to him generally, but he’s the type that likes to tease and banter. Merlin wants to be that type too, so much, but the words get stuck in his throat and he can't respond with a quip of his own. Arthur doesn’t make a big deal out of it but Merlin still feels ashamed.
If he was a different person, he could impress a guy like that. If he could even vocalise one third of the interesting or funny thoughts that come into his head, Merlin might stand a chance. But he can’t. He can barely speak around Arthur. It’s pathetic.
Mordred makes him nervous in a different way. There’s always this little half-smile on his face that makes Merlin think Mordred’s laughing at him. Gwen says he’s a nice guy, but Merlin’s sure that Mordred thinks he’s an idiot.
He’s staring a little, then Arthur looks up and catches his eye and Merlin immediately turns back round, face burning.
It’s only ten seconds later that he feels a tap on his shoulder.
“Merlin, mate,” Arthur says cheerily. “Come join us.”
Merlin’s mouth is too dry to reply but Arthur doesn’t seem offended.
“I’m off duty as your boss, I promise. Ask Mord.”
“You were never my boss in the first place,” Mordred chirps from behind them and Arthur flips him the bird.
“Yeah, yeah. Come save me from this idiot, Merlin.”
Merlin nods mutely and allows Arthur to steer him back to their table.
Arthur and Mordred resume their chatter right away but Merlin’s mind has gone completely blank. He can’t think of a damn thing to say and he fists his hands together under the table, willing himself to just act like a normal human being for once in his life.
Arthur’s talking about the new Star Wars movie.
“You’re a fan, aren’t you Merlin? I’ve seen that Yoda mug on your desk.”
Merlin opens his mouth to confirm but Mordred gets in first.
“Ugh, I hate Yoda. So annoying.”
Merlin’s mouth snaps shut. Is that a dig at him? It couldn’t be anything else, could it? He risks a glance at Mordred, who’s sipping at his beer. Is he smiling a bit? Is he deliberately trying to humiliate Merlin?
“Yoda’s not annoying!” Arthur says indignantly. “You’re thinking of Jar Jar Binks. Yoda’s just a kindly old soul with a slightly odd speech impediment.”
“I like Chewy better.”
“I like Han Solo,” Arthur declares and Mordred snorts.
“That’s because you think you are him.”
“Roguish, handsome, charming? Perish the thought,” Arthur says, draining his drink. “Who’s your favourite, Merlin?”
Merlin clears his throat.
“Lando,” he whispers, and has to repeat it twice before Arthur can hear him.
“A fine choice,” Arthur says, clapping him on the back, but Merlin’s distracted. Is Mordred rolling his eyes?
“Shots!” a voice rings out and Elena appears beside them with a tray.
“Christ Elena, are you trying to get everyone battered?” Arthur says jovially.
“Morgana gave me the company card,” Elena smirks. “She said you needed a few drinks to loosen you up.”
“He’s not the only one,” Mordred says and Merlin’s head snaps round.
That was definitely a dig at him. Unmistakeably.
Merlin doesn’t think twice before downing the shot Elena offers him. He’s not boring, he’s not. He’ll show Mordred. He can loosen up like anyone else.
It’s barely ten minutes before he realises his mistake. His extremities have gone slightly numb and his hands are shaking. His stomach feels like someone’s stirring it up with a spoon and his heart is pounding worse than ever.
He has to get out of here before he makes an even bigger fool of himself.
“Are you alright, mate?” Arthur says, a note of concern in his voice. Merlin’s aware that he’s probably gone pale, that the sweat on his brow is visible even in the dim light of the pub.
“Yes,” he chokes out. “Just gotta… some air…”
He gets to his feet and immediately stumbles. Arthur’s suddenly standing behind him and Merlin bats his hands away, beyond embarrassed. He just has to make it to the door, just get outside and he’ll be fine…
He manages to stagger across the room, ignoring the cheery greetings of his colleagues on the dancefloor. But his luck only holds out so far, and he’s barely made it two steps out onto the pavement before he bends over and throws up everywhere.
He thinks it can't get any worse until he feels a warm hand on his back.
“Are you okay?”
It’s Arthur. Arthur’s followed him out and he’s seen everything. And when he glances beyond him, Mordred’s stood there too.
Merlin wants to die. This is the most humiliating experience of his entire life. He can never look either of them in the eye again. He’s not even sure if he can show his face at work when word about this gets out.
He hates being the centre of attention at any time, but for something like this…
He can’t bear it.
Arthur’s still looking at him, waiting for a response, so Merlin nods.
“Fine. Gonna… gonna go home,” he says shakily, and makes to walk away. A hand on his arm stops him.
“Wait, Merlin, sit down for a second.”
“Don’t need to,” Merlin mumbles, eyes fixed firmly on the floor.
“You were sick,” Arthur points out. “And I don’t think you’ve had time to get that drunk so… you might need medical attention.”
“No,” Merlin says quickly, eyes darting up. “I just… I’m on some medication and I shouldn’t have been drinking with it and…”
Arthur’s eyes soften.
“Anti-depressants?” he says and Merlin’s completely shocked that Arthur’s mind would go straight there. Is it that obvious what a mess he is?
He’s surprised enough to tell the truth.
“Anti-anxiety meds,” he rasps and Arthur nods.
“Okay. Are you still feeling bad? Do you need to go to A&E?”
The whirling in Merlin’s stomach has stopped and his heartrate’s nearer normal than before. This conversation is causing its own set of nervous reactions but Merlin doesn’t feel as sick as he did a minute ago.
“No,” he says honestly.
Arthur gives him an assessing look.
“Alright. Sit down,” he says, gesturing to a bench a few paces away. “I’m getting you some water.”
Merlin obeys. He feels like he’s in some horrible nightmare and maybe if he just cooperates, everything will be alright…
A figure sits down next to him and he turns to see Mordred.
Merlin’s stomach clenches. Mordred has irrefutable evidence of his inferiority now; he doesn’t have to hide his contempt anymore.
“Alright?” Mordred says.
Merlin nods, eyes glued to his lap.
There’s a silence.
“You know why Arthur asked about anti-depressants?” Mordred says.
“Because I clearly look like someone who needs them,” Merlin says, suddenly too bitter to be shy.
“No,” Mordred says simply. “It’s because I take them, and I got far too drunk once and nearly put myself in a coma. Arthur was there and he’s been terribly overprotective ever since.”
Merlin can quite believe what he’s hearing.
“Really?” he croaks out.
“Yeah. Did you not notice I’ve been on the Becks Blue all night? Non-alcoholic. I wouldn’t dare do anything else with Arthur around; he’s like a big mother hen.”
The affection in Mordred’s voice is obvious.
“You… you don’t seem…”
“Depressed? You don’t seem anxious, Merlin. I bet you and I both know something about putting on a front.”
“Don’t think I’ve been very good at it tonight,” Merlin mutters, embarrassed again.
“Good,” Mordred says. “I’m glad you failed tonight. I nearly died trying to keep my illness a secret from everyone. It got a whole lot easier when I let a few people in.”
He fixes Merlin with a look.
“Arthur’s a good boss. Talk to him about this. There are things he can do to minimise your stress at work. And you might need time off in the future, and he can help you with that.”
“It’s hard to talk about,” he says at last.
“Hey, I know,” Mordred says gently. “But you have more support than you think, I promise you.”
He pats Merlin’s arm.
“You’re a good bloke, yeah? Don’t get down on yourself for this.”
Merlin licks his dry lips.
“I thought you didn’t like me,” he admits.
Mordred looks shocked.
“Of course I like you. We all do. We were only discussing in the break room the other day how nice and polite you were. I’m pretty sure Gwen wants to adopt you.”
Merlin digests this information. All those half-smiles from Mordred, all those comments he’d interpreted as snide… He’d been way off base. He’d let the mean little voice in his head take over, the one that liked to whisper about how no-one really liked him, about how they all preferred it when he wasn’t around...
He had to stop listening to that voice. It was never right.
The pub door swings open and Arthur appears with a glass of water and some napkins.
“I called you a cab,” he announces. “Here.”
Both Mordred and Arthur look away discreetly as Merlin wipes his mouth. He sips at the water, feeling an odd sense of calm come over him.
The worst had happened and he’d survived it. Other people knew now. It wasn’t what he had wanted, but it might not prove to be the horror he’d always thought it was.
He still doesn’t know what to say but Arthur launches into some ridiculous fan theory about the new Star Wars and Mordred starts loudly protesting, and Merlin’s laughing along before he knows it.
When the cab finally pulls up, Merlin gives Mordred a small private grin.
“Thanks,” he says.
Mordred gives him that same half-smile, only it doesn’t seem mocking anymore, quite the opposite.
“See you on Monday, mate.”
Merlin turns to Arthur to say goodbye but the man only gestures to the cab.
“I’ll ride along with you. See you get in alright.”
“You don’t have to-”
“Best I leave before Morgana gets here anyway,” Arthur says, and winks. “She’s a devil when she’s drunk.”
Merlin doesn’t protest further. He gives Mordred a wave and then climbs in the cab, Arthur following him onto the backseat.
Arthur keeps the conversation light, but when they reach Merlin’s flat, he asks the driver to wait a minute.
“I can see myself in,” Merlin says but Arthur shakes his head, following him out of the car.
“I know you can but according to Mord I’m a mother bear, so…”
“He actually said mother hen,” Merlin says cheekily and Arthur laughs.
“But bear is manlier Merlin, so hush up.”
He gives Merlin a look as he fishes the keys from his pocket.
“We’ll be having a chat in my office on Monday morning.”
Merlin makes a face and Arthur laughs again.
“Don’t look so worried, I only bite when someone asks me to. I’m your line manager; this is exactly the kind of thing you should be coming to me about. I’m here to help.”
“I don’t want special allowances,” Merlin says quickly and Arthur holds up his hand.
“Everyone gets special allowances. No-one talks to Elena before she’s had her morning coffee. Gwen gets to put smiley faces on her emails because otherwise she thinks they “sound too harsh”. Gwaine’s allowed to have his first pick of the fruit delivery on Monday, although don’t ask me what he does with all those apples… My point is, we try to look out for each other. So we’ll look out for you too.”
Merlin feels a kind of funny ache in his chest, only he’s not anxious this time. He’s grateful and happy and suddenly less lonely than he’s felt in years.
Impulsively, he pulls Arthur into a hug. Before he has time to regret it, Arthur’s arms are closing around him.
“Thanks,” he says when they draw apart. “For… everything.”
“Glad to have you on the team,” Arthur says warmly and Merlin smiles wide.
The team. Merlin likes the sound of that.
He thinks he might sleep well tonight.