Six weeks to Christmas.
The shop was festooned with garlands and decorated with red baubles and glittery stars, and Merlin was standing on a ladder with a string of lights in his hand. He'd meant to drape it around the doorway but a wave of meaninglessness washed over him, immense and cold. Afraid to drown, he dropped the lights on top of the nearest bookcase and climbed down.
Freya looked up from the box of second-hand books she was sorting through. "Do you need something? Glue? Tacks? More lights? I can get it for you, you know – you don't have to climb down every time."
Merlin only shook his head. Well, he did need something, but it was nothing to do with Christmas and Freya definitely couldn't get it for him. "No, I just… it's just so... I mean, what's the point of it all?"
He wound his way through the maze of bookcases to the tiny office at the back of the shop and slumped into the threadbare desk chair, covering his face with his hands. When he looked up again, Freya was standing in the doorway.
"What's the matter, Merlin? You love Christmas. You love decorating for Christmas."
"Normally, yes, you do. What's going on?"
He took a deep breath and pointed to the visitor's chair. "Come in and close the door."
"Okay, now I'm really worried." But she did as she was asked.
The office had a single, minuscule window high up on the wall. It was like being in a basement.The drab, yellow-painted walls looked nicotine-stained and the furniture had been crammed into the available space: a desk, a desk chair, a small bookcase with a printer on top of it, and the not very comfortable visitor's chair where Freya was sitting now. It had never been the cheeriest of places, and today it felt downright depressing. Merlin had been meaning to give it a new coat of paint for ages, and now it would never happen.
"Who's at the cash desk?" he asked distractedly.
"Whew. I mean, Elena's excellent but she's a disaster at the till."
Freya leaned forward and peered up at his face. "Merlin, please tell me what's going on. You're scaring me. Are you ill? Or is it Gaius? Your mum?"
Merlin shook his head. "No, nothing like that. We're all fine. But…" The words caught in his throat and he knew he wouldn't be able to get them out. Better to let her read for herself. He opened the top drawer, took out an envelope and handed it to her. "Freya, I don't know what to do. I only got this yesterday. I haven't told anyone yet."
Frowning, Freya pulled out the single sheet of paper and read. Merlin looked away, up at the window that was just a small, grey rectangle on the wall.
There was a quiet "oh, no" from Freya, and her eyes were wide as she handed the letter back to him.
Merlin threw the envelope back in the drawer and slammed it shut. "I don't know how to tell Gaius. This shop is his life's work." After a pause, he added: "Mine, too, sort of."
Freya pinched her lower lip. "We need to think. There must be something we can do."
Merlin rubbed his forehead, his tired eyes. "I don't see what. Avalon's bought the building, they're going to renovate and the rent's going to go up. We need to be out by the end of January for the reno, we have nowhere to go, and we can't afford to come back after."
Freya sat up straight and took a breath. "We need to make people aware of what's happening," she said. "This shop is such an institution, Merlin! So loved by so many. We have to start a Save the Shop petition - just think of all the Thistledown you've housed over the years. They'll sign before you can say 'renovation'. Then there are customers, neighbours, bookstore lovers everywhere… We should put a petition on our website straight away, and ask people to spread the word in social media. We could call the local paper and ask them to write about it. There are plenty of things we can do, Merlin!"
For the first time since the letter arrived, Merlin smiled. It was amazing how much better he felt just telling someone. Freya's energy was heart-warming, but he honestly couldn't see how they'd be able to move a tycoon like Uther Pendragon. To him, there were no other values than money.
Freya looked relieved. "A smile! That's better." She leaned over and gave Merlin a quick hug. "Let's eat with the Thistledown tonight. They might have some good ideas."
"I'm taking Archie for a walk," said Merlin to Freya when they had closed. "I'll buy some wine on the way back."
"I'll tell Gwen. She's cooking."
It was a dark, damp evening, and Merlin shivered despite his parka. Orange light from the streetlamps filtered down through the trees, where only a few lonely leaves still clung to the branches. Archie snuffled around his usual spots and peed on his special gatepost at the park.
"It's a good thing you're white," Merlin told the little Westie. "Easy to see in the winter darkness."
They took a detour past the off-licence on the way back for three bottles of wine. When they returned to the bookshop, entering through the back door, Merlin inhaled and smiled. Books and food. This was home.
Three Thistledown were currently staying at the shop. Lance, an up-and-coming poet with a few awards to his name for his debut collection, had been here for two weeks. It was his second time as a Thistledown; he'd spent a month here a couple of years ago, and claimed he wrote better here than anywhere else. Then there was Elena, a YA writer working on her third novel. She'd been here for a month now although she'd originally been booked in for two weeks. Gwen was a food writer trying to get her third book organised. Now and then wonderful smells came wafting down to the shop - like now - when she tried out recipes in the Thistledown kitchen on the second floor.
They'd never had such a nice bunch of Thistledown, Freya had said, and Merlin had agreed, and added that she needed to clean up her metaphors.
The kitchen was bustling with activity. Freya came in armed with pens and a writing pad, Gwen was stirring two steaming pots, Lance was setting the table and Elena opened a tin of cat food while Aithusa circled her legs, meowing.
"Wine's here!" Merlin put his bottles on the counter. "That smells fantastic, Gwen."
"It's the most basic of all basic tomato sauces," said Gwen, adding a little salt, "with garlic and basil. But like most things it can be improved with cheese. Could you grate some Parmesan, please, Merlin?"
While they ate Gwen's excellent pasta Merlin looked around the kitchen. It was undeniably in need of a facelift, and not just a lick of paint and some new appliances but probably wiring and plumbing as well. Still, he loved the chequered 1950s floor with its red-and-grey lino tiles, the long wood table with an assortment of non-matching chairs, and even the old, groaning fridge.
He turned to the others, who were laughing at something Elena had just said, and cleared his throat, waiting for the chatter to die down. "So… there's something I'd like to discuss with you. Yesterday, I had a letter with some news…"
When he'd finished his story, there was complete silence in the kitchen except for Aithusa, who had slunk back in for seconds and was crunching on her kibbles.
"Oh," said Elena at long last. "Oh, Merlin, I'm so sorry." She looked around at the others. "We can't let this happen. There must be something we can do!"
Merlin tried to smile. "If you have any ideas for saving the shop, anything at all, they'd be extremely welcome. Freya already suggested we should get the local paper to write about it, and start a petition on our website."
Gwen nodded. "Let's put petition lists on the counter as well, for customers to sign."
"We should demonstrate outside the Avalon headquarters," said Elena. "A torchlight march!"
Freya perked up. "And get the papers to write about that."
Lance frowned, rubbing at the tabletop with a fingertip. "I may be able to… I think I could…" He cleared his throat. "The thing is, I know Arthur Pendragon. We were at school together."
They all stared at him.
"Uther Pendragon's son," he clarified. "Uther owns Avalon and Arthur works for him. I could give him a call."
"You were at school with him?" said Freya. "What kind of posh school did you go to?"
Lance coloured a little. "Eton, actually." He shook his head, half embarrassed, when they all burst out laughing.
"Ooo!" Elena was jumping up and down in her chair. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who went to Eton. Can I touch you?"
"Anyway," said Lance loudly, "I haven't seen Arthur in a while but I know he'd take my call. He's a nice bloke, much nicer than you'd expect. We should ask him here to show him the place. I think it'd be worth a try. What do you say, Merlin?"
"Oh, yes," said Merlin. "Yes, absolutely. Please. That could be our best chance to do something about this. But we should still do the petition and call the local paper. Freya, you'll take care of the website?"
"Consider it done. And Merlin? We have to fix those last Christmas decorations."
Two days later, Merlin was doing some paperwork at his desk when Freya knocked on the half-open door. "There's someone here to see you."
At the cash counter, talking to Lance, was one of the most beautiful women Merlin had ever seen. Her long, black hair was in a glossy twist, her heels were staggeringly high and the well-cut coat had probably cost a fortune.
"Oh, here's Merlin," said Lance. "Merlin, this is Morgana Pendragon, Arthur's sister."
Morgana turned around, gave Merlin a knee-weakening smile and held out her hand. She looked so regal he wondered for a moment if she meant for him to kiss it.
"Arthur sends his apologies," she said. "He's in France at the moment, so you'll have to make do with me."
"Thanks for coming so quickly," Merlin managed. Her beauty made him shy. "Has Lance told you about the… about our situation?"
"I understand that Avalon buying the building puts you in a difficult spot. Lance is telling me this is a special place, far more than a mere bookshop and well worth saving. Perhaps you could show me around and tell me about it?"
Behind her, Lance was nodding emphatically and giving Merlin two thumbs up.
"Well," Merlin said, "let's start with some history, then. The shop was opened by my uncle Gaius Greenwood and his friend Jeff Monmouth thirty years ago. It was much smaller then, only occupying the ground floor. Several of their friends were writers, or aspiring writers, and Gaius and Jeff sometimes let them stay here for free. They used to sleep on the couches in there" - he pointed to the doorway into the next room - "in exchange for helping in the shop a couple of hours a day."
"Oh, so that's how it started," Morgana said. "Lance tells me you still let writers stay here?"
Merlin nodded. "We do. I'll tell you more about that in a minute. Anyway, a few years later, Jeff Monmouth died in an accident. Gaius was devastated, of course. He seriously considered closing the shop but in the end he decided not to. To honour his old friend and colleague, he renamed the shop Monmouth and Company. The business grew and Gaius expanded the shop to the first floor as well, and eventually rented the whole house. Today, the shop occupies the ground floor, first and second floors, and there are two private flats on the top floor. Gaius used to live in one of them - I live there now, and Freya, my only employee, has the other flat."
"So you're both living and working here," Morgana said. "I call that true dedication!"
"Yes," Merlin agreed, grinning, "that and the virtual impossibility of finding another flat with reasonable rent in central London."
Morgana laughed. "Well, there's that. So you're running the business now?"
"Yes, ever since Gaius retired three years ago."
"And you still have authors coming to stay?"
"That's one of the nicest things about this place, in my view," said Merlin. "What makes it even more worthwhile than just selling books. To begin with it was only a friends thing, but word spread and other authors began to ask if they could come and stay. Gaius formalised it a bit more after Jeff died, organised it with a booking schedule and things like that. We usually have two or three Thistledown staying with us at any one time, and they pay us back by helping out with the daily work a couple of hours a day. They still sleep here, in the actual shop - I'll show you."
Merlin laughed. "That's what we call our guests. Gaius never gave me a really good explanation why, but I think it has to do with them drifting by, settling for a while before the wind takes them again… So, that's the history. Let's start the tour! We're standing in the main room, I guess you could say - at least it's by far the largest. We call it the Gallery Room, for obvious reasons."
Morgana listened attentively the entire time, and Merlin got the impression that she was genuinely interested, not just here as a chore or from politeness. She looked around at the book-lined walls, the old, dark wood floor, the semicircular cash desk of polished wood and the large window facing the street. A staircase led up to the galleries, with books from floor to ceiling and ladders for access to the top shelves.
"It's gorgeous!" she exclaimed. "I can see why people would like to come and stay. I'd like to come and stay."
Merlin grinned. "Write a book and we'll see what we can do. Now, let's go this way. This is the Monmouth Room."
The Monmouth Room had the same book-lined walls with ladders and a large window facing the street, but also had a fireplace, two old, well-worn leather sofas and a coffee table, stained and ringed over the years by coffee mugs, wine glasses and ink.
"The first Thistledown slept in here," Merlin explained. "Nowadays our writers get to sleep in actual beds."
"I would have loved to be a fly on the wall," said Morgana, "listening in to all the discussions about literature and writing that must have taken place here. Oh, it's so cosy! Do you use the fireplace at all?"
"Sometimes during the winter months, yes. Have a peek in there." Merlin pointed through the doorway at the back of the room. "The Writing Room."
The Writing Room was irregularly shaped, with a desk crammed into an alcove overhung by bookshelves. A recess housed one of the Thistledown built-in beds, with books on either side and above, red brocade curtains and a reading light.
Morgana turned to Merlin. "This is a book-lover's dream - sleeping surrounded by books! It's like having constant, quiet companions. You only have to open the curtains and they're there."
Merlin looked at her with new respect. "Exactly. That's what books are. Quiet companions."
"I hope your Thistledown realise how lucky they are."
"We're lucky to have them, too. Should we go upstairs?" He threw a doubtful glance at Morgana's heels, and she caught it.
"I think I can handle the stairs," she said and swept past him like a sailing ship.
"You've seen the Galleries," said Merlin, half running to catch up, "so we can go on up to the second floor. Right! Downstairs it's all new books, but this is our second-hand department. There are two more Thistledown beds here - I like this one over here; you need a ladder to get to it. It's like a bunk bed that you share with books, or like sleeping on a bookshelf."
Morgana laughed. "I love it!"
"Whoever sleeps up here usually gets a bedmate." Merlin climbed a couple of rungs on the ladder and opened the curtains. "Yep, here she is. May I introduce Aithusa, the bookshop cat?"
Morgana practically squealed. "You have a bookshop cat? This gets better and better. She's beautiful! Can I say hello to her?"
Merlin climbed down, smiling to himself. Aithusa would probably leave in a huff, having had her beauty sleep disturbed.
Morgana promptly kicked off her shoes and climbed up, crooning as she stroked the cat's white, velvety fur. Aithusa, who had been curled up in a bun, stretched out on her side and allowed Morgana to admire her.
"She's got differently coloured eyes! One blue, one green! Aw, what a beautiful kitty you are."
Merlin watched in amazement. Even though Aithusa was used to strangers, she was usually a little more reserved than this. Apparently Morgana had received an instant stamp of approval.
"Sorry about the interruption," Morgana said, either to Merlin or to Aithusa, before closing the curtains and climbing down. "I can't resist cats." She put her shoes back on. "You have more to show me, haven't you?"
"Well, more of the same, really. In here is the third bed, built in among the bookshelves like the other ones, and a couple of armchairs where people can sit and read or write. Or take a nap; we've had that too. Over here is the Thistledown kitchen, and there's a bathroom down the hall. Freya and I live upstairs, like I mentioned before."
Morgana looked around the kitchen and pulled out a chair. "Can we sit down for a minute?"
"Of course. Would you like some tea?"
"Tea would be lovely."
Merlin put the kettle on and sat down, suppressing a shiver of nerves. In effect, Morgana held the fate of the shop in her hands.
"Well, Merlin," she said, "Lance is right. This place is special. The atmosphere here induces good writing, he claims, and now that I've seen it I'm sure that's true. You and your uncle have created such a unique setting here over the years, it would be a shame if you had to move."
Merlin got up to fill the teapot, turning his back to Morgana so she couldn't see his face. "Yes, it would. I don't think we'd survive that financially."
"I'd like to ask you a little about the business side of it, if I may?"
When they went downstairs half an hour later, Morgana said: "Thank you for the tour, Merlin. I'd really like to help, although at this stage I'm not sure exactly how. I'll talk it over with Arthur. There's one thing I can do for sure."
Merlin realised he was gripping the handrail so hard his knuckles were white. "What would that be?"
"I can help you find temporary premises for the duration of the reno." They were back in the Gallery Room, and Morgana extended her hand. "I'll call you as soon as I've talked to Arthur." She grinned. "He'll love this place as much as I do. It's exactly his thing. And so, by the way, are you - exactly his type, I mean."
Merlin made some sort of choked, surprised sound and felt his cheeks heat, but before he could reply, Morgana added: "Even if he doesn't know it yet. Oh, I nearly forgot - Lance mentioned you'd like the local paper to write about you. I know a journalist at the Bugle; I'll give him a call."
Merlin's head was spinning. He blinked and managed to get a "thank you" out before he held the door for Morgana and watched her walk down the street, turning heads along the way.
Exactly his type. He had to smile a little. Arthur Pendragon, a rich, spoiled brat who had been at Eton? Merlin would hardly be his type.
"Tell us, tell us!" Elena said as soon as the shop had closed that night. "What did she say? Morgana Pendragon!"
"She's stunning!" said Gwen. "And she seemed so much nicer than I'd have expected of someone like that."
"She is nice," Lance pointed out. "So is Arthur. I wouldn't have phoned him if I hadn't thought there was a chance he'd help."
Merlin took a deep breath. "Well, Morgana said she loved the place, and the idea of letting people stay for free in exchange for a bit of help in the shop. She even said she'd like to stay here herself, but that could have been out of politeness, I suppose. We talked a bit about the financial side of the business, and she promised to find us temporary premises for the reno. She'll talk things over with her brother and get back to me."
Freya whooped. "Oh, Merlin, that's fantastic! That's really kind of her. Have you talked to Gaius yet?"
"I called him last night. He knew already - he'd had a letter too, sent to his home address, and he'd been worrying about how to tell me." Merlin gave Freya a smile. "I need to call him again and tell him what's happening with Morgana. Oh, and she said she knows a journalist at the local paper and will send him our way."
When the phone rang at some ungodly hour, the voice at the other end was unbearably chipper. "Hello? Merlin?"
Bleary-eyed, Merlin checked the time. Ten to eight on a Friday that happened to be his day off. "Mm, yes. Hello, Morgana."
"You open at noon on Sundays, is that correct?"
Merlin sat up with a groan, rubbed at his eyes and cleared his throat to get rid of the sleep gravel. "Yes."
"Good. Leon, the journalist from The Bloomsbury Bugle, will be there at half past ten. And I'll be there at nine, so see to it that you're up by then, Thistledown and all. See you on Sunday!"
Merlin said "What?", but Morgana had already ended the call.
At nine o'clock sharp on Sunday morning, Morgana rapped on the glass on the front door, bouncing up and down and waving both arms. How was it possible to be so energetic in the winter greyness? Merlin opened to door to a rush of cold air and a surprise hug from Morgana. A few, bewildered snowflakes whirled in the air, melting as soon as they met the ground.
"Hello, Merlin! We're going to make this place look fantastic." Morgana turned around and called: "Come on in!"
A minute later, the Gallery Room was full of people running back and forth with boxes and stepladders from a van parked on the other side of the street.
"These are my elves!" Morgana explained, bright with energy. "I took the liberty of getting you a Christmas tree, I hope you don't mind - it goes over there, darlings! It will brighten up that gloomy corner, and as a bonus it'll be visible from the street through that window there."
"I - " said Merlin.
"Those red baubles hanging from the galleries, Merlin - they'd look better if we consolidated them in two groups, centered over these two tables - that one needs to be moved in this direction a bit, to make room for the tree. It would focus the customers' attention. So one group there and one there. You'll fix that, Percy, won't you? Thanks, darling!"
Merlin felt completely overwhelmed. When he looked up, Freya and all the Thistledown were in the Gallery, leaning on the railing and watching with interest. The ill-contained amusement on their faces told him just how bowled over he must look, and he grinned up at them. Freya gave him a thumbs up.
By ten past ten the Christmas tree was decorated with glittery ornaments and radiant with lights, and Merlin had to admit Morgana had a point: grouped together above the tables featuring newly published books, the red baubles did focus the eye.
"Morgana," he said, catching her by the arm as she whizzed past him. "Thank you. It looks fantastic."
She gave him a blinding smile. "Doesn't it!" She turned and clapped her hands. "Thank you, darling elves! We're done!"
Astonishingly quietly and efficiently, the elves packed up their things, loaded them into the van and drove away.
"I'll make us some tea," said Gwen.
"Thanks, Gwen!" Merlin said. "I'll get a fire going in the Monmouth Room and we can have tea there. Will look good for the photos, too."
"I should go," said Morgana, "before Leon's here. It would look odd to have me here since I strictly represent Avalon."
Merlin looked at her, in jeans and jumper with her hair in a ponytail, looking very different from the businesswoman in suit and high heels she'd been last time she was here. Somehow he didn't think of her as a representative of Avalon at all - more like a friend. "Thanks so much for your help, Morgana. And for the Christmas tree!"
The journalist arrived half an hour later with a photographer in tow.
"I'm Leon from The Bloomsbury Bugle," the journalist said. "I'm looking for Merlin?"
"That'd be me. Thanks for coming."
"Our pleasure," said Leon, grinning. "Morgana made her case - or yours - really effectively. This is Gwaine, my photographer. Could you give us a quick tour, Merlin?"
"They were so nice, both of them!" Elena exclaimed later. "I hadn't expected that, but I guess I'm prejudiced."
"I have high hopes for the article," said Merlin. "Gwaine's photos are going to be great." He grinned at Elena. "I think I know what his favourite motive was, though. Or should I say who?"
Elena turned pink. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
"I just hope he got a few of the shop as well."
On Saturday afternoon, just before closing, Leon and Gwaine came into the shop looking excited. Leon had a bunch of newspapers tucked under his arm.
"We came to show you the article in person. It turned out really well. Gwaine's photos are fantastic - "
"Of course they are!" said Gwaine, offended that anyone could think anything else.
" - and there are some really nice photos of all of you that aren't in the paper. Artistic. Portraits, I'd call them. He's brought you some prints."
Over at the cash counter Lance served the last customers for the day. When they'd left and Merlin went to turn the OPEN sign to CLOSED, he spotted Morgana hurrying towards him.
"Merlin! I hope you'll let us in even if you're closing?"
He smiled at her. "Always." He didn't register the "us" until he saw she had brought someone with her.
"Merlin, this is my brother Arthur who is back from France at last."
Arthur pulled off his gloves and held out his hand to Merlin, who shook it, unable to take his eyes off Arthur now that he was inside and light fell on his face. Like his sister, he was in jeans, boots and pea coat, and also like his sister, he was gorgeous. There was no great sibling likeness between them, because Arthur was as blond as Morgana was dark and his blue scarf underlined the blue of his eyes whereas hers were green, but there was some similarity in the way they turned their head and the way they smiled.
"We're curious about the article," Arthur explained, "and I wanted to see this place for myself."
They went upstairs to the Thistledown kitchen, where the table provided enough space for all the papers and photos.
"Do you always visit the subjects of your article?" Freya asked pointedly. "A bit unusual, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, we're making an exception for you," Leon said. "Quite apart from agreeing with Morgana to meet here! And Gwaine wanted to show E… um, everybody his photos in person."
Leon opened the paper and pointed. "Here it is. Morgana, here's another copy."
They all gathered around the papers, reading with their heads close together.
" 'Merlin, the young enthusiast who continues the work of legendary Gaius Greenwood…' " Freya nudged Merlin with her elbow. "That's you! And Lance, you're 'one of the most promising poets of your generation'! But we knew that already."
"That's a nice photo of us all in the Monmouth room!" Gwen clapped her hands.
"Makes us look like we're lounging on those sofas all day, drinking tea," said Elena and pointed.
"Presumably we're engaged in deep, literary discussions while we're drinking that tea," Lance pointed out mildly.
"I look half asleep," said Freya. "As I'm only the shop assistant, I suppose those literary discussions are too deep for me!"
"Hey, don't diss my work!" Gwaine placed a stack of black and white prints on the table. "Have a look at these instead. They're the individual ones I took of you. They're the best ones of the lot, but they didn't fit the article."
He laid them out and they all ooh-ed. There was one of Merlin with his head slightly bent, his profile dark against the light of the window. Elena sat at the desk in the Writing Room with her chin in her hand and dreaming eyes. Lance leaned his hip against the railing of the stairs, darkly handsome and intense like a fifties film star. Freya and Gwen were laughing, each holding an armful of books.
"Wow," said Morgana, "these are really, really good. You should have them framed and put them on the wall, Merlin - they'd look great between the windows in the Gallery Room."
While they looked at more pictures and re-read the articles, Gwen took Merlin aside. "We should ask everyone to stay for pizza! I'll nip out and buy some wine." When Merlin nodded, she turned around and shouted: "Who wants pizza?"
"So, Merlin," said Arthur underneath the noise that followed. "Show me around?"
For the third time in as many weeks, Merlin gave a tour of the shop. Arthur listened as attentively as his sister had, nodded in the right places and asked relevant questions, but Merlin was strangely unfocused. Something about Arthur made everything else fade into the background until Arthur was all Merlin could see.
In the Writer's Room, Arthur sat down on the desk chair and said: "So the authors get to stay here in exchange for two hours work in the shop every day?"
"They also agree to write a short presentation of themselves, or mini-biography, with a photo, for our archives. We have quite a collection by now."
"I can imagine. You should publish it at some point." Arthur leaned back, his fingers playing with a pen from the desk. "What motivates you, Merlin? I mean, this is a fantastic idea and obviously a successful one, but I imagine it's a lot of work. Unpaid work. You can't be in it for the money."
Merlin shook his head. "Money isn't the important thing here. Of course we have to make ends meet and so on, but there are other values than money."
Arthur pursed his lips and nodded slowly. "Yes. There are other kinds of riches in this place. Other treasures."
Merlin smiled. "Your sister said something along those lines, too. About books being companions." He leaned against the doorpost, watching the desk lamp tinge Arthur's hair with gold. "I've always loved books, how they open new worlds to me. I love how they look and how they smell, and the sense of… of security they give me. If I'm surrounded by books I'll never be alone and I'll always have something to do. Selling books to share the magic with others is the ideal job for me. Offering writers a place to stay in return for a bit of help is the cherry on the cake."
They were standing in the Gallery Room when Gwen and Lance returned with clinking bags.
"The pizzas are on their way," said Gwen. "I'll throw together a salad, and I bought some bread."
Baguettes were sticking up from one of the bags.
Merlin laughed. "Pizza and baguettes? Really, Gwen?"
"I call it Death by Carbs!" she called over her shoulder as she ran up the stairs.
When Arthur and Merlin came upstairs, Elena and Gwaine were still looking at photos and Gwen organised the food. "Can you just tear the lettuce into this bowl, Leon? There's rocket and radicchio over there; just mix it in. Lance, the bread? Freya, could you dice the cucumber?"
Merlin was just going to ask what they could help with when Archie shot past him, looking very determined, picking something up from the floor right where Arthur's coat was slung over the back of a chair.
He crouched down. "What have you got there, Archie? Show me. Oh, no - Arthur, it's one of your gloves." He tried to wrench it from the dog, who was delighted that Merlin would play. "Let go, Archie."
But Archie was set on a tug-of-war, pulling and growling and frantically wagging his tail. Merlin looked up at Arthur, mortified, but Arthur just laughed. "Let him have it! It's only a glove." He crouched down next to Merlin. "Is he yours? Hello, Archie."
"Let me introduce Archimedes, the bookshop dog. Archie for short. There's a bookshop cat too, but she keeps herself to herself."
"As cats do."
"Pizza's here!" Gwen called. "Who's helping me carry it up?"
The pizza was collected and distributed, wine was poured and Arthur retrieved his glove from Archie who lost interest in it as soon as the food appeared.
Merlin looked around the table, amazed how their Monmouth and Company family had grown in only a couple of weeks - because that was how it felt. Like family. Like they all simply belonged.
Leon and Morgana were talking about something that made them both laugh. Elena and Gwaine looked at each other sort of dazedly, and Lance and Gwen were sitting very close, finishing each other's sentences and eating from each other's plates.
Merlin murmured in Freya's ear: "How long has that been brewing?"
"Lance and Gwen? From the moment they met. You're really oblivious sometimes, Merlin."
"Hmm. They'll make a good couple. The poet and the chef."
When Merlin reached across the table for another piece of baguette, he noticed Arthur watching him. Something occurred to him then, something he'd felt all through the tour of the bookstore without being able to articulate it: Arthur had been on the verge of saying something the entire time, and stopped himself. Merlin wanted to know what it was.
He turned and met Arthur's eyes, and Arthur leaned forward and said: "The beds among the books. This kitchen. I love it here, Merlin. I'd like to live here."
Something soft and warm blossomed in Merlin's chest. "You'd be okay with the creaking floors, the stone-age fridge and the tacky candles-in-empty-wine-bottles aesthetics then?"
Arthur laughed. "No worse than being at uni. Seriously, Morgana was right - and I don't say that often. I see why she fell for this place like a ton of bricks." He sat back. "I'd like to help. l'll talk to my father and see what we can do."
Attempting to hide the fact that his hand was trembling, Merlin set his wine glass on the table. He was so relieved he wanted to lean forward and kiss Arthur on the mouth. Or maybe he just wanted to kiss Arthur, full stop.
You're exactly his type. Not that he knows it yet. Morgana's words came back to him, and the same was true for Merlin. He'd never have considered Arthur his type, but now Arthur seemed like the only one possible.
Sighing, Merlin threw another couple of t-shirts into his overnight bag. He had a cold and his head felt stuffed with cotton wool. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and he was packing for Wales, leaving in the morning. He still hadn't decided whether he'd been stupid to close the shop on Christmas Eve. Freya had thought so, she said he'd miss some good business from people who needed to buy last-minute gifts, but the truth was he was exhausted after these past few weeks and only wanted to go home.
The house was quiet. The Thistledown had left and Freya was out with friends. Merlin decided he was done packing and would make himself some Lemsip and go to bed.
Just as the kettle boiled, his phone rang.
Arthur's voice was warm and deep and posh and made Merlin smile, feeling warmer than the Lemsip could have made him.
"Can I pop by? I have a Christmas gift for you that I'd really like you to have before you leave. Come down and meet me in the shop in half an hour? Does that work?"
"It works. And I apologise in advance for my disgusting cold."
When Merlin let Arthur in through the back door, it was snowing. Arthur brushed wet flakes from his hair and shoulders.
"Have the Thistledown gone home? Can I see what the shop looks like at night? Ever since I came in here the first time" - he nodded towards the front door - "I've wanted to, you know, get the Thistledown vibe. Get a sense of what it would be like to sleep here. No, don't turn on the lights - just the reading light in the Writer's Room."
Merlin grinned. "I know - I often want to go downstairs and see what the shop is like at night, but it would be really creepy of me so I never do. I've been told, though, there's always someone awake, writing or reading or thinking or raiding the fridge."
He turned on the reading light and the desk lamp in the Writer's Room and Arthur looked around, smiling. "No wonder people come here to write. I must be the ideal place. I know Lance thinks so." Then he blinked, as if waking from a dream. "Oh, sorry, I forgot to give you this." He handed Merlin the small carrier bag he was holding.
Merlin took it. "Is this my gift?"
"No, this is just to cure your cold."
The bag contained a jar of honey, two lemons and some fresh ginger. Merlin's heart melted. "Thanks. I'll make a concoction as soon as I get back to my flat. Well - where's my gift then?"
Arthur looked ready to burst, as if he knew a secret he couldn't wait to tell. "I enjoy giving Christmas gifts, and this one I'm pretty sure will make the recipient happy."
"What? What is it?" Merlin bounced on his toes and immediately started coughing. "Ugh, sorry."
"I think we solved the problem with the rent," Arthur said. "In fact, I know we have."
Merlin stopped bouncing. He stopped coughing. He could barely breathe while he waited for Arthur to elaborate.
Arthur's face was soft in the light from the reading lamp. "Morgana and I have a company of our own, Camelot, that's entirely separate from Avalon. We hadn't really planned to go into the property market with it, but we'll make an exception. Dad has agreed to it. Camelot is buying this building from Avalon."
It took a second for that to sink in. Merlin couldn't get a word out. The room swam around him, his ears were ringing and he was welling up. He couldn't believe it. Things like this didn't happen.
"The reno will proceed as planned," Arthur went on, "but the acquisition means that Camelot can set the rent. We'll make it affordable. So, Merlin, you're looking at your new landlord."
"Why would you want to do that?" Merlin's voice was so hoarse it was barely audible. It wasn't only because of the cold. "It's not much of an investment, I wouldn't think."
"Well, buying property in central London is rarely a bad investment, but we're not seeing it as an investment as such. At least, we don't expect it to be particularly lucrative. It's more of a - a contribution to literature, I suppose you could say. We could be gallery owners or donators to museums, but instead we decided to keep this shop going, as a gift to writers and book lovers here, there and everywhere." He looked at Merlin as if he was trying to convey something more than his words. "And to the shop owners," he added slowly.
Merlin still couldn't believe what he was hearing, how it was all coming together. Arthur looked at him anxiously, trying to gauge his reaction.
With emotion running high, Merlin decided this was the moment to be brave. "Arthur," he said. "If I didn't have a cold, I would kiss you."
Arthur was still looking at him as if he was something valuable. Precious. Rare. "You know, Merlin, I really don't care if you have a cold. I mean - if I were you, I'd kiss me."
Merlin laughed and coughed and laughed again. "Well, if you don't care, then I don't either."
He took a step forward, slid his arms around Arthur's waist inside his pea coat and kissed him on the mouth. His eyes fell shut when he felt Arthur's hands along his jawbone, thumbs stroking his earlobes. Arthur's lips were soft and his tongue eager, and they stood in the darkened shop kissing until Merlin lost track of time. And until he needed to blow his nose.
"Come on, Rudolph," Arthur said. "Let your nose guide us up to your flat. I'll make you a lemon-ginger-honey concoction to fend off the cold."
Merlin laughed breathlessly. "I can think of a few other things we could do to fend off the cold."
Arthur put his arm around Merlin's shoulders and led him towards the stairs. "Then we'll do those too. We have all night."
"All the way to morning," Merlin agreed.
"And then…" Arthur stopped halfway up the stairs and kissed Merlin again.
"Then we have the rest of our lives."
It's May, the horse chestnuts are in bloom and Monmouth and Company is ready for its grand re-opening.
The facade has been spruced up. The shop front is painted green and gold with Monmouth and Company above the door in gold lettering. An old-fashioned sign swings lightly in the wind - a housewarming gift from Morgana.
The wood floors have been sanded and stained, there's new built-in shelving with alcoves and recesses for the Thistledown beds, and new ladders of dark, polished wood. The Thistledown kitchen is almost unrecognisable but still cosy, with the old, large wood table back in place.
The two flats on the top floor have fresh paint, new wood floors, and new bathrooms and kitchens, fit for a king. Anyone would want to live there.
But Merlin isn't moving back in.
He spends so much time at Arthur's place these days that Arthur has finally asked him to move in permanently. Commuting to work will be a new experience, but a price Merlin is more than willing to pay for the privilege of sleeping in Arthur's arms every night. Elena and Gwaine are happy to be moving into Merlin's old flat.
"Well?" says Arthur, nudging Merlin gently with his elbow.
"Are you ready to re-open the shop?"
Merlin nods and squeezes Arthur's hand. Yes, he is. He's ready.