“Why do you want to go to a garden centre, Gwaine?” Merlin hissed as they walked up to the building. It looked like a cross between a greenhouse and a shop, and altogether way too hot for late spring. Merlin’s face was already flushed and clammy. “We don’t even have a garden.”
“I could get a house plant.”
Merlin stopped and crossed his arms, giving Gwaine a flat look when he turned around.
“Oh, all right. Fine then. There’s this guy.” Merlin rolled his eyes and Gwaine tugged on his hair. “Well. There might be a couple of guys. And a girl. Oh, come on, Merlin, these cats are hot. It’s like they only employ models! This one guy, Percy, he’s got muscles on him that don’t even fit in a shirt, yeah? And the other one I’ve got my eye on, Mordred, he’s even cuter than you are - no offence - with all this curly hair, ugh! And Freya! She’s teeny and fierce and OK, she might be a lesbian, I’m getting that vibe off her, but she might not be. And even if she is, life’s just better with beauty in it, you know?”
Merlin kept up the flat stare and didn’t even let his lips twitch with amusement. He had a lot of practice with Gwaine.
Gwaine gave a very dramatic sigh, his arms flopping around and his head thrown back with another ugh. “Come on, Merls. Trust me!” He put his hands on Merlin’s shoulders and gave him a little shake. “I’m worried about you, man. When was the last time you had a boyfriend? That little fling with Elyan back in uni? You’re gonna get blue balls. Look, I’m really good at sharing, you know I am, come along and flirt a little, see the pretty people - hey, just see the pretty flowers if you’re not interested.”
Merlin did the Gaius Eyebrow Lift at Gwaine. “Don’t you go worrying about the state of my balls, Gwaine, they’ll be fine without you.”
“Right, so you say,” he said, patting him.
“Just because you can’t imagine going more than a week without sex—“
“Hey, I’ll have you know I abstained for nearly a month back in January.”
“That was eighteen days, Gwaine.”
“Like I said, nearly a month.”
Merlin couldn’t help laughing and Gwaine grinned and slung his arm around his shoulder, pulling him towards the garden centre. “You won’t try and set me up, will you?” he said quietly, casting a glance at his friend.
Gwaine stopped and looked at him properly. “No, I promise.” He hugged him tight. “I’m sorry, Merls, I was being silly.”
“I mean, because I know you guys don’t think I’m weird, but other people might. And I’m really quite fine with the people I’ve got. You know?”
“Of course they won’t think you’re weird. Do you think I’m weird because I like lots of sex?”
Merlin shrugged and smirked at him. “I think you’re weird, but that’s not the reason.”
Gwaine laughed and pulled him into another half hug as they walked through the door. “That’s the spirit. Let’s go look at pretty things!”
Merlin regretted it almost the moment they walked through the door. The roof was partly translucent, and it turned the shop into an actual greenhouse. He gulped the humid air and felt the blood rise to his cheeks, sweat already prickling between his shoulder blades. “You had better appreciate this, Gwaine,” he hissed, pushing his long sleeves up past his elbows.
Gwaine just snickered. “You have the worst hypothalamus of any human I know.”
“Oh, well, glad to hear there are some… I don’t know, dogs in your life with a worse regulatory region than mine.”
Gwaine burst out into really quite adorable giggles. “Small yappy type dogs,” he gulped.
Merlin slapped his hand over his mouth as he cackled way too loudly. “You really enjoyed that last night, didn’t you?”
“How have I never seen Eddie Izzard’s stand-up before? He’s exactly my type of surreal humour.”
“And now I’ve converted you, you’ll be one of us forever. You have no idea how much power I have over you, Gwaine. All I have to do now is quote Eddie Izzard and you’ll collapse. Like… ‘action transvestite’”
Gwaine doubled over giggling. “Dyslexia was made up by Nazis to piss off kids with dyslexia.”
“That’s just true,” cackled Merlin.
“Excuse me,” said a rather confused boy. “Can I help you?”
Gwaine stood up and wiped tears out of his eyes. “Mordred!” Then he bent over giggling again.
“Excuse him,” grinned Merlin. “He’s only just been introduced to Eddie Izzard.”
Mordred’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I love him. ‘Je suis le President de Burundi!’”
Merlin clapped his hands and jumped up and down. “Yes yes! ‘Le singe est sur la branche!’”
Gwaine straightened up and Merlin wouldn’t have been surprised if his eyes had turned into actual hearts. “You have such good taste,” he said dreamily.
Merlin rolled his eyes as Mordred blushed and tried to hide behind his mass of curls. “I’m gonna go look at… uh, roses or something.”
Gwaine didn’t hear. He was wiping some nonexistent speck of mud off Mordred’s cheek. Merlin rolled his eyes again, it was a wonder they didn’t fall out when he was around Gwaine. On the plus side, he actually had an excuse to get out of this sauna masquerading as a shop.
The difference was immediate, and Merlin took a deep breath of flower scented air as the breeze ruffled his hair. The outside area was beautifully designed. Even a complete non-gardener like Merlin could see that. A wall of uneven grey stone enclosed the space into a courtyard, lined with young fruit trees in pots, filled with rows of tables covered in potted plants. An archway was cut into the wall on the left, and Merlin peered through it, wondering if he was stepping into some other world. Unfortunately, it was just the storage area for bags of compost and gravel. Who knew there were so many different varieties of compost? Merlin had always thought it was just horse poo.
The sound of running water drew him to the back of the courtyard, brushing along a bunch of fluffy leaves labelled ‘lambs ears’, and into a herb section which reminded him of his uncle Gaius’ kitchen, the smell of basil, sage, rosemary and oregano rich in his nose. He wondered if they had - ha! He leaned over the table of pots to the mint section, sliding his bag off his shoulder and onto the floor, tucking it out of the way in front of his feet. Peppermint, spearmint, and there, just a couple of pots, chocolate mint. He grinned as he remembered Gaius coming home with the oddest plants he could find, just about keeping them alive in his little attic flat. He glanced around, then pinched off a leaf and stuck it on his tongue. He grinned as the flavour flooded his mouth. Maybe he should get his own After Eights plant. He probably wouldn’t kill it… too quickly. And it was only a couple of quid.
He was reaching in again to lift out one of the black plastic pots when a low humming buzz sounded in his ear. He yelped and jumped backwards, flapping about his head violently, stumbling away. Of course he crashed into the table behind him. Of course he knocked into a man coming around the corner. Of course he was the most gorgeous person Merlin had ever seen.
“Oi!” yelled the man, stumbling backwards and balancing the stack of pansies. “What are you playing at?”
“Sorry,” said Merlin breathlessly. He wasn’t sure which was more distracting, the stripey murder-bug in following him around or the man’s golden hair glinting in the sun, the blue eyes the colour of a summer sky, the little frown line between his eyebrows, the slightly crooked nose… OK the man was more distracting. “Umm. I’m uh… I’m covered in bees!”
The man stared at him. He was not laughing. Merlin felt hysterical giggles swelling up in his throat and tried to stamp them down. He was obviously no longer among Izzard fans.
“It’s only one bee.”
“It’s… uh, it’s a quote.”
“Stop flapping, you’ll make it worse.”
“What? How will that make it worse, surely it’ll go away rather than get hit by flailing limbs!”
“No, if you stay still it’ll be able to tell you’re not a flower and go away.”
“How can it be confused? How many flowers actually flap around like this?”
“It depends how much wind there is, I don’t know. Just stay still!”
Merlin pursed his lips and froze, glaring at the man. “Fine, but if I get stung--”
“You’re not going to get stung,” he said, rolling his eyes and hoisting the flowers again. “Look, see? It’s going. You’re fine. The tiny, terrifying insect has left you alone.”
“It’s all very well for you to say,” Merlin grumbled. He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m, uh, sorry for nearly knocking you over.”
“No harm done,” he said, and turned down one of the aisles in obvious dismissal.
Merlin had never been very good at taking hints. “I’m Merlin,” he said, following him and sticking out his hand. “Oh, you can’t…”
He just raised his eyebrows and looked pointedly at the armful of flowers. “Arthur Pendragon,” he said anyway, and stopped by a long table under a portico, weighed down by tray after tray of bright blues and purples.
“Oh! Like the name on the front of the building,” grinned Merlin.
“Yes,” said Arthur, deadpan. “Because I own it.”
“I always knew it had nothing to do with that big investment bank.”
Arthur’s cheeks twitched and he glanced slyly at Merlin. “It does, actually. My dad runs the bank.”
“Wow,” Merlin said, looking around again as if it made the place look different. “What, is it a family tradition to just slap your name on everything you own?”
Arthur barked out a sudden laugh, his head thrown back and his eyes crinkled up. Merlin felt a little pull under his ribcage and couldn’t stop his own smile widening. “You’re a cheeky little shit, Merlin.”
Merlin gave a fake gasp. “Is that how you speak to all your customers?”
“Only the ones that steal the chocolate mint leaves,” he said, raising his eyebrows at him.
Merlin scuffed his hair. “You saw that, did you?”
“Well,” he shrugged. “I couldn’t resist.” He leaned back against the table behind him, stroking his fingers over a display of chunky primula of all sorts of garish colours. “My uncle used to -- OW!”
He leaped up and clutched at his arm, panic rising in him as he saw the thorn-like stinger still embedded in the skin. There was already a red, swollen area around it, and his heart beat faster and faster, like it was about to thunder out of his chest and run screaming around the courtyard by itself. “Shit! Shit shit shit.”
“Come here, you big baby, it’s just a bee sting.” Arthur grabbed his wrist and pulled it towards him, bending over his forearm and fishing something out of his pocket. “I’ll scrape the stinger off and take you inside to put some antihistamine cream on it. I must’ve been stung at least three times this month.”
“No, I need…” he pulled at his arm, but Arthur just clutched harder. It did nothing for the rising panic. “I need to…” He wasn’t thinking straight, couldn’t get the words out. The git just needed to let him go so he could reach his… “Fuck! Fuck, where’s my bag?”
“Don’t worry about that right now, let me get this.”
“Are you going to cut it off? What the hell are you doing?”
Arthur glanced up at him and rolled his eyes, then used the blunt end of his knife to scrape the stinger out. It didn’t make it stop hurting. In fact, his fingers were starting to tingle already, and he knew he was going to have to get sorted quickly or he wouldn’t be able to hold the pen. “My bag…” he kept patting his hips like the bloody thing would have shrunk and been put into his pocket.
“Where did you leave it?”
“I don’t… I don’t know. Where’s Gwaine? I need him.”
“Calm down, it’s just a little bee sting.”
His chest felt like it was being squeezed, which made his heart beat faster, which made his chest feel even tighter. He shook his fingers, trying to get some feeling into them. “I need my bag.”
“I’ll help you find it, come on,” said Arthur, chuckling. Merlin barely heard him. He couldn’t think straight, he was panicking too much. Where had they just been? He had to retrace his steps, quickly.
He stepped forward, stumbling slightly. “Are you OK?” frowned Arthur, his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin forced another breath into his lungs. They felt so small. Arthur’s eyes slowly widened. “Shit. You’re not… are you allergic to bee stings?”
“I need my bag,” he mumbled, pushing Arthur off. He’d been… chocolate mint! That’s where he’d been! Where the hell was the mint?
“Fuck!” Arthur hissed under his breath. “No, you stay there. What’s in your bag, have you got some medicine?”
“Fuck, we need your bag.”
Merlin heaved another breath. “By the mint.”
Arthur sprinted off between the tables and Merlin closed his eyes. He’d find it faster. Or would he? What if Arthur didn’t see it? Had he knocked it under the table? He didn’t think it was possible for his heart to beat so hard. Stop thinking! He forced himself to concentrate on the thin breaths he could squeeze into his lungs. They were starting to squeak now, as the air whistled through the constricted airways.
He felt a light slap on his cheek and forced his eyes open. “Stay awake, idiot,” snapped Arthur. “Where’s the epipen?”
“Front pocket,” he croaked, then heaved in another breath like it had exhausted him just to say two little words.
Arthur crouched down at Merlin’s feet, fiddling with the clasps on his leather bag, muttering under his breath. He couldn’t hear a word. Suddenly Arthur yelled ‘ha!’ and stood up, the plastic bag with Merlin’s salvation clutched in his hand. He reached for it, but his fingers, still tingling like they had vicious pins and needles, couldn’t grasp properly. He was pretty sure he whimpered then, and vaguely thought, under the all consuming panic, that he was pathetic.
Arthur must have realised he was in no state to help himself. He started pulling the bag open, muttering ‘shit, shit, shit,’ under his breath. “Do I have to sterilise my hands first?” he asked, dirty fingernails held up way too close to Merlin’s face.
“No,” he said, pushing his hand away. “Just do it, Clotpole.”
“Don’t joke when you’re dying, Merlin,” Arthur snarked back, but there might have been a slight note of hysteria in his voice. Merlin wasn’t sure, he was too busy paying for all the words he’d said, and his head was spinning. Arthur got an epipen out of the box, shaking fingers reading over the instructions on the side. “Right, got it. Stay still,” he snapped, as if Merlin had been planning on dancing the fucking Nutcracker Suite right there. He pulled off the blue cap and stabbed the end into Merlin’s thigh hard enough to bruise.
“Ow!” He tried to yell, but it came out more as a breathy wheeze.
“Sorry,” muttered Arthur. He snorted. “My best reference for this is Pulp Fiction. How long’s it been?”
“I wasn’t timing,” Merlin grunted, but he was already starting to feel better as the adrenaline flooded his system. He leaned his head back on the pillar and closed his eyes. Had breathing ever felt so damn good? He definitely hadn’t appreciated it enough before. Oxygen was amazing.
“Right,” said Arthur. He counted up to ten, then pulled the pen away, anxious eyes flickering over Merlin as if he was going to get worse again just because he’d moved. “Is… is that it then? You OK?”
Merlin shook his head. “I’ve got to go to A&E now,” he sighed. “The adrenaline only lasts fifteen or twenty minutes.”
“What?” Arthur squeaked, and Merlin would have laughed at the high pitch if he wasn’t exhausted and to be honest, still quite stressed out. “You mean you can relapse in the next fifteen minutes?”
Merlin shrugged. “I could ‘relapse’ any time in the next eight hours. I need Gwaine.”
Arthur already had his phone out, calling an ambulance. “Oh, don’t do that,” Merlin groaned. “I’ll just get Gwaine to drive me.”
“And if you get stuck in traffic?” he snapped. “Shut up, Merlin.”
As rude as he was, there was something strangely comforting about being snapped at by a beautiful golden man. Merlin smiled, leaned his head back on the pillar again, and left Arthur to it.