Arthur knew it wasn’t really a good idea to read the comments people made about him online. Actual reviews by real critics could mess you up enough, without worrying about what every idiot with a keyboard thought too. So he tried to stay away from the sites where people talked celebrity rubbish, as well as the places where ‘Camelot’ fans dissected every episode with, well, more care than the writers. In spite of his best efforts, though, he sometimes got tricked into a glance – usually by Morgana.
That was what happened at the beginning of September, when, in only their first week back on set since the summer break, he came across his sister and Leon, hunched over in folding chairs and snickering at something on a netbook.
“Arthur, you’ve got to come and see this,” Morgana said, catching his sleeve as he passed them on the way to the refreshments area. Arthur let her turn him around, and then blinked. He was looking at a big multi-colored banner splashed across the screen, a manipulation of him in his bloody costume, holding a laser pistol against a background of purple and blue explosions.
“No Morgana, come on,” he had groaned. “Not this again.”
“No, wait, it’s good.”
“It’s insane,” said Leon. “Gwen’s going to freak out.”
“She can’t,” Morgana shrugged. “This was posted three months ago, and I know for a fact that Gwen only just finished coming up with the outline for the season opener at the end of July. Look,” she highlighted the script as she read over it.
Predictions for Season Three-.
The poster was someone named Emrys.
The cliffhanger from the series finale will be wrapped up with Captain Asher defeating Wisper. He won’t kill him, but will instead put him in an escape pod heading out to some colony. Then Asher will decide that the only way to be sure that some Psi-Corp operative doesn’t learn that Claire is a rogue telepath is by forgetting- he’ll ask her to wipe his memory. Sadly this will force Asher to forget their relationship as well. They’ll share one last kiss and then she’ll do it... this’ll bring us back to the status quo, so, re-cue another season of him not noticing as she saves his ugly hide over and over, more not-terribly convincing sexual tension, etc. Then I guess Vivian will come back to be the first officer again, except we’ll soon discover that she’s now a Psi-Corp double agent... -.
“That’s exactly like the script,” Arthur said in disbelief. “Is ‘Camelot’ really that predictable?”
“This has been linked everywhere,” Morgana declared. “Apparently Emrys is brilliant at guessing the plot to things. Once Gwen sees this she’s going to want to change the whole script, because otherwise we’re going to look like we’re copying from the amateurs.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Leon leaned back in his chair. “Most people who watch the show won’t even care. These guys are, like, the hard core fans: the ones who sit around all day diddling themselves to Morgana’s publicity shots, or, if they’re woman, writing Asher/Milo stories.”
Arthur felt his face going red. “Please tell me you don’t read that crap.”
“It’s hilarious. Did you know that they ship Leon/Arthur too? Like, when they saw that photo of you with your Dalmatian, in Hello -. ”
“Just shut up,” Arthur swore, and stomped off before Leon said something he couldn’t un-hear.
Morgana, because she was evil like that, did show the post to Gwen, who proceeded to spend the morning passing through the various stages of grief: first denying that it bothered her, then angry at whoever wrote it, and then negotiating with the producer to let her change a little of the season opener, just it wouldn’t be exactly same. They shot her down, of course, as it was too late and too expensive to start making unnecessary changes. Gwen spent her afternoon twisting little pieces of paper into tight spirals and biting her lip.
Arthur felt badly for her. Gwen was one of the nicest people on the set and Camelot was her baby, the first pilot she’d ever sold. It was no wonder she tended to be insecure about it. Actually, it was uncanny how she managed to have absolute faith in everyone working on the show (the actors were brilliant, the set designers inspired, the camera men amazing), except herself. She was convinced that every little thing that ever went wrong was her fault, no matter how little it had to do with her job description. Arthur wondered if she would be able survive in the entertainment industry– her self-effacing nature seemed to argue against it – but on the other hand she was brilliant, really good, and it seemed that genius might cause her to float her over the minefields that would sink a lesser talent.
That thought, and its corollary - whether Arthur himself had that kind of talent - nagged in the back of his mind as he made his way home that evening.
When the show had first started, he hadn't been sure how long it was going to last, and therefore, how long he was going to be in Toronto. So he had rented a furnished apartment downtown, easy to move into and easy to leave again later. Now it had been almost two years, and the place was exactly the same, decorated in neutral colors with forgettable furniture, with very little of Arthur in it: except of course for Cafall, who, despite being white-and-black himself, was like a bounding splash of color in the dreary place. There was a housekeeper, too, who came most days of the week, but today happened to be her day off, and so he could hear Cafall dancing by the door as he turned his key in the lock, eager to go out.
Once the dog was taken care off, Arthur made himself a quick dinner of hummus and toast, and then, not really thinking about what he was doing, opened his laptop and typed in the URL of the site he had seen that morning. Cafall curled up by his feet, looking bored.
Arthur frowned as he browsed the recent postings. Everyone was excited about season three: much discussion of what part Alan Adams, who had been contracted to do a guest appearance, would play, and also talk about the Asher/Claire storyline and whether people wanted Asher to know that she was a telepath or not.
The Emrys guy was everywhere. After a couple of the comments, Arthur figured out that he was a mod. Then his eye caught one of the threads.
Arthur Pendragon acting ability?
“What do you think?” Arthur asked Cafall, who cocked an eyebrow on him. Arthur shrugged, and clicked on it.
He’s like a modern day William Shatner. Some guy named Mordred had posted. Asher is the most one-dimensional character on Camelot, and it’s all Pendragon’s fault.
A couple of people offered half-hearted agreements or disagreements, and then Emrys had replied.
Pendragon is better than you give him credit for. Think about who Asher was at the beginning of the series and who he is now. He’s gotten more empathetic... but also tougher and smarter. That’s all due to Pendragon. Just because he’s a scifi actor people totally underestimate how competent he is.
It was silly, but Arthur went to bed with a smile on his face, and a feeling like somewhere out there was a fan that actually got what he was trying to do.
It was still dark the next morning when Cafall started nudging Arthur’s elbow with his cool nose. They ran four miles in the crisp, chilly morning air, and the sun was just turning the sky pink when they turned back towards the apartment. Once inside, Cafall collapsed on his blanket while Arthur opted instead for a hot shower. Afterwards, while he fixed himself a protein shake for breakfast, he checked the site again.
Arthur Pendragon – John Sand in the upcoming Battle Cry of the Stars movie?
He would be great for the part, wrote Emrys. But there’s no way it’s happening. Unlike some of the other actors on Camelot, who have done tons of SciFi shows and are clearly geeks themselves, Pendragon has admitted himself in interviews that he doesn’t even read science fiction. There’s no way he knows what an awesome book Battle Cry is. My bet is he’s hoping that Camelot will help launch him into a more mainstream tv show or to movies, so he’ll avoid accepting other genre roles like the plague…
It was just the internet, but Arthur felt a little angry – or maybe it was betrayed. He’d gotten the idea that Emrys was his fan, or something, but apparently not. Quickly he hit the reply button.
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And then the screen was asking him to make up some kind of a name: Arthur had always been crap at thinking of good ones. Asher, or Captain, or Excalibur… all seemed a little obvious, but he didn’t want to stall out waiting for the perfect thing to comes to him, either. Finally he just typed in “Cafall” which was what he used for half of his passwords anyway, and went back to the message.
Maybe Pendragon hasn’t heard of ‘Battle Cry’. He wrote. But only an idiot would turn down a script without even reading it. If he had been – Arthur stopped, reconsidered, and deleted the last words – If he has been offered Battle Cry of the Stars, and the script is good and the part is interesting, he wouldn’t reject it just because it was scifi.
This set off a small storm of replies, which he found crowding his inbox the next time he checked it – apparently Arthur wasn’t the most popular actor on Camelot, at least in this corner of the internet. Everyone thought he was arrogant, that he felt he was “too good” for scifi, and sometimes ruined scenes by smirking his way through the dialogue. Emrys threw in a half-hearted defense, but it mostly came down to, “well, he does do that, but he could be better if he tried.”
Arthur felt pricked and irritated, and he brought that intensity to the day’s shooting, saying lines like, “force-fields to maximum,” and “I’ve never seen skin such a tantalizing shade of blue,” with more attention than usual. He even found himself thinking about the inner emotional core of Asher, in the moment where he turned down the Cyrusian prostitute/spy in order to play go with Claire in her quarters – Asher didn’t remember their relationship anymore, but he still felt drawn to her, and confused about why his feeling were so intense for a crewmember he hardly knew. Claire then confused things further by trying to keep her distance but then breaking down and seeking him out again. It was actually more interesting that he had originally realized.
“That was amazing,” Gwen enthused, at the end of the day’s shooting. “You really got the dynamic I was aiming for, didn’t you?”
When he checked the site again that evening Emrys had posted a complicated theory about literary echoes of Alexandre Dumas and someone named Alfred Bester. Arthur asked Gwen about it at work the next day– sort of omitting to tell what the source of the idea was – and she had smiled at him in a shy and pleased way.
“Sort of,” she agreed. “It’s not that I don’t admire Bester. My Dad loves him, so I cut my teeth on the Stars my Destination!” she laughed. “But in my version, the Count isn’t Asher. Maybe one day it would be Vivian. You know, if everything turns out really wrong at the end, she’s the kind to become a supervillain and go and get revenge. ”
Arthur repeated all this on the web that evening, although again, he made it seem like sort of his idea.
This earned him his first recognition from Emrys.
Never thought of it like that he said, But hey, maybe you’re right! You’re new, yeah? Welcome to the forums!
Thanks, Arthur wrote back. It seems like a friendly place.
There were probably a couple hundred people who posted really frequently about Camelot fandom. Merlin wasn’t sure what it said about him that he knew most of them, or at least would recognize a lot of the usernames. He was a fairly successful person in real life: he had a decent job and a good group of friends, he lived in Philadelphia, which was not an entirely crap city, and he went go out and did things in it when he had time. In other words, he probably didn’t fit the media image of a sad, obsessed fanboy, and there was no obvious reason why he should be curling up every evening with his laptop for as many hours as he could get away with to argue existential questions such as, does Arthur Pendragon have too much of a surfer-boy vibe to successfully carry off the role of 24th century space ship captain?
Merlin thought emphatically that Pendragon’s vibe was just fine, but werekitty (his friend Freya, in real life, and also his first internet friend who had gone on to become a real life friend) totally wasn’t buying it.
I know you think Pendragon is hot. Her message popped up on gchat. And he is, I grant you that. But it’s the twenty-fourth century, Merlin! It’s supposed to be all multicultural and shit! I know for a fact Gwen Smith originally described Asher as ‘ethnic’.
Whatever, blond can be ethnic. Merlin wrote back, just to tease her.
It was probably his Mom’s fault. She had been totally into Star Trek when he was a kid, so he’d grown up watching both the Next Generation (Wesley Crusher was his first tv crush) and the Original Series and all of the movies. Her little house in York was packed to gills with fantasy and sci-fi novels, all the way from Heinlein and Joanna Russ (she kept them on the shelf together because she liked to imagine that they bickered with each other there) to Murakami and Vernor Vinge. They had even gone together to really old-school trekkie conventions when he was a kid. One year he had had his own Klingon suit, which doubled for Halloween.
By high school he was obsessed with comic books, and then in college it was anime for a while. Then Merlin took a partial hiatus from the whole fan-thing because he got busy with nursing school and also came out, so, well, he'd distracted by guys. He’d been on the verge of boxing all his old stuff up, sending it to goodwill, and declaring it a phase of his life that was officially over when he’d met Will, who was just as out-and-proud about his fannishness as he was about his sexuality. He was a loud, unashamed, complete and utter geek, and with him Merlin had resurrected all that old stuff that he’d almost forgotten how much he enjoyed.
Their relationship had only lasted a year, but the fandom didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Although Merlin was a die-hard fan of all things sci-fi, the shows he was really into tended to change from year to year. At the moment he was all about Camelot. It was just fun. It didn’t take itself too seriously but at the same time it wasn’t afraid to try things. Merlin had a theory that the writers (Gwen Smith, probably) were actually using the show's apparent banality to sneak controversial ideas in under the radar. The actors were decent, and the characters were complicated enough that they transferred well into a second-life as fannish constructs.
He knew all the little cyber-haunts of the Camelot fandom, and he knew a bunch of the people who posted a lot. So Merlin noticed naturally whenever someone new came on board. He noticed Cafall in particular because the comments were smart.
Or rather, some of the comments were smart. Cafall clearly wasn’t much into fan-culture generally, because sometimes he missed the obvious references. But he had interesting ideas about the show and what it was trying to say, so right away Merlin enjoyed talking to him.
Sometimes Merlin made real-life friends through the internet, but usually he didn’t. Usually he just have chatted casually with people online and left it at that. When he did become friends with someone, it usually happened because they tripped over some common ground in a thread, which then turned into more of an extended conversation.
In Cafall’s case, the friendship began to coalesce around the big gay-love-story-episode.
What happened was that Gwen Smith wrote an episode in while Milo, the Camelot’s chief security officer, met an ambiguously-gendered alien and engaged in a little R&R. It was pretty simple story and the ambiguously-gendered alien was actually played by a woman. But a comment at the end of the episode, Vivian caught Milo sitting uncomfortably and said something about ‘a busy night?” which led everyone to assume there had been some gay lovin’ going on. Or maybe some tentacle porn.
As a gay man, Emrys had written, I’m not sure how I feel about the whole Milo-Thrah’na story arc. I mean, on the one hand, it feels like it’s meant to be a little wink at the fannish audience. So should I feel flattered that the show is winking at me? Or should I be offended, because Thrah’na’s an effeminate, stereotypical kind of gay alien? Or should I just be grateful that a non hetero-normative relationship is getting play on tv at all?
I don’t know. Cafall had replied. I think the writers just playing with the idea of what non-human sexuality might look like. I mean, less political, more speculative? I’m a gay man myself, for what it’s worth…
Huh, Merlin had thought when he’d read that, a gay man. He generally never pictured the people he wrote back and forth to on the internet, but mostly imagined, in a non-specific kind of way, women a little bit younger than himself, possible with cats… although he knew it was unfair, it was undoubtedly true that the Camelot fandom was 60-70% female.
He’d written a quick private message to Cafall. Gay men of Camelot should stick together!
For sures. Cafall had written back, making Merlin laugh.
When Arthur first gotten into acting, it hadn’t taken him long to line up a couple of major auditions. He’d been happy, convinced that he’d made the right choice in telling Uther to shove it. His father’s name had only rarely come up rarely when talking to people, and when it did it was usually only some executive saying, “Oh, I played golf with your old man a couple of years ago.”
So he hadn’t thought that the Pendragon name was giving him much of an advantage. He might have gone on thinking that, if he hadn’t gone out for drinks one night with his sister (not by blood, Morgana was his father’s third wife’s daughter from an earlier marriage) and had her laugh in his face when he said so.
Really, he didn’t know where Morgana got off saying anything about it. She had been trying to transition from modeling to television just then, and certainly hadn’t been above using her mother or stepfather’s famous surnames to ease the process along.
“I know,” Morgana had said, leaning over the table when he’d pointed that out and blowing smoke past his ear. “I’m not above using every trick in the book, Arthur. You do it, too, you just don’t realize. It would be cute how you don’t even see how entitled you are, if it wasn’t really annoying instead.”
Afterwards, determined to prove Morgana wrong and then throw it in her face, he’d used his mother’s maiden name on the some auditions, and been disappointed, and a bit hurt, when he didn’t even get a call back on any of them.
It got worse, too. He realized that couldn’t even pull reservations to certain restaurants unless he dropped a “Pendragon”. He didn’t get as many spontaneous invitations to things, and people weren’t quite as nice or as awed by him when they didn’t know his surname. It wasn’t even really subtle once he knew what to look for. Lots of people had been stealthily cozening up to him without his noticing why.
He hated it when Morgana was right.
Soon after that conversation, Morgana had gotten a role on a syfy channel made-for-tv-movie in which she ran around in a miniskirt and eventually rode on the back of a digitally-created dragon. She pretended to indifferent to this, but Arthur knew, because Morgana had had stacks of Anne McCaffery books in her bedroom when she was a kid, that it was secretly her dream job.
Arthur auditioned for (and failed to get) the role of henchmen three in an upcoming JJ Abrams movie. He decided to give it six months before he gave up and went back to using his real name.
With five and a half months down, Morgana got him in for the Camelot auditions. Arthur had sworn up and down he wouldn’t do scifi, first because unlike Morgana he had no interest in the genre, and secondly because he didn’t want to get typecast for life. The Camelot audition was going to be the last thing he did before firing his agent and then going out and using the power of his father’s name to get a better one.
Unexpectedly he got the job.
Afterwards, he went back to Pendragon anyway. He was never even really sure if he’d really gotten the 'Camelot' job on his own merits or not.
But he really hoped that he had.
What time-zone are you in? Merlin wrote. We’re going to do real-time reactions to this week’s episode. I get it here Thurs 8pm EST.
I’m in Toronto. Cafall wrote back a couple of hours later. So it’s the same time here. I’ll be there.
What’s your gchat? Merlin fired back right away, tapping with his thumb on his iphone. He was in line at the hospital cafeteria Starbucks.
A few minutes passed.
Not very original, Merin thought idly. He used his own actual name on gchat, which admittedly might not be the greatest idea ever, although he’d never had any problems because of it.
On Thursday Freya called him on skype right before the episode. She was in Berlin and it was literally two o’clock in the morning there, and Merlin was pretty sure she was tipsy.
“I brought wine!” She said, holding the bottle up to show him. “Now, you have to tell me everything that’s happening, ok?”
“Ok” Merlin agreed. He minimized her to a corner of the screen and added Cafall’s name to his chat list. After a moment the green circle appeared.
Hi he wrote.
Yup. I’ve got an empty bottle here, in case I need to pee at a critical moment.
… um, there are commercial breaks, you know?
“Merlin!” Freya said. “I can see you typing away over there. Are you cheating on me?”
“Ha,” Merlin told her. “I’m talking to Cafall, from the forums.”
“Oh shit, hold on, it’s starting!” Freya only knew this because she could hear the theme music through Merlin’s shitty laptop microphone. He made a face at her.
I hope this season doesn’t suck, he told Cafall.
The show started with Asher, shirtless, with white bandages over his shoulder, lying in a glade.
“Asher’s shirtless in a glade,” Merlin told Freya.
“Nice,” she said, appreciatively. “Bring the camera up to the screen so I can see.”
“We tried that before, remember? It doesn’t work.”
“It might, this time.”
Why is Asher wearing bandages? He wrote to Cafall. This is supposed to the twenty-fourth century. They have healing tricorders and stuff.
Tricorders are from Startrek. Camelot has super medical scanners instead. Maybe their shuttle was wrecked, no med supplies, idk.
I won’t complain about Pendragon shirtless, I guess.
You don’t think he’s hot?
There was a pause on Cafall’s end. Not my type, really?
Merlin kept half an eye on the screen as Claire arrived to fix Asher’s bandages, and confirmed that the all their medical supplies were no more.
How can Pendragon not be your type? Merlin scolded.
… Cafall typed back.
Well what is then?
“What are you doing?” Freya asked. “What’s happening on the show?”
“Um,” Merlin paused. “Claire and Asher are being sort of flirty. She’s all worried that his wound will turn gangrenous and he doesn’t know if the planet is really deserted. They don’t know if anyone heard their distress beckon before the shuttled crashed. Cafall said that doesn’t think Arthur Pendragon is hot.”
“He doesn’t?” Freya shook her head. “That’s just bizarre. Are you sure he’s gay?”
Are you sure you’re gay? Merlin wrote.
I’m pretty sure, yeah. Cafall paused. My thing is more like, geeky guys in glasses. Slightly hipster.
I can work with that Merlin wrote and then deleted it.
“How old do you think Cafall is?” he asked Freya.
“Uh oh.” She sighed and took a sip of her wine. “Are you cyber-flirting? He could be, like, twelve. Or sixty.”
“He doesn’t really seem like a kid.” Merlin frowned and considered.
So what do you do in Toronto? He typed.
Cafall didn’t answer for a few minutes. On screen, things had moved into a flashback sequence, showing that Asher and Claire had ended up trapped in the shuttle together after the Camelot had been taken over by an unexpected mutiny.
Then the show went to a commercial break.
I’m a financial manager, Cafall ‘s message arrived. You?
“He’s a financial manager,” Merlin told Freya.
I’m a nurse, he wrote back. And I’m getting my MSN, part time.
I’m twenty-six, Merlin wrote, pressing through the awkwardness of it because he was curious. It seems a little old to still be into fandom, but I don’t know, these days it’s not so unusual, right? I mean, I meet a lot of people who are even older than me.
I’m twenty-seven. Cafall wrote back right away. So, yeah, I hope it’s still alright.
“He’s twenty-seven!” Merlin said triumphantly to Freya.
The show came back again, and Merlin got more involved in telling Freya what was going on. The Camelot came to rescue them, but then they didn’t know if it was still controlled by mutineers or not. Asher and Claire spent a lot of time looking longingly into each other’s eyes.
I wish Asher would just get his memory back, he said to Cafall.
Really? Even though you totally predicted this would happen, that he’d forget again?
Yeah. You saw that post? I mean, what I want to happen and what I think will happen aren’t the same thing.
I guess the producers are just afraid that the show will lose its momentum, if people know.
It’s totally the opposite. Merlin typed back furiously. The show is on the verge of turning into ’50 First Dates’. Asher’s been brain-wiped so many times that they should just shave his head and call him Luthor.
Hahaha. I don’t think Pendragon would go for that, though.
When the shuttle from the Camelot finally landed, Vivian was the one to walk out – apparently having taken the ship back from the mutineers, although really she had been the one to cause all the trouble in the first place.
“So she’s evil now,” said Freya.
“Well, she was re-programmed by Psi-Corp.” Merlin sighed.
“You can tell because her clothing got skankier.”
Merlin laughed and told her goodnight.
The next day, on a whim, Arthur sent Emrys a picture of an ugly Camelot-themed plastic cup he found at a fast food restaurant.
Soda is terrible for you Emrys wrote back, almost immediately.
Right, I forgot, Nurse– Merlin, right?
Merlin is my real-life name, yeah. What’s yours?
There was a pause.
Ha. Nice to meet you then, Simon.
This turned into regular texting back and forth, first just occasionally, but then more and more often. It soon becomes apparent that they both had iphones and were both addicted to gchat. Arthur spent all day switching back and forth between his real account, and the one he’d created for Merlin, which he only used to talk to him and eventually to Merlin’s friend werekitty and one or two other fans. After they caught him pulling out his phone obsessively in between breaks in the filming, Morgana and Elena got the idea that he was seeing someone. Arthur sort of let them go on believing that, it was easier than trying to explain.
Soon he and Merlin were talking more and more about things that had nothing to do with Camelot or even with fandom in general. Arthur sent Merlin a picture of a guy in front of him on the street one day, wearing a long, pink and green scarf that trailed down to his feet. Merlin responded with one of his pediatric patients in a silver and purple, plastic ribbon and tinsel decorated wheelchair. Arthur sent a picture of Cafall gleefully frolicking with a miniature dachshund at the dog park, Merlin sent a photo of a gray cat with a weird milky white eye (his mom’s, he explained). Finally it just got goofy: Arthur took a shot of the bagel he’d snagged for breakfast, Merlin sent back an image of the trashcan in his break room at work, filled with paper starbucks coffee cups.
It seems weird that I know more about the contents of your stomach than what you actually look like. Merlin wrote, after that happened. Here’s me.
It was just his face: he had dark hair, high cheekbones, warm laughing eyes. He was handsome. Arthur looked at it and thought, oh, right, he’s a real person. It was like he’d been having such a good time that he’d almost forgotten: Merlin wasn’t lying about anything: this was exactly who he was, and he’d been saying so the whole time.
He thought about it for a couple of hours, and then sent a picture – of his cousin, his mom’s brother’s son, who was a lawyer in Connecticut – back instead.
Merlin shot him back a smiley emoticon when he received it.
Arthur felt like crap.
Skype? Merlin asked. We can watch episode five and drink every time Asher’s shirt falls off.
That’s disturbing, wrote Arthur. He already knew that he spent half the episode bare-chested, since the story featured a fire in engineering that, inexplicably, only burned his clothing and nothing else. The producers had suggested that it should damage Claire’s uniform as well, but all Elena had had to do was talk about the objectification of women by the media for about ninety seconds straight before they backed down on that idea.
In Arthur’s head he was thinking shit, and abort, abort! and what am I actually doing?
But what he actually said was Sure, why not?
He made a new fake skype account.
“No video?” Merlin said, when he called later.
“Sorry, my camera’s broken.”
“Too bad. Wow, you have a nice voice.”
“… thanks?” Arthur said, momentarily worried that Merlin recognized him.
“Yup,” Merlin was teasing him, he realized after a second.
“Hey, so, listen! You know FanExpo, right? I’ve got the vacation days, I’m going to drive up with a friend. You live in Toronto, right?”
“What?” Arthur tried to remember what exactly FanExpo was. He vaguely recalled someone saying something a couple of weeks ago, that the show was trying to rope them all into going to some kind of a thing. Arthur usually avoided conventions if he could. He left them to Gwen, who loved talking to the fans, or to Morgana, who enjoyed thrilling and terrifying them by turns.
“I can’t make it,” Arthur said, thinking quickly. “I’ve got a work thing that weekend.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” Merlin sounded disappointed.
“I’m – um. I’m going to be out of town,” Arthur added. “For the thing.”
“What are your dates? Maybe we could get there a little early or...”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said firmly. Probably this was what he should have done ages ago. “I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
After that, not unexpectedly, communication with Merlin fell at once to almost nil. Arthur almost sent a few apologetic messages, but always stopped himself first.
It was for the best. It had been getting weird, and that wasn’t Merlin’s fault. It was his, for not telling him the truth. Which, ok, Merlin would probably have been mad, but maybe he would have thought it was cool. He didn’t think Merlin would have run around telling everyone or posting Arthur’s goofy chat messages on twitter.
Maybe he should just have told him, Arthur wondered.
“You seem down,” Gwen observed, later. “And you haven’t been on the phone all the time like before. Did something happen?”
“No,” Arthur snapped.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Gwen answered, clearly listening to Arthur’s tone and not to the content of what he said. “You seemed really cheerful recently. I thought- I mean, sorry, I don’t want you to feel bad, I guess I shouldn’t be bringing up things that-“
“Hey,” Arthur said, mostly just to interrupt her slowly derailing apology. “You’re going to go to FanExpo, right?”
“Yeah, of course!” she beamed. “It’s going to be right downtown you know. I’m doing a panel with other writers on Friday and, of course, the Camelot behind-the-scenes panel on Saturday afternoon. You’ll be there, right?”
Arthur meant to say no, but somehow ended up telling Gwen to go ahead and put his name on the list instead. Then it turned out that everyone was anxious to lock him in before he changed his mind, and Arthur decided why not, what the hell. Maybe he’d even see Merlin there. Arthur could act like he didn’t know him, or maybe he could do something nice to make up for things – he wasn’t sure –
His phoned buzzed.
I think maybe I overreacted. Merlin had written. Anyway, I’m sorry I’ll miss you at FanExpo.
Merlin met Freya at the airport with a giant sign and a frappuchino. After she had a chance to sleep off her jet lag they walked all over the city together, catching up on everything, and then they settled down to a marathon of television watching and wine drinking at his apartment. After going through a bottle of Gato Negro between them, he told her about what had happened with Simon/Cafall.
“I think maybe he’s fat.” He told her. “He sent me a picture once, but now that I think about it, it was suspicious. I mean, all the other photos he sent were right from his phone, but this was like, a vacation shot or something. And then I told him we were going to be in Toronto, and he totally freaked out.”
“Asshole,” said Freya. “Yeah, he’s probably fat. Or insecure. And lying.”
“It’s so annoying,” Merlin signed and leaned over on his comfortable old couch so that she could stroke his hair. “I don’t know why, but I kind of thought.. you know, people do meet each other over the internet sometimes. I met you over the internet.”
Freya looked him sympathetically, her face half visible in the flickering light of the tv. “Merlin, I have met one wonderful person – you – over the internet, and I’ve had like ten guys expose themselves to me on Chat Roulette. And I’ve been on several very bad dates with people from OKCupid, and I tried to buy a television from someone on Craigslist and it turned out just to be a setup to steal my credit card information. So, you know, I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s not easy either.” She sat up abruptly, shook his shoulder, and grinned at him.
“We are going to have the best road trip ever. We are going to see the Niagara Falls, and eat things that are Canadian, and then we are going to have an awesome time at FanExpo and it is going to be amazing. You’ll find an awesome guy whose love of Battlestar Galatica is as huge as yours, and I will make out with a man in a Ferengi costume. Ok?”
“God, no, not a Ferengi,” Merlin said, laughing so hard that he started to hiccup.
“Maybe a Vulcan,” Freya conceded.
They drank another bottle of wine and a half after that, and the next morning Merlin only just managed to avoid throwing up when he rolled out of bed a little too quickly. He drank a lot of water, kept the lights low, and checked his email on the computer quietly while Freya snored lightly from the couch in the living room.
Hey - Simon had answered him after all. So guess what? My business meeting got postponed and so I’m going to be here for the con after all. Still want to meet up?
Merlin read it twice. If he waited until Freya woke up and asked her what to do about it, he wasn'tt sure what she would say: whether she’d recommend that Merlin meet him because, hey, it would be fun to find out what the big mystery was, or tell him to protect himself and ignore it.
Sure. He wrote back, taking the chance to weigh in away from her.
The next morning they set out for Toronto. In the first hour alone, Freya made them listen to country music stations and insane political call-in radio, and then to podcasts she’d downloaded to her ipod. They stopped many, many times in Pennsylvania, first to buy tomato jam from an Amish grocery on the roadside and then to look at an antiques barn. Then Freya started trying to teach Merlin German, and that kept them busy as the landscape shifted slowly from the gray woods and farmland of Pennsylvania in winter to the almost identical scenery of western New York.
They visited the Falls and then gave up their original plan of camping because it was really, really cold, and neither of them was sure how to make a fire, and the small tent and sleeping bags Merlin had thrown in the trunk of his car didn’t seem like they were going to cut it. The overpriced hotel room they got instead was totally worth it.
So where are we going to meet up? Merlin texted while Freya was in the bathroom of a Friendly’s restaurant the following morning.
Before the Camelot cast panel?
The cast panel was on the last day of the conference, reinforcing Merlin’s suspicion that Simon was hiding something. They would meet, Merlin would learn that Simon was married/a woman/underage, Simon would ask forgiveness for having lied, and the whole thing will be over, ready to be packaged up and pushed into the back closet of Merlin’s mind, the place he saved for embarrassing memories.
It turned out that Arthur almost did end up missing FanExpo for work. His agent called at the last minute and he ended up flying to New York to read for a part.
He only got back to Toronto an hour before the panel was supposed to take place. Given the time he could have skipped it and blamed it on the trip. Instead he grabbed his bag and raced straight from the airport to the convention center, sweating and grimy when he finally slid into his seat and the front of the room next to Morgana. The coordinators had set up their table with water bottles and danish, which Morgana was inhaling in massive bites. A minute later the announcer quieted the room and began introductions.
Arthur was scanning the space, looking for Merlin, when his phone vibrated in his pocket.
Did you make it? Merlin asked. I’m waiting for you right outside the door.”
He tried to get up, but Morgana grabbed his sleeve. “What are you doing? We’re about to start.”
“I need the bathroom,” he hissed to her.
God, he was going to lose his nerve if he didn’t just do this. He got up again, ignoring Morgana’s look, but just then the MC stopped talking and turned the session over to Gwen to say a few words.
I’m sorry, he typed into his phone, ignoring the fact that Morgana elbowed him for texting while on stage. I’m not going to make it in time. Let’s meet after.
His phone buzzed in his pocket a second later.
Don’t worry about it.
Arthur thought he meant, don’t worry about it, we can meet after. But a second later his phone buzzed again.
Let’s just skip it then.
I don’t want to skip it, Arthur texted furiously back.
“Stop that,” Morgana whispered to him. “I’m going to take your phone away from you.”
“Just give me a second.”
I really will see you after, he told Merlin. Tell me how the panel goes. Go in there and proposition Pendragon for me.
Haha, said Merlin. Very funny.
Arthur saw the door open in the back of the room. A guy slipped in, tall and kind of gangly. Arthur couldn’t really see his face well. It was standing room only, and the man ended up with a group of people behind the chairs.
“Let’s open it up for Q&A” says the MC, and people started to queue for the microphone in the middle of the aisle. Hurry up, Arthur thought to himself. Let’s go, come on, move along here. Someone asked him something about training for Asher’s fight scenes, and he answered monosyllabically.
“Miss LeFay, Vivian is such a great character,” the next person in line said, making Morgana smile, “How do you balance the good and evil sides to her personality?”
“Well, thank you for saying so,” she cooed. “It’s easy because Gwen is such an amazing writer….” Arthur willed her to talk faster. He wasn’t sure what he was doing, where this was going, but he wanted to talk to Merlin before he disappeared.
Slowly they got through the questioners, one at a time.
“Well, I'm sure these guys are busy,” said the MC, finally - finally! Arthur was already trying to get up when he added, “So there’s just time for one or two last questions.”
The second-to-last fan wanted to know where Gwen got the idea for the episode in which Asher was thrown back in time, and then, suddenly, Arthur realized that the last person standing in front of the microphone was Merlin. Merlin looked a little embarrassed, grinning sheepishly, and Arthur found himself smiling back, stupidly, not sure at all what was happening.
“I’m Merlin and I’m a huge fan of the show and – er – I have a question for Arthur,” he said, and then he looks him straight at him, with a mischievous expression that foreshadowed what was coming. “Mr. Pendragon, I’d like to invite you for a drink later this evening-” his words got drowned out by the friendly shouts and cat calls from around the room.
Arthur took the microphone that Gwen passed to him, and gripped it tightly, like a weapon. He wondered if Merlin had figured it out.
“I’d love too.”
The crowd went crazy with delight. Arthur grinned, feeling real and genuine and free, and Merlin smiled back – although, while it seemed like a nice smile, it didn’t quite match Arthur’s for intensity. Then, as the session broke up, he didn’t wait for him, but turned and left the room instead.
“That was a nice way to handle it, Arthur,” Gwen said. She looked surprised when he got up suddenly.
“I’ll just – I’ll be a second,” he mumbled, and hurried towards the door.
The lobby was full of people, several of whom stared stupidly at him, blocking his path. It took him a minute to find Merlin, slouched in a corner next to the bathrooms, doing something with his phone.
Arthur’s phone buzzed.
You won’t believe what I just did :-p. Merlin had written. I can’t believe you missed it, I’ve just made a giant ass of myself.
I didn’t miss it, Arthur wrote quickly.
You saw? Merlin wrote and then a second later. You’re here? Really?
Promise you won’t be pissed. Arthur typed, before taking one last breath and stepping in front of Merlin. He held up his iphone in one hand, and it buzzed just after Merlin hit the ‘send’ key again on his own phone.
“Arthur?” Merlin said, sounding choked. “Pendragon?”
“Still up for drinks?” Arthur asked tentatively.
“Oh, it’s alright, that’s nice of you, but-“ Merlin babbled. “I’m actually kind of waiting for someone.”
“Me,” Arthur said. “You’re –uh. You’re waiting for me.”
Merlin was just standing there, looking at him, so Arthur said, “Look,” and clicked on his phone to a message he saved but hadn’t sent before, and handed it over to Merlin.
Sorry I didn’t send you my real picture.
Merlin looked down at it, and up at Arthur, and then back down at the phone. A sizable number of people had started to gather around them, watching Arthur.
“Oh.” Merlin said, and his face cycled through too many emotions too quickly for Arthur to read them. “Oh my God. You enormous prat!” He looked around wildly, as if he was trying to find an escape route, and Arthur stepped smoothly in front of him, blocking the way.
“Merlin!” he said urgently, because he wasn’t sure how much time he would get to make his case.
“I didn’t really mean to, I mean, I should have said so earlier. But if you’re still interested, I would still really like to, ah,” he fumbled, “get a drink. With you.”
At age twenty-six, Merlin was annoyed to find himself dating a celebrity.
Annoyed because, well, first of all, he wasn’t exactly sure how it had happened, and secondly, it still threw him off a bit sometimes: for example, the first time he rolled out of bed in the morning and found Arthur Pendragon in the kitchen (not shirtless), making coffee.
“How are we going to work this out?” he had asked, lounging against the counter as Arthur handed him a mug. “You’re in Toronto, I’m here... I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is great, but…”
Arthur leaned over the coffee to kiss him lightly.
“There are these amazing things called planes,” he said, smug. “I used one to get here. I’ll use it tomorrow to go home again. Maybe next weekend you can come up and visit me.”
“Not next weekend, I’ve got an exam,” Merlin had said, and then, realizing he was getting distracted by the logistics before they’d even really defined what this was going to be, shook his head and said, “No, I mean-“
“I get it,” Arthur said, and shrugged. “But I don’t know either. Let’s just see how it goes, ok?”
Freya’s first response had been to turn so red with excitement so badly suppressed that Merlin had been afraid her head was going to explode. They had to start driving back from Toronto to Philadelphia only the morning after they met Arthur. Merlin had been distracted and Freya giddy and they’d spent the whole car ride talking about it and then trying not to talk about it and then nearly putting the car into a ditch because Merlin’s phone rang and they thought it might be Arthur.
Freya had headed off to New York to visit other friends and then the next weekend Arthur flew down and met him in Philadelphia.
They spent the day walking around downtown, although the weather was frigid, horrible and gray and spitting occasional freezing rain. They walked until Merlin’s feet were frozen and talked the whole time, hours and hours in which he started to feel increasingly sure that Arthur wasn’t insane, that the fun they’d had hanging out that Saturday night after meeting for the first time hadn’t been Arthur playing up the celebrity charisma out of guilt, but because maybe he actually kind of liked Merlin, for the same reasons that Merlin had thought he might have actually kind of liked Simon.
Arthur slept on his couch that night, and the next morning he had made the coffee.
He came back to Philly again three weeks later, and then Merlin visited him in Toronto, by which time the weather was finally warming up. They spent the morning walking through Kensington Market with Cafall, and then in the evening Arthur took him to a gothic brick chimera of a hotel to listen to a local band, where, in the warm darkness at the back of the bar, Merlin tried, but failed, to pay attention to the music, and shivered with tension until Arthur’s hand finally slipped over his thigh.
After that neither of them slept on the couch anymore.
That spring Arthur started texting him with spoilers, messages that Merlin tried not to open. This caused him to miss a few of Arthur’s non-spoiler-related text messages as well, so eventually Arthur stopped. In the summer he went up to Toronto again and they spent two weeks mostly lying on the floor of Arthur’s apartment reading: in Merlin’s case reports and scientific articles for his coursework, and in Arthur’s, scripts. Merlin collected up the most impenetrable article titles, and Arthur found the worst dialogue, and when they needed a break they swapped lists.
“My agent called today,” he told Merlin, when he came back one evening from collecting Chinese. “I have a part in a movie!”
“Congratulations,” Merlin said. “What is it?
Arthur looked sly. “Battle Cry of the Stars.” He said. “Heard of it?”
Merlin was about to launch into the topic – yes, obviously he had, and it was amazing – when suddenly he remembered something.
“You!” he said. “You totally read my post back then!”
Arthur shrugged. “I might’ve, yeah.” He grinned. “Did you know that I almost missed you at FanExpo because I went to read for the part?”
“Ha.” Merlin sank down onto the sofa beside him. He put his feet on the coffee table and rested his shoulder against Arthur’s.
“Do you still look at that website?” he asked.
“Nah. Do you?”
The last time Merlin had logged on there, he’d found a picture of himself and Arthur. It had been taken from a tabloid magazine, but manip’ed so that they didn’t have any clothes on, and appeared to be in a compromising position.
Also, they’d managed to work Cafall into it.
“No,” he said eventually. “I haven’t gone back in a while.”