Sometimes, Merlin Emrys stood out from the crowd.
Not that it was much of a surprise. He did dress sort of oddly when left to his own devices, lots of multi-coloured scarves (they had a small town charm about them, Merlin thought. Freya had said they were hideous abominations to fashion, but surely she was joking). Tragically, he also possessed long, chicken-like limbs, which not only made him look gangly, but also tended to conspire against the rest of him and make him fall over (such behaviour was certainly not endearing, though Gwen, bless her, tried gamely to convince him otherwise).
Recently, Merlin stood out because he would smile from ear to ear for no apparent reason, and everybody knew when a stranger was smiling for no apparent reason it was obviously a sign of lunacy. Particularly observant passers-by (who had far too much time on their hands) might have noted the iconic white cable, the earbuds securely jammed in his (rather big) ears, and concluded that Merlin was not smiling at something he could see (others concocted fantastic stories about his mental afflictions and then tweeted about them).
Merlin was growing oblivious to their judging ways. He simply adjusted his earbuds into a more comfortable position, and continued to smile.
"Welcome back Drivethru fans! You're here with Penn and Dusty on this scorching hot Wednesday afternoon, bloody awful isn't it Dust?"
"Oh yes, but every day is awful Penn. Why do you think that is?"
"Because you're a giant wet blanket who is only happy when it rains?"
"Because every single day you're doing some other dodgy thing that verges on the fatally stupid. I am looking forward to the day it all ends in tragedy, when I shall finally have this cushy booth all to myself."
"You've no trust in me at all Dusty, and that hurts me! See, right here in the corner of my extremely manly, cold iron heart, covered by my pectorals of steel. Feel that? Don't be shy Dusty, get stuck into it."
"There are so many things wrong with you."
"But before we get to that Drivethru fans, it's time for some sweet, sweet Beyonce and, I dunno, some weird blonde—"
"That's Lady Gaga and Beyonce, Telephone."
The Drivethru on CamelotFM.
Hosted by the charming, posh, somewhat insane Penn and his long-suffering, level-headed foil Dusty, it was one of the most popular radio shows in the nation. Penn and Dusty were off-centre and genuinely likeable, and Merlin personally found the banter between them hilarious, and sometimes surprisingly educational in a 'wow, people like that really exist!' way (well, except realistically speaking they had to be putting it on a bit. They probably weren't really like that at all, just playing it up or playing roles and therefore slightly manufactured, maybe even scripted! Merlin deftly shoved that reality into a box in the far reaches of his mind, clearly labelled "fun sucking truths, do not open").
It had all come about when Merlin realised that the meagre offerings of his precious iPod nano (serious business 8GB), while being very adequate for short walks around Ealdor, were no match for the city, which ate up much more commute time than Ealdor could ever dream of. After the first half a dozen trips, Merlin very quickly realized that,
1. knowing all the words to Blondie's Call Me because he'd listened to it at least fifty times was probably not that impressive, and
2. he totally needed some new stuff on his iPod.
Talkback radio podcasts were brilliant that way. Not only did his iPod now provide him with the sultry tones of popular radio DJs whenever he liked (sultriness only being a slight draw. Honest!), but it was something to look forward to every day, not unlike that absolute knowledge he'd had of seeing Will's face every day back when they were in high school (though at the time, seeing Will's face every day wasn't always something to look forward to. He'd had very bad acne). There was a certainty to it that Merlin found very comforting.
He looked forward to when he could clip his green nano onto the back pocket of his jeans and take a walk, push play and listen to some witty repartee and guilty pleasure pop music, even if it was only to and from work (he supposed it would simpler and quicker to take the tube, but he didn't relish the idea of being stuck in an even smaller space than The Shop for any longer than necessary). He very much enjoyed the (somewhat) fresh air and idyllic atmosphere of the after work crowd, ambling to the pub after a long day at work or out walking their dogs (perhaps also to a pub that catered to pet owners), the sounds of Penn's barking laughter and Dusty's exasperation rolling through him in soothing waves.
Taking in the last vestiges of the day's warmth, Merlin adjusted his earbuds and was sure there were worse ways to spend his time.
"Brace yourselves everyone, Penn is about to thoroughly exasperate all of us sane human beings."
"Dusty! That would consist of only boring people, and Drivethru fans are not boring people! Do not worry Drivethru fans, I shall make sure he does not attempt to muddy your name any further. Before that though, it's time for Walk It Off! It’s six o’clock and it’s time for Walk it Off, events that make me want to throw expensive mobile phones at personal assistants because I am an angry, angry man."
"Not that you've ever done that."
"Yeah, who knows if they were personal assistants or not."
"Okay, onward to today's topic: people who can't take a hint!"
"Producers and censors on stand-by please."
"I was in this coffee shop right, minding my own business and browsing the web on my laptop—"
"Where no doubt you were updating the coughshamelessplugcough Drivethru blog twitter widget thing?"
"Oh, yep, absolutely. First place to go on the web right?"
"Anyway, all of a sudden this uppity tart sits down next to me—"
"Hold on, uppity?"
"It was in her eyes you see, you had to be there. Anyway, not only did she choose to sit next to me, and mind you, it was about 11am, there were plenty of empty booths and seats, but not only does she deliberately sit down right next to me, she shamelessly plasters herself to my side — we're not talking a bit of elbow knocking here alright, it is completely full on contact sports like! Anyway, I am giving her the Eyebrow of Complete Disdain—"
"Throwing out the big guns already! Maybe she thought you were sad and needed a hug, Penn. A very inappropriate, full on contact sports like hug. Or maybe you were blocking the way to the napkins. You are a terrible napkin hog."
"I am no such thing you dirty liar! Look here, I am not over-reacting—"
"—When she first sat down I thought 'gee, that's a bit close isn't it?' and the next thing you know WHAM, lady bits all up in my business! Honestly, if I was any less classy I would have 'accidentally' spilt my coffee all over her too-revealing-for-11am front."
"Right, so what? You told her to bugger off?"
"Too right I did! I said "do you bloody mind!" and she said, keep in mind I've never seen her before in my life right, she said, "Yeah mate, you're totally fit, can I add you on facebook? And I have to check my email, d'ya mind?" And I just thought 'What is wrong with you?!' I mean she had me cornered, between her and a wall and I swear by the end of it I was fending myself off with my laptop screaming "No you can't touch my macbook, I'm definitely not friending you, you’re a creepy pervert, back off and let me out of the booth!"
"You did not Penn, you're having me on!"
"Dust, I swear to you, I finally had to climb over the table to get out of there. And this mad girl, she was still trailing after me! Asking after my number and if I had a girlfriend—"
"Getting handsy was she?"
"Honestly, I might be tragically handsome, but that was absolutely ridiculous! Finally lost her on the tube, and if you're out there listening you crazy harlot, right, that is not the way to go about making friends and influencing people!"
"So she followed you from the coffee shop to the station?"
"From the coffee shop to the underground! That really is a fair bit to follow someone you've only spoken to for less two minutes — but the point is, she couldn’t take the bloody hint. Or chose not to, whatever. Girls, as a bloke, I absolutely appreciate your 2010 attitude of making the first move, but frankly, you are taking it a bit too far."
"And so you chose to run away from her. Of course. Very manly, that."
"I got away from her in an extremely calm and sedate manner thank you very much, and then I had to come back to the station and stare at your disturbing chin fluff, so its not exactly a win is it?"
"If that that's what you need to tell yourself to get through the night."
"Ignore him Drivethru fans. Call us if you've been in a situation when someone hasn't taken the bloody hint. More on this after the Ian Carey Project—"
"With Get Shaky on the Drivethru at CamelotFM."
The first thing Merlin noticed and was absolutely unsettled by was the sheer volume of people who resided in Albion. They streamed in and out of the tube and filled up sidewalks and took up all the nice benches in the park at lunchtime. In Ealdor, everybody knew everybody. Or at least, if you didn't know somebody, you were certain to know somebody that they knew, and all was right with the world and a home visit with biscuits would be forthcoming. You never had any secrets in a small town, which was a bit annoying (Merlin's homosexuality being case in point. His mam had thrown a party. Merlin was so very thankful no one had jumped out of the cake. He had given Gauis an extra long hug for it). But, you weren't, he supposed, invisible? Like the way you could feel surrounded by the crowds in the city. Even at uni, it was highly unlikely for Merlin to see the same person twice, and he was trying, he really was, but it was hard to break into social groups that had already been formed since school (unless he wanted to destroy his liver by going to pub 'orientations', but he had to work in the evenings so that was pretty much out the window too).
Moving from a small town, like Ealdor, to the big city was actually quite the upheaval, a much bigger deal than Merlin had convinced himself it would be. (In the end Gauis helped to convince both he and his mam what a brilliant idea it was. Something about leaving the nest, or spreading his wings, or other horrid bird analogies that everyone seemed to think he would appreciate. Ha. Bloody. Ha).
Initially, he was so busy he didn't have time to breathe: moving all his stuff, being awkward around his roommate, finding a job, discovering most of what he had packed was kind of non essential, getting set up for his course, fretting about what was acceptable roommate behaviour anyway, finding out when trash day was, hooking up the laptop to the TV, etc. etc.. But when that was all done, he found himself thinking, ...Now what? Should he knuckle down and start studying? Get a job? Go out and explore the big city? Where? With who? Most importantly, could he avoid looking like a tourist while doing so? Everything had been a little different and slightly strange, and compared with Ealdor there was a lot more of everything, everywhere.
Merlin knew that without something to anchor him to Albion, he might always feel lost, might want to give up and go back to his mam and his old bedroom and be a country boy forever and ever. Then he slapped his face with both of his hands, hard, and got over himself. He started reading the city papers, got into the habit of work, uni, his share of housework (he was slowly warming to his flatmate, but found Lancelot to be a bit flighty and intimidatingly attractive, so mostly he would stutter and embarrass himself before retreating back to his room), set about familiarising himself with the immediate area (meaning he took a lot of long walks, hoped he didn't get lost when it got too dark and wouldn't have to ring up Lancelot and stutter and embarrass himself over the phone as well). Before he knew it, he was sending emails to his mam to tell her that he was fine, Lancelot was fine (and it was kind of weird that she was enquiring after him in the first place), that everything was fine, Mam, and meant it. He really was doing just fine.
It might have sounded silly, but he really felt he owed Penn and Dusty. They knew the place, and the people, and they slowed down to explain things and give directions and said stupid things so everyone else could have a laugh. It was exactly that, having just that very small thing, that gave Merlin the confidence to believe he did have something in common with everyone his age in Albion, instead of being the struggling, clueless country bumpkin who was out of his depth (that he actually was).
...Plus Penn sounded kind of fit (Dusty was alright too, but he was a bit more like what Merlin imagined a big brother would be like, and no matter what city folk thought country people did for fun he did not approve of incestuous relations. Ew).
"It's Penn and Dusty here with you on your way home and we're talking people who can't take a hint. Hello Vivian?"
"So you're actually the opposite of Penn?"
"Yeah see, there was this guy I liked, pretty fit, and we'd met a couple of times — I'd gotten some pretty good vibes from him you know, thought maybe this could get interesting — so I did the normal things, laughed at his jokes even though were really lame, touched him a lot — and that sort of thing. From that you'd think a girl'd be interested wouldn't you?"
"Well, Dusty here has not had any attention from females, ever—"
"That's blatantly untrue!"
"—Ever, but yes, I'd definitely be thinking that you were into me, were that the case. I take it that's not how the story goes?"
"Yeah, exactly! I was doing everything I could right, up to the point where my friends were telling me to leave it alone, that he obviously wasn't into me, which is completely ridiculous because hellooooo, have you seen me? But by then my pride was taking a massive hit, and I was invested in the whole thing right? Anyways, for a couple of weeks I was constantly flirting, texting, stocking up on popsicles and bananas, buying all these silly low cut tops and backless things, until finally I got his flatmate to let me into his room and I waited for him on his bed—"
"On his bed?!"
"Fully on his bed! I won't tell you what I was wearing, but anyway, he'd gotten in, seen me and..."
"And then, he was like, "What are you doing here?" "
"Just how thick is this guy?! I'm completely fed up and I tell him, "What— what else do you need me to do, write you a bloody invitation?"
"Vivian, you did not!"
"I'm just going to wait for Penn to stop laughing—"
"—Okay I'm done, I'm done."
"—But you know, maybe he was gay or something?"
"Nah, we went out for a bit after that, thank god but still, pfft, waste of my time."
"Good on you for getting something out of that ordeal."
"God, didn't he think you were stalking him or what! Showing up in his room like that."
"In my experience, well except that one time obviously, guys tend to appreciate quite a lot."
"Well thank you for sharing that with us Vivian."
"No problem, love your work guys."
"We’ll be right back after Cascada gets people off the dancefloor."
"You mean, 'evacuate the dancefloor'."
"That's what I said Dusty. I'm worried about this hearing problem of yours."
"Right, because I'm obviously the one with health problems."
"Hey, what are you implying! I'm fighting fit!"
Merlin flopped onto his comfy bed, rolling around in it just a little, taking out his earbuds. He'd been on his feet a bit at the shop, stayed back to help Freya and Gwen close up before heading home and his lovely, lovely bed felt heavenly. His stomach chose to growl then, and Merlin groaned, trying to decide between grabbing dinner when he'd just gotten back in, or taking a nap.
There was a nice curry shop next to the park (they did a ripping chicken tikka masala, his favourite), and next door to that was a coffee shop that did a great breakfast tea (grab a muffin as well, only £3!). It was nice, finally knowing where things were. He'd been able to show Will around a bit when he'd been up last weekend: the shops he liked to browse through that Ealdor didn't have, mourning over all the books and DVDs he'd love to own but couldn't afford (Will pretended not to know him when Merlin sat down in the sci-fi section), the games shop he visited for the lolly sticks the staff grudgingly gave out to customers who solved the puzzle on the door (he told Will they'd been getting harder ever since he started coming, but Will just said, very loudly, that the shop girls have obviously cottoned on to how much of a life he doesn't have. The shop girls just stared at them both, and didn't refute Will's claims).
He tried to show Will the library he usually went to when he wasn't doing three hours of lab work at uni, but Will wasn't at all interested and demanded to be introduced to 'those totally hot chicks he worked for'. Merlin refused, and Will declared him no fun, dragged him back to his and Lancelot's flat and forced some tequila down his throat. After two shots, he was happily dialing Gwen to meet him and Will down and the pub. His memory failed him at this point, but at least he woke up in his flat the next morning. After Will went home, he showed up at work very apologetically, but Freya only made fun of him for about a week anyway, so that was fine.
Freya owned The Shop, and she lived with Gwen. Their flat was a very scary place. He usually went to hang out with Gwen and Freya at The Shop when he was putting off doing maths (which was all the time), and tinkered with all the electronics in the tea room (the girls just wanted to teach him how to make coffees. They quickly set up rules about what he could and could not touch after he took the machine apart and put it back together again with flashing lights and booming audio tracks). When he was actually working instead of hanging out, he folded clothes, smiled a lot and operated the till. Freya insisted that he 'look pretty' at all times on the premises, and treated him like her own living, breathing mannequin whenever she liked (Gwen didn't do a thing to dissuade her. Merlin suspected she and Freya had a time share going on with the Mannequin aspects of his job).
The shop only ever played loud poppy music that somehow enticed customers to buy clothes (or maybe it drowned out the sound of their rationality so that everyone who worked there could convince them to buy clothes). The point is, the music was trashy, sort of crap and horrendously catchy, and if Gwen and Freya ever claimed to have footage of him dancing (or some approximation thereof), they (and the CCTV footage) were lying. Clearly.
He lifted himself onto his elbows with difficulty, dragging his laptop from his bedside table onto the pillow next to his head. He decided he was too knackered to eat. All he wanted to do was listen to the rest of the podcast and fall asleep.
"You're back with Penn and Dusty, and what do you think Dust, nay or yay to a girl who just turns up in your bed?"
"I dunno, but—"
"What am I asking you for? It's never going to happen to you."
"That’s true -- all the weird things do tend to happen to you."
"And that's not fair at all is it? Why do they just happen to me?"
"I could recite a list for you if you like. Your sister prepared one just last week."
"Hey, we made a pact not to mention her between the witching hour of 6 and 7, remember?"
"Well, then I have nothing to add to this discussion."
"You never do. And if anything of interest did happen to you, we'd never hear amusing tales spun from them, would we Drivethru fans? Anyway, the point that I was trying to make—"
"This was actually leading somewhere?"
"The point, is that for once, I want to be the weird thing that happens to other people."
"Don't have to work hard for that one."
"No no no, I'm going to take a page out of Vivian's book and really work at it!"
"I don't think you should commit to anything on live radio where you could, I don't know, be held accountable for it or anything. Besides, you never even went through with that bonkers plan you had to tail the guy from that bar last week."
"Ah yes, the revenge plan."
"Wasn't it an apology plan since you were being a right tosser?"
"Such minor details are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things Dust. Right, Drivethru fans, I‘ve decided. Log onto our blog twitter widget thing and follow my progress where I devise a foolproof plan to nail this guy—"
"I can't believe that I just got the thumbs up from our producers endorsing this madness."
"—and I'll learn all his secrets and expose him to the whole world!"
"Wonderful, truly. And if he's a listener he's already on top of your dastardly ways."
"Dusty, who do you think I am? I will never be caught! I am a panther in the wild! A cheetah on the Savannah! A—"
"—Alright, you like big cats, we get it."
"—Stay tuned, Drivethru fans, Operation 'learn about the weaknesses of that guy from that bar last week and use his weaknesses against him' will go live... right now!"
"Have you really just whipped out your iPhone and done that when you haven't properly thought through what a shite title you've given this operation?"
"...Drivethru fans, I will keep you updated!"
"Yes, do let us follow your progress into criminal activity, we shall be oh so happy."
"Well, no need to go on about it like a blubbering girl Dusty, honestly you're quite embarrassing sometimes."
"Right, so here's an anthem for blubbering girls everywhere, I'm Not Your Toy by La Roux."
"You're going to get us in trouble with the feminists again."
"Be quiet and listen to song please Penn."
Chuckling, Merlin added the Drivethru blog twitter widget thing to his RSS feed before pushing the lid down, watching the light blink, hypnotised, until it petered out, leaving him in total darkness (plus the red blinking lights of the numbers of his alarm clock that is).
The thing was, he supposed, was that... he was a little lonely. Gwen and Freya are lovely, but they already had all this shared history between them that was hard to penetrate (and they had a tendency to be incredibly vague one moment, and terrifyingly focused on pattern making the next). Lancelot was nice enough and um, attractive, and if he'd stop putting his foot in his mouth all the time, maybe he wouldn't feel awkward hanging around him for more than five minutes. They already knew who they were and where they were going. The space for Merlin in their lives were still largely undefined, and Merlin was still trying to see how his battered, rusted cog fit in with all the other sleeker, modern cogs. It was a complicated and difficult process.
Penn's soothing voice and Dusty's deep resonance feel like non judgmental old friends in a busy, indefatigable un-Merlin-esque city.
It'd be nice if he were their friends somehow, Merlin thought, hugging his pillow tightly to his chest and curling his body around it, falling into sleep.
Needless to say, Merlin quickly left the computer labs and called his mum ("Yes I got them Mam, they're delicious. No, I don't know if Lance likes them, because I told you we're not like th— I certainly don't think he'd want to eat it off of my— Oh look, my lecture's starting, love you Mam, bye!") and then guiltily checked in with his Uncle ("About time Merlin, your Mam was inconsolable!").
Even more guiltily, he tapped out a quick (unapologetic) text to Will and by the time he'd got a response, it was actually time for his Maths lecture (joy).
Merlin rushed off to work afterwards, looking wistfully at the goods in the thrifty ("take me home Merlin! You could take me apart and add wheels and lights and things!") before running into Gwen on her way out and greeting Freya on his way in. He had just settled behind the register, about to check his updated RSS feeds when Freya made a beeline for the counter and hurriedly motioned him out of it.
"There's a suspicious character hanging about outside!" she fervently hissed.
Merlin blinked. "...What?"
"Someone's loitering outside," Freya repackaged, fearfully shredding a tissue. "They've been at it for a while now — could you go and run them off or something?"
Merlin very much doubted that anybody was going to be frightened of a skinny, pasty English boy whose ribs were showing (he could probably rig up the toaster to shoot toast missiles if he really needed to), but he put on a brave face and walked out to the front of the shop anyway.
Other than a few school kids idling in the square and some rustling in the park area (must be stray animals, poor things), there wasn't a soul to be seen. He scratched his head and went back to report his findings.
"Um, were you talking about the school kids on the benches outside?" Merlin asked, helping Freya fold some turtlenecks (2 for £20!). She always worked a little bit harder when she felt nervous.
She looked up at him as if he were a wee bit daft. "No, not them. There was someone out there... Maybe I'm just seeing things." She started suddenly, dropping a half folded blue top that fluttered dejectedly to the floor. "Oh my god, maybe they were dealing drugs! In front of my shop! And then they sold out so they're not there anymore!"
Merlin moved on to the rack of long sleeved shrugs and started to sort them by size (comes in black and white!) "Do you want me to call the police?"
Freya shook herself out, and huffed. "No, it wouldn't do any good. They're probably paying off the police," she muttered, turning to Merlin— except he wasn't there anymore, gone off to the storeroom when he thought she would go on her 'Drug pushers! Argh!' tirade and wouldn't notice him missing for a bit. Feeling slightly foolish for basically talking to herself, she shook out a lovely blue military jacket and hung it back up in the men's section. And then paused.
"Merlin?" Freya called excitedly.
"Yeah?" His black mop popped out of the storeroom.
"Come here so I can put this amazing jacket on you! Ooooooh, and wear those skinny jeans that just came in! The ones that've been distressed."
"Coming." Merlin rolled his eyes and put down his armful of clothes.
"The really tight ones Merlin, no funny business! And grab my phone, I'll need to send photos to Gwen."
He looked forlornly at the monitor before grabbing the Motorola and submitting to cruel torture that he would probably pay for, quite literally (clothes shopping — yuck).
After work, Merlin made a quick stop at HMV to fondle the new releases for a while. Then he crossed the street and got a lollipop from the disgruntled games shop girl right before closing, unwrapping it victoriously as he idled home through the park. He replayed a DriveThru podcast as he walked, and picked up some milk and eggs (he was craving omelets for some reason) at the convenience store before going up the three flights of stairs to the flat.
It was Lancelot's turn to sort dinner (read: get takeaway), and Merlin managed to not be awkward for the duration of half a pack of pork dumplings, which was fortunately long enough to find out Lancelot was from a small town, like him! Lancelot wasn't a slick city cat after all! Merlin beamed at him excitedly. "Wow! So why did you move?"
"Well I work here now, for MerciaFM. I was at CamelotFM, but there were some complications and I was let go." Lancelot munched through a scoop of fried rice while Merlin's face fell in dismay.
"That's terrible! I'm sorry Lance."
Lancelot laughed. "No it's fine, really. It all worked out in the end and I'm getting just as much out of this job as I would've at Camelot anyway. I mean, Mercia's not as popular, but the show's great."
"Does it have a podcast?" Merlin enquired, dipping a piece of fish in soy sauce (with a fork; Lancelot had learned that Merlin didn't do well with food in general, and it was best not to tempt fate.)
Unfortunately, MerciaFM wasn't big on podcasting. Fortunately Lancelot wasn't hosting or anything, so Merlin wasn't missing the chance to be a supportive roommate and stuff. Before he knew it, the early evening had passed into the late night, and he had to excuse himself or risk academic humiliation at the hands of his Foundations tutor.
Of course what really happened was he gave the tute work a ten minute look over before spending two hours on facebook doing stupid quizzes about how awesome he was (answer: AAAAARRGH awesome).
Now by nature, Merlin was a very nice boy who didn't harbour any malice for anybody (except sometimes for Will, because Will always made him do stupid things that he regretted. He would never apologise for posting incriminating photos on Facebook). He also knew that he really should be going to bed instead of clicking links (think about TV Tropes Merlin, think where that abyss led you!), but he also knew that just because he shouldn't do it, didn't mean he wasn't going to.
He clicked with glee.
While he was on there, Merlin downloaded the latest podcast and charged up his nano. He decided to click C. on the poll, and was gratified to find 42.1% of listeners were just as juvenile as he was. Chuckling, he went to brush his teeth. He had hardly ever gone to a bar since he'd moved in — once with the girls, and once with Will and the girls that he had no memory of (there were many, many inexplicable photos though, so drunk!Merlin possibly has aspirations to become a pap for the rags). Merlin tried to imagine Penn walking into the shop, angrily buying a shirt and squinting at him suspiciously before retreating back to his lair (driving his swanky beamer with a rear spoiler, scowling and shoulders hunched back all the way home to his diamond encrusted bat cave, newly bought shirt discarded on the flashy leather seats... If he was going to be daydream, may as well go all the way with it).
'Well, whatever', Merlin thought, curling up under the covers. 'What are the chances of me bumping into Penn anyway?'
Lancelot Dullac was the sort of guy who simply could not be ruffled (in the sense that nothing fazed him, not that he didn't wear lace. In fact, he owned at least three frilly poet shirts, only one of which was purchased under the excuse of extreme intoxication). For example, in the unlikely scenario where his house caught on fire, incinerating all his belongings, burning him horrifically and perhaps rendering him almost unconscious along the way, it was likely his first response would be to get a coffee (traumatising whoever was behind the counter forever) and then to politely call emergency services at the nearest payphone (followed by his insurance agency, because he had been a boy scout and well, these things do happen).
His unshakeable calm was the envy of all and sundry, as were his dashing good looks, fantastic hair and way with the ladies. In short, Lancelot was one fine male specimen, akin to the heros of bodice-ripper novels who were inclined to rip bodices off of ladies of good breeding and peerage (though he was far too polite to do anything of the sort, much to the dismay of all the ladies in possession of ready-to-rip bodices).
As a testament of all of his (many) redeeming qualities, when his pop tart shot out of the toaster to splatter quite gloriously on the ceiling (instead of jumping onto his waiting plate as per usual), all Lancelot did was locate the mop and neatly scrape off said splatter into the trash. He made his way to Merlin's room and leaned on the door frame, knocking lightly.
Said roommate was very diligently wiring his alarm clock to detect movement and retreat in the opposite direction in response (the theory was that he would have to physically get up and catch it to turn it off, rather than waving his arm about for the snooze and then going back to sleep. He was definitely not making up excuses not to do his Foundations readings). He paused his iTunes without looking away from the clock's (not very) gory insides.
"Are you aware that the toaster is splattering pop tarts on the ceiling?"
Merlin stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, before he shot up out of his computer chair. "I knew I forgot something!"
Lancelot sedately followed Merlin back into the kitchen as the lanky boy continued to flail.
"I'm so sorry Lance. I was recording the rate at which the toast would shoot out when I got home last night, but then Strictly Come Dancing started and I plum forgot."
Lancelot didn't even hesitate at the old fashioned phrasing (honestly, that's how hard it he was to put him off). He simply asked, "Any particular reason why?"
Merlin put in a piece of bread and then pointed the toast end out the window. A minute later the toast shot out, free and airborne like a bird made out of grain and wholemeal, before landing on the roof of the apartment complex across the street (there was more toast last night, but the birds had gotten to them).
Lancelot let out a whistle. "That's quite impressive."
Merlin grinned, holding his toaster out proudly in front of him, rubbing the shiny metal. "I call it the Toast Launcher."
"That's great Merlin... So what do you do when you actually want to eat the toast?"
Merlin started to reply, but then took a moment to think about it as he flipped the toaster over and over in his hands. He looked down at it in dismay. "...Erm, there might be a few adjustments to make."
Lancelot clapped him on the shoulder and ate a piece of bread. "Good man."
"You're listening to the Drivethru with Penn and Dusty on CamelotFM, it's a dreary Thursday evening at ten past six, and I don't know about you listeners, but I am cautiously excited to hear what Penn's been up to before the show— Penn?"
"Today has been a feat of unimaginable stealth and cunning Drivethru fans!"
"I understand that you've um, recorded yourself while... on your weird mission?"
"Welcome to the future Dusty. Have you met my friend, the iPhone? I call him Pooh Bear."
"Because he has a lot of honeys?"
"I can't believe that just came out of your mouth. Onto the clip!"
beep beep beep
"Alright Drivethru fans, Penn here— I've prepared myself for a day of extreme investigating...baggy t-shirt, cap, sunnies, power bars and some rubber bands and bobby pins as back up! Bar Guy won't know what hit him!"
"Just outside the shop, and I can't see him there, so he's probably not in yet—"
"To set the scene for you Drivethru fans, I'm leaning very casually on the wall looking into the Bar Guy's place of employment, and it's in one of those plazas sort of structured like an open courtyard with some cafes and things, some shrubbery and benches and a water feature in the centre, standard shopping fare really. Anyway, at the moment there's just me and a crowd of school kids who've just gotten out for the day, so I'm well camouflaged—"
"There only seems to be shop girls in there at the moment, and they might be on to me...occasionally one of them looks in my direction. I dunno, maybe she's taken with my sunglasses? They're pretty flash after all. Kind of purple-y."
"Right, well one of the girls has just left, and she didn't look my way at all so I'm fairly certain that I'm in the clear...oh sh—"
"Ok, so that was me, leaping behind the water feature as Bar Guy ran into the shop—"
"That's funny. He seems to be taller than I remember. Must've been the beer goggles—"
"Just spent his first ten minutes on shift checking his emails or something, obviously a slacker—"
"He doesn't seem very nicely dressed for someone working in a shop. I mean, if you've got these electric blue eyes you should wear something to enhance them shouldn't you? That's a bit of a waste really. But I think the main problem here is that he looks as though he's finger combed his hair, and I don't mean in a 'oh this look actually took me thirty artfully tossed minutes with a jar of hair wax' I mean in a 'I've fallen asleep on a hard surface, rolled my head on it, woken up and raced to work without bothering to check if I looked deranged' sort of way—"
"Is that —guyliner? Is he a pirate?"
"Drivethru fans, what you're hearing is me, with my hair tangled in a bush. I'm whispering because Bar Guy has just come out of the shop and taken a little look around—"
"So, he's spotted the school kids and gone back inside... I think I'm pretty safe. Unfortunately I'm pretty sure the school kids also saw me dive into the bush like a crazy homeless person—"
beep beep beep
"So that was... neither very informative nor very stealthy."
"Please Dusty, I could probably have been in MI6 if I hadn't wanted to do talkback radio."
"And what did you do after hiding in the bushes? Give up and go home?"
"No, I moved into a cafe across the street, and now I have a fantastic vantage point with the added bonus of coffee. Also, should it rain I won't need to hide under an open newspaper like I had previously planned."
"Or you could buy an umbrella."
"You buy an umbrella, pansy."
"Thrilling comeback. I'm astounded by your wit, truly. We've got Percy on the line, hello Percy how are you?"
"I'm good Dusty, just wanted to ask Penn a quick question yeah?"
"Go ahead Percy."
"Mm, yeah, just wanted to say that I think you're really funny and confident Penn—"
"Why thank you."
"—So I don't really get why you don't just ask the guy out, you know, instead of following him around and mucking about in bushes?"
"What?! No, that's certainly not what is going on here! I am researching my revenge Percy, not— not— I don't LIKE Bar Guy!"
"Um, well you know, he doth protest too much and thin line between love and hate and whatever, anyway just thought I'd put that out there yeah? We support you, Penn."
"Thanks Percy! We'll leave Penn's splutterings and be back right after the break. You're on the way home with Penn and Dusty at CamelotFM."
Merlin hated delivery day. Somehow, it always ended with him stuck under a mountain of pointy-edged boxes (or a mountain of clothes that were unpacked from the boxes). He thought Freya would stop making him unload everything after all the times she had walked in on the clothes hanging him on the rack instead of the other way around, but instead she seemed to get oddly excited and take a lot of pictures (Gwen had this reaction too, though she at least helped him stock the garments properly afterwards. Freya simply laughed in his face. Merlin couldn't really get mad at her, she did own the place after all).
"Merlin, where are you? Can you come out here for a minute?" Freya called from the break room.
Wiping the dust off his hands, he carefully retreated from the storeroom and closed the door with great respect (at this point, anything was worth trying to stop getting ridiculous amounts of cardboard box paper cuts).
Freya and Gwen were seated in the tea room, talking to an intimidating, beautiful woman whose pale complexion and dark hair matched his own colouring (though unlike him, she was dignified and graceful and ridiculously good looking. Honestly, Zoolander-style really ridiculously good looking). They seemed friendly with each other, so Merlin tried his best not to be embarrassing or like, stumble on thin air.
So of course he walked right into a low hanging light fixture.
He waved off Gwen's concern, feeling foolish until Freya took pity on him from her perch on the table. "Merlin, this is Morgana." She gestured with her tea cup, liquid sloshing the sides and spilling onto the floor. Everyone stared at the brown splatter, before collectively ignoring the spill and moving on (except Gwen, who put a bit of newspaper on the floor so they wouldn't slip on it). "Morgana, you remember Merlin."
"Very well," Morgana smirked, raising an impeccably (french) manicured hand.
"Oh, um." Merlin hastily rubbed his hand on his jeans, which sort of took some glitter off of it, but still came away still looking as though an animal made entirely out of glitter had exploded on his palm (Michael Jackson's glove was making a comeback, glitter fun for the whole family!). Unsurprisingly, Morgana possessed a crushing handshake (though Merlin most certainly did not wince. Much). "Sorry, I don't really... remember how we met?"
She gave Gwen a sly glance, causing her to simultaneously giggle and look contritely in Merlin's direction. Behind Morgana, Freya leant her head back and mimed taking a swig of something and wiping her mouth with the back of her sleeve. Then pretended to be sick in the sink. It took Merlin about three seconds to realise what she was on about.
"Oh god." He covered his face with his scarf (green and black checkers), wishing for giant robots to squish him with their giant robot feet. "Will."
"Will," Gwen agreed sympathetically.
He looked imploringly at Freya. "Can I go back to the scary room with the clothes now please?" (The girls laughed at him, but he was being serious.)
"We came up to Morgana afterwards and apologized," Freya chimed in unhelpfully, giving him the thumbs up.
"What was I doing?" Merlin asked, not really sure if he wanted to know.
"Being a good friend. And a hilarious drunk," Morgana said. "Anyhow, I was in the Starbucks with my brother," she gestured carelessly to where the winking mermaid motif stared back at them, directly opposite of the shop. "And just had to come over to introduce myself to you properly."
"Oh! Well, he's more than welcome to come sit with us," Gwen politely invited, dunking a HobNob into her tea (no sugar).
"He had to run." Morgana's lipstick red lips curled in a somewhat predatory smile around her tea (Earl Gray, dash of honey). "Very unfortunate."
"That is too bad," Freya said, going for a refill (espresso, double shot. In hindsight, she probably shouldn't have access to that sort of caffeine). "Maybe next time."
As he joined the three now seated at the break room table, they were serenaded by tinny casino music and flashing lights announcing that the espresso machine was done, 'so come on down and get your coffee champ! You're a winner!'
Morgana looked gleefully in his direction as he slumped in his chair, trying to disappear underneath (difficult, as his legs were stupidly long and hit the underside of the table before any sort of cover could be provided).
"Yeah," Freya drawled out, pulling out the plug to stop the cheering (or 'wailing' if you listened to Freya. Which was a bit unfair really, considering the type of music she blared out in The Shop). "Could you fix that sometime soon, do you think?"
Merlin pouted, crossing his arms petulantly. They were the ones who wanted him to get to know the coffee machine in the first place.
Stopping mid lick, Merlin patted his newly acquired Optimus Prime (comes with a happy meal! Collect all 4!) through the canvas of his bag and tugged on his black and white checkered scarf. With the hand not occupied by the lolly (orange cream), he tucked his phone into his back pocket. Merlin liked Transformers, as well as lollipops. He even worked in a shop and wore scarves and converses and there was that one time he fell asleep on the train and the other commuters mistook him for a homeless person (awkward).
He sighed and idly resumed his sucking, twirling the stick with his hand and making the hard lolly rattle behind the top row of his teeth. It was one thing to have self indulgent daydreams about being the person people wrote in about to the 'ThunderStruck' column in the Camelot Times, because everyone did that and it was completely normal. He'd have to be three types of vain and pretty delusional to declare himself Bar Guy candidate #451 on the DriveThru website (which was hilarious, because it's like Spartacus the movie on that livejournal community that — um, that he has no idea about at all).
Besides, by the very definition of 'Bar Guy', he needed to have yelled at Penn in a bar and thrown a drink in his face and called him names his mam would not approve of. Seeing as Merlin was sure he would remember such a thing happening, which he did not, logic dictated the probability of him actually being Bar Guy was, oh, pretty much slim to none? He shook his head free of foolish thoughts (others milling in the park thought him suffering from an attack of invisible bees) and marched resolutely to the park's exit. What were the odds of that happening, honestly?
And what was Penn wearing again? Sunglasses and a trench?
Very discreetly Merlin looked around him (he managed to stumble at one point, also very discreetly) but spotted nobody wearing sunglasses (it was the evening) or trench coats (it was an evening where people gave the cold a one fingered salute).
What he did spot, surprisingly, was Morgana striding very purposefully towards him from the direction of the public loos.
"Hullo again, finally got away from the girls did you?"
As far as Merlin's greetings went, he thought that one was quite well constructed. Therefore, he almost lost his lollipop to the dirty unforgiving earth when she replied with, "Lovely to see you again Merlin. You like cock, correct?"
"Um, is that the sort of thing you normally ask somebody you've just met?" He could feel the flush creep up from his shirt collar (but it was successfully covered by his scarf; not that it did anything to hide the dead giveaway that was his ears).
Morgana simply took that as an admission of guilt and nodded to herself, arms crossed over her chest. "I thought as much. You haven't looked at my breasts once."
Which wasn't fair at all, because once they were mentioned, Merlin was compelled to look. Morgana moved her arms downward as if to help him along (which he was inclined to be polite about, and thank her for being so accommodating, but it seemed a bit greasy and yuck so he restrained himself).
"Um, they're lovely?" Merlin offered squeakily, on the spot and more awkward than usual (which was saying quite a lot).
"You don't think it's a bit too much?" Morgana asked, now also looking down at her low cut top and fiddling with the bust line. A couple walked past, and Merlin was vaguely aware of at least one of them staring at Merlin and Morgana both staring at the Morgana's cleavage, as there was a sound of a slap followed by something about sleeping on the couch. Merlin, for the most part, judged them to be scary and possibly scheming to eat him once his back was turned.
"I guess they're— they provide the right amount of modest...ness and... allure-ification?" he managed weakly. He suspected that he may have sounded a bit like a mouse towards the end there (if mice talked about breasts that was, in their mice language. What was the mouse equivalent of sleeping on the couch anyway?) Also, he suspected it wasn't even a real sentence with real words, though he hoped Morgana wouldn't notice. He urgently felt the need to sit down and take apart his Optimus Prime. He could give Optimus some cool roller skates (that was a lie. Roller skates were not cool, not even robot roller skates).
"That's very sweet of you Merlin. Come sit with me." She stalked over to a bench and folded herself into a seating position, legs crossing and one hand in her lap, tapping the space next to her pointedly with the nail of her index finger, making reverberating tinny sounds on the cheap plastic.
"Okay." Merlin readily complied, grateful to be seated after just being outed in a public park frequented by chavs and drug dealers and possibly chav drug dealers with knives. Yes. Very good. He only just managed to curb the urge to take out his Transformer (he sat on his hands).
Then, without so much as a by-your-leave, Morgana unleashed a torrent of questions not unlike an interrogation (and just like in the cop shows, he had no idea if he was incriminating himself just by humoring the scary lady). Some of the following questions were asked (and badly answered):
1. Do you like blonds?
2. What if they're really rude and stupid?
3. Seen any rude and stupid blonds lately?
4. How tall might someone have to be to date you?
5. Would you consider making Gwen and Freya your personal stylists?
6. Would you say that football takes up a good chunk of your time?
7. What team do you barrack for?
8. Wait, what team?
10. Well, at least you don't have a criminal record, right?
11. Are you more impressed by defined abdominals or by tight glutes?
12. How attractive do you find strong jaw lines?
13. Would you be inclined to like stupid blonds if they had a strong jaw line and a lot of money?
14. A lot of money, as in 'the potential to buy you small islands' sort of money.
"That's not a question!" Merlin was finally able to declare, triumphant but bewildered. "Why are you asking me all this anyway?"
"But would it matter?" Morgana pressed, digging her manicured nails into his jeans. "Would it, Merlin!"
Merlin just wanted to make it stop. It was like being stuck on the phone with a telemarketer, but there was no option of pretending his house was on fire and hanging up.
"I-I guess? I don't know if that would be important or not Morgana, I've never dated someone obscenely rich before!" He neglected to say that he'd never really dated anyone before, but frankly, that was really sad and he'd rather claim debilitating sickness and run away than admit to it. However, Morgana's (heavily lined) stare nailed his arse to the bench. He may or may not have eep-ed.
"Come on Merlin, it's not that hard. If this alright-ish looking blond bloke wanted to buy you a lot of pretty shiny things, would you be averse to that?"
"You do know I'm not a girl right?!" Merlin squawked. But Morgana was glaring at him still which was horrible and terrifying and he was beginning to panic. The throes of his turmoil sounded, oddly, like the theme to Mission Impossible. He hadn't known that his inner flailing had such cool theme music. Of course then he realized that the music was actually playing outside of his head, and he leapt at the chance to distract Morgana from making him answer awkward questions with the power of her glare (she looked the type to be very good about taking calls. Actually, she looked the type to be very good at everything, ever). "Are you going to answer that?" Merlin asked.
Morgana gave him a look that said 'stop stalling', before pulling her phone out of her pocket. "It's not mine."
Whilst their 'conversation' had been taking place, most people had fled the park for the comforts of their own well heated homes (the weather had seen their one fingered salutes, and raised them a chilly, south-easterly wind from Antarctica). Therefore, if it was neither Merlin's phone that was ringing, nor Morgana's...
Merlin cocked his head to the side. There was mystery afoot! "Where's it coming from?"
Without waiting for a response, Merlin got off the bench and set off to investigate. The phone had probably been dropped by somebody going through the park on their way home. Morgana very helpfully called out, "Check behind the bushes!" from where she still sat on the bench. She seemed to be fiddling with her phone.
"Yeah," Merlin replied absently, looking about on the ground as he circled the bench. "They've probably just realised they've lost it... Maybe calling and hoping someone will pick up."
"Oh yes," Morgana agreed. There was a sound of silky fabric sliding, as Morgana crossed her legs the other way. Thankfully for his sanity, Morgana did not look inclined to help look for the wayward device, instead smirking at something past his shoulders as Merlin came to a stop in front of her. "That is probably exactly what has happened."
He looked around, moving away from the bench. There weren't many places to investigate: a bin, a lamp illuminating the public toilets next to another bench a bit further out, and beyond that the trees and shrubbery where the wildlife of the park resided. The ringtone had already stopped, but Merlin was fairly certain that it must have come from behind the loos (which wasn't at all dodgy, Merlin thought wryly). A couple of stray cats yowled from behind it, and darted out into the trees. Not looking forward to answering a phone that stray cats had probably put into their mouths and chewed on, he rounded the corner.
There were a few cigarette butts, a couple of beer cans and, rather alarmingly, a pair of kids' binoculars. There was, alas, no phone. Hmm, Merlin thought. The strays have either taken the phone with them, or eaten it.
As if proving his more probable hypothesis correct, the ringtone started playing again, this time from the trees and shrubbery. Merlin headed towards the greenery slowly, body curled in slightly to appear less threatening (unlikely though it was that any part of Merlin would inspire fear).
"Here kitty kitty kitty," Merlin sang out (there was no reasoning behind that really, it was just the thing to do. No groundbreaking research proved stray cats were more likely to respond if being sung to). No cats emerged from the brush, although there were other creatures that did check to see if he was some sort of singing predator (what were ducks doing in the trees anyway?) The closer he came to the trees, the more excited the animals seemed to get.
There is an awful lot of rustling going on back there, he thought. He crept up quietly, intent on making as little noise as possible.
The sudden dull thud that sounded just behind him almost had him jumping out of his skin (and he might have emitted a sound only dogs could hear, but he wasn't going to own up to it and the dogs were almost certain to keep his secret).
Merlin whirled around, whipping out his arms in front to defend himself against... a rock. Huh. He lowered his arms slowly, in case the rock decided to attack anyway. He was fairly certain that rock hadn't been there before.
"What on earth...?" He kicked it with the toe of his converses. It did not sprout legs and jump him, so he kicked it some more.
Merlin looked back to see if Morgana knew where the rock had come from, and found that during his forage into the bush, Morgana had made a friend. A tall, broad, scary-looking-from-behind friend. She looked none too pleased either. Deliberating between weird animals in the park that had rock slinging powers versus perhaps some sort of mugging happening right in front of him, Merlin opted to leave the wildlife for now and head back to the bench (although, he was pretty sure Morgana wasn't going to be the one coming out of an encounter like that worse for wear anyway, should anything untoward actually happen).
"Is there a problem?" he asked, approaching carefully. He really wished he had his Toast Launcher right now.
The stranger turned and gave him a broad, open grin beneath a fuzzy beard. "Hello!" Then he performed some sort of complicated coughing manoeuvre, and more gruffly repeated his greeting.
"Hi..?" Merlin said warily.
"I'm—" And he coughed again. "I'm Leon Knightly," he said scratchily.
Merlin surmised that Leon had a nasty cold, and debated stepping backwards, but decided not too because he would look like he was afraid (or worse, rude). He really hoped Leon wasn't contagious.
"And what are you doing around here Leon? Don't you live far, far away from here?" Morgana asked snippily and with obvious familiarity (thank goodness for that. Merlin was certain that he was not able to take Leon's broad shoulders and muscled arms in a fight that didn't involve remote controls).
"Just um. You know." He coughed again, poor sod. "Looking for you."
Merlin looked at the knowing glance Leon tossed at Morgana, and the returned pointed stare and defiant posture, one pointy nail tapping a staccato on crossed arms.
"Well," Merlin said chirpily, hefting his bag back onto his shoulders and shifting uncomfortably. "I'll um, I'll go look for that phone and leave you lovebirds to it then shall I?"
"No!" They both shouted, prompting Merlin to sit down on the bench very quickly. He didn't like being shouted at by formidable women and grizzly men who were twice his size.
"I'll—" Leon cleared his throat. "I mean, Morgana and I will go find it. You sit right here."
The unsaid 'where I can see you and you cannot make passes at my girlfriend' went duly noted, which Merlin communicated with a manly nod (he also would've tried to communicate 'I'm gay and quite frankly, your girlfriend is scary and asks a lot of embarrassing questions', but was afraid it would only make the situation worse). There was a half minute more of the couple staring at each other with various eyebrow movements, before Morgana reluctantly lifted herself off the bench and grumbled at Leon as they disappeared behind the trees. Merlin then politely turned his attention towards his iPod and ignored whatever noises were emanating from their general direction (sort of shout-y and rustle-y, like clothes being— well, anyway, he wasn't listening).
He was so good at distracting himself in fact, that he almost jumped out of his skin again when Leon clapped a hand on his shoulder (his skin did not appreciate that at all. It rather liked housing all his innards).
"Come on then," he said, voice penetrating through his earbuds, strangely deep and gruff (did the cold get worse due to the activities behind the trees?) "Let's get a drink."
"How long is this campaign of misery going to last Penn? You've gathered all this information, you're spamming the blog twitter widget thing constantly — are you actually planning on doing anything with it?"
"I ask the questions around here Dusty! When are you going to get rid of all that bloody fuzz on your face?"
"Oh, um. Never."
"And that's what she said, Drivethru fans."
"And don't you forget it. Anyway, this is why I've opened the lines. What do you think I should do, Drivethru fans? Call through with your suggestions!"
"You mean you really haven't thought this through?"
"I mean, that I will take suggestions on board and use them to flesh out my own, undoubtedly well thought out plans."
"I really just can't see this ending well."
"Nonsense! Nothing about this could possibly end badly for me."
"I meant for me."
"Well. That's just a bit selfish."
"Pot calling kettle, etcetera. Hello Linda, you're on the line."
"Hi hi! I've been following on the widget thing, but you haven't told us how good looking he is! If he's cute, you should totally ask him out for a drink!"
"That doesn't really... Sound like much of a strategy for revenge to me Linda."
"But thanks for calling in. What about you Tom, what do you think? Tom?"
"You there Tom?"
"Must've lost him to some other radio show that's actually law abiding. What about Robert? What's your advice for Penn?"
"Well I think you should pay people to go up to him and tell him like, douchebags wear scarves."
"Oh! That's actually quite a good one Robert, I'll keep that in mind. Sarah?
"Hey guys, love the show!"
"Thanks Sarah, you got anything to share?"
"Oh yeah! I was thinking you could drive him crazy by leaving him cherry flavoured lollipops. Those things are revolting!"
"Could be a little hard to achieve, don't you think Sarah?"
"I trust in Penn's creativity."
"Well thank you Sarah, so do I!"
"Thanks for calling Sarah. Next we have Elizabeth on the line. Hello Elizabeth?"
"Good evening gentlemen."
"Why, good evening to you too milady. Have you any advice you'd like to share with Penn?"
"Yes I do. I've two grown boys, and let me tell you; when they were young, their idea of courtship was pulling pigtails and pushing girls into the mud. I'll tell you what I told them: that is not the right way to win someone's affections — and if you're going so far as taking creepy photographs it is perhaps time to get some— some balls and do something about it."
"Well said Elizabeth, thanks for that."
"Drivethru fans, I'm beginning to worry that we're not quite on the same page about this revenge business."
"On the contrary Penn, I think you are the only one who hasn't caught up to where the rest of us are yet."
"Don't try to be witty with me Dusty, I will cut you."
"Ooh, quivering in my boots Sire."
"No sarcasm either."
"Why don't you outlaw fun while you're at it."
As they headed into Merlin's local pub, Morgana started smiling something horrid.
"Is... something funny?" Merlin asked warily. They three of them spied a free booth opening up, and rushed to claim it. Well, Merlin and Leon rushed, Morgana strutted very purposefully and glared at anyone who appeared as though they were thinking about moving in on it.
"This is just where I first saw you the other night." Morgana said, elegantly falling into the cushy seats. "You don't remember, Merlin?"
Before he could try to do just that, Leon very loudly proclaimed that a drink was in order and slid beside Morgana, leaving Merlin to fetch the first round and give them some alone time. He took the familiar walk up to the bar where Heath greeted him impishly, taking his order.
"Not trying to pick up guys at the bar tonight, hey Merlin?"
Merlin gave him a crumpled look. "Heath, I don't know what you're talking about."
Heath shrugged, and made some further comments about drowning rats and toilets but all Merlin could do was nod and try to look like he knew what Heath was on about. While he was waiting for their order at the bar, he turned back to inspect the two sitting at the booth. Morgana had put her hand where (Merlin assumed) Leon's thigh was (though for some reason Leon was glaring at her with a pinched look on his face). They looked to be in furious conversation, and Leon would twinge occasionally (what a trooper, coming out even when he was obviously feeling sick). He was about to head back when he noticed Lancelot heading towards the feuding couple. Morgana looked surprised, and Leon got up to pat him on the back, offering him a seat. Merlin signalled Heath for another glass and carried the pot back carefully.
"Hullo Lance. How do you know Morgana and Leon?" he said, carefully unloading the jug and glasses on the table.
"Oh, we wor—"
"Work together." Leon interrupted. For some reason his voice was free of cold (and sort of familiar sounding?). He must've eaten a throat lozenge.
"At Mercia?" Merlin inquired, taking his place next to Lancelot. "All of you?"
"Mercia? Mercia. Yes. Where we work. All of us." Leon replied. Merlin blinked. Even though his voice had gotten better, he was obviously still delirious and ill.
"I don't know about that." Morgana cut in.
"Yes you do. Because Arth— I. I will take you shopping. And I will pay for it." Leon and Morgana exchanged long, lingering looks.
"Then I suppose I do work at Mercia." Morgana said finally, pouring herself a pint.
"What do I get for working at Mercia then?" Lancelot asked, looking on amusedly.
"A salary." Morgana and Leon said in unison (well, Morgana said 'a pitiful salary', but still. Scary couple's telepathy!).
Merlin hid his smile behind his beer. Leon and Morgana seemed made for each other, though they were probably prone to fighting, breaking up and getting back together. He obviously wasn't able to draw this conclusion from personal experience, but he had (been forced to) read a few old Cosmopolitans in the GP waiting room. As the night wore on, Merlin was able to share a few of his own work stories with the Mercia crew (none too exciting, but Morgana, Leon and Lancelot had a bit of trouble weaving a story together between the three of them that didn't confuse Merlin considerably regarding either location, people involved or even where equipment was placed in their studios. Maybe he just had to be there), including the odd bloke who came in last week.
"What do you mean by odd?" Leon asked abruptly. Throughout the course of the night, Merlin still had this niggling feeling that he knew Leon from somewhere. ("Must have one of those faces." Leon had replied, voice gruff once again. Merlin had given him a throat lozenge and pitied him for having to deal with a perpetual cold).
"Well um, at first I thought he was a shoplifter, because he kept skulking behind the racks where I couldn't see him? Anyway, he was a bit shorter than me, blond—" And here he was experiencing some deja vu from the park, but he quickly pushed those thoughts aside. Leon looked at him intently, so he kept going with his tale. "But he didn't look like he was browsing. It looked like he was waiting for me to walk out the back, you know, so he could steal things. Come to think of it, Freya did mention some guy loitering outside the other day— um, anyway, I walked up to him and asked him if he needed any help, and he wouldn't look at my face, so I thought hang on, he's really very shifty."
"Absolutely. Should have called the cops on him. I urge you to do that next time," Morgana wisely advised.
Lancelot took more of a humanitarian's view. "Maybe he was a bit shy?"
"Um," Merlin vaguely remembered some rather good looks and a confident walk. "No, he didn't look the type..."
Morgana whispered something to Leon that made him laugh. She then motioned Merlin to keep going.
"Well, I was going to keep an eye on him, so I was rearranging stock near where he was standing when he just took a whole bunch of shirts off the rack, all different styles and different sizes, and went up to the counter to pay for them. I asked him if he wanted me to get him the ones in his size but he just muttered something about 'needing a lot of shirts ok, is that a crime?', took all the shirts before I could bag them, and then left! It was like, reverse kleptomania! Instead of stealing a whole bunch of things he didn't need he decided to buy a whole bunch of things he didn't need. It was very strange. Maybe he needs some impulse control?" Merlin took a sip of his beer. "Good sales figures for that day though." He remembered that because both girls had patted him on the head before he left. (He had been both touched and offended. What was he, a dog?)
"Obviously crazy," Morgana said decisively.
"Maybe he was thinking about how to come on to you, but panicked and fled?" Lancelot said, eating a pretzel. Merlin looked at him balefully, then confiscated his pretzel bowl.
"Not you too," Merlin sighed. "Look here, even if he was gay, he did not look like the sort of guy who would want to go out with me."
"That's not true Merlin," Morgana placed a hand on his wrist. "You're lovely."
And Merlin appreciated the thought, he really did, but Morgana was with Leon, and she was wearing relationship tinted glasses spurred from her own exceptionally lovey-dovey thing with Leon, and had become some sort of matchmaking madwoman who accosted people in parks, trying to figure out which one of her mates she could set them up with. She was so nice, wanting to share the joy of being in a happy relationship with everybody else.
He popped his hand on top of hers. "You're a very nice person Morgana."
Leon and Lancelot sounded like they were choking into their drinks (backwash, ew).
Then Morgana started to ask Merlin about his car preferences (Aston Martins? Bentleys? Maseratis?), at which point Leon tapped his (fake? Fake right?) Rolex and loudly declared the evening over. As they stood up to go and Morgana went off to powder her nose, Merlin couldn't resist asking, "do you know the guy she's on about?"
Lancelot and Leon looked at him, then at each other, then back at him, pensive. Then they looked towards the ladies toilets, and put up their hands in surrender. "We've been threatened under pain of death that we're not to tell."
At which point Merlin started to feel a little concerned. He patted his Optimus Prime for courage.
'Well, that settles that,' Merlin thought, brushing his teeth for bed. He knew he wasn't much fun to look at. He smiled ruefully at his plain reflection in the mirror and patted his face dry, turning off the light and clambering into bed. He smothered his face into the pillow and massaged his chest, willing his mind to clear of silly thoughts. Of course he wasn't Bar Guy — he'd already done the math in the park! Stupid hope receptors in his stupid brain. His alarm clock rolled away from his thrashing until it bumped into Optimus Prime, standing tall and proud and all save-the-world-from-Merlin's-stupidity like, at which point it decided it had run far enough and promptly collapsed into itself. Merlin turned off the lamp and set his iTunes on his sleep playlist.
'Of course it's not me,' he thought drearily. He lay through three Imogen Heap songs before falling into a fitful slumber.
Merlin quickly x-ed out of the page (why had he set that as his homepage anyway?) and logged into his student portal. After his foolish assumptions the week before, Merlin decided he would not be furthering the madness any longer. He needed to do lots and lots of schoolwork and earn lots of money to pay for bills and things and not— not have idle daydreams about being the target of an internet manhunt!
To clear his mind of his first world problems, he had gone to visit his mam on the weekend. It had been lovely, except for when his mam brought out the pictures of all the nice boys she had bumped into at Tescos.
"Aren't they a bit young for you mam?" he had said, pausing mid slice into his roast beef. "I mean um, you go get them! You uh, new age, independent woma— um, cougar you."
She had patted his hand fondly as she passed him yet another slice of home made bread. "Oh my lovely, daft boy, they aren't for me. Although I'll be very content to look at them about the house once you've decided on one."
She had pushed the mash to one side and sidled over to show him the photos she had taken on her iPhone. "Now how about this one?" she started gleefully. "His name is Tony and he's got a double major in economics and history and a lovely, spacious penthouse in Moria! He also has an ear fetish! Doesn't he look like a naughty boy, Merlin?"
There was a time when he had thought no harm could come of teaching his mam to use new technology. He mourned that innocence daily. Also, he decided he would never introduce his mam to Morgana.
He fled his mam's house after dinner to go visit Gaius, only to be invited to eat the older man's signature porridge. Suddenly remembering something he had to do with Will, he ran for it.
"Mate, I was going to get with a girl tonight you know," Will had grumbled, setting out the blankets on the couch. It was a blatant lie, Merlin could tell. Will was three kinds of hung over and was in no condition to woo anybody, let alone convince a girl to take her clothes off for him.
"Just her panties is enough! Jesus, what kind of bloody complicated sex are you having Merlin? Oh that's right, you're not having any."
"You're a wonderful friend Will. I cherish our friendship."
"Yeah whatever. Just don't make any loud noises and flip the cushion over to the side that doesn't have any stains alright?" Then he had stumbled off and crashed on the kitchen table.
He looked at the couch in a horrifying new light and opted to sleep on the floor. (But really, there was a high probability no place in that flat was untarnished).
Prior to boarding the train back to the city the next morning, he had popped back by Gaius' in time to avoid another helping of breakfast porridge.
"It's not going to kill you!" the physician had roared.
"I'm not taking any chances," Merlin had grumbled, and gave Gauis a big hug to placate him. The old physician had smacked the back of his head before crushing him a bit too tightly about the ribs.
"Now off with you," Gaius shooed him, suspiciously rough sounding. "And don't forget to ring your mam when you get back! She's driving us insane!"
Merlin scampered off, hoping Gaius was using the royal "us" (it works that way doesn't it?) and really meant that his mum wasn't going up to random strangers in the supermarket telling them about her beloved son that has forgotten about his poor mam now that he's living in the city and would they be on the gay market by any chance and like to see some pictures?
He plugged in his earphones as soon as he hopped onto the carriage, and settled into a seat next to the window. He had intended to take out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to keep him company on the ride home, but vetoed the idea two minutes into the trip when his head decided the window had properties not unlike a comfortable pillow. He promptly fell asleep, as his night as Will's was not very restful (even thinking about what could have transpired on the bit of floor he had deemed a safe enough sleeping area had kept him up most of the night. Meanwhile, Will snored peacefully on the kitchen table, bloody bastard). He was awoken sharply after an abrupt stop and start, and surreptitiously checked himself for drool (scarves were very handy for that chore if need be). He was at Moria station, about fifteen minutes away from where he needed to get off, so Merlin decided to tough it out and stay awake.
He stretched out bonelessly, turning his neck and hearing the satisfying cricks as he yawned. Sliding back up his seat, he met the very blue eyes of the girl sitting across the aisle. He smiled politely and she returned it.
"Do you want one?" she asked.
"Want what?" he enquired, tilting his head a little sleepily.
"A lollipop." She started to unwrap one, offering it to him. "To match everyone else."
Merlin blinked. He took the offered stick gingerly, and looked around the carriage. There were a lot more people on board than when he'd fallen asleep (which made sense because he had gotten on at Ealdor, basically at the end of the line) and there was something peculiar they all had in common.
Skinny jeans (black).
Converses (also black).
Checkered Scarves (mostly black and white, with a few daring individuals venturing into red territory).
The train was full of extremely similarly dressed youths, of which Merlin blended into seamlessly. He wondered if there was some sort of convention somewhere, or if an internet event was taking place in the carriage, like the world record for most people in a train carriage in skinny jeans eating lollipops (kind of weird, but hey, Guiness).
"I love the DriveThru, don't you?" the girl said around her lollipop. And now that he had been made aware, he noticed that she was also done up in converses, skinnies, and red and black checkered scarf around her neck. "I hope Penn gets his man. It's so romantic don't you think?"
Merlin nodded, confused but not willing to upset the locals with his ignorance. The Drivethru? Were Penn and Dusty doing a broadcast from the carriage or something? Before he could ask her to elaborate further the girl had already moved on.
"By the way, those are some fantastic blue contacts! Much better than mine. Where'd you get them from?"
By the time he had to get off at Castle station, he still hadn't convinced her that they were his actual eyes.
Merlin was bagging another scarf and another military jacket when he noticed something familiar-looking poking out of the customer's Hungry Hungry Hippos canvas bag.
"I've just finished reading that! Not as good as the original, but I'm really looking forward to Natalie Portman as Elizabeth," he said as he handed the customer his hands, smiling. "Enjoy the rest of your day!"
The customer sneered at Merlin, sniffed, then strode out of the store. Merlin's jaw dropped.
"What was that all about? I was just being nice!"
Freya stuck her head out of the break room and asked, "What's this about Natalie Portman? Is it that rubbish book you were reading aloud to us last week?"
While Freya and Gwen had been busy working on a new design (and thus communicating to him in grunts and monosyllables as they toiled over their fabrics and patterns) he had decided to read them Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, because if he had to talk at them, there may as well be copious amounts of groaning zombies involved.
"I don't care about her Chinese lineage!" Freya had whined, taking in the pant leg of the coveralls closer to Merlins calf, again. "And stay still, or so help me I will prick you to death."
"That's what he said," Gwen had muttered on his other side.
When the girls were exhausted, Freya would start hurling abuse and Gwen began to make innuendos (bad ones, yes — but for Gwen to utter such filth was on par with that scene in Sense and Sensibility, the one with the whole "oh my, he's touching her ankle, oh the indecency of it all!" stuff, which, by the way, he was forced to watch repeatedly while being in coverall prototypes at the girls' flat the night before. The horror, he could not have begun to explain).
"It's meant to represent another set of class distinctions," Merlin had begun to explain, but Freya had shushed him very loudly and Gwen had started to laugh uncontrollably at the word 'class'. The girls had worked well into the night, while he had planted face first in the cast off fabrics pile in front of Alan Rickman's face. Then the terror began anew when his shift had begun that afternoon. The girls entrusted Merlin with minding the till all by himself as they sequestered themselves in a sewing frenzy, holing up in the tea room and taking the biscuit tin hostage.
"I mean, it's absurdly popular at the moment. Loads of kids at uni are reading it," Merlin shouted from the register, frowning slightly. "What's his problem?"
Freya merely grunted, picking stray threads out of her hair. Then Gwen came out bearing the finished product (dark green coveralls with loops for a faux tool belt in orange and 'slave to the wage' stitched in cursive on the front, to be worn over a grey hooded t-shirt) and the incident was forgotten as the girls proceeded to spend the rest of his shift playing dress up with their favourite Ken doll (otherwise known as Merlin).
The problem with having a lot of time on your hands and living in the internet age was, sooner or later you was sure to became some sort of facebook stalker. Facebook was clearly managed by hell's minions, filled with temptation and mindless spamming and flash games that took too long to load. Temptation, in this instance, presented itself as the gorgeous display picture and several photo albums of one Arthur Pendragon, who,
1. Had blond hair
2. Was (sort of, it looked like) friends with Morgana
3. Had been that strange customer with a spot of reverse kleptomania
4. Was possibly outrageously rich and, most importantly,
5. Way, way out of his league (as in, it was not even possible to see the parking lot of the stadium from where he was standing).
And Merlin told Morgana so, when (for some inexplicable reason) she was blocking his way into his own bathroom.
He had come staggering home in the coveralls to see Lancelot and Leon parked on the sofa, four glasses of wine out on the coffee table (he loved that Lancelot was such a considerate soul). The two had been in an unusually chatty mood, asking him about his day, about his plans for the week, and if he were German, would he want to eat Paul the traitorous World Cup predicting octopus? Merlin had to beg off after that, wanting to wash his face of shop, and maybe change his clothes (they smelt a little of the pile of fabric in Freya and Gwen's sewing room, but mostly of shop), which led him to the bathroom that Morgana was unknowingly blocking him from. The beautiful woman stumbled a bit (must be the combination of stilettos and wine), bracing herself on the doorframe of his en suite.
"I know what you're doing Morgana." he said, slightly accusative.
Her voice wavered. "Y-You do?"
Merlin then remembered his manners and helped her back to the sofa, telling her sternly, "You can't set me up with your friends. And you might want to take it easy on the wine, it's only eight."
"Merlin! Wine loves me!" she admonished, gracefully oozing onto the sofa, pulling him down beside her. "What's this about then?"
"I have a horrible dating history," he lied. "Also I saw your photos on facebook and hyperventilated a tiny bit. Please don't match make me."
"How about we talk about this some more down at the pub?" Leon growled out, wringing his hands together meanfully. Right, no sitting close to Morgana then. Merlin inched away slowly.
"Yes, let's go down to the pub, Merlin. Call Gwen and Freya and ask them to come out too, we'll make a night of it," Lancelot added. Merlin narrowed his eyes at his roommate.
"Oh no, mate. We've got to have some words about that." Merlin would have continued, if not for Lancelot's guilty retreat to the kitchen with the wine glasses and Morgana's firm grip on his arm.
"No, none of that. It's Friday night, let's go out and have a drink," she urged.
"Yes, at the pub," Leon reiterated, standing up.
His unsteady trek home after being manhandled for two hours by Gwen and Freya (they obviously didn't learn to treat their toys with care growing up) made the idea of walking anywhere else, even to the pub, seem like far too much effort. Merlin gave them a tired smile. "Um, actually, if it's all right with you, would you mind if we stayed here? It's been a long day."
"Oh, well," Morgana and Leon looked at each other lustfully (their lust sort of resembled panic, but that wouldn't have made much sense so indeed, Merlin thought it must be lust).
"Sorry Merlin," Lancelot said, coming back from the kitchen. "There aren't any drinks left. We shouldn't be staying in like boring old sods on a Friday night anyway."
Merlin wasn't good at saying no, especially when being outweighed three to one. He heaved a sigh and got up. "Alright then, let me just wash my face and wake myself up."
"No!" Morgana and Leon shouted at him vehemently. Merlin sat down again immediately. He really didn't like it when both of them raised their voices at him.
"There's no need to do that Merlin," Morgana said soothingly, coaxing him to his feet. "And something's, er, broken in your bathroom anyway." She led him to the entrance way and pointedly looked at his shoes.
"Something's broken?" Merlin asked, confused as to why he was obediently slipping on his converses.
"Yes. The um—" Morgana began.
"Soap dispenser." Lancelot said helpfully.
"Right. Soap everywhere. Frothing up from underneath the door and everything. We just finished cleaning it up for you so, don't go in there right now." Leon said with finality.
Merlin frowned. He was sure he had fixed that soap dispenser after he'd tinkered with the Toast Launcher. Then again, that could easily have been the source of the new problem.
"Well, thank you," he said, looking down at his shoes. The click of Morgana's scarily high stilettos went past, as did the soft padding of Leon's brown leather loafers. There were a shiny pair of black dress shoes next to his Converse-clad feet. "New shoes Lance?"
His roommate paused, wriggling his sock clad toes. And then started to slip into them. "Yes, yes they are. Excellent observational skills Merlin."
"This is all nice and well folks, can we get a move on to the pub now please?" Morgana asked with a hint of impatience from the hallway outside. Merlin quickly took a step out, not wanting to get shouted at again. Lancelot was still putting on his shoes.
"Got your keys right Merlin? I'm just going to leave my keys right here. In the blue bowl next to the door," Lancelot yelled out, shutting the door in a needlessly violent fashion. Merlin wished Lancelot would treat their shared flat with more care. He would have told him so, but was too busy trying to get rid of the loud ringing noise in his ears caused by Lancelot's hollering and door slamming.
"Lance, I am right here. Please don't shout at me." Merlin frowned, rubbing his ears with gloved hands. "More importantly, regarding your behaviour towards Gwen..." And he proceeded to chastise Lancelot on his way with the ladies, especially one who roomed with Freya, who was rather vocal about the almighty power of woman, the evil of strangers and the eviler evil of drug lords all the way to the pub.
"Up to your old tricks again I see. Just make sure the drinks go down your throat and not on someone's face, alright Merlin?" Heath told him, tilting his chin in the direction of Merlin's booth as he slid over the second jug of the night. His friends were all drinking hard, Leon and Morgana especially (they must have had trying days at their work, just like him). He slipped a fuzzy look of confusion at Heath, not bothering to respond to the cryptic remark, before carefully easing the tray into his hands. In all honesty, Merlin was getting to the stage past pleasant tipsiness, and he probably shouldn't be drinking any more unless he wanted to embarrass himself, or fall asleep at the pub.
Which is why, when next to Lancelot's gorgeous dark (could induce spontaneous bodice-ripping) hair he spotted a very broad back topped with a head of blond hair that was so fluffy it begged to be tousled through and mussed up (like messing up the fur of a dog. Merlin loved dogs, but his mam was allergic), he was only able to conjure up a wobbly pout to shoot at Morgana as he set the jug down.
Of course, the only spot left was the one next to Arthur Pendragon, his facebook stalkee.
No wonder Morgana didn't want him to stay home! She had already planned to set him up. He shot a betrayed look at Lancelot, who smiled weakly and poured Merlin a pint from the pot, sliding it in front of the empty seat. He puffed out his cheeks at his roommate. No more drinks, his arse!
Carefully, he sat himself down and exchanged a small smile with the blond man (and then a scowl at Lancelot). The man nodded regally back at him, which made him fumble to hide behind his beer. He took a large drink of it, sneaking a glance sideways in a way he hoped was really subtle. And yup, just as gorgeous as his facebook purported, no photoshop there. The black tee the blond wore was stretched tight over his broad chest, neck a tan expanse of skin as he took a drink. His were hands larger than Merlin's own around the glass, nails neat and trimmed. Merlin told himself he was only smearing the back of his hand over his mouth to get rid of the remnants of his beer.
Three pair of eyes looked at them expectantly. Morgana's sharp nails tapped out an impatient tattoo against the table top.
"Don't be a tit Arthur, introduce yourself to him!" Morgana hissed a moment latter, slapping the table loudly.
"Oh, um, actually. I sort of already know?" Merlin told his drink. There was a bit of spluttering around the table (everyone must be on the wrong side of sober, clearly) as Merlin hesitantly extended his hand and raised his eyes, mustering up a smile. "Hello Arthur, I'm Merlin. I've seen your name come up in Morgana's feed on Facebook."
He decided not to bring up their brief previous encounter, in case the other man didn't remember and thought he was weird for remembering that and possibly into him or something. Which, clearly, not possible, even if he had spent a good fifteen minutes clicking through the album titled 'Days on the Beach' (there was white sand wherever they had taken the photos, and Merlin had been entranced by the endless, glistening lean expanse of — um, white sand).
"Oh?" Arthur's voice was rather strangled. He shook Merlin's hand quickly, heating up his cold fingers for only an instant before letting go, and then rubbing the the hand on his jeans. Like being in contact with Merlin's hand was diseased or something (not that Merlin was at all hurt by the action, not at all). "S'a bit stalkerish init?"
Morgana and Leon glared at the blond, mouths gaping a little while Lancelot simply frowned.
Arthur's rather strong cockney accent rattled Merlin, as did his words. He slowly lowered his hand and quietly returned it to his drink, feeling himself flush (he hoped everyone would think it was from the beer).
"Arthur," Morgana ground out, warning. "This is why I don't take you anywhere."
"Talk about pot calling kettle." Leon shook his head sadly, taking a gulp of his beer.
Merlin rather appreciated their support, but in truth he did feel like a stalker (in that facebook sense) so he simply averted his gaze and emptied the rest of his pint in small sips. As if in apology, Arthur took his glass and refilled it (either that or he simply didn't want Merlin to talk. But Merlin was an optimist).
"So," Merlin ventured, breaking the awkward silence that had descended on the table. "Going anywhere nice for the holidays?"
Conversation and drink flowed easily after that. Well, for everyone but Merlin. He had been ready to drop at the start of the night, and downing that last pint had definitely been a mistake. He let the hum of conversation relax him, leaning his head back into the squeaky cushioning of the booth for support. He felt himself blinking languidly as Morgana bitched at length about some miserable bint called Nim, Arthur pitching in to correct her here and there. Then the topic rounded to bitching about their week at work, Leon especially disgruntled about taking some calls from the media he found distasteful. Merlin could feel himself resting his eyes longer and longer between blinks, until finally he was gently jostled awake by his pillow moving beneath his cheek.
Merlin frowned slightly, kneading his face into the soft upholstery and nestling closer to the source of warmth. The pointed clearing of a throat jolted him all the way awake, neck snapping almost violently.
Oh no, he thought, mortification muffled through the haze of sleep. I fell asleep while my friends were talking to me.
Which was horrible, because he liked them a lot and didn't want them to think he fell asleep because he thought they were boring or anything like that. Except that when he opened his mouth to apologise, a yawn came out instead. He massaged the cheek that had been resting on the pillow, trying valiantly to wake up some more. As the throat clearing continued, Merlin sought out the source of the noise and found it to be emitting from Arthur Pendragon's tight-lipped mouth, as the blond pointedly rolled his shoulder and straightened his (rather distracting) form-fitting black tee.
Oh dear, Merlin thought despondently. That was obviously not happening. Not that he thought anything would happen, or had been hoping to make a good impression or anything like that. He also was not thinking about how nice and warm Arthur's shoulder had been, or the heat coming off of his side, or anything to do with the blond at all.
"Sorry Merlin," Morgana murmured, her face a guilty expression to his right. Poor Morgana, how was she to know Merlin was rubbish at this meeting attractive people thing?
Well, except Merlin did tell her.
"You really must have been tired. I shouldn't have made you come out."
"It's all right Morgana." He yawned again. "I'm a big boy."
"Time to go home Merlin," Lancelot said, getting up from his seat.
"Okay," he replied obediently, rubbing his eye of sleep with the heel of his left palm. First that stupidity from the previous week, and then the stupidity from tonight. He was more than ready to go home.
"See him home won't you Arthur?" Morgana ordered. "Us grown ups have to talk."
"Har har," Arthur said, mouth twisting. Lancelot set himself back down, a rueful smile on his face, shrugging his shoulders at Merlin. Coward.
"That's alright, don't trouble yourself, I'll be fine." Merlin fought down another yawn and stood up precariously.
"What'r'ya sayin', drunkard," Arthur sighed, steadying him with a hand on his arm. He put the other on the small of Merlin's back, the heat of it scorching through the fabric of the coveralls. "Come on then. See you lot later, yeah?"
Assent chorused from the three traitors, and they left the establishment. The bite of the cold outside woke Merlin up slightly, prompting him to wind his scarf over his neck a few more times.
"Um, thanks for this, it's really nice, um, you didn't have to." Thankfully, Merlin's teeth chattered, cutting off his blathering. Arthur still hadn't taken his hand away from Merlin's back, and it was the only place on his whole body that really felt warm. "Blimey it's cold."
"It wouldn't be so cold if you had more meat on your bones. You're incredibly bony," Arthur muttered. His palm pushed at Merlin's back, as if propelling him forward and away. Merlin stepped out of heated space around Arthur, stung. His rubbed his uncovered arms, uncomfortably aware of how gangly and spindly he was. He desperately sought for something to say, to change the subject.
"So, um, Pendragon? That's an interesting name," Merlin offered. "Sounds a bit familiar."
"Really?" Arthur said, drawling out the cockney so the word became five syllables instead of just two.
"Yeah, like, the Pendragon banks?"
Arthur sighed. "Oh yeah. S'my dad's. Hey, turning here." His skin seared where Arthur's arm came curling around his waist, catching Merlin as he stumbled at the abrupt movement.
"Oh right. Thanks." Merlin should have been leading the way since it was his home he was returning to, but of course he didn't, and now he looked absent-minded and awkward. On top of that, in spite of the cold he was still on the verge of slumber. He had the sinking feeling that he was actually leaning closer and closer into Arthur's side. "So you work in a bank?"
"No, s'my dad." Arthur's voice had a hint of bemusement in it. "'N you work inna shop?"
"Um, yeah," Merlin mumbled. Arthur's hand had come to a comfortable rest on his hip, just on top of the bone. Merlin was decidedly not thinking about how nice it felt. "How'd you know that?"
"Well, M-Morgana told me." Arthur stuttered. He must have been feeling the cold too. "Anyway, can't be much good if you're goin' 'round like that."
Merlin suddenly felt wide awake.
"Y'know. Just lookit them things, ain't hardly gonna keep you warm now init? 'N they're ratty 'round the edges." Arthur said evenly, fiddling with one of the 'ratty' threads on the strap of Merlin's left shoulder with his free hand to make his point. Merlin felt a pool of heat curl up unpleasantly in his stomach. "You look so cold."
Well. That was definitely that. Maybe he was bit lacking in the muscles department, and maybe his hair wasn't all nice and fluffy looking (or combed half the time), but there was not one thing wrong about anything that Gwen and Freya crafted.
Merlin shrugged both of Arthur's arms off of him. The hands hovered as Merlin stomped forwards a ways in front of the blond and whirled around to face him.
"You," Merlin glared, incensed. Arthur's blue eyes blinked at him, utterly perplexed and looking lost. "You are an incredibly rude arse."
He stomped down hard on Arthur's trainers (didn't Lance have a pair like that?) and stalked off home, furious.
"Good song, Temper Trap's Sweet Disposition. Now, Penn was imparting some very interesting information during the break, which I think he should share to all the listeners, so out with it Penn."
"What? No! No, it wasn't interesting at all. Extremely dull and banal DriveThru fans, you wouldn't want to hear about it."
"Now now Penn. Documenting your exploits and all that. It's sharing time."
"Well, um... DriveThru fans, this may surprise you somewhat, but at times I can be a little... insensitive."
"Quiet Dust, I'm talking. Anyway DriveThru Fans, I might have... done something, in the realm of insensitivity. You see last night there was this guy—"
"BG. Bar Guy. Get with the times Penn."
"Uh huh. Anyway, last night, I may have quite possibly been slightly insensitive towards Bar Guy. Before you judge me though—"
"I'm always judging you."
"Before you judge me, can I just say that I wasn't completely to blame. I was completely distracted at the time."
"I don't like your tone Dusty."
"Pray tell us why you were— distracted then."
"Well, he was extremely unkempt."
"Unkempt. Really. What, are you OCD now?"
"No! I was just, his scarf was all frayed at the ends, and his coveralls had these loose threads hanging from them, and his hair was extremely fluffy!"
"So— you were distracted by his hair."
"Wha— No! No, I was like, it was the cat in me, alright. Bar Guy had, like dangling pieces of string! My feline instincts were fully focused on pouncing on those pieces of string."
"Are we going to get in trouble with the censors again?"
"Not like that you dirty slag, honestly. I was just — preoccupied. With the threads. I had to touch them, okay, it was a horrid compulsion."
"So basically, you were touching BG and his... threads."
"He made me do it!"
"Right. Something tells me he was unaware of your apparent feline heritage."
"So I'm a tactile person. That's not a crime is it? I like touching things. Let's open the lines, DriveThru Fans, call and tell us when you couldn't help but touch something."
"Yes, I'll give you Ellie Goulding's debut album Lights if your story involves some sort of hot appliance. Or, if you tell Penn this touching business of his has nothing to do with his feline ways or supposed tactile inclinations."
"That's unfair Dust. Certainly even you can attest to how very tactile I am."
"Please Penn. When was the last time you touched me without it being a manly pat on the shoulder or to cause me some form of physical pain?"
"Yes, well. That's because it's you. Only your mother's willing to touch you without incentive."
"That's not what your sister said last night."
"Oh, is that the time? Better get through another song before we get to your calls!"
Morgana started choking on her latte.
Merlin was immediately on his feet, patting her soothingly on the back. Morgana waved away his concern with a hacking cough and, with only a smidgen less grace than usual, accepted a napkin from a nervous looking waiter.
"Went down the wrong way?" Merlin said sympathetically.
"Um yes," Morgana wheezed, rubbing her throat. Merlin cautiously returned to his seat, and not because he was waiting for Morgana to go off on another coughing fit, but because sitting down meant more talking (read: interrogating). Earlier that day, Morgana had stormed in, automatic doors receding in her wake, and demanded Merlin accompany her on his tea break (why Morgana didn't have better things to do on a Monday was a question burning Merlin up inside, but he was hardly game enough to question her about it).
She soon schooled herself into her normal dignified visage, and picked up her teacup nonchalantly.
"Can't believe they're letting such indecency be put on the air for public consumption," Morgana said steadily. "I suppose you don't listen to it."
"Um..." Merlin bought some time sipping at his own drink. He was afraid to give the wrong response. Though, while being grilled by Morgana, everything was basically the wrong answer wasn't it?
"I do sometimes. Not much lately though." Because I am riddled with the shame of my outrageous conceit, he didn't say.
"Can't blame you," Morgana said, sniffing daintily. "That Penn character is obviously a straight jacket shy of an insane asylum."
Merlin cleared his throat, eyes shifting. "You don't think it's... romantic?" Then hurriedly waved his hands about. "Not that, I mean, it's just what all the girls are saying. On the street."
"Merlin." Morgana elegantly laced her fingers together, resting her elbows on the table and leaned forward, gazing at him intently. "You think it's romantic? Being courted in public, pictures printed in the paper, being hounded by the press, people saying what they damn well please without consideration for anyone's feelings at all?"
Merlin stared, a little incredulously. He wanted to point out that none of what Morgana had listed had actually happened, but she had sounded so profoundly bitter, her fingers twitching and back stiff, lips pressed firmly together and eyes still alarmingly intent on Merlin's own that he decided against it.
"That's the horrible thing about fame these days," Morgana said breezily, as if she had not just pinned Merlin to his seat with her gaze, finally leaning into the backrest of her chair. "Nobody is newsworthy unless they've been caught cheating on their wife or been in an adult video."
Merlin chuckled uneasily, feeling a bit like Godzilla had picked him up and shook him around while happily smashing Tokyo under his dinosaur feet. He didn't know that much about Morgana yet, but he had never seen her look so resentful, and then so resigned. It made him want to shoot toast at whoever could have done that to her. Instead, he searched for something to say to bring Morgana back out of her bad memories.
"I don't know, I think it's a bit amazing actually. The whole Penn business I mean," Merlin said hurriedly, nervously twisting his teacup in his hand. "I mean, just look." He gestured out the window. Half the people walking by were dressed just like the people on his train ride back from Ealdor. "You could look at it like, I don't know, people following a fad I guess, but." Merlin shrugged. "It's inspiring, That this many people care about— are touched by this ridiculous Bar Guy business that they've written it all over their clothes. It's like, they're supporting Penn with their whole being or something. And he's really— I think he's really brave. He's putting himself out there in the public domain, without caring what everyone thinks. It's pretty... incredible..."
Merlin trailed off, completely embarrassed. He'd just gone off on a long spiel that Morgana probably didn't care about. He didn't dare look at her in the face, feeling the flush spread through his entire body as he stirred the remnants of his tea into a whirlpool.
After the most agonising moment of Merlin's life, Morgana finally responded.
Her voice was stern, her face like stone. Merlin waited for her swift judgement on his outdated/obviously-from-the-country naive way of thinking, when her face broke out in a cheerful smirk.
"You my dear, are far," she repeated with more emphasis, "far too good for my brother."
Merlin blinked, smiling hesitantly.
Merlin returned from his tea break with Morgana in a much better mood than when he left.
That all sort of came crashing down when Freya and Gwen beamed at him from the counter, holding a box of Truly Awful Things, smiling and batting their eyelashes doefully.
"Girls," he sighed at them, resigned, letting them have at him. "You do realise I'm not a girl right?"
"Oh Merlin, stop being such a grouch," Freya demanded, stepping back and eyeing his hair and wrists critically. "Gwen, I think we'll need to put a thicker belt over the skirt."
"You said it wasn't a skirt!" Merlin protested at her retreating back. Gwen smiled at him, blatantly unsympathetic.
"It's not," she lied. "And you look fetching."
"All the boys will come to the yard," Freya cackled delightedly, brandishing another belt. She cinched it loosely over his hips (serves her right if it falls down, Merlin thought unkindly. His hips certainly weren't able to stop its descent if the belt was keen on meeting up with the floor). After Gwen and Freya hmmed and hawed for a few more minutes, they declared him fit for work and went on their evil, giggly way to the tea room, leaving him with express orders to stand in the front of the shop where he was clearly visible through the windows.
After which, of course, Arthur Pendragon decided to come in.
Merlin couldn't help pursing his lips. "Welcome," he ground out. "I'll be with you in a minute sir," and turned his back to the blond arse pointedly, returning to his conversation with his customer about their coveralls actually being out of stock at the moment, just missed it by half a day, but they should be back in stock by Wednesday and if they'd like to leave their details he would contact them straight away when they got in.
When he had drawn out the conversation for as long as he was able, Merlin steeled himself, trying to remember all the nice things Morgana had told him about Arthur being contrite and apologetic about his behaviour the night he'd sort of walked Merlin home.
("He came home in a huff and sulked in a corner all night." Morgana had howled in laughter.
"You live with him?" Merlin had asked curiously.
"Our parents had an extremely messy divorce." Morgana had shrugged, as though it explained everything. It really didn't.)
"Can I help you sir?" Merlin smiled stiffly, as the blond man stared blankly at him. "I'll need to remind you that exchanges and returns are not possible after seven days from the initial date of purchase."
Arthur flinched, then tossed back defiantly, "Merlin, r'ya such a giant girl ya feel you hafta announce it wi' a pink headband 'n a jingly charm bracelet? Not that tha skirt ain't a dead giveaway."
Merlin refused to give Arthur the satisfaction of seeing him hurt or angry. "If you need any help I'll be over there," he said, and walked determinedly over to the women's section, hanging up new dresses in the space where the coveralls had been. He focused very carefully on each item, making sure the folds were draping just so, and was definitely not aware of Morgana's (step? Half? Half adopted? Their family tree was very confusing without a flow chart) brother stalking around the store before coming to stand next to him five minutes later, eyes downcast.
"...I shouldn' 'a said that," Arthur said mulishly. Merlin felt the situation not unlike being in primary school, but unable to stop himself.
"Why not?" he bit out. "You've made it quite clear you don't think much of how I look, how I dress, or how I work for a store that isn't any good except to buy things from on a whim."
"What!" Came the outraged hiss from Freya. Gwen, being observant and a great believer in pacifism, led Freya back into the tea room and shut the door behind them.
"I didn' mean it the way it came out!" Arthur insisted. "Honest. I jus' had a bit ta drink 'n it came out all wrong." A pause. "'N just now I was all embarrassed 'cause I got made."
Merlin cursed his inherent niceness and turned to face Arthur properly. The blond took this as a reconciliatory gesture and smiled at him earnestly, extending his arm to rest his hand on Merlin's shoulder, squeezing. "I didn' think ya remembered really."
Merlin turned away slightly, smoothing out the next dress and biting his lip. "You're still rude."
He shrugged, chuckling. The sound sent a jolt of heat straight to Merlin's stomach. "Yeah. M'sorry," Arthur said, sounding much more sincere this time. Merlin told himself that was the reason why he was conceding, nothing to do with how Arthur had slid his hesitant, warm palm to his back, underneath his left shoulder blade.
"Alright. Apology accepted." He gave the blond a shy smile, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. Arthur smiled at him even more brightly, red mouth revealing white teeth, and Merlin fumbled with the next dress out of the box. He rescued it and stared intently at the hanger, making sure it met the rack safely. "So, how did you know where I worked anyway? Morgana?"
"...Yeah." Arthur said after a pause. "'N speakin' a work, I hafta leave but, I wanted ta come in 'n see ya—"
Merlin flushed. Arthur had probably not meant anything by that. He told his heart to stop skipping beats when it had no business doing anything of the sort.
"—'N to give ya this, as 'n apology." Here, Arthur reached his free hand into the deep pocket of his coat, and pulled out long, silver scarf, covered in blue fleur de lis monograms. It looked insanely expensive.
"I can't take that Arthur, the apology was enough." Merlin protested, hands flying up and waving about. Arthur simply unwound Merlin's current scarf and slid the cool, expensive fabric in its place. Merlin couldn't help the involuntary shudder as the cold cloth rubbed against his neck. He was horribly red, he could feel it.
"Doesn't go with the pink headband," Arthur murmured, breath ghosting Merlin's flushing cheeks. "But it matches your eyes."
Merlin was still too stunned with surprise to respond to Arthur's cheery farewell a minute later, could only watch as the blond left the store with a spring in his step and a curl to his mouth. He figured out how to close his gaping mouth a moment later, and came to his senses, noting he was rubbing the scarf between the pad of his thumb and forefinger. Arthur had been so close to Merlin's mouth, he had been sure...
A wolf whistle sounded low from beside him.
"That man is incredibly smooth," Gwen declared, impressed.
"That man is incredibly rude, you mean," Freya muttered from his other side. "Was he insulting the shop Merlin? And he took your scarf as well!"
He looked around him, slightly dazed, and he realised she was right. Why did Arthur do that? What was this scarf made of anyway? What kind of work necessitates leaving at three in the afternoon? Is rudeness somehow cancelled out by charm? Questions spun around dizzily in his mind, the utmost one being: why the hell hadn't he asked for a phone number?
What actually came out was:
"Where did you learn to whistle like that Gwen?"
Well, it had been very impressive.
Merlin walked into work on Tuesday scowling, which had him immediately sent to the tea room with a rap on the knuckles and orders to make a new pot of tea. Gwen came in about three minutes after that with a new packet of biscuits.
"Bad day?" Gwen rubbed his shoulder gently and took a seat beside him. Merlin bit savagely into an oreo (no milk).
"Mam's pimping me out," he mumbled grudgingly, crunching noisily. "I had to call her up and not-shout at her to stop trying to fix me up. And also that she shouldn't be accepting dodgy invites from randy men of any age." He swallowed and wiped his hand over his mouth to clear it of crumbs, frustrated. "She didn't take it very well."
Which was a tiny understatement, because she had started not-crying on the phone, telling him very unsteadily about how she worried for him and that she could take care of herself just fine, which had him not-apologizing profusely and, after giving that up, calling Gauis and asking him to console his mam because he is a horrid child and son and should never have left Ealdor.
Gaius had told him to grow a pair, and then muttered about taking over some porridge before ringing off.
"Oh," said Gwen, sounding surprised. She said after a pause, "is that all?"
"What?" Merlin whipped his head from where it rested from the table, upset.
"I didn't mean it like— of course it's horrible that you and your mother are having problems, I obviously wouldn't wish that on anybody. I mean, not that having problems with her is a small problem in any way, because it's healthy for parents and children to fight, you see—"
"She means we thought you were upset because you found out you were Bar Guy and throwing a giant fit." Freya cut Gwen off, holding his laptop in one had and reaching down to cover Gwen's mouth with the other. "By the way, you are so totally get a raise for this Merlin."
"Um, yes. To the former, I mean. And, congratulations on the latter?" Gwen agreed a little confusedly, when Freya removed her hand to sit on Merlin's other side.
He looked at Freya blankly, and then swiveled his head slowly to stare at Gwen's once again earnest face. "What are you on about?" he asked slowly, like he did that time in the park, coaxing wild ducks from eating his precious circuits when he decided to take apart his electronic dictionary (he had been learning Japanese at the time).
"Look, right here!" Freya almost squealed, tapping at the screen.
"Um," Merlin looked at them both, confused. "I'm not sure which part of this is meant to convince me of being an internet phenomenon. I quite like Chai lattes."
Gwen looked at him like he was a dear stray kitten she wanted to take home and cuddle. Freya looked like she wanted to smack him about the face. "Merlin, of course that's you! How can you deny such blatant evidence?"
"Oh hold on," Gwen said distantly. "We've skipped a few pages. Here we go, right here Merlin."
That wasn't possible.
Merlin clicked on the links again and stared long and hard at the photos.
"They're awful photos," Gwen murmured, rubbing his back. "But that's what you were wearing yesterday. You know. At least, what he managed to frame of your outfit with his atrocious photo taking skills."
"The hungry hungry caterpillar was on my shirt yesterday." Merlin said, bewildered. His mind, normally extremely adept at handling information, seemed to have frozen and was in need of a reboot.
"Yup." Freya said, gnawing her lips in uncertainty. "Um, you seem sort of surprised?"
"I really don't think he knew, Freya." Gwen looked at him worriedly. Freya seemed, if anything, even more gleeful at the news. Merlin barely heard them.
"And you made me wear that headband and skirt."
"That's the scarf Arthur gave me yesterday."
Merlin looked down at his vest belatedly, a strange blue and white and pink unintentional tie dye, from his first ever attempt at laundry and forever stained, mirroring the photo on screen. The frilly sleeves went past the length of his hands, being two sizes too big.
"This is Lance's," he heard himself say, distant over the roaring in his ears. He picked at the ridiculous frills. "They're the only clean shirts left because we're both doing laundry today. This one had the least amount of frills on it."
No wonder he had been dressed like everyone else. No wonder everyone was reading P&P&Z at uni. No wonder he couldn't get the next Autobot in the Happy Meal series!
He could feel Gwen murmuring at him indistinctly, but his mind had already stopped well before the point of human interaction. Held at a standstill, it was like he was looking at white text on a blue screen of death, his eyes like the cursor, blinking mechanically.
Merlin continued to blink. Then got up woodenly from his chair.
"I should fix that," he said blankly.
For the rest of his shift, he sequestered himself in the tea room and meticulously pulled out all the wiring, scattered his beloved chips and circuits in a donut shape around himself and ignored Freya when she tried to make him come out the front and serve customers, threatening to not give him the promised raise.
He was Bar Guy. BG.
People around the city were dressing up like him. People were reading the books he was reading. People listened to Penn go on about him and bought blue contacts.
Penn, the DriveThru's very own lovable nutjob, sort of admired him from afar.
Penn, the voice which lulled him into sleep most nights, sort of had a crush on him.
Gwen and Freya were two of the best people Merlin ever had the privilege of befriending. Gwen was forever worried about his health and things like his eating habits (and Freya was too, in the beginning. Then she forced him on the scales after a night of all-you-can-eat lasagna for a standard shop personnel health test, and since then had been entirely unconcerned. Very strange). Gwen was nice, almost to a fault, and actually helped to land Merlin his job at the shop the day after he moved in (she had spilt some coffee on him on her way to work, and taken him to the store to get him a new one. Honestly, the nicest person).
After hearing about his lack of employment, Freya basically gave him a job on the spot, after a two question interview.
("So Merlin, do you do drugs?"
"And you're obviously twee, then."
"I-I don't think you're meant to ask me stuff like that—"
"I like him Gwen! He's hired!")
It was more of a one question interview really, now that he thought about it.
What he was trying to say was, the girls were very, very nice to him. Ordinarily. He was quickly discovering the niceness? Did not extend to times when they discovered he was somewhat famous on the internet.
"Bar Guy has a heart of gold!" Gwen chirped at him cheerfully, humming as she rinsed out her mug in the sink. She then simply bounced out of the room, ignoring Merlin's look of horror and despair and not caring in the slightest that he might have crushed a very important circuit the espresso machine needed in order to make horrible coffee in his shocked hands.
"Bar Guy has a smile that really ought to be classified as a WMD!" Freya sang out melodically on her way to the biscuit tin, jolting Merlin out of his rather uncomfortable sprawl on the tea room floor. "By the way, you know I'm paying you to work out front right?"
Merlin ignored her.
And so on and so forth it went, even after Merlin had to relinquish his screwdriver because his hand developed red grooves from gripping it too tightly. He dragged at his heels, re-assembling the coffee machine as slowly as possible after he took out the sound chip. Gwen and Freya's increasingly thin excuses eventually ran out until they made no attempts to mask their insidious glee at all.
"Bar Guy probably tastes sweet like oranges and cream, his favourite lolly stick flavour," Gwen read out. The girls awwwwwwwwww-ed in unison and Merlin had had enough.
"It does not say that!" Merlin threw his hands up, exasperated.
"No it does, right after Dusty says he's going to be sick." Gwen says, thrusting a printout in his face. "See, right here."
"Right under where Penn says he doesn't know what Dusty's on about," Freya chimed in unhelpfully. Printouts were not a good sign. Merlin looked at the innocuous white piece of paper in dismay. He hoped they weren't planning to decorate them with sparkly pens and put them up on their sewing room wall (like they did when they found the diary he had kept in grade school. Just a lot of stick figures and hungry caterpillars really, but embarrassing all the same).
He carelessly pushed the offending sheet away from him and narrowed his eyes. "You girls are having way too much fun with this. How did you even find out?" These questions probably would have been best asked right after they had 'shown him the light' (their words, not his) but Merlin had been overloading with information, and it was only now that he was fit for normal human enquiries.
Freya and Gwen exchanged a long-suffering look before both patting his head (he was still not a dog).
"We dress you Merlin. Every day," Freya said, enunciating slowly and clearly.
"And well, it was all a little too coincidental? Everything we dressed you in would fly of the shelves the day after. I mean, we sort of suspected something was going on but, we really didn't think of it until the coveralls," Gwen said soothingly, rubbing his arm.
"Oh," Merlin breathed out.
Freya nodded in agreement. "We designed them ourselves you know, and they weren't cheap to produce so, we never thought they'd sell that well at all. But after you wore them out of the store the other day, they flew off the shelf like brollies on a rainy day! I'm surprised you didn't notice."
Merlin decided it was better for everyone sitting at the table if he kept silent about his mantra of 'what goes on in the shop, stays in the shop', due to Gwen and Freya incessant treatment of him as though he was a mannequin in the front window. He wore what they wanted him to wear and scrubbed his mind clean of the gritty details. In fact, as far as he was concerned his clothes magically changed when he walked through the door, and never was he subjected to horrific scrutiny with comments such as "these pants require him to wear a thong," and "we should tape it down to his skin in case of nipple flash" (and he was immensely grateful that the weather was always so cold, because the thought of even less clothing sort of made him dizzy and in need of a lie down).
Anyway, in his mind? Work consisted of walking in, walking out, and biscuits in the tea room. Oh, and weird customers (those stories are great ice breakers at parties where he knew nobody and Will was busy making out with a girl in the darkest corner he can find).
The two girls sipped their tea. Merlin stared some more.
"So are you going to meet him?" Gwen asked finally, a worried crease appearing on her brow.
Merlin gaped, slamming the lid of the laptop in horror.
"What? Back up, back up!" Freya cried fretfully. "Who said anything about Merlin actually coming into contact with this bloke?" She settled her gaze on Merlin, eyes fierce. "Don't do it Merlin, he could slip you date rape drugs!"
"Oh, no he wouldn't." Gwen rubbed his arm a with a little more pressure than before. "He's probably just shy or-- or overweight or something. You know. Because he's been saying all these nice things about you but hasn't even introduced himself to you? He hasn't has he?"
"An obese drug pusher!" Freya gasped.
The girls were very lovely indeed. They always knew exactly the right things to say to him.
After his shift ended, he decided he needed a lollipop (one that wasn't handed to him by people wearing skinny jeans on his walk to work, but one he had to pry out of the begrudging claws of the girl who worked at the games shop).
He unwrapped his prize with relish, popping it in his mouth as he stepped back out into the rush three quarters of an hour later (it was one of those damn slidey puzzles where he had maneuver stupid small squares to get a big square out all right, don't judge him), and bumped right into Arthur.
"Fancy meetin' ya here Merlin, whadda coincidence!" The blond smiled broadly, clapping his icy cold hand onto Merlin's shoulder. He couldn't help but shudder at the shock of it.
"H-hello Arthur, how are you?" Merlin said, after recovering from the sudden drop in temperature (except it sort of came out muffled because of the lolly).
Arthur opened his mouth to reply when a harried waitress suddenly appeared at his elbow. "You forgot your coffee sir!" she said irritably, almost shoving the styrofoam cup into Arthur's gloveless hands.
"Very kind of you," Arthur bit out tersely (the cold must have been getting to him). Merlin watched on curiously as the waitress rolled her eyes at him, before quickly retreating back across the street, muttering something about people standing around for no good reason under her breath.
They both stared after her until she finally slipped behind her coffee kiosk, going back to serving cold, unhappy Albionites. Locking gazes a moment later, they burst out into awkward laughter.
"What was that about?" Merlin said, lollipop hanging precariously from his fingertips.
"Who knows?" Arthur replied, wiping tears of cold (or possibly actual mirth) from his eyes. He took a few exaggerated deep breaths as if to calm himself down, which only set Merlin off again.
"Ya know, s' a bit chilly. Dya want?" He offered the take away cup in Merlin's direction.
"I think your hands need it more than I do," Merlin laughed, waving it away. "Plus, my mouth is kind of occupied."
He noticed Arthur watching the path his hand took to lead the sweet back into his mouth. Arthur didn't say anything for a while, which was also awkward, so Merlin cleared his throat and started ambling down the street, hoping Arthur would fall in step with him. He did.
"Cherry s'it?" Arthur said, eyes distractingly following the lolly's journey in Merlin's mouth as he blocked the chill coming in from the cars on the road.
"Um, yeah," Merlin mumbled. His mouth was tingling for no good reason.
"Dun'it taste like cough syrup," Arthur said, voice severe. The hand not holding the styrofoam cup was stuffed in his coat pocket.
"Mmm," Merlin agreed, pulling a face. "It's disgusting." That didn't stop him from eating it though, he'd earned the right to devour it with his blood, sweat and tears (well, no actual bodily fluids were present, though the girl at the games shop probably imagined his bloody, gory death every time he stepped in. Just a hunch).
Arthur grinned at his antics and Merlin felt his neck heating up under his scarf (there's no way his face was going to heat up, not in this weather). The blond looked away, rummaging in his coat pocket as he took a sip from his coffee. What he pulled out of his pocket stopped Merlin in his tracks.
"Ohmygod," he cheered. "BUMBLEBEE!"
He rolled his lollipop from side to side in his mouth with his tongue, delighted as he carefully took the yellow toy robot from Arthur's loose grip. Thanks to the— the revelation, he hadn't managed to get a toy with his happy meal in two weeks! He couldn't help moving its limbs, and may or may not have started making "pew pew!" noises.
"Oh, I love these!" Merlin gushed, looking at Arthur's coat pocket excitedly. "Is that a magic present giver or something? Is it a bottomless pit of presents?" Without thinking, he stuck his hand in to find out for himself. "Are you Santa?" he laughed, amusedly looking into Arthur's face.
Which had gotten inexplicably close.
Oh. Wait. That wasn't because of Arthur, that was because Merlin had shamelessly stuck his hand inside Arthur's coat, breaking all sorts of personal space rules and also, incredibly rude. Mortified, he was about to step back and pretend it never happened, when a tentative hand wrapped around his trembling fingers, keeping Merlin rooted to the spot.
"Your hands are bloody cold," Arthur chuckled, warm coffee scented puffs ghosting Merlin's cheeks. Clutching the Transformer tightly, Merlin felt his mouth attempted to curl into a smile as Arthur gently drew the stick from Merlin's mouth, a wet noise as his lips released it. Arthur moved in very slowly.
Merlin felt his eyelids getting heavy, his mouth dry and his heart pounding double time in his chest. His hand was encased in Arthur's palm, warm and secreted away. He might have leaned down, just a tiny bit, miniscule really. He might have tilted his head a little to the side. He might've—
When a horn sounded shrilly behind him, he jerked his hand out of Arthur's pocket and took a large step back, forcing out a laugh as he ran the offending limb behind his neck, feet unsteadily carrying his weight.
He cleared his throat loudly. "Well, um, this is me. I turn off here, so..." he said hurriedly, not even bothering to see where he was. It was a complete and utter lie but Arthur probably wouldn't know that and Merlin knew he was going to embarrass himself horribly if he continued to stand there one moment longer because well, 'kissing' (that was what they were about to do right? He wasn't just imagining that?) and 'Merlin' didn't exactly walk hand in hand (and he needed to stop alluding to his hands so much, even if he could still almost feel Arthur's warm hand gently cradling his—)
And it shouldn't be such a big deal anyway. Those kids on that Gossip Girl thing practically kissed anything that moved so, really, not a big deal at all. But the thing was, Merlin was a touch nervous. Arthur...well, Arthur looked like someone who knew what to do with someone else's mouth once he had it and Merlin, well— Merlin had kissed three people in his life: his mother, a boy who had come to Ealdor on holidays when he was fourteen (and that was really more of a shock than anything, because he hadn't even known he was gay then) and Will (who got Merlin to kiss him in clubs so that girls would come up to him later to cure Will of his 'confusion'. Call Will as many names as you like, his best mate was ingenious when it came to getting into the pants of the female persuasion).
So, the decision here was obvious. He would retreat for now, have a nice little freak out and then maybe convince Lancelot to eat greasy fish and chips with him while he freaked out some more. He cleared his throat again. "Um right, so, I'm going to go now. Um, do you want the robot back?" Merlin offered, glaring slightly at the yellow Transformer, who had no business orchestrating kissing incidents whatsoever, and he made a mental note to give his Optimus Prime a stern talking to once he was home.
"S'alright, you keep it. Morgana said ya liked 'em anyway." Arthur smiled ruefully, sticking his hands back in his pockets. The coffee cup and lollipop had met an unfortunate end it seemed, contents spilled in the gutter when the car horn had startled them. "Sumthin' 'bout ya other one drownin' under a mountain 'a lolly sticks."
Merlin felt his mouth easily curving into a smile. How Arthur was able to retain stupid information about Merlin (of all people!) made something curl up pleasantly in his belly. Before he could talk himself into doing anything foolish, he hesitantly waved Bumblebee at Arthur, murmured a heartfelt thank you before shuffling off towards the corner.
"Merlin!" Arthur called out behind him. Merlin hoped he didn't look too enthusiastic when he turned around. Arthur looked like he wasn't quite sure why he had called out in the first place, opening and closing his mouth rapidly. "I— Merlin, I..." I didn't mean to do that? I'm sorry, that was my bad? Anxiety clogged his throat.
"I'll see you later?" Merlin blurted out, voice too hopeful and feeling his bones recoiling at his eagerness.
Arthur stared at him incredulously, before breaking out into a grin. It felt like the sunlight streaming through the clouds after the rain.
"Yeah. Yeah definitely. See ya later Merlin."
Turning corners when he shouldn't obviously led to one thing.
"So, you're... on Courtyard." Lancelot's dubious voice said from down the line.
"And Stables. The intersection between Courtyard and Stables." Merlin replied chirpily.
"Why are you on Courtyard and Stables Merlin, that's nowhere near Quarters. Which, by the way, is where we live."
Merlin was actually quite cold, which consequently made him quite cross, and though it was of his own doing he just wanted Lancelot to perhaps be sympathetic and tell him how to get home without ripping into him about being absent minded and ripe for kidnapping, or other nonsense Hunith had delighted in telling him about ever since she'd known he was moving to the city.
"I wasn't really paying attention Lance," Merlin groaned. "Not after Gwen and Freya teased me all day about being Bar Guy— which I can't believe it but it's actually looking very probable— and then Arthur gave me a Transformer out of his Santa sack and almost kissed me on the—"
"Okay you know what? I'll be there in ten." And rang off on Merlin mid rant.
He didn't know why he was surprised when Lancelot rolled up with Morgana and Leon waving at him with shameless enthusiasm from the backseat. Honestly, he should have expected it with the day he was having.
Single. Really ridiculously single.
His alarm clock was also buried beneath a mountain of lollipops along with Optimus, so he set his alarm on his phone. He set it down next to Bumblebee, which he had positioned to look as though the Transformer was going to shoot through his lollipop mountain to rescue his fearless Autobot leader. After rubbing Bumblebee's plastic head fondly, Merlin went to sleep with his own ridiculous smile plastered on his face.
Merlin's happy happy joy joy feelings were (unfairly) short lived.
He went into work scowling again, a sense of deja vu washing over him. He had yet another follow up conversation where he very firmly told his mam to please please please, do not try to set him up with anybody else over facebook, please (and ordinarily Merlin would have mentioned that something was actually happening between him and Arthur, but this time he was too scared his mam would actually try to help in some way, and if she did then he'd have to make a Toast Launcher so big he could launch himself to the moon).
To Gwen and Freya's very exuberant, expectant faces, he only ground out, "No I do not know what to do about Penn, no I have not started reading any of his blogs or tweets again and yes, it is because I'm too afraid of what I'm going to find and no, I don't know if I want to date him!" He had then slammed the store room door and busied himself unpacking boxes and jumbling up clothes Gwen would have to fix up later for all of fifteen minutes, before dragging himself out and apologizing to them both for his behaviour, taking up his usual sprawl behind the register after letting them dress him how they liked.
He felt contrite for about five minutes before he noticed a thick scrapbook Freya and Gwen had thoughtfully left for him, entitled "Penn's Greatest Hits :D" (he didn't dare open it, and made his displeasure known by taking three biscuits at break time and eating them all himself instead of sharing them with the girls as he usually did. His stomach didn't thank him, and he suspects his great act of rebellion did not raise any eyebrows as intended).
He slipped out in a bad mood (and coincidentally, it seemed Gwen and Freya had also slipped the dreaded :D book into his canvas bag), and decided the remedy for it would be watching car chases and explosions with Lancelot, drinking horrible wine and popcorn with lots of salt in their trackies. He marched straight to the action corner, tossing up between Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel.
"I vote Die Hard 4.0."
The familiar harsh cockney accent jolted Merlin out of his intense concentration. He turned to see Arthur next to him, almost resting his head on Merlin's shoulder. The blond smiled at him, and Merlin's heart most certainly did not skip a beat or three.
"Hey. Ya look pissed."
That prompted Merlin to turn back to the dvd covers. "I'm not having a good day," he explained simply. "So I want big boom."
Arthur laughed. "Mythbusters?"
"Big boom with no science or realism," Merlin corrected. He conceded defeat for the moment and put the discs down to look at Arthur properly. "Fancy meeting you here."
That only made the blond's smile widen. "Well, ya know. I saw ya from outside, bein' so incredibly distinctive n' everythin'."
Just at that moment, two groups of teenagers walked passed them, chatting excitedly and dressed exactly like the Merlin-of-two-days-past (skirt, big belt, headband. They had 'Where the Wild Things Are' instead of The Hungry Caterpillar. Go team individuality!).
"Oh yeah, I'm a true original." He remarked drily.
Arthur shrugged. "Talkin' 'bout the scarf actually."
Merlin's hands flew up, stroking the fleur de lis at the ends of his scarf. "I-I like it. It's really warm." he mumbled, feeling the blood rush towards his face.
"Great." Arthur's eyes were smiling at him as much as his mouth was. He tentatively smiled back, feeling bashful. He supposed they must have looked like they had escaped from a mad house, smiling their heads off at each other without saying anything. Arthur opened his mouth, and Merlin didn't start leaning in at all.
"Um, so, I kinda wanted ta talk—"
Two girls walking by interrupted, shoving three lollipops into his hand and giving him a pat on the back. "We're rooting for you, man!" They said on their way past, clapping and cheering. Merlin thought about drawing up plans for his Giant Toast Launcher.
Arthur looked at their retreating backs, amused, before turning back to Merlin. "Mates?"
Merlin stuffed the lollies into his bag sheepishly, picking up the newest Rambo so he had something to do with his hands. "No, it's just— the thing on the radio." He flipped the dvd over and pretended to read the blurb. "A talkback host is following someone who um, I guess, looks like me and, I guess it's becoming a thing?"
"Really?" Arthur said, shock colouring his voice. "I heard yeah, but I didn't know the guy he's chasin' looked like you."
Merlin put Stallone back on the shelf and stretched out his arms half heartedly, voice weak. "Ta dah..."
The blond laughed, then turned to look at the wall of dvds.
"So..." Arthur drawled. "Wotcher think of it?"
Merlin looked over to see Arthur examining the limited edition G.I. Joe with great interest. He looked up from case, catching Merlin's eye. His eyes were very blue under store lights. "Uh, well. Good on him, I think. A lot of people are rooting for him." He cleared his throat. "What about you? Are you rooting for him?"
Arthur chuckled, turning back to G.I. Joe. "Yeah. Heart 'n soul."
Merlin's chest stuttered. His fingers started fiddling with his scarf, the soft material gliding over his nails pleasantly. "O-oh?"
Blue eyes crinkled. "Yeah. S'like, the first time he's properly gone after someone. He really cares about the guy 'n— he'd treat him really, really well."
Merlin yanked particularly hard, and the scarf started tumbling to the floor. He started to retrieve it, but Arthur had already bent down. Straightening, he dusted it off and slung it over Merlin's neck a couple of times, his fingers singeing Merlin's collarbone as he fixed the fall of the material.
"So, I hope it goes well for him. I hope Bar Guy gives him a chance," Arthur finished, smoothing down the ends, brushing against Merlin's waist.
Merlin's throat worked uneasily. He could feel his Adam's apple brushing over the soft fabric. "Thanks," he murmured.
Arthur grinned at him, taking a step back. "No prob. Hey, catch!"
"Huh? Wh—" He fumbled with the dvd Arthur had thrown at him, finally turning to look at its cover. "My Little Pony?"
A blinding flash made his head snap up. Arthur grinned at him unrepentantly.
"I take awesome photos fer all my contacts. Wot's yer number? I'll prank ya."
He exchanged numbers (finally!) with Arthur teasingly, mood three times better going out of the store than going in. Not five minutes after he left, Arthur sent him a message.
Merlin spent the rest of the walk exchanging silly texts and smiling, tugging on his scarf.
But even Arthur's increasingly silly texts didn't not dampen the sound of Arthur's voice, going 'I hope Bar Guy gives him a chance, I hope...', turning itself over and over again, on endless repeat all the way back to the flat.
With Merlin's phone going off incessantly during the many scenes of Bruce Willis brooding on screen, Lancelot finally threw a cushion at him and exiled him to his room so he could watch his explosions in peace.
Pouting where Lancelot could see, he dragged his feet and looked at him sadly as he slowly closed his door. Then he picked a vanilla flavoured lollipop off his mountain and bounced a little as he flopped onto the bed, rapidly exchanging more texts with Arthur.
They'd been sending texts for near two hours. Merlin hadn't even needed to dig out his nano on the way home, he was so absorbed in um, flirting with Arthur (um, and the endless repeat thing).
Well, if you could flirt through text.
He really hoped Arthur was flirting with him. Arthur was sweet, and funny, and even through phone messages he was making Merlin's ears red.
When Arthur hadn't responded for a few minutes, Merlin thought he must've put down the phone and gone off to bed or something. Still, he kept it beside him just in case. He rescued his Optimus from the mountain and made him wrestle with Bumblebee ("pew pew pew!"). He was entertained by that for a ludicrously long amount of time that he'd rather not discuss with anybody else ever, and when he was taking a break from it, noticed his canvas bag and had spilt onto the floor, the :D face on the scrapbook glaring at him accusingly.
He picked it up gingerly, running his fingers over the cover. Dare he look inside? Arthur had (unknowingly, but still) said Penn was pursuing him very seriously, with intent. That he should give the guy a chance. Would Arthur still have told him that, if he knew 'Bar Guy' was actually Merlin?
Did Arthur actually like Merlin like that anyway? Maybe he was just naturally flirty? Was he reading too much into it?
He groaned, tossing the book onto his desk and rubbed at his eyes furiously. Why had it derailed back to Arthur? Get your mind back on Penn, Emrys! Focus!
Penn and Dusty were awesome. He didn't know how many conversations he'd been able to wedge himself into by knowing about their show. How easily he'd been able to fall asleep with a familiar voice laughing in his ear as he replayed his podcasts when he was still settling in. And, if he hadn't been distracted by a billboard for their show, Gwen never would have bumped into him, he'd never had gotten his job, or met Freya, or Morgana or Leon (well he might have eventually, since Lancelot knew them, but anyway).
Merlin sort of felt like he owed Penn. Besides, Arthur could be wrong. The girls could just be teasing him and maybe Penn was really only interested in revenge and humiliation like he vehemently claimed.
He had tossed the :D scrapbook a little too far away, so he hauled his laptop onto his stomach and logged into the blog. He clicked on the first link, dated three days ago.
Merlin looked at the screen, and then at Arthur's messages on his phone.
There and back again. There, and back.
I hope Bar Guy gives him a chance.
"Shit," Merlin whined. "Fuck my life."
So Merlin had been convinced that (somehow) he was Bar Guy, and consequently Penn was going to ask him out (hoshi—), and so now, dilemma. Obviously it was incredibly flattering that someone was willing to follow him around for weeks on end and really, that sort of dedication deserved a coffee date at the very least, didn't it?
At least, American telly sort of led him to that conclusion.
"But he's a stalker!" Freya had fretted, pulling the Toast Launcher to her bosom protectively. "What if he tries to make you do drugs!"
"Um, I really don't think they'd let him on the air if he was, um, using or anything." Gwen had said (both Freya and Merlin almost asphyxiated, they started laughing so hard). "But Merlin, it's not — I mean, it's a very nice thought, but there's never an obligation to date somebody. I mean, unless you want to. But, that is, don't feel like you have to do anything."
"Yes Merlin," Freya nodded furiously. "That's how girls get date raped! No means no!" And then she had stomped out of the room, recklessly shooting toast missiles at bewildered customers.
Merlin sipped his chai tea morosely and decided that he needed more advice, perhaps from someone of the male persuasion.
"—So what do you think I should do?" he said into his iPhone.
"I'm not sure Merlin. You do realise I'm not Will don't you?" asked the tinny voice from down the line.
"Sorry Gaius! Misdial," Merlin rushed out, mortified.
"Get shagged mate. You bloody fucking need it. I give you my fucking blessing to— Hey baby! I didn't tell you to stop suc—" Merlin had hung up on Will before the conversation could unravel any further. Then he turned off his phone just in case.
"But then there's Arthur, isn't there." Lancelot said later that night around his pad thai. Lancelot had been like his rock during his troubled times. Then he ignored how completely superficial his worries were, if his 'troubled times' consisted of him faffing about between two guys (one he had never met before and one who was totally out of his league that he well may be fantasizing about to the point that he might have made up entire detailed scenarios that involved Rambo and Transformers-- but still, two guys).
Merlin picked at his own szechuan beef and nodded. "I mean, it's a huge compliment and everything, but I think something good might come out of um, Arthur and me, you know, if I actually do something about it and... Maybe I'm reading too much into it. He probably doesn't like me that much anyway."
Lancelot put down his chopsticks, looking at Merlin steadily. "Look, has the radio program even contacted you?"
Merlin shook his head slowly.
"Then don't worry about it." Lancelot picked up his chopsticks again. "Date Arthur, and tell Penn that he missed his chance. Now pass me the soy sauce and give me Gwen's number."
"Nice try." Merlin said, sliding over the bottle.
Lancelot shrugged his powerful shoulder muscles gracefully. "Worth a shot."
The thing was — Merlin contemplated, as he bagged another set of coveralls and matching red and white cowboy scarf (Merlin might not have minded either way, but Freya wasn't letting such a golden money making opportunity escape her clutches) — he might have always had a crush on Penn, ever since he first listened to the show. He supposed it was a bit ridiculous, falling in love with someone's deep, cultured, sexy— wait, what was he doing again? He bid the latest customer goodbye and returned to hanging up the unwanted clothes outside the change rooms.
Penn was witty, and charming. Scathingly honest at times, but had a hell of a sense of humour. Maybe he wouldn't be as good looking as Arthur (God forbid there be any more devastatingly handsome men who caused traffic accidents and possibly, suicide sparked by unrequited love), but looks weren't everything. Not that Arthur was just about looks. He was clearly extremely observant, and sweet (if rather grating on his ears sometimes), and possibly, he had an interest in Merlin (God knows why, but at this point there was to be no more take backs, thank you very much).
Gwen happened on him in a corner at three o'clock, where he was despondently arranging their scarf shelf by colour and pattern.
"Why the long face Merlin?"
"I need to flip a coin," he said, folding extra carefully. "Can I borrow one?"
Unfortunately, Gwen was all out of small change.
And that was extremely precious. Merlin was literally aching, he thought it was all so cute and endearing. Arthur was clearly something special (and not in the sense that Morgana kept insisting he was either), which just made Merlin feel even worse.
That also made it absolutely clear. Arthur was interested.
He'd also encouraged Merlin to give Penn a chance.
It was becoming unequivocally logical to make a decision or something.
So he decided fuck it, and went to the pub.
"Goodness Merlin, are you gone already? You're bright red."
Leon and Morgana (about 90% in Morgana's favour, really) had taken it as their duty to beef up Merlin's alcohol tolerance (Merlin was sort of under the impression that Morgana had mistaken the wine bottle for a decanter of water at some young age, and had never gone back since). Merlin worried a little for his liver, and prayed he wouldn't become a raging alcoholic.
Freya and Gwen had declined Morgana's invitation, the fire of inspiration and thoughts of putting Merlin into frilly outfits raging like madness in their eyes as they scampered off into the night. Lancelot's whole body slumped miserably when he slid into the booth once he ascertained Gwen wasn't there.
"It's nothing." Merlin insisted, hurriedly sliding his phone back into his back pocket, fanning his face with his hand as he did so.
Quicker than a blink of an eye (although, Merlin was a bit drunk so 'quicker' was relative here), Morgana had fished his unguarded phone out of his jeans pocket and shifted through his message bank.
"Morgana!" Leon objected. She held him at bay with a very sharp and pointy manicured nail. The sound of a whip naturally emitted from Merlin's mouth without his knowing. Startled, he frowned at his drink. He might be a bit further gone than he had thought. Lancelot valiantly offered up his shoulder for his drunken head to rest on (someone may as well get some use out of it since Gwen wasn't around).
"Oh this is precious. I will never let him live this down," Morgana cooed maliciously.
"Is it from Arthur?" Leon lifted the phone out of Morgana's hands and looked through it himself. Merlin swayed, frowning. He might have misdiagnosed aspects of their relationship (see whip cracking noise). He always thought Morgana was the top dog in their relationship, which sort of made Leon a dog handler? Merlin liked dogs.
"Excuse me, I have to do something." Leon said after a moment, turning in his seat. He took out his blackberry and started to tap furiously. Merlin ignored this and started talking to Lancelot.
"Lance, if you were gay, you wouldn't be an indecisive tart like me, would you?" he mumbled against Lancelot's shoulder.
"Alright, I'm cutting you off," Lancelot responded, gently prying the glass from Merlin's loose grip.
Morgana stroked his cheek fondly with scarily sharp nails. "Oh Merlin, what's the matter? Just date both of them," she said reasonably.
"Ummmm," Merlin mumbled. "I'm not really... I'm not a person who can do that. I'm a horrible multi-tasker." He righted himself precariously and steadied himself with his elbows on the rather sticky table top. "And it just doesn't... I can't do that to them. I'd feel like a wishy-washy, waffly... tramp." He rested his head on the table despondently and tugged at Lancelot's sleeve. "I'd like my drink back please."
Instead of returning his glass as he had so nicely requested, Lancelot slid the drink further away from Merlin and crossed his arms resolutely.
"Right, that's enough. I don't like this game anymore," Lancelot declared. "Merlin's wonderful and extremely straightforward and all around nice and I feel like crap because I am lying to him and I do not like it."
Merlin lifted his head a little too quickly for his body's liking, and felt nausea creep in at the abrupt motion. "What? What are you on about?"
"Hold your horses LoverBoy." Morgana interjected. She swiveled to face Merlin and propped his head up with her terrifying manicured hands. "All right Merlin, out with it. Do you like Arthur?"
He felt himself flushing and tried not to squirm under her gaze. "Yeah but..." he said quietly.
"And you're not into Penn because he's a celebrity right?" Morgana persisted.
"It's stupid." Merlin sniffed. "I don't even know what he looks like. Gwen thinks he's probably fat and Freya reckons he's a date rapist."
"That's good enough for me." Leon announced, but Morgana wasn't finished yet.
"And are you in any way in this for the money?"
"Morgana!" Leon and Lancelot shouted.
"I'm just making sure!"
"I don't get what's going on." Merlin said woozily, body swaying because his head was being held at an uncomfortable angle. And he really felt like now would be a good time to express his inebriated feelings through text. He fumbled for his phone but then remembered Leon still had it.
"Alright then." Morgana said firmly, removing her hands abruptly. Luckily Lancelot was there to stop his chin from impacting badly with the table. "I'll call Arthur."
"Wait." Leon cleared his throat, and when he started speaking again, Merlin's eyes widened because it was incredibly familiar. "I've got a better idea."
Freya and Gwen were called. Some things just shouldn't be heard through the radio.
"Well, introduce our next guest then Dusty, since you've been so shockingly secretive about it."
"Thank you Penn. Our next guest is someone who has had a lot of mention in the news and on our very own Drivethru. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together— for Bar Guy!"
"You're kidding! Wh—"
"Help him put on his headphones Penn, I know you want to."
"Listeners, this is probably a once in a lifetime occurrence, so I would like to point out to you that this is what it sounds like when Penn is not listening to the sound of his own voice."
"Um, is this on? H-Hello everybody."
"Hello BG! Looking very well I see. I like your scarf."
"Thanks. A— um, Penn got it for me."
"Is that right?"
"...Yeah there's, there's some truth to that statement."
"As a very good co-host, I have prepared some questions for Penn to ask you. Penn, if you will?"
"...I— right. Okay. Well."
"Any time today. It's not like I've got other things to do."
"This is unreal. You're as mean to each other off air as you are on."
"You say the nicest things BG! Ask the questions, Penn."
"Uh... so. M— Bar Guy."
"...Hi. So. Are you — oh Dusty, you mongrel — Are you going to sue me for following you around—"
"—like a lovesick puppy."
"I did no such thing!"
"Can you be professional about this and read the questions in their entirety thank you, Penn."
"Dusty spent so much time preparing them you know. I watched him do it."
"Thanks for the backup BG."
"—Are you going to sue me for following you around, in a fashion that was not at all similar to a canine of any kind?"
"Um, no. That's not what I— I actually feel like I'm really behind because you know all these things about me and um, I hardly know anything about you so... I plan on catching up, I guess."
"Wow. YEah, okay then. I'm good. With that."
"I know. BG is like, the nicest guy ever."
"Oh, no! N-not really? I feel like I'm failing quite spectacularly at this actually."
"See? This is what I'm talking about. To think you made, sweet, lovely BG so angry he threw a drink in your face? Shame on you Penn."
"Let's not bring up bygones Dusty."
"And if it makes you feel better, I don't remember doing that at all."
"You're a terrible liar, so I'd pay that. Next question Penn."
"Alright, so... Do you think— that I portrayed you accurately on the blog twitter widget thing?"
"...Well, frankly I feel like you've talked me up too much so — I don't think I live up to those expectations."
"I haven't. I haven’t talked you up at all."
"What you are now hearing, Drivethru fans, is the sound of every girl in the building making cooing noises outside the booth. Penn?"
"...Are you disappointed with how I turned out to be?"
"Well, you know. I'm willing to give you a chance."
"For all of you playing at home, Penn is grinning his head off and the girls crowding around the window have started clapping quite vigorously. That was the last—"
"—Would you let me kiss you?"
"Okay, no, this appears to be the last question."
"Um... Now? Really?"
"That's a yes, right?"
"Are you really— um, can we do that?"
"Well, we've just got the okay from the producers and Penn certainly looks willing."
"Yes. Yes to everything."
"Oh. Well... Alright then, I'll just—"
"...Sorry, that was my—"
"No no, that's okay, just keep your head still..."
"I suppose I better fill up this dead air by myself then shall I? If everyone outside the booth could stop whooping and cheering, as it is very distracting— We'll be right back after I've Gotta Feeling by the Peas, here on CamelotFM's Drivethru on your way home."
Leon had muttered in disgust and shooed them out of the booth when it became evident that Arthur was not going to dislodge his hands or lips from Merlin's person anytime soon. They were still on the couch in the green room twenty minutes later when Leon had ended the show sans co-host. He had entered the room, taken one look, and immediately about-faced (after snapping a picture on his blackberry of course).
"So you don't like scarves?" Merlin managed, once he could stop himself from parting his lips for Arthur and Arthur's tongue long enough to speak.
Almost immediately after they had fallen on the couch, Arthur had ripped the offending garment from his shoulders, climbed on top of him and latched onto his neck, promptly grinding his hips down. Merlin wasn't quite sure what happened after that, only it was slick, and wet, and very very good. Arthur was sucking the length of his collarbone, a hand under his shirt, long since warmed up from their combined body heat. It stayed above the belt, very gentlemanlike, though his lips and tongue were anything but.
"I like them," Arthur breathed on his neck, nuzzling where his neck met his ear. "But I like seeing your neck more." And proceeded to mouth the shell of Merlin's ear (for starters).
He was probably going to be very angry with Arthur about the pretending, and the thing where he lied to him all this time (going so far as to put on an accent, of all things!); and Leon (him too! Perpetual cold Merlin's arse) and especially, especially Morgana. Later. Also Lancelot definitely wasn't going to get anything out of him pertaining to Gwen, at least for a while.
But right now, Arthur was looking down at him adoringly, blue eyes soft and charming mouth bitten and swollen and terribly red — exactly how Merlin's felt, licking his own puffy lips. He could feel the bruises forming on his neck, knowing he'd have to wear the scarves Arthur so detested for as long as Arthur kept putting them there, lest he expire from sheer embarrassment.
His fingertips hesitantly traced Arthur's chest, his stomach, the curve of his elbows and shoulder blades, until he had enveloped Arthur into a firm embrace, smiling into fluffy, fur-like blond hair.
"What is it?" Arthur rumbled, slowly flipping them until he was supporting Merlin's weight on his chest, hands languidly exploring Merlin's warm sides.
"Your voice," he whispered into Arthur's ear, wondrous. "I like it much better like this than on the radio. Much, much better than that horrid accent you were putting on."
Which only prompted Arthur to capture Merlin's kiss-swollen lips anew, aching and ravenous. They did not part again until Morgana waltzed in, complaining about missing the show and demanding a re-enactment, or at least a link to the inevitable clip on youtube.