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Fundamental Imperfection

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Arthur Pendragon @RealPendragon
Dearest London, you are so close. I’ll be at #LiminalCon at Heathrow for the next two days. Hope to see you all there!

9:43 AM - 14 April 13 - via Tweetdeck

Later, Arthur will blame his outburst on the shite coffee they’d given him before the panel. He has to say, he’d assumed the handlers at a sci-fi convention would be better at making sure their guests were well-caffeinated.

“That is complete bollocks,” he says, disrupting the weedy teenager who thinks that publishing some glorified Lovecraft fanfiction gives him a right to talk out of his arse.

(Arthur didn’t really pay attention when they’d introduced the other panelists, so he may have done something slightly more impressive. But no matter; he’s still completely wrong.)

The idiot swivels around to look at Arthur, who has been pretty quiet during the panel. Between the lack of decent coffee, the book tour that’s taken him to thirteen cities in the past two months, and his latest crash-and-burn relationship (Vivian: three months, one week, six days), he’s wiped out. If there had been any possible way to skip Liminal Con, which had promised to be a clusterfuck, he would have.

“Mr. Pendragon,” the moderator of the panel says, once the hooting and whistles from the more boorish audience members taper off. “Do you wish to respond to Mr. Emrys–”

“Where did you get your analysis of Dickens from? Wikipedia?” Arthur says to Emrys, ignoring the sputtering moderator. “Have you ever even cracked one of his books? Or are you one of those pseudo-intellectuals that enjoys hating books he’s never actually read?”

Mr. Emrys, after a brief, shocked stare, has the bloody temerity to laugh. “Are you actually defending that whiny, condescending windbag?”

“How can you possibly say that Dickens had no concept of the heroic journey?” Arthur starts listing off the names that were near and dear to his heart as a teenager. “Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Esther Somerson–”

“They’re not heroes, they’re accident-prone!” Emrys shouts. He’s got a slight Welsh accent, which thickens as he raises his voice. He’ll probably lapse into gibberish if they take this argument much further. “His books are basically 900 pages of gossip. It’s worse than having my mother tell me all about my former babysitter’s knee operation.”

“That’s utter shite,” Arthur says. “Dickens was a brilliant satirist–”

“He was a condescending prat, always going on about the poor like he had any idea–”

“He worked 10 hour days as a child, I think he might have had an inkling.”

He can see the surprise on Emrys’s face, just for a moment before it’s gone. “That doesn’t change the fact that his novels are barely readable, overly-sentimental, and can induce a migraine at fifty yards.”

Arthur narrows his eyes.

“Them’s fightin’ words!” some yokel in the crowd calls out. The audience erupts in laughter.

It takes a moment for the noise to die down. It’s more than enough time for Arthur to reconsider the words hovering on the back of his tongue, burning like acid. But he doesn’t; reconsidering anything has never been one of his habits, he’s not about to start now.

“I’m sure there are people who say the same about your writing, Mr. Emrys,” he says. “We’re all entitled to opinions, regardless of how they ill-informed they are.”

He lets the statement hang there for a moment, and means to follow it up with something like But critics are usually full of shit or something similar, something to break the tension and end the argument. The moderator cuts him off, though.

“All right, let’s all just back away from that line of discussion.” There’s a nervous titter in the crowd. “Instead, why don’t we talk about the influence of other Jungian archetypes in genre literature?”

One of the other panelists start droning on about Tricksters and space operas. Arthur tunes him out as Emrys leans forward again, regarding Arthur with interest and, if he’s not mistaken, not a little amusement.

“Are you an idiot?” Morgana asks him. Or shouts at him through the bathroom door, rather. Thank god he locked it.

“Not last I checked, no,” he says, turning on the shower. Signings always make him feel grimy. Shitshow sci-fi cons make him feel absolutely filthy. He considers filling the bathtub, remembers that he’s expected to at least make an appearance at the after-hours party, and sighs.

“Then why are you acting like one? I’m used to you acting like an overprivileged ass in private–”


“But in public? In front of a bunch of fans, all of whom have blogs and Twitters and an excess of opinions?”

Arthur rubs at his temples. “What’s your point, Morgana?”

“Do you have any idea whom you insulted tonight?”

Arthur starts stripping off his shirt. “Christ, who cares?”

“I care, you twit! It’s my job to make your less-than-sparkling personality appear palatable enough for people to buy your bloody books.”

It was a horrible idea, allowing one’s half-sister to manage one’s career. The ego-crushing never ended.

“You called Merlin Emrys unreadable,” Morgana calls through the door.

“I didn’t say he was–” Arthur cut himself off, knowing it was pointless. “Who the bloody hell is he, anyway? What’s he written?”

The Questing Beast. The Girl Beneath the Lake. Drowned Towns. Sound familiar?”

It takes a moment for Arthur’s tired brain to dredge up anything, but then, with a tiny thrill of unease, he remembers reviews in The Guardian with titles like A Postmodern Bram Stoker. In fact, he has a copy of Rosemary and Rue, Emrys’s new collection short stories. He hasn’t opened it yet, but Gwaine had recommended it, and Gwaine hated most horror on principle. (Gwaine hated most genre fiction on principle, which was one of the many reason he and Arthur had only lasted about two weeks in their attempts at a relationship. )

Arthur cracks open the door. Morgana glares at him from the door jamb. “That’s who I insulted?” he asks. “The author that people think is, like, England's Murakami for the Occupy generation?”

“I think that was the exact phrase The Guardian used.”

Arthur nods, thinking, then announces, “He deserved it.”

He slams the door shut to avoid getting hit in the face.

“You are infuriating!” Morgana shouts through the door.

“He said Charles Dickens was migraine-inducing!” Arthur says, pulling off his socks and trousers. “That it was worse than listening to his mother prattle on.”

“Charles Dickens got paid by the word, and it’s grossly evident. Sorry, Arthur, but the urge to take a red pen to every single one of the man’s novels is overwhelming.”

“Morgana, you’re fired. I can’t have a manager who doesn’t appreciate Dickens.”

There’s silence from the other side of the door. He supposes that Morgana is probably imagining several inventive ways of disposing of his body right now. He grins.

“Arthur,” she says, her voice low and teeth-grindingly patient. “Here is what you’re going to do. Take a shower. Go down to the after-party. Apologize to the genius author you shouted at. Use some of that charm that you keep insisting you have.”

“I’m not sure I’m fit for company,” he says. “Maybe I should just stay in my room and watch porn.”

“I’m considering arranging a very public, messy death for you,” Morgana said, her tone conversational. “It’ll be great for your sales. And since I’m the executor of your estate, I’d get nearly all the royalties–”

“Fine,” he shouts. “I’ll bloody apologize.”

Only Morgana can make silence seem smug.

“I’ve been told I owe you an apology,” Arthur says without preamble, once he spots Emrys at the hotel’s bar.

If Emrys is surprised to see Arthur, he covers it well. “Have you, now?”

Arthur huffs. “My agent threatened me with undignified public death if I didn’t.”

Emrys grins. “A coerced apology is better than nothing, I suppose. Let’s hear it, then.”

Arthur sits down on the stool next to him and clears his throat. “Despite your obvious lack of taste, I’m sure your books are perfectly readable. Not that I’d know, I haven’t had the chance to open one yet. But I was planning to. Eventually.”

“Good god, you really are horrid at this,” Emrys says, eyebrows raised.

“Look, obviously I’m an ass,” Arthur says, in an uncalculated moment of honesty. “I’ve had about ten hours of sleep this week, have jumped more time zones than is probably healthy, and the coffee they gave me this afternoon was absolute shit. I probably should have skipped the panel, but I didn’t, and I have a lot of feelings about Dickens, all right?” Arthur pauses for breath, realizes he’s about to launch into another tirade about Dickens, and promptly shuts his mouth.

After a pause, Emrys says, “That’s all I’m going to get, isn’t it? That was rubbish.”

Arthur, despite himself, snorts a laugh. “Look, can I just buy you a drink in lieu of an insincere apology?”

“I suppose the only polite thing to do is accept,” Emrys says.

Arthur scans the drink choices. “Cheap whiskey or cheap beer?”

“Whiskey it is.”

Somehow, the one whiskey turns into five, and his plans for an early night are forgotten in favor of more literary arguments, just as fierce as the one they’d had during the panel. Merlin (he stops being Emrys somewhere between the second and third whiskey) is a shocking philistine, the worst kind of postmodern deconstructionist. Arthur hasn’t had this much fun since university.

“Your rhetoric is nauseating,” he tells him two hours and several whiskeys later, grinning.

“Your face is nauseating,” Merlin shoots back. Also grinning.

“Which just goes to show that you have no appreciation for beauty,” Arthur replies.

And then they’re off again, debating the merits of Wildean aesthetics, which somehow veers into a spirited debate about Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and then Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo.

“Look, he says it, doesn’t he? Right at the end, ‘Unhappy is the land that needs heroes,’” Merlin says, gesturing wildly. “There’s a huge gray area between– between idealism and action, especially when things are terrible. Galileo was a coward, but his cowardice in recanting his science was good in the long-run–”

“No, no, but if you read, what’s-his-name, Victor Frankl, or maybe it’s Wiesel... But anyway, one of them says that during the Holocaust, it was the good people – the best of their people – that died in the camps. Self-interest guaranteed survival, but–”

“Exactly!” Merlin says. “That is exactly what I’m saying.”

“I... wait, did I just agree with you?”

Merlin nods, smug.

“Oh god. I need another drink,” Arthur says, glaring at his empty glass.

“No, you prat,” says a voice behind him. “You need to go to bed.”

Arthur turns to look at Morgana, who’s got her arms crossed tightly over her chest, like she’s restraining herself from strangling him. “I’m not seven years old anymore,” he says. “You can’t tell me when to go to bed.”

“Shut up and go to bed,” she says, flying in the face of this logic. “You’ve a Q&A at nine o’clock.”

“Oh, bollocks,” Arthur says. All of a sudden, his exhaustion crashes in on him, and he lays his head on the table, cradling it in his arms. “Fuck, fuck my life. I’m going to go live on some Polynesian island and never write again.”

He’s aware of Merlin laughing at him, and Morgana introducing herself, but mostly, he’s concentrating on how comfortable the bar is underneath his face. It’s quite nice. Almost pillowy.

“Come on, idiot,” he hears Morgana say. She tugs on his arm. “Are you really going to make me carry you back to your room?”

Arthur groans. “Just kill me now. Put me out of my misery. You can have my royalties, I don’t care.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Morgana says.

“You’re fired,” Arthur says, the words muffled by his arm. “Again.”

“You’ll rehire me in the morning,” Morgana says. “You always do.”

“I can help him get back to his room,” Merlin says.

Arthur manages to raise his head and glare blearily at him. “You drank as much as I did.”

“Yes, but I’ve presumably had more than a few hours’ sleep and some shite coffee to get me through the day.”

Arthur hauls himself up from the table and waves Merlin away. “I can get myself back to my room. If I can survive post-doctoral work, I can survive anything.”

“Famous last words,” Morgana says. She turns to Merlin, giving him a room key. “He’s in room number 412. I owe you.”

“I might collect on that, someday,” Merlin says.

“Ugh, subtle,” Arthur says, as loudly and obnoxiously as he can. He considers adding an eyeroll, but feels dizzy as it is. “Less talking, more walking towards my bed.”

Except, of course, he and Merlin merely pick up where they left off in their argument, discussing the relative merits of Marxist influence on 20th century literature, which somehow evolves into a conversation about class and race in comics during the 80’s.

“How can you argue like this when you can barely stand?” Merlin asks.

“Years spent in academia. I’m used to talking about critical theory while off my face.”

Arthur’s gratified to see that it takes Merlin a few tries before he manages to swipe the keycard. Arthur pushes past him, shouldering the door open and stumbling into the room. He pauses long enough to claw off his jacket and throw it on a chair, then collapses on the bed.

“Do you need me to take your shoes off?” Merlin asks, obviously amused.

“Piss off,” Arthur says. “I’m exhausted, jetlagged, and drunk, not an invalid.”

Merlin snorts, then goes into the bathroom. Arthur toes off his shoes, letting them thunk onto the floor, and burrows into the pile of pillows. Merlin comes back and sets a cup of water on the bedside table.

“You know, it’s a pity you’ve got horrible opinions about everything,” Arthur says. “You’re quite attractive.”

Merlin laughs. “Christ, did you take lessons in giving backhanded compliments?”

“I come from old money. So, yeah, more or less.”

Merlin looks down at him, smiling. Arthur is drunk enough to consider reaching for him, trying to pull him into a kiss, but sober enough to feel too shy about it.

“It’s a pity you’re a complete arse, then,” Merlin says. “Because you’re quite attractive, as well.”

Arthur waits to see if Merlin will make a move. He doesn’t. Arthur sighs and shuts his eyes. “It’s tragic, I know.”

He falls asleep to Merlin’s laughter.

Arthur wakes at five in the morning with a headache, the sour taste of last night’s booze in his mouth, and a numb leg from falling asleep in his jeans.

He gets up to brush his teeth and peel off his trousers, then goes back to bed to catch another hour or two of sleep. He notices the piece of paper on the table as he drains the cup of water set there, swallowing down some paracetamol.

I still can’t believe you would choose V for Vendetta over Watchmen. And you call me a philistine.
That said, we should do this again sometime, the next time we’re both in the same city.

Merlin’s mobile number and email are written at the bottom.

Arthur smiles, then burrows back down into the soft blankets. He has a few hours before Morgana will hound him out of bed. For the first time since he started this bloody book tour, he feels like he might actually make it through it without dying of misery.

Of course, the rest of the day goes rapidly to shit after that.

None of it is Arthur’s fault. That’s the important thing, or so he tells himself.

“This is all your fault,” Morgana says, slipping him a mini-bottle of Jameson to pour into his coffee.

“Bless your enabling little heart,” he says, through the foggy mist of his hangover. “What’s my fault?”

“Merlin Emrys’s fans have taken to Twitter over your idiocy yesterday. It’s not pretty.”

“Nothing on Twitter is pretty.” Arthur sips at his coffee, which is much improved by a shot of whiskey. It is very nearly palatable, in fact.

“They’re trying to organize some kind of protest. Something about mailing copies of Dickens’ books to your publisher.”

“That’ll never get off the ground,” Arthur says. “Shipping costs alone–”

“Ha!” Morgana says. “You admit it, then, his books are too bloody long.”

“I admit nothing.”

“They’ve turned you into a hashtag,” Morgana says, getting back to the matter on hand.

“Am I trending?” Arthur looks over her shoulder at her Blackberry, catches the phrases #arthurpendragon and #totalprat and #dickensgate (seriously?), and looks away again.

“Not yet,” she says ominously. “Try not to do anything to make it worse.”

“I’m handsome and charming,” Arthur feels the need to point out.

“You’re hungover and miserable and a pain in my arse. Eat some bloody eggs, would you? I can’t have you going hypoglycemic during the Q&A.”

As it turns out, his blood sugar is the least of their concerns. Twenty minutes into the Q&A, a maniac in the third row chucks a copy of Bleak House at his face.

Arthur manages to snap his arm up to block it, which saves him a broken nose and possible brain damage, but the book’s spine smacks into his forearm with such force that Arthur falls out of his chair. He squeezes his eyes shut, wondering if a flying copy of Dickens has actually just broken his arm. He tries moving his fingers and, yes, it apparently has.

If that’s not bad enough, Arthur opens his eyes to see what appears to be a full-on nerd brawl in the audience. Morgana has thrown herself gaily into the fray, and appears to be pummeling a teenager dressed as Sherlock. A trio of Jedis are attempting to pull her off, to no avail.

The tired cliche about the truth and fiction, and which of the two is stranger, strikes again.

Not surprisingly, the entire internet shits itself within the hour.

“You’re definitely trending now,” Morgana says, face illuminated from her laptop screen. “Somebody caught the whole thing on camera, it’s gone viral.” She suddenly gasps.

“What?” Arthur asks.

“Somebody got a picture of me strangling Sherlock with his own scarf, and it’s on the front page of Jezebel. All my dreams have come true.”

Arthur shifts the bag of half-melted ice on his arm, wincing. “You are entirely too happy for someone sporting a black eye.”

The Future, Once has broken into the top ten on Amazon, so yes, I’m happy. Becoming a martyr is great for your sales. Speaking of, how’s the arm?”

“Still fractured and causing me pain. Can we cancel the rest of the tour?”

“Don’t be a child,” she replies. “There are only twelve more stops. Three of them are even in Britain.”

Arthur briefly considers swallowing an entire bottle of aspirin, partially to die in a suitably Romantic manner, partially just to spite her. He’s distracted by his cell phone buzzing in his pocket. He fishes it out, squinting at the number, than answers it.

“Arthur Pendragon, author and assault victim.”

There’s a familiar laugh on the other end. “You’re going to milk this for all it’s worth, then?” Merlin asks.

Arthur grins. “I was just injured by some maladjusted teenager’s bungling attempt to restore your honor. Damn right I am.”

Silence greets him. “I’m sorry,” Merlin says. “I mean, I never thought–”

“You never thought that one of your fans would attempt to assassinate me with a copy of Bleak House? Honestly, Merlin, who would?”


“Are you really blaming yourself for this?”

A pause. “Maybe?”

“Idiot,” Arthur says. It comes out sounding too fond, but Arthur will chalk that up to the wee fistful of painkillers he swallowed a few hours ago.

“At least I can make an apology without sounding severely constipated.”

Arthur’s laugh erupts out of him, jarring his arm. “Ow, fuck, don’t make me laugh.”

“Sorry,” Merlin says, though he sounds significantly less apologetic now. “Are you still at A&E?”

Arthur sighed. “No, the organizers got us a room in another hotel. We’re leaving at the arse crack of dawn tomorrow.”

Merlin sighs, his breath crackling over the phone line. “Where to?”

“Canada,” Arthur replies. “Two readings in Toronto and another in Vancouver, and then south to the Pacific Northwest. You can imagine my joy.”

“Vancouver’s lovely, as I recall.”

“I’d rather be in London,” Arthur sighs, suddenly homesick for his Notting Hill flat, for his collection of dog-eared books and the pubs where the bartenders bring him a pint without prompting, somewhere people will leave him alone for more than ten minutes at a time.

“It’ll be over soon, won’t it? Your tour?”

“Four weeks. Then I get a few months off, then it’s the Hugo awards, so we’ll see what happens.”

There’s a moment of silence. Then Merlin says, “Maybe I’ll see you then. I’m in London from Cardiff every so often.”

Arthur laughs, wincing when he jars his arm again. “Well, we’ll have to get drunk and argue about Marx again, then.”

“It’s a date.”

Arthur presses his lips down to keep from smiling like an idiot. He’s definitely feeling the painkillers. “That’s something to look forward to, then.”

After he hangs up, he catches sight of Morgana, staring at him.

“What?” he says.

“Nothing,” she says, in a tone that implies Everything. He opens his mouth to say as much when she adds, “We’ve gotten four offers for interviews in the last twenty minutes. Including one from Vanity Fair.

Suddenly, his arm doesn’t quite hurt as much.

Excerpt from “Foolproof Way To Make Me Not Like You #33”, a blog post from

I can’t believe I actually need to type this out, but I do not condone the actions of [name redacted], who decided to avenge some imagined slight against me by physically assaulting another author. Let’s get the record straight: anyone who chooses violence for any reason other than self-defence is not someone I’ll count among my friends. Assaulting someone because they disagree with you makes an arsehole. Period.

I write about violence and hatred and monstrous people because I find them terrifying and fascinating. I’m never going to think that trying to brain someone with a bloody Dickens novel is anything but horrible and insane (and maybe a good premise for a short story, but that’s HORROR FICTION, not real life.) 

For the record, Arthur Pendragon and I settled our differences like real men later that night: by drinking cheap whiskey and arguing about the nature of truth in art. Like you do.

Arthur Pendragon @RealPendragon
I’m glad that @memrys and I didn’t get in an argument about War and Peace. I might not have survived. #Dickensgate

7:08 PM - 17 April 12 - via Tweetdeck.

“#Dickensgate: a brief FAQ”, page from

Q: What happened?
A: While at Liminal Con in Heathrow, I got into a bit of a catfight with Merlin Emrys over Charles Dickens, about whom I have a lot of feelings (previously detailed here and here). I apologized for my outburst privately to Emrys later, bought him a drink, and we proceeded to discuss literary theory until the wee hours of the morning. The next day, before I could issue a public apology, one of his fans threw a copy of Bleak House at me during a Q&A on my book The Future, Once. It hit my arm, fracturing one of the bones in my forearm. There was something of an audience scuffle in the aftermath, which I was not part of.

Q: Are you pressing charges or suing the man who threw the book?
A: No. We’ve reached a private settlement with his family and the courts.

Q: What’s his name?
A: He’s a juvenile offender, and part of the settlement was that his personal details not be released.

Q: Do you blame Merlin Emrys?
A: Of course not. You can read his response to the whole thing on his blog.

Q: Was this a stunt to improve your sales?
A: My sales were doing fine before all this, thanks. And no, my manager/agent may be devious and cunning, but I don’t think she’d actually injure me to improve my sales. At least not when it prevents me from writing. 

Q: Are you typing this all one-handed?
A: Yes. Hence the reason it’s so brief.

Three days in Toronto, then two in Vancouver, then the train down to Seattle. Arthur feels strung out by the time they find their hotel. His arm aches in its new cast, the painkillers make him feel itchy and restless, he’s been getting fuck-all sleep, and he hasn’t had any alcohol in over a week. Morgana has stopped laughing when he jokes about running away to live on a yacht, and has started to look concerned instead.

He sits at the window with a cup of tea in his good hand, wishing he had a joint or a drink or a maybe a double-handful of the painkillers Morgana’s been doling out to him. He looks out the window at the gray skies over Seattle, wondering if this is it, if this is the beginning of his burnout.

In the past five years, he has published three books, written about thirty articles, had nine relationships that lasted from two weeks (Gwaine) to six months (Gwen), been practically disowned by his father, and seriously contemplated quitting writing twice. He has lost count of the cities he’s been to, number of books he’s signed, readings he’s done.

His sales may have picked up since a maniac tossed a copy of Bleak House at him, he may be getting more offers from respected publications, but he feels like utter, utter shite.

He picks up his phone, enters a number he hadn’t realized he’d memorized, then types:

Suffering is by necessity at the heart of all artistic endeavor. Discuss. -AP

He sips at his tea, glaring morosely out at the gray, rain-slick streets. He’s not expecting an answer anytime soon, if at all, so he’s startled when his phone buzzes a minute later. He picks it up and reads the new message:

Agreed, but so is joy. Two sides of the same coin, etc. -m

Arthur feels his mouth curl into a slight smile. He starts to reply, but his phone vibrates again.

Does sleep deprivation always make you maudlin?

Arthur laughs softly, and types back, I’m not maudlin, I’m blessed with an artistic temperament.

He looks back out the window for a moment, sipping his tea until his phone buzzes again.

I’ll take that as a yes. Get some sleep, you pillock.

Arthur drinks the rest of his tea and follows Merlin’s advice. He sleeps well that night.

Surprisingly, he rather enjoys Seattle after that. The city is a hundred shades of gray and green, with splashes of color set against the dour background: rhododendrons and roses, bright graffiti, streaks of blue or magenta in women’s hair. It reminds him a bit of Camden Town, but with better coffee and more ironic mustaches.

He’s engaged to teach a five day graduate writing workshop through the University of Washington. The students are bright, engaged, and creative, if not particularly brilliant. The work that they produce is readable, and in some cases, actually compelling. It’s a good workshop, and best of all, none of them ask about bloody Dickensgate. They all sign his cast at the end of it.

That night, back at the hotel, he takes a picture and sends it to Merlin. Morgana looks up at the click of his phone’s camera. “Are you putting that on Twitter?”

Morgana rules over his online presence with an iron fist. “No,” he answers. “I’m sending it to Merlin.”

There’s a creak as she leans back in the chair in the kitchenette. “Merlin? Really?”

He glances over at her. “Yes. Why?”

“I wasn’t aware you two were in contact.”

“Sorry to break your illusion of omniscience,” he replies distractedly. He attaches a note to the picture: my workshop students are adorable hipsters. Yes, that is a unicorn. “I texted him when we got here, we’ve been going back and forth since then.”

“Huh,” Morgana says.

Arthur’s head snaps up at her tone. “What?”

“I didn’t say anything,” Morgana replies, turning back to her laptop.

“I know that ‘huh’,” Arthur says. “It’s always a prelude to something I generally don’t want to hear.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Would you just bloody spit it out?”

The chair creaks again as she turns back towards him. “Is this why you’ve been in a good mood all week? This thing with Merlin?”

“It’s not a thing,” Arthur tells her. There’s a muffled buzzing.

“Your pocket’s vibrating,” Morgana says, grinning.

Arthur does not dignify that with a response. He pulls out his phone instead and reads the new message.

Looks like a lopsided donkey with a stick in its head. If you still have the cast when you’re back in the UK, I’ll draw you something much better.

“It’s not a thing,” Arthur says again. His phone vibrates again.

PS: I want to make passionate love to Slavoj Zizek’s mind. Have you read Living in the End Times?

Fuck. Maybe it isn’t a thing yet, but it’s about to become one.

Date: 05/02/2012 04:21GMT
Subject: Your book

I just started reading Rosemary and Rue and just--

Wow. I had no idea you were this good. I feel like even more of a bloody idiot for what I said at that panel. (Though you’re still wrong about Dickens. Have you actually read him since you were forced to in school?)

I’m sleeping with the lights on tonight.

Date: 05/02/2012 09:57 GMT
Subject: RE: Your book

Thanks, mate. I’ll take that as a compliment. And since we’re confessing here, I’ll tell you that I had to stop carrying Curiosities around with me, because I kept missing my stop on the bus. Ended up in bloody Splott a time of two. (Haven’t read The Future, Once, but it’s next on my list.)

And of course I read Dickens! In university. We read Bleak House, in fact, if you can stand the irony.

Date: 05/02/2012 13:57 GMT
Subject: RE:RE:Your book

That’s not proper irony. And no way is that actually the name of a town.

Date: 05/02/2012 14:04 GMT
Subject: some proper irony

I want you to come back to the UK so I can tell you how wrong you are about something. Like avant-garde horror cinema, which I’m sure you find awful and which I bloody love. You’ll call me a philistine and insist on watching The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or something, which I happily will, but only if you sit through Hausu. You might hate me at the end of it, though.

And Splott isn’t a town, it’s a district of Cardiff. It has its own Wikipedia page and was mentioned on Torchwood, so there.

Arthur sits, tapping his fingers against his laptop. He imagines sitting in his darkened living room, watching obscure horror movies with Merlin. Drinks on the coffee table, condensation sliding down the glass. Warmth all along his side. Thighs touching.

The curse and blessing of being a writer is having an overpowering imagination.

Arthur can easily imagine Merlin excitedly telling him all about whatever insane horror movie he’s got in mind, the way his hands would move, how it’s influenced pop culture and inspired other artists, dropping the occasional insult to Arthur’s staid and conventional love of classic Hitchcock. Arthur thinks of turning and pinning him to the couch, laying his body down the long lines of Merlin’s own, silencing whatever argument they’ll inevitably become mired in by kissing the breath out of him.

He’s not sure when his hand drifted to the front of his trousers, but his dick is hard when he palms it. Christ, he can’t even remember the last time he got himself off, between his exhausting schedule and the libido-dousing effects of the painkillers. This maybe explains why the thought of Merlin being a snobby intellectual is getting him so hot and bothered.

He gets up and goes to the hotel room’s shower, locking the door behind him. Morgana will probably swan in at any moment and rouse him for a complimentary hotel breakfast of stale cereal and reconstituted eggs, and he’d rather not have a repeat of the Munich Incident.

He turns on the water, strips quickly -- thankful again that he has a fiberglass cast, and he doesn’t have to wrap it in a trash bag or anything -- and gets in. He ducks his head under the spray, leans against the wall, and starts stroking himself off. He doesn’t even bother to think about anyone else, just Merlin; his narrow chest, his long fingers, the sharp angles that must be concealed beneath those stupid T-shirts he seems to favor.

His eyes.

Arthur bites down on his lip, his left hand working himself steadily, if a bit clumsily. Hell, he can imagine that’s Merlin’s hand, slightly unsure, the way all new lovers are. He imagines Merlin behind him in the shower, one hand wrapped around his chest, the other on his dick, whispering a mixture of snark and dirty words into his ear. He imagines Merlin’s cock (long, he decides, a bit thinner than his own) sliding between the cleft of his ass, nudging at his hole without actually penetrating, teasing him heartlessly--

Arthur grunts, lets his head fall against the wall as he comes, working himself through the aftershocks. Finally, he stands up, panting, letting the water rinse the semen off his hand, the sweat from his chest.

He thinks about Merlin in his bed. He wonders how long he would stay before, like every other relationship that Arthur’s been in, he’d realize that Arthur can’t be what he needs. That Arthur’s a selfish prick with a mercurial mind, that writing is more important to him than anything else, that at the end of the day, the work he produces is the best thing he can offer the world. And sometimes, he fears, it’s a hollow gift.

Arthur nearly slips and falls at the sudden knocking on the door.

“Arthur!” Morgana calls. “Are you coming down for breakfast?”

“Yeah,” he shouts back. “Be down in a few.”

Powell’s in Portland, City Lights in San Francisco, The Tattered Cover in Denver, the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, Harvard Bookstore in Boston. The bookstores and libraries are all different, all the same: earnest people wearing worn jeans and dark-framed glasses. They bring him good coffee and decent croissants, are soft-spoken and respectful, and rein in their more enthusiastic colleagues. The crowds vary from big (200 at Powells, more standing in the back), to somewhat small, (60 in Chicago, where apparently nobody likes genre-bending literary novels about time travel and immortality).

Everything blurs together. The hotels, the airports, the food, the people, the bars, the lonely nights spent in too-big beds. The beds trouble him the most: it’s at night that his life feels the most empty.

I am so fucking tired, he texts Merlin late one night, from some hotel near some airport in some state; he’s lost track of his place in the world, both literally and metaphorically.

Go to sleep then, silly arse, comes the answer.

Can’t. It’s your fault, I just finished your story about the snake and the girl and the evil closet. Never sleeping again.

He grinds the heel of his hands against his eyes. It’s not too late, he thinks, to give this all up. He could become one of those recluse authors. Grow a massive beard. Produce a novel once every ten years. Frighten small children at the market.

The phone rings beside him, and Arthur nearly jumps out of his skin. He looks at it for a moment, feeling a strange flutter of nerves in his stomach when the caller ID reads MERLIN. His hand hovers over the “Accept” button; for a split second, he wonders what he’ll say.

“What time is it there?” he asks when he puts the phone to his ear. It’s the first thing to come to mind.

“Fuck knows,” Merlin says. His voice is rougher than Arthur remembers. “Morning. I just woke up.”

“Lucky bastard.”

“What time is it where you are?”

“Fuck knows,” Arthur answers, smiling a little. “Night.”

“So you can’t sleep?” Merlin asks. It’s strange to hear his voice, Arthur realizes. Save for the night at Liminal Con and the phone call after the Dickensgate debacle, their entire relationship has been textual. No surprise, really, considering that they’re both writers. It’s where they’re most comfortable, in the written word.

“I’m afraid to close my eyes,” Arthur says. “The clothes hangers might get me.”

Merlin laughs. Arthur listens carefully, trying to memorize the sound.

“It is late, isn’t it?” Merlin says. “Or are you still on painkillers?”

“I switched to aspirin a few days ago. This is just a sleep-deprived delirium. I can’t be held responsible for anything I say.”

“Don’t worry. I can’t be arsed to record this for blackmail. You can say whatever you want with impunity.”

The words give Arthur pause, the space of a few breaths. It’s funny, the way that they’re both in bed, at different times and on different continents. Pillow talk, Arthur thinks, and would laugh if it weren’t so pathetic.

“I hate book tours,” Arthur confesses. “I never feel less like of an actual writer than when I’m spouting off at the mouth about my creative process to a chorus of baby-boomers and literary hipsters.”

“Rough life, isn’t it,” Merlin says. His tone is a little teasing, a lot commiserating. “I hate them, too. I love my fans, but the tours get overwhelming.”

“I miss London,” Arthur says. It seems easy to give voice to all this shit that’s piled up in his brain like a backed-up old bathtub, here in the dark like this.

“I’m sure it misses you back.”

Arthur rubs at his face. “I hate sleeping in enormous, anonymous beds by myself.”

Merlin’s breath catches. It’s a small noise, made even smaller by the tinny connection between them, the electrical impulse that stretches from Merlin’s mouth to Arthur’s ear, traveling across an entire ocean. Still, he hears it.

“You can’t find some groupie for a night? Some naughty librarian, clutching your book to her heaving bosom?”

Arthur huffs a breath. “I grew out of that phase in uni, thank god.”

“That figures,” Merlin says softly. Before Arthur can ask him what he means, he continues, “Do you want to hear a story?”

Arthur has a sudden and vivid memory of his father, reading to him at night: Lewis and Bronte and Verne and, of course, Dickens. He shakes his head slightly, trying to dislodge the memory’s hold.

“Like, a bedtime story?” he asks.

“I promise there’ll be no evil closets in it.”

Arthur swallows past a sudden lump in his throat. “All right, then. Why not?” He pulls the blankets tighter around his shoulders. “Tell me a story, Merlin.”

Merlin takes a breath. “Once upon a time,” he begins.

Excerpt from “A Tale At Midnight”, blog post at

[[Author’s note: The seed of this story began as an offering to a friend who couldn’t sleep. He dropped off before I could reach the end, but the story insisted on being finished. It belongs just as much to him as to me, but he’s a silly arse and didn’t want credit.]]

“Once upon a time,” the man began. “There was a baker, a soldier, a witch, and a cat, all aboard a boat that was bound for the horizon.”

“Not a boat,” the other insisted. “Make it a train, instead.”

“A train, then. None of them knew what lay at the end of the tracks, but it was the only way across the wasteland."

“Why was there a wasteland?”

“Because there’s always a wasteland, whether it stretches across a continent or is contained in a man’s heart. All characters move through an unfriendly landscape, with tall trees and thorns that rend one’s clothes and skin. Every story needs its pound of flesh.”

“Even mine?” the other asked.

“Yours, mine, and everyone’s.”

Arthur Pendragon @RealPendragon
Every so often, I’m reminded of the subtle magic of telling stories.

10:22 am - 10 May 12 - via Twitter for Mac

Arthur rather likes Dublin, so long as one avoids the vomiting, drunken tourists in Temple Bar. He likes the bridges across the Liffey, the boisterous laughter in the pubs. He likes seeing nuns on public transportation, though he suspects that’s a sign of a deep-seated neurosis, rather than an appreciation for novelty. Mostly, he likes that it’s not England, but it’s still comfortably familiar. Best of all, Morgana’s left him to his own devices for the night, going down to visit some cousins in County Mayo.

He’s surprised by how intimate the reading feels at Trinity. The audience is smaller than any of the other readings he’s done, held in a tiny recital hall. The crowd is divided between students from the college, and older literary types who wear mustaches and berets without a shred of irony. They lean forward to catch his words, sighing and laughing in all the right places. The Q&A feels more like a lively discussion.

The applause at the end is just right as well, enthusiastic without being overwhelming. Arthur grins as he gives a shallow bow before leaving the stage. The coordinator for the event, a pale-skinned, tweedy writing professor named James, ushers him over to a table for the signing.

As always, he’s running on autopilot by the time the line is nearing its end. He barely glances up when a copy of his first novel, Boy Outside, slides in front of him.

“Who should I make it out to?” he says.

“Merlin,” the man standing in front of him answers.

Arthur’s actually touched the pen nib to the title page before realization settles in. He looks up. Merlin is standing in front of him wearing a shit-eating grin.

“You silly bastard,” he says. He walks round the edge of the table. Arthur stands and starts to put out a hand, but Merlin rolls his eyes and pulls him into a hug. Arthur freezes, startled by the sudden contact. He’s never been very demonstrative or affectionate; he never really learned how.

“Shit,” Merlin says, picking up on Arthur’s stiffness. “Sorry,” he mutters, and begins to pull away.

Arthur yanks him back by his sweater, wraps his arms around him and squeezes. “It’s fine. Took me by surprise,” he explains. “Obviously. What are you doing here?”

“Ooh, do we all get hugs now?” the next girl in line asks, before Merlin can answer.

Merlin snorts. Arthur lets him go with a laugh and a slap to the shoulder. “Sure,” Arthur tells her. “He’ll be the one doling them out, though.”

She looks at Merlin and raises an eyebrow. “Sounds a fair deal to me.”

“Oi!” Merlin says, and Arthur throws his head back and laughs.

“We’ll talk later,” Arthur says in an undertone. “The fans await.”

Merlin does end up giving the girl a hug, though he moves to the edge of the room afterwards, avoiding the stragglers’ curious looks. Arthur finds his eye drifting over to him, drawn there again and again; Merlin sprawled out in one of the chairs lining the wall, long-legged and lean, paging through Boy Outside.

“Is that your-- a friend of your?” James whispers after the last person has departed. It’s easy to read the hesitation in James’s voice, the word that still, it appears, dare not speak its name in Trinity, more than a century after Oscar Wilde sashayed through its halls.

Arthur has learned, after long association with Morgana, to successfully suppress a blush. “That’s Merlin Emrys,” he tells James.

“Oh,” James says. “Wait, really? The Merlin Emrys?”

“Yeah, that’s him,” Arthur answers, capping off his pen. “Merlin!” he calls.

Merlin looks up, then walks over after marking his place in the book. James introduces himself, then proceeds to wax poetic about Drowned Towns while Merlin shifts from foot to foot. After a few moments, he asks, “Are you all finished, then?”

“Hardly,” Arthur says. “There’s another reading in twenty minutes.” They’d had to stagger them, due to the small size of the room and the sudden surge in interest after Dickensgate.

“Oh, that’s brilliant,” Merlin says. “I missed the first one, I had to sneak in at the end.”

“Well,” James says. “You’ll have front row seats for this one, certainly.”

“I’ve a better idea,” Arthur says. “He can be on stage with me.”

Merlin frowns. “Sorry, what?”

James’ eyes widen. “You mean the both of you would be reading?”

“Wait,” Merlin says. “I’m not prepared, I haven’t got my book--”

“I have a copy of it with me,” Arthur says. Merlin looks at him, slack-jawed. “I read it on the cab ride here.”

“Mr. Emrys,” James says. “It’d truly be an honor.”

Merlin looks from Arthur to James, then back to Arthur as he says, “Yeah. All right, let’s do it.”

James trots off to find a second microphone. Arthur fetches his copy of Rosemary and Rue from his bag, handing it over to Merlin. There’s something oddly intimate about the way that Merlin brushes his fingers over the cover. Arthur picked it up in a tiny English bookstore in Singapore, a full week before Liminal Con and everything that’s happened since. He’s carried that book across continents and time zones, into airport bathrooms and hotel beds.

“Well-worn,” Merlin observes, noting the creased cover, the dogeared pages. “You always assume that writers would take better care of books. “

“Take it as a compliment,” Arthur tells him. “It’s been around the world with me.”

“Oh, I do.” Merlin seems about to add something else, but instead shuts his mouth, paging through the book. He doesn’t seem to read the words on the page, but the stains and folds and tears that it has collected instead.

A thought occurs to Arthur, and he pulls his pen from his pocket. “Sign it for me?”

Merlin takes the pen with a wry grin. Instead of simply signing his name, he quickly sketches something.

“What’s that?” Arthur leans over, trying to make it out.

Merlin looks up at him, grinning. “A unicorn. I promised, didn’t I?”

Arthur stays where he is for a moment, only a few inches from Merlin’s face, grinning. Then he steals his pen back, and Merlin’s copy of Boy Outside from beside his chair.

“What on earth is that?” Merlin asks, looking over his shoulder.

“A lopsided donkey with a stick in its forehead,” Arthur says. Merlin throws his head back and laughs.

The second reading is amazing. Arthur is nervous with Merlin beside him on stage, and the words he’s read dozens of times before feel new in his mouth. He seems to do a good job, judging by the loud applause when he finishes.

“Any requests?” Merlin asks, as he stands to take Arthur’s place at the podium.

“No evil closets,” Arthur says, and Merlin snorts. “But really, whichever one is your favorite.”

Merlin hmms thoughtfully, and nods. Facing the audience, he introduces himself, adding, “Thank you all for letting me gatecrash Arthur’s reading.”

The applause drowns out whatever he’s about to say next, and Arthur joins in, clapping as best he can with his hand still in its bloody cast.

“With your indulgence, I’m going to read a story from my new collection. It’s called ‘Fundamental Imperfection’.” Merlin clears his throat, takes a sip from his bottle of water, and begins to read.

Arthur shuts his eyes, listening to the rise and fall of Merlin’s voice. His Welsh accent -- generally so slight as to hardly be noticeable -- thickens a little on certain words, opens up on others. The story he tells is less surreal than some of his others, heavier on the symbolism. The narrator is an android, a repository of knowledge and stories that is treated as a god by the sick and dying remnants of the human race.

“‘Will you speak to us of love?’ Almitra asks, like a child. They care nothing of the dying sun, the burnt earth, their inevitable mortality. Tell us a story about love, they say. And give it a happy ending.” He lets the words hang there for a moment, then shuts the book. “Thank you.”

There’s a moment of pensive silence after Merlin steps away the podium, then a wave of applause. He catches Merlin’s eye as he sits back down. He feels as though he should say something, but the story has left him feeling odd, like he’s missed something important. He’ll have to reread it later.

The Q&A goes on for far longer than the first one did. People inevitably ask about Dickensgate, which Arthur has avoided talking about. But with Merlin there, it’s a lot easier to laugh about the whole thing, even the more mortifying aspects.

“Had either of you read the other’s work before the panel?” a woman asks.

“At that point, I hadn’t,” Arthur admits. “And during the panel, I had no idea who he was at all, just that he published horror fiction and apparently knew something about-- God, I don’t even remember what the topic was,” Arthur admits.

“Mythical archetypes in science fiction,” Merlin supplies.

Arthur shrugs. “The whole thing was me being an idiot. I behaved wretchedly.”

“Oh, you weren’t so bad,” Merlin argues. “I mean, you bought me a drink later.”

“Well, that solves everything,” an audience member shouts.

“It does, it’s true,” Merlin says, laughing. “But, back to the question. I’d gotten about twenty pages into Arthur’s book Curiosities at the time. I’d actually been about to give up on it, but then Arthur insulted my taste, got me drunk, and talked my ear off about Bertolt Brecht. So I gave it another go after that, and bloody loved it.”

Arthur bites the inside of his cheek; he decided, a few years after the fact, that Curiosities really was too slow to start. Nobody else agreed with him,

“Have you considered collaborating?” someone shouts out.

He and Merlin share a look. “A Tale at Midnight” is something public and private at once, a two-way mirror into their relationship. The questions that “the other” asks, the way he changes the story to suit his whims: it’s like a recording of their conversation that night, minus a lot of swearing and delirious asides.

“We’ve considered it,” Arthur says smoothly. “But no promises.”

“Right,” James says, after the last stragglers have finally left. “Pub?”

“Pub,” Merlin agrees.

“An Irishman, an Englishman, and a Welshman walk into a bar,” Arthur muses. “Sounds like the set up to a bad joke.”

“Plus a handful of uni students,” James said. “Watch out for them, they’ll drink you under the table and demand your opinion on James Joyce.”

“Sounds like a challenge,” Arthur said.

“Right then,” James says. “We’ll just finish up here. You can wait if you like, or we’ll meet you there in a half-hour.”

“We’ll wait, yeah?” Merlin said, catching Arthur’s eye. Arthur nods.

James hurries off to join the students in cleaning up. Arthur nudges Merlin’s shoulder and says, “You never did say what you were doing in Dublin.”

“Well,” Merlin says. “My da’s Irish, and I was visiting him. Thought I’d come down and see you read.”

“Come down from where?” Arthur asks.

Merlin looks away, towards the stage they’d shared. “Donegal.”

“You drove for four hours to see me read?” Arthur asks, shocked and more than a little pleased.

“Three and a half!” Merlin says. The tips of his ears are red. “And it wasn’t-- I just thought--”

“Thank you, Merlin,” Arthur says. “You’re absolutely mad, but I’m grateful for it.”

Merlin grins at him. “Welcome back to the other side of the pond, I guess.”

“It’s good to be here. You’ve no idea how good.”

There’s something there, in Merlin’s gaze, that sets Arthur’s heart pounding.

They all end up in the student pub, which has cheaper drinks but a more raucous crowd. They snag a booth towards the back, as far away from the speakers as possible, but still have to shout as the crowd grows louder.

“Look, I’m not saying that an adaptation of a Greek tragedy can’t be done well,” Arthur says. “I’m just saying that the conventions they used are ill-adapted to modern stagings.”

“Which is why they’re adaptations,” Merlin says. “Nobody’s actually suggesting that you hire a full chorus to circle around the stage--”

“Oh, you’d better believe people do,” James interjects. “And I’m not talking just student productions here--”

“Oi!” one of the students says. “I resent that, sir.”

“Oh, you know what I mean, Suri. You’re a techie, you’ve seen what some of these bloody artistes come up with--”

“Jesus, remember that girl last spring that pulled the scroll out from her--” one of the other students begins.

“Oh, shite, don’t remind us!” Suri screams. “I’m still having nightmares about that.”

All of the Trinity kids laugh. “On that note,” Arthur says. “I’ve got next round.”

When he returns to the table, Merlin is gone. “He popped off for a smoke,” Suri says.

“Oh,” Arthur says. Then, casually, “Think I’ll join him. Be back in a few.”

“The door’s by the bogs,” she says.

Arthur nods his thanks, then makes his way through the sweaty, claustrophobic mass of twenty-somethings that have crowded into the bar in the last hour. A rush of air greets him when he opens the door, scented with garbage and rain and tobacco smoke.

“Over here,” a voice calls. There’s an alcove -- more like a doorway -- that’s shielded from the rain. Arthur sees the glowing tip of a cigarette before he sees the rest of Merlin.

“Didn’t know you smoked,” Arthur said, fitting himself into the cramped space opposite Merlin.

“I don’t often. But being back in a student bar, drinking shite beer, arguing about art--”

“Might as well complete the circle of bad behavior,” Arthur says. He takes the cigarette from Merlin’s offering hand, draws on it, and then nearly chokes on his first lungful of smoke. Embarrassing.

“Amateur,” Merlin says. Arthur waves two fingers at him, still coughing.

“The opposite, actually. Morgana became convinced I’d smoke myself straight into a cancer ward a few years ago, after my second book tour. Now she gets snippy whenever I light up. It’s more effective than all those bloody PSAs, especially when we’re together all the bloody time.”

“Oh god,” Merlin says. “Poor man.”

“You’ve no idea, how terrible it is to have a sibling be your manager.”

“Why d’you do it?”

“Because she’s the best,” Arthur shrugs, taking another cautious drag of the cigarette. The smoke still stings his lungs, but the taste is as brilliant as he remembers. “And I trust her. She isn’t cowed by anything, not my bad habits or my father’s fucking influence--”

“Wait, your what?

Arthur blinks at him, then looks back down at the cigarette he’s still holding. He takes another drag, exhales it quickly. “Story for another night, yeah?”

He passes the cigarette back to Merlin; their hands brush when he takes it.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Merlin says after a moment. “I know all about your crushes on Toni Morrison and Joseph Campbell, and how you want to like David Foster Wallace but can’t, that Bataille gives you a headache but you’ll defend Bakhtin until your dying breath--”

“And I know that you worship Zizek like unto a god, have an irrational hatred of Samuel Beckett, and can wax poetic about Japanese school girls dancing in fountains of blood. What’s your point?”

“I know all that, but I don’t know what your relationship with your father is like. I don’t know what you do when you’re not writing, or what it is you love about London. You don’t know my mum’s name, or what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Arthur stares at him. I’d like to find out, he thinks. Instead, he asks, “Does it matter to you? To know that about me?”

Merlin meets his eyes. “Yeah. It’s part of you, isn’t it? You’re more than just stubborn opinions and brilliant sentence composition.”

The words fall from Arthur’s lips without any forethought at all: “I really want to kiss you right now.”

Merlin’s jaw drops. The cigarette slips from his fingers and extinguishes at his feet.

“Shit,” Arthur says. “I’m sorry.”

Merlin doesn’t answer.

“Christ,” Arthur sighs. “You’re going to tell me you’re straight, aren’t you?

Merlin still doesn’t answer, just swallows, his adam’s apple bobbing.

“Say something, Merlin. Or I’ll be forced to go drown myself in the Liffey to--”

“Sherlock Holmes.”

Arthur blinks a few times, considers it from a few different mental angles, but Merlin’s answer remains insensible. “What?”

Merlin swallows again. “Sherlock Holmes. That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Arthur nods slowly. “I wanted to be Aragorn.”

“That figures,” Merlin says. He smiles, and Arthur is struck dumb. “You can kiss me now,” he adds, after a brief hesitation.

“Okay,” Arthur says, and does.

Arthur’s never been able to write a decent sex scene to save his life. It’s a personal failing. He never seems to be able to portray the fine line between between ecstasy and suffering that happens during good sex, how it can be both light-hearted and heavy, beautiful and sad.

The anticipation sits heavy in his stomach for the cab ride back to the hotel room. Merlin traces the lines of Arthur’s palm, draws his fingers across the taut skin of his inner wrist. The soft touch has Arthur shifting in his seat, barely keeping himself in check; he wants to lean across the seat and devour Merlin, regardless of their rambling cab driver.

By the time they actually get to Arthur’s room, he’s thrumming with tension. The door shuts behind them and he immediately crowds Merlin against it, shucking off his jacket and tugging at Merlin’s sweater. Merlin reels him in, pulling on his belt loops until their hips are flush.

Merlin pulls at the hem of Arthur’s shirt. “Can I--?”

Arthur pulls far enough away to strip off his shirt, throwing it on the floor behind him. Merlin’s shirt follows. Arthur rests his injured hand on Merlin’s hip, runs the other up his flank, pausing to rub his thumb against Merlin’s nipple.

“Oh. Oh, fuck,” Merlin says, his head thumping back against the door.

“Do you like that?” Arthur asks. It’s intoxicating, seeing Merlin like this: responsive, wanton, unselfconscious.

Merlin nods, biting his lip. Arthur immediately leans in, pressing a kisses against his mouth and jaw and neck, twisting Merlin’s nipple into a stiff point.

“Arthur,” Merlin eventually chokes out, breaking away from their kiss. “God, stop, I’ll come if you keep doing that.”

Arthur eases up the pressure on Merlin’s nipple, though he keeps his fingers on it, just barely rubbing his thumb back and forth across it. “Would that be so bad?”

Merlin laughs. “Only if you want the night to end now. I’m not seventeen anymore, the refractory period isn’t what it used to.”

“Sounds like a personal challenge,” Arthur says, slowly twisting his nipple again.

“Fuck,” Merling swears, and arches his back. “You should talk to someone about this competitive streak of yours. It can’t be healthy--”

“You’re reaping the benefit of my bloated ego,” Arthur says, running his fingers across the nub of flesh. “Do you really want to complain?”

Merlin pries Arthur’s hand away from his chest and bites at the wrist. “Competitive, bossy, over-opinionated, egotistical--”

“Drink too much, prone to mood swings and melodrama, full of liberal guilt, and a complete snob,” Arthur continues, even as Merlin rolls their hips together. “Do you find my personal flaws sexy?”

Merlin flips them around, pinning Arthur’s uninjured hand on the wall above his head. “Maybe,” he answers.

Arthur flexes his arm. “I am only allowing this because of how hot you are when you’re pushy.”

Merlin grins, and leans over to nuzzle at Arthur’s neck. “Pushy, headstrong, selfish, sentimental--”

“What are you--”

“You told me all your flaws, didn’t you? It’s only fair I tell you mine,” says Merlin. He leans back again, gazing at Arthur. “That way neither of us can say we didn’t know what we were in for.”

Arthur’s smile slips off his face. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”

Merlin dips his head down to kiss Arthur again, softly, at the corner of the mouth, then murmurs into his ear, “I’m clumsy, have no sense of subtlety, and make inappropriate jokes. I’m terrible at reading social cues. I’m lazy and a grumpy bastard in the morning.”

Arthur turns a little, brushing their cheeks together. “And you hate Dickens.”

“And I fucking hate Dickens.”

Merlin’s breath stirs the fine hairs on his neck. Arthur shivers and says, “Sometimes, I feel like my life is empty and meaningless. Like I’m one of Eliot’s hollow men.”

Merlin squeezes the hand he still holds above Arthur’s head and replies, “I like sex, but I’m scared of relationships.”

It’s so easy for Arthur to say it, in the close, intimate darkness: “I like relationships, but I’m afraid of love.”

Merlin pushes himself back, just enough to stare into Arthur’s eyes. This is a turning point, Arthur thinks. If they stop now, they might be able to salvage a good friendship. Who knows what will happen otherwise?

“It’s a wise thing to fear,” Merlin whispers. He touches Arthur’s face, runs a thumb across his zygomatic arch. He lets Arthur’s other hand go, and it falls onto Merlin’s shoulder.

“In your expert opinion?” Arthur closes his eyes. Merlin’s thumb is cool against his flushed cheek.

“If by ‘expert’, you mean ‘someone who’s afraid of everything and decided to write about it’, then yeah.”

Arthur tilts his head to lay a kiss against Merlin’s palm. At the touch, Merlin shudders. His cock, which had softened during the unexpected turn of their conversation, stirs against Arthur’s thigh.

Arthur wonders: maybe they passed whatever turning point they had long ago, and he never even realized it. But believing so robs him of the choice he has now.

If this is a bad decision in the making, Arthur thinks, at least it will be a spectacular one.

He nuzzles his face into Merlin’s hand, and snakes his tongue out to lick at the crease between his fingers. Merlin sucks in an unsteady breath, then brings his fingers to Arthur’s mouth. Arthur licks at each one in turn, then sucks two into his mouth. Merlin gives a sigh that’s very nearly a moan.

He lets Merlin push him onto the bed, helps him out of his pants and trousers and socks and shoes, sucks kisses onto the freckled skin of his shoulder and thighs. When Merlin produces a few condoms and a meager package of lube from his wallet, he asks, “Were you planning this?”

Merlin blushes. “Will I still get laid if I say yes?”

Arthur spreads his legs in response, running a hand up and down his cock, and Merlin’s eyes darken. Merlin tosses the condoms and lube onto the bed, and crawls between Arthur’s thighs to kiss him.

“You seemed so surprised, when I kissed you,” Arthur says.

“I’d forgotten,” Merlin said. “What this feels like.”

“What what feels like?”

Merlin’s face is hot when he kisses him. It’s soft, lingering, and unsure kiss that ends when Merlin pulls back and gives him a lopsided smile. “Please don’t make me say it. M’not that brave.”

Arthur twines their legs together, pulling Merlin to him. Tell us a story about love, he thinks. And give it a happy ending.

“Do you always take early flights?” Merlin asks. He’s got one of the sheets wrapped around his shoulders, and he’s leaning against the doorway of the bathroom like it’s the only thing keeping him vertical.

“It’s only seven-thirty,” Arthur says, putting his electric shaver back on its charger.

“Oh my god,” Merlin moans, rubbing at his eyes. “You’re one of those people, aren’t you?”

“Those people?”

“Morning people.”

Arthur pulls out his bottle of aftershave. “Having second thoughts about all this?” he asks, keeping his tone light and unconcerned.

“Second thoughts? I haven’t the energy for first thoughts, never mind second ones.”

Arthur grins at him in the mirror as he pats on some aftershave. “Keeping it all in reserve for complaining?”

Merlin blinks at him. “Too many words. Can’t... whatever.”

The next time he looks back, Merlin’s got his head leaning against the doorframe, eyes shut. Arthur reaches out and runs his hands through Merlin’s hair. He doesn’t open his eyes, but he does smile a little.

“You’re falling asleep standing up,” Arthur says. “Go back to bed.”

“Only if you come with me.”

“I have to pack,” Arthur says.

“When’s your flight?”

“I have to leave at nine.”

“That’s hours away,” Merlin says. It’s actually only an hour and a half, and Arthur’s about to correct him, but Merlin tucks himself against Arthur’s body, rewraps the sheet so that it envelops both of them. Merlin is naked underneath, and half-hard, and really, that’s just unfair.

“Come back to bed,” he says, rubbing against Arthur like a cat, skin warm and soft and inviting to be touched, to be tasted.

“I’m doomed, aren’t I,” Arthur says.

“Best take it like a man,” Merlin agrees.

Morgana is doing a terrible job of not smirking when he meets her at the airport.

Arthur sighs. “Good morning.”

“Apparently so,” she says. She flicks at his neck. “You’ve a bit of a mark--”

“Piss. Off,” he says, pushing her hand away

She’s unbearably smug for the rest of the day, all through the flight to Edinburgh and the cab ride to their hotel.

“So you knew?” he finally asks, because otherwise, she might be insufferable forever. Best to let her gloat and get it over with.

“I told Merlin I owed him a favor,” she said. “He asked me to make myself scarce for a night while he attempted to seduce you. I see it worked.”

“Oh god,” Arthur says, covering his face with his hands. “Go away. Let me die of embarrassment alone.”

“Poor Arthur,” she coos. “Always the last to know.”

His face is burning and he can’t stop grinning. He thinks back to the spot on his cast, in the crux between his palm and thumb, where the words I wait for you like a lonely house are written in black marker.

Arthur Pendragon @RealPendragon
So I wait for you like a lonely house / till you will see me again and live in me. Till then my windows ache. -Pablo Neruda

4:12 PM - 15 May 12 - via Tweetdeck

The suburbs of London rush by the train windows. Morgana had offered to fly him from Manchester, but Arthur liked the train, liked watching the rocky northern landscape soften and flatten into the green fields and villages of the Midlands and then southern England.

He’s already thinking ahead, to his flat; how dusty it probably is, whether Leon will have killed all his plants. He’s thinking of his own bed, and then, naturally, of Merlin. Who is supposedly going to meet him at St. Pancras, but who’s been mysteriously silent for the last day or so. No texts or email, save for one a day and a half ago:

I’ve got a handful of movies, new fodder for literary arguments, and a bottle of Drambuie. See you in London, yeah?

Arthur’s been wondering if the silence is intentional, or if Merlin accidentally dropped his phone in a toilet or something. Arthur figures it’s a fifty-fifty chance. He tries not to wonder about what he’ll do if Merlin’s not there, if Merlin has changed his mind and taken up with someone who agrees with his boorish analysis of mid-19th century literature and doesn’t shudder when talking about avant-garde cinema of the 70’s.

Arthur looks at his notebook, where he’s distracted himself by scribbling a sprawling galaxy of ideas for a new project. A novel, maybe, or a collection of essays; it could go either way at this point. Near the bottom of the page, he’s written the following:

You’re wrong about everything, except for the things I’m wrong about. I’ve fallen in love with exploring that fault line between us.

He adds a note below: Or: why literary arguments are the best kind of foreplay.

Three days later--

(after he finds Merlin waiting at the station, wearing a nervous expression and a red scarf that’s stained with tea; after he hears the story of how Merlin left his phone on the train from Cardiff and spent the entire afternoon running around London to try and find a replacement; after they travel back to Arthur’s Notting Hill flat and undress each other in the dim evening light, putting their hands and mouths onto every patch of available skin; after Merlin makes him watch Tokyo Gore Police and Arthur makes him watch The Maltese Falcon; after Merlin whispers a startled Fuck, I’m in love with you into the air while Arthur makes pancakes)

--Arthur finds the scrawled words below the notes. Alternate title: How Arthur Pendragon Got His Groove Back.

“Merlin!” he shouts. “You’re fired!”

Merlin’s answer is a wild laugh that echoes through the flat.

Excerpt from “Things that are stranger than fiction: a conversation with Arthur Pendragon and Merlin Emrys”, from The Guardian, 24 September, 2016.

“None of it was my fault. That’s the important bit,” Pendragon says, to Emrys’s laughter. “It was all a conspiracy against me.”

“It’s true,” Emrys agrees. “Charles Dickens purposely wrote terrible novels just so that I would read them in uni, hate them, and shoot my mouth off about them at a panel on mythical tropes at a science fiction convention, thereby making you fall in love with me.”

“Okay,” Pendragon says. “I guess that does sound a little unlikely.”

The reality, however, seems just as improbable. At this point, it’s a well-known story: boy meets boy, boy insults boy’s favorite author, boy gives scathing and incendiary reply, boy’s fan throws a book at boy and breaks his arm... and somehow, boys fall in love.

Pendragon and Emrys’s upcoming collection of essays -- their first collaboration -- doesn’t retread that old ground. It does shed a surprising amount of light on their relationship, though.

“It’s basically all of our arguments put onto paper,” Emrys says. “And since we disagree all the time--”

“About nearly everything,” Pendragon adds.

“--We had a lot of ground to cover,” Emrys finishes.

One of the shortest essays, in fact, is a list of axioms, things that are universally accepted as true in the Pendragon-Emrys household. It contains three items:

“1.) Love and art consist of varying amounts of suffering and ecstasy. 2.) Bertolt Brecht was a genius. 3.) Literary arguments are an expression of affection (and sometimes lust).”

There are fantastic essays on literature, film, and critical theory, with Pendragon in particular showing off his academic chops, technology and science, internet culture, and, surprisingly for these two private men, a few stunning personal essays. One of them gives its title to the book, and includes texts, emails, and scanned notes from the both of them. It’s easily the most moving piece in the collection.

“That was terrifying,” Pendragon says. “Handing all that over to our editors.”

“Like presenting your heart on a plate to a pack of hyenas,” Emrys adds.

The titular essay, “Like a Lonely House”, covers a tumultuous two-year span of their relationship, including the death of both men’s fathers, Emrys’s move to London from Cardiff, and Pendragon’s months spent in Vancouver as a producer for the film adaptation of his first novel, Boy Outside. The novella-length piece contains passion, honesty, frustration, and loneliness; its epistolary sections allow us to peek through the keyholes into a relationship, while the retrospective writing gives us a hint as to the larger picture.

“I hate writing about love,” Pendragon says. “It’s harder writing about it than living it.”

“That’s just because you hate happy endings,” Emrys points out.

“Is that what this is?” Pendragon asks, with a small, private smile.

Emrys nudges Pendragon’s knee with his own. “That’s the hope, right?”

Like A Lonely House: Essays on Life, Love, and Literature by Merlin Emrys and Arthur Pendragon will be released in October 13 by Vintage.