“ Words mean more than what is set down on paper.
It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades
of deeper meaning. ”
Arthur first saw him on New Year’s Eve as a half-lit figure in the bookshop at the end of Kennedy Road. It was the motion of his hand that caught Arthur’s eye; from across the street, through the sheet of window, it swooped up to the shelves so fingertips could weave a secret trail across the cracked spines of books.
And when Merlin’s lips curved up into a soft, content smile, Arthur staggered across the empty street in a daze, lurched onto the pavement, stepped up onto the threshold of the humble little shop. It was warm in front now, cold behind, and with an aching heart he succumbed to the lure of the heat; the smell of ink, aging paper, of stories waiting to be told.
He found Merlin six feet in front of him. A Merlin who was turning his head to the side, unconsciously mimicking the motion of the golden retriever sat by his leg. Both have heard Arthur’s footfall. The eyes of both men met; coincidental, since they were the same height, and Merlin’s were glassy and unfocused. Unseeing.
Merlin’s hand dropped from the books. His smile faded. Arthur swallowed; half-turned towards the shelves and their children.
“What books do you like?” he asked, his voice too loud in the tranquility of the shop. And his words… too daring, too rash. What are you doing?, he asked of himself instead. But there was no answer. No answer but loneliness and misery and the desperate need to hold on to this man, and maybe Arthur couldn’t explain his reasons but he knew they had truth.
So when Merlin’s smile was reborn, and his fingertips glided up to the books again, Arthur’s aching heart lifted a fraction in his chest.
“All of them,” Merlin said.
They were friends by the third day Arthur met Merlin in the bookshop; thick as thieves when February began; lovers when March loomed on the horizon. Merlin eased into Arthur’s life like the missing, final piece of a jigsaw, and brought the completeness and purpose Arthur hunted for all his life. For the first time in twenty-two years Arthur found pride in his voice, in his words, because finally – finally, someone was listening.
The first book he read Merlin was The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. From his tongue spun the tale of an Indian boy in a boat with a tiger, a tale made of golden thread that held Merlin and his guide dog, Freya, in thrall for hours as rain pounded on the windowpane, or as sun knifed deep into the heart of the bookshop.
From Arthur’s silver tongue Merlin learned of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, of Issa and his plight in John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man; of Sherlock and Watson and Moriaty and Lestrade, of Jay Gatsby and his rise and fall, of the web of characters and families in the mighty A Song of Ice and Fire…
Arthur read Merlin Charles Dickens and Malorie Blackman and Stephen King and Khaled Hosseini and Shakespeare. Whatever book Merlin plucked off the shelves – first in the bookshop, then in their flat – at random, Arthur read, because he loved watching Merlin’s mouth fall into an ‘O’ of surprise when there was an unexpected twist. He loved how Merlin tensed when danger was afoot. He loved how Merlin threw back his head and laughed at the author’s jokes or the character’s idiocy; loved how Merlin's fingers were steepled beneath a creased brow when there was a mystery to solve.
He just loved Merlin.
And that was why Arthur kept teetering towers of books everywhere: in the kitchen, on their bedside table, on the sofa and the floor and even in the bathroom. It was a square, pale room that lent a gentle echo to any speaker, and Merlin’s ears had latched onto it immediately.
Because of it, Arthur read to him in the bath. His legs were always cramped and Merlin’s toes dug into his hipbone whilst the book rested on the rim of the tub, but Arthur would watch Merlin’s face, Merlin’s body language… and suddenly it was worth it.
It was April when Merlin’s blind eyes were wet with tears for his just-dead mother. He was curled up in a sea of blankets with his head in Arthur’s lap and Freya heavy on his ankles. It was then and there on their faded blue sofa that Arthur read him one of his own novels.
He was eighteen when he sat at his typewriter and listened to its clunk, clunk as The Broken Minor was punched onto the paper. He had been raw from his father’s rejection and Morgana’s flight to France and little Mordred being convicted of manslaughter, and he spilt as much of his fury and pain and hurt and despair onto three hundred and one blank pages.
He had never felt more free.
His work was torn apart by critics. The closest thing to praise it received was the word mediocre, but Arthur was indifferent to the feasting beings that dug into his tale with thorny words and cold hearts. To them, the storyline was too flamboyant and whimsical, the continuity lacking, the characters boring. All he'd written was the truth.
So when Merlin was weeping into the denim of his jeans, and Arthur spied his battered copy near the Braille Scrabble board on the coffee table, he reached for it.
He read the title to Merlin, as he always did. Pride rippled through him when his voice didn’t tremble. Then Arthur wavered, hands clutching the book so hard his knuckles were translucent. Inhale. Exhale. Slowly.
“By A. de Bois,” he choked out. Merlin looked up at Arthur, eyes brimming over with tears, and Arthur cupped Merlin’s jaw with a shaky hand and stroked away each one that fell.
“Let me read to you, love,” he whispered. He didn’t realise he was begging until “let me take you somewhere else” fell from his lips; until Merlin shifted closer, wound his arm around Arthur, rested his head on his shoulder…
Merlin’s breaths shivered across Arthur’s neck as he read through the night. Arthur didn’t dare check if Merlin was asleep. If he stopped reading, he wouldn’t be able to keep his floodgates locked, and Merlin needed this. He needed to see that he wasn't the only man lost in a whirlwind of despair, of grief, of hopelessness, angry at the futility of it all.
When dawn light began to filter through the kitchen window, Arthur read the final line. His voice was hoarse, cracking, chased by silence -- a sudden void that would have unsettled the ground beneath him if his Merlin wasn't wrapped around him, an eternal comfort blanket. Arthur clung back as best he could.
Still, the weight on his chest swelled and grew. Failure was an old friend of Arthur’s: it had known him since he was six and Uther had stared blankly at Arthur’s garish crayon scribbles of their family and their house and a big blue sky with a big yellow sun.
Merlin sighed into his shoulder; pressed himself closer against Arthur’s side.
“Beautiful,” Merlin murmured, his fingers toying with the cashmere of Arthur’s jumper. “That was beautiful.”
When Arthur cried, Merlin kissed the tears clumsily off his cheeks.
It was early May when Merlin said to Arthur, “I want to hear more of your stories.”
That evening Arthur slipped into the bath with Mudfields clasped in trembling fingers. It was his fourth novel, and by that time his critics had found peace with him, claiming he had great promise and a gritty, vivid style that few could mimic.
Merlin climbed in next to him, a hand on the wall tiles to steady himself. There was the telltale clinking of Freya’s collar as she lay on the bathmat and the sloshing of water when Merlin slid into the tub. Then the silence came: that same dead void, waiting for Arthur to breathe life into it.
He reached out a hand and gently tugged Merlin closer; until their shoulders and thighs and feet were touching.
“Ready?” he said.
“Always,” said Merlin, the echo of his word joining Arthur's.
Through June Arthur tried to weave in other authors into Merlin’s repertoire – Brian Jacques, Andrea Levy, Cassandra Clare – but Merlin only wanted Arthur’s stories. Once, Arthur began to read him Fruit of the Lemon unannounced, but Merlin frowned after a few lines and clamped his hands over his ears like a petulant child.
Later Arthur asked, “how did you know it wasn’t mine?”
Merlin looked up from where he was brushing Freya. And he said, as if it was the simplest thing in the world: “the writing didn’t speak with your voice.”
From that day on, Arthur breathed life into Archie from Ephemeral in their cramped kitchen that smelt of coffee; awoke Jetta from the pages of Songbird when he and Merlin were tangled in their bed sheets, painted in moonlight; and he guided Dom and Emilia through their adventure in Just Hold Me Close whilst the bathwater around them steadily grew cold.
“You’re my favourite writer, you know,” Merlin mumbled when they were both spent and crumpled atop each other.
Arthur huffed a laugh into the pillow. “You would say that.”
“No,” Merlin said, and he sounded so sincere Arthur held his breath. “I mean it. You mean every word you write. Nothing is without feeling, and… and that makes you special.”
Arthur swallowed. Paused. Whispered, “no one’s… no one’s ever told me that before.”
Merlin hummed against Arthur’s shoulder blade. “You’re special,” he murmured.
“You’re special,” he repeated, hands tightening around Arthur’s hips when he started a trail of kisses from Arthur’s shoulder blade to his spine to the nape of his neck and across to the curve of his ear. There he stopped, and there was quiet aside from their heavy breathing and the distant thrum of traffic outside in the big bad world.
“Read to me?” Merlin said. Arthur felt his pout against the lobe of his ear, and he couldn’t help but smile.
“Always,” he said.