Arthur and Gwen were on their second latte each when the inevitable topic of conversation came up. Gwen had gotten married only six months ago, and was still in that sickeningly in love and happy honeymoon stage. Arthur was happy for her, but often wished she would back off on all the well meaning advice she had for him about "landing" a boyfriend. He was quite okay with being single for now. So what if his most recent relationship had ended nearly a year ago. He had been insanely busy building up his own business, a picture framing shop, which was doing better as he had a handful of repeat customers, impressed with the quality of his workmanship.
He enjoyed the reactions he received from people when he presented to them their treasured photographs, or artwork, or even a diploma or degree, framed, now able to be displayed. He'd learnt to watch their faces, for that first unguarded, honest reaction. It was always a pleasure when they lit up, seeing that treasured work or photograph transformed into a lasting piece. Somehow, it was always more than the sum of its parts, wood, metal, glass, parchment. Well, anyway, he enjoyed his work. He enjoyed it so much that it was actually easy to allow it to occupy almost all of his time.
Gwen however, seemed dissatisfied with this state of affairs.
"Arthur, why don't you go on a date with this guy from my work. He's so nice, you'd get along really well..."
"Someone from work, Gwen, really? I'm not a hopeless case, I can find myself a date."
"Arthur, since you broke up with Gwaine, you really haven't been out with anyone. At all."
"What's so wrong with that Gwen? Don't look at me like that. Maybe I'm a bit sick of dating."
"How are you going to meet someone else, if you never try."
"Maybe that's my point. There is such a thing as trying too hard. Maybe I should just wait to see if I meet someone during normal life, instead of going out on a million blind dates."
Gwen made a exasperated sound. "I'm not asking you to go on a million dates, just one!"
"It's always one, then when that doesn't work out, it's another, then another."
Gwen rolled her eyes. Arthur could tell she was not going to let up, but he could be stubborn. Very stubborn. He just wanted to be left to figure this stuff out for himself.
"How long have we known each other, Arthur?"
They had known each other nearly all their lives. Gwen's father had worked for Arthur's as his accountant, they had played together as kids, gone out briefly as teenagers, before Arthur started to figure some things out...
"Seriously, Arthur, you're like my brother by now, I wouldn't ever try to set you up just for the sake of it, or because I think you can't get a date. It's just, well, Merlin's such an adorable guy, I get along with him so great, he makes working at the shop so much fun. If he was straight, I'd ask him out myself. Oh, and if I wasn't already married."
Arthur huffed a small sigh. He'd caught sight of Merlin once when he'd met up with Gwen at the shop, Meteor Records & CDS, and had been taken aback at how damned cute the new guy was. Arthur had a thing for coat-hanger thin, sharp cheek-boned brunettes. He didn't really meet many guys who did it for him, but he had to admit, just on looks alone, Merlin was his type. But, if anything, he'd rather introduce himself more casually, say next time he dropped in on Gwen, and see where things went from there.
Set-up dates were the worst in Arthur's opinion, because you really had no opportunity to dip a toe in the water, you were right in the deep end, flailing about trying to find something in common to fill an evening's worth of chatter with. Inane, safe conversation topics bored Arthur, but if you started lobbing in opinions on politics, education, music or movies, more often than not, you found yourself having less in common with your date. Arthur was a typical choleric, he had the tendency to be so firm in his opinions, and unwilling to admit that anyone else might possibly have a point, that he was often characterized as arrogant.
"Gwen, please, let me get to know this Merlin guy in my own time..."
Gwen scoffed, "Arthur, you'll hole yourself up in that shop of yours, and pretend that you just got too busy to do anything about it."
"I am busy, Gwen."
"Arthur. You know I don't beg. But please please please please, pretty please with cherries on top, be your best friend forever..."
"Alright," Arthur said it so loud that the people sitting at the tables around them stopped their conversations to look at them both. Arthur shrugged as though acknowledging them, before turning back to Gwen. Resigned to his fate, "See if you can set us up. Dinner. Or something."
Gwen was bouncing in her seat, "Arthur, I know you won't regret this. You're going to have so much fun together." She was clapping, actually clapping. "I'll talk to him tomorrow at work, and find out when he's available. Yay! Yay!" Gwen's eyes were sparkling.
Arthur arrived at his business, "The Frame Gallery" at eight o'clock the following morning. He had ten current orders waiting to be completed, and Arthur generally promised to deliver his pieces within a week. It was good practice to have a short timeline, as it helped his customers to feel their work was completed in a timely manner, and ensured that his business had continuing cash flow.
He felt a surge of contentment as he passed through the familiar shop area, with various framed pieces on the walls. There were art reproductions, photographs, sporting memorabilia, posters and graphic art. Arthur had samples of his entire inventory of available frames and matts displayed on one wall of the shopfront, with a large counter in front of it.
He would not open the shop for another hour, so headed to the workroom out back to continue on with his current work. There were photographs which were neatly filed in a vertical rack. Each photograph was scanned, the document then saved by reference to the invoice number. The invoice would provide the details of the frames required. Arthur looked at his spreadsheet, to check which item he needed to start on next.
A multiple frame, the photographs being portraits of a newborn boy, a close-up of his feet, and the parents holding the baby. All black and white photographs, the parents had chosen a white wooden embellished frame, 15 millimeters wide, with pale blue matting. Sometimes, it felt like sleepwalking, helping people pick out an appropriate frame.
He spent most of the morning working in the back of the shop. It took him a few moments to register that his phone had been ringing, and by the time he hopped down from his stool his phone had gone to message bank.
Waiting a few moments, he rang in to listen to the message:
"Arthur, hello, it's Gwen here. Ring me back. I've spoken to Merlin this morning, and he's really keen to go out on that date. I'll give you details when you call back."
Arthur chortled. Gwen wasn't exactly one to sit around and wait for things to just happen, was she? He rang her number at the shop.
"Meteor Records, how may I help you?" Gwen in her most professional voice.
"Gwen! I believe you wish to help out your desperate and dateless friend, so I'm all ears, I'm hanging on your every word, when and where am I to squire the lovely Merlin on a night on the town?"
"Arthur, yes, Merlin's free tonight! So, I've booked a table for two at The Garden Party for 7:00 PM."
"Never heard of it. Is it any good?"
"Yes, Arthur, it is charming, it has a courtyard garden with plants that grow right up on the walls. You can sit next to the windows overlooking the garden. It's very peaceful."
Great, they were going to some twee, cottage garden type cafe, definitely not the type of place Arthur would have chosen for himself for a first date. He really thought Gwen was getting just a little too invested in this whole set-up.
"Right, tonight then. I might have to close up early, to get ready in time."
"I thought you could meet Merlin from here, otherwise he'll be taking the tube. He doesn't drive. Thought it might be nice for you to give him a lift."
"Uh, okay. I don't mind giving him a lift there. Will you let him know that's fine with me, and I'll give him a lift home as well." Arthur was a gentleman, and a bit old fashioned. It would not ever sit well with him to not offer his date a lift back home.
"Oh, Arthur I'm so excited for you. For both of you. So I'll see you here at say 6:30 PM to pick Merlin up."
"Yes, I'm already breathless with anticipation. I didn't know I needed a introduction agent until you decided to take on the role. Tell me, will I have to pay you an introduction fee?"
Gwen giggled, choosing to ignore Arthur's famous sarcasm. "You can pay next time we're out for coffee. That should cover it."
Arthur ended the call, shaking his head to himself, as there was no one else to complain to. In truth, he was nervous about what tonight's date would be like, as he did rather fancy Merlin, but had never spoken one single word to him. Ever. He supposed that there would probably be a lot of to and fro in the conversation, getting to know facts about each other, you'd be unlikely to share anything more during a first date.
Arthur arrived home, having closed the shop half an hour early. He flung his bag onto the kitchen counter top, and headed straight for his bedroom. He looked though his wardrobe, moaning to himself that nothing looked good enough for tonight. When was the last time he had bought anything new for himself? Most days, he was happy enough just to pull on some plain pants, shirt, sometimes a tie, but usually not. He'd gotten complacent about it, happy just to be comfortable, preoccupied with his business and all he had to do just to keep it open and viable. Clothes were not exactly high up on the agenda.
Now he was groaning at the fact that he had nothing special to wear. He pulled out all his clothes, and managed to find one pair of halfway decent jeans, medium wash blue, and a bright blue polo shirt with black edged collar and sleeves, that Morgana had given him recently for his birthday.
He showered, shaved, sparingly used his aftershave, and dressed for his date. After drying his hair, combing it, then ruffling it again, he took one more look in the mirror, and was pleased. He looked young again. He was only 28, but honestly, some days he felt twenty years older.
When he looked at the clock again it was getting on to six, so he raced out the door again, ready to do battle with peak-hour traffic. When he finally arrived at Meteor Records, it took him ten minutes to find a parking space. He dashed to the shop, realising he was now ten minutes late, and that the dinner reservation started in twenty minutes.
Arthur burst in through the doors, and collided with someone clad entirely in black, slim line shirt with a diagonal zip going from one shoulder to circle entirely around his body and end at the waist, pants made of heavy duty black denim and heavy boots with red/black marbled leather. Oh. This was his date. Merlin. Oh.
"Hi, there." Arthur extended his hand towards Merlin, who had managed not to fall over under Arthur's momentum, and was now turned towards him. His gaze didn't quite make it to Arthur's eyes but seemed to stop around about his neck, and he seemed to regard Arthur's proffered hand as though he was trying to offer him a week old fish. Arthur dropped his hand to his side, before raking it through his hair.
Gwen spotted him, and bounded up to them. In a slightly hysterical voice, she said, "Arthur, you're here, and this is Merlin, who you've just bumped into."
"Yes, Gwen, thanks. Sorry I'm late, traffic's awful."
Gwen made a sympathetic noise, "Well, best be getting on then, off you go."
Arthur gestured to Merlin to exit though the door, but he was still looking at Gwen, Arthur thought a little forlornly, but Gwen swept them both out of the door like dust onto the street.
Arthur spoke up again, "Gwen's apparently booked us a table at The Garden Party."
Merlin muttered something Arthur didn't quite catch, but thought might be "garden shed."
"Um yeah, wouldn't have been my first choice, but Gwen think's it's nice apparently..."
Arthur screwed his mouth a little to the side, looking at Merlin dressed as a Goth? Emo? Punk? Nice was so not going to impress him.
"Here's my car, Gwen suggested I give you a lift."
Merlin nodded, looking at the car, "D-d-d-d-d-don't d-d-d-d-d-rive yet."
Huh! Thought Arthur. Gwen hadn't mentioned anything about Merlin perhaps having a little issue with stuttering. She might have mentioned it. Arthur caught Merlin looking at him, but Merlin quickly looked away again, like you might when you've been watching someone on a train and they suddenly look back at you.
Arthur opened the doors, and jumped into the drivers seat, Merlin climbed into the passenger side. He looked a bit crumpled up, his legs almost parallel with his chest.
"Uh, the seat adjust's on the side there, there's a button that will adjust the seat back so you'll be more comfortable."
Merlin hesitated, then groped down the side of the seat, until with he found the seat adjust and began to move the chair back. By the time he let the button go, he seemed to be almost sitting in the back seat. "S-s-s-s-s-s-s-sorry," Merlin winced.
"Oh, no problem, just so long as you're a bit more comfortable. Now, let's find this Garden Shed."
Merlin chuckled, which made Arthur relax a little. He tried to take a subtle look at Merlin, while still watching the road. Arthur sighed involuntarily, he was struck again by Merlin's looks, which were boyish and charming. For all the hard edged, black, emo gear, he had a gentle expression in his face when he wasn't aware Arthur was watching him. He seemed to be intent on looking straight ahead, as though he was worried about catching Arthur's eyes again.
Arthur was relieved when they finally found the place, even if it was as horrifyingly pretty and quaint as he had been dreading. When they walked inside, Arthur had the distinct feeling this was a place to take his nana, not a hot date. He mentally face-palmed, then made a note to face-palm Gwen when he saw her next. Was she PMSing when she picked this place? Maybe she was preggers, and was nesting. Who knew, all Arthur knew was that this place sucked.
Unfortunately, the head waiter had already seen them, and had raced to the bookings calendar before they could agree to escape. "Reservation?"
"Pendragon?" Arthur assumed that Gwen had made the booking under one of their names.
"Yes, that's fine, a table for two. Please, follow me."
With that the waiter led them to a table set for two, positioned right next to glass bi-fold doors that looked out onto the courtyard garden. Arthur just managed to suppress a groan, looking towards Merlin who also seemed unimpressed. They were here now, they would have to make the best out of it.
After sitting down, and ordering the obligatory initial drinks, they pored over their menus. Merlin barely looked up from his, seemed to be reading every entry as if each was minutely interesting to him. Arthur scanned through, and after a few minutes settled on a seafood risotto.
He looked at Merlin, who was still flipping back and forth through the pages. A waitress had come back with their drinks, sparkling apple juice for Arthur, mineral water for Merlin.
Hand poised at her orders pad, "Are you ready to order?"
Arthur looked at Merlin, trying to catch his gaze. Merlin seemed buried in the tome of the menu, but finally looked at the waitress to order the cannelloni. Arthur requested the risotto.
"Would you like to order dessert now?"
Merlin just shook his head, and Arthur thought better of ordering the chocolate mousse, didn't want Merlin to think he was an incurable sweet tooth, or worse, likely to become fat.
"No thank you, although I would like a latte, after our meal."
The waitress gathered up the menus, and left them to themselves.
Merlin was gazing out the window, seemingly enthralled at the fountain, and various potted flowers, not to mention decorative touches like old wooden barrels spilt in half and planted with flowers, decorative planter stands, and a tiny wishing well. Arthur furrowed his brows at the display, before turning his attention to Merlin, deciding it would be necessary to ask a few open questions to get the conversation going.
"So, Merlin, how are you finding working at Meteor Records?"
Merlin's glance skittered over his, focussing behind Arthur to the wall hanging directly behind him. "It's good. L-l-l-l-l-like it."
Arthur was privately wondering how someone with such a pronounced stutter would be able to work in retail, answering people's enquiries.
Instead, he continued on, "Yes, Gwen seems to like it there. Has been there for I think nearly three years now. How did you start working there?"
Merlin twisted uneasily in his seat, as if unused to being asked two questions in a row about himself. "G-g-g-g-w-en r-r-r-r-recom-m-m-mended me."
Hmmmn, Arthur thought, first she'd managed to infiltrate Merlin into the shop, even though his stuttering clearly made him unsuitable for talking to customers, and now she was attempting to set this boy up with one of her oldest friends, Arthur. Obviously Merlin had managed to charm Gwen, but how?
"How did you meet Gwen?" Arthur was now curious, Gwen had only recently met Merlin, so why she would have recommended him for a job, as this boy must be reflecting poorly on her. Merlin interrupted his musings,
"You met Gwen at a bus stop?"
Merlin just shrugged his shoulders, to imply yes.
Arthur was beginning to feel like some type of maddened investigative journalist, trying to wring answers out this boy, like getting blood out of the proverbial stone. He pressed on, "Did she recommend you for the store after that first meeting?"
After a slight pause, during which Merlin studied his fingers, which had large silver and stainless steel rings on half of them, before answering, "Y-y-y-yes."
Arthur thought maybe he'd better change tack, perhaps quit with twenty questions for now.
"I don't suppose Gwen mentioned to you that I started my own business this year?"
Merlin, still looking at his fingers, nodded almost imperceptibly, but said nothing else.
Arthur wasn't sure for a moment whether to go on, but he thought as the only alternative was probably stony silence, that he'd better continue his recent life history.
"Anyway, I started a framing business this year. I'm a trained accountant, but I've left that, at least for now."
Arthur was saved momentarily from his monotonous monologue by the arrival of their meals. Arthur had never been so relieved to see a seafood risotto in his entire life. He thanked the waitress, Merlin also nodded, and they began to eat.
Arthur became aware on his third mouthful that he had been listening to the conversation of the couple at the next table, and quickly snapped himself back into focus. He looked at Merlin who was methodically and daintily scooping up small bites of cannelloni, while studying Arthur with intermittent gazes.
"How is it?" gesturing towards the cannelloni.
Merlin swallowed with a obvious gulp, before responding "S-s-soggy."
Arthur guffawed, okay so not the funniest joke ever, but he had to admit, the cannelloni looked sad, like it had been cooked three weeks ago, before being drowned in tomato based sauce and possibly re-heated. His own risotto didn't impress him either, it tasted a bit gritty, but he didn't want to complain out loud, and Merlin didn't ask, so.
As they finished eating, Arthur was beginning to regret even ordering a coffee. Merlin was gorgeous to look at, but excruciating to spend time with.
Even so, Merlin finally spoke up once their plates were cleared away, indicating he would like the chocolate mousse. Arthur silently fumed.
After Merlin had finished dessert, and Arthur his coffee, Arthur offered Merlin a lift home. Merlin shook his head, "T-t-t-t-there's a comic s-s-s-s-store I w-w-want to visit."
Right. He was being ditched for a visit to a comic book store. Even so, Arthur walked with Merlin until he reached the store, which was down the next street.
They reached the entrance, and Arthur for half a second contemplated just going in with Merlin, just to see if he would loosen up a bit in a place where he felt more comfortable, but then a few skate-punk teens barreled into him, pushing him out of the entrance, and Merlin seemed almost determined to escape, and Arthur suddenly felt like he was too tired for this shit, honestly. He waved Merlin goodbye with a smile that was sad, and trudged back to his car.
Arthur arrived back at his apartment, and flung his keys and phone at his couch, before flopping on it himself. He prodded listlessly at the television remote, sure that there probably wouldn't be anything much watching. It must have been Nazi o'clock though, because there was yet another documentary about the Third Reich playing, Arthur flipping the channel again before it seriously depressed him. There was a late news bulletin, which he watched more to keep himself from mulling over the evening. Then the phone rang.
Arthur picked it up automatically, and saw it was Gwen.
"Hey you, how did it go tonight?" Gwen calling him, he wondered how he would have reacted to that had things gone a whole lot better that night...
"Well, Guinevere, it's touching that you feel it's necessary to ruminate on the debacle that was my date with your friend Merlin, however, I am right now, as of this minute, catching up on essential news items.."
"You're watching tv, and you can mute it. And no, you can't mute me. What do you mean, debacle? Oh come on, I know Merlin's a little bit younger than you, and he's maybe a bit more wild and free than you feel, with your business and all that responsibility..."
"Wild and free? How about withdrawn and sullen. Or not so much speaking to me, as stammering out the occasional one or two word answer to my conversational questions. Could you not have at least warned me that Merlin has a serious issue with stuttering."
"Oh, what? He stuttered a lot? I know he sometimes stutters a little , but I guess I'd never thought much about it, because he usually just keeps on talking through it, I guess I've just gotten used to it."
"It was painful, Gwen, he didn't manage to say anything much to me, because every time he spoke, it took him five or six goes to get out one word. That is, when he actually used words. The rest of the time, it was a shrug, or a nod, or just looking at something immediately behind my head that was fascinating."
"Oh, how awful." Gwen now sounded truly upset. "Merlin must be so unhappy right now."
"MERLIN! What about me, your long-suffering friend Arthur, who you pushed and prodded to go on an extremely awkward date with a morose, stammering, disinterested EMO, but no, don't worry about me, GUINEVERE, I'll be alright, you just watch out for little Merlin now, and leave me to my Hitler documentaries."
"What? Arthur, stop watching Third Reich documentaries, they're bad for your health, too many of 'em. Oh, of course I'm sorry you and Merlin didn't hit it off, I know you're quite different, but I just thought somehow you'd click with each other. He can be quite a funny guy you know."
Arthur just humphed at that. Arthur had to admit, there were a couple of cute asides buried in the evenings jumble of conversation, but seriously, not enough to qualify as a funny guy, at least, not in Arthur's books.
"Look, Gwen, I'm grateful that you want me to be happy, and that you thought me going out on a date with Merlin would make us both happy, but in all honesty, I had a shit time. So, don't feel offended if I never talk to the guy again."
"Alright, Captain Grumpy. Sheesh, remind me not to try and hook you up with any more hot guys."
Arthur let out an exasperated groan, before Gwen butted in again, "So, maybe we should catch up for a movie or something. You know, so that your social life isn't entirely non-existent. What about seeing the new Martin Scorsese film, Hugo, I've been hearing it's absolutely brilliant."
Arthur pondered, and figured, yeah, why not, he wasn't really mad at Gwen anyways, more frustrated that his first date in ages had tanked so spectacularly. That was no reason to become a total recluse.
"Tomorrow night then?"
"I'll meet you at your shop, Arthur. I'm finishing early tomorrow, so I'll have a chance to get myself all dolled up for you."
"What about Lance?"
"He's away on a work trip?"
"So I'm your back-up guy?"
"Arthur, you know I love you, but sometimes you really are a total...dunderhead."
"You really know how to charm a man, Guinevere."
"Tomorrow night then."
The next few weeks were busy, well, that's what Arthur told himself anyway. There was always something to do, whether it was crafting the frames and completing orders, doing paperwork, cleaning up the workroom so that it was tidy and organized, and during quieter moments, redoing the display in the front window of the shop. Arthur thought there was nothing more off-putting than a front shop display which was not regularly updated. He spent a few hours with some portraits of Morgana, which she was happy for Arthur to display. He'd framed them in whitewashed frames, with a grey matt, which meshed well with the black and white photos she'd had taken, not grainy but not crisp sharp either, but almost dream-like.
Happy with his days work, he wondered whether he should drop in on Gwen and surprise her at Meteor Records. He knew she was working later tonight, as Friday nights were often busy with the punters as they poured out of work and onto the streets for end of week drinks. He thought she might like to get some dinner with him during her break. Even Arthur didn't feel much like being holed up at home on a Friday night, but he wasn't really in the mood to head out to a club, especially on his own. Okay, so maybe Gwen was being his back-up girl. Whatever.
He strolled into the shop, looking around for Gwen when someone else caught his eye. Actually, it would be entirely impossible to not notice him at that moment, because he was dancing like a sixties go-go dancer, whipping his hips and generally shaking his pants about with abandon, as he sang along to some song on his iPod.
"Boy you're just a stupid bitch, and girl you're just a no good dick, Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh, Oh, Uh Huh, Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh, oh."
Merlin was emphasizing his singing with his hip flicks, until he was a blur of energetic movement. He was dancing whilst simultaneously cleaning the windows. He doused the panes liberally with soapy water, before wiping them clean with a squeegee. Arthur's heart gave a definite thud, as he watched Merlin, his iridescent green top falling off one shoulder, black, torn up jeans skimming over his long legs, white patent leather belt circling his thin hips, and wearing some funky green and red trainers. Merlin's cheekbones were stained with a happy flush, and it was flat out adorable. Arthur shook his head at himself, why the hell was he getting so turned on, when he knew how crap their date had been. Damn it, the boy was sexy, no matter how awful a conversationalist he might be.
Arthur let out a pained grunt at a sharp jab in his ribs. Gwen.
"See something you like?" she drawled in a filthy voice, and Arthur was ready to pull the stupid beanie she was wearing right over her face, to shut her up. He looked at her sideways, and she had a smile on her face that was simultaneously smug and innocent.
"Shut up, Gwen. It's not like you couldn't notice Merlin there, I'm surprised he hasn't flooded the shop with the amount of water he's sloshing about."
"Yes Arthur, I'm sure that's why you've been watching him like Sylvester stalking Tweety Bird for the last few minutes."
Arthur rolled his eyes, why even bother he thought, "Yeah, okay, he's pretty...dedicated to that window washing, isn't he. Like, he might have washed that window three times now."
"Why don't you go ask him about it?" teased Gwen.
"About window washing? Is that a good ice-breaker is it? Yacking about window washing? How about washing up? I hear people get horny about vacuum cleaning."
"Arthur, you're attacking me because for you the best form of defense is attack, and you're feeling defensive cos you know you want to talk to him." Gwen gave Arthur a look that said, don't even bother trying to disagree with me, or I will whack you over the head with the nearest non-lethal object.
Arthur suddenly felt a knot of nerves in his gut. He had really tried to not think about that night with Merlin a few weeks back. He'd even wondered whether he'd even given him a proper chance. After he'd had a day to recover from the embarrassment he'd felt, he'd had to admit, even if only to himself, that it wasn't Merlin's fault that he stuttered. It wasn't as if the guy was being deliberately rude, or insincere, he'd just had trouble getting the words out. Arthur had left it, and then when a few days became a few weeks, he knew it would be terribly awkward to call Merlin up out of the blue, and try to see if he was interested in giving it another shot.
However, seeing Merlin shimmying was doing something to Arthur, and he thought to himself, I'm gonna go talk to him.
Gwen smirked, and left him to it, going out back to grab her stuff, so that they could have dinner. Arthur sidled up to Merlin, who was oblivious to him with his headphones on. Arthur tentatively tapped him on the shoulder, and Merlin spun around, squeegee slopping water in Arthur's face. Arthur flinched, and Merlin's flush turned into an even bigger blush.
"S-s-s-sorry 'bout t-that. D-d-didn't s-see" Merlin paused, for a long moment, "y-y-you there."
Arthur smiled what he hoped was his most charming and disarming smile, before saying "My bad, shouldn't have creeped up on you like that."
"H-h-h-how are y-y-you?" Merlin asked, wringing his squeegee into his bucket, then pulling both earphones out.
"Well, thanks. It's great to see you again." Arthur didn't want to play it too casual, but did not want to seem as embarrassingly keen as he actually felt.
Merlin looked a bit dumbfounded for a moment, before recovering himself, "R-r-really?"
"Absolutely, you're doing some damn fine dancing there, by the way."
"Oh," blushed Merlin, but started to grin a bit as well, "Yeah Yeah Yeahs, when I l-l-listen to t-t-them, it's l-l-like attaching a jumper l-l-lead to my legs. C-c-can't help m-myself."
Arthur's loud laughter had Merlin grinning and giggling along with him for a moment. Merlin crossed his arms, and leaned against the glass window wall, "So, w-w-what brings you here t-t-tonight?"
Arthur hesitated for a moment, and then LIED, "I thought I might see you here."
Merlin looked ridiculously pleased. "R-r-really. G-g-g-guess you're in luck."
"Guess I am," agreed Arthur. This was actually going better than Arthur thought. "So, I was wondering..."
Merlin's eyebrow lifted infinitesimally, before encouraging Arthur with a "Hmmm"
"Yeah, whether you'd like to go out with me again some time?"
"G-g-gee A-a-arthur, t-t-t-took your t-time asking m-m-me out on a s-second date." Merlin's tone was teasing, but Arthur was suddenly scrambling for an excuse, why had it taken so long for him to do this. Shit.
"Well, Arthur, you ready to go out and grab dinner?" Gwen interrupted with a sweet, sincere smile.
Merlin looked at Gwen, then at Arthur who was doing his best impersonation of clueless, before looking back at Gwen. "Arthur's here to m-m-m-meet up with you?"
Gwen did a little side-wiggle of her head, her expression puzzled, "Yeah, we're going out for dinner break, Arthur thought he'd keep me company. Hey, do you want to come with us?"
Merlin's demeanor changed from happy, bouncing on heels, to suspicious and snarky in an instant. "No thanks, Gwen." He looked pointedly at Arthur, "I wouldn't w-w-want to impose on your c-c-catch-up." Merlin's bullshit detector was clearly now on high alert.
Gwen, bless her, was undaunted, "Oh, but you wouldn't be Merlin, you must be starving."
"I'l grab s-s-something later." Merlin turned his back towards them, as if to start on the windows again.
"Merlin," implored Arthur, "you can always come back to washing windows later, yeah?"
Merlin spun around to stare at Arthur, before grabbing the bucket of dirty water and upending it on Arthur's head. Gwen gave a shriek, while Arthur just groaned.
"Y-y-yeah, A-a-arthur, t-think I'll d-d-do that." Merlin stalked off, while Arthur removed the (now empty) plastic bucket off his head. Gwen just gave Arthur a look that said, what the hell?
"Um, yeah, I might have given Merlin the impression that I came here specifically to see him..."
It was a week after Arthur's altercation with Merlin. It had been a rather humiliating moment, being doused with dirty window washing water, but somehow, Gwen had not been at all sympathetic to him. She had gone racing after Merlin to see if he was okay, after Arthur had been so insensitive. Gwen had hinted that Merlin had actually been rather heartbroken by how badly their first date had gone, and seeing Arthur at Meteor Records had felt like a second chance, for him.
Arthur lying to him about his motivation for coming to the shop had felt like a slap in the face. Arthur got it, he really did, he was the biggest prat of all time, he brought new depths to the term prat, etc. etc. etc. He shook his head - he'd only been trying to impress Merlin. The guy was so sensitive. When he complained to Gwen, she just shushed him, and said, "You made him feel like an idiot. Lots of people assume he's one, so being made to feel like an idiot for believing you, it just really pushed his buttons Arthur."
So, Arthur had sighed a big philosophical sigh about the situation, and figured he was destined to never speak to Merlin again, and never hear about him, save for maybe the occasional mention by Gwen. Which would not be her meddling. Nope, Gwen seemed to have learned her lesson, Arthur could find his own damn dates from now on, as far as she was concerned. Said with a caring pat to his shoulder.
When a familiar figure walked through the door of his shop, Arthur nearly spluttered his cup of tea. A good look.
Merlin held up his hand, "Hi!"
"Uhhmm, hello." Arthur put his cup of tea down on the counter, and looked directly at Merlin. "Can I help you?" What on earth was Merlin doing here in his shop?
"Y-y-yes y-y-y-you can, actually. I've g-g-g-got this p-p-p-poster I want f-framed, and G-gwen said y-your r-r-really good." He held up a rolled up poster, and looked expectantly at Arthur.
"Oh." Arthur smiled, genuinely pleased. "Yeah, I'd love to do that for you Merlin. Bring it over here, let's have a look."
Merlin brought the poster over, and gently unrolled it. It was a tour poster for that band he'd been dancing to, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was a photograph, treated to look like graphic art, with the band name scrolled across their photo as a banner in gothic font, printed in pink with a white outline, the hair and clothes of the band retouched to look blue, pink and purple, overlaid on top of black and white photography, with a city skyline in the background, and a purple sky. It also appeared to be autographed, which would make it especially important to Merlin.
Their eyes locked when Arthur looked up from the poster.
"So, what d-d-do y-y-you think?"
"I like it. Great poster, the girl's gorgeous, isn't she?"
Merlin nodded, "Yep, she's a goddess. Actually, N-N-Nick's fuckin' h-h-hot as well."
Pointing to the spiky haired guy, Arthur smiled fondly. "You look a bit like him, Merlin."
"Is t-t-t-that s-so?"
"Yeah, a bit. Both skinny, scrawny and sexy as hell."
Merlin blushed a bit at that, but tried to just defiantly pout at Arthur, like whatever.
Arthur decided he'd better get on with this, Merlin had come in for a quote on his poster, and probably didn't want his stupid flirting anyway.
"It's quite a large poster, have you thought about whether you want a matt around it?"
"W-w-what do y-y-y-you think?"
"Well, it depends really on your preference. If you want the frame to not be noticeable, then going with a plain frame is what you want, but a matt on the other hand, can give it more of a presence, makes it feel more textural, have greater depth."
"W-w-what colour d-d-do y-y-y-you think w-w-would work?"
"You could matt it with one of the colours in the poster, maybe the blue, or purple because it's the least prevalent colour, so might balance out the composition."
"Y-y-you d-d-d-don't think it m-might look lame?"
"Mmmm, yeah, maybe. Probably. Better just go for a plain frame then."
Merlin guffawed, at how quickly Arthur had backtracked. They agreed a plain black aluminum frame, which was going to cost just under £80.
Arthur figured to himself, well, that's that then. He wasn't sure how to wrap up the conversation without seeming rude, but didn't want to draw it out and embark on another of his ill-fated attempts to get to know Merlin, which always ended in...
"H-h-hey A-arthur, y-y-you wanna g-g-get a c-coffee?"
"Sure. Let me get my keys, so I can shut the shop."
They walked across the street, to Arthur's favourite cafe, Pantry, which had a lot of organic and vegetarian meals, which he thought might be important to Merlin. He could not remember if he was allergic to anything.
"Large cappuccino, what muffin do you have today?"
The funky waiter, who'd brought them both glasses of water as they sat down, replied "Banana and walnut."
"Uh, okay, one of those."
Merlin smirked at Arthur. "G-getting d-d-desert this t-t-time?"
Arthur raised one eyebrow, "Life's unpredictable, eat desert first, haven't you heard that one, Merlin?"
"Oh, I j-j-just thought m-m-m-maybe you'd b-be trying for a q-quick getaway."
Arthur held his hands up in the I surrender gesture, "I'll eat slowly, if that makes you happy."
Merlin just chuckled, he seemed to be enjoying his ability to make Arthur feel awkward, cheeky bastard. He was also a bit of a sexy bastard, otherwise Arthur would not put up with this shit. However, if Merlin was willing to give him the time of day, then Arthur was willing to endure a bit of teasing.
One thing he didn't want to do, however, was try to engineer the conversation. He thought, he might let Merlin steer the conversation. Mercifully, Merlin seemed to take the hint.
"S-s-so A-a-arthur, if we w-w-were in a TV show, w-w-what sort of characters w-w-w-would we play?"
Seriously, thought Arthur, a hypothetical question about what character, oh what the hell, "Well, your name is Merlin, and mine is Arthur, so maybe if they turned you into an old dude, you could play Merlin, and I'd be King Arthur?"
"S-s-s-so you think s-s-something m-medieval then?"
"Well, obviously, just based on our names, and also because I'm quite regal looking. You could pass for a warlock just as is," smirked Arthur, though secretly admiring Merlin in his skin-tight black jeans, and red tee.
"Oh, so I w-w-wouldn't have t-to be all old and w-w-w-wrinkly then?"
"It would be such a shame to do that to you, I think."
"Huh." Merlin wasn't agreeing or disagreeing, but was enjoying this ridiculous conversation. "Y-y-y-you know, I t-t-think w-w-we'd be g-great in s-s-something s-s-sci-fi, l-l-like Misfits or s-s-something."
"You, you punk-arse brat, would fit right in. You'd be Nathan, obviously. The one who talks shit."
Arthur suddenly felt the implications of what he'd just said. He met Merlin's gaze for a long moment, before Merlin shrugged, and said "You'd be Simon. The beautiful one."
Arthur gulped. Was Merlin saying he thought Arthur was beautiful?
"Y-y-you g-going to s-share that muffin, or d-do I have to s-s-s-stab you w-w-with a fork to get a bit?"
Arthur spooned a bit, and held it up insouciantly, waving it just in front of him. Merlin leaned forward and licked that muffin off the spoon. After that, Arthur would have happily fed him the whole thing.
Merlin leaned back, sipping a bit of his soy latte. "Do you remember the episode where Nathan fell in love with Simon and kissed him."
"Yes. Uh, one of the most awkward kisses ever. In my opinion."
"Yeah, w-w-well Nathan was all c-c-cursed wasn't he. W-w-w-wasn't even his real feelings, or s-s-s-supposedly, because of the c-curse, those w-w-w-weren't his real feelings, or s-some such bollocks."
"So, you're saying men can't have feelings for one another, romantic feelings, unless one of them is cursed. On television, you mean?"
"Y-y-yeah, m-men can't k-k-kiss or h-h-hug unless o-o-one of them is c-c-cursed."
"So, if I wanted to kiss you, would that mean one of us has to be cursed?"
Merlin raised his eyebrow, before replying, "W-w-well, o-obviously it's you who is cursed. G-got the w-w-worst c-c-case of f-f-foot in m-mouth I've ever c-come across."
Arthur felt laughter bubble up inside him. So he was a bit taken off guard when Merlin swooped in, and planted his full lips around Arthur's for a blissful moment.
His laugh kind of got throttled by his hammering heart. "I take it you like me well enough, even if I regularly say exactly the wrong thing, and show all the sensitivity of a cane toad."
Merlin smiled, and said, "It's a g-g-good t-t-thing you're so damn beautiful, otherwise I'd p-p-probably not even have b-b-bothered."
"So, you're only after me for my looks?"
"M-mostly. Isn't that why you talked to me the other day?"
"Okay. So maybe I'm interested in you because you're luscious. Doesn't mean I'm not guessing there's more to you than a hot arse."
"T-t-t-there is more. I-i'm just t-t-trying t-to figure o-out if you're interested in the w-whole p-p-package, or j-j-just my a-a-arse."
Arthur sighed. Merlin was interested in him, against the odds it seemed, but was still smarting at how Arthur had reacted to him, during the first date.
"Look, Merlin. I'll admit, I was probably a bit overbearing during our first date. I wasn't exactly patient, with waiting for what you might want to say. I really regretted not calling you afterwards, but by the time I realised that, it had already been a week, and I thought maybe you'd be pissed or not interested."
Merlin didn't say anything, just gave an encouraging mmm.
"I'm sorry I lied last week, in the shop, when I said I was coming in to see you. I acted like a fuckwit, I know, I wanted to impress you, and I didn't want to admit I'd given up on thinking about you, and that I was there to see Gwen. I want to get to know you, maybe if you can forgive me for being a prat, and thinking that your stutter made you a less likable person. I was an idiot to think that."
"B-but y-y-you're n-n-not a p-prat all the t-time, are y-y-you?"
Arthur was skeptical, "Um, well maybe not all the time."
Merlin chortled, "At l-l-least y-y-y-you're being hon-nest, A-arthur. I a-accept y-y-your apology." Merlin paused for a beat. "A-a-apologies."
Bowling had been Merlin's choice. Well, Merlin and Gwen, and they were both gawking and giggling behind their lime and raspberry spiders like a pair of teenage girls, each ogling their respective dates. Arthur thought Merlin was just keen on bowling so that he could make a fashion statement in his pink bowling shirt that was monogrammed. With ME. Also, perhaps because it might be the only sport which Merlin would stand half a chance of keeping up with Arthur on the scoreboard.
"Okay, Gwen, your turn's up," bellowed Arthur over the pulsing techno music.
Gwen pushed her spider aside, grabbed her bowling ball, and gave the bowling ball a good, confident roll down the lane. She was doing well, five strikes, and two spares so far. Merlin of course, had seven strikes already. When she finished her turn, (another strike), she sashayed back to Merlin, who gave her a high five.
Lance took his turn next, and totally broke with all team protocol and morale by mouthing "Love you baby" to Gwen. Team Go for Broke was going to be clobbered by Team Fierce unless Lance got his head back in the game.
Arthur noticed Merlin looking at him, and he knew, just knew, that Merlin was laughing at Arthur for being so competitive.
Arthur stalked over to their seats, looming over Merlin who had been lolling about in the plastic seat, but was suddenly squirming to get himself straitened up. Arthur was too quick for him though, and trapped him half-supine, catching his lips determinedly with his own, Merlin responded by chasing Arthur's tongue with his own, grabbing Arthur around the waist and pulling himself up on Arthur in an attempt to pull Arthur into his lap. Arthur capitulated, happy to lose this battle of wills, then flicked off the baseball cap that Merlin was wearing, threading his fingers through Merlin's flattened hair until it was sticking out in every direction in existence.
"Hey, g-g-give that back."
Arthur had snatched up the cap, and was holding it behind his back, refusing to let Merlin have it back.
"What is it Merlin, your lucky cap or are you incognito?"
"I l-l-like my cap. G-g-g-give it b-b-back."
Arthur just stretched back as far as he could whilst not falling out of Merlin's lap, and shrugged, with a grin. He flicked Merlin's hair a little more, before gently settling the cap back on Merlin's head, and then planted a kiss on his lips.
"You're adorable, you know that. Cap, or no cap."
"Y-y-you're j-j-just trying to d-distract me, c-c-cos Gwen and I are b-b-b-beating you."
"Aw, Merlin, that's only partially true. I also just like the snogging and the feeling of you squirming against me." Arthur smiled his most predatory smile.
"Y-y-you know A-arthur, I m-m-m-might have m-m-mentioned that f-f-foot in mouth t-thing, you're d-d-doing it again."
"Get used to it Merlin. You're getting the whole package here, not just the highlights."
Merlin groaned. Didn't he know it.