Part 9: link

    Arthur stops his motorcycle outside Gwen’s office and he helps her off the back of it. He takes another minute to appreciate her in her conservative workplace attire, smiling at her.
    “See you later?” he asks.
    “Of course. You have my number?” she asks. He nods and pats his pocket with the slip of paper she’s written it on.
    “Come here, you,” he rumbles, pulling her into his arms.
    “Just quickly, people are going to start arriving soon,” she giggles.
    “Embarrassed to be seen with me?” he arches an eyebrow at her.
    “No, of course not,” she kisses him. “But these are my coworkers, they don’t need to see me snogging someone outside the office. Regardless of what kind of hairstyle he has,” she says, reaching up to skim her hand along the top of his Mohawk.
    “Stuffy corporate types,” he mutters, grinning as he bends down for one more lingering kiss.
    He pulls gently back, eyes closed, savoring the memory of her lips on his for a moment. “There. That should get me through the day,” he says, opening his eyes to see her smiling that smile for him.
    “See you later,” she says, placing her hand on his chest before turning away to walk inside. She turns back just outside the door to give him one last wave.
    She disappears inside and he stands there for another minute, staring at the door.
    God help me, I love her.

    “Good morning, Ron,” Gwen says to the semi-retired older gentleman that runs the mailroom in the mornings.
    “Gwen, you’re here early. Taken up jogging?” he teases.
    “Actually, I got a ride today,” she says, checking that her braid is still in place over her shoulder. The mark is not as prominent, but it is definitely still there.
    “Mmm,” he says noncommittally. “What can I do for you this morning, dear?”
    “I was wondering something, actually.”
    “When we get unsolicited manuscripts, do you really chuck them in the bin, or do you keep any?”
    “My instructions are to throw them away,” he says dutifully.
    “Okay, because it’s you. I do keep some. I’ve even read some. Most are horrible.”
    “Did you ever get anything from someone called Merlin?”
    “Is that a first name or a surname?”
    “First name. I don’t know his surname.” Should have asked Arthur.
    “Merlin, Merlin,” he repeats, turning to a file cabinet in the corner.
    “But how many people called Merlin can there be out there, honestly?” she asks, chuckling.
    Ron sticks a key into the cabinet and opens the bottom drawer, easing his old bones onto a stool as he does so. Gwen steps forward and watches as he rifles through the drawer.
    There are hundreds of envelopes in there, she notes.
    “It would be easier if we had a name. I’ve got these alphabetical, you know,” he mutters, then suddenly, “Ah! Merlin Emrys. Good thing it was early in the alphabet.”
    “May I borrow that?” she asks.
    He holds it to his chest a moment. “Will you tell me why? Is he your boyfriend?”
    “Friend, actually. I met him this weekend. Wonderful bloke, really. He doesn’t know I’m doing this, either.”
    “Just a friend, eh?” he says skeptically.
    “Yes.” She sighs and adds, “He’s actually my boyfriend’s best friend, if you must be a nosy old lady. Now hand it over, old lady.” She holds out her hand and smirks at him.
    “Oho, I didn’t know you even had a boyfriend,” he exclaims, surrendering the manuscript. “I guess I missed my chance, then,” he says, winking at her.
    “Don’t give up hope, Ron,” she laughs, tucking the envelope into the larger shoulder bag she’s brought today, just in case. “And thanks.”
    “Well, tell boyfriend that I’ll be the second in line behind your dad to administer poundings if he’s not good to you,” he nods.
    “Duly noted,” she says, smiling and glancing at the clock. “Bugger. Gotta go. Thanks again,” she calls, scooting out the door.
    Shortly after lunch, Gwen pulls out a phone book and looks up the address of Excalibur Tattoos. She makes a note of the address and slips the note into her bag.
    “Gwen,” Mr. Gaius pages her. She jumps, startled. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, why am I all skittish?
    She presses the button on the intercom. “Yes, sir?”
    “I need you to take a letter. Can you come in, please?”
    “Of course. I’ll grab my pad.”

    “So you are alive, then,” Gwaine drawls from the back of the shop when Arthur comes in, clutching a bag of sweets he’s picked up on the way.
    “My friend, I feel fantastic,” Arthur declares, unwrapping a Mars bar.
    “Who is she?” Phyllis, Gwaine’s sister and another tattoo artist, demands from her workstation.
    “What makes you think it’s a woman, Phil?” Gwaine asks, sauntering toward his chair, a cup of tea in his hand.
    “Fair enough. Who is he, then?”
    “She is the most amazing girl I have ever met,” Arthur says, ignoring her remark. “Present company excepted, of course, darling,” he nods at Phil, who makes a rude hand gesture back at him.
    “See? Charming, you are,” he says, blowing her a kiss before going back to get his own tea.
    Merlin comes bounding into the shop, chipper as always. “Morning lads, Phil,” he calls cheerily.
    “Honestly Merlin, your early-morning cheerfulness is both disgusting and unwelcome. This is a place of… surliness,” Gwaine grumbles, his point blasted away by Arthur’s cheerful whistling. “Drag! You’re killing the ambience! You and Merlin can both go pick daisies and skip through a meadow somewhere if you’re going to be so bloody happy at this ungodly hour!”
    “Gwaine, it’s 9:30,” Merlin laughs and heads back to where Arthur is pouring far too much sugar into his tea.
    “My point exactly.”
    “Why don’t you just drink marmalade, Drag?” Merlin asks, looking at Arthur’s tea with disgust.
    “Too thick. And the chunks of peel just don’t go down easy.”
    Merlin chuckles and makes himself a cup and says quietly, “So? How’d it go yesterday?”
    “Merlin, she is incredible. Just incredible. And she sat for me.”
    “I thought you were already working on one of her?”
    “I am. But another opportunity presented itself.”
    “She wasn’t naked, was she?”
    Arthur pauses. “Technically she was. But the only thing exposed was her back.”
    “Honest, mate. And she was so good at it. Sitting. Didn’t complain, didn’t move, asked before scratching her nose. Fantastic. Oh, and get this: Iggy loves her. Like, loves.
    “He purred.”
    Arthur nods. “Like a little motorcycle. It was very disturbing,” he says, furrowing his brow.
    Merlin laughs. “That’s good. You seeing her tonight?”
    “Planning to do. Oh, and Morgana called yesterday. She’s coming to town.”
    “What? Morgana? She’s coming down?” Gwaine asks, suddenly interested.
    “And if you’re lucky, she’ll also be going down,” Phil remarks dryly, peering into a mirror and applying a dark merlot-colored lipstick that perfectly matches her tousled dyed hair.
    “Okay, first: gross,” he looks towards Phil, then continues. “Second: yes, she’s coming to town, and Guinevere and I are going to have dinner with her. Some night. I don’t know which day yet.”
    There is a chorus of “Oooo…” from the others at the prospect of Gwen meeting Morgana so soon.
    “Shut it, you lot. It’ll be fine. She already likes Gwen ’cause she jammed her knee into Helios’ bollocks, so that’s a step in the right direction.”
    “Well, she would, wouldn’t she? She did date our Gavin for a while, poor misled darling,” Gwaine says, feigning sympathy.
    “So you really like her, Drag?” Merlin asks quietly, turning back to Arthur.
    He nods, and Merlin sees something in his eyes, in his expression that makes him a little worried.
    “Don’t screw it up, then.”

    Guinevere checks the address on the scrap of paper she is holding. This is the street, she thinks with a sigh, looking down the block. There is trash on the sidewalk, the buildings are run down, many abandoned, and the few people about look quite shabby. Arthur did say that it was a total crap neighborhood.
    Gathering her courage, she heads down the sidewalk, walking briskly, confidently, not giving away her discomfort. As she stares straight ahead, suddenly a large man appears and starts jogging towards her.
    Ox, thank God.
    He catches her up, and gives her a boyish grin, not even breathing heavily from the run. “My lady?” he asks, offering his elbow.
    “Thank you, kind sir,” she grins back at him, winding her hand around his massive arm. My hand looks like that of a child, she notes, chuckling.
    “What’s funny?”
    “How little my hand looks compared to your arm,” she says, nodding towards his elbow.
    He looks down. “Ah. Indeed it does.”
    “Thank you for coming down to meet me. To tell you the truth, I was a little uncomfortable.”
    “My pleasure. Wasn’t doing anything at the moment anyway,” he smiles. “I do a lot of that: doing nothing.”
    “I thought you were the bouncer,” she says.
    “I am. But when people behave, I have very little to do. And during the day, they tend to behave. Not that I enjoy busting heads, mind, but it’s something to do.”
    “Of course.”
    They walk a little ways in silence, and Gwen gets the distinct impression that he wants to ask her something.
    “Gwen, can I ask…?” he starts, then changes boats mid-stream. “No, I couldn’t. We haven’t known each other long enough for me to ask a favor. Never mind.”
    “Ox, what is on your mind?”
    “It’s nothing, really.”
    “Do you want me to set you up with someone?” she tries, searching for what might be likely. Freya might like him, she thinks. He’s cute and nice and not too punky.
    “No!” he exclaims, then calmer, “No, that’s all right, that wasn’t it. I… um, Drag mentioned that your Dad is a DI…”
    “Yes? You’re not in any sort of trouble, are you?” Now she is concerned.
    “No, not at all. It’s just… I put in an application at Scotland Yard two weeks ago and I haven’t heard anything back.”
    “You want me to call my father and see what he can find out, is that it?”
    “Only if it’s not any trouble. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone.”
    “Ox,” she says, stopping and looking up at him. “Sometimes the only way to get what you want is to inconvenience some people.” She smiles at him, and he cannot help but smile back. “If it’s worth it, they’ll find that they don’t mind in the end. And I think it’s worth it. You’ll make an excellent policeman.”
    “You think so? It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be since I was a small boy. Well, I was never very small,” he chuckles.
    She laughs and takes his arm again and they resume walking. “I’ll call my father as soon as I get home. His name is Thomas Degrance, by the way. In case you need it.”
    “Thank you so much, Gwen, you have no idea how much this means to me!” he says suddenly, picking her up in a great bear hug.
    “Ox! I haven’t done anything yet!” she laughs, hugging his thick neck anyway.
    He puts her down, sheepish now, and says, “Well, we’re here. This is The Dragon’s Head, and just there,” he nods to the next storefront over, “is Excalibur. Drag’s still in there.”
    “Thanks again,” she says, giving his arm a squeeze.
    “Wait, I have an idea,” he says, stepping in front of her. “Stay behind me.”
    “Um, okay.”
    She follows him into the tattoo shop and her ears are immediately assaulted by the harsh mechanical buzz of the tattoo guns as people are having artwork applied permanently to their skin.
    I didn’t realize it was so loud, she thinks.
    “Oi! Drag!” Percival calls. Gwen’s hands are resting on Ox’s back, hiding behind him. “Got a delivery for you.”
    One of the buzzing appliances stops, and Gwen hears Arthur’s voice.
    “Delivery? I didn’t order anything.”
    Gwen peeks out from behind Ox and waves at him.
    “It’s a Sparrow!” Gwaine declares, grinning that grin of his while Gwen and Ox laugh.
    “Guinevere,” Arthur says, his face lighting up. “Excuse me a moment, Steve,” he says to the man in his chair, a tiger nearly finished on his thick forearm.
    “I’d leave me, too, if I was you,” Steve answers, taking Gwen in as she comes into full view from behind Ox.
    Guinevere looks at Gwaine. “Sparrow?” she repeats.
    “Yeah, I thought it fitting, seeing as how you’re—”
    “A small brown bird, yes, I get it,” she says, laughing as he lifts her hand to his lips to kiss it.
    Arthur walks up to her and leans down to kiss her, but does not touch her. He is wearing gloves, the kind a surgeon would wear. Gwen puts her hands on either side of his face as he kisses her. I can touch him even if he can’t touch me right now.
    “Sorry. Gloves. Don’t need to be spreading anything around, you know,” he says, smiling warmly down at her.
    “Understood. Can I come watch?”
    “Okay with you, Steve?”
    “Oh, yeah,” he says, appreciating the view as Gwen walks over in a pink wrap-around dress that highlights her curves and accentuates her narrow waist.
    Arthur sits and looks at his client. “No funny business or I’ll turn this tiger into a fluffy tabby cat, understand? She’s my girl, and I don’t share.”
    “Uh, right,” Steve says, lifting his eyes from where they were resting, which was the general area of Gwen’s bosom.
    “Here, you can sit,” Arthur pulls a stool over for Gwen.
    “Thanks.” She sits and watches while Arthur finishes the work.
    She watches, fascinated, having never seen this before.
    “I guess I didn’t realize that there would be blood,” she comments, adjusting slightly, feeling Steve’s eyes on her again. She unconsciously pulls at the neckline of her dress.
    “Well, I am jabbing him in the arm with a needle over and over and over again. Of course there’s blood,” Arthur comments.
    She leans in closer.
    “You’re in my light, Sweet.”
    “Sorry,” she says, leaning back.
    “Steve, eyes back in your head.”
    “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’.”
    “That’s right, you weren’t.”
    She watches quietly, ignoring Steve. That tiger is really good.
    “It’s like a sewing machine,” Gwen says suddenly.
    “What?” Arthur stops and looks at her.
    “That contraption there. It’s like a sewing machine. With no thread.”
    “Well, having no experience at all with sewing machines, I guess I’ll take your word for it,” he tells her, smiling at her before he returns his attention to his work again.
    “So where did you come from, anyway?” Steve suddenly asks her.
    “Um, I live here in London,” she answers, puzzled.
    Arthur shoots him a warning look and Steve decides not to ask any more questions.
    “Almost done,” Arthur says impatiently.
    “Does it hurt?” Gwen asks.
    “Nah,” Steve answers, but she sees him gripping the arm of the chair with his other hand.
    “It really depends on where it’s being stuck and what your tolerance for pain is,” Arthur answers. “Some people enjoy it. They say the pain is a rush, like a drug,” he shrugs. “I don’t get that myself. Weirdos.”
    Gwen’s tiny snort doesn’t miss him and he glances at her, daring her to make a comment.
    “There. Done,” Arthur declares, dabbing the area one more time before spreading a clear ointment over it. He unrolls a large piece of gauze and wraps the man’s arm, bandaging it expertly and carefully.
    Steve pays for the work, and his wandering eyes have tested Arthur’s patience for the last time.
    “All right, Steve, piss off,” he says, shoving him out the door.
    “Arthur,” Gwen says reproachfully.
    “I didn’t like the way he kept looking at you.”
    “Here we go…” Gwaine comments.
    “He was just looking, it wasn’t like he was going in for a grope.”
    “Don’t even try, Sparrow,” Gwaine says. “Hey, I think your dad came past today,” he says, deciding to change the subject. Arthur stomps back to his station and starts cleaning up.
    “I was outside having a smoke, and a cop drove past and told me to push off. Which was strange because the bobbies don’t patrol ’round here normally. I politely explained that this beautiful establishment was my place of business, and that I was not loitering.”
    Gwen nods, listening. Now I’ll have two things to talk to my father about.
    “Then he asked me my name, and asked if Drag worked here. Called him Arthur, even. It was then I started putting the pieces together, ’cause Drag said that your da was a cop. And this one kind of looked like you, if you was a big bloke. Same color, same eyes. Your last name De… De-something?”
    “Yes, that was my dad,” she sighs. “He called last night and I had to give all the information, because he’s got to check, you know.”
    Gwaine nods, “Of course he does. Oh, and before she kills me, Gwen, this is my sister Phyllis,” he points out Phil, who has been looking daggers at him.
    “Oh!” Gwen turns, “Hi, I’m Gwen,” she walks over and offers her hand.
    “Phil,” she says, grasping it quickly. “Nice hickey,” she comments.
    Gwen grabs her braid and puts it back where it belongs, blushing. Phil chuckles. “Hey, wear it proudly, girlie. Besides, ain’t no one going to judge you here. In fact, they’ll probably think better of you. I know I do.”
    Gwen puzzles at the strange woman. I can’t get a read on this one. She’s so different from Gwaine. “Um, thanks?” she says, wincing inwardly when it comes out as a question. “I love your hair, by the way. I sometimes wish mine was straight.”
    “Always want what we don’t have,” she says, nodding and turning back to finish cleaning up.
    “She’s really okay, just a little hard to get to know,” Gwaine says quietly.
    “I think she’s nice, actually.”
    “Guinevere, should we go next door? Have Leon buy us some dinner?” Arthur asks, strolling over. He isn’t wearing his gloves anymore, so the first thing he does when she is within reach is grab her and pull her close, running his hands up her back.
    “I’d love to see the pub, yes. Is Merlin there?” she asks, kissing him.
    “Yeah. Did you find anything?” he asks quietly as they walk out.
    “Goodbye, you two,” Gwaine sings after them.
    “I got the manuscript, yes. It’s in my bag,” she tells them and they walk out the door.
    “He is completely in love with her,” Phil says to Gwaine once they are gone.

    They walk next door to the pub. It is dark inside, but clean, Gwen notes, looking around, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. As she blinks a few times, she notes that the dozen or so patrons scattered about the place have all stopped their conversations to stare at her.
    Arthur puts his arm around her possessively, shoots them all an icy glare – hands off, she’s mine – and ushers her to the bar.
    “Gwen!” Merlin smiles as they sit. He sets a pint down in front of Arthur. “What would you like?” he asks her.
    “Guinness, if you’ve got it,” she answers, surprising them both. “What?” she asks Arthur. “Did you think I was going to have water? Perhaps a nice glass of milk?”
    “Oh. Um, I guess I didn’t even think about it,” Arthur says, smiling as Merlin sets down a perfectly-tapped pint in front of her.
    “I didn’t think you lads would do the kinds of drinks with the little brollies perched in them, so I thought I’d keep it simple,” she says, picking up her glass.
    “So, what do you think of our little establishment here?” Merlin asks, picking up an empty glass left by another patron.
    “It’s… clean,” she says, smiling. She looks around, surveys the people sitting at tables, throwing darts. She notes that her pink dress is almost the only spot of color in the place. Everyone is wearing black, grey, or white. The lone exception is Ox’s t-shirt (with no sleeves, of course), which is black but bears a large printed Union Jack on the front. “I kind of look out of place, don’t I?” she asks.
    “You look beautiful,” Arthur says, “but yeah. You do stand out a bit.”
    “Don’t think I didn’t notice you going all Alpha Male when we came in here, Arthur,” she says, leaning in close.
    Merlin hears her anyway, and laughs. “Drag’s a bit protective,” he says, choosing his words carefully.
    “I noticed,” she says, taking another drink.
    They chat for a bit, Gwen keeping her shoulder bag out of sight so Merlin doesn’t see his manuscript tucked inside. Arthur tells them about the tattoos he did that day, Merlin tells them that Ox actually got to throw someone out at 2:30 in the afternoon, Gwen tells them about a phone call she received from an irate author claiming their editors had “butchered” his vision.
    “From what I understand, our editors did the man a favor,” she says. “Just because a person has written one successful novel doesn’t always mean there’s fuel in the tank for another masterpiece.”
    “Hmm,” Merlin says noncommittally and looks away.
    She takes another drink, feeling a little guilty about inadvertently pointing out Merlin’s lack of success at getting published. “Please tell me you have a ladies’ loo,” she says to him, suddenly wanting to escape for a minute.
    “Yeah, it’s over there,” he points. “Let me know if it’s disgusting,” he calls after her, and she waves.
    “She didn’t mean to upset you, Merlin,” Arthur says after she’s gone.
    “I know. It’s just hard, hearing things like that, how some hack that got lucky once gets the chances and I sit here wiping glasses after a bunch of slobs.”
    “Hey, you never know, mate. You could be a hack, too,” he teases with a grin. Merlin flicks his towel at him, which Arthur dodges easily.
    “Piss off, Cabbage Head.”
    Arthur chuckles and takes a drink of his pint. “Well, hello, stranger,” a voice behind him coos, and he groans inwardly.
    “Portia,” he says coolly.
    “Haven’t seen you about in a few days. I hope you haven’t been ill,” she says, sitting on Gwen’s stool, choosing to ignore her glass resting there and her bag on the floor, leaning against the bar.
    “Never felt better,” he says, not looking at her, trying to figure his way out of this politely. The girl is unbalanced, he notes, glancing over at her, his stomach turning as her side blue eyes drink him in.
    “Mmm, so I see,” she says, placing her hand on his thigh. He brushes it off.
    “Portia, someone is sitting there,” Merlin tries to help.
    “Yes, I know. Me.”
    “No, I believe you are mistaken,” Gwen says, having returned. She saw the little blonde twat put her hand on Arthur’s thigh as she was walking back, and is now standing beside her with her hands on her hips.
    “No, I don’t believe I am, Susie Corporation. Push off.”
    Gwen leans in closer. “Listen you cow, Drag is my man, and if you touch him like that again I will see to it that you can’t properly use your hand for at least two weeks.”
    Portia makes a derisive snort. “You? Aren’t you afraid you’d break a nail?”
    “Not at all. I wouldn’t even break a sweat. In fact, the only things broken would be your fingers. Now get your fat arse out of my seat.”
    Portia stands. She is at least four inches taller than Guinevere, but Gwen stares her down nevertheless. “Fine, bitch. I’ll bet he’s got a small pecker anyway,” Portia finally spits, stomping away.
    Gwen calmly sits down and takes a drink, perfectly composed and ladylike. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Ox returning to his post by the door. I didn’t even realize he had started to come over.
    “That was so hot,” Arthur says, staring at her. Merlin laughs.
    “Hmm?” Gwen turns and looks at him.
    “You. Um, defending your territory like that, like a little lioness. Hot.”
    “You’re not the only one with a jealous streak,” she says lightly, lifting her hand to caress his cheek. He leans down and kisses her, quick but hungry.
    “Oh!” she gasps after their lips part.
    “She’s been after me for weeks, you know,” he says. “Mental, her. I keep turning her down as plainly as I can, but she kept persisting.”
    “I think she’ll leave you alone now, mate,” Merlin says. “Would you really have broken her fingers?” he asks Gwen.
    “I have no idea,” she says. “I was bluffing.”

Part 11: link