cyus: (Merlin)
[personal profile] cyus
Title: Arthur's Great Paper Chase
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur
Rating: G
Length: 8800
Summary: When Arthur receives the first strange envelope, he's mildly curious. That's only the beginning.
Notes: originally written for [ profile] glomp_fest for [ profile] debris_k. Thanks for help, beta & support to [ profile] marguerite_26, [ profile] misswinterhill, [ profile] paragraphs and [ profile] sheswatching.

The envelope had been stuck between his mail and his crap from work that he'd vowed to take a glance at that weekend. Plain blank cheap Tesco's envelope with his initials on the top, and only a small card inside. His name on one side, a stick-man drawing on the other.

He passed the bit of paper on his desk when he went to make some coffee in the kitchen, went back to his bedroom for another hour of lie-in, when Benito nuzzled in his face until he got up to refill the dog’s bowl with water, when his phone rang the first time and he only reached it after it had already stopped, and when he was drinking his second cup of coffee leaning against the counter.

Creepy didn't quite cover it. Creepy only scratched at the surface and left no marks. Arthur threw the squeaky toy for Benito halfheartedly, and tried to figure out if the envelope had come with his bills or from work.

His phone rang again and he picked it up on the first ring, trying to breathe through the tension that one glance at the caller ID left in him.

"Are you playing a stupid prank on me?" he asked before the hellos, before breathing down the phone.

"Grow up, Arthur," Elena responded, then the smack of lips, a kiss, in the background and Arthur pulled a face as he poured himself the third cup of coffee for the morning. Waking up right about now, thanks very much, to Elena and whoever the man-du-jour at her side was.

"Envelope? Card? Clarissa maybe?"

"Not calling to indulge your neuroses, darling," Elena replied. 'Sperm donor!' Clarissa shouted from further away down the phone and Arthur chugged down the coffee. "Your charming daughter is so much like you. Uncanny. Your father says to pass on his regards, by the way."

"Not discussing my issues, are we?" Arthur replied and cocked his head at Benito, rolling his eyes. "I transferred the money yesterday. I assume that's why you are calling. Again," Arthur said as he turned and took the meat out of the fridge and scooped it into the bowl. "Wait," he motioned with his hand to Benito, then mouthed, "go," and the dog dove at the bowl, nearly knocking Arthur aside.

"You said that three days ago, Arthur."

"It's done. I can email you a screenshot of my bank account if that satisfies."

"It would satisfy to see the money actually there."

Arthur snorted laughter. "Just check your account, it's there. I may be a bastard but I've yet to neglect my duties to our child."

She hung up without letting him get in a word of 'how's life treating you then?' or 'what about those visiting times the judge decreed?' and rubbed a hand over his eyes to turn off that flutter of a headache, the pressure inside his skull, the caffeine racing of his heart.

When he opened his eyes again, the envelope that creeped like a creepy thing was still sitting on his desk. Everyone knew that Arthur Pendragon didn't do games. No Secret Santas, no Thursday night squash or Monday night pool events, no pub quizzes on Fridays and no raffles at the mandatory office parties.

Benito nudged at Arthur's knee, hungry for a pat and Arthur got that; he was hungry for some loving as well. He'd taken home some work for the weekend, trying to work through one of the java workshops in his own time but it was slow going when even looking at the computer on a Saturday for work made him want to bash his head against the screen. He logged into his email, kingarthur at gmail, not a.pendragon at corporate netboom enterprise.

The phone rang again. Arthur checked the number then picked up.

"Arthur, yes?" the man on the other end said.

Arthur picked one of Benito's chew toys off the floor and threw it across the room, grinning at the flurry of paws on the tiles.


"Just wondering how you were, really."

They'd shared a drink, he and the bloke, a drink and a few snogs in the pub and Arthur had taken him home. They'd fucked, had breakfast and he'd not had much of an intention to call despite the decent conversation.

"Got a bit busy at work, sorry for that," Arthur said, wrestling with Benito for the ball. "Bad timing right now, my dog's frisky but I'll give you a ring later this week for a drink. Deal?"

When he hung up, fending off Benito's nose nudging at his crotch, he felt worse for it and easier with the lie. He should have asked the guy whether he was the creep who left anonymous letters with messages in code, but why would anyone bother if they had his phone number. He was ready to climb back into bed for the weekend, but Benito performed an all-four paws off the floor jump-and-dive and ten minutes later Arthur was freezing in early-morning-and-windy-in-the-shade outside while Benito was pulling his arm out of the socket tearing down the streets.

He got back in, undecided between a fourth coffee, a slice of toast, and java textbooks and went straight back out again bringing in his mail for the morning and running avoidance strategy #3 (#1 being walking the dog, #2 crawling into bed and #4 to #10 browsing Youtube and Wikipedia; his existence was at the height of excitement) of sorting through bills and, apparently, letters from creepsters. He pulled that one out.

Shaking the new envelope produced no suspicious white powder (generation X, stuck in the 2000s), no ticking alarms, but another snippet of paper. Stickman-him (?) was waving an envelope and the squares fit.

"Creep," Arthur told the Oxford Circus square and Benito licking his fingers. Time for more coffee then, while the connected squares hung out on his desk with his bills, mocking him with creeping excitement that was threatening to plow right through his no-alarms-and-no-surprises schtick in absence of anything more engaging than work he didn't necessarily want to look at, and an accusing phone that told him that Clarissa might want a call even if she spit insults at him every time they talked.

A dragon? Really? Arthur turned the square over and over again until he set it down with the lines connected, the 21 from his front door and the little stick-man him rushing along to Oxford Circus. Since his father had deigned his presence tolerable at best, he was hardly worth the money for an attempted kidnapping and kidnappers luring with a dragon drawing seemed to be the stuff of a particularly challenging CSI episode, not the mob or his fathers' business rivals.

"Feel like taking a stroll, Benito?" Arthur asked, nevermind he was a bit sweaty in his weekend t-shirt and threading jeans. Stroll translated to excitement for the dog and a bit of a thrum of curiosity for Arthur. Oxford Station wasn't exactly a secluded spot for a hit and run midday Saturday, no harm in taking a look around, no harm in being curious, no harm in adding procrastination strategy #11 to the list and ignoring the stack of books next to his computer.

Arthur stuffed the squares into one of the envelopes, took his wallet, mobile and leash for Benito, a bottle of water and locked up behind himself.

"It's not an adventure when it's a methodical exploration of the source of frankly disturbing anonymous communication," he told Benito (and himself to be rather frank). London was giving him a few rays of sunshine for his growing-to-be-out-of-shape body. He squinted computer eyes at the sky.

Benito tried to play tag with the leash as they made it down the escalator, to the platform and onto the train, passers-by giving them the eye when Benito gave one of his Loving People Today nudges and wriggles that stood in diametrical opposition to Arthur's You're a Londoner attitude of distanced distaste.

Oxford Circus was brimming with people, shopping bags and sticky air. Arthur was under-dressed and his dog overexcited, so he took Benito by the collar as they walked through the turnstiles. There he was, preparing to laugh at the joke that was on him. He pulled out the pieces of paper again, stood moderately out of the way, but still people kept jostling past. One moment he was looking at stickman-him, the other he had an envelope with his initials in hand, only saw a guy disappear into the crowd, longish black hair and buttondown, and even as he started after him, he was out of sight.

Benito whined, Arthur commiserated. He glanced about for hidden cameras or a knife to his guts, but Oxford station was not like the cloak and dagger stories. He ignored the pulse in his throat, the low curl of excitement in his stomach, his fingers getting a bit sticky and sweat running down his back.

A new piece of paper (a pony?) tumbled out of the envelope. He turned it over and fitted it to the others.

"You’ve gotta be kidding me," Arthur muttered as he stared down at the scribbles on his hand, looked up again to find the bloke. "I'm a grown man, for God's sake," he added as Benito nudged at his knee, whimpered in his throat, panting. "I'm a grown man and..." he trailed off.

It nagged at him as he made it to the street level and pushed past shoppers, Benito heeling, looking for the square of grass and green just south of Oxford Street, the whys and whos and the utter ridiculousness of a paper chase on a Saturday in London, pieces of paper in hand and all. He knelt and let Benito lap some water from his hand.

"Think someone's having a laugh at us?" It hurt his pride a bit, as he glanced about, that he was questing, for the lack of a better word, because someone had dangled something obvious and strange and different in front of his face.

Arthur contemplated heading home, not heading further into the city, taking his dog and his boring, divorced, surprise-I'm-gay-sorry-honey life and sticking it out in his flat, but then he got up and was walking and Benito was dancing around him as they wound down through Soho and closer to Roar x 4 and Fountain x 1.

He passed a group of tourists standing around a guide, a few people queuing for theatre tickets. Benito stopped to sniff at every rubbish bin, streetlamp and shop door.

"I should take you out to the more exciting places," Arthur said as he waited dutifully for his dog to conclude the inspection of another doorway. The last time he'd been to see a play must have been for one of the dreadful, respectful first dates when everything was pretence and masks and tip-toeing around one another.

Trafalgar Square was loud and brimming with people, shouts and a falcon that nearly clipped Arthur's head. Benito barked at it, tugging on the leash and in general providing spectacle and amusement for the people sitting on the rim of the fountain. Arthur scanned the crowd. People were milling on the lions, a few kids playing catch, people eating on the steps and sunbathing in the early Spring sun.

Arthur led Benito over to the fountain, looping the leash around his wrist as he dug the pieces of paper out again, looking for a creepster clue as to where another envelope might be while he kept an eye on the crowd, looking for suspicious people.

"What's his name?" a girl next to him asked, both she and her friend practically on their knees around Benito, being worshipped with licks and sniffles.

"It's Benito," Arthur replied, watching them for a moment. "He probably thinks you'll feed him any second."

The girls aww-ed and Arthur grinned, ruffling the dog's head.

The envelope appeared in Arthur's field of vision from the right, a bloke in a hoodie and shades holding it out only long enough for Arthur to take it before he turned and walked away, long enough to realize it was someone different and wonder at this game.

"Hey, wait!" Arthur shouted after him, standing before he quite realized it.

The guy looked over his shoulder, shrugged briefly and kept on walking.

Arthur ripped the envelope down the side, shaking a new piece of paper out. A hand to go with the pony and the dragon and another bit of map.

"What's that about then?" one of the girls asked, Benito's tongue laving along her neck.

Arthur turned the square one way or another, laughed. He looked around Trafalgar Square again, for just another hint that this was something other than creepy or ridiculous but the falcon carried on sailing about and people kept climbing all over the lions.

"Some kind of prank." He leaned against the side of the fountain. "And I'm probably falling for it."

The girl looked at him quizzically. "More like James Bond."

There was a thought. Maybe it was James Bond and one of these awkward mistaken identity dramas where he was most certainly not AP (nevermind the Pendragon inside) and not meant at all to play good doggie and avoid his java workshop and his ex-wife's phone calls.

"I got an envelope with this," Arthur said as he pulled the first bit out, “and then another one in the mail with this and I went to Oxford Station because I figured there was no harm in that, and got handed an envelope with this and now... the hand of doom." He handed the squares to the girls who turned them over and back around. "I'm an idiot for having come here, right?"

"No!" one of them said, hair blowing into her face. "It's- no idea what it is but it's cool. Weird, but cool."

"Stress being on weird," Arthur replied.

The girl handed the squares back. "Are you going then?"

Arthur turned to the map. "Bit far for a stroll, isn't it? Someone's probably laughing their arse off right this moment," he groaned, glancing around the square, but no one was laughing, no one was even paying attention to him and his quizzical presence. "Or waiting to knife me down."

"I'd be curious as all get out," one of them said, the other nodded.

Benito pushed between Arthur's legs, whining into his crotch. "But it's creepy, right?" The girls looked at him blankly like creepy didn't exist in their vocabulary of inappropriate Facebook messages and thrumming excitement for life. Way to feel jaded.

"We were heading there. We could scout the area for you, see if there is any big bad Evil hiding in the shadows."

Arthur laughed and they joined in. They were about Clarissa's age, probably talking GCSE's or A-Levels or whatever it was at that stage and make-up and boys and Ollie Murs.

"I should head home," Arthur said. Java workshop and more coffee, staring at the phone trying to figure out if he should call or not.

"You don't want to know what it's about at all? We'll make an AP sign and go there, waiting for someone with an envelope."

Arthur brushed a hand through his hair, wished he had some sunglasses. The what-if as he imagined sitting at his desk was already dancing in his mind.

"I don't like games," he said to Benito because he didn't.

The girls both shrugged in near-unison as they stood. "You coming then?"

"Under duress," he said but his heart was thrumming with a bit more excitement as they set out down to the tube station because he most certainly wasn't walking all that way. Benito did a little dance in front of the turnstiles, the girls cooed and proceeded to tell him more about the Tower of London than he'd ever needed to know as they read in their tour guide.

"Are you sure you don't know who it is?" one of them asked as they trudged up the stairs to the street level and Tower Bridge.

"No clue," Arthur replied.

"A friend having a bit of--"

Arthur cut her a glance and she fell silent. He added a smile to look a bit more approachable, a bit less like the sad case sans friends. He left the leash long and Benito to run and reminded himself that pub quizzes and pool nights were not him. Quiet nights in, the tv, working until it was bedtime out of duty and because there was nothing else to do, that was him and it was happiness in a nutshell.

The girls had the square again and were walking with Benito up front, turning it this way and that while Arthur was left to his thoughts and the sunshine, buses and cars going by, the Thames roaring underneath. At the end of the bridge he caught up to them, a bit moodier, a bit blue, a bit unsure why he hadn't just gone home.

All three of them turned in a slow circle, looking for mysterious men with mysterious envelopes. The girls went to the other side of the street, one of the envelopes they'd taken from Arthur in their hands as they approached every tourist passing by and had them brush past with a mixture of terror and curiosity.

Arthur leaned back against the balustrade, glancing out at the river instead. He was fondling the pieces in his pocket with one hand and had the other on Benito's head, scratching his fur.

A girl approached him, not looking the part of tourist, more the part of hen night out with mates. Arthur froze at the sight of an envelope in her hand, heart beating double time in his throat, palms sweating.

"You're him then," she said as she held out the envelope to Arthur.

Arthur stared dumbly down at it while Benito was getting scratches and the girls squealed on the other side of the road. "What is all this?" Arthur asked after he cleared his throat and tried to stifle the laugh at the absurdity of the girl's bouncing bunny ears and bright red bug top. He reached for the envelope though and she shook her head, didn't reply and took her bunny ears and bunny tail and walked off across the bridge.

"I don't like games!" Arthur shouted after her, but it got lost in the traffic.

"Open it then," one of the girls said, breathless and having only narrowly missed the traffic. She tore the envelope from his hand, and Arthur let her have it and she and her friend opening it and giving him the scraps. Something unintelligible on one side and more unintelligible on the other. Despite himself, he leaned in as both of them did and they studied the map bit from three different angles.

"Wow that's..." one of them said as she turned the square, presenting the image to Arthur the right side up.

"...a new low," Arthur muttered. "Shhh," he told Benito when the dog was pulling at the leash. If he turned left and left was right and right left then.

"Since we came from here then left, right, left, or right, left, right, or-" the girl motioned their path with a full body twist, making even Arthur crack a smile.

"It could be anywhere," Arthur ventured.

"Or not," one of the girls replied and marched ahead. The other shrugged at Arthur and followed. Arthur shrugged at Benito and did the same.

"I only wanted to do this one..." Arthur said but he didn't say it very loudly and the conviction was hiding beneath the curious look the bunny ear girl had given him, the once-over glance. Arthur looked at Benito. "Please let it not be the bloke from the date."

The girls were down at the Thames, having taken the steps down to the right and were debating whether the arrows meant anything at all.

At the side of the bridge a guy was chalk drawing on the pavement, knights in mid-battle, swords gleaming in the sun while a crowd cheered in the background. Benito was snuffling at the chalks and Arthur kept him on a tight leash, just watching. The guy was stretched out on hands and knees, shading a helmet even when the whole thing looked pretty much done down to the Fit To Be King slogan from the Tower exhibition underneath. He looked up at Arthur, nodding across his shoulder.

"It's great," Arthur said, kneeling next to Benito. Joggers passed by behind them and the girls were still debating arrows on stupid paper chase squares. "How long it take you?" He fumbled for change in his pocket and dropped it in the guy's hat at the side. Mid-20s maybe, tanned, muscled, huge, looking boxer more than artist.

"Few hours." He stood and stretched up, coming to stand next to Arthur to take in his bit of street art. Arthur grinned at him, and the bloke honest-to-god blushed and went all shy on him.

Their positions put Arthur at crotch level but as he opened his mouth to say something else, the envelope stuck to the guy's belt caught his eye. "That-" Arthur began, then felt stupid, and figured he should let it drop and not rise to it, squash that bit inside him that wanted to know and wanted to see where this was leading or to whom this was leading. "That envelope," he said as he straightened to stand.

"Oh." The guy drew the envelope from his belt, looking down at it like he was seeing it for the first time. "Someone left it and said someone would be by to pick it up. That they'd know."

Arthur squinted down at it. "That, er, that'd be me, I think."


Arthur took the envelope from the bloke. Benito made instant friendship while Arthur tore at the corner of the paper, freeing another paper square.

Arthur laughed and rubbed his thumb over the little crown and the stupid little face and the girls came over, crowding around him to see. "Let's hope this one's less of a riddle," Arthur said as he tried to hide his laughter to amusement and turned the square over. "...or not."

The guy peered over his shoulder, pointed at the square. "So that's the river here and that's a bridge and..."

"Big Ben," Arthur and the girls said at the same time.

Before Arthur could caution against excitement and warn for creepy people leaving envelopes with secret messages, one of the girls had taken the leash from his hand and they'd set off down along the river.

"This is a game then?"

"It's... I don't actually know what it is? Someone is just leaving these clues all over and it's, I don't know, a paper chase? Someone's idea of fun? A quest? ...I should be heading home."

"But you're not," the guy said and collected his chalks and hat and the coins.

"Are you just going to leave that?" Arthur asked, staring down at the chalk of something truly epic like in the good old days. "It'll rain and then..."

The guy shrugged. "It's good now," he said and began to walk down the Thames. "Your dog is being kidnapped, are you sure you're not coming?"

"So who was it that left the envelope?" one of the girls asked as they caught up to them, winding around grannies and prams and making sure Benito wasn't licking anyone to death.

"One of the silver men who don't move?" the guy said and Arthur groaned. Of course he'd been, it'd be tragic if he outwitted the creep at an easy mistake.

"When is your group meeting up again?" Arthur asked the girls as they were passing the National Theatre, after ice creams and watching people make art out of sand. They gave a non-committal answer that translated to later in the day and don't be old now, so Arthur shut up.

"My daughter's their age," he told the guy when they'd fallen a few feet behind. He had his thumb on his phone. Maybe he'd give her a call that night, make a date for a movie or spagbol and ice cream.

They passed through the aisle of street artists at the London Eye and Arthur was eyeing the gold and silver men standing stock still while the guy was fistbumping with one of the jugglers in between plates and flaming objects. He caught up with them as they were making to cross the bridge, him and the girls and his dog who was greeting him like a long lost friend every time he came within two feet of him.

"You don't have to tag along," Arthur said.

"I know," the guy replied, flicked Arthur a smile and grinned at the girls who were telling him about Bath or Brighton or Bristol.

Arthur had stuffed the envelopes into the back pocket of his jeans and they sat there, a bit bulky now, while the pieces of paper were alternately in his fist and his front pocket. His shirt, a bit sweaty from the morning walk with Benito was well on the way to not passable anymore and still the jitters returned to his stomach as he kept his eyes on Big Ben, watching the hands move on slowly.

"What do you do for fun?" one of the girls asked as she handed Benito over again, and whose lovesick self remained pressed to Arthur's knee for all of ten minutes before the traitor was looking for love elsewhere.

Arthur had a quick and easy reply, surely, watching the games on the telly, if he remembered who was even at the top of the league at the time, meeting friends - well, friends, well, meeting - , reading books, possibly.

"Having a paper chase in London?" he replied, voice lifting into a question but the girl gave him the thumbs up, and something lifted in his chest. Ridiculous, creepy creepster paper chase, and as he stretched his face to the sun, he had to admit he had the time of his life.

"Right, somewhere here," Arthur said as they stood opposite Parliament Square, dog and people forming their own little island of spot-the-envelope.

He thought he must look stupid standing there with his fistful of envelopes, but someone else was stupid and crazy enough to go through and plant them, leave them, trust him to not walk home, trust him to leave his flat in the first place. They crossed to Parliament square, read the signs driven into the ground, the petitions laid out, the people discussing wildly which injustices have to be corrected.

"I'm signing it, I'm signing right here," a tall bloke in a suit said, long-ish hair a bit unruly, beard as well, but looking smart in a dotcom boom suit.

"It's here!" one of the girls yelled and pointed at the grass. Amidst a few hundred signatures, appeals for greater causes and things that matter, one of the envelopes sat. Arthur crouched and picked it from the grass.

"It's a quest," he heard the chalk guy explain to the dotcom man above him.

"It's just some creep being creepy," Arthur interjected even though he couldn't stop grinning and pulled at the envelope flap anyway.

"It is a quest!" dotcom was saying at the sight of the card and Arthur flipped it over before his flush at the pattern of images (the crown, the dragon, the sword...) became too apparent. Granted, his name at the start had made it hard to dismiss it as something completely random, but there was knowing his name and there was scratching at his fantasy ancestry and ... playing, or mocking, the jury was still out on that.

"It's a map within a map," one of the girls said.

"Hyde Park," dotcom said. "The Serpentine, it's a bit awkward around here, the pond, the..."

"X marks the spot," artist guy said.

Benito licked at Arthur's fingers and the map card. Arthur straightened up, glanced at his merry band of men and girls and the chuckle rumbled in his chest and split his face into a grin. "What are you even doing here with... whoever it was, maybe it's neverending and it's all about driving me bonkers."

"No," dotcom said. "Hyde Park's up that way."

Benito began walking next to him before Arthur had even started moving, not leaving Arthur much of a choice but to be dragged behind, signing a petition on the way and getting a few strange looks.

"I think it's a woman," one of the girls was explaining to a few tourists at the lights. "Give me the-" And she pulled a few of the cards from Arthur's hand to show them around, explaining how they'd walked from here to here and maybe that's why Arthur's feet were smarting like all hell.

"Dog stop," Arthur called at a small Tesco's and ducked inside, getting some water for Benito's panting self and himself.

"Is it a woman?" the tourist asked, accented English and shades and guidebook in hand. She handed the cards back to Arthur.

"I don't know," Arthur said, looking up from where he was letting Benito lap water off his hand. "I don't know anyone... who'd do this for a joke." The pause caught him out and he added a crooked smile. "I should head back home and let this play out as it would."

The chorused no made all of them laugh, sweaty and sore as they were.

"The location is a bit vague though," dotcom said as he stared at the square again when they moved on. "If we walk in from Hyde Park corner though we should happen across it." He passed the square back to the girls who discussed it for a few minutes before passing it to the tourists.

Arthur got his phone out on the way. A day out just you and me, a treat, whatever you want. A movie maybe? Please. Dad Arthur typed and hit send, pocketing the phone before anyone could ask about it. They raced to the shade of the trees as soon as they'd reached the park, flowing skirts and suits and flying paws and ears, collapsing laughing against the copse of trees.

"I suggest we spread and meet back here in 10," dotcom said and when Arthur looked at him, raising an eyebrow, the bloke shrugged. "It seems ... sensible?"

"Just remember I didn't force you to come along when someone reveals that you've been had in a prank meant for me later."

"It's worth it," the art guy said and set off as did the others, leaving Arthur under the trees before he took the direction the others hadn't.

The sun was burning down in the late afternoon but Arthur set out from the small grove of trees up hill, wondering why he was still here other than the images and notes and time that must have gone into leaving these messages just for him. He took the notes out again, sorting through them one by one, trying to read who it might be in the stroke of the black, read whether it was a man or a woman, that'd be helpful. The handwriting was no help, no one was writing by hand anymore.

He stumbled, Benito-first, into a football match as he reached the cusp of the hill, keeping his dog on a short leash when the sight of the ball made him jump and run with no mind to Arthur dangling on the other side of his leash.

"Sorry," Arthur called and kicked the ball back to a girl standing closest to him.

"Someone wants a play," one of the blokes said and kicked the ball towards Benito.

"If you're not careful he'll kill that one," Arthur said but was happy to let Benito have his fun and unclipped the leash when no one seemed to mind his crazy dog being crazy.

The six or seven of them kicked the ball back and forth between them, Benito running after it down one length of the imaginary field and up the other. When they collapsed into the grass, water bottles at their mouths Benito lay in their midst panting and only came running to Arthur, crouching a few yards away, when Arthur waved the water at him.

Arthur straightened and waved to his group down by the grove of trees and watched them trudge up the hill, hanging shoulders and shaking heads. Maybe it had been a fluke then, the trail ending in a dead end.

"Nothing," dotcom said. "Let's see the map again."

Arthur fumbled the square from the mess of envelopes and paper and handed it over.

"What are you looking for then?" one of the football guys shouted, flicking his hair out of his face with a quick head movement.

"There's..." Arthur paused and looked at his group. "Essentially an envelope, like this." He held up one of them. "Trust me, it makes sense." Did it now? He rubbed his fingers over his eyes and shrugged. "Or not. But an envelope like this."

"Hey wasn't that-?" one of them began and, "Didn't he-?" and, "Where did you put it?"

The girl of the group was rummaging through their bags and pulled out the perfectly square, perfectly normal, perfectly creepily AP labelled envelope.

The whoop-noise one of the girls gave was a bit embarrassing, but it illustrated the whoop feeling in Arthur's chest rather well when he opened the envelope and took out the square.

"What's that supposed to be then?"

"Chest hair?"

"Turn it over," the tourist urged and Arthur did, showing the bit of map, as much as this could be called that, to his group and the football players who'd formed the other half of the semi-circle.

"That's seriously creepy," the guy with the flicked hair said and Arthur nodded but couldn't exactly explain why it still made him feel so warm inside.

"Assuming we're supposed to stay in Hyde Park, those chairs are around the pond and along the Serpentine."

"Let's go then," one of the footballers called and the others gave a fair battle cry as they set out.

Arthur kicked the ball, kept it rolling in front of his feet while Benito was running with someone else. Arthur passed the ball to the girl and the girl passed it to the guy with the flicking hair who passed it back to Arthur as they wound their way along paths.

"You play?" the guy with the hair asked.

"Used to." Arthur shrugged, tried and failed at a trick with the ball, sending it far off the path. He ran after it, dribbling it back to their group and passing it over. "Then I got old." Arthur handed the squares over to one of the other footballers who flicked through them until the guy with the hair turned them around one by one.

"Any idea who is leaving these then?" the bloke asked as he handed the squares back and Arthur took them and stuffed them into one of the envelopes but was unable to resist taking them out and looking through them again. "'Twas a bloke who left the one with us but that doesn't have to mean anything, yeah?"

Any idea who knew him well enough to sketch his boyhood fantasies and Saturday night adventure film escapisms onto them, make him want to be here with people he didn't even know, really?

"Creep either way, that's for sure," Arthur replied.

"It's a pretty elaborate hey-notice-me scheme..." the guy with the hair said and trailed off, leaving the gaps for Arthur to fill with silly longing and silly excitement about picking up envelope after envelope in London from a stranger who drew him swords and armour and a dragon.

"Wouldn't say no to a guy. You sure you don't remember him clearly?" Arthur asked and flushed at the oooh that went through the round, the pat on the back and none of the shame that flooded him every time Elena looked at him with disappointment and disbelief at the I just didn't know before.

"What else would you have done today?" the guy with the flicking hair asked.

"What else would you have done today?" Arthur gave back and they both broke into laughter.

"Never thought I'd assist some sad case on a paper chase, that's for sure." The bloke said it with a smile and it didn't hurt, when maybe it should have. The ball rolled back to Arthur and this time he nailed the trick under much applause and whistles, Benito going wild dancing around his legs.

"Hope it was the bloke, mate, send her my way if it's a lass, after all," the guy with the hair said as he threw an arm around Arthur's shoulder.

The sun chairs stood haphazardly along the edge of the Serpentine and past it around the round pond, people lazing in them, groups of them picnicking, children playing between them. They wandered to the round pond, all of them keeping their eyes peeled for another envelope.

The chalk guy and the tourists were talking about Paris, dotcom was trying his hand at football and surprisingly wasn't all that bad and the girls settled on two of the chairs with everyone else grouped loosely around them.

"So, now?" one of the footballers said, and all of them turned to Arthur, heads cocked, brows raised, and even Benito's ears twitched towards him, falling still.

Arthur had a quip on his lips, something to point out how ridiculous this whole affair was, but someone kicked the ball towards him and he kicked it up and passed it between his feet a bit. "I figure it'll have to be around here somewhere. Either the envelope's already here or someone will happen past and push it into my hand and I'll look dumb for about ten seconds before looking even dumber as I try to figure out what the next clue is."

"What should we do then, wait?" dotcom asked.

Benito took off from Arthur's side, chasing after a dog that had trotted near their group, a tiny brown something that was all wagging tail and bark when Benito rolled it.

"Hey!" Arthur called after his dog and the merry chase across paths and around trees and chairs and while the group whistled and clapped behind him. "Benito!" Arthur shouted again and grabbed his dog by the collar on a close pass, bringing him up short.

The other dog seemed happy enough, yipping as it danced around them both, and Arthur didn't notice the envelope until the second circle. He crouched and held out his hand, beckoning the dog closer then slowly slid the envelope from the little band around the collar. "Where's your owner, huh?" Arthur looked over his shoulder but there was only the gang he'd acquired and everyone else going about their business. He let Benito run free again and the two dogs engaged in another chase.

Arthur straightened up and turned to his gang, held up the envelope. He sat on the bench nearby to open it, then burst out laughing at the image while the group ambled over and gathered around.

"Next up: Buckingham Palace," one of the footballers said.

"Goes with all the crown and swordplay."

"I'm actually tired of walking," Arthur said, staring at the square and up at expectant faces, then frowning faces.

"You'll just let it end here, then? Where's your sense of adventure, my friend?" the guy with the hair said and dragged Arthur up. Arthur glanced at dotcom and the chalk artist and the rest of the nodding crowd.

"What if it's a joke?"

"What if it's not?" the chalk artist replied and Arthur had no real reply to that and just fell in moving with the others.

Benito and the strange little dog followed behind, and Arthur kept surreptitious glances out around him for someone else following at a distance and watching maybe, but no one hopped from tree shade to tree shade trying to remain unseen.

Arthur's phone vibrated in his pocket and he checked even though it meant losing track of the discussion about the FA cup final and whose winger was better on one side and tourist sights on the other.

Fine, Clarissa had texted back. No hugs or kisses but that much at least. Arthur grinned stupidly at the phone.

The football got kicked between them all, nearly shooting out random passers-by a few times and having Benito and mysterious dog, whose owner Arthur just knew had to be whoever was leaving the messages, chasing after it and running circles around them in between more pats and head rubs than surely anyone deserved.

"Here I thought I'd be spending my weekend wracking my brain over java," Arthur said.

"Java, like-" one of them started.

"Coffee," one of the footballers threw in.

"Like computers," Arthur explained and even made the typing on a keyboard gesture that made him facepalm by the time he was executing it and the rest of them had picked up on it.

"Boring. Fun colleagues at least?"

Arthur thought on the ragtag office with the open plan space and the nerd calendars and gadgets and robots running across the floor because at least one of the idiots thought you had to fulfill the gamer stereotype to work in IT.

"The coffee machine only works on voice command and I have to print out my emails and put them on the back of a bug to send them to one of them because he keeps insisting that innovation starts with reverse engineering the big ideas." Folding the printed paper and making sure it didn't slide off halfway through the trail across the office was the hardest, if only because every error was noted and points deducted on the board and he'd be the one buying coffee for everyone at the end of the month again.

"Sounds nutters."

"Wouldn't change it though," Arthur replied as Buckingham Palace came into view. One of these days he'd fit the bug with a little cart and a post-it saying, Reverse Engineer this! only because he didn't even trust himself to try and touch robotics. He left that in more capable hands.

"So does this mean the Queen's in?" one of the tourists asked, pointing to the flag. Headshakes and shrugs around until dotcom explained as they wound through the crowds closer to the gates.

"I don't care if she's in," one of the girls explained as she pushed her camera into Arthur's hand and took her friend's hand as she pulled her to a free space at the gates.

Arthur lifted the camera and took the photo, giving their grins a thumbs up.

"With you as well?" one of them shouted and Arthur was begging out of it because this was a tourist trap, pure and simple, the worst in London in fact, or nearly. "And Benito!"

Arthur passed the camera over and joined the girls at the gate under protest, grinning for the camera, and laughing for it when the rest of the gang rushed them. They stood pressed closed, chest to chest and arms around each other, and one of them pulled one of the envelopes from Arthur's pocket and held it out in front of them as the flash came. The applause was spontaneous and Arthur's cheeks hurt from grinning as he glanced through the gate to the Palace but couldn't be bothered with that when everyone else was chatting about everything more exciting.

Arthur knelt next to Benito. "I don't know what I'm doing here," he told his dog and buried his face in Benito's fur. "It's fun?" he whispered and laughed when Benito only whined and pulled away to find a more exciting playpartner.

As the crowds drew tighter around them, all of them looking for an envelope amongst a sea of people, Arthur kept Benito close to his knee by his collar, and the little dog awkwardly with only his arm for fear of having him trampled to death.

The brush of fingers to his palm, to index finger and thumb hooked into Benito's collar, came and was gone just like that, within the blink of an eye and a yip from his armful of puppy, before Arthur could turn without a big production. The crowds around them shifted and as much as he thought he'd seen a bloke with short dark hair, it could have been anyone.

It had to have been anyone, and it had only been his talk of the stupid bug at work that made him think of matching private email addresses much to the amusement of the rest of staff at the office, the way he frowned when Arthur messed up their informal bug experiment track record again.

"I got it, I think," Arthur said to the chalk guy who was closest to him, the little edge of white peeking from his palm.

The news had spread through the group when they were outside the throng of people again. Arthur let Benito go and closed his fingers around the square of paper as he got the others from his pocket and shook them out.

It better not be a joke, Arthur thought when it made his chest feel a bit tight and his face split wider with a smile and more confusion in his head. He placed the newest square on top of the others and held his palm out for them to see. Nevermind the shakes, really, nevermind the silly beating of his heart.

"What's on the other side, pal?" one of the footballers called, voice impatient. "That there's not exactly news!"

Arthur looked up and laughed. "It is to me, pal."

The group guffawed as one, and a hearty slap to Arthur's shoulder nearly made him pitch forward. He turned the card over, not rising to that at all. "Ice cream in Hyde Park." The group groaned as one, practiced in the unison noise exclamations now.

"You know who it is," the football girl said, watching him much like the others did.

Arthur shook his head no, but he shuffled through the stack again as they were walking back to the park, only half listening to the conversation going on around him. They weren't even talking about him but about their lives and their jobs and the people they loved and the places they wanted to go and where they wanted to be when they grew old and what fun could be had in London on a weekend.

The dragon, the castle, the sword, the ... random thing that could be magic, the hand that would be more of a private joke about magic fingers and stupid, corny, throwaway lines like that that only reached the guy when the bug actually made it across the office with his email still on its back.

The park loomed and there was the welcome shade of the trees as they shuffled along the winding path.

"Can only be that one," one of them had said earlier and they'd agreed in near democratic procedure that had Arthur nod and everyone begin to walk.

"I think I know who it is," Arthur said to the girl but the rest were listening.

"It's either pretty brilliant or pretty mad or both then," a footballer said.

"Creepy as all hell," Arthur agreed, creepy things that crept in the palm of his hand. The birds were chirpy, the sun warm and the conversation easy. The ice cream man loomed in the distance. The little dog was trotting next to Benito and the whole group was trotting with Arthur, spanning the width of the path and catching funny looks from everyone else when they broke into chest-bursting laughter as they managed to make the football traverse the full length of their group, being kicked by everyone exactly once.

Arthur nodded to them as they slowed and he didn't, approaching the ice cream man.

"My name's Arthur, Arthur Pendragon. AP. I think you’ve got an envelope for me." He could still be misreading everything, one giant misunderstanding that had had him leave his flat on a whim and stick it out on a whim and make his feet sore and his knees ache and his chest thrum with childish excitement over the chase and the unraveling of clues.

"It's a quest, you know," one of the guys said from the circle around Arthur as the ice cream man handed over the envelope.

Arthur chuckled as he took it, opened it and took it to a bench nearby, sat. He laid out the squares on his thigh, the Palace and the ice cream man square and then shook out the final square and placed it underneath.

No one said a word, left him to it as his throat got tight and his palms wet. He shuffled the squares together, only kept the last one out.

"You were right, weren't you? You knew who it was?" one of them said, someone, one of the people who'd come on this crazy quest and stood there grinning like lunatics.

Arthur stood from the bench, thumbed in the number and looked around. He kept his hand on Benito's head, fingers curled into fur as he thought of the java workshop he should have been doing today, or all the Youtube clips of random things he could've watched. He walked a few steps from the bench as the call went out, turned in a circle, scanning the park.

Uphill a phone went off. Arthur turned. The small dog took off at a flying run, and Arthur couldn't help but laugh. The line cracked when the call picked up. Arthur couldn't make out Merlin's face, couldn't make out much at all except for him standing next to a bench and then crouching to give his dog pets.

"You're mad," Arthur said into the phone, voice brimming with things that were in his head and in his stomach and in someone so creepy and obsessed and utterly brilliant to do something like this for him.

Phone still pressed to his ear, Arthur started uphill toward Merlin, Benito at his side, and his group of randoms began to cheer.


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cyus: (Default)

November 2012


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