His Majesty's Memes
Merlin knows it’s a Bad Day, capitals included, as soon as he wakes up and knocks his head against his desk lamp. Not a bad day, because a bad day is when you stub your toe, and maybe have to hide your hair under a hat because it looks horrible, and possibly get turned down by your crush in the middle of campus during lunch when you ask him to coffee or something. Because that’s honestly not that bad. Your toe isn’t going to stay stubbed forever, and you’ve hidden your hair under a hat so it looks okay now, and even if you got rejected you were brave enough to ask in the first place so it’s really a good thing.
Except it’s not a bad day. It’s a Bad Day, and there is no way to turn it around to make it sound good. Not when Merlin’s late opening the store because he was up late coding out the glitches in his flatmate Gwen’s favorite monster-killing game because he owed her and therefore misses his bus. So he ends up having to take the later one, at nine, which always gets stuck in traffic, and also always contains all of the old people in the entire city, who apparently all want to coo over Merlin, because he’s just such a fine specimen of a young man, aren’t you?
He gets off a stop early just to get away from it all.
This means that he ends up spending another twenty minutes slogging across the sidewalk that is now covered with at least an inch of water by the recent rain, and bowing his head against the wind. He starts running, after a while, because maybe that’ll mean he’s too fast to get wet. It doesn’t quite work.
He’s doing his version of sprinting by the time he rounds the corner, and he veers, looping wide around the corner instead of cutting close because he can’t control herself, though he tells himself it’s to avoid the gaggle of old ladies out for a drippy, dreary morning on the town with their little dogs and their walkers.
He can feel the exhaustion pressing in, creeping along his calves and up his thighs until it burns with every step, and he fights it, focuses on breathing and the steady, numbing battery of his feet against the pavement.
And he can’t afford to slow down, because he’s already two hours late and there’s supposed to be a delivery of Lolcats arriving today and he’s in charge because his uncle moved to Romainia two weeks ago and he hasn’t gotten around to hiring help yet.
When he staggers up the steps to the door of His Majesty’s Memes, he can feel his legs shaking from over-exertion, and on his first attempt to unlock the door, he tries to insert the key upside-down and it won’t go in. The euphoria of exercise is wearing off, and when he finally manages to shove the door open, the only reason he doesn’t swear is because sometimes the memes pick up phrases around the shop and then repeat them once they’re bought.
There are cat memes all over the shop floor, skittering across the tiles on clawed feet, and the boxes that they must have arrived in are tipped over on their sides in the back corner, styrofoam peanuts spilling out and scattered across the checkered tiles.
Merlin ducks into his office as soon as he makes it through the melee. “Very rain. Many splash,” says Samuel, the shop’s resident Doge. He was Merlin’s uncle’s before he was Merlin’s, but generally Merlin likes to think they get on
“Yeah,” says Merlin shortly. He dumps his bag and his sopping coat on his desk and turns to leave again. He’s tailed by his own Lolcat, Polly, as he does.
“I made you a cookie,” offers Polly, trotting after Merlin.
“Wow,” says Samuel, interested, “many sugar. So baking.”
Polly wrinkles her nose at him. “But I eated it.”
“Wow,” repeats Samuel, affronted. “Very cat.”
Merlin staggers to the front window, tripping over an orange tabby that leaps up to snag his shirt in it’s claws and shout, “Stop! Hammah Time!” Merlin cups it with one hand to make sure it doesn’t fall off from stupidity, and flips the sign on front window to OPEN.
He fights his way back to the cashier stand, thinking traitorous thoughts like hopefully there are no customers today so he can deal with the shenannigans that is happening on the floor, and work up the courage to call the shipping company to tell them that their employees are nutheads and not just hang up as soon as someone answers.
Merlin deposits the Hammer Time Lolcat into one of the open enclosures with little grace, fixing it with a glare. “Stay put,” he adds in his firmest voice for good measure. He relents a moment later to add, “I’ll bring you a treat as soon as I get the rest of them sorted out.”
(He has to fight his reflex to whip around whenever the cat yells “Stop!” for the rest of the morning.)
“Hey,” says Merlin, grabbing a fat black and white splotched cat around the middle, “come on.”
“Nooo,” moans the cat theatrically, reaching out a paw, “Do not go gentul intah that good nite.” It pauses, retracting the paw, and Merlin staggers a bit at the change in weight, hefting it up to adjust his grip, only for his teeth to clack together painfully when the cat raises its head to add, “Das where basement cat lives.”
Merlin shoves it into the enclosure next to the Hammer cat, and resolves to label the enclosures later. After all, it’s really just so people can find their way around the shop, and since there’re only one or two customers at any given moment and Merlin is always there, he figures it’s enough that he knows where all of the memes are.
It’s been an hour and all but a few Lolcats have made it into enclosures, but Merlin is still wrestling with a dignified grey shorthair that won’t let him approach without slashing at him. “I QUESTION THE GENERAL ASSUMPTION THAT FELINES ARE INHERENTLY DEFICIENT IN THE AREAS OF GRAMMAR AND SENTENCE STRUCTURE,” it hisses, and Merlin mumbles an apology before diving for it.
He misses, and the cat spits at him again before stalking off. Merlin makes an aborted gesture after it, because he’s spent half an hour on that cat alone, and he doesn’t want to lose it to the shadows. On the other hand, he decides it’s not the worst-behaved meme, so he might as well leave it for later.
“Hey,” says Merlin, inching towards a brown tabby that stalks backward with far more grace than Merlin has going forward, “Hey. Come here, I won’t hurt you.”
The cat hisses, and cuts the hiss off halfway to make an intimidating gargling noise. It makes a threatening gesture at Merlin’s face that has Merlin scrambling backward in self-preservation, not fear of course not, following that up with a wide-eyes stare and the words, “Seez dis eye? I killed a man wit dis eye.”
“That’s… very impressive,” says Merlin, somewhat honestly, because they’re talking at him in English (American English, but still English) and he might as well talk back because he’s not likely to get any other conversation for the day, what with the whole very few customers thing, and because Gwen still has class because she’s going to be a surgeon and Merlin was scrambling to get out of college.
Screeching from behind him drags Merlin out of his reverie. “I’m steelin ur gurlfriend,” yells a tiny cat, wiggling its buttocks and eyeing Merlin’s trousers,
“I…don’t have a girlfriend,” says Merlin, edging backwards as the cat makes swipes for his trousers. And I don’t want one, either. The cat leaps and grasps onto his belt loops.
“Steelin ur gurlfriend,” repeats the cat, sticking it’s paw – claws unsheathed – into Merlin’s pants pocket. Merlin yelps and falls, the cat scrabbing for purchase on Merlin’s legs as it yowls, “Luk! I’m alredy in er pantz!”
Which is when the door opens. Merlin shoves Girlfriend-Stealing cat off him and lunges for the door, “Close that door!”
It comes out quick and harsher than he expects, but it’s still too late. The customer is barely turning to reach for the doorknob when a flash of orange streaks past him at hip level with a cry of, “I must go. My planet needs me!”
“Shit,” says Merlin, yanking the Girlfriend-Stealing cat’s paw out of his pants pocket with a bitten-off hiss of pain.
“Is this your shop?” asks the customer.
It’s definitely the stress that makes Merlin snap back, “No, I’m just borrowing it for the day,” as he bundles the Girlfriend-Stealing cat into another enclosure. (They should make more of those, for Significant Others, Boyfriends, and Spouses. To be more inclusive, and all that.)
Definitely the stress and not the fact that the customer is Arthur Pendragon, Merlin’s flatmate’s ex who she’d dumped for being “a complete ass and absolutely immature.” She’d been completely dismissive of him, but that didn’t change the fact that Pendragon is extremely attractive; far more attractive than the type that usually frequent the store, which mainly include old grandmothers and thirteen-year-olds.
Merlin’s only seen him at social-type things before, when their extremely extended friend group (their “squad,” Gwen insisted) went out drinking or to films after work. Usually Pendragon was in suits, but not now. Merlin takes the chance to – causally observe him.
He’s wearing glasses that Merlin’s never seen before, silver rectangular frames that slip down his nose slightly when he tilts his head. Merlin glances at Pendragon’s elbow and the moment feels too intimate suddenly, like he’s seeing something he shouldn’t be - Pendragon unpolished, Pendragon before creased khakis and pressed suit jackets and shirt sleeves that roll up to an inch below his elbow.
Merlin looks away. “Hello,” he says to the checkered floorboards.
“Hello,” says Pendragon. Whatever he means to say is cut off by a burly orange cat draping itself over his shoes (loafers – who the hell wears loafers when it’s raining?) and drawls, “The orange ones… r…poysin.”
“Right,” says Merlin briskly, looking up, “Sorry about all that,” he adds, because business is business and he probably should, “And my attitude.”
“’S alright,” says Pendragon off-handedly, shoving his hands into his trouser pockets and drifting off attractively towards the enclosures.
“Right,” says Merlin again, because he’s forgotten how to speak, apparently, and stumbles off into his office, “Well,” he adds, louder, “shout if you need anything.”
He hopes Pendragon hears him, because the man doesn’t reply.
As soon as he lets himself into the office, Samuel stands up elegantly from the corner. As elegantly as any Doge can be when partially falling off an armchair. “Much cat,” he remarks, “very customer.”
“Well, yes,” says Merlin, shuffling papers on his desk. “A whole shipment came in today, but the delivery people ballsed it up again, and they were all over the place, but I think I got all of them, I just have to double check the ordering form,” he says all in one breath.
“Very language,” says Samuel, pointedly.
“Sorry,” says Merlin out of habit, and then he nearly drops his sheaf of papers because there’s a shout of – something, he can’t tell if it’s fear or surprise – from outside.
Merlin bursts out of his office door to see the customer standing stock-still in the middle of the floor while a black kitten runs circles around him, screaming, “There has been a failure! On the INTERNETS!”
“God damn it,” says Merlin with feeling, and vaults the counter to lunge for the cat. He wraps arms around its middle, tilting his head back in an attempt to avoid having his eyes clawed out, and shoves it into an enclosure.
“Thanks,” says Pendragon slowly.
“Yeah,” says Merlin, pressing a tissue to a scratch above his eye. “Did you…need something? Generally I don’t mean for customers to take me literally.”
“Oh,” says Pendragon, wrong-footed for a moment, “no, thank you. And I’m Arthur.”
“I… know,” says Merlin, adding, “Merlin; pleasure to meet you,” because he was raised to be polite in the face of chaos.
He still takes the next opportunity to hide in the back office under the guise of Doing Important Accounting Things. Which is really just poking at the financial projection software on the company computer and trying to make it graph circles.
“Such shiny,” says Samuel, sniffing Merlin’s hand for treats, “Much proud. Many suit.” He turns a calculatingly quizzical look on Merlin. “You liek?”
Merlin absolutely doesn’t flush. He ignores Samuel and goes outside to label the Lolcat enclosures.
“Wow,” remarks Samuel pointedly, staring after him, “such passive. Very aggression. Also Egypt. Very rivers.”
Merlin’s sweeping up bits of packing peanut and carefully not looking towards the enclosures when Arthur approaches him again.
“Can I help you with anything?” he asks, before Arthur can do anything more devastating than stand there. “Anything in particular you’re looking for?”
“My sister wants something interesting for her birthday,” says Arthur, “and I looked for things online, and got directed to here.”
“That’s nice,” says Merlin, dropping into his cheery, customer-friendly persona that got him this job. “Did you happen to have anything in mind?”
“Well,” says Arthur in consternation, “she hates cats.”
“Okay,” says Merlin, because he has to say something. “Um. Then.” He stops, and thinks, then says, “We don’t sell them, but there’s a shop a few streets down, Martin’s Dog Memes, that has Doges.”
“Oh,” says Arthur, his voice lifting at the end to make it a question.
“It’s also a meme, sort of like a Lolcat,” explains Merlin, “except a dog. And it has a personality, and it’s intelligent – pardon, sentient – so even though its language skills are patchy, it’ll react to real-time situations.” He pauses, to gauge Arthur’s reaction. Arthur seems interested, if the way he’s got his eyes fixed on Merlin’s face is any indication, so Merlin hurriedly keeps going before he trips over his own tongue. “I’ve got one, myself. His name is Samuel. You can meet him if you like.”
“Yeah,” says Arthur, “I’d like to do that. Thanks.”
And the smile that he gives Merlin makes Merlin think that possibly, this Bad Day might turn out to be a not-so-bad one after all.