Enter The Realm of the Pendragon
"I have had a pig of a day!"
Shelley looked up from the magazine she was reading and gave Esmé a sympathetic look. "What's happened?" She had been the only member of the regular clientele in the Shop so far and had been curled up on the sofa, drinking a hot chocolate and reading a magazine while she waited for the others to arrive. She closed the magazine, putting it on the coffee table as Esmé shrugged her way out of her coat and folded it over the back of her chair.
"Have you ever had one of those days where there's not been anything as such that's gone wrong, but it's just been a bad day?" Esmé sat on the chair, perching on the edge as though she was liable to have to move any moment. It made her seem nervy and tense, something most unlike her.
Shelley nodded. "Yeah, it's annoying but there's not really one thing that you can pinpoint it to. It's more like a general underlying bleh-ness."
Shelley grinned. "I think I picked it up from Dante."
"That would not surprise me in the slightest, he comes out with some very strange expressions."
"But very fitting."
"Oh, indeed. I think it's his age, he picks up slang and that kind of thing very quickly."
Shelley gave Esmé a look. "He's the same age as me, give or take a few months."
"Yes, but he's a boy, they don't mature as fast as we do. Then again, in some cases, they don't mature at all."
"Men bashing again, Esmé?" Miles came over with Esme's cup of tea. "What have we done to deserve it this time?"
"Thanks, Miles." Esmé accepted the cup and put it down on the table before adding sugar to it. "Actually, we weren't really bashing men, it was just a general comment. I can't remember how it came up now, we were originally talking about bad days."
"And blaming men for them? Tut tut, Esmé, I expected better of you!"
The bell over the Shop door jangled to announce the arrival of another customer so Miles made his way back over to the counter to serve the couple who had just walked in. The Shop was slightly busier than it had been for a while and was keeping Miles busy. Esmé blew on her tea before sipping at it and sighed with pleasure. She wriggled back in the chair, assuming a much more comfortable position and began to relax. Shelley picked up her magazine again. She flicked through the pages, not needing to say anything further to her and the two girls sat there in quiet companionship. The background bustle was slightly comforting, in the same way that the warm coffee-scented atmosphere felt familiar and safe.
"No Gregor tonight again?" Esmé asked finally.
"No, I heard from him earlier, he's stressing about his thesis. I told him he should come in here and have a break from it for a little while but he wouldn't. I swear, he's going to worry himself bald by the time he gets it finished and he's not got that much hair as it is."
Esmé was about to respond to this when the Shop bell jangled again and she glanced over to see who it was.
"Maria!" she cried out in surprise.
The older woman standing in the doorway swung round to see who was calling her name and beamed when she saw the two girls sitting in their usual spot. She waved to them and waited by the counter to be served.
"She looks tired," Shelley observed, leaning over the back of the sofa as usual. Sometimes she thought she should try sitting in the armchair if she wanted to see everyone coming and going, but she preferred the sofa and more often than not ended up sitting there out of habit, only realising belatedly what she'd done.
"Mmm, I wonder where she's been."
They found out before too long. Maria came over bearing a cup of her favourite peppermint tea and sat down on the sofa next to Shelley.
"Maria, it's so nice to see you again, you've been away ages!"
She gave a smile to the two girls and a small sigh. "Yes, it's been several weeks since I was last here and it's so good to be back!"
"What happened? Are you okay?" Esmé asked with concern. "You look a bit tired."
Maria pushed her bushy dark brown hair out of her eyes and prodded the teabag in her cup with a teaspoon. "Oh, I'm all right. I was a bit ill for a while, that's all."
"A bit ill? What was it?" Esmé shared glances with Shelley. Maria looked like she had been quite ill for some time and still hadn't recovered properly, but in true Maria-style, she was shrugging off all concern and playing down the situation.
"Well, do you remember how I was being stressed at work? I was practically doing two jobs when that other girl left and it was taking up all my time to get everything done. I was actually working later than I should have been just to do the bare minimum so it was really taking its toll on me, especially when I started having problems sleeping. That was down to worrying over the work I had to do, not being able to leave it behind when I went home and switch off."
The girls listened attentively. All of the little group had known how hard Maria had been working and all had urged her to take care of herself so it was difficult for them to listen to her proving that their fears had been well-founded. Miles had to watch over from the counter where he was busy attending to customers and could only wonder what they were talking about. He knew that Maria would fill him in on everything later on so he wasn't overly bothered about missing out just then.
"Anyway, I went out for a meal one night with John," she continued, settling back on the sofa. "We went to this new Chinese place down the road, some of our friends had been there and they said the food was really good and reasonably priced too. I had something with prawns in, I can't remember exactly what it was now, but I ended up coming down with food poisioning."
"Oh no, that's awful!" Shelley gasped and Esmé sympathised.
"It was made worse really by the fact that I was so tired and run down, I think. It took me a good long time to recover from that, about two weeks or thereabouts. Then it just made it really hard to go back to work. I knew I had to, there was all this work that wasn't getting done and there was only me to do it, and the very thought just made me more stressed than I already was.
"I can imagine," Esmé nodded. "Sometimes I don't want to go back to work after having a few days off because I know that it will all have piled up while I've not been there. It's the worst thing about being irreplaceable sometimes, no one else knows what you do or how to do it."
Maria agreed. "I ended up going to see my doctor and practically having a complete breakdown in her office. She said that the stress I was under at work was not doing me any good and told me to take a few weeks off. I explained that I couldn't do that because the situation would still be there when I got back and she said that I had to tell my line manager exactly what the problem was. I didn't really want to do that, it made it seem like I couldn't cope with my work, but it was pointed out to me that I could cope with my work, it was all the extra stuff I was doing that was the problem.
"So, I phoned my line manager and had a really good talk with him. He didn't actually realise that I'd been lumbered with all of this extra work to do so it was a good thing I did speak to him really. The whole thing might not have been sorted otherwise. He actually thanked me for letting him know what was going on and told me to take off as much time as I needed until I felt that I was ready to go back to work. He assured me that someone else would be doing the work that I'd had dumped on me and that in itself was such a huge relief, you can't imagine!"
"I bet it was!" Shelley said. "It sounds about right though, your line manager not having a clue what's going on. They never do. I swear mine doesn't know half of what I'm doing most of the time." Maria smiled. "So, did you get it all sorted out then?"
"Oh yes, I felt much better just knowing that I didn't have a huge backlog of work to go back to. I'd been told that someone else would be doing my work as well, even though there's not really anyone else that knows how to work the system and all that kind of thing. Apparently, that's going to change when I go back, my manager is going to make sure that at least one other person knows how to do it all, so that if I'm ever off sick or on holiday or something like that, I won't have to come back to a huge stack of work and spend three weeks trying to catch up."
"It's a shame that you had to get in such a state in the first place, but at least something good has come out of it," Esmé pointed out.
"Yes, that's true."
"So when are you going back to work?"
"Next week. I went to see my doctor this morning and I told her that I was feeling much better and that I thought I was ready to go back. She said that I could stay off longer if I felt I needed to, but really, I think I'm okay now and I'm just getting bored at home."
"Well, it's nice to see you back here, that's for sure," Shelley said. "We all missed you and wondered where you were. I'm glad you're feeling much better now." Esmé agreed wholeheartedly with this sentiment.
"Oh, that's so nice of you to say," Maria smiled. She glanced around the Shop quickly. "Where's Gregor and Dante though?"
"We were just discussing Gregor earlier actually, when you came in," Shelley said. "He's busy with his thesis. I think he's coming to the end of it and he can't tear himself away. I said to Esmé that I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't come back bald through worry when he finally gets it all finished."
"It's understandable though," the older woman sympathised. "He's been working on it so hard and for so long as well. I bet he'll be relieved when it's finally finished."
"I bet he won't know what to do with himself. He'll suddenly have all this free time and be completely lost." Shelley giggled at the thought. "He'll be like a badger or something coming out from hibernation and wondering what on earth to do now he's awake."
"The badger reference has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that he's going grey so early on now, has it?"
"Of course not!" Shelley protested, putting on a suitably innocent expression.
Esmé snorted. "That doesn't work for Dante, it's not going to work for you either."
"Where is Dante?" Maria asked again.
"I have no idea." Esmé checked her watch. "It's nearly ten o'clock, he's usually here by now."
"He's usually here about half seven," Shelley informed them. "It's most unlike him not to be here by now." She frowned. "I wonder if Miles knows where he is." She leant over the back of the sofa and called over to Miles who was wiping the counter down, having dealt with a sudden mad rush of people that had kept him busy for the last half an hour. "Miles?"
He looked up and with a final swipe at the worksurface, threw the cloth in the sink and walked over, wiping his hands on his apron as he did so. "You yelled?"
"Yeah, do you know where Dante is?"
He looked surprised and glanced over at the big clock on the wall. "Wow, I had no idea it was that late already." He turned back to Shelley. "No, I don't know where he is. As far as I'm aware, he didn't have any other plans tonight, he usually says if he does." He thought for a moment or two. "Nope, I can't think of any reason why he wouldn't be here. Let me just check and see if he's sent me a message. I might not have heard it with being so busy."
The girls nodded and waited for Miles' return. He didn't keep them waiting long. He soon came back shaking his head. "No, not a sausage."
"How odd," she said softly.
"Oh, I don't know," Miles said, with marginal concern. "You were here the other night, I bet he's off shagging that new boy, Matthew. Or if not actually shagging, he'll be giving it a jolly good try."
"Matthew?" Maria asked curious, a question echoed by Esmé.
Shelley glared at Miles. "That's not a nice thing to say," she scolded.
"Come on, he was very definitely interested you have to admit."
"Yes, maybe so but I hardly think Dante is off chasing him right now."
"Well, neither of them are here! It looks very suspicious to me."
"Miles, there could be a very good reason why neither of them are here right now, and I'm willing to bet it has nothing to do with sex!"
"I suppose there's a first time for everything," Miles mused. "You know Dante, he's got a one track mind when it comes to cute boys. And as far as Dante was concerned, Matthew was very cute."
"This is true," Shelley conceded. She turned to explain to the others. "Last night, there was only me, Miles and Dante here, then this young lad turns up out of the blue. Never seen him here before so we got him to come over and join us. He was okay, easy to talk to, a bit of a laugh. Kind of cute too in a very young boyish sort of way. Dante, being Dante, did not hide the fact that he found Matthew attractive and was flirting with him like mad, but Matthew seemed to like Dante too and was flirting back with him. It was quite sweet actually, they certainly seemed to hit it off straight away."
"Aw, how nice," Maria smiled. She knew that Dante and Miles had had an intense on-again off-again relationship in the past which had now somehow relaxed into a more casual 'as and when' basis. Personally, she thought Dante needed someone more his own age as opposed to Miles who was at least fifteen years older, even though Dante declared often and loudly that he much preferred older men.
"To be honest, I'm not sure that Dante was Matthew's type," Miles admitted. "I'd be very surprised indeed if those two actually got together."
"Oh? I thought Dante was everyone's type, that's certainly the way he likes to play it."
Miles shook his head. "No, this Matthew, he was - well, not a normal sort of bloke, let's say." Maria looked puzzled and waited for him to explain. "He said something about being attracted to people who aren't just male or female. You know those people who say they're in the wrong body or whatever? He said he's one of those and attracted to that sort of people too."
Shelley interrupted. "I'm not sure he said he was only attracted to those people, I think he was including them along with everyone else."
Miles shrugged. "Well, whatever it was he said, he told us that he's not male, he's some kind of boy - I forget what he called it now but he made it very clear that he's not a regular sort of boy like Dante is. I just don't want Dante to get involved in something that he has no idea about and have him end up getting hurt."
Shelley gave Miles a searching look. "You're jealous," she declared finally.
"You are, you're jealous that Dante is actually really interested in someone else. That he's not just having fun flirting with someone for the hell of it but that he really wants to get to know Matthew and what's more that it seems that the feeling is mutual and Matthew wants to get to know him too!"
Miles stared at her, his mouth hanging open in surprise. He shut it with a snap. "I don't know what you're talking about," he replied, a little coldly.
Shelley folded her arms across her chest with a smug expression on her face. "Jealous," she nodded. The other two had to agree with her.
"It does sound very much like you could be a teeny weeny bit jealous, Miles," Maria pointed out. "Why else would you be so worried about Dante and what this boy is going to do to him?"
"Because Dante's a good friend and I care about him!"
"Not because you want Dante all to yourself again?"
He sighed heavily. "Maybe a little," he admitted at last. "I just don't understand this Matthew person and I don't do well with things I don't understand. I'm worried that Dante might get out of his depth, that's all. He's so headstrong, he rushes in without thinking about the consquences. Then it all goes wrong and I end up picking up the pieces, dusting him off and putting him back together again."
Shelley gave Miles a tight hug. "You have to let him make his own mistakes, Miles. You can't force him to stay with you. The more you do that, the more he's going to want to be free. Let him go. Let him live his own life and if he really really wants to be with you, then he'll come back."
The older man nodded, thankful for the hug. "Yeah, you're right." He glanced over at the clock. "I just wish I knew where he was."
Unless otherwise specified.