Summary: How Arthur Pendragon, Director of Communications for Prime Minister Gaius, and his assistant, Merlin Emrys, fell in love - a story in goldfish, cats, webcomics, cups of tea, and sharpies.
Notes: OH MY GOD IT'S FINISHED.
In November i_claudia and I were having a conversation and she was all "wouldn't it be amazing if there was a West Wing AU where Arthur was Josh and Merlin was Donna?" And I went "Yes! No! I! Shit!" It ended up not just Josh/Donna but with bits of my life, things from The Office, Love Actually, and about a billion other things I can't even figure out anymore. This fic was supposed to be finished before Claudia left for Central America in January. Then I was going to finish it for Valentine's Day. Now I'm just glad it's finished.
It always takes a village for me to write a fic, so I've got to thank my... urban metropolis. Thanks to my adored cheerleaders: creativepseudo, staraflur, myfoolisheart, whisperwords, puckling, and ras_elased. To my intrepid Britpickers and educators in all things English, thisissirius and social_retard86, who went absolutely above and beyond the call of duty in explaining every nuance of the British political system and British culture in general. This fic would suck without you two.
But the biggest of all thank yous go to three very, very, very adored ladies:
To hermette, hand-holder extraordinaire, who guided me through the entire first half of the fic, to frantic_allonsy, who ran the second lap with me and told me exactly how I had to expand and where, and especially to my beloved i_claudia. You started this with me, you stuck with me even from Nicaragua, and who finished it with me from a hotel room. I love you so much, sweetie. This is all for you.
(Credit for the pictures go to google, flickr, Kate Beaton, whoever the guy is who writes XKCD, and my own photoshop prodding.)
Edit: Now with commentary!
Arthur Pendragon has a terrible job. Well what he means, really, is that he has a wonderful job, because he loves it, and there's nowhere else he could see himself working, and it's the center of his universe. But there are definite downsides.
For instance, he's been after this woman at the consulate, Alice, for ages, and she's finally agreed to go out a date with him, and then his Blackberry goes off. It's Merlin, his idiot assistant with a text that he's about not to take until he sees that it's marked urgent and the subject is "PM999!!!!"
"G. WAS BIKING, CRASHED INTO TREE, DO NOT KNOW CONDITION" The text reads, and then at the bottom, "IF U R IGNORING ME TO SHAG ALICE WILL NEVER FORGIVE U."
"Dreadfully sorry," he says in what Merlin calls his "posh and revolting" voice, "got to go, real emergency at work."
"Work?" Alice purrs, leaning forward as he takes out his wallet and good God, she has a fantastic set on her, and Arthur hasn't gotten laid in ages. She swipes his phone. "PM emergency, I assume? A night emergency can wait until the AM, don't you think?"
"PM as in Prime Minister," Arthur says shortly, throwing down a wad of cash that should more than cover it. "Oh, I work for him, we hadn't gotten to that part of the conversation."
"Prime Minister Gaius?" Alice asks, arching a perfect eyebrow.
"Crashed his bike into a tree," Arthur confirms. "You'll hear about it on the morning news. Ring me and we'll do this some other time, yeah?"
He flags down a taxi when he leaves the restaurant. She's never going to ring him.
"This is all a big fuss over nothing," Gaius says, squinting in the mirror as he dabs at his cut cheek with a cotton swab soaked in antiseptic. "I was taking a bit of a bike ride in St. James park and was attacked by a wayward branch. We really ought to do something about the upkeep there."
"I'll be sure to add it to your political platform," Gwen says, pushing a curl out of her face. "Now, I have a press conference tomorrow and if I don't have a better story than this, the press is going to run with it and next thing you know you'll sound like a bumbling old man."
"I am a bumbling old man," Gaius snorts, slapping on a bandage. "And they elected me anyway, because I'm the best bumbling old man they've got."
"That's a bit of a gross over-simplification of the British political system," Arthur mutters, and then tacks on, "...sir."
"Gaius, shouldn't you get a physician to look at that?" Merlin asks from somewhere behind Arthur. He's wearing the same dreadful tie with coffee stains he was wearing earlier, so he clearly hasn't gone home for sleep the way Arthur ordered. He's also known Gaius since he was a little boy (something to do with Merlin's mother working for Gaius before he went into politics? Arthur had tuned him out), and continues to address him with absolutely no propriety.
"I have a doctorate in medicine from King's College, Merlin," Gaius says. "And I feel comfortable diagnosing it as a scratch, not the plague. Now please, resume your normal lives. It's hardly a state emergency."
"I don't even know what a normal life is anymore," Arthur mutters to Merlin as they dutifully file out of Gaius' office.
"I think I had one, once," Gwen says wistfully. "It was nice."
Arthur met Merlin about two years ago when they first took office. He'd been managing fine without an assistant, thank you very much, Gwen, when some kid showed up at his door.
"Hello," he'd said, waving nervously. His ears were (and still are) like jug handles, he had (and still has) the body mass of a twelve year old even though he looked to be about Arthur's height, blue eyes like a Kewpie doll, and that day was wearing the most hideous fucking tie Arthur had ever seen. "Gwen says I'm your new assistant."
"What the fuck? I'm the Director of the Press Office, she's just the fucking Press Secretary, who the fuck put her in charge?" Arthur had asked, banging out of his office and past the kid (okay, he was probably like five years younger than Arthur? Not the point.) "Guinevere, I told you, I don't want a fucking assistant, take this street urchin and his horrid tie back to whatever Primark's you found him in!"
"Hey," Merlin had looked offended. "My mum picked out this tie. It's silk."
"Congratulations on having a blind mum," Arthur said. "Get out of my office."
"Wait," Merlin had caught his hand and Arthur remembers feeling suddenly breathless, which was weird. He's still not sure if it was rage, Merlin's sheer audacity, or the fact that he'd just been bellowing at Gwen. "I really need this job, okay? I'm a year out of uni, I can't find fucking any job, I'm behind on my loans so I can't start my graduate classes, and all I've got is an English degree, student loans, and the fact that my mum, who is not blind, thank you very much, used to work for the Prime bloody Minister before he went into politics and he's kind of adopted me, which is how I got here."
Arthur gaped. "Those are the worst credentials I've ever heard."
"I also took a Political Science course as a requirement?" Merlin said. "And I'm excellent at filing." Arthur had looked at the disaster that was his office and sighed.
"If you buy some new ties, I won't fire you," he'd finally said reluctantly, beckoning Merlin inside.
Merlin hadn't bought new ties. Over the years, Arthur has learned that Merlin has horrid taste in clothing, a filing system that somehow works so that he can find anything with the flick of a finger, but would bring most Oxford graduates (including and probably exclusively limited to Arthur) weeping and to their knees at the utter illogic of it, and that Merlin has a terrible addiction to really heinous fish and chips that will surely amount in artery-clogging and sudden, violent death. Merlin is also the only person Arthur listens to or laughs with besides Gaius, makes a hell of a cup of coffee, and somehow hasn't managed to get himself fired.
Arthur's at a loss to explain it, himself.
Merlin's jobs include organizing Arthur's life, averting crises of national importance, and keeping Arthur properly caffeinated. But his main job (if you ask Merlin, since it's what he spends the most time doing) is to care for Arthur's goldfish, since it's Merlin's fault Arthur even has goldfish. He was the one who was stupid enough to let Morgana into his office.
"You're not getting any special scoop just because you're the Director of the Press Office's good-as-sister," Arthur had said flatly, not looking up from his laptop. He hadn't thought he needed to. No one walked as purposefully in stilettos, and she hadn't knocked. Only two people don't knock, and Merlin clearly couldn't pull off heels. "Gwen already briefed you for the day. Leave me alone."
"Hello, Arthur," Morgana said airily, ignoring him as usual. "So nice to see you're alive. I'd heard rumors, but you know that as a reporter I have to verify all claims."
"I'll make Merlin throw you out." Arthur threatened.
"How do you think I got in?" Morgana scoffed. "He took one look at the tank and turned into a gibbering mess."
"You resorted to heavy artillery?" Arthur asked, looking up at Morgana. "That's a bit much, even for you."
"The fish tank," Morgana said pityingly. "The one sitting on your assistant's desk."
"What?" Arthur had banged out of his office to find Merlin and Gwen bent over a large fish bowl, oohing and ahhing.
"This one's Arthur," Merlin was saying to Gwen, "because he's got the flowiest tail and is a bit of a git, see? And this one's Merlin, because he's the prettiest. And this one's Kilgharrah, because I read a book with a character named that once, and I think he's kind of cool."
"Merlin," Arthur barked, "what have I told you about naming things about to be flushed down the toilet?"
Merlin's head popped up from behind the fish bowl. "I think I can safely say that's the one thing you've never told me anything about."
"Oh, Arthur, I thought you'd like them," Morgana said pityingly. "I know you always wanted a cat when you were little but were allergic," Gwen and Merlin exchanged a delighted look and Arthur resolved to have them killed, "and lord knows you need to learn how to interact with another living creature. A fish is the most complicated thing I felt I could leave you with."
Arthur had grumbled, but Merlin had pouted and promised to feed them and take care of them and clean their tank, and Arthur had finally relented. "Next time you feel the urge to get me goldfish, please make them the kind I can eat by the handful," He'd said pointedly to Morgana, kicking her out.
"You can't eat your new pets!" Merlin shouted, clearly already enamored. Merlin, however, was destined to be heartbroken. Within 24 hours Kilgharrah had eaten Fish-Merlin, and Fish-Arthur committed suicide by jumping out of his bowl.
"Aw, look," Merlin had said, wrapping Arthur's fishy corpse up in a Kleenex, "how symbolic. Even as a fish, you can't live without me."
"You got eaten, how's that for symbolism," Arthur snapped, taking his first sip of morning coffee.
"Fish are imperfect psychic medium," Merlin had said grandly, and headed for the men's room.
"This bodes so poorly," Arthur had complained to Gwen, who just laughed.
Merlin apparently holds no grudge against Kilgharrah for eating his fish counterpart, because whenever Arthur comes out of his office Merlin's merrily chatting away as if the fish can understand him, usually on the subject of what a giant prat he thinks Arthur is.
"You do realize that he can't understand you, he's a fish," Arthur always says when he throws more paperwork on Merlin's desk. It's always heinously messy, but Merlin, mysteriously, never loses a thing.
"Don't listen to him, Kilgharrah," Merlin says cheerfully, picking up a post-it. "Oh, and you have a message from Alice from the consulate. She says 'there was nothing on the news except a little bike crash, and don't ever call me back'."
"Ah well," Arthur shrugs. "She wouldn't have understood my, er, unique lifestyle."
"Is that your latest euphemism for being an incurable grump and all-around bastard?" Merlin asks.
"I'm firing you the second I find someone who can do filing as well as you can," Arthur warns, though the warning may have lost some of its power, because he makes it every day and Merlin doesn't even blink.
He means it, though.
Here is an example of why Merlin should be fired:
It's not just that Merlin's an idiot with a terrible sense of humor, it's that he's fucking weird, and he seems to think everyone else is just as weird as him, and his craziness is causing problems around the office.
The worst part of Arthur's job easily is dealing with the queen's people. Her people, mind you, not the queen. The queen he of course has nothing but the utmost respect for. She comes by 10 Downing every few months for tea and buscuits with Gaius, where they discuss the books they exchange with each other, memories of the war, and their various aches and pains. Old people things. She's been very sweet every time Arthur's met her. But her publicity people, for all that they must have the easiest job ever, are terrible. The queen simply has to read the briefs Arthur's department sends her, continue to have no opinion, and wave at people from time to time. How difficult can that be?
Apparently, the boredom of their job makes the queen's people anal beyond belief. Even though Arthur personally writes the daily briefs that are delivered to Buckingham Palace with the kind of scrupulous attention to detail he usually doesn't even have time to aspire to for Gaius, he still he gets at least two e-mails or calls a day, not to mention at least weekly visits where they (there are five of them with their panties in various degrees of twistedness, and they mix and match from week to week) sit in Arthur's office (which must be spotless, or they get sniffy) and go "Her majesty would appreciate it if you could add that level of detail the first time you send her briefs" or "perhaps next time, Mr. Pendragon, you could endeavor to clarify yourself before you sent things to us".
"They're just being twats, " Merlin says confidently whenever Arthur complains, putting his feet up on the other visitor's chair even though Arthur had told him repeatedly that it made him look like he was raised in a barn. "They're being twats and you should tell them so."
"Merlin," Arthur groans, "you can't call people who work for the queen twats."
"Why not?" Merlin asks. "You and I work for her too, since Parliament and the PM technically serve at his behest, and I call you a twat all the time."
"You can't call me a twat either."
"What if I called you a clotpole?"
Arthur blinks meaningfully at him a few times, but Merlin doesn't break. Apparently, in Merlin's head this qualifies as a serious question.
"'Clotpole' isn't even a word," he finally manages.
"I made it up just for you," Merlin says. "See, it sounds terrible, but it doesn't actually mean anything, so I thought..."
"Ah, there's where our problem started," Arthur mutters. "You thought." Merlin just sniffs and glares at Arthur like he's thinking clotpole, clotpole, CLOTPOLE rather viciously, and damn, now he's got Arthur using it too. "Let's just refrain from name-calling," he finally suggests, and Merlin shrugs, like the whole thing doesn't matter to him in the slightest.
"I could speak to the queen," he suggests. "You know, the next time she visits Gaius."
"Ah, yes, that little thing you've got going on," Arthur says acidly, flicking a paperclip at Merlin, who catches it mid-air. In one of his fits of paternal affection for his adoptive son/nephew/grandson/whatever Merlin was to Gaius that week, Gaius had once mentioned Merlin's degree in English to the Queen, naturally throwing in all the proud details on Merlin's great intellect (clearly vastly overstated), the fact that he graduated in the top fifteen percent at uni with fabulous marks (which weren't that much better than Arthur's, but Merlin went to Durham, though, so even though he said Durham was his first choice and rated better than Oxford, clearly he was a moron) his keen literary mind (yet to prove useful in any way whatsoever). Arthur didn't see why Merlin deserved such lavish praise - he'd done just as well at uni as Merlin had and his father had simply said "well done" at his graduation, patted him on the shoulder, and left it at that. For no reason Arthur could discern, however, the queen had gown rather enamored with Merlin, who now was in charge of serving her and Gaius their tea and biscuits whenever she visited, during which she and Gaius would engage Merlin in a brief discussion on whatever book they had just read. Arthur heartily disapproved of the entire business not, as Gwen and Morgana insisted, because he was seething with jealousy, but because it took valuable time away from Merlin being Arthur's assistant, which was his actual job, and because Merlin now seemed to think that threatening Arthur or anyone who displeased him with the queen was a perfectly acceptable practice.
"I could!" Merlin insists. "She always tells me to pass along to you how much she appreciates your briefs and how much more detailed they are than the last person who had your job! And the people who work for her are clotpoles. Tosspots. Twats. Whatever."
"Irrelevant," Arthur says. "What else is on for today?"
"Right," Merlin looks down at the printed-out schedule on his lap. "Where were we... 2:00, meeting with the royal clotpoles, 2:30, telephone conference with the RMT leaders..."
"Fuck," Arthur groans, tilting his head upwards so he can glare at the ceiling. That's the phone conference he's been looking forward to all week. "No way to schedule it later?"
"Nope, already checked," Merlin says. "Sorry, know you wanted to chew them out for the transit worker's strike."
"It's just pure idiocy that they're telling these unions they deserve a fucking pay raise when the economy's going down the drain and everyone's taking a cut, not to mention it means that faith in public transit's gone down so Gaius will have to push off that initiative to encourage people to use it more, and that's going to make the environmentalists mad, and I know everyone thinks they're a peaceful lot, but..."
"...look, do you want me to make up some sort of excuse?" Merlin sighs. "Get you out of it around 2:30?"
Arthur tilts his head back downward and points at Merlin. "See, that is an actually useful suggestion. Why don't you make those more?"
"Because I forgot I was being employed by a fourteen-year-old girl who doesn't want to go to the spring dance with the icky boy?" Merlin asks. "By the way, Morgana passed me a note in maths this morning, she wants to know if you like her and you're supposed to check a box..."
"Out of my office," Arthur commands with an imperious hand-wave. "Out. I do not take defamation of character."
At two o'clock on the nose, Arthur's office was flat-out invaded by Camilla Farrington-Smith and Felix Cavendash, the absolute swottiest of all the swots on the queen's public relations staff. "You can tell they're swotty," Merlin had once whispered to him during a late night they were stuck waiting for news of the American election with nothing better to do but sit around and get punchy from eating too much takeaway, "because they both have mustaches. You'd think that someone as posh as her would be able to afford an upper-lip wax."
Arthur now had trouble containing his laughter whenever Mrs. Farrington-Smith was the one who came over to give him an earful. It was another reason Merlin was fired, fired, oh so very fired.
"Please," Arthur said graciously, rising and gesturing to the chairs he'd made Merlin vacuum after he'd had his dirty feet all over them. "Take a seat. Can I have my assistant get you anything? Tea?"
"No thank you," Mr. Cavendash says in his nasal, skin-crawlingly posh voice.
"If you're quite sure," Arthur says politely, sitting down only after they do. "My assistant Merlin makes a wonderful cuppa." Per usual, Mr. Cavendash's nose wrinkles at Arthur's use of Merlin's first name. Arthur's overhead him mention as he leaves the office how he finds it improper that Arthur refers to his assistant by his first name, like he thinks Arthur should be in an old Jeeves and Wooster episode and call him Emrys. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"Remembrance Sunday is approaching," Mrs. Farrington-Smith says smoothly, "and what with the current state of the... economy" (this is said as if the concerns of people who need to worry about money or the rise and fall of its supply are somehow distasteful) "we thought it would be best if the queen rode through the streets greeting the people in her carriage. To raise their spirits, you understand, by showing them the strength of our monarchy."
"Her carriage," Arthur says flatly. He feels a headache coming on. "The one encrusted in gold."
"Well of course, my boy," Mr. Cavendash says as if Arthur's supremely dull-witted. "You don't think she's got another one, now do you?"
It takes Arthur several long, deep breaths before he feels he can speak without stabbing someone in the eye with the pen in his hand. "I simply believe," he said finally, "that when the British people are struggling in this economic climate, it won't sit well with them to see a display of wealth from their queen."
"Young man," Mr. Cavendash says, turning beet-red. "don't insult my intelligence. I'm an Oxford man - "
"As am I," Arthur drawls, irritated but unsurprised that his degrees, which take up the place of honor in between the two windows behind him, have gone completely ignored. "Rhodes Scholar. Treasurer of the Oxford Union." (His father had been extremely displeased that Arthur had chosen to run for that, not President, but that was neither here nor there.) "I do believe I understand what we're discussing."
"You were in your nappies while I was hobnobbing with the finest minds at the Bullingdon Club!" Mr. Cavendash snaps, which is when Arthur determines that, in order to get through this meeting without committing a crime, it's best if he nods, makes noises of agreement, and prays to God that what's being proposed either never happens or that he and Gwen can put their heads together and find a way to make it not reflect poorly upon them. Worst comes to worst, he may call upon Merlin to see if he really is as close to the queen as he claims, and if perhaps he and Gaius can gently suggest that perhaps she not gad about the streets of London in as ostentatious a manner as physically possible. That, or that 2:30 arrives faster than estimated.
Arthur doesn't have a clock in his office, because he's found that when he does, he spends more time staring at it than he does attending to whoever is speaking. Instead, he has a very nice, very expensive watch he never leaves home without, and an assistant. Should his assistant fail (as he so often does), nothing makes Arthur's point better than making a real show of pushing back his sleeve and reading his watch with a very concerned expression. He'd try it right now, if only he weren't positive that Mr. Cavendash would actually have a seizure from rage and Mrs. Farrington-Smith would testify that yes, it was all his fault, and it could only lead to a lot of messy legal trouble.
So Arthur waits. And waits. And he waits some more. Merlin's pokes in and out of his doorway constantly, making increasingly rude and violent gestures at the back of Mr. Cavendash's and Mrs. Farrington-Smith's heads, which, while amusing, is making proper behavior on Arthur's part rather difficult. He isn't sure if being in the same room with these people means he's entered a strange space-time continuum, because time doesn't seem to be moving at all, and he spends more time wondering when Merlin's going to appear in the door than he does making sure he's nodding along properly.
The one time Merlin doesn't seem to be standing in the doorway just to be annoying, he's got this oddly determined look on his face and he's making a gesture Arthur hasn't seen before. His fists are out, parallel to the floor, and he's levering his forearms up and down like they're beating down on something, but instead of keeping them still he's moving them back and forth.
You are a very strange man Arthur conveys through his eyebrows to Merlin. Stop that immediately.
He knows Merlin speaks fluent eyebrow, but instead of heeding him (of course), Merlin shakes his head violently and repeats the motion, conveying through his eyebrows (never as eloquent as Arthur's) No, I think I'm going to continue being a giant prat and banging around like a bloody moron. It's imperative that I continue to do so.
Stop it or fuck off.
URGENT. Merlin's eyebrows scream. PLEASE PAY ATTENTION TO MY INCREASINGLY SPASTIC MOTIONS. Arthur decides it's best, at this point, to ignore Merlin, which earns him a disgusted huff and Merlin stomping away in a tiff.
He doesn't come back for the entire meeting. It's a very, very long meeting. It's so long that when Arthur finally manages to escort Mr. Cavendash and Mrs. Farrington-Smith out and looks at his watch, it's 3:30, and instead of looking cowed that he forgot to get Arthur out of the worst meeting of his life, Merlin is sitting ramrod-straight at his desk and typing away with great purpose in away that suggests that Merlin feels very righteous about himself, and is still mad at Arthur for ignoring his eyebrows.
"Merlin," Arthur grits out. "Do you or do you not know how to read a clock?"
"It's one of my many skills listed on my CV," Merlin replies, his eyes fixed steadily on replying to business e-mails. As far as Arthur's concerned, Merlin actually doing his job (probably in order to suck up to Arthur) is the surest sign of guilt yet.
"So then you are aware that I told you to take me out of my meeting at 2:30 and yet an hour later, I was still in that meeting?"
"It's not my fault you ignored my signals and told me to leave you alone," Merlin says righteously. "I tried my best. I just figured discussing the queen's carriage was very important to you."
"The queen's - of course it's not, you moron," Arthur yells, loud enough that Gwen pokes her head out of her office to see what the fuss is, rolls her eyes at the pair of them, and then shuts the door with a disapproving slam. "And what on earth do you mean, a signal?"
Merlin sighs the sigh of the long-suffering (ironic, Arthur thinks) and turns around in his chair, and then repeats the strange forearm-fist-up-down motion. "The signal," he says, as if it's patently obvious.
"I thought that was another one of your rude gestures."
"No," Merlin says, like he thinks Arthur's the one being stupid here. "How is this a rude gesture? It's a signal."
"Does it signal that you're trying to get back circulation in your arms?"
"It's like," Merlin repeats the signal and hums a tune Arthur doesn't recognize. "See? Play them off, Keyboard Cat."
Arthur feels like he's fallen down the rabbit hole to a foreign country where it sounds like people are speaking English, but the words they're saying don't make actual sense. "Play him off... Keyboard Cat."
"Yeah, like the Youtube video?" Merlin flags a little at Arthur's blank look. "You know, the video with the cat in the blue shirt?" Nothing. "Have you been living under a rock?" He finally asks. "You know, the video! Play him off, Keyboard Cat!"
Arthur shrugs. "I'm pretty sure right now you're just making things up."
"I am not!" Merlin says hotly, and furiously types in a search to bring up the video, which he shows to Arthur by tilting the screen at him. "See! Play them off, Keyboard Cat!"
"Let me get this straight," Arthur says after watching the clip, which actually clears up nothing at all. "I'm a cat. And I am supposed to... play them off."
"Okay, we need a new signal," Arthur sighs.
"Why?" Merlin asks. "I like this one. It works, now that you know what it means."
"Uh, because it's ridiculous?" Arthur suggests.
"Ridiculously awesome," Merlin insists.,
"Merlin," Arthur says in his best authoritative voice. "Make up a new signal or you're fired."
Merlin's mouth thins mutinously, in a way that tells Arthur that he should look forward to more Keyboard Cat impressions in the future, but not after Merlin's lulled Arthur into a false sense of security by obeying him for a too-short amount of time. "Wait," Merlin bites out before Arthur can turn to go back into his office, grabbing his wrist in that way he does that always makes Arthur feel flustered by the casual, almost inappropriate intimacy of the gesture. He keeps meaning to tell Merlin to stop it, but he hasn't yet thought up a good way to say I'm uptight and uncomfortable with people touching me, especially when 'people' means 'you'. "Take this." He slaps a tape recorder into Arthur's hand.
"What?" Arthur says, hoping Merlin didn't hear his voice crack. He clears his throat and tries again. "Did Morgana leave hers here on record hoping to get something? Because I'm not retuning it if she did."
"No," Merlin rolls his eyes and drops Arthur's wrist. "I put the RMT conference on speaker phone and recorded the whole thing. Now you can play it back and send scathing e-mails, or whatever you do."
"That was unexpectedly intelligent of you," Arthur says wonderingly. "Good job. You're only 75% fired now."
"Oh, thank God," Merlin replies in a voice so laden with impertinent sarcasm Arthur automatically adjusts it to 80% fired. "That 25% has been a real burden on my well-being."
"Yes, well," Arthur says awkwardly before fleeing to his office, to the soothing familiarity of yelling at utterly idiotic people, "you know how I like to look out for you."
"Here," Merlin says two weeks later before he leaves for the night, shoving a wrapped package at Arthur, who pushes away his laptop and looks up at him through his reading glasses.
"It isn't my birthday until Tuesday," he says, taking it.
"Yes, but tomorrow you have a visit from the royal contingency. I thought I should give you this before your visit tomorrow from Messrs. Cavendash and Pawley-Stewart."
Arthur groans. Cavendash is probably still enraged over the whole Oxford debacle, and Mr. Pawley-Stewart is one of those people who pauses in between every word so that getting a sentence out takes roughly an hour. "Please tell me it's a handgun," he says. "Or a dagger."
"Nothing quite so illegal," Merlin says. "Go on, then."
It's a framed picture, Arthur discovers when he tears off the paper. In the frame is a picture of a disgruntled cat, with Merlin's scribble underneath. "One day," Arthur swore the caption read, "one day I will kill them all."
"If you tilt it towards you, everyone will think it's a family photo or something," Merlin explains eagerly. "You can stare at it and it'll motivate you not to commit homicide on a regular basis."
"What is it with you and cats?" Arthur asks, setting up the frame as instructed. "Is this a motif I should know about?"
Merlin shrugs. "Morgana said you liked them, right?" Arthur looks up, surprised. He hadn't expected Merlin to remember that after so many months.
"I do," he says softly. "Like them, I mean. Thank you. It's an oddly thoughtful gift."
"You're welcome," Merlin says cheerfully, beaming like Arthur's just knighted him. "See you tomorrow, then."
"Merlin? Arthur calls before Merlin can get out of the office, and Merlin's head pokes back in his doorway. "I may need you to play me out, tomorrow. Just in case." If he thought Merlin was beaming before, he had no idea.
"I think all my visitors are under the impression that you suffer from some sort of grave mental affliction," Arthur shrugs. "It can't hurt any." He's uncomfortably aware that make Merlin happy and allowing him to do ridiculous things, especially when it's people from Buckingham palace and he shouldn't, is thrilling enough to constitute an early birthday present to himself.
"Of course," Merlin nods, humming the Keyboard Cat theme loudly as he leaves. It gets stuck in Arthur's head so badly he has to put the Youtube clip on loop in the background, just to get work done.
The things he puts up with for Merlin's sake, honestly. He should really get around to firing him.
But after a year and half, Arthur never has fired Merlin, no matter how much he threatens. Because whenever he decides he's going to, Merlin does something like fix the malfunctioning xerox machine with a well-placed kick and a paper clip just in time to print off 100 copies for the next Very Important Meeting, or he covers for Arthur like a champion when his Uni mates get him wasted and he has a terrible hangover the next morning, or he always knows what Arthur wants for lunch and if he wants it delivered before Arthur even knows himself. ("It's not magic," Merlin would always snort. "It's your moods. You're really horribly predictable when it comes to your eating habits, you know. Even Gwen can tell when it's a kebab sort of day.")
Also, Arthur isn't lying when he says that Merlin really does make the best damn coffee and tea he's had in his entire life.
Plus, as loathe as he is to admit it, he sort of likes all of Merlin's idiosyncrasies. Sometimes the horrifically twee music he blasts until Arthur yells out of his office for Merlin to put on his headphones isn't so bad. Merlin's certainly amusing. And much smarter than he lets on. And his utter lack of tact and charm is, in its own way, very useful and politically savvy. Merlin's wide eyes and heart-melting honesty have gotten Arthur through situations that before would have fucked him over before he even saw them coming.
About twice a week, though, Arthur means to fire Merlin, he really does, because there's no way that anything can make up for the fact that he spilled food on Arthur three times in one day, or shredded a ream of papers that was actually important, or called Arthur a twat again. He'll go out for lunch, build up a head of steam, and be ready to call Merlin into his office and read him the riot act, and then he'll take a look over at Merlin's desk.
Merlin loves to read. He loves the written word with the same intensity most men reserve for their favorite sports team, or their wives. He'll walk in in the morning sometimes having read the entire walk from the tube station without looking up once (Arthur saw him do it once, it was impressive), and won't even greet Arthur or check the messages until he finishes the chapter. He'll read anything - dense Russian novels that Arthur bought the Cliffs Notes of for some class at some point in his life on one day, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the next. He spent a week before Gaius took a trip to the Middle East reading the Koran and volumes of Islamic poetry.
"You do know that being able to recite..." Arthur had waited for Merlin to lift the cover of the book so he could read it "... the collected works of Rumi is not going to make Islamic extremists decide that you're less of a candidate to bomb."
"This is magical," Merlin had breathed, enraptured. "This man is a genius. Listen - the minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don't finally meet somewhere -they're in each other all along.' That's... that's amazing. Isn't it amazing?"
Arthur had coughed, shifted his weight on his feet. "It's neither here nor there," he said finally. "Now is it?"
"If people could only really read and understand words like this, there'd be no war," Merlin had sighed, putting his chin in his hand and gazing into nothingness, infatuated with the universe at large.
"Well, there is," Arthur had said gruffly. "So put that down and start faxing."
Whenever Arthur goes to fire Merlin, there he is at his desk, sitting with his tuna sandwich frozen untouched on the way to his mouth, which is hanging open for a bite he has yet to take. Instead he'll be avidly devouring The Little Prince or The Divine Comedy, mouthing along with the parts he thinks are really good, and something inside Arthur will just well up with such fondness he finds that he can't go through with whatever plan for firing Merlin he's thought up that day. Instead he'll clear his throat purposefully and glare until Merlin goes back to work, and threaten him a little more with words both of them know Arthur will never follow through with even though perhaps he should.
But some days, slow days like Mondays where nothing happens and Arthur's probably going to go home early, he'll quietly tiptoe into his office and let Merlin read.