Unfortunately for Arthur's father, he was born quite without the natural charm or tact it took to be elected by his party to 10 Downing. He could bully his way off the back bench and use his audacity and force of will to bring the damn Labour party to their knees, but could get no further. "You have what I do not, Arthur," his father would muse once Arthur was older, studying for his A-Levels or in uni, "you have a good heart - your mother's heart. The kind of heart that wins you allies. Not like mine." Arthur had just nodded along at the time, horribly aware of how cold his father's heart could be, and secretly desperate for it to be any other way.
Arthur has already disappointed his father twice over - first, he joined the Labour party, not Uther's beloved Conservatives. Second, he is just over thirty and has never made a bid for a seat in Parliament, nor does he have any designs to. He'd rather be behind the scenes, effecting some actual change instead of just talking loudly about it.
"You have more daddy issues than a back-alley hooker," Merlin likes to say whenever he's starching and ironing Arthur out for dinner with his father.
"You know, that wasn't funny the first time you said it, and it's still not funny now," Arthur says as Merlin makes sure the cuffs on his trousers are perfectly even.
"You love my sense of humor, it's delightful," Merlin says absently, straightening up to fuss with Arthur's cufflinks. "I'm serious, though, this isn't healthy."
"Yeah, well," Arthur shrugs lightly, trying not to wrinkle his coat. It's his father's birthday, which means Morgana will join them for dinner, and that will inevitably lead to a screamed political match with his father on one end, Morgana on the other, and Arthur uncomfortably swallowing his roast in the middle. Sometimes Arthur wonders if Morgana has Green and Socialist sympathies and his father really does have violent reactions to separatist independence movements in places like Ireland and Scotland and the middle/lower classes, or if they've developed them just to irritate each other.
"You know, it takes a hell of a lot to make me actually feel thankful my dad died in a car crash," Merlin says, moving to focus on Arthur's tie. "You might just have done it."
Arthur quiets, letting Merlin fuss over the knot and making the dimple perfect. Arthur's so unused to human contact that it always leaves him feeling flushed and short of breath when Merlin does this. But while Merlin's examining Arthur, sometimes Arthur examines Merlin. He wonders what it would be like if he'd had a mother he remembered. The strong, quietly understanding kind like Merlin's, who'd have soft nurse's hands and make bits of pottery on the weekends too. Would he be standing here in this government office, sweaty-palmed and so devoid of simple touch that Merlin of all people makes him maudlin and flustered just by adjusting his tie?
"Perfect," Merlin says finally. His long, tapered fingers skate down one of Arthur's lapels, smoothing it lovingly, and for a foolish second Arthur thinks Merlin's going to lean in and kiss him. For an even more foolish second, he's disappointed that Merlin doesn't. He needs to get out more. "I think you're ready for the firing squad."
"Just promise me that you won't let anyone sing Amazing Grace at my funeral," Arthur says crisply, wrapping his scarf around his neck. "You know I hate that bloody song."
"Sir, yes sir," Merlin grins, saluting him out of his office. Arthur goes to dinner with a smile. It lasts all of five seconds and melts when father opens the door, gloomy and foreboding, but at least he starts with a smile. It's something.
Arthur considers himself to be very calm and contained, because he waits until after he's stomped out of Gaius' office and into Press headquarters to shout, "BLOODY BUGGERING FUCK," and slam the door.
"Arthur," Merlin says, rapping smartly at the door ten seconds later, which proves he clearly has no survival instinct, "C'mon, open up."
Arthur ignores him.
"I have sustenance," Merlin wheedles.
Arthur harrumphs loudly.
"I've got jaffa cakes," Merlin says, and Arthur hears a box shake.
"Keep talking," Arthur grumbles.
"Jaffa cakes and lemon tea," Merlin says. "Fresh brewed PG Tips, not that swill from the vending machine."
"Enter," Arthur barks.
"Rough talk with Gaius?" Merlin asks sympathetically, coming through the door and setting the tray with two mugs and a new box of jaffa cakes down before stuffing one in his mouth.
"Fucking Labour party and the fucking EU," Arthur grumbles. "Gaius won't bloody do anything about it even though he knows we'd never join if it were put up to a proper vote, he's just going to bend over like the rest of Parliament and fucking take it." Merlin turns pink, probably at the imagery of Gaius bending over at all.
"I don't get the problem," Merlin says, resolutely carrying on in spite of what Arthur would bet is a petrifying mental image he's just provided. "Everyone in England's all 'oh no, look at what the EU did to the Irish,' but they bloody love the EU over there. Poll some of the highest approval ratings, you know. You had me do that report."
"But we're English," Arthur splutters. "We... we know tea shouldn't come with flavors and that left is the only proper side to drive on. We ran an empire, we've got a highly valued currency I'll be damned if we're switching from, and, and, and we're fucking England, okay? We're England."
"Yeah, that's the part that escaped my understanding, working here," Merlin says, rolling his eyes. "Because I was all turned around, I've been expected to report to the Javanese center of government for ages..."
"Sorry," Arthur sighs, and takes a long, steady sip of tea. "It's just... days like this, quitting and taking up with UKIP sounds like a great idea."
"You'd hate it," Merlin says cheerfully, beginning to compulsively arrange the paper on Arthur's desk. "Your job would be boring, your office would be terrible, and you'd never have had the luck to end up with me as your assistant." The idea makes Arthur feel queasy, but he blames it on the third jaffa cake. "Besides, it's not so bad. The EU's done a lot of good human rights and environmental work! Plus it's good for trade. And we're in favor of trade nowadays, right?"
"Merlin, will you have the decency to at least pretend to be on my side for once?" Arthur whines. "It's terrible. Think of the bureaucracy. Think of having to take it from fucking France and Germany. Think of the pound. I'm already in mourning."
"I'm always on your side in the end, Arthur," Merlin says with exasperated patience. "I just happen to additionally be in favor of whatever side is kicking your arse. It's good for you. Builds moral character."
"I thought that's what you're for," Arthur says, turning on his laptop. "On a cosmic and existential level."
"No, I'm here to keep you from sulking and bring you tea and jaffa cakes," Merlin says, stealing the last one and leaving the office with a pile of papers Arthur's pretty sure he's going to need later but will be irreversibly lost in Merlin's filing chasm of doom. Bugger.
Merlin has the worst dress sense of anyone Arthur's ever met. It's so bad he almost wonders if it's supposed to be some sort of ironic statement, or maybe he's just fucking with Arthur. Merlin has ties that look like the vomit of an impressionist painting, novelty ties, and ties in colors that should never be on any clothing, ever. Arthur's tried everything he can think of to get those ties to go away, but Merlin's strangely attached to them. "They spruce up an outfit," he'll say, stroking it fondly.
"We're English," Arthur says despairingly. "We don't spruce up outfits."
"You're English," Merlin corrects. "I'm Welsh."
"Merlin, I know for a fact you grew up in London."
Merlin looks at Arthur like he's a particular sort of moron. "I've told you a million times my parents are from Wales, Arthur," he says. "You've met my mother."
Arthur waves his dismissal. "Wales doesn't count, it's part of England."
"Oh really," Merlin smiles in that evil way that makes Arthur's heart speed in up what must be fear, because that smile never bodes well, "I guess I'll just be nipping over to Plaid Cymru headquarters and telling them your stance, then, I'm sure they'll be happy to vote against Labour the next time you want to push something through..."
"Shut up and get me some tea," Arthur says quickly, and it's clear from the smug way Merlin exits Arthur's office that he thinks he's won this one.
When Merlin isn't sporting ties, he has plenty of heinous other clothing in the wings. He seems to have mastered trousers in the sense that they're all normal colors, but he can't seem to make them fit. Arthur's given him the name of his tailor a million times, but Merlin always rolls his eyes and asks Arthur when Arthur expects he'll have time to go stand in for a fitting, or where he'll come up with the money since Arthur refuses to give him a raise, so Arthur keeps his mouth shut on that subject. He's learned that with Merlin, much like in a marriage, he has to pick his battles, and ties can be removed or swapped out. Arthur has emergency ties that he'll use for just such occasions, like when the American President comes for a state visit. Merlin never seems to understand that Americans are important, always mumbling that they're a country just like everyone else, and getting dressed up for them just puffs up their self-importance, which Arthur ignores as he makes sure the Oxford knot is perfectly even, fussing and fussing longer than may be strictly necessary, because it amuses him when Merlin rants about someone, especially if it involves taking the Americans down a peg. ("I don't understand their obsession with the letter z! It's the very last letter in the alphabet for a reason, for goodness sakes, and u is a perfectly fine vowel, thank you very much. Would it pain them so terribly to use it? Would it really?")
But ties and trousers are not nearly as concerning as argyle sweater vests or tweed coats with elbow patches, both of which Merlin owns and wears on a frequent basis, sometimes at the same time.
"It's like you're a forty year old Oxford professor who's decided he simply doesn't want to have sex anymore," Arthur says. He's made sure to have this argument in front of Gwen so he has backup should he need it.
"I have sex," Merlin says indignantly. "Not often, but I have it. I'd have it more if you didn't keep me here nights and weekends."
Arthur refuses to feel a vindictive, hot rush of what's somewhere between satisfaction and something darker over whoever's having sex (or not) with Merlin. Really, he pities them. He does. He absolutely, completely does, because he has first-hand experience of Merlin's minimal coordination skills and tendency to accidentally elbow or knee people, and in the bedroom that can't bode well. His keeping Merlin from dating more is actually beneficial to society, and he deserves some sort of medal. Perhaps knighthood. He's always fancied that he'd make an excellent knight of the realm. Sir Arthur has a certain ring to it.
"Besides," Merlin goes on, interrupting Arthur's favorite long-held fantasy, "who wears their work clothes when they're going out with someone?"
"Arthur does," Gwen pipes up. In retrospect, having someone who he used to sleep with around for this conversation was a terrible idea. "He's starched and ironed permanently." Arthur glares at her. "Except his boxers," she hurries to add diplomatically. "He doesn't iron his boxers."
"Does he own t-shirts or is that a myth?" Merlin asks avidly. "Does he have a smoking jacket that he wears instead of pajamas? I've got a Word document full of questions I've been begging to ask for the longest time."
He does, is the thing, neatly titled "Questions About Arthur Pendragon" with gems such as "When Arthur has a wank, does he moan his own name?". Arthur had logged into the list and started under it "Questions About Merlin Emrys", the first one being "Was Merlin dropped on his head as a child and thus cannot remember that when he saves a Word document everyone on the Prime Minister's Server can see it?" and "Are Merlin's ears naturally that way, or are they able to be pruned, like shrubbery?" to which Merlin replied by adding to the list "Was Arthur ever hugged as a child?" and "Did Arthur's father surgically remove Arthur's heart on his fifth birthday?" Their war is currently at a mutually declared impasse.
"He sleeps in -" Gwen begins, but Arthur makes an executive decision that that's enough of that.
"Enough!" Arthur says, cutting Gwen off. She makes eyebrows at Merlin which means she'll talk to him later, and Arthur wonders, not for the first time, if he actually has any power over these people at all or if his job is entirely ceremonial. He wonders if the queen wakes up every morning and feels like this.
"Maybe, Merlin," Gwen says after a few moments of silence, "you should dress for your job with the care you would for a date, is what Arthur's suggesting. What about that nice, navy jumper you own? That over a button-down?"
"I could," Merlin says, and Arthur coughs. Merlin's had one serious relationship the entire time he's worked for Arthur, a girl named Freya he'd met few months into working at 10 Downing that lasted about three months. Arthur could always tell when it was Merlin's date night, because he'd change into clothes that looked like they didn't belong to Arthur's grandfather - soft cashmere sweaters, shirts and trousers that fit properly, like there was a whole life Merlin led outside of the office that Arthur wasn't allowed to know about, a world where he had a great fondness for scarves and thick jumpers, where he laughed more openly and looked more touchable. On second though, perhaps Arthur preferred Merlin the way he was.
"If you're quite done with fashion advice, we have jobs," he says crisply. "Merlin, the report on the NHS, I want it on my desk first thing tomorrow."
"But you said I had a week!" Merlin cries out. "And you started this conversation!"
"Well I changed my mind and need it tomorrow!" Arthur snaps. "And Gwen, please, be less helpful."
"You're a prat, Arthur," she says cheerfully, and Arthur scowls at her smug Cheshire-cat smile. That was the problem with exes - they always thought they knew you a little too well.
Arthur doesn't understand why Prime Ministers must do things like tour car factories. Well, he supposes he understands the sentiment of a Prime Minister showing support for the common working man and appreciates that Gaius takes great delight in exploring and praising the nation's technological and scientific achievements. It's good for national pride and much better than if Gaius, say, had a fixation on which nation in the Middle East he felt like bombing that week. No, what Arthur doesn't understand is why so many people have to trail along after him.
First of all, Gaius may be the Prime Minister, but he doesn't like working alone, and so he'll bring MP's from multiple parties, and they always bring at least one aide or handler each. Then, there are always at least two photographers, one for 10 Downing specifically and at least one for press at all times, and that's assuming it's not a big event where newspapers are competing with each other and jostling elbows, bulbs flashing everywhere. Then, of course, Gwen has to go along, for PR reasons, and then there's security, looking bored and antsy to shoot someone (and wouldn't that be fun), and then there's Arthur and Merlin, who really have no need to come along except that Gaius regards the entire thing as a giant treat or field trip, and if he doesn't have someone like Merlin to discuss combustion engines with, he's more likely to wander off and try and join the assembly lines himself. (It happened once, and Arthur had a headache dealing with that for a week.) And since Merlin and Gaius can't be trusted and Gwen's usually too harried and security is useless and the MPs are just trying to make it through and nod politely, someone has to make sure the whole circus gets through with as little damage to whatever place they're visiting. And that person is Arthur.
"We'd be just fine without you, you know," Merlin says, putting his bright yellow hard hat on as instructed. It makes his ears stick out worse than ever, and is rather funny-looking with his favorite elbow-patched tweed coat. (Though he is wearing his navy date jumper underneath his coat, damn Gwen.)
"You can't even put your hat on properly," Arthur chides him, reaching up and adjusting it so it isn't sitting at a rakish angle.
"Did you know that the most rudimentary of motors were created in prehistoric times?" Gaius is saying to MP Bayard, who looks like he'd rather be anywhere else. "But the first combustion engine like these are was created by an Englishman named Sir Samuel Moreland using gunpowder. Ingenious, really, and a point of national pride for you, right there..."
"Also, the chances of MP Bayard not causing an incident due to snoring... Want to wager five pounds?" Merlin asks.
"Merlin, I never bet money on my job," Arthur snaps. "And he doesn't snore, you have to look out for MP Monmouth for that. He's the snorer. Bayard will sneer."
"Will he?" Merlin asks vaguely, and then grabs Arthur's wrist like he's a little boy trying to catch Arthur's attention, "ooh, Arthur, look at that massive robot arm! Do you think they have extras, and then they'd make a robot octopus that would take over London?"
"Hush, Merlin," Gwen says severely. "They have welding tools. You'll give them ideas."
Merlin just grins, big and dimpled, and lets go of Arthur's wrist to mime zipping his mouth shut. His silence only lasts as long as it takes for sparks to fly from the welding station (about five seconds) and he's off again, worse than Gaius in the front, because at least Gaius talks facts, not magical doomsday scenarios that Arthur's pretty sure are melded with the last Transformers movie.
Still, he thinks as he watches Merlin's eager, beaming face, he's had worse factory tours.
"Arthur," Merlin says, barging into Arthur's office without knocking (per usual, they'll have to have another conversation on that) "I would like a word with you about postage stamps."
Arthur blinks at Merlin a few times, slowly, trying to make sure he really heard what he thought he heard. "...postage stamps," he says finally, looking up from the memo he's reading on who has to sit next to whom at the upcoming conference with East Asian nations.
"Yes," Merlin says. "I found an article online about postage stamps."
"You do know that postage stamps are under the purview of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills," Arthur says. "That's why I gave you that big red binder on your first day, so you can look up anything, including 'postage stamps', and go 'oh, should I be bothering Arthur about this?'. I am distinctly sure that next to postage stamps it does not say 'yes, I think he'd find that terribly interesting.'"
"The Secretary works for Gaius, who has delegated to you the task of press and communications, and postage stamps are a form of communication," Merlin goes on with the air of someone who has clearly been entrenched in a bureaucracy for far too long to be dissuaded, "so really, I'm just going up the ladder. Also, my problem is with him."
"About postage stamps?"
"About postage stamps," Merlin nods.
Arthur sighs and takes off his reading glasses, scrubbing at his eyes until they adjust. "You're not going to stop bothering me until I listen to you rabbit on about postage stamps, are you?" He asks.
"Did you know that fifteen sets of commemorative stamps are issued a year?" Merlin plows onward with savage determination.
"Did you know that there's a newfangled system called e-mail that makes the postage system near obsolete, and therefore the purchase rate of stamps declines every year?" Arthur asks.
"And did you know that they've announced the commemorative stamps for next year, and in June will be issuing a set honoring children's literature?"
"Ah," Arthur nods, "I can see the problem. An homage to childhood literacy is positively subversive."
"The original proposal was to honor famous British authors," Merlin goes on, "among those was Oscar Wilde. The British Library was then asked to change their proposal because Oscar Wilde was considered too controversial since he was Irish and a criminal."
"Merlin, five minutes on Wikipedia will tell you that he was Irish and a criminal." Arthur drums his fingers.
"One, Ireland was part of England at the time -"
"Oh, good, bring that up, I'm sure that's not a sore spot," Arthur mutters.
"Two, he was imprisoned in London, for being gay. That's homophobia, Arthur! Their proposal was rejected on the grounds of homophobia so they went with children's books. Plus, " Merlin raises his finger in the extremely swotty way he has, "the next month they're doing a set of stamps honoring musicals in London! Tell me that's not gay."
"The West End is extremely prestigious and well known. It's a credit to England."
"And Oscar Wilde isn't?" Merlin crosses his arms and raises one eyebrow in a way Arthur is pretty sure he learned from Gaius. Only when Merlin does it, it's irritating, not intimidating.
"Merlin," Arthur sighs, exhibiting truly saintly patience for not hauling off and punching Merlin on his very puffy, very punchable mouth.
"Plenty of other authors have been on stamps," Merlin goes on. "Keats, the Brontë sisters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and he was Scottish. The real problem isn't that he's Irish, it's that he's bisexual -"
"- I thought he was gay," Arthur interrupts. He feels terribly lost.
"He had a childhood sweetheart he proposed to but she declined. She went on to marry the author of Dracula, actually..."
"Merlin," Arthur interrupts pointedly. "Why on earth do you care so much about Oscar Wilde?"
"Because you have no idea what it means to see him on a stamp!" Merlin shouts. "Yes, it's stupid, and yes, it's just a stamp, but you don't know what it's like to finally look at a stamp and realize that there's someone like you on it!"
Arthur furrows his brow. "And by like you, you mean..."
"...not straight," Merlin blurts out, and then promptly turns bright red.
Arthur, for his part, is paralyzed. Dating and sexual preferences, he knows, are A Line That Must Not Be Crossed when it comes to co-workers or employees. He's been very religious about not crossing it with Merlin (consciously, at any rate), but now images are flashing in his head faster than he can squash them. Merlin dancing with a faceless man in a club. Merlin deeply kissing a strange man in a grubby alley. An inexplicable flash of jealousy, and then - Arthur being that strange man. The way Merlin looks at him maybe not being what he thought it was. Merlin looking at him like that in that dark alley, looming over him and tilting his face upwards, Merlin's groans, Merlin waking up next to him in the morning, sunlight on bare skin...
"Arthur?" Merlin interrupts. "Arthur, you look like you're about to have an stroke."
"What?" Arthur blinks, clearing his head. "No, no, sorry, I just haven't had lunch yet and I'm feeling a bit peckish."
"Oh." Merlin looks down at his feet. "I could go get you something, if you like."
"Yes, right," Arthur says, reaching for his wallet. "I think I feel like Nando's half chicken, medium hot, with chips and coleslaw. And two Naughty Natas for us to have later with tea, if it's not too much trouble?"
"No, no, of course not," Merlin says, taking the notes from Arthur, their fingers brushing. Arthur has to work very hard not to close his eyes and swallow when they do. "Look, I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable."
"It's really nothing." Arthur's voice sounds stuffy to his ears and god, like his father. "But I don't pay for a pastry for tea with someone I'm uncomfortable with, so let's call that that and not discuss it again, hm?"
"Right," Merlin nods.
"Oh, and Merlin?" Arthur calls while Merlin's shrugging on his coat. "If you write a letter to the Secretary, I'll add a personal note and pass it on."
"Really?" Merlin's eyes brighten, and it's reward enough for Arthur to have the sudden, crazy desire to perhaps let Merlin get his way more often. Besides, Arthur would bet any amount of money Merlin's already got something truly scathing up his sleeve, half-typed on his computer. "You'd do that?"
"Well I don't think it will make a difference, but I'll do anything to get you not to nag at me like a fishwife," Arthur shrugs. "Now hurry along. I wasn't kidding about being peckish."
But not peckish for a bit of chicken, an insidious little voice in the back of his mind says, flashing through the images of Merlin pressed against him, bricks rough at his back, how warm Merlin's body would be, the way Merlin smells in the morning, still sleepy and grumpy looking when he first comes in, and Arthur has to grind the heels of his hand in his eyes before he can go back to the arrangements for the East Asia conference.
In theory, the Press Office at Number 10 is a completely neutral entity, devoid of any politicking, favor, or disfavor, especially not towards foreign dignitaries.
This is, of course, completely untrue. There are plenty of journalists who will be turned away faster for comment than others, and plenty of dignitaries that will be avoided at all costs except, perhaps, if avoiding them would cause an international incident. For instance, Arthur and Merlin have spent many a lunch break coming up with quite a few ways that they'd like to dispose of the Ambassador from Trinidad and Tobago, who has a bit of a fixation with Gwen's breasts.
"He was just staring at them," Merlin had hissed angrily, dapper if not elegant in the tuxedo Arthur had bullied him into for the last annual opening of the Royal Opera House's season, brilliant in his anger. "His wife was on his arm and he had no right, no right at all..."
"Merlin, please," Gwen said softly. She was absolutely breathtaking, Arthur didn't exactly blame the Ambassador. Her white-gold sheath dress hugged every curve and her curls were pulled back softly instead of the usual severe bun. Arthur had spent a lot of the earlier part of the evening dividing his distracted attention between how nice Merlin looked in a tux and how he'd really have to force him to dress better, and Gwen's gold dangling earrings against the long line of her neck. It almost made a part of him miss dating her. Almost. She was still Gwen, after all. Gwen, who was clutching her shawl around herself uncomfortably.
"Arthur, do something," Merlin insisted, turning toward Arthur with huge, imploring eyes. Arthur remembers fleetingly thinking that if Merlin had breasts that an ambassador was ogling, there may have been some fisticuffs that night. Then again, he was a bit giddy on white wine.
"Merlin, as much as I would like to, I can't punch him out and cause an international incident over Gwen's - admittedly spectacular tonight - breasts." Merlin had made a face like a wounded bear that made it perfectly clear what he thought of that situation. Arthur sighed.
"As much as I would like to" he went on patiently, "I cannot mention this, casually, within the general vicinity of the ambassador's wife, though she is notoriously terribly jealous, and apparently with good reason. It's beneath my position. But if someone with, say large ears and a large mouth were to do so, I couldn't do much to stop them." He glanced at Gwen. "No offense meant to you, of course."
The change in Merlin's face was remarkable. He beamed at Arthur rather like the sun and moon revolved around him, as if he were a knight in shining armor upon a pure white steed who had vanquished a dragon and run through several ogres. "I think I'll go get a drink," he'd chirped happily, skipping off to engage one of his many little friends Arthur no longer kept track of in a strategically located gossip session. Arthur snorted into his wine.
Gwen had smiled after Merlin rolling her shoulders and loosening her shawl, confident again. "Thank you Arthur," she said sincerely, leaning over to brush a kiss against his cheek. Arthur had blushed.
"I didn't do anything," Arthur shrugged, but later when he glanced around the room and saw the ambassador being uncomfortably and loudly trapped in a corner to receive a very public dressing-down from his wife, he caught Merlin's eye from where he was standing by a server, he gave Arthur a near-blinding grin and a wink before stuffing his face with even more shrimp cocktails, and it was as good - no, even better - than if Arthur really had ridden in on a steed and slain ogres.
Still and all, it never does to start fights with ambassadors, especially if they can be linked back to you, which Arthur has to forcefully remind himself every time Alexander, Communications Director at the Swedish Embassy, comes over to drop anything off. He's extremely taken with Merlin, and had Arthur any delusions that Merlin had some sort of honor to protect, he'd have thrown down the gauntlet years ago. What really baffles Arthur is that Merlin seems to have no problem with the increasing lengths Alexander will go to to see and shamelessly proposition him. It's not really necessary that he come over with print-outs of the finer points of the new Baltic Sea drilling contract just for the edification of the Press department, and yet here he is, all blond and Viking-like, perched on Merlin's desk and leering at him.
"You know, your talents are wasted terribly here, Merlin," he all but purrs as Arthur resolutely does not spy on them through the gap in his door. "I could definitely find you a better... hm. Position, shall we say."
"Oh, well," Merlin sounds flustered, like he might be blushing. "That's really not necessary."
"Because I can see you in several positions," Alexander purrs. And really, that's just taking it too far. Arthur gets up to go tell Alexander off when he catches sight of Merlin's face. He doesn't exactly look displeased. "You're quite flexible, am I right?"
"Oh," Merlin laughs. "I don't know about that one. Not according to Arthur, anyway."
"Arthur," Alexander scoffs, and Arthur instinctively stiffens behind the door. "He doesn't he appreciate you like you deserve, does he?"
Of all the comments Alexander's made, that one's probably the least suggestive, but it's the one that irritates Arthur the most. Of course he appreciates Merlin! He thanks Merlin for bringing him things, doesn't he? He's spent many years studying all of Merlin's quirks and habits and being indulgent of them, far more than anyone else, Alexander especially, ever would. Would Alexander ever make sure that Merlin's favorite brand of ballpoints are on the order form for office supplies even though they're a pound more expensive than the generic kind everyone else gets? And for the first time Arthur sees genuine upset in Merlin's eyes, and he spares Arthur standing behind Alexander and half-hidden by the door a nervous glance.
"Ah, Alexander," Arthur says crisply, opening the door completely. "Are those the latest drafts of the Baltic Sea drilling bill? Excellent. Merlin, could you go make copies so Gaius and Gwen both have one? Please?" He adds the 'please' for Alexander's sake, and it's clear from Merlin's eyebrows he's figured it out. That'll teach both of them to think Arthur doesn't appreciate Merlin. Just because he doesn't say please and simper over him doesn't mean he doesn't appreciate him.
"You know, Merlin," he says later that night while Merlin's filing something-or-other. "If anyone ever... makes untoward advances towards you, you can always come to me. I'd take care of them and, well, protect you, I suppose."
Merlin snorts softly. "Are you still mad about Alexander?" He asks.
"Positions," Arthur says darkly. "Talents. Flexibility."
"You know," Merlin says, "as difficult as this may be for you to understand, I don't find a tall, handsome, Swedish man coming on to me a terrible hardship."
"His smile is crooked," Arthur says automatically. "And his forehead's too big. There's something about him I don't like. I can't quite name what it is."
"Of course you can't," Merlin says, but instead of the hint of fondness Arthur usually hears, like he's biting back an idiot, Merlin sounds almost... sad. "Is there anything else you need me for, sir?"
Arthur winces. Merlin hasn't called him 'sir' in years. "I... no," he says reluctantly. "The filing's all done, so I suppose I'm done with you too."
"Of course you are," Merlin mutters, leaving Arthur's office. He sounds awfully bitter, Arthur thinks, for someone who just got off work.
When Morgana was six and Arthur was four, she had decided that all she wanted for Christmas was a little sister.
"You might as well be my little brother," she'd told Arthur imperiously while she poured him and her dolls tea and Arthur had wondered if maybe they could play another game, like being Jedi knights. "And you're no fun at all. I want a little sister I can dress up in pretty clothes."
Morgana's mother had left to "find herself" around the same time Arthur's mother had died, and neither Morgana nor Arthur had been old enough to understand that that made a little sister highly unlikely. Instead, Morgana had gotten a flame-point Siamese kitten with huge blue eyes named Morgause for Christmas. Arthur and Morgana were immediately smitten with her velvety paws and rumbling purr when she was scratched under the chin. It also became clear very quickly that Arthur was terribly allergic to Morgause, and whenever they visited he could only watch longingly as Morgana picked her up and let her outside for the rest of the night. Sometimes, Arthur wonders what would have happened had Morgause not run away a year before Morgana's father had a heart attack and Uther adopted her. Uther would have inevitably forced Morgana to give Morgause up, and no doubt their relationship would be even more contentious as a result to this day.
Arthur initially has no idea what Merlin's up to when he waltzes into Arthur's office at the end of the day and plops two little white pills and a paper cup of water on his desk with a brisk "take those".
"If you're attempting to drug and kidnap me, I have to say you're doing a terribly poor job of it," Arthur says dryly, glancing in between the pills and Merlin. "Not that I want to give you ideas, but usually you'd grind those up and dissolve them in my tea, or something."
"Please," Merlin rolls his eyes and shows Arthur the box. "If I were doing that, I'd be far more stealthy. They're antihistamines. Non-drowsy."
"All antihistamines make me drowsy, and I drove to work today."
Merlin lets out an extremely put-upon sigh. "Only you would drive to work, and then for work sit at a desk for two hours making me take notes on Gaius' new initiative to promote public transportation to reduce carbon emissions and traffic."
"But the tube takes longer," Arthur points out. He doesn't tell Merlin the real reason, which is germs. Merlin would mock him forever and call him posh and sneeze on top of Arthur just to tick him off, but whenever he's taken the tube he's always seen at least two people cough or wipe their nose or sneeze into a hand, only to use it once again to hold on a pole to stay upright. Also, he's always felt terribly uncomfortable squashed next to other people, even if they were healthy. He felt that they were staring at him and analyzing every little detail of him, deconstructing him down to his core elements, and inevitably they'd find him lacking in... something. But really... germs. They're a problem.
Merlin sighs and crosses his arms. "Fine, I'll drive you home."
Arthur considers the offer. Merlin's driven him around before, usually so Arthur won't waste a moment he could possibly be using to yell at someone over the phone. He isn't a terrible driver - a bit too conservative around yellow lights and yields too easily for other drivers, but he'll get Arthur home safely.
"Seriously, Arthur," Merlin says impatiently. "Will you just take them? I promise not to compromise your virtue."
The image of Merlin leering over his prone form flashes quickly in Arthur's mind, and instead of letting himself dwell on that, he swallows down the pills.
"Right," Merlin says with satisfaction, "now you wait for those to kick in and I'll go fetch your visitor."
Merlin's gone just long enough for Arthur to work himself into a woozy state of minor panic. Who would Merlin drug him to meet? Oh god, what if it's someone important? What if it's a foreign dignitary? What if a member of the press sees him like this? What if Gaius sees him like this? He's just about to demand Merlin drives him home at once when Merlin pokes his head back in the office.
"Pills set in?" He asks cheerfully. Arthur's too tired to do anything but nod. "Good." Merlin won't open the door enough to actually come in, and he looks like he's kicking something in the background, which is just weird. He's just about to ask Merlin who exactly he's kicking when Merlin opens the door and the most beautiful specimen of a Siamese cat Arthur has ever seen saunters into his office like she owns it. Her eyes (Arthur's sure it's a she, she's far too sleek and beautiful to be anything but) are painfully blue, her fur the perfect cream, the tips of her ears and her nose inky instead of a foggy gray. Arthur's palms ache with the need to stroke her.
"Who's this?" He finally manages evenly as the cat sniffs around his bookshelves.
"Oh, right," Merlin says. "Arthur, may I introduce Sophia, Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office."
"Hello, Sophia," Arthur says gravely as she comes to twine around his legs, purring. After a few figure eights, she jumps right up into his lap and rubs her cheek against his tie. Arthur would protest the cat hair, but he can't find the heart.
"She normally sticks around accounting where they spoil her terribly," Merlin says from what feels like a great distance. "But she's been hanging around here ever since you left out the crust to your tuna sandwich the other week. Gwen and Lance and I have had a terrible time trying to keep her out ever since."
"Aren't you a beautiful girl," Arthur coos, and he's pretty sure he hears Merlin change a snort of laughter into a cough. It's his loss - Merlin's probably never felt the affection of such a fine creature.
"I see I'm the third wheel here - I should give you two your privacy," he says sardonically.
"Oh, yes, go on, then," Arthur mutters, too busy being fascinated by the fact that Sophia's so pleased she's practically vibrating. Cats are even more delightful than he'd ever imagined. Merlin makes a highly disparaging noise and shuts the door loudly on what Arthur feels is gearing up to be a highly successful cuddling session. Siamese cats, he thinks, are quite the nicest cats. The most beautiful, certainly. He's always loved the contrast of the black against white, it makes the blue of Merl- no Sophia's. It makes her eyes look very blue. It's strange that he thought of Merlin. Merlin isn't a cat. The drugs must be stronger than he thought. No, Merlin has nothing to do with Sophia's sleekness, how warm and affectionate she is against him. This is the nice thing about cats, he thinks. They know when to fuck off and when you're really in need of a good cuddle. Not that Arthur needs anything. Not even from Merlin, though it was very nice for him to arrange all of this. His thoughts of Merlin keep getting strangely tangled up in his thoughts about Sophia, though, like when he scratches behind her ears and wonders if Merlin would like that too, if Arthur kissed behind those absolutely ridiculous ears of his. Would Merlin purr against him? It would be nice if Merlin purred and nuzzled him - Merlin was so grumpy sometimes...
He must doze a little because it seems like it's only five minutes before Sophia gives him one last, fond headbutt before leaping off his lap and slinking out of the door. Almost immediately after she's gone, Merlin sticks his head in.
"That was like being in a hotel room next to newlyweds," Merlin says, taking one look at Arthur and whipping the lint brush out of Arthur's desk, brushing most of the white fur off of him. "You're going to have to dry-clean this suit if you don't want it to send you into anaphylactic shock the next time you wear it."
"Yeah, okay," Arthur says sleepily. He thinks for a few minutes. "I'm tired."
"I'll bet you are," Merlin mutters, picking up Arthur's briefcase and practically dragging him to the car. Arthur must fall asleep on the ride home as well, because the next thing he knows, Merlin's manhandling him out of the elevator and unlocking his door.
"God, you're so heavy," Merlin bitches. "I'm never doing anything nice for you again."
"Yeah you will," Arthur says, shucking off his jacket and starting on his shirt. "You love me, I know. Don't fight it." He isn't sure if it's his imagination or if Merlin blushes. He's really very tired.
"That doesn't excuse you putting on a strip show for me." Merlin's voice sounds tight.
"'M not," Arthur grumbles, throwing his shirt at and tie Merlin before starting on his trousers. "'M having you dry-clean these."
"I want a raise."
"Nice try, not that tired," Arthur yawns, shuffling to his bedroom. "Thanks, Merlin. You can see yourself out."
"You're welcome," Merlin says faintly from the other room. He might say something more, but Arthur falls instantly asleep. He dreams vividly at first, like he's very heavy and watching from outside of his body as Merlin sighs, tiptoes into his room, and grabs a garment bag to stuff Arthur's cat-clothes into.
"You're so impossible," Dream-Merlin mutters grumpily, sitting down next to Arthur. It's very vivid, Arthur swears the bed dips, swears that he feels a phantom hand start to brush away his fringe from his head. "I do the stupidest things for you."
Arthur wants to tell Merlin that nothing he does because Arthur tells him to is stupid, thank you very much, but he can't quite manage it in his dream. Instead he watches Merlin heave a massive sigh before, very tentatively, brushing a soft kiss against Arthur's forehead, like his nannies used to do when he was sick, and Arthur in the dream feels warm all over, boneless, content...
... the dream changes without much explanation but in a way that makes complete sense somehow, as dreams are wont to do. Arthur's sitting in his office chair, and instead of Sophia it's Merlin who slinks in with feline grace, sitting in Arthur's lap and purring, only Merlin's obviously smaller and can fit. Merlin's skin is pale and his hair is dark and his eyes are blue, but sometimes in the dream they look gold, like they're catching and reflecting back a bit of sunlight. Merlin/Cat/Sophia/Something is much more affectionate, kissing with gentle human lips along Arthur's jawline, hands somehow returning the favor of stroking down Arthur's side even though sometimes the hands are paws and sometimes they're hands and sometimes they're both at once. It should be a sexual dream, with all the touching and the kissing, especially when the kisses move from Arthur's jaw to his lips, but it isn't. It's just warm. Sweet. Comfortable. He never wants to wake up. Not when he could stay here forever...
Getting out of bed the next morning is a chore, even though the alarm isn't set until eight and Arthur fell asleep ungodly early because Merlin drugged him. He's working from home, but he's got to draft some potential answers for Question Time that correspond with the late responses various cabinet members sent in so Gaius can look it over tomorrow and be prepared Sunday, he's got to do laundry and buy some toilet paper and toothpaste, but for the first time since he was a teenager, getting out of bed is a painfully physical exercise. It's like his body and eyes are heavy and his bed's a center of gravity, and all he wants to do is fall back into the weird cat dream. Cats are really nice.
Though, he thinks when he pulls himself out of bed and makes a truly terrible instant cup of coffee before settling down with his papers, they might not be worth the after-effects of the drugs.
The thing about Merlin is he's just really... weird. Despite the fact that Arthur teases him constantly about not knowing what e-mail is ("Merlin, the next time you think about ringing when Arsenal is about to score a goal, please consider a new invention I've heard about called electronic mail that I can check during a commercial break..."), he does know, selectively. That is, he doesn't know to forward important interdepartmental memos, but he is perfectly aware of how to e-mail Arthur when he sees one of his new weird cat images that he thinks Arthur will find funny.
Arthur does not find these very strange cat pictures funny.
"There is a cat in the ceiling," Arthur says slowly, attempting to understand the latest one. "His name is Ceiling Cat."
"Yes," Merlin nods enthusiastically.
"And you find him... funny."
"He's symbolic. For God, you see."
"And the fact that he is watching me..."
"...is supposed to be funny, yes," Merlin says. "That's why I sent it to you. Because you like cats."
"But cats don't speak English," Arthur says. "Not, mind you, that this nonsense the cat's supposed to be saying is the Queen's bloody English, this is... for Christ's sake, Merlin, don't you have a degree in this garbage? I'm offended on behalf of the years and years of schooling you are apparently flushing down the toilet."
Merlin opens his mouth and Arthur raises his hand up to stop him.
"If you ask me if you 'can has' this year's immigration numbers, you're fired," he says before he hands over the folder. Merlin takes it with a roll of his eyes.
"Develop a sense of humor!" He shouts as he leaves the office.
"Do your job!" Arthur suggests, and dials up his counterpart at the Conservative party to yell at him about human decency, what you don't fucking say to the press, and the various inhuman acts he plans on performing on his mother. It's a wholly satisfying conversation that puts Arthur in a good mood right through lunchtime and into the early afternoon, until his e-mail pings with a message from Merlin with the subject "!!!URGENT RE: YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR!!!" The entire body is You're welcome. -M and a link to a comic with a graph showing that comments said in close proximinty to a cat become increasingly inanae. Arthur puzzles over it for a very long time before being forced to conclude:
a) the comic itself is inane, and,
b) Merlin is not utilizing his time properly.
"Merlin," he says, stomping to his assistant's desk, which is a testament to Merlin's extreme disorganization and oddity. Including the goldfish bowl, Merlin's desk contains a few day's worth of food wrappers, his battered iPod, piles of folders and books Merlin finished but forgot to take home, three action figures of Merlin's literary heroes (Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Jane Austen, which Merlin has pointed out to Arthur are also all British, thus appropriate for the office as they display his national pride), a framed photograph of Merlin standing with his arm around his mother, the latest book Merlin's been reading furtively when he thinks Arthur isn't looking, and a cup full of the weird kind of pens that only Merlin likes to use because he's fond of the texturized grip. The cubicle walls around his desk that block Merlin from the other mindless department drones are full of tacked-on crooked pictures of him and Will mugging the camera, a few of Merlin smiling awkwardly with famous people who toured 10 Downing, and the weird web comics Merlin likes so much with the ugly scribbled famous authors like the Yeats or Kierkegaard saying pretentious things Arthur doesn't understand. "Merlin, what have I told you about sending me frivolous e-mails?"
Merlin looks up from his lukewarm cup of tea he's still nursing from that morning with eyes that would melt butter. "They're delightful and brighten your day?"
"No." Arthur says emphatically, punctuating the statement with his hand slammed down on Merlin's desk for good measure.
"Well, you were cooing inanely at Sophia," Merlin points out.
"I was drugged! You drugged me!" Arthur shouts this loud enough that Gwen's head pokes out of her office.
"Boys," she says severely, "what have I told you about slipping each other sedatives?"
"He did it!" Arthur says, pointing at Merlin. "I'm innocent! He plied me with antihistamines and gave me a cat!"
"Oh, you're welcome for that!" Merlin scoffs. "You certainly didn't sound like you minded." He puts on his imitation-Arthur voice, which is very nasal and swotty sounding, like Arthur should be adjusting his spats at Eton. Never mind that Arthur went to Eton, he never wore spats there, no matter what Merlin thinks. "Oh, Sophia," he says as Arthur, "who's a perfect kitty girl? You are! Yes you are just the prettiest kitty kitty kitty cat!"
"I did not say that!" Arthur yelps. Gwen's mouth is twitching frantically, and damn her, she knows how he feels about cats, which means she knows that Merlin's probably not lying. Gwen never understood Arthur's deep and meaningful bond with cats - she's always been a dog person. It's one of the many reasons Arthur counts as evidence that it's good they broke up when they did before they made a truly terrible decision like getting married to each other. "Also, you drugged me and then sent me a mocking comic!"
"Remember, Arthur," Gwen soothes, "sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you."
"I think the nature of our job suggests otherwise," Merlin mutters, and Arthur shoots both him and Gwen venomous looks.
"Everyone in this department is fired," he snarls, and stomps back into his office. But he does spends a good hour that afternoon going through the stupid comic out of perverse curiosity, just so he can hit the reply button and send one to send back to Merlin.
I'll have you know my sense of humor is excellent. He writes in the body, and then after a few moments of thought he adds Hah hah. Bite me. Five minutes after he presses send, he hears Merlin's laughter, bright and unexpected through the door. And when he leaves for the night, he notices that Merlin's printed the comic out and tacked it up, and then outlined in bright green so it stands out from all the rest.
Technically, Arthur's in charge of scheduling the journalism students that will occasionally tour through his department like a descending plague of locusts. By "in charge" he means "he signs off on the slips of paper", but he doesn't really have a say. The woman in charge of these things is named Kay, and she's old enough to be his mother and then some, has a bit of an older-woman mustache, and is one of those people who is terrifyingly kind yet always seems to give off the distinct impression that if they ever snapped, they would kill you in cold blood without a second thought. Arthur thereby signs off on everything she sends his way and makes sure he doesn't know the particulars. Unfortunately, this strategy is what leads to him and Merlin sitting awkwardly on his desk facing about twenty dewy-eyed journalism students.
"I really need to start listening when you brief me about my day," Arthur mutters out of the corner of his mouth to Merlin.
"So what, you can run away and leave me to deal with this on my own?" Merlin mutters back.
"Alright," Arthur claps his hands and attempts to smile brightly at the students instead of answering. "I'm Arthur Pendragon, I run this joint, and this is my assistant Merlin Emrys. And that's really his name, to answer your first question. So, what've you got to ask us?"
A lot of them have boring questions - how do you deal with the long hours, what are the worst mistakes journalists can make, did Arthur and Merlin always want to do this when they were kids? They've answered these questions more or less on the fly so many times that Arthur and Merlin have developed a seamless running dialogue they can start up at a moment's notice about their job, and it never fails to amaze Arthur that when they do, Merlin's actually quite charming. Normally, he thinks of Merlin as a bit of a bumbling idiot, but when Merlin really gets into philosophizing about the nature and importance of a free press with his eyes alight and his hands making fantastical shapes in the air (all while, somehow, managing to be obliquely insulting to Arthur), he's perhaps a little magnificent. At least when Arthur catches some of the girls (and there are always a few) gazing adoringly at Merlin, he understands and doesn't feel the need to check if they're concussed. If they knew Merlin like Arthur knew Merlin, though... Well, it would be a different story. Hell, they didn't even have to really know him, they just had to see Merlin drunk once, and all future attraction would be killed immediately.
"Yes, you," Arthur calls on one of the girls who at least had the decency and good sense to be ogling him, "you had a question?"
"Hi," the girl says, a bit breathless. "I'm Jennifer. But you can call me Jenn. That's with two n's." Next to him, Merlin makes a choking noise and Arthur's forced to kick his shin, hard.
"Very well, Jenn," he says politely. "What was your question?"
"Well," Jenn simpers a little. "You and Mr. Emrys, I mean, clearly you're a great boss, since you and he are so close, and Mr. Emrys gets to do so much hands-on work with you. I was just wondering if that's normal, if we're going to be as close with our bosses as Mr. Emrys is with you."
"Um," Arthur says vaguely. The question is semi-innocent, he knows.The girl was trying to flatter him and perhaps butter him up enough to ask for her number. She certainly didn't mean to make it sound like he and his assistant... well. It wasn't even worth thinking about. "I... that is..." He feels the brush of Merlin's fingers against where his hand is resting on the desk, like he's trying to offer comfort, but Merlin recoils and places his hand next to Arthur's instead under Arthur's glance. His pinky brushing against the side of Arthur's hand is an itch, somehow worse than if Merlin had actually covered Arthur's hand with his own.
"It's both luck and circumstance," Merlin says smoothly, betraying no emotion. "Arthur's a great boss and we get on well, it's true, but anyone you work with for as many hours as Arthur and I work together is bound to come to a sort of... understanding with you. Being close is a bit inevitable."
The question and answer session wraps up soon after that and Arthur has a full day's work ahead of him after it, so he puts his head down and just does it, but he has a sick, churning feeling in his gut all day.
"That was a good answer," Arthur says to Merlin when he comes in to give Arthur the last papers of the day before he heads back to his flat. "With the student earlier today I mean. Good quick thinking."
"Yeah well," Merlin avoids his eyes. "Someone had to."
"But, uh," Arthur clears his throat. "I think that even if we didn't work together... that is. I mean, I know you won't work for me forever and I'd... We're mates, right? After a fashion?"
Merlin snorts. "That's one word for it." He gives Arthur a small smile. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
Arthur nods, but before Merlin can leave, he twists up all his courage and says, "I should have said, when she asked that question..." Merlin turns around and looks at him. "I mean," Arthur goes on doggedly, "what I should have said is that you do so much work with me because without you... I couldn't do what I do. Without you."
"Like, at work, right?" Merlin sounds a little odd. Is he coming down with a cold?
"Yeah, of course," Arthur says. "What else would I mean?"
"Nothing," Merlin gives Arthur one of his sad, unreadable looks that Arthur never understands, but never fails to make him feel deeply ashamed, like he's done something terribly wrong, if only he knew what the hell it was. "Good night, Arthur."
"Good night," Arthur says. He feels like something important just happened, like Merlin just told him something he should know. But, for all that his job is in communications, when Merlin sends him these coded messages, he can never quite understand what's just out of his reach.