Gwen prided herself on being observant. Being able to read people was what made her so good at her job, and in part, what made Pendragon Software as successful as it was.
Having proven her prowess in ferreting out just the kind of people that Pendragon most needed, Arthur had long since given her carte blanche in hiring matters. That was, until now.
“What is the meaning of this?” Arthur demanded as he stalked through her open door, tersely dropping a file folder onto her desk.
Gwen didn’t even have to open it to know that a certain tall, handsome, dark-haired and blue-eyed young man’s photo would be staring back at her. She’d had a feeling that their initial meeting would not exactly go smoothly. “Merlin is the new IT hire, Arthur. Even you admitted it was long past time that we had one here in the Main Office.”
“You can’t mean to tell me that that big-eared, smart-mouthed idiot is actually supposed to fix my computers? Oh no…no way,” Arthur blustered obstinately. “Sack him immediately.”
“I will do no such thing,” Gwen countered calmly. Arthur didn’t get wound up like this often, but she was a master at soothing his ruffled feathers when he did. “He’s amazingly good at what he does; the best, actually. Lots of companies were vying for his attention. I’ll have you know that I stole him right from under Cenred’s nose.”
As predicted, Arthur’s scowl turned pensive and then melted into a smile that was just a little bit smug. Cenred was the CEO of Pendragon’s main competitor and was known for his more underhanded, no-holds-barred tactics when it came to running his business…or discrediting Arthur’s. Whenever Arthur could get an honest leg-up on the man, it pleased him immensely.
“Fine then,” Arthur harrumphed, “don’t sack him, but…the man’s a walking menace! Just look at what he did to my shirt!”
Sure enough, there was a large brownish stain dominating the front of Arthur’s otherwise crisp, white dress shirt.
“The gormless barmpot ran right into me and made me spill my tea and then had the nerve to yell at me for being in his way!”
Gwen bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. “Were you in his way, Arthur?”
A flush coloured Arthur’s cheeks. “Well, I… I mean… Well, it’s my bloody company; I can be wherever I want!”
“Or, in other words, you were in his way.”
“No, I wasn’t!” Arthur defended himself vehemently. “I was just…momentarily distracted.”
“By…nothing. It was nothing, all right?” Arthur huffed.
Gwen raised one eyebrow suspiciously.
“Now, don’t give me that look,” Arthur scolded, pointing an accusing finger at Gwen. “I know that look, and it’s not what you’re thinking…”
On the contrary, Gwen thought to herself, taking in the flush of Arthur’s cheeks that only deepened under her scrutiny, I believe it’s exactly what I’m thinking.
Arthur didn’t exactly go around the office broadcasting his preference for sexual partners, but Gwen was one of the few people at Pendragon to whom he’d confided the knowledge that he was gay.
“You like him,” Gwen countered knowingly.
Arthur looked horrified. “No! No, I don’t. You’ve got this all wrong,” he insisted, but the way his eyes wouldn’t meet hers gave the lie to his words.
“It’s just that…well, look at me!” He spread his arms wide, as if the stain adorning his chest was not already visible enough. “I have a meeting with a client in a half hour; I can’t go looking like this!”
Gwen stood and leaned against her desk, held up by her outstretched fingertips. “Arthur, calm down. You know perfectly well that Elena keeps your cupboard stocked with at least three clean shirts and two suits at all times. All you have to do is go change.”
But before Arthur could even respond, another person stormed into her office, ranting, “Gwen, you would not believe what some posh, prat-faced git just did…”
Merlin trailed off when he realized that said git was standing right in front of him. He crossed his arms across his chest belligerently. “Oh. It’s you. Well, sod off. I need to talk to Gwen.”
Arthur’s eyebrows raised almost into his hairline. “Excuse me? Just who the hell do you think you are?”
“Well, I’m certainly not the Prince of Pratdom, because that job’s already taken.”
Arthur goggled at Merlin. “Are you really this much of a…blithering buffoon?”
Merlin’s expression darkened like a brewing thunderstorm as he took a menacing step toward Arthur. “Your face is a blithering buffoon.”
Gwen quickly insinuated herself between the two of them, saying, “All right, that’s enough.” She gave each of their chests a little shove to put a proper amount of space between them.
Honestly, sometimes she felt more like a headmaster than she did a Human Resources Director.
“It appears that proper introductions are in order. Arthur, this is Merlin Emrys, Pendragon’s new IT Wizard Extraordinaire.”
Arthur crossed his arms across his chest in a mirror of Merlin’s defensive stance and nodded his chin once in Merlin’s direction, his jaw working as if he were fighting to hold back a sarcastic retort.
“And Merlin, this is Arthur Pendragon, CEO of Pendragon Software.”
Merlin huffed and rolled his eyes. Apparently he felt no such compunction to restrain himself. “It figures. And I suppose you came down here to demand my immediate termination because I happened to be in the way when you were stupid enough to run into me with your tea?”
“Hey!” Arthur protested at Merlin’s verbal abuse, but his blush deepened and his eyes slid away from Merlin’s disturbingly bright blue eyes, seeing as he’d been caught out doing exactly that.
“Don’t worry, Merlin,” Gwen smiled, a bit amused at Arthur’s expense despite herself, “no one is losing their job today.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I’d hate to think that I turned down that position with Essetir Enterprises in favour of Pendragon only to get sacked on the very first day. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure that I would have accepted the position, anyway. That Cenred was a bit of a mealy-faced weasel.”
Arthur’s sharp and shrewd eyes darted back to Merlin’s face as a half-snort, half-chuckle burst from his mouth, seemingly against his will. “Well, he is that,” Arthur agreed, “though I don’t believe I would have thought to put it quite so colourfully.”
A slow grin took over Merlin’s features, making his cerulean eyes twinkle. He shrugged one shoulder and deadpanned, “It’s a gift.”
Arthur’s expression softened further as his eyes dipped down to settle on Merlin’s rather full lips. A long moment of very-pregnant sexual tension ensued in which both men seemed to have forgotten that Gwen even existed. She looked back and forth between them, her mind reeling with possibilities. Arthur’s attraction to Merlin she had expected, but Merlin’s to Arthur…
Interesting. Very interesting.
Gwen coughed loudly, making both Arthur and Merlin startle. “Um, Arthur? Don’t you have someplace you need to be?” she reminded him gently.
Arthur dragged his eyes away from Merlin’s mouth and cleared his throat self-consciously. “Oh. Yes. Right.” He nodded curtly at each of them and said stiffly, “If you would excuse me.”
Merlin actually tilted his head to the side as Arthur walked away, unabashedly checking out his boss’ (admittedly gorgeous) arse.
“Merlin!” Gwen slapped at his arm, trying in vain to be affronted by his outrageous behaviour. “Stop that this instant!” she hissed, sotto-voiced, although she couldn’t hold back her smile. “You’re not allowed to ogle the boss’s bum.”
“What?” Merlin drawled, his smile turning decidedly cheeky. “Come on, Gwen. You can’t tell me you’ve never checked it out. An arse as fine as that?”
Gwen giggled despite herself and shook her head as if Merlin were a lost cause.
“Still,” Merlin mused, almost as if to himself, “he’s much too posh for me. God, he’s so posh! I mean…look at him!” Merlin motioned down the now-empty hallway. “I’d bet a bloke like that even has posh pants!”
Merlin couldn’t have been more right. One night several months back, Arthur’s PA Elena—after one too many drinks at the pub—had accidentally revealed that their boss wore special-ordered silk boxers that cost a whopping £60 apiece. While no one was stupid enough to dare mentioning it to Arthur (not even Gwaine), it was still one of the worst kept secrets in the office.
However, Gwen purposely decided not to let Merlin in on the secret. No need to discourage the first man Arthur had been interested in for months.
Besides, considering the sparks that were already flying between he and Arthur, Gwen figured it was only a matter of time before Merlin found out that information on his own.
As usual, the door to Merlin’s office was wide open. Gwen never understood how he was able to tune out all the noise from the hallway, but evidently he did. She leaned her body against the doorjamb and stood silently as she watched him work. His bright eyes were glued to the computer screen in front of him while his long fingers fairly flew across his keyboard in a flurry of staccato clicks. He paused for a moment to worry at his bottom lip with his teeth, but he still didn’t notice her. Clearly, he was in what Merlin himself called “The Zone”, and judging by the mug of tea that had grown cold by his elbow, he had been there for quite some time.
He had just started typing again when Gwen softly rapped her knuckles on his door to attract his attention. Merlin startled and jostled the mug, which he saved from spilling tea into his lap at the last second. At first, his lips pursed with annoyance, however once his eyes discovered hers, his face split into a wide grin.
“Gwen!” he said by way of greeting, leaning his back against the chair to stretch his muscles. “What brings you down to the Tech Cave?”
“I thought I’d just pop by to check up on you; make sure you’re settling in all right,” she explained with a friendly smile. She’d just noticed a cowlick at the back of Merlin’s head and couldn’t seem to draw her eyes away from the rebellious lock of hair that was so like Merlin himself.
As if he realized what she must be staring at, Merlin rubbed one wide palm against the back of his head self-consciously. “Oh…well, it’s all right, I guess,” he said with a shrug of one shoulder.
Immediately, she came in and shut the door. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Merlin hedged, his eyes skittering away from hers.
Gwen plopped herself down on the chair in front of Merlin’s desk and crossed her arms across her chest. “You are an absolutely horrible liar, Merlin Emrys,” she declared, raising one dubious eyebrow at him.
Merlin lowered his head with a sigh. He took a deep, fortifying breath and then straightened up again. “Fine, you want to know what’s got me spare? It’s that bloody Poshpants, that’s what.”
Gwen’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Arthur? What’s happened with Arthur?”
“Now I know it’s part of my job to provide technical support whenever it’s needed…but this! This is absurd!”
“What’s absurd?” Gwen asked, truly stumped.
“Poshpants! Why the bleeding hell does he even own a software company? He has got to be the most clueless, cabbage-headed person when it comes to computers, I swear! I’m surprised he knows how to turn one on and use the mouse without causing it to explode, to be honest.”
That didn’t sound like the Arthur she knew; the Arthur that had started this software company from scratch six years ago. He could probably take apart and put back together each and every computer in their office blindfolded. “What makes you say that?”
“Here.” Merlin thrust a clipboard at her. It was his daily log of tech support requests. As Gwen scanned the pages, he continued, “I must be up in the prat’s office every other day for some stupid, idiotic tech call. I swear it’s payback.”
Gwen frowned as she read down the list of calls: Sept. 18th, A. Pendragon, loose power cord; Sept 21st, A. Pendragon, power strip malfunction. Sept 22nd; A. Pendragon, power cord unattached from monitor; Sept 25th, A. Pendragon, cable attached to hard drive loose…the list went on and on, and every single one of them would have been things that Arthur should have detected on his own in a heartbeat.
The whole thing smacked of self-sabotage. But why would Arthur do that? Gwen could only think of one reason: it was Arthur’s very poorly thought-out way of flirting with Merlin. Gwen stifled an exasperated sigh. Arthur did have a tendency toward being a bit…emotionally constipated.
Belatedly, Merlin’s words sunk in. “What do you mean ‘payback’?”
“For the tea incident,” Merlin harrumphed, his mouth puckering sourly. “When he ran into me that time?”
“Oh, Merlin,” she replied with an amused grin. “I’m quite sure it’s not payback. Arthur might be a bit…hot-tempered at times, but I promise you that he does not hold grudges.”
But he’d probably like to hold you against something, she thought to herself.
He huffed and took the clipboard back from her. “Could’ve fooled me,” he mumbled as he shoved the clipboard back in its slot on the corner of his desk. “I think he likes it when I’m on my knees…” he pouted.
Gwen’s eyes widened at what was clearly an unintentional double entendre on Merlin’s part. Oh, I’ll just bet he does…
“And d’ya know what else? For all the time I spend in his bleedin’ office, you’d think Poshpants could at least get my name right. I mean, really…it’s not like it’s all that common.”
That really surprised Gwen, because she knew for a fact that Arthur always went out of his way to learn the names of his new staff. “Why? What does he call you?”
“Marvin,” Merlin huffed, looking affronted. “Although, usually it comes out more like Marvin… all drawled and drawn out. It’s pretty annoying, to be honest.”
Yep, she thought, definitely flirting, even if it was the pigtail-pulling variety that Arthur should have grown out of when he was twelve. Frankly, she was surprised that Merlin hadn’t cottoned on to that yet. Apparently he was just as clueless as Arthur when it came to flirting.
“Look,” she said, biting her cheek to stifle a giggle, “I’ll talk with him and find out what’s going on, all right?”
“No!” Merlin immediately protested, startling Gwen with his sharpness.
“Why ever not?”
“It’ll probably just make it worse,” he predicted darkly.
“Just leave it be, Gwen…please?” Merlin begged. “I’m sure he’ll tire of taking the piss soon enough.”
Gwen frowned but acquiesced uneasily. “All right; if you’re sure.”
Regardless of what she’d told Merlin, Gwen had no intention of leaving the situation alone. If nothing else, Arthur needed to know how much his flirting attempts were backfiring before he completely ruined his chances with Merlin.
But Gwen hadn’t been able to intervene as quickly as she had hoped. She’d been out of the office much of the past three weeks, busy hiring staffing for a new branch in Bristol.
Moreover, since she’d been back, Arthur had been unable to meet with her. Pendragon Software was planning on going public with its stock at the beginning of the next fiscal year and, Arthur being Arthur, he’d taken on way too much. His schedule was filled to the brim with meetings, clients, and potential investors, and he insisted on personally planning the launch down to the most minute detail.
Literally every day for a week and a half, Gwen called down to Arthur’s office to request a time to meet, ostensibly so that she could update him on how things went in Bristol and to unofficially talk to him about Merlin. But each and every time, his response was a variation of, “I’m very sorry Gwen, but I’ve got a very important meeting with (insert very important client here) and couldn't possibly reschedule…” It was almost as if Arthur had a sixth sense about her topic of discussion and was going out of his way to avoid it.
Well, Gwen had had enough. She needed to speak to Arthur, if not for her own sake, then for Merlin’s. And really, for Arthur’s sake, too, since he obviously needed to be saved from himself.
Time for a bit of detective work.
So the next morning, she’d come in early, brought breakfast for Elena, and stayed to chat with the harried young woman while she peeked at Arthur’s daily schedule over the PA’s shoulder.
Hmmm, she pondered to herself as she sipped her tea and smiled sympathetically at Elena, Arthur’s open between 9:30 and 10:30. Perfect.
“Oh…Yes!” Elena exclaimed with a note of surprise, as if she couldn’t believe she could actually answer that question in the affirmative for the first time in weeks. “Although, he’s got Merlin in there,” Elena made a commiserative face. “Again.”
Gwen prayed for the heavens to give her strength. “What was it this time?”
“Loose power cable. I think.”
“Of course it was.” Gwen sighed shook her head ruefully.
Merlin’s harried voice carried even through the closed door. “How is it even possible to kick your power cable undone this many times in a month?”
“That is not your concern,” Arthur declared in his most obnoxious tone. “What is your concern is repairing it. Quickly.”
“You are the most imbecilic oaf I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet, Poshpants!” Merlin’s muffled voice exclaimed.
Gwen and Elena looked at each other, their eyes widened with alarm. “I’d better get in there before there’s bloodshed,” Gwen decided.
“Yeah, you probably should do,” Elena agreed.
Gwen quietly opened the door and stepped inside, closing the door behind her. Arthur’s eyes settled on her face in acknowledgement for a moment before being drawn back to whatever he’d been looking at before. As she walked around the side of Arthur’s desk, it was apparent what that thing was: Merlin’s arse. It’s pert roundness stuck out from under the depths of Arthur’s desk, undulating in response to Merlin’s every movement as he struggled to reconnect the power cable to Arthur’s computer in the restrictive space. Arthur’s eyes were glued to it as if he were mesmerized. The hunger and longing wasn’t anywhere near subtle.
“And I don’t see why you won’t just let me string the cables along the outside of the desk if they’re constantly in your way,” Merlin grumbled.
Arthur’s eyes never moved from where they were affixed to Merlin’s bum. “Because it looks unprofessional, Marvin. I’ve told you that before.”
“And God knows, looks are everything with you.”
“Now, Marvin. I don’t have all day,” Arthur commanded, the boredom in his voice in direct opposition to the interest on his face.
Arthur’s monitor flickered on and the computer beeped and whirred as it came back to life. When Merlin finally emerged from the bowels of Arthur’s desk, Gwen watched in fascination as a carefully constructed expression of ennui masked Arthur’s face.
“It’s a damn good thing you’re pretty,” Merlin declared heatedly as he wiped the dust off his hands, “because God knows you’d never be able to sell anyone your products based on your computer knowledge!”
Merlin acknowledged Gwen with a terse little nod and then stalked across the room, wrenching open the door to Arthur’s office and slamming it so hard behind himself that the walls shook and the windows rattled.
“One day,” Gwen idly remarked once the ringing in her ears had faded, “you’re going to come in here to find your computer smashed to bits like that printer from Office Space.”
“Not if he wants to keep his job, I won’t.”
Gwen sighed and shook her head wearily. “This has got to stop, Arthur.”
Gwen gestured impatiently between Arthur, his desk, and the doorway through which Merlin had just exited. “This! This poor excuse for flirting you’ve been doing with Merlin the last two months under the guise of “service calls”.”
Arthur glowered at her as if insinuating that saying more might be punishable by death.
Unfortunately for Arthur, that look had never worked on Gwen. “I’ve seen the call list. Loose power cords? Plug to your monitor undone? Defective power strip? Oh, please. As if you couldn’t diagnose any of the problems you’ve called him for and fix them yourself in a tick. You’ve been building computers from scratch since you were seven. “
“I could,” Arthur owned, “but that’s what I pay an IT to do. How else is Marvin going to earn his salary? A very generous salary, I might add.”
Gwen glared at him. “His name is Merlin, and he has a lot more to do than service calls, as you well know. He thinks the reason you call him down to your office so much is to wind him up, Arthur. Is that really what you want him to believe?”
A flicker of uncertainty passed across Arthur’s face like a shadow. Gwen knew it went against his grain to allow people to think badly of him. Arthur might maintain a gruff exterior, but everyone who worked for him knew that Arthur had a heart of gold; that’s why they were so loyal to him and to Pendragon.
“And don’t pretend that all these calls are anything other than what they are. I saw you, just now. You were ogling Merlin’s arse like you were a starving man and he was a feast.”
At that, Arthur crossed his arms over his chest and raised one imperious eyebrow at her. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he denied.
Gwen wasn’t buying into Arthur’s act for one second. “You can’t fool me, Arthur Pendragon. I’ve known you since we were in primary. We’ve been friends forever. When you came out, I was one of the first people you told. I’ve been around you long enough to recognize your taste and know what you like. You don’t think that I know you’re smitten with Merlin? That you’ve been smitten with him since the day you met?”
This declaration caught Arthur wrong-footed. A blush stole into his cheeks and he could no longer meet Gwen’s eyes. An uneasy silence stretched out long and full between them.
“I can’t, Gwen,” he said finally, so quietly that she almost didn’t hear. “You know I can’t.”
Gwen laid a supportive hand on Arthur’s forearm. “You could do, you know. I think…” She smiled and gently touched her fingers of her other hand to the side of his face to make him look at her. “I think he likes you, too.”
Merlin slouched into her office and flopped dramatically into the seat opposite Gwen with a pained sigh.
“Yes? What is it, Merlin?” Seeing the card he had clutched in his nearly-boneless right hand, she already had a pretty good idea.
“Black tie? Really?” he moaned. “Who ever heard of a black tie Holiday Party?”
Merlin hunkered down and draped his neck over the back of his chair with an air of despondency. He stared up at the ceiling and grumbled, “Poshpants is a bloody wanker with his bespoke suits and his toff parties… where everyone sips champagne and eats escargot while talking about polo or some such thing. Just because he likes to be posh doesn’t mean we all should do!”
“Oh, Merlin, you should really give it a chance before you complain. We have this every year and it’s lovely; it really is. All the women look so beautiful and the men so suave and debonair. ”
“But I hate those stupid monkey suits!” Merlin whinged petulantly. “They’re itchy and uncomfortable and they never fit right.”
“Merlin,” Gwen refuted gently, “they’re not that bad. And I bet you’d look rather dishy in a dinner jacket.”
Merlin lifted his head up just enough to glare at Gwen. “I know you’re trying to butter me up, but it won’t work. I’m not going.”
Gwen had a sinking suspicion that Merlin’s reluctance stemmed less from his aforementioned reasons and more from a deep-seated insecurity about his looks and his ability to fit in when he was outside his comfort zone.
Cautiously, she suggested, “Well, what if I go with you? I’d bet I could help you pick one out that you’d look smashing in.”
The stern look in Merlin’s eyes softened. “You’d do that?”
Gwen’s smile was gentle and soothing. “Of course I would, Merlin. In fact, we could go this Saturday, if you like. We’ll grab some lunch and make a day of it. It’ll be fun!”
And, judging by the brooding look on Arthur’s face, she wasn’t the only one who’d noticed his absence. Gwen sidled up next to Arthur and put a comforting hand on his arm. “I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” she reassured him.
“You’re sure who will be here soon?” Arthur asked in his most pompous voice.
Gwen wasn’t buying it. “Merlin, of course.”
Arthur made a show of scanning the crowd and then took a sip from his champagne flute. “Oh,” he said with an unconcerned shrug, “Marvin’s not here? Hmmm, I hadn’t noticed.”
Sure you didn’t…
“In fact, I…”
It was at that moment that Merlin made his entrance. Gwen could tell because Arthur’s sentence just trailed off into nothingness, as if he’d suddenly forgotten how to make his mouth work. Gwen casually glanced in the direction Arthur was staring and smiled. Merlin’s eyes were just as fixed on Arthur; in fact, he walked straight toward Arthur as if drawn to him by a magnet.
“Uh, hello…” Merlin acknowledged Gwen with a nod as he worried at his bow tie with one long-fingered hand. “Sorry I’m late.” But even as he said it, his eyes were sliding back toward Arthur, Merlin’s gaze almost a caress as it lingered on Arthur’s wide shoulders, broad chest, narrowed hips, and strong legs encased in a seamlessly fitted dinner jacket.
“It’s quite all right, Merlin,” Gwen soothed, unsure if Merlin could even hear her in his rather preoccupied state. “Isn’t that right, Arthur?”
Entranced as he was, it took several moments for Gwen’s statement to register. “What? Oh! Um…” Arthur’s spine stiffened and he averted his eyes uncomfortably. “Yes, you’ve made it before dinner, so no harm done. If you would excuse me, I need to speak with Percival.” And without so much as another glance in Merlin’s direction, Arthur made a beeline for the other end of the room.
Merlin blinked several times as if he couldn’t quite comprehend what had just happened. “Was it something I said?” he finally asked Gwen.
“I’m sure it wasn’t,” she was quick to reassure. “Arthur is just very keyed up about tonight being a success…”
And about the fact that he finds you incredibly fit and can’t get a handle on how desperately he wants to shag you…
Merlin’s lips pursed into a near grimace. “He might do better if he took the massive stick out of his arse then,” he grumbled, nowhere near under his breath. “Him and his ruddy posh pants…”
Then, as if he’d just realized he’d said all that out loud and hadn’t meant to, Merlin looked sheepish. “Sorry, Gwen. It’s just…” He fidgeted with his tie again. “It took me literally forever to get this bloody thing done up, and I feel like a real tosser in this kit, and…”
“Shush,” she ordered and pushed his hands away from the wilting bow. She pulled out the knot and deftly retied it, taking a moment to smooth out a few minute wrinkles from the lapels of Merlin’s jacket. Once she was done, she stepped back to inspect her handiwork.
“I was right. You look really fab, Merlin.”
Merlin’s voice was strangely sad as his eyes strayed toward a blond head in the crowd on the other side of the room. “Thanks, Gwen. Too bad you’re the only one who thinks so.”
Gwen hummed to herself as she walked into the kitchen at mid-morning to make herself another cup of tea. After turning on the electric kettle, she set a new teabag into her mug and leaned her hip against the counter to wait.
It wasn’t until she heard someone speaking that she realized she wasn’t alone.
“So what’s got your knickers in a twist, then?” Gwaine Greene teased someone in his distinctive half-joking, half-serious way.
Gwen’s head swiveled sharply as she stared through the small pass-through window that connected this part of the kitchen with dining area. The room was empty, save for Gwaine and a very dejected-looking Merlin, who was hunched miserably over a hot cup of something that he clutched between both hands like a lifeline.
“Nothing,” Merlin said in a tone that clearly indicated the opposite, staring at the swirling tendrils of steam as if he were scrying them.
“C’mon mate, you can tell me,” Gwaine urged, his voice more hushed and comforting now.
Merlin shrugged and sank even lower into his chair.
“This is about the Princess, isn’t it?”
Merlin’s back stiffened at the question. “What? No!”
Gwaine sat back in his chair, crossed his arms across his chest and speared Merlin with a disbelieving look and one raised eyebrow.
Merlin stared sullenly back for several long moments; in fact, it was so long that Gwen felt like she was watching a very elaborate game of Chicken. Finally, Merlin caved under the onslaught of Gwaine’s stare, slumping forward so that his forehead rested against the table.
“Yes,” he finally mumbled into the Formica tabletop.
“What’s he done this time?” Gwaine asked. Gwen could hear both empathy and irritation in the words and surmised that it was not the first time since Merlin started at Pendragon that Gwaine had asked that particular question.
“Nothing,” Merlin admitted to his lap. “This time it’s all me.”
“So he’s still calling you to his office so he can ogle your arse while you’re under his desk fixing his computer?”
Merlin picked his head up, rubbed the heels of his hands against his eye sockets, and snorted. “If only...You know he just does it to bust my bollocks, Gwaine.”
Gwaine rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Don’t,” Merlin warned, glaring at his friend with red-rimmed eyes. “Just…don’t.”
“Don’t say things like that. It’s bad enough already without you making it worse with fruitless speculation.”
“What is bad enough already?” Gwaine asked, a furrow of confusion creasing his forehead.
Merlin slid his hands up to cover his face. “Please don’t make me say it.” The words were quiet and partially obscured by his fingers, but Gwen still heard him, which meant that Gwaine must have, too.
Gwen already knew what Merlin meant, but it took Gwaine a moment longer to riddle it out. When he did, his eyes widened comically and he breathed, “Ohhhhh. You fancy ol’ Poshy?”
Merlin nodded miserably.
“Like the arse-over-tits kind of fancying him?”
Another wretched nod.
“Well, that’s pants. How’d that happen?” Gwaine asked.
“I don’t know!” Merlin wailed. “I don’t even like him!”
Right, thought Gwen dryly. You’ve liked Arthur from the first day you met him, no matter how much of a prat he is.
After a moment, Gwaine suggested, “Well, why don’t you tell him? You know…that you’d like to do the horizontal tango with him or something.”
“Because—despite appearances—I happen to like my job and don’t have a death wish. Besides, what good would it do? He’s straight.”
“You don’t know that,” Gwaine reasoned. “None of us do, really. I mean, have you ever seen him bring a date to anything? Or even heard rumor of one, for that matter?”
Merlin shook his head in denial. “That doesn’t mean anything other than that maybe Arthur likes to keep his work and personal lives separate. Or that he’s a workaholic and hasn’t had the time. And besides, I’ve been working here for almost six months. You’d think my gaydar would have picked up on it by now if Pratface was interested.”
Gwaine shrugged. “Maybe your gaydar is shit.”
On that point, Gwen definitely had to agree.
“Look, I…it’s fine. I’m fine.”
At Gwaine’s dubious look, Merlin hedged, “All right…I will be fine.” He sat up and squared his shoulders as if he were about to go into battle. “I just have to put it out of my mind. I mean, it’s never gonna happen, so I might as well move on.”
“Yeah,” Gwaine agreed, his voice full of forced cheer, “just go down to the Valhalla some night and take home a gorgeous piece of blond arse. That’ll work the kinks right out of you…”
“Maybe…” Merlin said with all the conviction and excitement of a man awaiting an execution.
Gwaine patted Merlin on the arm encouragingly and got to his feet. “That’s the spirit! Now, let’s get back before we’re missed.”
Merlin gave Gwaine a watery smile and stood up, too. “Well, I could see why people might miss me, but you? Not so much.”
“Oh ha, bloody ha,” Gwaine gave Merlin a playful shove with his shoulder. “You are all just jealous.”
Gwaine flashed Merlin his trademark roguish grin. “Why, of my dashing good looks and my—” Gwaine paused to flip his fringe out of his eyes with practiced precision, “—fabulous hair, of course.”
As Gwen watched the two men leave the break room, she felt her resolve hardening. Ridiculous, encompassing both Merlin and Arthur’s behaviour. They’re both utterly ridiculous. And clueless. And too sexually frustrated to see what's right in front of them.
It was obvious to her that what the two of them really needed was an intervention. Gwen decided that from there on out, she had a new (albeit unofficial) mission: to get Merlin and Arthur to see the error of their ways and get on with admitting their mutual attraction so that they’d finally get into each other’s pants.
And the rest of us can finally have a little peace around here.
When she got back to her office, she set her tea down and slid open a desk drawer. She searched through her files for a long moment and then pulled a folder out to lay it across her desk. “See the Wonders of Inchnadamph” it declared in bold letters on top of a photo of a gorgeous sunrise over craggy mountains and a mirror-still loch.
She’d been saving the experience for the Edinburgh office next summer, but she was willing to sacrifice it for the cause. Because no matter how stubborn and gormless the men in question were, Gwen felt confident that they would crack from the pressure before the end of the trip.
Working together on a series of trust-building exercises would allow Arthur and Merlin to see each other's better qualities instead of just the bad ones. And being cooped up together in a tent for days in the chill of the Northwest Highlands with nothing but their bodies to keep themselves (and each other) warm? Well, a mutual attraction as strong as theirs should prove damn near impossible to resist under those circumstances.
Especially if I pack a few extra "necessities" into their first-aid kit...
An evil grin slowly spread across her face as she nodded to herself. Yes, there was no question about it; she would pair them together and let nature take its course. After all, desperate times do call for desperate measures.
Fingering the card of the company’s Activities Director, she picked up the telephone and rang him up.
Gwen nodded to the last of the straggling coworkers leaving for the night as she navigated the hallway that ultimately led to Arthur’s office, whistling as she walked. Almost four months had passed since the retreat and Merlin and Arthur were still going strong. What was more, people in the office seemed to take the knowledge that they were an "item" in their stride…once the initial surprise over Arthur being gay had passed.
That didn’t mean their relationship was at all harmonious, oh no. There was still an almost constant stream of teasing and bickering going on, but now it was tempered by warm glances and not-so-secret smiles. And while they weren’t usually very physically demonstrative at work, there had been that memorable time that Elena had stumbled across them—quite literally—whilst in flagrante delicto in the supply cupboard. That story spread like wildfire and was still the talk of the office whenever gossip was scarce.
Gwen couldn’t help but feel the tiniest bit smug that her plan to get the boys to admit their feelings had worked so spectacularly. Now that they’d given in to their desires and formed such a strong emotional bond, they were almost always together. And they were good for each other, too. Merlin had taught Arthur how to be more emotionally open whilst Arthur bolstered Merlin’s self-confidence.
That bond had translated into great things for the company as well. Now that he knew how valued his input really was to Arthur, Merlin had submitted a software idea he’d quietly been working on since his Uni days. It was an idea that— if successful— would turn the computing world on its ear: a smart search engine that learned the needs of its user and started to anticipate them much more accurately than the current standard, all without invading their privacy. The key was the satellite program that users would download so that preferences were stored locally on their own computing device and not on Pendragon servers. The satellite program would then communicate to the search engine, thus keeping the user anonymous and their information protected while the engine provided more detailed and relevant replies to queries. And in typical Merlin fashion, he’d added his unique touch to the search engine’s “voice”; it had a snarky personality all its own, an entity he liked to call Kilgharrah.
From the moment Merlin had pitched the particulars of his idea at the monthly staff meeting in June, it had been a huge hit. The staff members thought it was a spark of genius and Arthur had been over the moon about it. That same week, Arthur had given Gwen carte blanche to hire an entire team solely dedicated to the Kilgharrah Project that would work directly under Merlin, the newly-appointed Project Leader.
The hiring of that team was, in fact, what had kept her at work late on a Friday. She had sniffed out a couple of good leads on some very innovative candidates and wanted to discuss their merits with Arthur…and Merlin, too, if she was lucky enough to catch them together.
And catch them together she certainly did!
As she’d approached Elena’s desk, it was clear that Arthur’s assistant had long since gone home. The vertical blinds over the window that separated Arthur’s office from the reception area were tightly drawn and her things were all stored away, her computer shut down. She might have assumed Arthur had left as well but for the sliver of light gleaming from underneath his door.
Well, that and the voices.
“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Merlin’s surly voice protested, sounding a bit muffled.
“Well, I didn’t exactly twist your arm, Merlin. Admit it; you’ve wanted to do this just as much as I’ve wanted you to,” Arthur responded with an almost unbearable smugness.
Naturally, Merlin did no such thing. Instead, there was a long pause, and then— “You realize that you are, in fact, an enormous prat.” Merlin grumbled, disgruntled.
It didn’t escape Gwen’s notice that Merlin did not actually refute Arthur’s statement.
“Your face is an enormous prat,” Arthur teased in a rather uncanny impression of his boyfriend’s catchphrase.
“Hey!” Merlin indignantly cried. “That’s my line!”
“And, in this case, it suits you quite well.”
Gwen bit her lip hard to stifle the giggle that threatened to escape.
There was another pause and then Merlin asked, “Are you sure you really want to do this now? I thought you said Gwen was going to stop by.”
Gwen could practically hear the mental shrug in Arthur’s unconcerned tone. “Merlin, it’s after six-thirty. Surely we’d have seen her by now if she were coming. She must have gone home. I’m sure whatever it was she wanted to discuss with me will keep until Monday.”
There was a moment’s pause and then Arthur asked pointedly, “Is this you trying to skive off?”
“No!” Merlin denied.
“Because you promised you would,” Arthur said as he’d reminded Merlin several times already.
“I know I did, but…can’t we do this at home?”
“A bet is a bet Merlin, and you lost.”
“But come on,” Merlin spluttered, “You didn’t even lock the door! Anybody could just walk right in on us! Remember what happened with the supply cupboard?”
“That’s part of the excitement,” Arthur answered placidly. “Besides, everyone has gone home. Really, Merlin; I never imagined that someone who frequents “Queers and Deviants” night at the Valhalla could be such a prude.”
“I’m not! I just never thought you’d be such an exhibitionist.”
“Are too! And I’m not an exhibitionist. I prefer to think of it as being adventurous.”
“I am not a prude…” Merlin huffed. “And this is not adventurous; it’s daft! I just don’t know how I feel about playing into your twisted little—”
“Merlin?” Arthur cut him off. “If you’re just going to sit under there and whinge, we might as well go home.” Then Arthur’s voice dropped an octave and took on a seductive air. “Personally, I can think of a much better use for your mouth.”
Merlin groaned and mumbled something about berk boyfriends, their posh pants, not to mention their kinky fantasies, and then Gwen heard the unmistakable jangling of a belt buckle being unlatched.
She felt her own cheeks flush as it became abundantly clear exactly what type of activity they were about to engage in. Or, based on Arthur’s sharp intake of breath, had most likely already begun to engage in. She had turned away from the door with the intention of giving the two men their privacy when she stopped dead in her tracks, considering.
Gwen had no idea what bet the two of them had made that Merlin had lost, but certainly she agreed with Merlin’s assessment that Arthur was being a bit of a prat about it. And it was quite clear that Arthur hadn’t learned his lesson about the dangers of public sex after the last incident. Well, this time Gwen intended to ensure that Arthur got the message.
Knowing she was probably going to hell for this, Gwen turned back and leaned closer to the slightly-ajar door to eavesdrop, wanting to wait until the perfect moment to interrupt.
After some minutes had passed and Arthur’s breathing became more laboured, Gwen decided that she probably shouldn’t wait any longer if she wanted to catch them still in the act.
She smoothed the creases out of her blouse, tucked her file folders more firmly underneath her arm, squared her shoulders, and then held her breath. It’s now or never, she thought, then gave Arthur’s door a cursory knock before just shoving it wide open and breezing in the way she normally would.
“Oh, Arthur…I’m glad you’re still here,” she began innocently, though her eyes widened once she’d entered the room.
The sight that greeted her was anything but innocent: Cheeks flushed and tie askew; Arthur looked as if he had melted into the chair behind his desk like candle wax. His arms were limp and his hands draped bonelessly over the sides of the armrests. His eyes were closed and his head lolled back against the leather padding as if his neck could no longer support its weight. His hair was tousled while his lips looked raw and bitten. His mouth was slack as he panted softly.
Or, in other words, the normally immaculately dressed and groomed Arthur Pendragon looked completely and utterly debauched.
Gwen bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing as Arthur startled hard at the sound of her voice and then froze like a deer caught in the headlights. “Oh!” He cleared his throat self-consciously and surreptitiously slid his chair closer to his desk, most likely to conceal the fact that Merlin was under it.
“Uh…G..wen!” Arthur stammered, trying to come off as his normal jovial self and failing miserably. “I’m, uh…surprised you’re still here!”
If Gwen hadn’t already been aware of Merlin’s presence in the room, she probably would have missed the tiny wuffle that issued from under the desk. As it was, she had to force herself not to outwardly react to the sound.
Arthur didn’t succeed in that endeavour quite as well as Gwen had. He gave a tiny roll of his eyes and his body twitched...probably aiming an exasperated kick at Merlin in an effort to shut him up.
Oh, Arthur, Gwen thought with a mental shake her head, when will you learn that baiting Merlin while your pants are around your ankles is never a good idea?
Gwen held up the file folders and said wryly, “Well, someone tasked me with hiring an entire team of people. Sometimes that means that I work late.” She made a show of looking around the room. “Oh. Where’s Merlin? I would have thought he’d have been here with you.”
At the mention of Merlin’s name, Arthur’s eyes fluttered shut for a second and he bit at his lip. Ah, right on cue, Gwen thought as she watched Arthur’s fingers curl around the armrests, squeezing so hard that his knuckles turned white.
“He…He’s stepped out,” Arthur managed with difficulty.
“Oh, did he?” Gwen played along, pretending not to notice Arthur’s preoccupation. She crossed the room and sat down in the chair directly across the desk from Arthur. “Well then, I can wait. I’d like his input on some of these candidates as well. They're for his team, after all.”
The pained look of horror that crossed Arthur’s face at that idea was priceless. His cheeks flushed further and his panicked eyes looked anywhere but her face. “Well, um…” Arthur paused as if he’d momentarily lost his train of thought, “perhaps we could do this on Monday? I was just about to—oh,” the whispered word slipped into his sentence as if he couldn’t help himself, “—leave for the night.”
Gwen flashed Arthur a dubious look and laughed. “Oh please…” she teased as placed her stack of files on the desk. She looked straight at him and said, “Don't insult my intelligence, Arthur. I know exactly what's going on here.”
Arthur’s eyes widened comically, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed hard. “You...You do?”
“As if you’d leave without Merlin…” Gwen teased. “It’s like you two are joined at the hip.”
Arthur choked at her turn of phrase…or quite possibly from side effects of the statement’s current accuracy.
Either way, Gwen couldn’t resist turning the screw on him just a bit more. “Don’t deny it, Arthur. You two are practically inseparable these days.”
Arthur hummed noncommittally, most likely (based on the way he’d started to fidget in his seat) because he didn’t trust his voice.
Grabbing the folder on the top of her stack, she opened it and held it out to Arthur. “Well, I suppose there’s no reason why we couldn’t get started and fill Merlin in on what’s he’s missed when he gets back.”
She couldn’t help but notice the way Arthur’s hand shook as he reached out to take the file from her.
“Now, this candidate here,” Gwen said, picking up her own copy of the file and pretending to peruse it, all the while watching Arthur’s expression, “seemed rather promising. I realize she is right out of Uni and has no work experience other than internships, but after meeting with her, I really feel that…”
Sweat had actually broken out on Arthur’s forehead and his eyes were glazed over. It was obvious to Gwen that his mind was nowhere near capable of processing their conversation.
She set her file folder down and studied him as if she’d just noticed something was amiss. “Arthur,” she said with feigned concern, “are you all right? You look a bit…peaky.”
Arthur shook his head as if to clear it. “Uh…no. I’m….fine,” he stuttered as if each word was a struggle to get out.
“I don’t know, Arthur,” she continued. “I think you might be coming down with something. Your face is all flushed.”
“Izz’t?” Arthur's words slurred together, his voice more groan than sound. “I, uh…I…”
Gwen finally decided she’d tortured Arthur long enough. Hopefully this time he’s learned his lesson about the hazards of public sex!
“You know what?” Gwen said, pushing to a stand, “Let me go see if I can find Merlin for you. I’m sure he’ll take good care of you if you’re not feeling well.” She crossed the room and said over her shoulder at Arthur as she was leaving, “Be right back.”
She pulled the door halfway shut behind her and stood just behind it, waiting. She felt confident that Arthur couldn't take much more. Sure enough, seconds later Arthur’s breathless voice, pleading and desperate, begged, “Christ, Merlin...hurry! She'll be back any second! Fuck…please!”
Merlin must have complied, because just seconds later, Arthur was gasping and moaning, the leather of his executive chair creaking as he shuddered with his release.
Gwen gave Arthur barely a minute to recover before ducking back around the door. Even if she hadn't known what had been going on under that desk, there could no longer be any question of what had occurred. If she’d thought Arthur looked debauched before, then he could only be considered completely wrecked and wrung out now.
“Sorry, Arthur..." she said in mock-sympathy, "but I couldn't seem to find him. I'm sure he'll be back soon."
"Would you like me to wait with you?" Gwen asked, knowing full well that it was about the last thing Arthur wanted.
I really am going to hell for this...
Arthur's face was beet red. Hazily, he squinted up at her as if even the job of focusing his eyes was too difficult to manage. "No," he rasped, waving a hand vaguely in her direction. "You go..."
Gwen pasted on a concerned expression. "All right, Arthur. If you're sure..."
He nodded once, rested his head back against the chair in apparent exhaustion, and closed his eyes.
Gwen made it all the way to the open doorway before she stopped again. "Oh, and Arthur?”
He cracked one eye open, but Arthur didn't otherwise move. He was still panting as hard as if he’d just run a race. “Y...yes?”
“The next time you want to get your, ahem—” Gwen paused to clear her throat delicately and then stared pointedly at the place where she knew Merlin was concealed by Arthur’s desk “—hard drive serviced at work, I'd recommend taking Merlin's advice and locking the damn door."
She aimed a cheeky grin at her gobsmacked friend and retreated to the sound of Merlin’s raucous laughter.