Merlin loves his job. He runs a little garden shop that's normally only frequented by little old ladies and the members of the local Dahlia Society, whose clubrooms are close by and who often pop in to see what new cultivars he's stocking. (Merlin actually isn't a fan of bulbs in general but the Dahlia Society are good customers so he always makes sure he gets new breeds as soon as they're advertised.)
And it means he has a lot of time to devote to his precious bonsai. Time is important with them. Time and patience. And not being interrupted. Most of his customers are gardeners. They know to wait if he looks like he's doing something, although most of the time they don't even bother to come and find him until they've spent about half an hour browsing amongst the ginkgos and tubs of waterlillies and succulents and all the other things that Merlin delights in stocking and arranging into pleasing little avenues and walkways.
However, annoyingly, someone seems determined to interrupt him today.
Someone is coughing from the direction of the cash register. Merlin ignores it and continues wiring the trunk of the tiny Acer palmatum dissectum that's his current project. Maples are hard work and he's been fiddling with this one for nearly a year now. It's almost a perfect Windblown but the wiring on the trunk just needs a little adjustment -
More coughing. The little bell DINGs peremptorily. There's just another two inches to go on this maple and Merlin doesn't want to change tension halfway through so he grits his teeth and keeps winding.
'Hello?' the coughing bell-dinger says. Demands, really. But Merlin has nearly finished ...
Someone stomps behind the counter and claps a hand on Merlin's shoulder, causing him to jump and as a side effect, ruin the careful spiral of copper on the smooth bark of the maple.
'I'm looking for-' the guy, blond and built and already causing reflexive eyerolling in Merlin, starts.
'Well you'll have to wait,' Merlin snaps, carefully unwinding the wire and checking for scraping on the tree. It looks okay. 'Clearly patience is a foreign concept to you, but this is fiddly and you'll have to give me five minutes here. Okay?'
'I've already waited five minutes,' the prospective customer points out huffily. 'This is supposed to be a shop, isn't it? Customer service ringing a bell?' Merlin turns around and glares daggers at the idiot. He raises an eyebrow, and then has the temerity to eye Merlin up saucily. 'I'm a customer,' he adds, and licks his lips. 'Service me.'
'Bad Buffy quotes into the bargain?' Meriln asks disbelievingly, but slightly charmed. 'You got it wrong, by the way. Spike says 'Consumer-' He realises what he's saying and snaps his mouth shut. The other man smirks. 'Look, go and ... and browse, or something. I'll be there in a minute.'
He turns back to the tree and hears the guy moving away, so he goes back to the absorbing and soothing process of bonsai.
Seconds later, Merlin's calm is again shattered. 'I was just after some roses,' the guy calls. 'You'd think it would be a fairly simple request for a garden shop.'
Merlin tucks the end of the wire away and shunts the little maple back from the edge of his workbench. Fertiliser-browned water slops onto his hands, but he wipes it off casually on his shirt as he heads over to where the customer is bad-temperedly eyeing a display of shrubs, roses included.
'Roses?' Merlin asks. 'What's the occasion?' He starts considering what occasions are likely. Probably going to be the same old blush-pink-for-mother's-birthday job.
'Is it any of your business?'
'It is if you'd like an appropriate rose for the occasion,' Merlin retorts. 'Forgive me, but you don't look like someone versed in the finer points of floriography.'
'Oh really?' The man gestures to a red bloom. 'Passion, right?' He says it in a studiedly nonchalant way, but also like he thinks he's being clever. His eyes are still roaming Merlin's ripped shirt and jeans interestedly.
'Right,' Merlin concedes, trying to ignore how mutual the interest is. He gets an impish thought, and points to a bush covered in orange buds. Admittedly if the customer does know more than Merlin thinks he does, that one gives away a bit more than he probably should. 'And that one?'
The guy shrugs. 'I should at least get points for knowing what you meant by floriography,' he says.
Merlin smirks. 'Now that we've established my credentials, are you going to tell me what you need a rosebush for? If you're surprising your girlfriend I'd go to a florist's - not many people appreciate a rosebush as a gift, unless they're gardeners.'
'My last girlfriend was a gardener,' the guy mentions offhandedly. 'But that was a while ago. And actually it is for her, but it's not ... look, my sister Morgana's getting civilly partnered, and Gwen - her partner, my ex - is a really keen gardener, and I wanted to get them something for their new house. There, is that enough detail for you?' he demands. 'I'm Arthur, by the way, given you now have the names of all my nearest and dearest as well.'
'Merlin,' Merlin says, offering a hand. Arthur looks at it pointedly until Merlin realises it's still got a streak of what is probably fertiliser but could also be manure along the palm, and hurriedly wipes it on the seat of his jeans. Arthur shakes, gingerly.
Stuck-up bastard, Merlin thinks. Gorgeous, but stuck-up.
'So, your professional opinion? Arthur asks.
'Well, you've got a few options,' Merlin says, wandering along the little path between all the roses he has for sale. 'There's red, as you said, for love and passion, of course-'
'I'm not sure it's appropriate to give your sister a rose symbolising love and passion, even on the occasion of her getting married. Or civilly-whatsisnamed. Whatever.'
'Point taken. You could go with pink, which is for femininity, or white, which is a very traditional wedding gift. I'm sure it covers civil partnerships as well,' Merlin grins. 'Look, most of these aren't actually blooming yet. How long do you have? If you give it a couple of days and come back you'll be able to choose one that appeals a lot better.'
Arthur looks doubtful. Probably he'd hoped to just get this over with today. Merlin can't resist an extra jibe. 'And you could use the extra time to do some research,' he adds.
Arthur snorts. 'You might be right,' he admits. 'It'd be just my luck Morgana will have memorised some dictionary of rose meanings in all her interminable preparation for this godawful performance she's insisting on, and that I'll give her something offensive.'
The tiny jingle of the bell on the doorframe heralds Arthur's departure. Merlin doesn't know just yet how eager he'll be to hear that jingle and footfall again in two days time.
Merlin runs an email-order seed business on the side, and he's a little surprised to get an email the next morning from 'firstname.lastname@example.org'. There's no message, except for a little tongue-sticking-out smiley face, but the subject line is 'lilac roses'.
Merlin blushes. It takes him a little while to decide exactly what he wants to send back, but eventually he keys 'White carnations' into the subject line of the reply, and hits 'Send'. That ought to stymie the smarmy git, he thinks.
SUBJECT: Red poppy
SUBJECT: White carnations again, I'm afraid
You're on wikipedia, aren't you.
SUBJECT: Well how about some lime blossom?
is that a problem? :P
this is lame, you know.
You're the florist, babe. I'm just speaking your language.
One, don't call me babe. Two, I'm a gardener, not a florist. Three, wikipedia is not my language.
SUBJECT: So is this yellow tulips, babe?
I'll leave you alone if you want me to.
SUBJECT:*sigh* Ox-eye daisies
I knew you were a sap beneath that macho exterior.
You can't resist my macho exterior. Plus you said orange roses to me yesterday :P
Okay you got me on that one.
SUBJECT: Can we stop with the flowers now?
And will you go to dinner with me?
SUBJECT: Run out of wikipedia articles?
I suppose. Do you still want that rosebush?
When Arthur walks into Merlin's shop that afternoon, Merlin's even wrapped the pot of the silky white-petalled floribunda rose he's selected for Arthur. 'Triomphe de Laffay', it's called. When he saw the name on the catalogue, and remembered that Arthur's sister was called Morgana, he couldn't not.
'It's perfect,' Arthur says, admiring the plant. Suddenly, though, he straightens up like he's remembered something, and coughs.
Merlin raises an eyebrow.
'Um,' says Arthur eloquently, and thrusts a beautifully-made bouquet into Merlin's hands. Merlin nearly drops the damn thing out of surprise.
'It's lovely,' he says, a little taken aback. And then he actually looks at it properly, and blanches at the colours. He can't quite believe Arthur even managed to find a florist who'd prostitute their art far enough to make the thing, because it clashes louder than a deaf man playing the cymbals with earplugs in.
It's mostly made up of violently orange roses (for desire, he reminds himself), interspersed with heliotrope (devotion), the lovely pale yellow of lime-blossom (his old encyclopaedia of plants lists this as 'fornication', which seems altogether too direct for the Victorians, but then again this was a supposedly discreet code for saying indiscreet things), and as foliage, coriander (lust) of all things, which is bruising already and releasing its pungent, citrusy smell into the room.
'You are absolutely incorrigible,' Merlin informs Arthur.
'Well, y'know, I could have written it down, but ...' Arthur shrugs. 'Do you like it?'
Merlin regards his horrific bouquet, and smiles. 'Actually I love it,' he admits.
'Will you go to dinner with me?'
Merlin regards the contents of the bouquet. 'Are you going to jump me in the men's if I do?'
'What?' Arthur asks, startled.
'You hand me a bouquet full of lime-blossom, coriander and orange roses, what am I supposed to think?'
Arthur blinks, but then grins. 'I was intending it more as an invitation than a threat,' he says archly.
Burying his nose in the gorgeously-scented roses, Merlin smirks quietly to himself before saying 'Just let me get my coat.'
He deposits the bouquet in a bucket as he passes, making a mental note to bring a vase tomorrow. When he comes back with his coat, he looks down at the flowers as he passes, and a thought crosses his mind.
'Heliotrope?' he asks. 'Really?'
Arthur smiles, a little pink around the ears. 'If you want.'