It starts, as it all too often does, with an argument. Or maybe two. And the golden-haired Chief Financial Officer of Pendragon Industries, first rate dollophead, prince of pratliness, lord of obliviousness, Merlin's current flat mate, and the subject of the longest-standing unrequited crush in the history of pathetic pining, is ultimately to blame, obviously.
Well, all right. Perhaps Merlin Wyllt, head of Information Technology at said company, maybe has a bit of a hand in it as well.
"In short," Merlin's saying, "the switch to the cloud-hosted system, although it requires some initial capital outlay... Arthur, are you listening to me?"
Merlin's in Arthur's office, because the arrogant berk doesn't know how to reserve a meeting room using the new automated booking system. Either that or he's just being deliberately dense, so that he can summon people and make them perch on the edge of his desk. Which wouldn't surprise Merlin at all. Still, at least from this angle Merlin has a good view of Arthur's wide, well-muscled shoulders and chest, which flex beneath his thin cotton shirt as he stretches, making his pectorals strain against the fabric. Merlin watches the movement, then realises that he's licking his lips, and stops hastily, clearing his throat.
"Mmm?" Arthur looks up enquiringly. "Did you say something? I thought I heard some sort of insignificant buzzing noise. Sorry, assumed it was a fly."
"If you paid as much attention to your work as you do that blasted crossword, we'd all be rolling in it by now." Annoyed, Merlin stands up off the corner of the desk, wincing and rubbing at his bum, which is sore from being perched on the wooden corner for too long. When he looks up, Arthur's staring at him, eyes wide.
Seeing his opportunity, Merlin leans forward to grab the newspaper from Arthur's unresisting hand and stares at it. The clues might as well be written in Russian, for all the sense they make to him. But he makes a show of examining them before shrugging, hoping to convey that the clues are far too easy for the likes of him. He folds the paper and rolls it into a tube with a few economical movements of his hands.
"Just because you couldn't solve a cryptic clue if it danced in front of you singing 'here is the answer'..." Arthur pounces, deftly grabbing his paper back, and bops Merlin over the head with it, with a nonchalant flick of his wrist. "Anyway. Even I get to have a coffee break." Leaning back in his office chair, he flattens the paper out on the desk in front of him, strong fingers moulding it smooth.
"Not in the middle of our meeting, you don't. Prat." Merlin rubs his head, glaring. "I haven't finished explaining why you should increase the IT department budget to offset all the new overheads..."
"Blah, blah, blah. Well if you will drone on and on." Arthur flashes Merlin one of those lopsided grins of his, the ones that take the sting out of his words and make Merlin want to kiss them right off Arthur's berry-red lips, and, Good Lord, but this crush needs to stop, and it needs to stop now.
"And I'll have you know that I'm brilliant at cryptic crosswords," Merlin adds. It's a lie, of course. But he is not going to just stand there letting Arthur insult his intelligence without putting up some kind of a fight.
"All right," Arthur's eyes narrow to sharp, blue slits. "Prove it." He slides the paper back across the table.
"I would, but I just don't have time for that now!" says Merlin, without looking down.
"I knew it!" Arthur snorts. "Ha! You're scared!
"Not!" retorts Merlin.
Merlin is about to say "Am not," but that would be childish. And it wouldn't do for the CEO to walk in and find her CFO and CTO arguing like eight year olds, so he bites his lip instead, and thinks mutinous thoughts about dollopheaded colleagues, their teasing ways, and how they would do well to ditch the prat act with their long-suffering colleagues who also happen to be their flatmates. And who cook most of the meals. And pine horribly. Not that Arthur knows about that bit. But still. Arthur's smirking at him now, in that smug way that he has, and it is really irritating how that particular expression really sets off the rugged line of Arthur's jaw and makes all the extremely important arguments in favour of his proposal melt away in a whiff of lust-fuelled longing that makes Merlin's guts twist and his face pink. Rude, that's what it is.
"Anyway, I decided last week to recommend to Leadership Council that they approve your budget," Arthur says. "As you'd know if you had read your email properly!"
"I really hate you, you know that, don't you?" says Merlin, exiting the room and slamming the door behind him. And obviously, Arthur doesn't know just how much of a lie that really is.
And really, that should be the end of it - if it isn't for the second argument, which occurs much later, in the privacy of their flat. The one where Arthur laughs at Merlin for crying at the soppy bits in Love Actually, and Merlin accuses Arthur of not having a romantic bone in his body. It evidently hits some kind of nerve.
"I can be romantic!" Arthur protests. "I can woo!"
"Don't be ridiculous." Merlin blows his nose noisily into a kleenex and stuffs it into his pocket. "You couldn't woo if your life depended on it." It's like taking sweets from a baby, sometimes, teasing Arthur. Because the world knows that Arthur has a competitive streak a mile wide, and there's no way that he's going to let a statement like that go unchallenged.
"I am a world class wooer!" says Arthur, frowning. "I could woo for England."
"I'll believe it when I see it!" says Merlin. Sighing, he stands up and nods towards the fridge, as much to distract himself from the handsome pout that plumps Arthur's lips as anything else. Really, Arthur has no business to have such a panoply of adorably goofy expressions up his sleeve. It is more than a tender-hearted IT professional should have to bear, living with such dorkiness on a 24/7 basis. "More beer?"
"I'd love one, but don't you think you've had enough?" Arthur smirks. "I'm surprised you're still awake, you're such a lightweight!"
"And who appointed you as beer police, dollophead?" Merlin grins. "Anyway, I'm not the prat that passed out with his face in his dinner in the curry house last week. Ahmad's tweet about it was hilarious!"
"I was tired!" protests Arthur, colour staining his cheeks.
"That's one word for it. I used to think the yellow in your hair was natural, but now I know your secret! It's turmeric!"
As Arthur shouts something unintelligible in mock objection, Merlin heads out to the kitchen, still grinning, and thinks about ordering a take-away. And what with one thing and another, he forgets all about the whole crossword cum wooing challenge thing. But he should know better, really. After all, they don't call the gorgeous clotpole Arthur "Never Back Down" Pendragon for nothing.
It's a few days later before Arthur issues his challenge.
They're in the local pub for a festive after-work drink, and Merlin is swigging cocktails while chatting to his boss Gwen, and her partner Morgana, about their upcoming Christmas plans. They're a couple of cocktails in, and the discussion is getting quite animated.
Arthur is with them, sipping occasionally from his pint and eyeing up the Evening Standard cryptic crossword. The hand that circles the pint pot is neat and perfectly proportioned, with a thick thumb ring and neatly trimmed fingernails. Every so often, Arthur twirls his pencil skilfully and jots down an answer.
Blinking, Merlin sucks up another mouthful of fizzy liquid, and tries not to ogle Arthur's strong, blunt fingers too obviously.
"My Dad's coming down to us, this time," Gwen's saying. "I haven't a clue what to buy him. I don't know why I bother, really, he never buys me anything."
Never buys her anything? Merlin doesn't believe that for a minute. He met Tom, once, when Tom escorted Gwen to the office Christmas party. It was a long time ago, before Gwen and Morgana got together. But, anyway, a more doting dad Merlin can't possibly imagine. And who could blame him? It's not many people that can boast a daughter who's the CEO of her own successful business-to-business software company.
"That's because he makes you much nicer jewellery than he would ever be able to afford to buy you, Gwen!" says Morgana. She sips at her raspberry mojito, and well, that clears that mystery up. "But I know what you mean," she adds. "If Uther wants something, and he can afford it, he buys it. There is literally nothing that I can buy him that he wants."
"Dads, eh!" says Gwen, shrugging. Her face falls. "Oops, sorry, Merlin! I didn't mean...!"
"It's okay." Merlin sighs and pokes at the dregs of his cocktail with the festive paper umbrella. "I've got a Mum, you've all got Dads. We all wish we had both, but it's good that we've got what we have, right?"
"Right." Morgana smiles. "At least I know what to get Arthur. A book of cryptic crosswords should do the trick. And that way, I won't have to talk to him on Christmas day."
"What?" Arthur looks up, then, meeting Morgana's accusing stare. He throws down his paper. "Sorry. I didn't mean to be antisocial."
Merlin takes another long draw from his cocktail, which, if anything, tastes even more divine than before. He loves the bit at the bottom which is like alcoholic ice with a hint of sweet lime. He sucks and sucks until the straw creates a loud gurgling noise, then swigs the dregs from the glass, crunching the ice noisily. When he looks up, Arthur's watching him, cheeks pink, eyes a vivid flash of blue. God, Arthur's jaw looks good in this light. Clean-shaven and angular, like some sort of ancient Greek hero sculpted from cool marble. Only better. Because living flesh, and, oh, God, it is probably against the law to feel like this about flat mates and colleagues and the like, but Merlin can't help it.
Arthur turns his head away abruptly and takes a swig of his pint.
"Yes. Well." He coughs. "You'd best not be getting Merlin any cryptic crosswords. He's hopeless."
"I am not!" says Merlin, caipirinha-fuelled outrage heating his cheeks. "I'm epic at puzzles of all kinds!"
"All right," says Arthur. "Here's challenge for you, Merlin. Over the coming days, I will set you a series of clues. If you solve them, and discover the underlying theme, then I will acknowledge that you can do puzzles. And there will be a prize."
"Fine!" Merlin gulps. A prize sounds nice, but really he knows that the only real aim is to preserve his dignity in the face of Arthur's inevitable future smirking.
He really needs to learn to keep his mouth shut.
Frowning at his laptop screen, Merlin taps his notepad with his pen. It's been two weeks. Two weeks in which Arthur has spammed him with email over and over again, every single bloody day, but he's still no closer to understanding Arthur's challenge. His notepad is riddled with ideas and crossings out, but try as he might, he cannot for the life of him fathom the theme. After last Friday, when Arthur didn't actually send him any puzzling GIFsets, but he had a number of extremely odd phone calls from an unknown number, he began writing notes about all the odd emails and phone calls down on his notepad, just to see if that would bring him a lightbulb moment. But so far, all that's happened is an awful lot of crossing out.
Every night Arthur asks him if he's worked out the link between clues yet. And he fixes Merlin with that odd gleam in his eye that he has had recently. It's downright bizarre, that expression. Merlin doesn't know how to interpret it at all. If you'd asked him last week, he'd have said that he knows what all Arthur's expressions mean. Well, all right, he wouldn't have said it, because he still hasn't admitted his feelings about Arthur in public yet, but he'd have thought it. But this expression... this one has him flummoxed. It's hopeful, almost uncertain, too tentative for Arthur by far. It makes Merlin nervous.
And every night, Merlin resists confessing outright that he hasn't got the foggiest, instead going for a neutral humming noise that indicates he's making good progress, but has far too little time to spend breaking puzzles at the moment, what with all the work that he has to do. At least, he hopes that's the message he conveys. Because it wouldn't do for Arthur to know the truth, which is that he spends every waking hour obsessing over the puzzle, with seemingly no end in sight.
Today's umpteenth message is staring at out at him, from its electronic home. It's yet another picture of the drummer from Arthur's favourite band. Arthur has sent him a frenzy of them, today. The drummer is cute, and it is a welcome change from yesterday's plethora of cake-based messages, but Merlin still doesn't have the faintest idea what it could all possibly mean. With a heavy sigh and a click of his mouse, Merlin opens another Chrome window and types in "Muse drummer name". Google obligingly returns the name Dominic Howard, and a head shot that matches all the GIFs Arthur has sent him today. Bingo! Well, at least he knows the guy's name, now. But what can the connection be? Merlin leans back on his chair and closes his eyes, tapping his teeth with his pen, and lets his thoughts drift.
Dominic. Dominic. Dominic. Dominos? Famous Howards. Catherine Howard? Howard from Big Bang Theory? No, Arthur hates Big Bang Theory. Famous Dominics? Dominic West? Nah. Can't think of any more people called Dominic. This isn't getting him anywhere. Sighing, he opens his eyes, taking a moment to jot down "Friday: Dominic Howard" and a few other words on his pad.
But it's no good. He's still none the wiser. He crosses out the words "Famous Howards?" before flicking back through all the Dominic Howard pictures for more inspiration.
Muse. Ancient Greece. Who were the muses? He googles them, and wastes twenty minutes researching Erato, the muse of love poetry. Perhaps Arthur is developing a penchant for the genre? After entertaining the thought for a nanosecond, he snorts and returns to his senses, closing that window.
With a frustrated sigh, he straightens and sets out along the well-trodden path to the sixth floor coffee machine, where he stands, gazing out of the window, thinking dark thoughts. He presses his head to the glass, and stares out over the city. Even the gaily lit towers that dot the horizon, and the boats that glide along the river, raising bright reflections in their wakes upon the inky water, do nothing to lighten his mood. He's never going to get to the bottom of this. He'll have to go back to Arthur, and beg for more clues. Or ask one of the others for help. Either way, Arthur will find out, and Merlin can't bear the thought of the quips and mocking glances that will result.
Morosely, he picks his way back to his desk, slumping into his office chair. He sets his cappuccino carefully down next to his mouse mat, and clicks open his email again. Interspersed with Christmas messages from suppliers, spam emails, out-of-office replies, a desperate plea from the office manager, Sefa, not to leave food on desks because it encourages mice, and a handful of messages that pertain to actual work, he counts twelve instances of Dominic Howard pictures in his inbox.
Hmm. Wow, Arthur does have a lot of Dominic GIFs. And why not? He's quite cute, really. But what is the clue? Maybe it's one of their tracks that's the link. What's that one that Arthur's always singing round the flat? Plug in Baby? Something to do with plugs? Merlin snorts as he thinks about different sorts of plug. But no. That's not really Arthur's style...
He's getting nowhere. Taking a sip from his cappuccino, and licking the foam off his lip, he goes back to the first email that Arthur sent, the Monday before last, which Merlin has filed in the folder labeled "2016_Budget_Negotiations". Arthur only sent him one email that day. He stares at the picture of actor Steve Coogan, trying to remember what other roles he's performed, and frowns. In fact, he's staring so hard at the screen that he fails to notice Gwen walk up to his desk and stand, hovering, until she taps him on the shoulder. He nearly jumps out of his skin.
"Your coffee's going cold," Gwen says. "Why are you staring at a picture of Alan Partridge?"
"Oh!" Flushing at being caught by his boss, Merlin laughs nervously. "Well, it's Arthur, you see. He's..."
"Oh!" There's a world of understanding in that single, drawn out syllable. "It's Arthur! I see! No need to explain. I'm glad he's finally got his act together. Now, before the upcoming Leadership Council meeting, I want you to give me a three minute summary of why we should adopt a new cloud-hosted delivery formula for our software platform..."
"Wait!" Jaw dropping open, Merlin waves his pen at her. "What did you just say?"
"About the cloud-hosted platform?" she grins at him. "Or about Arthur finally getting his act together?"
"No. Before that. The bit about the bird?" He bites his lip. "Erm. Sorry, it can wait, don't worry..." he adds, hastily. She's patient, his CEO, he knows that, but he also knows that she won't humour him on private business for long.
"Bird? Do you mean Alan Partridge?" Gwen tilts her head on one side enquiringly.
"Yeah," he says in a hoarse whisper. He stares at the picture of Steve Coogan, in his incarnation as Alan Partridge, photoshopped onto a photo of Oxford's Pear Tree roundabout, and the tired cogs in his brain finally begin to click. "Alan Partridge. At the Pear Tree roundabout. And they're not tortoise pigeons, they're turtle doves! Oh, God. I've been so stupid!"
"Are you all right?" Her eyes narrow and she starts to tilt her head to one side, which means she's going to deliver some sort of penetrating insight into his psyche that he's not at all ready for, so he hastily pulls his act together.
"Oh, yes, sorry!" Clicking open another window, he grins, and with a huge effort turns his mind to cloud-based applications. "Sorry. Right. Ahem. Yes. Well. The erm. The... er... cloud-hosted platform will enable us to leverage the latest Big Data processing technologies to create a truly disruptive suite of solutions..."
"In English, Merlin." Her voice has developed a dangerous edge. "And never, ever, ever use the word leverage as a verb in my company again."
"Right, right." Merlin sighs. "Sorry. The jargon rubs off on you after a while. Anyway. Okay. Right. Um, you see, we'll be running the software for our customers. And this will deliver efficiency savings for them, because they won't need to invest in infrastructure to run our platform..."
"That's better." She nods approvingly and pulls out Gilli's chair to sit on, staring at his screen while he pulls up a Powerpoint. "Go on..."
And later, after she's gone, he finally gets to check out the blasted puzzle and really, it's so simple, he doesn't know why he didn't get it before.
It's about six before he finally leaves the office in the capable hands of Percival the night manager. And he steps into the sixth floor lift with a revised version of his notes, ripped out of his notepad, clutched in his hand. Grinning, he lifts both thumbs at his reflection, but waits until after the doors politely warn him that they are closing before actually doing that triumphant jig. He's done it. He's actually solved Arthur's puzzle! And the latest version of his notes proves it.
Merlin's Puzzle Answers
The theme is~: The Twelve Days of Christmas! ~
He's feeling so pleased with himself that he fails to notices when the lift stops that it's not yet at the ground floor, but instead on the fifth floor. So he starts stepping out through the lift doors just as someone else is coming in, and they collide, end up in a mangled heap of twisted limbs on the floor just outside the lift, with Merlin somewhere towards the bottom of the heap, although some parts of him appear not to be, while the lift doors shut and it goes on its merry way down to the ground floor without them.
"Merlin!" says Arthur, looking down at him, wide eyes very blue.
"Arthur!" Although flustered by this turn of events, and a little bit squashed, because all that muscle and ego weighs an absolute ton, Merlin can't help blurting out what's at the top of his mind. "I did it! I worked it out. I claim my prize!"
"You did?" says Arthur, and that expression's there again. The slightly insecure-looking, though hope-filled expression that's been giving Merlin so much trouble over the past couple of weeks. And there's a tiny, but insistent part of Merlin that's screaming something at him, but it's kind of difficult to pay it much attention right now. Because Arthur's lips are so close, and his hair is bunched up in fine clumps around his head, and the warmth of Arthur's breath gusting against Merlin's cheek is making Merlin's heart beat a little quicker. "You do?"
"Yeah!" croaks Merlin, eventually, not making any attempt to move. "It's. The twelve days of Christmas! Obviously! See, I got it! Now. What's my prize?"
"This." Arthur's moving a bit closer, and he's tilting his head just so. That tiny part of Merlin says "finally" and starts jumping up and down and pumping the air with its imaginary fists, because Arthur's lips, those rosy, tantalising lips, are touching his, and they're kissing. It's even better than he could ever have imagined, and he lets out a little contented noise.
"It's you? You're the prize?" he says between kisses, "Arrogant clotpole!" And really he should care about the fact that they're basically lying on the floor of the office snogging, but at that very moment he can't for the life of him work out why.
But just then, the bell heralds the arrival of the lift. So they scramble to their feet as one, laughing and straightening their clothes, so that by the time a surprised-looking Gwen steps out, they're just shoving one another and acting like a pair of dorks as usual. And it doesn't matter that the kiss has ended, really, because Merlin's mental puzzle is now complete, and he's worked out exactly what the two most important words of the song are. And they're nothing to do with Alan Partridge, or turtles, or French Henrys, or collies, or even golden rings. They're not words about drummers, pipers, Lord Sugar, standing stones, girls drinking milk, or aquatic fowl.
No, those two words are "true love". And they're best thing that have ever happened to him, ever.
* THE END *