Enter The Realm of the Pendragon
The Coffee Shop was a busy bustling place despite it being early evening on a Monday, or perhaps because of it. During the day it was usually quiet and at weekends it was more or less dead, but weekday evenings was its busiest time. Like most cafes or pubs, it had a regular clientele who showed up without fail most nights. A group of half a dozen had been patronising this establishment pretty much since it had opened and some of them were currently seated on their usual comfy sofa.
When Dante entered the Coffee Shop at 7.30 on the dot as usual, he was greeted loudly and cheerfully with a multitude of hellos from his friends. He beamed and waved at them all, glad to be there again even though it was less than 24 hours since he was last there, before going over to the counter where Miles, the owner was engaged in putting on a fresh pot of coffee.
Miles looked round and graced Dante with a smile. "Hello, how are you tonight?"
"Pretty good thanks. How about you?"
"Oh, not so bad. It's been a bit of a quiet day, but you know how it is round here."
"Yeah." Dante loosened off his tie and undid the top button of his shirt with a sigh of relief. "Can I have my usual please?" Miles nodded, flicked his shaggy black hair out of his eyes and started to make a large black coffee just the way he liked it. Dante watched him for a minute or two before turning round to see exactly who was there. He liked coming here and not just for the good coffee but also for the fact that he was known amongst the regulars, even those who weren't part of his inner circle or spoke to him much seemed to know who he was. He thought it might have had something to do with the special relationship he had with its easy going owner and truth be told, he rather enjoyed the notoriety and played on it as much as he could.
As he perused the patrons, he spied a tall, very thin man and bounded across the shop. "Gregor!" he squealed excitedly, hurling himself upon his friend.
Having been deep in conversation, Gregor was a little surprised to suddenly find a slender young man catapulted at him from out of nowhere, but took it in his stride. When you were a friend of Dante's you soon got used to being greeted in such a manner, his vociferous hugs were part of who he was. "Hey there, you're in high spirits tonight."
Dante bestowed him with another tight hug and a cheeky grin. "I'm just glad to see you, that's all. Where have you been hiding lately? You've not been in here for ages."
"You could have got in touch with me if you were missing me," Gregor chided, making his point gently. Dante acknowledged his failing with a shrug, squeezing next to Gregor on the sofa. "I've been busy with work. You know, that thing that the rest of us have to do in order to have money to come here, unlike you who goes to work purely to show off his latest outfit."
The younger man waved his hand airily. "I do work as well, I don't spend all day admiring myself."
"No, you have others to do that for you, don't you, sweetie?" A young girl of about Dante's age poked him playfully in his side, making him squirm. It was well known among the group that half of Dante's female work colleagues were attracted to him; the other half tended to be women of more mature years who preferred to mother him instead. Dante accepted all the attentions as his right and revelled in them, though he wasn't above using them to his advantage on occasion.
He dug her back in the ribs with his elbow and stuck his tongue out at her. "Just because I care about my looks!" He ran a hand through his slightly long fair hair, brushing it out of his eyes although it fell back into place immediately afterwards.
Gregor chuckled. "There is vain, there are models and then there is Dante." The girl laughed and the youngster folded his arms firmly across his chest, tossed his head and pouted. He saw Miles making his way across the shop, bearing a large steaming mug of coffee.
"Miles, Gregor and Shelley are making fun of me," he complained, standing up to accept the beverage. Miles handed over the steaming cup and looked at the two accused.
"What are you making fun of him for this time? More importantly, am I too late to join in?"
Dante glared at his would-be rescuer. "Well, that's just charming, that is. That's the last time I give you my custom."
"Where else would you go? What other establishment would let you hang around till late into the night, causing no end of trouble and only drinking the minimum amount of coffee?" Miles raised an eyebrow in amusement and waited for Dante's reply.
The blond stared thoughtfully into his hot coffee as if the answer lay in there. He knew that Gregor and Shelley were only teasing, as was Miles for wanting to join in, the same way they knew he was only pretending to be hurt. "Home?" he offered finally.
"And have to make your own coffee? Goodness, that's desperation if ever I heard it."
Dante put his mug down on the table in front of the sofa and turned to Gregor. "I need a seat, is that one free?" He pointed to Gregor's lap with a suggestive smile.
Gregor opened his arms. "For you? Always." He was aware that Dante often used him when he wanted to get back at Miles but he had no problem with it. If he was honest with himself, he made the most of this sort of attention as it wasn't often Dante gave it, despite being an incorrigible flirt. Gregor would willingly have taken more had it been offered. Dante placed himself squarely on Gregor's lap, wriggled a little to get comfortable and then looked pointedly at Miles.
The older man just grinned, not upset in the slightest by the blond's actions. "Dante, you are so fickle with your affections. If I thought you meant any of it, I'd be hurt but I know you'll come back to me afterwards, you always do."
Any response that could have been made was halted by the arrival of another member of their group.
"Esmé!" Shelley called cheerfully, leaning over the back of the sofa as a tall elegant young woman made her way over to them.
"Hi Esmé," Gregor and Dante chorused together.
"Cup of tea?" Miles asked as she sank into the armchair next to the sofa with a sigh of gratitude.
"Oh, please, Miles, that would be lovely." Her voice held more than a trace of her native French accent even though she'd left her home country over fifteen years ago. He gave her a reassuring smile and squeezed her shoulder before going off to make her drink.
"Hello, Shelley, Gregor and Dante," Esmé responded. She noticed the young blond perched happily on Gregor's lap but said nothing as it wasn't really that unusual an occurrence so certainly nothing worth pointing out.
"Bad day?" Dante asked sympathetically. Esmé nodded, shrugging off her jacket and placing it carefully over the back of her chair. She let out a heartfelt sigh and Dante cocked his head, studying her thoughtfully. "D'you need a hug?"
She smiled at him, at his characteristic way of cheering everyone up. Her slight nod was all the encouragement the young man needed. He slipped eagerly off Gregor's lap, hurried over and enveloped the slim woman in a huge hug. Esmé accepted it gratefully, even though it resulted in numerous creases to her otherwise immaculate suit. Those kind of creases she didn't mind, especially when they came from someone as loveable and as caring as Dante. She buried her face in his neck momentarily, breathing in his scent and taking some strength and comfort from it. He rubbed her back soothingly and waited until she pulled back before letting her go.
"Okay?" He stayed crouched down so that he was on her eye level.
She gave a brief nod. "Better than I was. Thank you so much, Dante."
"Oh, you're welcome. It's amazing what a hug can do, really it is." Esmé laughed and patted his cheek. He beamed at her before taking up his seat back on Gregor's lap. He sat there quite happily, sipping at his coffee and leaning back against Gregor who had wrapped his arms round Dante's slim waist.
Miles returned with Esmé's tea, placing it on the table in front of her. Perching himself on the arm of the sofa next to Shelley, he asked if she wanted to share what had happened that day with them.
"Oh, it was just a silly thing really." Esmé shrugged, feeling slightly embarrassed now that she had mentioned it but she had forgotten about the compassionate nature of her friends.
"Esmé, anything that upsets you, no matter how small, is not silly. If it hurts you, then it's important and if it's important to you, then it's important to us too." Shelley leant forward, lightly touching the other's wrist.
"She's right, you know," Miles agreed and the others nodded.
Esmé glanced at the faces of her friends, each one was tinged with concern. Shelley gave her a small supportive smile but otherwise they let her decide on her own what or if to tell them. She leant forward, sugared her tea liberally and stirred it quickly. Blowing gently on it and taking a small sip seemed to fortify her. She settled back in her chair as if getting herself comfortable for the ordeal ahead, took a deep breath and finally began to speak.
"You remember I've been assigned this project to check what equipment every member of the company has?" They all nodded. It was a big project and something she had been working very hard on for the past couple of weeks. She'd drawn up a questionnaire which indicated what equipment a person had according to the company records and asked the person concerned to either amend or verify as necessary. All of the records were on a database, so it was a simple matter of setting it up so that the information automatically completed the correct areas of the questionnaire. Or at least it should have been a simple matter in theory. She'd spent the best part of a week tearing her hair out over a minor glitch that somehow swopped round the fields for a person's name and the model of their computer; it nearly resulted in hundreds of letters addressed to Mr/Ms Compaq DC5100.
"I managed to get the problem with the questionnaire sorted out finally. It was just a little simple thing too which is usually the case, isn't it? A comma instead of a semicolon and it throws the whole thing out."
Shelley and Dante both nodded wholeheartedly. "God, yes," Dante breathed with feeling. He leant forward eagerly. "Or if it's not that, you forget to close a tag and then you have to spend ages going through pages of code to try and find out where it is. It's such a pain." He found that he was the recipient of some hard stares from the others and although no one said anything, the meaning was very clear. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "So, erm, yes, Esmé, I know how you feel. Please continue." He shrank back to lean against Gregor once more while Shelley patted his knee in consolation.
"Did I tell you about Stuart?" Esmé queried.
"I don't think so," Shelley replied, looking to Miles for confirmation. He shook his head.
"Well, my boss decided on Friday that I needed some help, that the whole thing was too much for me to cope with all on my own. I tried to explain that the main problem had been this little glitch in the programming to get all the information from the database to the right place in the questionnaire and that now I'd finally got it figured out it was all sorted, plain sailing from here on. Touch wood anyway. I don't think my case was helped any by the fact that it took me three days to fix it." She sighed, resting her chin on her hand. "So he insisted that I had someone to assist me. Apparently, one of the other departments had got a temp from the agency and they were really impressed with him. They didn't need him anymore, but rather than send him back to the agency, he was recommended to my boss, Brian.
"I got to work this morning to find a memo from Brian saying that someone called Stuart would be joining me later on to help getting the questionnaire out. I was busy working away when I suddenly became aware of someone standing next to my desk. I look up and there's this spotty faced little boy, tie not done up properly, shirt tails hanging out. I swear he must have come straight from school. As if his appearance wasn't bad enough, he seemed to think he was one of those suave sophisticated city types. It's bad enough being hit on at work without it being from someone barely old enough to shave. I think the fact that I was French was a serious turn on for him too, either that or his hormones had just kicked in. All day I kept getting this feeling I was being watched and the second I looked up, he'd be turning away with a guilty expression on his face like he'd been caught staring at me."
Esmé shifted in her seat, crossing one long slim leg over the other. It was not hard to see why any male so inclined would not have problems keeping his mind on the matter in hand when working in such close proximity to her.
Dante muttered something which sounded suspiciously like 'welcome to my world' but no one paid a great deal of attention to him except for Gregor who gave him a gentle squeeze but said nothing.
"So this is Stuart. I was under the impression that he'd been sent to help get all the questionnaires out to everyone, that he was there to assist me. He, however, seemed to be labouring under an entirely different one."
"That's usually the case," Miles stated. "I quite often find that little boys never know their place and often need to be corrected." His eyes flicked over to Dante and everyone else's gaze followed. Although only the youngest by 18 months, the others were all closer to thirty than Dante and Shelley and for some reason, he sometimes ended up being treated more like a little boy than a young man. Most of the time he gloried in it, it meant that he got attention and he got away with a lot more than he would ordinarily; the only time he didn't like it was if it meant he wasn't being taken seriously.
Dante caught Miles' gaze and didn't bat an eyelid. "I would have thought you were aware by now that I'm not such a little boy," he retorted.
"You're certainly not too big to go over my knee for giving cheek to your elders and betters," Miles replied smoothly.
"I think you'll soon find out that I can grow pretty rapidly under those kind of circumstances."
Miles smirked. "Maybe I'll put you to the test later and see how well you perform."
"Esmé, these questionnaires aren't being sent out as hard copies, are they?" Shelley interrupted, trying to get the conversation out of the realms of innuendo and back focused on Esmé.
"That's what they wanted originally," she replied. "A covering letter and copy of the questionnaire posted out to every single employee. All right, so it would all go via the internal post so that wouldn't really be a factor but if you work out the cost of an internal envelope and two pieces of paper - at least one of them would be headed paper properly as well - being sent to every one of 6500 employees. Don't forget all the ink being used to print out all the letters and questionnaires, that's an extra cost too. And what would I do with all the questionnaires that got returned to me? I could either throw them all away which would be a waste, but if I keep them then we need boxes and storage space. It was actually rather easy to persuade them that it would be much more cost-effective, not to mention quicker, to do it all by e-mail. I can save the completed questionnaires on a zip disc if need be so that's no problem.
"That's basically Stuart's job. I've set up a template e-mail which automatically selects the next person on the list in the global e-mail address book as the recipient. All he has to do is attact the correct letter and questionnaire for each person which I've already created and stored on the server and hit send. You'd think it would be simple. Even for a spotty untidy adolescent like him."
"He can't even manage that?" Miles asked in some disbelief.
"No, but to give him some credit much as I hate to do so, it's not his fault. The global address book appears to be out-of-date. He'd not sent off many e-mails this morning when he came across someone on the list that I'd not set up a questionnaire for because they weren't on my database. I didn't know if they were new or old or anything. I happened to say that it was a pity that as well as asking people to confirm what computer equipment they had that we couldn't update the global database as well while we were at it. After all, with a bit of a tweak, the questionnaire could have contact details added to it. Like I said, ideally, a good way to ensure that the database was always accurate would be to put the onus on the individual to update it."
"That's the way it is at my place," Shelley pointed out. "We all have a sort of profile with our contact details, job title, position in the hierarchy etc and we have to keep it up-to-date. You can only alter your own profile though, it works off your log on ID so you can't go round changing anyone's information that you feel like. Also, every time you change it, the IT guys get a notification e-amil so they can check that it's all right, that you've not put a naked photo on it or said that your boss was Queen Bitch or something like that. I didn't realise that at first, I only found out after I was having problems uploading a picture. I kept redoing it over and over again and every time I did it, the IT lot got another e-mail. They phoned me in the end to find out what was going on, it was quite embarrassing."
Esmé nodded. "It's a much better system and it sounds similar to what I had in mind. Anyway, I thought I'd best check with our guys in IT to see if they had any plans to revamp the system or even if my idea was feasible. I have a friend there, so I told Stuart not to do anything further till I got back. I went off to talk to my friend, see what he thought of it. He wasn't aware of any plans to change the global database to make it better or even to check that it was accurate so I told him my idea: either get people to verify their details were correct with the questionnaire or update them themselves or even a combination of the two. He thought it was a great idea but said he'd have to run it by his boss who happens to be the head of the IT department. That was okay because I had to check with Brian about making the changes to the questionnaire anyway.
"So I got back to the office only to find Brian is out but Stuart is sat there looking very pleased with himself. I soon found out why. I think I also found out why Stuart is so highly regarded by all the important people."
The others looked at her all agog. "How? What did he do?" they asked eagerly.
"When Brian came back, he came over to tell me of a great idea that Stuart had had."
"The little git, he took all the credit for your idea, didn't he?" Miles realised first. "He let Brian think that it was all his instead." Esmé nodded.
"What a bastard!" Dante cried and the others agreed.
"Yep. So now Brian thinks the whole thing was Stuart's idea. As far as he's concerned, the sun now shines out of the kid's arse. I was absolutely furious."
"I don't blame you," Shelley soothed. "That's really horrible."
"Esmé, where had Brian been?" Gregor asked suddenly. He was the sort of person who preferred to listen rather than talk, but whenever he spoke, it was always because he had something pertinant to say. He had the knack of getting right to the heart of the matter, pointing out what everyone else had missed presumably because he took in all the information and mulled it over while the rest were discussing it, so when he spoke, the others listened.
"He'd had a meeting," she replied, looking confused.
"I'm not sure, someone in Finance."
"So he wasn't doing anything about the database idea."
"Not as far as I'm aware of. Why?"
"Your friend in IT, he will say that this is your idea to his boss?"
"Of course, he's not the type to steal other people's ideas and pass them off as his own," Esmé replied defensively.
Dante sat forward and chipped in. "No, that's not what he means. If your friend has already told his boss that it was your idea, then if your boss - what's his name, Brian? - if he says it was Stuart's idea then it's going to look a bit suspect. You can't both have thought of it, so in the end, Stuart will probably be revealed to be a liar. Right, Gregor?"
"Right," Gregor agreed.
Dante hugged him soundly. "You're so smart," he said simply before turning to Esmé. "I don't think you have anything to worry about. I bet Stuart's done this lots of times before so it was only a matter of time before he tripped up and got what's coming to him."
The others all voiced their agreement while Esmé smiled in gratitude. "Oh, thank you so much, you lot," she said, placing a hand on her chest to convey how emotional it had made her. "I was so angry and upset about this, I really hope that you're right."
"Gregor is never wrong," Dante said loyally.
"Besides, temps are trouble a lot of the time," Shelley supplied.
"Oh, too right," Dante agreed. "Though I hope the one I just got isn't, I really need her to be good."
"I didn't know you were getting a temp," Esmé said.
Dante shook his head. "Neither did I till this morning. I was on my way to my office when I got called into an impromptu meeting with the head of division so I didn't actually get to my desk till half ten. There was a message from HR waiting for me saying that Marla wouldn't be in work for the next couple of weeks."
"Marla, your beloved and ultra-efficient secretary?" Miles asked.
"Personal assistant," Dante corrected, "but yes, her."
None of the group were 100% sure what Dante actually did; they knew he did something in marketing but, as Gregor had already commented, a lot of his day seemed to be taken up with going out to lunch and looking fabulous. He was certainly important enough to have his own personal assistant and by now Marla was legendary.
Somewhere in her late fifties, she was part secretary, part mother and part Rottweiler. It was rumoured that she had previously worked as a receptionist at a doctor's surgery and from the third degree given to any one who dared to phone and ask to speak to Dante that could well be the case. She insisted on knowing where he was at all times, even if he was just leaving his desk to go to the toilet. She would scold him for eating his lunch at his desk, saying he should have a proper break and a decent meal. However, if he went out for lunch, then that was fattening and he should bring healthy sandwiches instead. She never made his coffee right, she had a violent distrust of her computer and her filing system didn't make sense to anyone else. Dante spent half of his time complaining about her and the other half trying to rectify some little mistake she'd made, such as the time she'd locked him out of his own office.
"What's she done now?" Shelley asked in amusement.
"Broken her wrist by all accounts. I'm not quite sure how and neither was HR, something about falling off a chair." He shrugged. "So I had to tell HR exactly what her replacement needed to be able to do." He started to count the requirements off on his fingers. "Know how to use a computer and not have a panic attack every time the screensaver comes on. Be able to take proper messages from callers, instead of ones that say 'Mike called'. Know how to access my diary so I don't have to tell her where I'm going every time I set foot outside my office. Have legible handwriting so I can read any messages or notes. Or better yet, know about e-mail. And finally, she must must MUST know how to make a decent cup of coffee."
"What did HR say to that?" Esmé grinned.
"Not a lot really. They just laughed. Either they know Marla or they thought I was joking. I suspect the latter."
"You know, it's a shame that you couldn't have Gregor as your PA, I'm sure he'd be able to do exactly what you asked of him." Shelley gave Gregor a sly wink which Dante saw quite clearly, sitting on the recipient's lap as he was.
"As much as I'd love that, Shelley, I'd never be able to get any work done on my thesis if I worked for Dante," Gregor replied.
"I doubt either of you would get any work done at all," Miles stated.
"Did you get the PA of your dreams then, Dante?" Esmé asked.
"Well, let's see. She arrived just after dinner, that was the earliest they could get someone which wasn't too bad. By the time I went home at five, she'd managed to work out how to use my diary and put half a dozen meetings in it so both of us actually know what I'm doing. She'd also had a look at the filing system and although it doesn't make any more sense to her than it does to anyone else, she said that she can re-organise it to a better one. She also typed up a couple of letters and got them ready to send out. And best of all, she made my coffee exactly how I like it. Seriously, I think she's the best thing to happen in my office since I arrived. She's amazing. I want to keep her. Sod Marla and her silly broken wrist through falling off furniture, I want to keep Becky. I can actually get things done! You have no idea how nice it is to be able to walk out of my office and know that I'm going to be able to get in when I get back. That things will be done while I'm away and I won't have to chase her for them." Dante sighed in pleasure and the others laughed.
"Aw, Dante, you sound so pleased. I'm sure you and Becky will be very happy together," Shelley smiled.
"Yeah, until Marla comes back," Miles sniggered.
Dante glared. "Don't remind me, please! I'm actually looking forward to going to work tomorrow now."
"Ooh, talking of work, I really should be going," Shelley said, checking her watch. "Shit, I meant to leave half an hour ago."
Esmé checked her watch too. "Good point, Shelley, I probably need to get on as well."
"Are you leaving us?" Dante frowned. "It's early yet!"
"It's gone half ten already," Shelley pointed out. "I have to get my stuff ready for this silly presentation tomorrow. I'm still not entirely sure what I'm going to wear either."
Dante rolled his eyes. "I thought I'd already discussed that with you."
"Mm, you did. It just means ironing things, and you know I hate that."
"Well, it's either that or you don't make quite an impact. Totally up to you."
Shelley shrugged her coat on. "I know. Amazingly enough, you're probably right. Just don't go telling everyone I said that." She leant over the back of the sofa and gave him a hug. "Night all, I'll let you know how it all goes tomorrow."
Esmé had been putting her jacket back on at the same time and said goodbye to the others as well before following Shelley out of the door.
"Just us boys then," Dante said, looking from Gregor to Miles.
"Actually, I could do with an early night," Gregor admitted, placing his hands on Dante's hips preparing to lift him off.
Dante took the hint and slid off Gregor's lap instead. "Fine, leave me and Miles here alone! We don't need you lot to have fun!"
Gregor grinned and stood up, towering a foot over Dante's head. "I know you don't, you two can have plenty of fun on your own. Just keep the noise down this time so the neighbours don't complain. Night night." Miles and Dante said goodnight to him and after he'd gone, Miles locked the shop door.
"So. Bedtime then?" Dante asked with a cheeky grin.
Unless otherwise specified.