“Merlin,” Elena’s voice called out as she walked into the back of the shop, “Mr. I’m-so-sorry-forgive-me? is here. Again.”
“Elena,” Merlin hissed.
“I heard that Elena,” came a familiar voice from the front of the shop.
“You were meant to,” Elena called back over her shoulder.
Merlin smiled to himself when a chuckle of laughter floated back to him from the counter. He loved it when either himself or Elena could get Arthur to laugh. He had the most gorgeous laugh and it did wonderful things to Merlin’s insides.
“Hey, you,” Merlin said happily when he walked through the swinging doors that separated the front of his shop from the back and saw Arthur. “In the doghouse again, I see.”
Arthur smiled back at him, a smile which never failed to make Merlin’s stomach drop.
“Merlin.” Arthur said it the same way he always did, like he was surprised Merlin was there, like it was the best surprise he’d had all week.
Arthur flushed a delightful pink like he always did when Merlin teased him about his orders, or their frequency. It never quite meshed with Merlin’s idea of Arthur. Merlin had lost count of the number of times Arthur had been in his shop to buy arrangements of ‘forgive me’ flowers, and always for a different girl or guy. If Merlin judged Arthur by the number of his dates and relationships he’d write him off as an absolute relationship disaster; a serial dater with a tragic track record going by the number of times he’d mucked things up. But the Arthur that came in and blushed every time he ordered seemed a bit awkward and adorablely shy in a way that didn’t fit with his appearance or his purpose for being in Merlin’s shop.
Merlin couldn’t figure Arthur out. Which was a bad thing because it made him keep thinking about Arthur. Constantly, actually. Every time the bell on the shop door jingled he’d look up with half a smile already on his lips just waiting to grow into the wide, besotted, idiotic smile he seemed to have reserved for Arthur. Elena teased him about it mercilessly because she was a horrible person. Merlin threatened to fire her on a near daily basis, and sometimes even did, but Elena would just laugh and show up at work the next day with a cuppa and who was Merlin to turn away a cuppa at the obscenely early hour of five in the morning?
“Maybe something purple this time?” Arthur suggested as he rubbed the back of his neck and looked ridiculously boyish doing so.
“You got it,” Merlin smiled as he pulled out a card from the rack near the register. “I’m so sorry. Forgive me?”
“Uh. Yeah. Sure.”
Merlin grinned up at Arthur before writing it down on the card and then handing over an order form so Arthur could write down the address where he wanted the arrangement delivered.
“You hear that, El?” Merlin shouted over his shoulder. “Something purple this time.”
“You’re a flower connoisseur, Arthur, as always,” was Elena’s cheeky reply from the back.
Arthur rolled his eyes and shouted back, “And you’re delightfully helpful, Elena, as always.”
Merlin and Arthur grinned at each other when they heard Elena’s snort.
And then they turned awkwardly silent.
Merlin bit his lower lip and wondered what sort of small talk he could make with Arthur. Whenever Elena was the one to make up Arthur’s arrangement Merlin and Arthur would shuffle about in the front of the shop and stumble through some sort of ridiculous conversation about the weather or the price of bacon (Merlin still wasn’t sure how that conversation got started) and then Elena would ridicule him endlessly about it after Arthur had left. Although Merlin thought he ought to be thankful she actually waited until Arthur left to start in on him.
“So,” Merlin said. “Nice day, innit?”
Arthur looked around like he hadn’t noticed it before. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Great day. I don’t have to go into work today for a change, so it’s actually quite brilliant.”
It was then that Merlin took Arthur in fully. He was a bit embarrassed to admit to himself he’d spent the entirety of Arthur’s time in the shop staring at Arthur’s face like a lovesick cow and hadn’t once noticed Arthur was standing there in jeans and a worn t-shirt. It was sort of a shock to the system not to see him in his perfectly tailored suits and horrendously expensive ties, or at least what Merlin assumed were horrendously expensive ties. Merlin still had the tie his mother had bought him when he was fourteen so he probably wasn’t the best judge, but everything Arthur wore screamed, “Money! Money! Money! I am rich and important! I am a Greek god! Worship me sexually!” (well, maybe that last bit was just Merlin, but still.)
Merlin pointed at Arthur. “No suit.”
“Yeah, no suit.”
Merlin made a noise of acknowledgement but nothing more and they lapsed into awkward silence again. Merlin was pretty sure Arthur didn’t need to know his next brilliant observation had been that Arthur looked ridiculously sexy and rumpled and Merlin wanted to climb over the counter and latch onto him like a lemur. Well that, or slap him in the face for looking the way he did and making Merlin want to imagine their life together living in a hut on a beach in Fiji where Arthur would feed him pineapple and always be naked.
Arthur’s suits did wonderful things for his body and he always looked bloody gorgeous in them, but seeing the curve of Arthur’s shoulder through the thinness of his shirt, the way it stretched across his chest, and the way his jeans fit so perfectly they made Merlin want to ask Arthur to turn around just so he could have a bit of a look-see made Merlin come to the conclusion that Arthur should always dress like it was a lazy Saturday morning.
“Are you really busy right now?” Arthur blurted out suddenly. “Because there’s a coffee shop around the corner and I was wondering -.”
Arthur’s voice sort of trailed off but it hardly mattered since Elena came bounding through the swinging doors, a bunch of purple lilies in her hand, saying far too loudly, “No, we’re not busy. Merlin loves coffee. He’d marry it if he could, honestly, so you two had better be off now. Shoo.”
Merlin gave Elena a death glare, which never worked on her so he had no idea why he still bothered trying, and Arthur laughed nervously as Elena waved the lilies at him and shouted, ‘shoo!’ again.
Merlin took off his apron and threw it at Elena’s head before following Arthur out the door and thanking God Arthur wasn’t looking back to see Elena making lewd gestures at the two of them. Merlin was fairly certain he could have lived a very happy life never having seen her thrust her hips like that.
“I love this place,” Arthur said as he pointed up ahead of them to the coffee shop.
“Yeah, El and I go there all the time when we need a coffee fix. It’s a great little place.”
“I always stop by and pick something up after I’ve been to your shop,” Arthur said. “I wish I had a place I loved half as much closer to my flat.”
“You don’t live around here?” Merlin asked.
Arthur shook his head and blushed. “Not really, no.”
“Oh,” Merlin said. “I just assumed, since you come to my shop a lot -.”
“I, uh, I make a special trip. For your shop,” Arthur mumbled as he shoved his hands in his front pockets and blushed even more.
“Really?” Merlin asked, bursting with happiness and a sudden need to do obscene things to Arthur’s mouth.
Arthur shrugged. “I like your flowers.”
That made Merlin laugh since he knew Arthur knew absolutely nothing about flowers and would be just as happy with a fistful of daisies tied together with string as he would an immaculate and expensive arrangement
“And Elena’s sparkling personality, I’m sure,” Merlin teased.
“Obviously.” Arthur smiled as he held the door open for Merlin.
“She really is the worst employee in the world. I’ve fired her at least a dozen times but she just keeps coming back.”
“Like a rash you don’t want anyone to know about.”
Arthur said it so dryly that Merlin burst out laughing.
“Yeah, exactly like. Plus I’m fairly certain if I actually meant it she’d have Gwaine sit on my head and while that may be considered a pleasure in some circles I don’t think I’d find it so.”
It was Arthur’s turn to laugh at that before he asked, “And Gwaine is?”
“Elena’s boyfriend. They’re hilarious. They’ve been dating since they were fifteen but Gwaine is still operating under the assumption he’s some sort of player even though he’s only dated two women in his life and Elena has him whipped to a ridiculous degree.”
“Gwaine sounds -,” Arthur paused then chose to go with, “interesting?”
Merlin nodded. “Very. He flirts with anything that moves but Elena finds it hilarious and he adores her so they work in a really odd sort of way. And really, all of the silly superficial stuff aside, I know for a fact that he’d walk through fire for her and that’s what matters in the end.”
They had managed to make their way to the front of the line and place their orders while they talked, they were only waiting on Arthur’s to be finished. When the barista handed Arthur his cup he stood there for a moment looking at it in silence before looking back up at Merlin.
“She’s lucky to have him,” Arthur said quietly.
“She is,” Merlin agreed.
Arthur gave Merlin a small smile and nodded toward a table nearby, Merlin smiled back and headed in its direction.
“So, no work today?” Merlin asked once they sat down.
Arthur shook his head. “Took the day off. I couldn’t stand being in my office one more second.”
“One whole day, huh? You mad delinquent.”
“It’s a bit pathetic, I know, but I’m under a lot of pressure.”
“You have no idea,” Arthur said and it seemed to amuse him. He noticed Merlin looking at him questioningly so he added, “My father is my boss.”
“He works you too much,” Merlin said. “Every time you come into the shop you’re all suited up, even on the weekends, what’s so important that he’s working you into the ground?”
“In the grand scheme of things? Nothing. But according to my father everything we do is monumentally important so therefore -.” Arthur left the last bit hanging as he shrugged.
“You get worked to bloody death.”
Arthur shrugged again. “I guess.”
“No, you do. I can tell.” Merlin didn’t exactly want to say he could tell because he observed every little thing about Arthur to within an inch of its life but some things were just plain obvious. “Do you at least like what you?”
“I hate it. I want to quit every single day,” Arthur blurted out and then his eyes grew wide like he couldn’t believe he’d just said what he’d said.
“Why don’t you?” Merlin asked, his insides feeling like lead at the thought of Arthur being so unhappy.
“But you’re not happy.”
“Are you?” Arthur asked.
“I actually kind of am, yeah. I never saw myself owning a flower shop of all things, I’m a tragedy at it, but that’s what Elena’s there for.”
“How’d you ever end up owning one then?”
“It was my mum’s. When she died I couldn’t bear to sell it so I stuck around and eventually came to love working there.”
“But it wasn’t what you wanted.”
“Not at first, but it makes me happy and that’s fine. I always see people that have all kinds of dreams about who and what they’re going to become but I never had a burning desire to be one thing or another. I never knew how to answer when adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I think I knew all along I just wanted to be content.”
“And you’ve managed it.” Arthur smiled at him.
“I have. I look forward to coming to work in the mornings, I get to travel a few times a year, and I get to make you copious amounts of arrangements to counteract your abysmal love life. What more could I ask for?”
Arthur laughed. “Cheeky.”
“I’m a simple man with simple pleasures.”
“Who’s just plain simple?”
“Oy.” Merlin laughed. “Have you been talking to Elena behind my back?”
“Oh, so she knows the truth of it too.”
“I’ll have none of that, moving on,” Merlin said over the sound of Arthur’s laughter.
They drank their coffees in silence for a while and simply people watched. Every once in a while Arthur would look over at Merlin and raise an eyebrow or frown or grin over something they’d both seen and Merlin would frown or grin right back until they’d quietly laugh at one another.
The silence, unlike most of their prolonged silences back at Merlin’s shop, was comfortable and Merlin wished he could lean into Arthur’s side or lay a hand on his thigh and just be close to him. He’d only told Arthur part of the truth, yes he was content and happy, but he knew deep down if he could just find someone like Arthur - well, who was he kidding? - if he could just have Arthur and be able to sink down into him and love him like he knew he could he’d truly be happy.
Merlin watched Arthur’s profile as he sat beside him and held his coffee cup to his lips, not drinking but just holding it there as his eyes followed the people walking by the large windows of the coffee shop. He was so beautiful, so lovely, that Merlin wanted him to be happy too. Despite all of the generic arrangements he used as plasters for romantic mishaps Merlin knew Arthur was a good man, anyone who could smile so freely, so gorgeously, had to have a good heart beneath it all.
“What would make you happy?” Merlin found himself asking before he could think about it.
Arthur turned to look at Merlin, the coffee cup still at his lips and Merlin wanted to pull it away so he could kiss them. He looked so surprised by the question, like no one had ever wondered before what on earth would make him happy. It made Merlin horribly sad to think no one had ever thought to make it their goal to try to make Arthur unbearably happy. How anyone could look at him and not want to try to make him smile every single day of his life was beyond Merlin’s comprehension.
“My father letting my sister take the reigns of the company instead of me because she loves it and don’t,” Arthur answered finally. “Being able to sleep past five in the morning. Getting in my car and driving away for the weekend on a whim. Finding someone I wanted to walk through fire for. And having a cup of coffee at this table any time I wanted.”
Arthur had listed everything so succinctly and then nodded at the end as if he were satisfied with the list.
“That would make you happy?” Merlin asked.
“Yeah,” Arthur nodded, “I think it would.”
“You should do something about that then,” Merlin said quietly.
Arthur was about to speak when Merlin’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and sighed as he looked at it.
“I’m so sorry, Arthur, it’s Elena. I’ve got to go.”
Arthur nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Of course. I pulled you away from work, sorry.”
“I was easily pulled,” Merlin said as he smiled down at Arthur once he’d stood up from the table. “No apologies necessary.”
“Thanks for coming for coffee with me and keeping me company.”
“Another time?” Merlin asked hopefully.
“Definitely,” Arthur said.
Merlin smiled as he started to back up toward the door. He laughed at himself when he bumped into an empty chair and automatically turned to apologize to it.
“You’ve perfect manners, Merlin,” Arthur teased. “The chair surely appreciates it.”
“See you soon?” Merlin laughingly asked.
“Trying to curse my next relationship, I see,” Arthur said.
Merlin stumbled at that and said, “What? No!” before he realized what Arthur meant by it and laughed instead. “Well, maybe you could buy a happy arrangement next time instead of a, ‘sorry I was a giant arse’ one.”
Arthur laughed. “Maybe, yeah.”
“See you soon then?” Merlin repeated, his hand on the door to push it open.
“See you soon, Merlin.”
“You shouldn’t be allowed to take people on dates,” Elena said when Arthur walked through the shop door a little over a week later. “And I mean ever.”
Merlin looked up from where he was fiddling with some pots of flowers in their glass front refrigerators to see Arthur grin at Elena.
“If all goes well with this next order you may not have to worry about me inflicting my horribleness upon the dating community at large because I’ll be well and truly taken.”
Merlin’s heart sank when he thought about what that meant. Arthur was standing there looking beautifully rumpled again in jeans and an old gray henley, like he’d just rolled out of bed even though it was half past one on a Wednesday afternoon. And he looked happy.
Ridiculously, gloriously happy.
Merlin was torn between being happy himself over the fact and wanting to find whoever made Arthur look that way and rip his or her head off for not being him.
Elena looked like she was about to say something but turned to look over at Merlin instead. He wished he could tell her to knock it off with the sad eyes and disappointed look.
“Oh, really?” Merlin managed to ask.
Arthur smiled at him and leaned against the counter. “If all goes well.”
Merlin forced out a semblance of a smile and said, “I hope it does then.”
“Me too,” Arthur said as he kept his eyes on Merlin as he walked behind the counter and grabbed a card and pen. “I think you’ll need a bigger card.”
“I will?” Merlin asked.
“Do you have something larger?”
“I have regular sized greeting cards,” Merlin answered mechanically as he came to the conclusion that this was the world’s worst transaction.
“Why don’t you grab one of those then,” Arthur said.
“Which one?” Merlin asked as he pointed to the larger rack to Arthur’s right.
“Which one do you like?”
“Um. The one with the yellow, uh, that one there,” Merlin said when Arthur’s fingers settled on the correct one.
“You like yellow then?” Arthur asked.
Merlin nodded. “It’s my favorite color.”
“Alright,” Arthur said as he clapped his hands together and looked over at Elena who had been standing next to Merlin like a lump. “Something yellow this time, if you would, Elena?”
“Something yellow?” Elena asked inanely.
“Exactly,” Arthur nodded. “Something yellow.”
Merlin looked back and forth between Elena and Arthur as he grinned at her and the light seemed to dawn and she grinned right back.
“Something yellow,” she said happily then turned to shake Merlin by his shoulders. “Something yellow,” she shouted.
Merlin stood there and watched her all but run into the back room. He was a bit in shock and wasn’t quite sure he was hearing what he was hearing so he turned back to Arthur, pen in hand ready to write.
“What should I write on the card?” he asked rather dumbly.
“Well it doesn’t need to be word for word,” Arthur said, “but it should say something like, I’ve been coming into your shop for months even though I really only needed flowers the first time but I saw you and I had to keep coming back so I made up names and imaginary dates gone wrong just so I could see you again. Every friend I have and a great number of secretaries at Pendragon Corp have received flowers from me with mildly confusing cards attached, much to my embarrassment. But the embarrassment has been worth it because every time I step inside your shop you laugh at me and your laugh is always the best part of my week. Probably the best part of anything ever and now that I’ve decided to take your advice and figure out what makes me happy I figure I’d best get flowers for the appropriate person. The appropriate person being you, obviously, if you’ll have me.”
Arthur paused for a bit and Merlin stood looking at him, pen still in hand.
“Is that it?” Merlin asked.
Arthur looked thoughtful. “Hm. Probably not. There should also be something in there about me being willing to walk through fire for you.”
“But that’s it though, right?” Merlin asked, his heart beating like mad in his chest.
“Well maybe also something about your perfect mouth and the fact I want to kiss it more than anything, and a lot of other things that are very unsuitable for greeting cards and yellow flowers so I’d best just leave those bits out. So, yeah, that’s about it.”
Arthur was standing on the other side of the counter smiling at him with such hope in his eyes that Merlin was nearly floored by it. He hadn’t been able to make himself move since Arthur requested yellow flowers and it was only the faint awareness of Elena hissing, ’kiss him already. oh my god you’re giving me an ulcer.’ from the back room and Arthur’s eyes losing some of their confidence that made Merlin reach across the counter and grab at Arthur’s shirt to pull him in for a kiss.
Arthur stumbled forward but managed to right himself enough to kiss Merlin back properly. When Arthur started kissing him well and truly Merlin pulled back slightly so he could scramble over the counter to get to Arthur. They bumped foreheads in the process, his foot knocked over a rack of cards, and he could hear Elena cackling at him but once he was on the other side of the counter he had Arthur in his arms where he rightly belonged and the rest of it didn’t matter.
“So,” Arthur said, breathless as their lips parted just enough so he could speak. “You think the flowers will work?”
Merlin laughed and he felt Arthur’s smile against his lips.
“Oh, you have no idea,” Merlin said before tightening his hold on Arthur and getting right back to the kissing.