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Strangers on a Plane

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The man in seat K had been drumming his fingers erratically against the privacy screen for forty-five minutes when Arthur finally snapped. He paused his music and asked icily, "Do you mind?"

Seat K blinked at him stupidly. "Sorry?" Arthur just looked at the long fingers that were still skittering against the plastic screen, which had been jammed in place since take-off—just one inch shy of completely open, like it was taunting him. "Oh," Seat K said, and snatched his hand back. "Sorry."

"Good," Arthur grumbled, and tried to go back to his iPod. Bad enough that he was flying business class, since his father had gone and changed his booking behind his back, something about unnecessary expenses—as if being able to get some sleep on a transatlantic red-eye was unnecessary. Bad enough that the privacy screen between seats J and K was jammed, and the flight attendants seemed utterly unable to do anything about it. Oh, no, he had to go and get stuck next to someone in the middle of a nervous fucking breakdown.

Somebody who apparently wanted to talk. "It's just," Seat K stammered, squirming in his seat so his knees knocked against the divider between the seats. "It's just, um, I'm sort of a nervous traveler. Not just on planes, either, I get anxious enough taking the bus to class—I mean I got anxious—I'm not in uni anymore, obviously. When I take the train anywhere I have to book my tickets a month in advance and I'm on my mobile the whole time checking for delays. Ferries are worse. Though I'd actually prefer the ferry now, you now, compared to flying—I don't fly, I mean obviously now I'm flying, but I really, really don't like flying, it's just, you know, new job and all. And by 'new' I mean 'last week,' which makes it all worse because I wasn't sure I'd even have a visa until this morning, but I suppose that's what you get when you work for the Pendragon Group..."

Arthur had actually turned out the entire tirade by cranking his iPod volume as loud as it would go, but the company name caught his attention, and he yanked his earbuds out, saying, "Wait, what?"

Seat K didn't seem to notice anything amiss; he just rolled his eyes and said, "I know, right? That kind of thing doesn't happen in real life, not in this economy. But I had the interview Monday and they hired me on the spot, just—get this—it's in the New York office. I'm supposed to report eight AM tomorrow. It's madness."

The seats in the World Club cabin alternated facing backwards and forwards, so over the jammed divider Arthur could see Seat K's face perfectly. Long and thin, with jutting ears and absurdly high cheekbones, like the work of a bipolar plastic surgeon. And apparently his father had hired this moron for Arthur's office without telling Arthur about it, and was paying to ship him to New York when Arthur had lists of applicants already in that city as long as his arm. And he had the nerve to call first class an unnecessary expense? "Who are you?" he asked incredulously.

Seat K still did not seem to notice Arthur's displease; he smiled vacantly, as if he'd been heavily medicated, or perhaps dropped as a child. "Merlin Emrys," he said, offering a hand through the space that should've been full of privacy screen, if the world were just. "I'm a computer specialist. Thought I'd be some kind of tech support for an office block and instead they've got me in charge of their whole cybersecurity system."

"How lovely for you," Arthur intoned as he shook Merlin's clammy hand. Now the pieces came together: this hadn't been Uther's work, it was Gaius, who'd brought up Merlin's CV personally because he was some kind of family friend or something. Arthur had still pointed out there were dozens of potential contractors in New York, ones with equal qualifications, more experience, and no relocation expenses to put on the company accounts, but apparently he'd been overruled some time between the conclusion of the meeting and dinner at his father's flat. And of course, Uther hadn't seen fit to mention such a thing to him, because it wasn't like Arthur actually needed to know what was going on in his own office or anything. God.

"I'm supposed to report straight to the head of their American operations," Merlin carried on, seemingly unaware that he was sitting next to said head of American operations. Perhaps that was a good sign—after growing up wealthy and rowdy, Arthur had graduated university a household name, at least to readers of the tabloid press. Perhaps living virtuously overseas had tempered his reputation a bit. Or Merlin might be a bit thick. "It's a ridiculous salary, too. I just. If I make it to the hotel in New York without vomiting on anyone it's going to be brilliant."

"Are you likely to vomit, then?" Arthur asked, leaning away from the open screen.

Merlin blanched. "Oh, no, no, I just, I'm exaggerating, I exaggerate sometimes. My friend Will threatened to slip me a Valium before the flight but really, I'm fine, I just. I get anxious and it's a bit stupid of me and, you know, I think I'll stop talking now." He slumped in his seat and looked at the window to his left, which he had shut while they were still on the ground.

Arthur put his ear buds back in and silently cursed Gaius and Uther. Eight o'clock tomorrow—no, wait, that was Arthur's built-in jetlag day, he wouldn't have to deal with Merlin Emrys until Tuesday. Still. Eight o'clock Tuesday after an eight-hour flight was starting to seem far too soon.

-\-\-\-

The flight was supposed to land in New York before midnight local time, but Arthur still had every intention of sleeping at least part of the way, trying to average out the time zone differences. He'd loaded a playlist of white noise and ocean sounds—left overs from Morgana's hippy phase—into his iPod for just that purpose, and when Merlin had gone a whole hour without any nervous breakdowns Arthur thought it safe to fold his seat flat and try to rest.

This, of course, was a signal in Merlin's world that it was time to talk again. "Oh, you can do that?" he remarked as Arthur stretched out. "That's amazing."

"It was part of the pre-flight film," Arthur said dryly.

"Oh," Merlin said, and started wrestling with his own seat, making such a racket that people in other seats started popping their heads over their own privacy screens to see what was going on.

Arthur waited for a flight attendant to come rescue Merlin from his own devices, but apparently they were of a far more patient breed than he, because after about thirty seconds and three well-placed elbow strikes from across the divider he snapped. "Oh, for God's sake--" He clambered out of his seat and went around the divider, and had Merlin's seat folded down flat in a few well-placed motions. "There. Aren't geeks supposed to be clever about this sort of thing?"

"I'm a software engineer, not a mechanical one," Merlin said, ridiculous ears turning red.

Arthur snorted and went back to his bed. "I do hope you put in a better showing at work tomorrow, at least" he said as he settled down again.

"It's not myself I'm worried about so much," Merlin said. "It's the coworkers."

"I worry for your co-workers as well," Arthur muttered.

Merlin obviously didn't hear that, because he continued, "I hear my boss is a bit of a prat."

"What?" Arthur sat up very straight. "Where did you hear that?"

"Oh, just," One of Merlin's long, elegant hands waved vaguely in the space where the privacy screen ought to have been. "Around. My friend Will, the one with all the Valium, he looked it all up—and I mean, okay, he's a bit of a, I dunno, anarchist hippy sort of thing, all organic granola and smashing up banks, so I ignore about ninety percent of anything he says anyway, but it's all been so strange this week I don't know what to think."

"And what does Will the anarchist say?" Arthur asked sharply.

Merlin raised his head enough to look at Arthur over the divider. "That the fellow's a bit of a diva, fires people for no reason, that sort of thing—there was this blog thingy—and Will thinks he only got the job 'cause he's the CEO's son anyway, but I reckon if that's true I won't even have to worry about him, 'cause it's not like he'll understand what I'm doing to the computers anyway."

"Has it occurred to Will," Arthur asked icily, "that the CEO of a multinational company wouldn't risk one of its largest divisions by putting a moron in charge of operations, regardless of whose son he is?"

Merlin paused. "Guess I never thought of it like that."

Arthur wanted to ask about the blog, too, because he had some ideas about which disgruntled ex-employee might've written that (and diva? Please!) but it worried him that all this was apparently sitting out on the Internet, readily available, when he had PR people and secretaries and lawyers for just that sort of thing. In the interest of plumbing for more information, he asked, "What, er, what else have did your beloved Will tell you?"

Merlin laughed. "Oh, most of the rest was just the gay rumors. Seems to think if I'm going to sell out to the corporate world I should go all out and sleep my way to the top."

Those two sentences alone forced Arthur to fall silent while he busily readjusted his world-view. If there were rumors circulating—rumors that might well be backed up by pictures, despite his best efforts—well, thank God his father was functionally illiterate when it came to technology. That was something he'd have to address fast.

"As if I'd actually sleep with Arthur Pendragon," Merlin added, sounding almost disgusted.

"What's wrong with him? Arthur demanded, totally forgetting that this was supposed to be a stealth reconnaissance sort of thing.

Merlin snorted. "Just doesn't seem like my type. Even if he is cleverer than Will says, he's still this posh bastard with an attitude problem, right? And he probably looks like Prince Charles."

"He does not," Arthur said, and nearly added you're one to be talking about looks, though come to think of it Merlin did have some rather nice eyes. Startlingly blue eyes, which made an odd contrast to the unruly licks of black hair on his head and almost compensated for the ears. Not that Arthur was thinking about Merlin's eyes, because he'd never sleep with an employee, not while trying to stay in the closet, and certainly not when the employee in question was a rambling bundle of nerves who couldn't figure out how to unfold an airline seat properly.

Merlin blinked at Arthur's tone. "I, er, I've never actually seen him," he confessed, which of course Arthur had guess. "Will did most of the Googling for me."

"Obviously," Arthur snapped, and remembered that it was the middle of the night and the flight and he was supposed to be getting some rest. But when he laid down, his thoughts raced in little circles, swinging from anxious (what if he finds out?) to indignant (Prince Charles?!) and back again. With a sigh, he sat up, found his Blackberry and began typing. He might not be able to send anything until they landed at JFK, but he could at least get a head start on composing some very scathing messages to his PR people.

-\-\-\-

He had no idea what time zone they were in, but the small map available on the fold-out video screen showed them somewhere in the vicinity of Greenland. Not far from New York at all. Arthur had got perhaps thirty minutes of sleep total before forcing himself to sit up, because otherwise he wouldn't be able to sleep at all when he got home, and just because he wasn't going into work on Monday didn't mean he didn't have things to get done. He wasn't certain the office could continue functioning if he didn't keep current on email.

He surfed through the offerings on the little screen, but he wasn't familiar with most of the television programs, and the only movies he hadn't seen already looked unbearably stupid. He finally settled on Wolverine and had just gotten to the first really big computer-generated explosions when he noticed Merlin moving around out of the corner of his eye. He turned over several times in rapid succession, put his pillow over his head, took his pillow off his head and put under his knees, kicked the divider between seats three times and then sat up with a tremendous sigh audible even through Arthur's ear buds.

"You know," Arthur said softly, "There are people trying to sleep around here."

Merlin's reaction was to yelp very loudly, then clamp a hand over his mouth while his face turned scarlet. "Sorry," he whispered, though it was still too bloody loud.

Since the dialogue was very nearly irrelevant to the film anyway (it certain didn't do anything to add or detract from Hugh Jackman's pectoral muscles, which Arthur had already decided were the primary appeal) he took the ear buds out and leaned over into the space where the broken privacy screen should've been. "Is there something I can do for you, or are you practicing for when you seduce your new boss? Because your prospects don't look good from where I'm sitting."

Merlin's face flushed. "Nervous traveler, I told you," he hissed. "And I'm not seducing anybody!"

"Not tossing and turning like that, no," Arthur said.

"There was turbulance," Merlin said grumpily.

"Really?" asked Arthur, who hadn't felt a thing. "Are you sure it wasn't the pea under your mattress?"

But Merlin just made another face and flopped back down with his pillow over his face, and after a moment Arthur did feel a bit bad about the teasing. Not enough to actually, you know, apologize, but enough that after a few minutes of silence he said, just loud enough to be heard through the open divider, "You know, you might need a few of those brain cells you're currently depriving of oxygen when you get to work tomorrow."

Merlin pulled the pillow down incrementally and looked at Arthur, one eyebrow lowered suspiciously.

"Just saying," Arthur declared, and went back to admiring Hugh and Hugh's pecs, sans audio.

Merlin sat up again, and began to pick at the little pills of loose fuzz on his blanket. After a moment he said, slow and careful, "Can I ask you a hypothetical question?"

"Depends on what sort of hypothetical you mean," Arthur said promptly. "Because I don't want to be your psychoanalyst and frankly, I don't really care what sort of tree you'd be if you had the choice."

That earned him a scowl. "I just thought that you seemed like a pretty clever fellow, all right? And I wanted some advice."

"Buy Microsoft, stay in school, don't touch it if it hurts," Arthur rattled off.

Merlin tried to suffocate himself again.

This was, Arthur realized, starting to get a little out of hand. He'd initially thought that it would be entertaining to walk into the office on Tuesday and see Merlin's look of horror when he realized that he'd been jabbering to his new boss for an entire flight. But, God help them both, the idiot had apparently imprinted on him or something, and Arthur realized he'd feel awfully responsible if he gave his newest staff member a genuine nervous breakdown on his second day. Whoever Merlin Emrys was, he'd somehow convinced Uther Pendragon to challenge the laws of Parliament, Congress and nature to get him to Arthur's office on time, and Arthur supposed there must be something of substance there.

"Oak," he said, resigning himself to no more Hugh Jackman for the rest of the night.

Merlin, under the pillow, made a vaguely interrogative sound.

Arthur leaned almost all the over the broken screen, into Merlin's compartment space. "If I were a tree, I'd be an oak, all right? Now what was your question?"

Merlin lowered the pillow and stared vacantly at the ceiling for a while. "I'm just...not sure I'm doing the right thing here."

Arthur blinked at him. "Perhaps we should've had this conversation before the plane entered North American airspace," he pointed out.

"I mean I know, all right?" Merlin said, smacking himself in the face with one palm. "I mean, it's a brilliant opportunity and they're flying me over there and everything and it's just ridiculous, I'd be insane to turn it down, I just..."

"...are sufficiently anxious about a sufficient number of things that I suggest medication," Arthur put in.

"It's my mum," Merlin said. "She's not...I mean, she's okay, but...I'm all she's really got. She never wants to say it but I know it. You know what I mean?"

"Something like that," Arthur said, thinking of Uther and his vast, half-empty flat. It wasn't like he went over there on every trip to Britain for the interior décor.

"I mean, she told me to do what I wanted, you know, follow my dreams and all that crap," Merlin carried on. "But I can't help thinking I should've stayed home. I mean, what if something happens? I'm five time zones and eight hours and a fifteen-hundred-pound plane ticket away."

"I'm sure she can take care of herself," Arthur said. Uther always had.

"That's not the point," Merlin said miserably. "I just feel guilty for doing my own thing, you know? Is that normal?"

Arthur looked around the plane, but the cabin was nearly dark; one or two seats were still haloed by reading lights or the bluish glow of a video screen, but no one appeared to be stirring except for one attendant at the front of the cabin. "What'd your friend Will the Anarchist say?" he asked.

"I'm asking you," Merlin said, sounding bewildered.

"You've only just met me," Arthur pointed out.

"Yeah, but you seem to know about...y'know, things," Merlin stammered. "And, I mean, you're on business, too, right? Coming from or going to or whatever—I mean, what do you do?"

It was a ridiculously personal question, absolutely not the sort of thing you discuss with total strangers, and certainly not what you discuss with future employees. But perhaps because it was the middle of the night—perhaps because they were strangers for now, and alone in their pair of seats save for the shifting light of another improbable explosion from the film—perhaps Arthur was sleep-deprived and slightly mad, because he blurted out, "I haven't exactly got a choice, actually."

"What do you mean?" Merlin asked, bewildered.

Arthur leaned back into his own seat. "Sort of in the family business. And interested in keeping it that way."

"Oh. Oh." Merlin sat up, peeking around the gap where the screen was meant to be. "That's, er, wow."

"Pretty much," Arthur said.

"Suppose it makes it a bit difficult to negotiate a pay raise," Merlin said.

"Among a variety of other things," Arthur said. Suddenly all the pleasure had gone out of watching Hugh Jackman and his enormous muscles devour the scenery; he folded the little screen out of the way, plunging them into darkness.

For a little while they were both silent. When Merlin did speak again, he was quiet, as if they were in a library or a church. "I'll just, er, stop bothering you now."

"No," Arthur said without even thinking about it. "It's fine. Sorry I couldn't be more helpful to you."

"I'm sorry I asked," Merlin added, and Arthur heard him shifting around and knocking his knees on the divider some more. But he added, "And, you know, for being...me, at the moment."

"You mean being obnoxiously needy and irritatingly loud?"

Merlin shifted in his seat again. "You think I'm loud?"

"You admit you're needy?" Arthur challenged.

"Well, yeah," Merlin said. "I mean, I don't even have a driving license because I always make myself sick the day of the exam. I've thrown up on the Tube before. Thank you, by the way, for putting up with me."

"Don't mention it," Arthur said, and reclined his seat again.

After a minute, Merlin said quietly, "You're welcome."

"Eh?" Arthur raised his head.

"I said you're welcome. Since I'm putting up with you, too."

Arthur spluttered for a moment before refusing to dignify that with a response.

-\-\-\-

They were closing in on New York, and the flight attendants brought around some little boxed meals, sandwiches and crisps for anyone who was still awake. Arthur picked at his, knowing the carbohydrates would keep him awake; Merlin took two bites, guzzled a cup of coffee and started gathering his hand baggage. "You do know we don't land for another ninety minutes?" Arthur asked him.

"I know, I know," Merlin said; by this point he even sounded frustrated at himself. "I just, I want to be ready."

"Ninety minutes early?"

"Because I have to get through customs and immigration," Merlin said, "and find my checked baggage, assuming it even made it to the right airport at the right time and it's not still in London or in Swaziland or something, and then—I don't know, I think they're sending a driver or something, or maybe I'll have to get a taxi and I don't know how much that costs and I only exchanged twenty pounds because I let Will convince me that everyone in New York uses credit cards for everything only I'm starting to think he was lying."

Arthur considered this monument to both logic and syntax. "Seriously, I do recommend therapy for you," he said earnestly. "Everyone in New York does it."

"Do you do it?" Merlin asked with big eyes.

"Of course not," Arthur said.

"But you said everyone--"

"Everyone but me," Arthur clarified. "I am a functional human being."

Merlin sighed. "This is the maddest day of the maddest week of my life. Possibly maddest two days. What time is it in London now?"

"Three o'clock tomorrow," Arthur said helpfully. It clearly took Merlin several minutes to parse this. "I don't suppose it would help if I told you not to worry about it?"

"Not really," Merlin said. He wrestled an improbably large rolling suitcase out of the overhead compartment and propped it up in front of himself until a flight attendant reminded him he'd have to stow it for landing. Arthur did this for him, while ordering Merlin to sit down with his head between his knees, because this was honestly getting out of hand.

Back in his seat, Arthur unfolded the video screen to watch the little plane icon migrate over eastern Canada. Soon they would land, and he would go through one line with his green card while Merlin went through another line with his work visa, and they wouldn't see each other again until Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon, if Arthur manipulated his own schedule. And then instead of semi-anonymous seat mates, they would be employer and employee, with expectations and confidentiality agreements and ethical boundaries. "Say, Emrys," he called over the divider, then realized he wasn't entirely sure what to say.

"Eh?" Merlin leaned forward, looking through the gap in the divider.

"It's, er, it's been...I've enjoyed talking to you," Arthur said, wishing for a speechwriter. "But I hope you realize that I'm, that a man in my position...there's a certain amount of, er, discretion necessary. By which I mean I hope you understand that certain things, that we've been speaking in confidence, and...oh bugger," and he smacked himself across the face with his palm. "I don't actually know what I'm saying here."

"It sounds like you were asking me to keep a secret," Merlin said warily.

"In short, yes," Arthur said. He pretended to be fascinated by the graphic showing their ground speed and the exterior temperature. "I'm sure you can understand that some things...that is, that I have a reputation to consider."

"Sure," Merlin said. "Of course you do. What am I keeping secret?"

Arthur stared at him for a full thirty seconds before he was satisfied that Merlin was not joking; Merlin actually looked over his shoulder in confusion. "Never mind," Arthur said. "Just drop it. Clearly my secrets are safe with you."

And that should have been the end of it; well, that, and also the bit where he helped Merlin go through six different customs declaration forms before he managed to fill one out properly. That should've been all, because any warm feelings Arthur might be feeling towards Merlin were an illusion borne of jetlag and enforced proximity—well, that, and the fact that he had blue eyes and elegant hands. Once they left the plane they would be any two men in New York, until of course they were coworkers, and Arthur had worked too hard for too long to come out to his father with a sexual harassment complaint.

Until the bit where Merlin slipped one of the incorrect customs forms over the divider with an "Er. Hey."

"What?" Arthur took the form and looked it over. "Look, I already told you, you're not supposed to fill this one out, you have a visa. Did you even watch the little film—?"

"On the back," Merlin blurted, face blushing scarlet. (An endearing scarlet. Oh, god.)

Arthur turned the form over, and discovered MERLIN EMRYS printed in sloppy block letters in the space for declaring large sums of cash. Underneath was a hotel name, with an addres and a room number and a phone number. He looked at Merlin. "Excuse me?"

"Just in case," Merlin stammered. "Just in case you wanted to, er, catch up later. Once I'm, you know, a human being instead of a walking panic attack."

Arthur almost said, but I thought I looked like Prince Charles? But of course, Merlin didn't know—they'd gone the whole flight and Arthur hadn't ever actually introduced himself. Addressing the more pressing matter, Arthur said, "Did we not have an entire conversation about discretion a little while ago?"

"I thought you said your secrets were safe with me," Merlin said, raising an eyebrow.

"I've changed my mind," Arthur declared, making to pass the paper back. "Clearly you cannot be trusted with anything more complex than string."

Merlin refused to take the paper. "I just, I know how to keep a secret, all right?" he said. "And I know I just met you and you're sort of a prat and all, but you're also, er, nice, in a prattishy sort of way, and I'd like to see you again if I could."

"I'm sure we'll run into each other again," Arthur said, bone-dry, but then the fasten-seat-belt sign came on, and Merlin went pale and assumed a white-knuckle grip on his seat. Arthur rolled his eyes. "We'll deal with this later," he told Merlin.

"I'll buy the first round," Merlin said, with his eyes screwed shut.

Arthur face-palmed, yet again.

-\-\-\-

Instead of going into passport control (and standing anywhere near Merlin and Merlin's body weight in hand baggage and Merlin's breakdown) Arthur went into a loo and switched on his Blackberry. He sent all the insulting e-mails to his secretary and staff regarding the rumors online, and checked the weather for the week, and deleted three lolcats and a chain mail from Morgana. He pinched his nose and tried to make his ears pop. He utilized his complementary toothbrush.

The customs slip, with Merlin's contact information, had somehow ended up in his pocket, and when he couldn't avoid it any longer he turned it over a few times in his hands. Merlin Emrys, walking psychological problem and an employee, who should've been off-limits if Arthur wanted to keep his job and his father's affection. Who had elegant hands. Who had endured an eight-hour transatlantic flight to pursue something he wanted, and damn all the risks.

God damn it, if that idiot could so it, so could Arthur.

-\-\-\-

When Arthur finally exited passport control, he found not one but two drivers in the Pendragon Group's uniforms among the baggage claims. They were, of course, standing side-by-side. One was already attempting to cope with Merlin's improbably large pile of bags, while Merlin, glassy-eyed and too pale, rambled wildly at him. The other was holding a card that said MR. PENDRAGON in neat computer-generated letters, watching Merlin's antics with thinly-veiled schadenfreude.

Arthur took a moment to gather himself, and strode forward.

"Emrys!" he called, and Merlin's head snapped around; he smiled, but also looked confused. "There was something I forgot to mention."

"Sorry?" Merlin said, at the same moment Arthur's driver put his game face on and said, "Mr. Pendragon, sir!"

Arthur handed off his bags and gave Merlin the other half of the customs slip, the one on which he'd written his own mobile number before tearing it off. "My number. Though you should be getting that tomorrow—make sure to ask Lance if he doesn't tell you up front."

There was a look of almost endearing confusion on Merlin's face, one that started sliding off into horror while the driver prompted, "Mr. Pendragon, sir? Where to?"

"Home," Arthur told him. "And don't you dare take the tunnel, it's a nightmare at any hour."

"Very good, Mr. Pendragon."

Arthur glanced back at Merlin, whose expression had settled into bug-eyed non-comprehension. At the very least, Arthur still had the upper hand in this. "I'll see you on Tuesday, Emrys, if not before that," Arthur told him, and pressed the number a bit more firmly into his hands so he didn't drop it entirely. It gave him an excuse to lean in closer and say, "I hope you're still buying the first round."

Merlin may have squeaked.

Arthur smirked at him, and held that smirk until he got into the car; then he slumped against the seat cushions and exhaled slowly. He might've just made the worst mistake of his life for an utterly neurotic, skinny, nervous wreck of a man. Yet now that he'd done it, there was a small part of himself that felt curiously light; as if it was still up above the clouds, on the plane, flying.