The thing is, Merlin almost hadn't come to work today. Not that he'd been tempted to pull a sickie, but he was in possession of a genuine case of the sniffles, and gallivanting around in the wind generally wasn't an effective cure. But he'd bucked up, had some coffee and a shower, and figured he wasn't as bad off as all that.
And now he's stood leaning half his body over the rear port railing, trying to talk some crazy asshole out of jumping headfirst into the Strait.
Well, perhaps that's a bit harsh, Merlin thinks as he eyes the guy. Everybody has a bad day once in a while.
And at least it's not raining.
"Hullo," he starts, reasonably enough in his estimation. "My name's Merlin, and I think you should come back inside with me."
It's a lame opening volley, yeah, but seriously, Merlin does not get paid enough for this shit. The engines have been cut and the side boat is ready; the guy could jump right now and they'd be fishing him out of the water--alive, unharmed, though probably annoyed as a wet cat--in about seven minutes. And Merlin already knows his evening is going to be filled with extraneous paperwork no matter which way this ends.
But for whatever reason, be it his altruistic nature or his inability to keep his nose out of things, he's determined to stop this guy from jumping. Maybe he just likes solving riddles.
And this man, this fit, youngish, polished blonde man in a business suit peering down at the dark water angrily? Is certainly a riddle.
"Merlin is a ridiculous name," the guy says, and his voice sounds surprisingly calm for somebody clinging to the railing of a rather large ferry boat.
And he has a fair point, but Merlin's not about to let the attention get turned. "Let me guess your name, then. Leopold? Jethro? Neil?"
The man is silent for a few moments, and Merlin is torn. He thinks he could probably reach him if he stretches far enough. He's not sure it's a good idea, though. It's not like he has any idea what he's doing. Psych 101 was a depressingly long time ago.
"Arthur," the guy finally says. At least, Merlin thinks that's what he says, though the wind makes it sketchy.
"Close enough," Merlin says back jauntily.
Arthur makes a skeptical sound at this, but only side-eyes Merlin. "Close enough to Leopold?"
"Not everybody can sound like they're from a Mills & Boon novel."
Arthur finally looks over at him. And oh but he's incredibly attractive, Merlin notices. Very unfortunate, because Merlin's tastes, while they do run to men, do not run to anybody who would find it wise to stand outside the railing of a moving ferry.
But these awful words keep coming out of Arthur's mouth, sullying the whole visage. "You're not very nice." Merlin bites back the 'and you're not very sane' that threatens to come out, which is good because Arthur continues. "I'd figure they'd send someone helpful after me, not a skinny kid with a weird name."
"Yes, well, so would I, but you get me instead. So how about you do us both a favour, and just reach over here and--"
"You're really bad at this, you know that?"
Merlin stoically pretends he didn't hear. "Listen, we're almost to Port Angeles, then you can be off and home and--"
"No!" Arthur looks at him with something akin to offended horror. Merlin is momentarily very confused, until Arthur elucidates, clearly scandalized. "I'm not... American."
Merlin tries not to grin. "Okay, then, we'll get you to wherever it is you're going, and--"
"So you're here on--"
"Business. Business! I'm here on business."
"You must mean closing down a business, then." Merlin realizes that's probably not the best thing for him to say in such a situation, but it's already slipped out. And it's not untrue, anyway.
"No. Well, yes. Possibly."
"That sounds complicated."
"Why don't you come over to this side of the railing and explain it to me."
Arthur eyes him. For a really long time. Long enough that he feels his nose threaten to run. He wishes for about the fiftieth time that he'd just stayed home.
"Please?" he says finally. And he means it.
And after what seems like an eternity, Arthur relents. "You'll stay with me."
It's not a question, but Merlin finds he doesn't mind. He holds out his hand. "Only because I haven't any better offers."
Arthur smiles, and something warm spreads through Merlin's chest.
Then he sneezes everywhere.
Fifteen minutes later, the excitement is over and they've been left alone in the crew canteen (although Merlin has been side-eyed in a way that means 'there will be copious amounts of paperwork for you later').
Arthur picks at the heavy wool rescue blanket. "Why do I need a blanket?"
"S.O.P.," Merlin answers as he settles into a chair across the table. "Don't fuss."
"I didn't even get wet!"
"I don't care, leave it on."
"And you're pompous. What's your point?"
"I should report you."
"And say what? This guy saved my life but then he made fun of me so you should fire him?"
Arthur scoffs. "I'd hardly say you saved my life. You merely…" He waves a hand around imperiously. "Annoyed me enough to divert me from the consequences of an unwise decision."
Merlin raises an eyebrow at the specific verbiage. "Mm-hmm."
There's a pause. Merlin really does want to ask, because he's just curious by nature, and this man seems terribly alone. He hasn't once checked his mobile, or mentioned a spouse, a relative. Anyone.
But Merlin's not able to work up the care and/or nerve, and the silence stretches. Until Arthur opens his fool mouth.
"Seriously, what kind of a name is Merlin? Arthur at least is, you know, normal."
"My mother was a bit of an odd duck," Merlin says, and it's the truth, and it brings a ghost of a fond smile to his face.
Arthur takes pause, clearly at the verb tense. "I'm sorry," he says finally.
"It's all right, you weren't to know."
"I know, but—" A hand comes out from under the painfully utilitarian blanket and scrubs over Arthur's face once. Twice. "I'm just-- Tired. I'm just tired."
Merlin studies him. He's ridiculously transparent, or perhaps just to Merlin, but Merlin can tell from five seconds of observation that Arthur's in need of some serious therapy. Beyond the whole 'apparently trying to jump off a moving ferry' thing. But this is not the time. "Must be the spring weather change," he says lightly instead.
And it works, because Arthur has some spark in his eye when he turns to look at Merlin incredulously. "What, from grey to lighter grey?"
Merlin nods, suppressing a smile.
"What part of weather does your geography not understand?"
The laugh that bubbles out of Merlin is genuine, and long. And Arthur almost looks like a human being when it's over. A smug human being, but Merlin can overlook that for the moment, as Arthur crosses his arms and shakes his head. "Mind boggling."
The loudspeakers decide right then is a good time to speak up, drolly announcing that they're nearly at Port Angeles, to return to their vehicles, etc etc.
"They'll keep you at the terminal," Merlin says to Arthur as he stands. "I'm needed for load-off, but I'll likely see you afterwards. "
Arthur's smile falters. "There's going to be a lot of paperwork, isn't there?"
Merlin nearly grins at the sadness on his face. "Guess you should've thought of that earlier, eh?"
On his way out the door, he reaches out to touch Arthur's shoulder, without thinking. He diverts the movement to the blanket, tugging at it. "I'll be taking that, thanks."
Arthur grumbles. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, Arthur." Arthur looks up at him, and Merlin smiles. He's certain he's never going to see this man after end of day. "You owe me, though."
The next morning, Merlin notices the nice ass first. It's in very expensive trousers, and worth every bloody cent.
He blinks, realized he's been staring while waiting in line for coffee, and feels his skin heat up. Doesn't do any good to have people thinking you're an ogler. No matter how fine the body-part in question may be.
He occupies himself with his phone, like a non-creeper, and then gets engaged in his usual conversation with Freya, the barista, about Wild Olympics and Gary the Hot Ranger, and nearly forgets about the shapely backside.
…until its owner is standing right next to him.
"Of all the coffee shops in all the towns in all the world…"
Merlin lets out an undignified noise of surprise. He shoots a scandalized/betrayed glare at Freya.
It's hard to stay mad, though, with Arthur being so easy on the eyes. "This is a tiny town, Arthur." He pauses. "It was Arthur, right?"
"Yes, Merlin. And don't say Casablanca isn't applicable; I know there are other coffee shops."
Merlin shrugs. "Only a few. And this one's the best."
Arthur glances pointedly down at the bag in Merlin's hand. "Because they give you free sweets, you mean."
Merlin flushes. "You watching me, Arthur? This really is turning into Casablanca. What's your last name, anyway?"
Arthur coughs, and puts out his hand. "Pendragon. Arthur Pendragon."
Merlin juggles his goods, then shakes. "Merlin Emrys. I do suppose we were never properly introduced."
"Not as such, no."
"Excellent, we're doing this all backwards, then."
Arthur's eyebrow rises. "This?"
Merlin flushes. Perhaps he's gotten this all backwards. Wouldn't be the first time. "Uh…yes, you know. Human interaction."
He doesn't need to hear Freya's laughter this time. Oh, sod it, he thinks. He gives a formal sort of nod. "I'm Merlin, and I'm gay, and if you want to fight about it, you've got about five minutes because I've got work soon."
Arthur, unfortunately, looks uncomfortable at this turn of conversation. "Oh. That's…nice."
Merlin suppresses a smile, and the little twinge of disappointment. "It is, actually. Very nice. Like toast and jam and lazy Sunday mornings."
Merlin waves a hand. "It's alright, Arthur Pendragon. I hope you have a lovely day of…what was it again? The business you're here on?"
Arthur, if it's possible, looks even more uncomfortable. "Yes, I'm…I'm here to determine the future of the paper plant down on the Spit."
Merlin feels his lips press together. "Lovely."
"I do hope you realize It's only the sole remaining factory in this town."
"And closing it would be the last nail in the coffin of the economy here. Hundreds of jobs. Hundreds of lives."
"Yes, I realize," Arthur hisses, and Merlin realizes he's getting pulled close, like Arthur doesn't want the entire coffee shop to hear this. And for good reason. "I'd like it if you didn't make my purposes here widely known, Merlin. I like my food un-spat-in and my coffee with foam instead of, I dunno, shaving cream."
Merlin can't help but huff out a laugh. "Shaving cream? Really?"
Arthur clears his throat. "Speaking from experience."
Merlin raises an eyebrow. "You do this sort of business often?"
"Unfortunately," Merlin says flatly, trying to get some space between them. "That's all you have to say, is 'unfortunately.'" He extricates himself from the moment, giving a polite nod to Arthur. "Be seeing you, then."
"Merlin, no, I—"
Merlin gives him three seconds. "Yes?"
A muscle in Arthur's jaw ticks, before he shakes his head tightly. "Have a lovely day at work. Despite it being on a boat."
Merlin almost smiles. "You as well. Despite it being—"
"Please don't say it."
"Alright, then. Goodbye, Arthur."
Arthur, for a moment, looks as sad as Merlin inexplicably feels. "Goodbye."
It rains hard the next day. Merlin usually likes the rain and today is no exception; it fits his mood—there'd been no Arthur at the coffeeshop that morning, but he'd seen nothing in the news about the plant so he can only assume he's getting avoided—and comforts him like nothing else can.
He always takes the deck position, days like this. Nobody objects.
The voice comes out of nowhere. "You'll catch your death out there."
Merlin turns abruptly, so abruptly he almost loses his footing on the wet deck. (Three years on this job, and he is still sometimes like a colt with no sea-legs.) "Arthur?"
"Yes." And it is, it really is. He's in a ridiculous giant down coat and looking a bit like an unhappy kitten, but he's there.
"What are you doing here?"
Arthur gestures expansively to the grey sky and grey water. He might even glare at it a little. "Enjoying the scenery."
"Listen," Merlin says, a little snappily, "If you don't like it, you can just go back to—" He stops.
"Toronto," Arthur supplies.
"--back to Toronto from whence you came. This area is charming. There are loads of good people, and things to do."
Merlin eyes him. He's being mocked, but there's a twinkle in Arthur's eye, so he answers anyway. "We're about to have a mariners' poetry festival, for instance."
"Oh, yes," Arthur says generously, a smile quirking his lips. "I saw that in the paper today. Right next to 'Plumber retires for full-time beachcombing.'"
Merlin can't stop the returning grin. "Gerry is the best in the business, I'll have you know."
"And I'm sure that'll be very useful knowledge to me."
Merlin scoffs. "You're a snob."
Arthur just looks at him. "I'm wearing a two-thousand dollar suit. I have to be a snob."
Merlin crosses his arms. "Yes, about that. Why are you still—Why are you here? I know it's not for sightseeing. Your coat is rubbish, for one."
"This is a very expensive coat!"
"Yeah, and it's meant for skiing."
Arthur, much to Merlin's surprise, blushes at this. "Well," he finally says, crossing his arms as well, "I wasn't exactly planning to be a frequent guest on this ferry."
"No, you're just here to flatten this town, then you'll go back and do your company's next bidding like a proper lapdog."
Arthur's eyes flash, and Merlin suddenly feels the distance between them shrink. "You," he says, his voice low enough to be almost lost over the wind and the thrum of the engines, "don’t know anything about me."
Merlin wills his heart to slow down. He's rubbish at arguing. "I know you wear suits and shut down business."
"My father shuts down businesses."
"You do his bidding."
"Only," Arthur says between clenched teeth, "because I'm not good enough yet to figure out how to prevent it."
"Oh, bullshit. You're clever, I know it. I refuse to believe you've no idea how to humanely restructure a business so that it can continue providing vital jobs and a necessary function to the local communi—"
Suddenly he finds himself in Arthur's space again. "I'm trying," Arthur continues, his voice low and in Merlin's ear, and this is really the wrong time for Merlin to notice how warm he is, not to mention how delicious he smells, "to keep it open. My fa—my CEO wants it shut down immediately. I'm here to try and figure out how to save it. And I think I've done it."
He pulls back, and Merlin finds he can't quite feel his toes. Metaphorically. "So keep your shorts on," Arthur concludes, "and your shouty rants to yourself."
Merlin hmms. Hope is beating in his chest. "You've found a way?"
"I think so, yes. It's going to take some creativity and a lot of my time, but I think so. Yes."
Merlin suddenly feels terrible for the man, being stuck in such a position. He wants to hug him. Even in his ridiculous fluffy jacket. "Well, now I see why you wanted to jump into the Strait the other day."
Arthur sort of coughs. "Well, no."
Merlin raises an eyebrow. "No?"
"It's not—" Arthur's cheeks are red again, and his ears, and Merlin has the most ridiculous urge to run his fingers along them, warm them.
"It's not what, then?"
"I wasn't trying to jump," Arthur finally admits.
Merlin blinks. That's not what he'd expected, by far. "Okay. Just decided you'd get a better view from outside the boat?"
Arthur makes a helpless gesture. "If you must know, I was trying to get a better look at you."
"You— Beg pardon?" Merlin starts to feel a tingle. He suddenly wants to do much much more with his fingers.
"I was--" Arthur exhales, as if shoring himself up. "I'm a bit claustrophobic, honestly. I thought I'd be fine on the ferry but then the cars were parked so close together that I couldn't--I couldn't stay inside. So I got out and then I saw you, standing there, looking for all the world like part of the sea, part of the wind itself. Only I--" He stops, flushing.
"You what?" Merlin prods gently.
"The closer I got to you, the closer I was getting to the water, and although I'm normally not rubbish at chatting up attractive strangers, by the time I was close enough to you to speak, it all just came rushing at me at once and I--" He shrugs. "I panicked."
"You're an idiot," he says, closing the distance between them, but not touching. He can feel his smile soft on his face, and he does nothing to abate it. "You came back onto a boat to tell me you had an anxiety attack on a boat?"
Arthur's still red in the face. "This is the part where you should be grateful, you git."
Merlin snorts a chuckle out his nose. Which is cold, he realizes, so it's probably also red. He clears his throat. "My apologies, sir."
"In fact," Arthur continues, his eyes now twinkling, "I'm feeling rather peaky again."
"Oh you are, are you?"
"Yes." Arthur reaches out and touches a hand to Merlin's side, under his ribs, firm and real, and Merlin's heart speeds up. "Merlin..."
Merlin doesn't even have to consider it. "Yes, you may."
Arthur stops. "You don't even know what I was going to ask."
But Merlin just kisses him. It's languid, and slick with rain, and their lips are cold, until they're not anymore.
As it ends, Arthur smirks. "I find I'm suddenly very warm."
Merlin grins, and tugs at the pockets of Arthur's fluffy coat. "It's this ridiculous coat."
"Hey, I was just trying to--"
"To impress me, I know. And you did a fine job, coming all the way out here. Consider me impressed." He smoothes the raindrops down Arthur's poofy sleeves, using the movement to put them even closer together. "The trick to living here is layers."
"Is that right?" Arthur's hands reach the bottom hem of Merlin's jacket, then go through the layers, one by one, until he's on warm skin and Merlin has to bite back a shiver. The low thrum of the engines matches the blood humming under his skin.
He reaches out to kiss Arthur again, but Arthur's ahead of him, hands hot under his clothing. His tongue sweeps into Merlin's mouth with intent, and Merlin almost forgets where they are. Almost.
"Arthur," he gasps into their shared air. "Arthur, we have to stop."
Arthur pulls back, resting their foreheads together. "I know. I'm sorry."
Merlin catches his face in his hands. "Don't be sorry. Just tell me when I can see you again."
"Well," Arthur says speculatively, smoothing a wet lock of hair off Merlin's forehead, "business is going to keep me here at least a week, maybe two. So I'll need something to do in the evenings, lest I waste away from boredom."
"Oh, this town is hoppin'," Merlin says, nearly un-ironically. "There's llamas to ride on the Discovery Trail, a Plow Day pancake breakfast, a bluegrass festival named after this here body of water, and not to mention competing lavender festivals, because apparently we can't all just get along and run one."
Arthur raises an eyebrow. "All this week?"
Merlin chuckles. "No. This week..." His grin turns wicked. "This week I think will have to find creative ways to occupy ourselves."
Arthur's matching smile is blinding, and, work be damned, they reach for each other again. "That we will."
Arthur thinks of himself as a logical, reasonable man. His ties are organized (by label, not colour), his bills are paid on time, and he never forgets to set his alarm clock.
Then he steps within three feet of Merlin Emrys.
Suddenly he's saving a factory and defying his father, and kissing a man goodnight in public.
...perhaps not so suddenly, he reasons. Perhaps it's always been there, and perhaps it was already starting to happen, starting to ooze out of him. Merlin is just…helping it along.
And after two weeks of stolen dates among the grueling job of trying to save a factory, Arthur finds himself in a space he's never before occupied: the space right before you take a leap of faith.
"Don't you dare stop," Merlin breathes. When Arthur still doesn't respond, not doing more than absently circling his hips, Merlin's legs up and around him, his face buried in Merlin's neck like the secrets of life are in there... Merlin takes a nip at the shoulder he can reach. "Arthur? You all right?"
Arthur's movement don't stop, but he raises his head and meets Merlin's eyes.
The emotion there nearly stops Merlin's heart in his chest.
Merlin doesn't really know what's happening in Arthur's head, but he does know that at that moment, there is nothing in the world besides the two of them.
"Come back with me."
It's little more than a rumble against Merlin's collarbone, which is where Arthur has collapsed, barely pulled out of Merlin. Merlin thinks they fell asleep, which he knows was not the smartest idea. He doesn't actually care.
"What--?" Merlin finds the wherewithal to say. He shakes his head, trying to get it together. "Are you—are you insane?"
Arthur chuckles tiredly. "No, I’m on a deadline."
"I can't just—"
"Yes, you can." Arthur's raises his head and moves his body and he is one hundred percent serious. Merlin can see this, now. "You can because I’m rich, because your dad was Canadian, and because there's nothing left for you here."
"Lavender festivals aside."
"And you can always come back for those. Both of them."
"Consider it an extended holiday."
Merlin's heart is so full he clearly needs some assistance in using the English language. He puts his fingers on Arthur's chin gently. "Arthur." This finally gets Arthur's attention. "Listen."
"You're sort of an asshole."
Arthur's jaw tenses. "Sure."
"You forget that my mother died here, that I've lived here for the last ten years. I have a cat, for goodness' sake. I love this town."
Merlin considers him. The slope of his nose, the tilt of his lips. The sadness in his eyes. "But I think," he says thoughtfully, after a moment, "I could love you, as well."
Arthur's breath catches, but before he can do something as emasculating as show emotion, he ducks his head and rolls Merlin fully beneath him. Merlin accommodates him easily, legs relaxed and open.
They breathe together for a while. Then Merlin can't help himself. "Do you think you'll still be as rich when your father finds out what you've done?"
Arthur rises to his elbows and regards Merlin with a puzzled face. "With you or the plant?
Merlin hadn't even thought of that. "Um."
Arthur waves him off. "No, there's not much he can do. I'm my own man in the company, we're not losing money, and this isn't the middle ages. He can't strip me of my titles and lands because he thinks I've gone soft."
"Have you?" Merlin asks with a cheeky grin.
Arthur scoffs, then pushes his hips against Merlin's unsubtley. "Decidedly not."
"Excellent," Merlin says, his hand already snaking down to take Arthur under his command. "Because I really am fond of your ass in those expensive trousers."
"Oh—" Arthur gasps. "I see." He kisses Merlin, not desperate anymore, at least not for now. "You're not really concerned for my welfare, just your own view."
Merlin kisses him back, then smiles up at him. And he thinks, yes. Yes, he could stay here forever. Wherever here is. Wherever Arthur is.
"It's a really, really lovely view."