Standing by the bizarre punch concoction which somehow squirms its way into every one of these pastel-colored, tie-mandatory affairs, Merlin Emrys tries to become one with the frippery of the reception hall. How did his mother ever think he would be able to find something (someone) to while away the hours left of this dreadful, awful, no-good event? He's already dreading that awkward moment when some well-intentioned individual will approach, hem and haw and then enquire with a facade of civility, "So are you here with the bride or the groom?" He should have stayed home - had wanted to, in fact, but his mother informed him she thought he needed a night out, that she was worried about the amount of time he spent studying in his room when he could be with people, could possibly meet someone. While he's heard time and again that weddings are the best places to make a connection with someone new, he hardly believes he will meet anyone when he and his mother are here only by the grace of her catering business being chosen for the reception.
Somebody shoot me now. Or maybe his tie could strangle him - it already has a mind of its own. It could definitely turn out to be up to the task.
"Your tie's come undone."
Merlin looks up, meeting the eyes of a blond man, old enough to look at home in a suit, but young enough to give off a determinedly visionary vibe, as though he can will the world to become whatever he so desires, not out of entitlement, but faith and sheer determination. Biting his lip, Merlin breaks eye-contact, raising his hands to fiddle with his practically sentient tie, hoping the heat blossoming on his too-pale cheeks cannot be seen in the low lighting of the hall. He told his mum the tie was useless, that it wasn't going to stay, but she insisted, smiled that implacable smile of hers and helped him with it anyway.
Hands gently bat his own away, plucking the onerous (irritating, exasperating, impossible) task from him and completing it in a swift, no-nonsense manner. "Ah - thanks. Who are you?" No one has ever stepped in to fix his messes so smoothly, save his mother. Elena is an absolute, lovable mess, Will always has something snarky to say, and Great Uncle Gaius feels the need to lecture him and then impart what he considers sage advice. This proprietary, resolute way of getting things done is shocking coming from someone he does not know from Adam.
"Agravaine's nephew, Arthur. Who are you?" Merlin is almost certain Arthur does so unconsciously, but his tone carries a certain amount of censure. It's understandable - his ill-fitting suit and shoes, along with the tie his dad once wore, clearly mark him as an outsider, an oddity. But Arthur didn't ask the dreaded question of affiliation, so Merlin decides he's an alright sort, really.
Shrugging eloquently, he elaborates with, "I'm nobody," since in this place, that is the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help him J. R. R. Tolkien.
Arthur pulls this face, as though someone just informed him that two plus two actually comes out to five - incredulous, confused, and a bit offended for the sake of academics everywhere. "You must have a name, at least."
"Right. Um. I'm Merlin." His shoulders come forward protectively, and then he reluctantly holds out his hand, waiting for the inevitable handshake in which this guy asserts his infinitely superior physicality.
He finds himself pleasantly surprised again. The handshake is firm, sure, but it's also friendly, not at all intended to crush the bones he mulishly acknowledges are rather bird-like. Arthur is still giving him a bit of an odd look, but it's warm, too, as though he finds Merlin rather charming, in a weird way. "Well, Merlin, it's nice to meet you."
"You, too. It's not everyday someone can make this tie behave itself." He peers up at Arthur shyly, bites his lip and then suggests, "Maybe I should stick by you tonight, just in case it comes undone again."
Considering him closely, Arthur nods. "That does seem to be the best solution. So, what's on the agenda? More standing by the table?"
Shrugging his shoulders, he grins and says, "You've figured me out. It's shameful, I know, but I was planning on standing here and admiring this truly lovely punch bowl all night long."
"That is, indeed, a shameful thing." Arthur's eyes laugh at him even as his eyebrows scrunch reproachfully.
Merlin widens his eyes in a playful intimation of anxiety. "Truly, it is. Whatever can I do to reclaim my good name?"
Tapping a finger against his lips in mock-contemplation, Arthur says, "Well, you could turn yourself in for your dreadful wallflower ways or," and here he pauses, as though he is about to share a delicious secret, "we could preserve your honor by making an escape." He peers at Merlin and then asks, "Tell me, how badly do you wish to avoid tarnishing yourself by committing such an egregious offense to wedding reception etiquette?"
Oh, Tolkien, Carrol, and Rowling. As tempting as his offer sounds, he doesn't want to take Arthur away from his family if doing so will cause problems for the charming man later. "Don't you have to stick around in case they want you for photos or something? I mean, your uncle is the groom." Even while Merlin asks, Arthur is shaking his head.
"Honestly, I hardly even know my uncle. I'm just here because my father believes it would be 'unspeakably rude,' not to attend, no matter how much those two hate each other." There's something there that Merlin cannot yet understand, some haunted thing lingering behind Arthur's eyes and would-be casual explanation.
"Right, okay. We - we could go up to the roof. No one who comes to these things ever goes up there." He's given up pretending he actually belongs here in any familial capacity. Arthur probably has had him pegged from before he let him know about his wayward tie, and he seems alright with it so far.
He can see by the slight easing in Arthur's posture that he has noticed Merlin's concession, his admission, and appreciates it. This is a guy who does not deal well with lies and half-truths. He seems like someone Merlin might actually get along with, were this not a Cinderella-turns-into-a-pumpkin-at-midnight kind of ordeal. Well, it's not exactly like that. Cinderella's dress and shoes weren't borrowed, and she actually had the chance to dance with the prince.
Glancing around the hall at all the happy couples, the cooing women, the casually boasting men, the children playing with the seeds that aren't meant to be thrown for a few hours yet, he fists Arthur's suit sleeve and begins leading him furtively from the room, out through the back door and up onto the roof. After releasing him, Merlin slinks over to the railing and slumps against it gratefully. He loves this place. Why hadn't he thought to do this until now?
Oh, right. Because his mother lives in hope that he will not someday become the world's first ever Cat Gentleman, alone and unloved.
He looks over at his unlikely companion as he joins him, limbs relaxing in unconsciously sensual grace, and thinks, Maybe. Maybe I was waiting and I didn't even know it. Maybe Cinderella will get to dance tonight after all. He rolls his eyes at his own sappiness. Elena acta like less of a girl than he does.
The body beside his inhales deeply and then exhales, leaning even further into the railing as his frame falls gracefully, gradually forward. "Thank you for bringing me up here. I don't know how much longer I could have stayed in there, pretending to smile."
Merlin glances at him, a question in his eyes. Should he come out and ask? It seems wrong to demand to know why someone looks like he is attending a funeral, rather than a wedding.
Catching his poorly concealed curiosity, Arthur says, "I said I was the groom's nephew. I didn't say that the bride is actually my half-sister."
A wry, self-deprecating smile makes its way onto his companion's face. "Don't worry - my uncle is related to me on my mother's side. Morgana and I have the same father. It's all very above board. Or at least, that's what they told my father after Agravaine proposed." Arthur stares down at the street below and confesses, "Honestly, I don't what they see in each other. Part of me wonders if Morgana isn't doing this simply to piss our father off."
"There's always divorce." He winces as soon as it comes out of his mouth. Merlin knows - has always known, because people throughout his life have been only too happy to tell him over and over and over again - that he has a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth.
Instead of glaring at him though, Arthur shoots him this incredulous look and then hangs his head, not in dejection, as Merlin fears initially, but in an attempt to hide the wide-open smile on his face as he chuckles helplessly. Watching him give into his amusement, Merlin feels a relieved, wondering little grin quirking up the corners of his own lips. He did that. His open-mouth-insert-foot-never-say-the-right-thing moment made this bloke he would have to be blind not to call gorgeous, laugh.
Finally, Arthur manages to get a hold on his hilarity, and he straightens, turning to lean his back and elbows against the railing instead. Eying the long lines and planes of his body, Merlin swallows and licks his lips, a nervous gesture he may never be able to shake. Then he realizes Arthur's eyes have been tracking the movement of his tongue, and heat that has nothing to do with embarrassment travels through him.
"So, Merlin. Who are you really?" Arthur's voice comes out languid and easy, but there's still this sense of fascination, as though he truly wants to know, as though he's trying to figure Merlin out by sheer force of will.
In the face of that, how can Merlin even hope to play coy? Besides, he's not really Cinderella, he reminds himself. He can actually tell Prince Charming the truth. "I really wasn't lying earlier when I said I was nobody. I'm just a med student. I don't even know anyone here - my mum's the caterer."
Raising his eyebrows, Arthur asks, "And you decided to what... crash the wedding? Because I have to say, so far you're not doing a very good job."
"No, it's-" he breaks off and sighs, running a hand down the back of his neck. "According to my mum, I am lonely, and I need to get out more."
Observing him carefully, Arthur hazards, "Your mother's name, it's Hunith, right?"
"Wh- um. Yeah. You know her?" This is news. His mother hasn't mentioned being friends with any of the wedding party, but he supposes it could have slipped her mind.
Tilting his head, Arthur says, "Well, not exactly. But my sister dragged me on all the wedding planning events. I think it may have been some form of punishment for all the objections I made when the engagement was first announced. Anyway, I was the one who sampled most of the food - she didn't want it to go to her waist, of course. Have you seen that dress she's wearing? I'm surprised she can actually manage to breathe while she's in that thing. Your mother is lovely - she let me whinge to her about everything with the wedding and not having a date because of a nasty breakup. She actually mentioned something about me finding someone to enjoy the evening with. Has she ever asked you to come to one of the weddings she caters before?"
"No, this is definitely a first. I didn't even have a suit - I had to borrow this from my best mate," Merlin says, plucking at the waist of his sports jacket demonstratively. "The only reason I know anything about this place," and here, he pats his hand on the railing, "is because I used to work for my mother before I started Uni."
At this, Arthur gives Merlin this slow, warm grin and informs him, "I believe we've been set up."
This time when Merlin licks his lips, he isn't anything like nervous - he's fuzzy and hot and relieved and so many emotions he hasn't a care to try and name. He listens briefly to the music which filters out from the reception hall, holds out his hand, and asks, "May I have this dance?" because unlike Cinderella, he refuses to stand around and wait for Prince Charming to get off his rump and go after what he wants. Besides, if he does that, Prince Charming might decide to try a fast song, and Merlin has no delusions about how poorly that will go over - his two left feet are a menace to himself and the rest of society.
"You may," Arthur acquiesces, except that when he takes Merlin's hand and leads him into the center of the roof, it is Merlin whose arms wrap around Arthur's broad shoulders, Merlin who follows Arthur's lead. He presses in close and takes in the musky, mellow scent of his dance partner - surprisingly devoid of cologne, Arthur instead smells of coffee, deodorant, old paper - perhaps the kind found in books Merlin is always afraid to touch, lest they turn to dust in his hands, or possibly newspaper - and cinnamon. He thinks it wouldn't take much to become addicted to this combination of smells, thinks he might be in danger of it already.
Though they manage to continue for several more songs, Merlin pulls back and looks at Arthur in trepidation when the music picks up tempo. He doesn't want this closeness to end, but he also doesn't want to land flat on his arse.
Crooked smile reeling him in, Arthur asks Merlin, "Trust me?"
Tolkien help him, but he does.
His mum drops him off at his flat some time after 1:00am, and he stumbles in with this enormous, ridiculous grin on his face. Elena, whose reading glasses are perched on the top of her incredibly disarrayed hair - she's probably completely forgotten she put them there - glances up at him and observes, "You look happy."
Collapsing on the side of the couch not yet overtaken by her textbooks, library books, papers, and journal articles, along with the incredibly disorganized notebook her pen is currently poised over, Merlin declares, "You will not believe what happened to me tonight," and then gently retrieves her glasses from her golden bird's nest, passing them back.
"Oh, I'd been wondering about where those walked off to! Cheers." After putting her visual aides back where they belong, she asks, "So. What am I not going to believe?"
"I met this guy, and Elena, he danced with me All. Night. Long."
Even as he's saying it, Merlin isn't sure he believes the words, because his life just doesn't work that way. The last time he felt this way about a guy, they were friends with each other for years, and before he could work up the courage to do anything about it, his friend went off and joined the war effort in Iraq. The thought of Lance, already almost two years in the grave, momentarily removes the silly look of elation he has worn for most of the night, but then he sees clear blue eyes and crooked teeth and it is back every bit as full as before.
"Did you get his number?"
There's something infinitely wrong with the world when Elena has more sense than he does.
Swallowing dryly, he admits, "Well, no, actually. We sort of missed that part." How could he have failed to ask for something so vital as the avenue for their future communication? And Arthur had never actually offered - does that mean he wasn't as interested as he seemed? It doesn't sound possible, even in his panicked mind, because they had a wonderful time tonight, and there were dozens of little moments where he really thought Arthur was going to kiss him. Or was he waiting for Merlin to be the one, since he allowed Merlin to set the pace for their interactions for the night?
Elena looks at him with compassion and a bit of wry amusement for which Merlin cannot begrudge her. How is it that he always manages to land in these sorts of messes? "Go to bed, Merlin. You'll feel better about it in the morning." She grins at him brightly, then. "Gwaine is coming over to make breakfast for me before I have to go to work tomorrow - I bet he wouldn't mind making you something, too."
"No, that's okay, 'Lena. I'll probably sleep in since I don't have any classes until noon tomorrow." While he's glad his friends are so happy with each other, he doesn't really want to be bombarded with the manically joyful happy-couple vibes the two of them exude, especially at 7:00 in the morning. "Shouldn't you be in bed by now, since he's coming over so early?"
She smiles sheepishly and tells him, "That's one of the reasons he's coming over, actually. This," and she gestures at the chaos surrounding her, "is due tomorrow, which means I will be up for the rest of the night trying to get it done."
He winces. "Why, exactly, did we think becoming doctors was a good plan?"
"Because someone out there has to, and we're suckers for people in need?" He has nothing to say to that, really, so he drags himself up off of the couch, drops a kiss on her forehead, and heads to bed, pulling the different layers of Will's suit off as he goes. He collects the various pieces in his arms and plops them in a pile on his desk to fold - and probably iron - later, and then collapses into bed, too tired to contemplate brushing his teeth.
His head hits the pillow and he's out. If he dreams, he doesn't remember when he wakes to the buzzing sound of his mobile several hours later. There's a faint odor lingering in the house, and he sniffs a few times, identifying bacon, eggs, and what he thinks might be pancakes. The only thing he can hear right now, though, is his stupid communication device, which means Elena and Gwaine have already cleared out for the day.
Eyes still firmly shut, he reaches blindly for the imperious little piece of technology, pressing something simply so that he can get it to stop. He nuzzles his darling pillow for a little while, railing against the interruption of his slumber, but then he shifts onto his side and raises the blessedly silent device, peering at the words on its screen.
'Answer the door.'
That's all. There's no explanation, nothing. He checks the number listed and doesn't recognize it.
If Merlin were at all sensible, he would stay right where he is and call the police. He's not, though. His mother has despaired more than once of his lack of self-preservation skills. So instead of sitting tight and staying safe, he hauls himself out of bed and digs through the pile of mostly-clean laundry on his bedroom floor. He eventually settles for pulling on an incredibly wrinkled, but fairly decent-smelling Beatles t-shirt and the jeans he wore to class before changing into Will's suit yesterday.
When he finally reaches the door, he opens it with some small anxiety. That anxiety promptly leaves him, because standing on his doorstep, holding what looks like coffee and pastries, is, "Arthur?"
The accused gives him a slightly embarrassed grin before admitting, "Your mother gave me your number. And your address. Is... that alright?"
Merlin can't help it. He stares. "Is that -? Yeah, that's alright, that's - brilliant! Um, come on in. The place is a bit of a mess, but well, Elena and I are kind of messes, so. Yeah." He knows he's babbling, but he cannot seem to stop the effusion of words coming from his lips. This is so much better than being found because of the size of my feet.
Leading Arthur through into the kitchen, Merlin thanks him for bringing breakfast and then flutters about the room, excited and oddly nervous now that the initial high from seeing Arthur again has worn off. He stills when he feels Arthur approach him from behind, placing his hands on Merlin's hips and pulling him in. "Relax." There's soft laughter in Arthur's voice and warm breath on Merlin's neck, and this, right at this moment, is everything Merlin never realized until now that he wanted. He leans back and allows himself to let go of the jittery tension in his long limbs, breathing out slowly. After a moment, he turns around, feels Arthur's arms slide further around him, and their noses bumping together.
"Hi," he breathes, close enough that the word falls upon Arthur's upturned lips.
"Hi," he hears whispered back, and then, "I think I might have to kiss you, now."
"What about morning breath?" He could kick himself - how could he possibly say anything in this moment to deny himself what he has been thinking about since this man fixed his tie the night before?
Manifestly unconcerned, Arthur checks, "Is that your only objection?"
He has about a second to nod dumbly before warm, slightly chapped lips meet his own, and he spares a moment to think beat that, Cinderella, after which he thinks very little at all.
And then, they live.