The thing about Merlin is, well—he’s always been a bit clumsy. When he was toddling around on wobbly legs at two years old, knocking over pot-plants and tripping over the cat, onlookers only cooed while his mother would pet him and call him her precious “Bambi” and promise he’d catch his balance one day soon. That day hadn’t come: not at six, when his well-meaning mother had briefly lost her marbles and enrolled him in a ballet class to the chagrin of one very put-upon instructor; not during his stint playing youth footy in sixth year, when he’d found himself in and out of the emergency room so often that children’s services had started asking questions until his father had been pressured to pull him from the team; and certainly not when he’d hit adolescence and become nothing but gangly limbs and too-large feet. Now, at the ripe old age of nineteen, he has all but resigned himself to a life of gracelessness. Merlin may have grown into his body (with the lamentable exception of his ears) in recent years, but that same body refuses to adapt itself to the fact of gravity. It is as if his treacherous feet are forever convinced that the next time he finds himself flailing about like a madman, desperately struggling to regain his balance, he will not in fact land on his bum in a most undignified fashion.
With that understood, it comes as somewhat of a marvel to Merlin that his supervisor would dare assign him the task of decorating the enormous Christmas tree that the library had decided to place in one of the quiet study areas this year. Granted, he happens to be the only student worker between projects at the moment. But.
“This is going to be a disaster,” he says with a sigh as he looks at the tree over the top of an overflowing box of tinsel garlands. One long end of a particularly ratty garland slips down, nearly to the floor, when he attempts to adjust his grip, so naturally he manages to tangle one foot up in it when he moves to set the box down—and although he miraculously manages to catch his balance, the box ends up on its side, decorations spilling across the floor in a garishly obscene knot of shimmering silver and gold. A few stray ornaments roll across the floor, mocking. At least he hadn’t actually fallen or hurt himself. And nothing was broken. Yet.
Because his luck is just that terrible, one of the rolling ornaments chooses that very moment to hit the heavy metal base holding up the tree. And cracks.
“Oh, isn’t that just peachy,” he grumbles lowly, glowering.
“Not a very auspicious start there,” an amused voice calls out from one of the desks to Merlin’s right, startling him so badly that as he jerks around he trips himself on the bit of garland wrapped around his foot yet again. Only this time instead of spilling a box, he winds up sitting in one, cheeks burning with humiliation as he struggles to free himself from the ring of an oversized wreath. The young man who had startled him is positively shaking with laughter, face buried in his hands, so Merlin can’t distinguish any features aside from the fact that he’s very blond and very much a prat.
Huffing, Merlin jerks himself free, ascertains that he hasn’t crushed the wreath’s branches too badly, and sets about untangling the garlands while pointedly ignoring the choked sounds The One Who Will Henceforth Be Known As Prat continues to emit. It’s not like no one’s ever laughed at him before.
Eventually the prat quiets down and presumably returns to his studies, though Merlin can feel a watchful stare at his back when he cautiously approaches the tree armed with a length of newly-salvaged garland coiled loosely around one arm. Unable to help himself, he chances a glance over his shoulder and finds that yes, the prat is watching him—but rather than watching his back, that intent gaze seems to be fixated on his bottom. Jaw dropping a little, Merlin’s free hand shoots down to cover his bum in annoyance—and feels more than just the fabric of his trousers under his hand. Something is sticking to him. And he can well guess what it is.
Yanking the offending object free, his face flushes once again to find a bit of shiny red Christmas ribbon—tied into an intricate bow—in the palm of his hand. It’s the sort of ribbon that most people stick to gift boxes for added flair. And it had been sticking to his bum.
Merlin looks at the prat, who grins handsomely in return and winks.
Hissing through his teeth, Merlin crumples the ribbon in his fist, tosses it to the ground, and marches to the other side of the tree, where he will not be ogled by perverted idiot men who deserve to have their eyes gouged out with a blunt—
Bloody hell. He’s starting to sound like his sister. Morgana would be so proud.
It takes a few moments for his blood to cool and his embarrassment to ease, but he has a task to do and he’s not going to let some obnoxious student prevent him from doing as his supervisor had asked.
He can do this. Right. Piece of cake.
Now. Where to start? His mother always begins decorating from the top. Possibly because if she quickly decorates the upper portion of the tree, then he won’t be tempted to do so for her, which would inevitably result in him making a mess of the situation by leaning too far over on the step-stool and taking the whole tree down with him when he crashes to the floor like he did that one year, at Uncle Gaius’ house... Um. So.
Standing at about three and a half yards tall, this tree demands a full-blown ladder rather than a step-stool, which the maintenance crew has already procured from storage. It, uh, looks sturdy enough.
At least he doesn’t have to deal with the lights on top of everything else? Someone else had finished that earlier.
Wary, Merlin slings the coiled garland over one shoulder and pulls the ladder closer to the tree. Thankfully, as tall and full as it is, the tree is not especially broad at the base, so he’s able to angle the ladder in such a way that he should be able to weave the garland into the branches at the top without needing to move the ladder. The point at which the breadth of the tree becomes too wide to loop easily should be well within his reach from the (relative) safety of the floor.
The ladder shifts a little under his weight as he first climbs on, but settles quickly and doesn’t topple so he takes a deep breath, exhales slowly, and climbs until he reaches the top of the tree. Then, carefully, he grasps one end of the garland and sets to work. And by some miracle he manages to work his way through the first length of garland without incident. Sure, the ladder wobbles beneath him a few times when he leans over too far, but he reacts quickly enough that crisis is averted. And he’s able to finish weaving the second, third, and fourth lengths of garland mainly from the floor, so he can afford to lose himself in the monotony of the activity just a little.
He has to circle the tree several times as he works, but whenever he’s sure he won’t be caught he finds himself sneaking glances at the young man who’d teased him earlier. Prat though he may be, Merlin must grudgingly admit that the man is—well. Attractive. A fact that he had initially overlooked in light of his humiliation. Now that his feelings have calmed, it’s hard to miss the fact that the man is exactly Merlin’s type in appearance, if not in personality. Perfectly groomed blond hair that’s just long enough for a lover to sink fingers into. A handsome face straight out of a fashion magazine. And that body—the guy works out. He’s fit. Very fit. Um.
Okay, so Merlin’s type is way out of his league. Which is just as well. Because the guy is a prat. Obviously. Yes. So.
But it’s not as if admiring the view will hurt anything, will it? After all, it’s hardly Merlin’s fault that the man is a walking wet dream, with that strong, aristocratic jaw, that full, pink mouth, or those sinful lashes that are so coyly shielding his eyes from view as he reads the papers scattered across the desk in front of him. To make matters worse, he keeps wetting his chapped lips with his tongue in a motion that really shouldn’t be sexy at all, but makes Merlin shiver anyway.
Out of sheer desperation (after the fifth time the prat nearly catches him staring and he finally realizes exactly what sort of harm could come from admiring the view), Merlin takes a five minute break to catch a bit of fresh air and comes back armed with his secret weapon: a fully-loaded iPod nano. He’ll never live it down if he’s caught ogling the same fellow he’d been so distraught to find ogling him earlier, so he needs a distraction and his iPod will do nicely. He even selects his Christmas playlist, grinning as an old tune from the movie Muppet Family Christmas, a childhood favourite, fills his ears.
His plan works as he loses himself in carols, though he does have a few embarrassing moments when he realises he’s unconsciously humming along, thus earning a few odd looks from the prat that might have meant anything from fond humour to exasperation. But that’s still better than being a hypocritical ogler, so Merlin counts it as a win.
Soon enough Merlin finishes stage one of Operation Christmas Tree, secures the last bit of garland between two entwined branches, and starts rummaging through the boxes for the ornaments. Because he’s not exactly in a hurry to climb back up on the ladder, this time he starts at the bottom and works his way up.
A half hour later finds Merlin taking a box of ornaments under his arm and ascending the ladder once more.
Up to this point Merlin has managed not to break any ornaments (that first one doesn’t count!) or, more importantly, any bones. The next five minutes sees three ornaments shattered on the floor and Merlin nearly topple backward twice. “Oh, God,” Merlin says, wide-eyed as he clutches the sides of the ladder after his second brush with disaster, breathing harsh with shock. Things had been going so well! “I’m going to—”
“You’re going to get yourself killed, is what you’re going to do!” A pair of large hands grasp at his waist from behind, unbidden, and Merlin jerks at the touch, twisting his body around without thinking. And then he’s clinging to nothing, falling.
Only he doesn’t hit the floor.
Instead Merlin finds himself nose-to-nose and chest-to-chest with the prat (who, apparently, is also a complete idiot), two muscular arms wrapped bracingly around him, keeping him upright—or as upright as possible considering the fact that his feet are jutting out behind him, hooked awkwardly over the fourth rung of the ladder. God. He could have— This could have ended very badly. The fall wouldn’t have killed him. But.
“Easy, there. It’s okay,” says the man, at which point Merlin realizes that he might actually be hyperventilating. And possibly clinging like a frightened girl. Just a little. The man has blue eyes like he’s never seen before, Merlin can’t help but notice, even through his panicky haze. They’re sort of pretty. “I’ve got you.”
And that snaps Merlin out of his shocked stupor.
“You’ve got me?” Merlin snarls, undergoing some impressive manoeuvring so as to plant his (somewhat unsteady) feet on floor where they belong. Narrowing his eyes, Merlin glares and shoves free of the prat’s unwelcome embrace, ignoring the way the other young man’s expression shifts from kindly to hurt in an instant. “That’s rather the problem, don’t you think? What the hell were you thinking, grabbing me like that all of a sudden? Your stupidity nearly saw my head cracked upon!”
“What?” the prat says, incredulous. “I saved you!”
“I was perfectly fine before you intervened!”
“Oh, yes,” the prat retorts, blond head bobbing sarcastically, “if by perfectly fine you mean about to break your head like one of those damn ornaments! I admit, I thought your clumsiness was cute at first, but who the hell had the bright idea of putting someone as accident-prone as you on a ladder with a bunch of glass balls and no spotter? Continue on as you have been and you’re going to get hurt!”
“You think I’m cute?” Merlin repeats dumbly, latching on to the most ridiculous part of that speech before shaking his head and forging quickly onward. “Why do you even care?”
The prat’s face goes becomingly red, though with embarrassment or with annoyance Merlin can’t be sure. “What kind of jerk do you think I am? Maybe I don’t know you, but that’s hardly reason enough for me to want to see you break your neck! I only wanted to help you, offer to put up the last of the ornaments. I swear, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Merlin studies his feet guilty. Perhaps he’d judged this man unfairly. Certainly he’d overreacted. The man had meant well, for all that he had gone about things rather unwisely. “I’m sorry,” he says, meeting the man’s gaze with a tentative smile. “I—er... Thanks for... I mean, if you...”
“I think we may have gotten got off to the wrong start,” the man interrupts with an answering smile, expression going soft. He holds out his right hand, which Merlin takes, and they shake hands in greeting. “I’m Arthur.”
Arthur (who possibly was not a prat after all) beams happily—and it really should be illegal for anyone to be that good looking. “Nice to meet you, Merlin. Now, why don’t you let me help you finish things up.” It’s not a suggestion.
“You can stand at the base of ladder and make sure I don’t fall.” Arthur’s tone leaves no room for argument. Normally Merlin would take offence to being bossed around like this, but he has to admit that Arthur has a point. He’s had a few too many close-calls today for his own peace of mind. If this man he’s just met wants to help, then Merlin would be a fool not to let him. (Also, this would give Merlin the perfect excuse to admire Arthur’s bum, which he fancies might look a lot better with a bow sticking to it than his own. A man of Arthur’s build ought to have a very nice bum.)
So Arthur climbs the ladder and, when he notices Merlin shifting uneasily below, he passes down the box of ornaments that had been precariously balanced on one of the upper rungs and instructs him to pass up the ornaments one-by-one as needed—for efficiency's sake, of course. And nobody falls. (Though Merlin’s knees do go a little weak when he sees that, yes, Arthur's bum is very nice indeed. Also, Arthur cannot possibly be wearing any pants under those tight trousers. Um. Guh.)
All too soon, the tree is finished and looking fabulous. The lights flicker prettily off the silver and gold of the garlands and glittery glass bobbles. The angel at the top is smiling sweetly down at them, her arms spread wide in joyous revelry.
“Well,” Arthur says, stepping off the ladder to stand beside Merlin, admiring their handiwork. “That’s... it then.”
“Yeah,” Melin agrees, feeling—oddly despondent. “I guess so.”
“I should... Get back to my studies. Exams are coming soon.”
“Yeah. I mean, of course. And I should... I should see what else my supervisor needs me to do today. And tell him I found his missing wreath.” Merlin’s lips quirk a little wryly as he indicates the large battered box he’d fallen into earlier.
And that’s that. Merlin turns, intending to begin bundling the newly empty boxes for storage, but Arthur’s hand on his arm stops him.
“Wait,” Arthur says, and Merlin does, butterflies fluttering in his belly (and, what, is he twelve?) as he nervously meets the earnest gaze of his— His what? His new friend? His temporary co-worker? Arthur isn’t really anything to him, not really. They’ll probably never see each other again after today.
“Uh, do you— Do you need something?”
“Can I buy you dinner?” Arthur blurts, flushing instantly, but he doesn’t avert his gaze or release his gentle hold on Merlin’s arm. He’s asking Merlin on a date. And he’s serious about it.
“Er. What? Really? You want to... With me?” Merlin can’t hide his astonishment. Why would someone as handsome as Arthur want to take someone as troublesome and plain as him out to dinner? He’s nothing special.
“Yes, of course. You do eat, don’t you?”
“Well, ah. Yeah. But—” Merlin broke off, wondering why he’s arguing when a date is exactly what he wants. He doesn’t really know Arthur very well, but he rather suspects he could really come to like him given half the chance. Plus, if he tells Gwen that he’s got a date with a guy this hot, she’ll expire of jealousy. “I would love to have dinner with you. Though you should really let me buy—as thanks, you know. For not letting me break my neck.”
“No way!” Arthur says with a laugh, clearly pleased. “I asked first. If you really want to make it up to me, you can pay next time.” He says next time like he absolutely, positively, beyond all doubt knows that there will be a second date. The confidence in that statement takes Merlin off guard.
“I, uh— Yeah. Okay.”
“Good. When do you finish your shift?” Merlin tells him, and Arthur promises to meet him at the east-side exit. And that should have been it, but just before they part Arthur slyly leans in to steal a hasty close-mouthed kiss and one last admonishment: “Don’t you fantasize about me so much that you let it distract you from important activities such as navigating the stacks without tripping over your feet. If we have to cancel our date because you’ve gone and done yourself harm, I shall be very vexed.”
“Shut up!” Merlin sputters, making a swat at him, but Arthur dances out of his reach—and topples right into the wreath box. Arthur is stunned. Merlin laughs so hard he cries.
If they do survive the first date and make it to a second, evidently they are going to be truly awful influences on one other. It’s going to be brilliant.