When Arthur Pendragon meets Merlin Emrys, it's annoyance at first sight. Filming has just begun for the first episode, and Arthur is finishing up his introductory voiceover. "Tasteful, modern and streamlined, with a classic elegance," he says, finishing a well-rehearsed description of his personal design aesthetic. Seriously, he's been doing it for weeks in the bathroom mirror, with different facial expressions and sometimes hand gestures. Then, "Oomph," he adds, because someone has just bowled him over. It's only Arthur's extreme natural grace that prevents him from causing serious damage to a lot of expensive equipment.
"Oh, sorry, sorry!" he hears from behind him, and he turns around to glare at his assailant. He's a man of probably about Arthur's age, tall and thin with milky pale skin, and his hair is dark and very soft-looking. Despite his apparent propensity for knocking Arthur over, he's strangely endearing. It takes him a moment of what is probably completely rude staring, but then Arthur abruptly remembers that he's on a reality show that capitalizes on gay angst and cuts off the once-over to stick his hand out in greeting.
"Arthur Pendragon," he says politely, omitting both automatic annoyance and the unrelated casual interest from his voice.
"Merlin Emrys," the other man answers, and his voice is irritatingly earnest. "That really was an accident, not trying to sabotage you or anything," he says, laughing weakly.
"Yeah, that's not really amusing," Arthur replies, unsure whether or not he's joking.
"Room them together," he hears one of the producers saying gleefully, and Arthur just barely manages to hold in his groan. So much for tastefulness. Launching his career, he reminds himself, Bryant Park. So that's how he meets Merlin Emrys.
The first official event is a miserable champagne toast on the roof of their apartment complex. Lancelot looks like his hair has been held in place against the cutting wind with heavy machinery, and that's true of his smile, too, as he repeats his opening lines from a number of flattering angles. It's way too cold for this, the air chill and the wind buffeting them all back and forth as the sun weakly sets behind the city skyline. The only person who looks remotely collected is Gaius, who's standing beside Lancelot in a perfectly tailored suit, and man, his hair really is as insane as it looks on television. He's a design genius, though, so Arthur writes it off as eccentricity.
Lancelot is spending his time between takes ogling the contestants like so much fresh meat, and Arthur wonders briefly whether or not Lance ever dallies with the contestants. He's just the host, it's not like he has any actual power. He's a male model, for god's sake. Everyone starts mingling, once Lancelot's lines have been successfully delivered, and Merlin crosses Arthur's path, shyly shaking hands with Gaius before turning to return Lancelot's smile. Arthur feels irrationally annoyed at the way he lights up at Lancelot's questions about his style of design.
"Earthy stuff," Merlin says happily. "Lots of neutrals and soft natural fabrics."
Arthur knocks back another glass of champagne.
The first challenge is the usual show who you are as a designer one, and Arthur's streamlined tea dress does well. Merlin gets through too, on a surprisingly tasteful tunic and shorts. A quietly intense woman named Gwen wins the challenge, and Arthur has to admit, her knot-worked coat is deserving of praise.
Back at the apartment, they're filmed moving into their rooms, even though they've actually already been assigned them by the producers. Arthur is roomed up with Merlin, as well as a snarky hipster named Zach and a quiet guy with an unfortunate buzz cut named Chris. Zach wastes no time in mixing himself a monstrous cosmo in a huge glass with a twisted stem, and he sprawls out onto his bed without spilling a drop of it, not even trying to hide the appraising glance that he passes over everyone before returning to linger on Chris.
"Good job tonight," Chris tells Zach, and he appears to be oblivious to the attention. His words are weirdly sincere, given that he's a bit of a joker in the workroom. He's right, though. Zach's dress was an elaborate mass of carefully constructed pleats, but he somehow managed to make it look completely easy and natural.
"You too, baby," Zach says brightly, and leans over to stage whisper to Arthur, "He's cute, right?"
"Um," Arthur says. He's good at lots of kinds of social interactions, but this isn't one of them. He's never been able to master this sort of easy camaraderie with people he doesn't know, and though he's used to coming across as stiff and awkward, it's still embarrassing. He's panicking, trying to figure out what to say that will make him seem cool but not smarmy, but before he can decide on anything, Merlin cuts in.
"Bedtime, yeah?" He says, leaning down into his pillow. He's laying on his side, his body making a neat line of cotton and denim, and he looks impossibly tall. "Producers said we've got an early call tomorrow." Chris agrees, also sounding somewhat relieved, and the light goes out almost immediately after that. Arthur thinks he catches a glimpse of Merlin's smile, just before the room goes dark.
They're woken up at 4.30 for the challenge, so the camera people can get lots of shots of everyone drinking coffee and (Zach) constructing elaborate and weatherproof hairstyles. Outside, it's the sort of crisp chill that promises to give way to a mild afternoon, and Arthur pulls his wool coat closer around himself, enjoying the bite of the morning air.
Gaius meets them in central park, imposing despite the questionable hair. "Designers," he says in that teacherly voice he has, "This challenge is about using your environment for more than just inspiration," he intones. "You can use anything you see around you, but be respectful of the wildlife and don't destroy any natural habitats."
Right, Arthur thinks, loping off toward a tree that's dropping spring blossoms everywhere. He can already see one of the designers breaking off living tree-branches in the distance. Environmentalists are going to love this.
That afternoon, the workroom is in chaos. Zach is washing litter and laying it out to dry on every available surface, and Nimue's freaking everyone out by singing a grounding chant to her silk charmuse. She's got an abandoned birds-nest that she's planning to use as a hat, so everyone's feeling pretty happy with their own designs. It's no guarantee, though. The producers love their contestants with a side of crazy, and that may be enough to keep her safe for a few episodes.
In the end, Zach's trash dress wins, with Morgana, Uther, Lancelot, and the guest judge in agreement that it's stunning. Arthur's flower dress ends up in the top three, and although Lancelot and the guest judge love it, Uther calls it reminiscent of Austin Scarlett. That sort of ruins Arthur's victory, because Uther hated Austin.
"Don't be pissy," Zach says later. He's lounging around in a towel, and it's almost obscene given how tall he is, really more of a handkerchief than a legitimate form of covering. Chris is huddled under his blankets with a hardcover novel held up in front of his face like a shield, but he keeps sneaking glances at Zach's exposed torso, which Zach is obviously completely aware of. "Austin was a genius," he says. His abs tense up beautifully (and totally intentionally) as he leans over to grab his usual swirly cosmo, and Chris makes a sound that is nothing short of an audible gulp. Yeah, he's done for.
"I thought your dress was beautiful," Merlin offers from across the room. He's in well-worn cotton, as usual, and he looks incredibly soft and touchable for someone so thin. He's stretched out across the bed, leaning against the headboard, and he's holding a glass of water. His hand looks long and almost delicate, each bone and joint clearly defined as he takes a slow sip.
Arthur nods in thanks. He remembers he was vaguely annoyed by Merlin upon meeting him, but somehow in the dim closeness of the room it's really hard to remember why. "Your dress was good too," he says gruffly, after a long moment, and Merlin's thank you is as sweet and warm as the rest of him looks.
The next few challenges fly by. It's always stressful, but Arthur only ends up in the bottom once, and when he does, there's not much question that Edwin's going to go home before he does. His tailoring is atrocious, and Arthur gets off with a recommendation to loosen up, which is probably pretty accurate.
Merlin also ends up in the bottom once, and Arthur finds that he really doesn't like it. It's a strange feeling, since he's directly competing with Merlin and one of them's going to have to go home before the other, but Arthur's fists stay tightly clenched until Merlin comes backstage, looking weary and beaten down but not yet defeated. Arthur wills himself to relax, and Zach drops a hand briefly on his shoulder. He doesn't say anything, but he leaves it there for a second before returning to trying to clamber into Chris' lap, and Arthur's kind of pleased by it.
Somehow, it's down to just six of them, now, and they're doing a team challenge. It's nothing particularly unusual, teams of two designing a day look and a corresponding night look, but Arthur likes it. It's strong, and it's a classic.
Chris won the last challenge, and though there's no more immunity, he gets first choice of partners. It's not really a huge shock when he chooses Zach, although their styles are vastly different. Nobody wants to put up with an entire workday of Zach pouting, and he really is a strong designer. They'll probably work well together. Zach bounds across the workroom to Chris, saying, "Thank you baby," and crushing him in a hug that lasts way too long for propriety.
They only separate when Gaius says, "Focus, people," and raises the eyebrow of doom. Chris looks cowed, but Zach just smirks.
Gaius says his usual lame line about pulling the rest of the names from a hat, and then Merlin is shyly saying, "I'd like to work with Arthur." He looks up, a little surprised, and steps forward, awkwardly shaking Merlin's hand before taking his place beside him. Merlin just grins.
"Okay," Gaius says. "That leaves Leon and Cedric. Make it work, people!"
Merlin is technically the team leader, but he lets Arthur do his own sketch for the daytime look. Arthur works quickly, his idea already clear in his mind. The look is simple but strong, well-made separates that look very expensive but will actually be quite affordable. He adds in a decorative stitching detail that he thinks will make even Uther drool.
Merlin leans over him to look at the sketch, pencil caught between his teeth. The brush of his t-shirt is soft against Arthur's forearm, and he smells good, a weirdly pleasant combination of soap and coffee. "This is beautiful," he says quietly, "But it looks a bit stiff. May I?" He steadies himself on the table, one arm crossed over Arthur's, and plucks the pencil out from between his teeth with his free hand. Arthur nods, and Merlin ghosts a few lines over Arthur's design, his hand quick and sure against the sketchbook. "See," he murmurs, "If you make it a bit flowier here It'll look much more free, and you'll still have the structure in the skirt that makes it work appropriate. What do you think?"
Merlin is very warm beside him, and for a moment Arthur thinks about how easy it would be to pull him into his lap. "It's a great idea," he says, blinking, and wonders where the hell that came from. Merlin's honest, open smile really doesn't help.
They work well together. At Mood, they quickly, efficiently gather the supplies they need, and they're in complete agreement about fabric choices and colors. Merlin is a very good leader, competent and well organized and just the right combination of strong and kind. He lays their supplies out in neat piles, and they start cutting out their mock-ups together, seated side by side in the workroom. They don't talk much, but it isn't awkward, just pleasant.
Gaius comes by in the early evening, trailed by a flurry of cameras and people holding various make-up brushes. He stops off first by Chris and Zach, who are somehow managing to make velvet look good by using it for a surprisingly tasteful, well-structured look with interesting military inspiration. Gaius says something sage about fit and editing, and Zach sasses him a little as he heads off to talk to Leon and Cedric. Gaius kindly pretends not to see that Chris and Zach's hands are brushing on the worktable, and that neither of them has pulled away.
Cedric is frankly one of the most horrifying people Arthur has ever met. He's already had four crying fits on camera, about missing his (equally horrifying) boyfriend, being in the bottom two, hating the décor in his room, and how he never felt appreciated as a designer before. He's not a terribly inspired designer, and it's clear that the producers are just keeping him around for the drama. Leon, on the other hand, has already been nicknamed the Daniel Vosovic of this season, sweet and quiet but always delivering beautifully constructed pieces. Them working together is awful, because Cedric's the team leader and Leon is quietly trying to make his looks into something that won't make the judges apoplectic. Gaius lets loose the eyebrow of doom on them, and says a lot of ominous things like, "That's a lot of look," and "This is a design competition, not a craft fair." Leon nods and looks suitably nervous, and Cedric flounces off to have another one-on-one with the camera.
"And how are Arthur and Merlin today?" Gaius asks, and he's seriously the only person in the world who could ever refer to Arthur like that and live to tell of it. Merlin purses his lips and frowns at his dressform.
"We're doing well, but I'm a little worried about the line of this jacket."
Gaius steps back to take a look at the silhouette. He's quiet for a long moment, and then he says, slowly, "I don't think you need to worry. You two ought to be incredibly proud. I see both of you in this design, and you balance each other out beautifully."
"Oh," Merlin says, and blushes. "Thanks." Arthur feels suspiciously red, too, although he's hoping nobody will notice.
"Arthur, you're all red," Zach shouts from across the room, and laughs uproariously at Arthur's glower. Chris shoots him an apologetic look, but he waves it away. Gaius did just pay them an amazing compliment.
"Thanks," he manages, nodding to Gaius, and he totters off with a few parting remarks about managing their time wisely.
"Designers," he adds, "I'm sending in your models."
Merlin wins the challenge, and Arthur's starting to know for sure that there's something wrong with him, because he isn't at all upset about coming in second. Merlin really deserved the win, and the way he looked, flushed and grinning as Uther cracked a tiny smile and Morgana shook his hand, is something that Arthur would like to see way more often. He was lively, happy and animated, while still maintaining his his usual brand of effusive politeness. Somehow, Merlin always appears genuine, although it seems impossible that anyone could be so nice.
Chris and Zach's look is strong, but somehow they still end up being interrogated along with Leon and Cedric. They're praying for Cedric to go, but in the end it's Chris who's sent home, in one of those twists that the producers just love. The judges accuse Chris of giving in too much to Zach's vision, which is not only untrue but also a far more fitting critique of Cedric, and everyone's faces are tight and unhappy backstage.
"It's fine," Chris says afterward, "I'm fine, really."
Everybody expects an explosion from Zach, but he just gets up and very calmly hands Chris the keys to his Brooklyn apartment. "One more challenge until the hiatus," he says smoothly. "Will I see you there, baby?"
Chris looks totally flabbergasted, but when he says, "Yeah, yeah you will," his voice is warm and happy. Zach pulls him into a kiss right there, messing up the camera angles and not even posing at all, and when Gaius strides into the room for his condolence lines, he nearly bowls them over. The eyebrow is out in full force, but he looks faintly pleased as he tells Chris to go get packed up.
Later, after they're done shooting for the day and only a single camera person is still trailing around after them for the apartment shots, Cedric corners Zach and starts a speech about how sorry he is about Chris.
"Somebody get this guy off me before I go all America's Next Top Model on his ass," Zach says, and while his tone is flippant, his whole body is tense with rage, and well, there's that drama after all. The producers are practically weeping with joy, Arthur's certain.
"Come on," Arthur says to Zach, pushing carefully between them. "You can make me a cosmo."
"Ooh!" Zach says, and the catastrophe is averted, at least for the time being.
"I feel bad," Zach says later, in the smallest voice Arthur's ever heard come from him. They're all in bed and the lights are already out, but nobody's sleeping.
"Why?" Arthur asks lamely, but before he can say anything too uncomforting, Merlin is crossing the room to perch on Arthur's bed, leaning forward to look at Zach.
"It's not your fault," he says, and his voice is soft but strong. He's hunched forward, and Arthur can see the fine lines of his shoulderblades through his threadbare shirt. He looks like he should be cold, but he isn't shivering. Arthur still has to resist the urge to wrap his comforter around Merlin's narrow shoulders.
"Look," Merlin continues, and he bows his head, looking forward to intersect Zach's downcast gaze, "We all know that was bullshit, and Chris is an amazing designer. He totally wasn't overpowered by you."
"Maybe he was," Zach says mournfully, rubbing his hand over his eyes. "I can be overwhelming. I'm aware of that."
"No," Merlin says, his voice warm and personal. It makes Arthur's chest constrict, hearing Merlin sound that way when he's talking to someone other than him, and the sudden burst of jealousy shocks him. "Look," he says, "Chris is a strong person, too. You're not too much for him. Or for any of us. You're just right." He reaches out a steadying hand, but for some reason it ends up on Arthur's leg instead of Zach's, which is confusing once Arthur is able to stop hyperventilating and sort of nervously enjoy it. "Just right," Merlin says again, softly, and now it's unclear who he's talking to.
"Thanks," Zach says, so quietly that it's almost a whisper.
The bed feels cold and too large once Merlin finally gets up.
Cedric goes home at the last challenge, leaving Merlin, Arthur, Zach and Leon as the top four. They'll all be creating collections for fashion week, and since everyone except Leon is based in New York, they trade phone numbers before leaving to begin their collections. Two hours later, Zach sends Arthur a pic message of Chris standing in what must be the doorway of Zach's apartment, and Arthur wades through the accompanying sea of emoticons and various punctuation to conclude that this has repaired Zach's mood completely.
That evening, Arthur's back in his apartment, pouring himself a drink and staring at the long tables of his workroom. He has a converted studio, big and stark and with plenty of floorspace, and it's honestly rather overwhelming, looking at it all and trying to imagine it filled with his collection. He stares off into space for a while, slowly relaxing, until his phone starts jangling in his pocket, jolting him back to reality.
He answers it unthinkingly, fumbling to connect before the call ends.
"Hey. It's Merlin."
He sits up a little straighter, clasping the arm of his chair with a tight, nervous grasp. "Hey. You home?"
He hears an intake of breath, what could almost be a chuckle. "Yeah. I always forget how tiny it is. It seems cozy until I need to actually move around in here. Hemming's a nightmare. Don't get me started on cutting long yardages."
"Oh," Arthur says carefully, and then decides, better to not think about his dialogue in advance at all. "I have a huge workroom," he says abruptly. "It's kind of lonely, actually." Lonely, really? He asks himself, wincing. Merlin doesn't seem to think it sounds awkward, though.
"Are you asking for company?" He asks, sounding pleased. "Because I'd love to work with you. We could do critiques and stuff."
"Yeah," Arthur says. "That sounds great. You could come over tomorrow and get set up? I'll text you my address."
"Okay," Merlin says, "Great."
"Right," Arthur says. "Guess I'll see you tomorrow, then?"
Now he's sure he hears Merlin chuckle, but all he says is, "Yeah, goodnight."
"Goodnight," Arthur echoes and he keeps the phone against his ear long after he hears Merlin disconnect, taking a long swallow of his drink. It isn't until he's in bed and half-asleep that he realizes Merlin never said why he'd called.
The break goes by quickly, a flurry of the various frustrations of sketches, pattern-making, and mockups. Merlin is there most days, too, a quiet, solid presence on the other side of the work-room. They've agreed to stay apart until they've got their basic ideas solidified, lest they influence one another too much.
Once they've both finished the brainstorming part of their collections and have moved on to actual construction, they talk more, and Arthur slowly starts to relax. His usual way of interacting with attractive men is to be horribly awkward and nervous, but it's actually really hard when Merlin is being so sweet and warm and calm. Somehow, Merlin grounds Arthur in a way that nobody ever has before, allowing him to laugh and talk freely and get his work done with a shocking lack of self-hatred. It doesn't exactly make design easy, nothing does, but it helps.
Gaius visits them about halfway through the break, and tut-tuts ambiguously over various elements of their collections. One of Arthur's slip dresses gets the eyebrow, as well as one of Merlin's tunics, but all in all, things go well for both of them, and afterward, they all follow Merlin to a dingy coffeeshop for amazing espresso, then wander around a few used bookstores while Merlin keeps an easy flow of conversation. Afterward, they have plates of hummus and tabouleh at a smoky, dimly lit restaurant, and though Gaius spends a lot of time making sure his suit still looks perfectly pressed, he seems to enjoy himself. He's seated beside Arthur, and Arthur can almost pretend it's just himself and Merlin out to dinner when he looks straight ahead. Merlin's eyelashes look very long in the wavery candlelight.
After that, things start to get crazy again. They spend all their waking hours working, only stopping to eat quick meals at the tiny corner of Arthur's apartment that isn't covered in fabric and notions. They work until they're falling asleep at the tables, and some days Merlin stays over, sleeping on the couch and getting up before Arthur to put on the coffee so they can keep going. Arthur finds himself growing already accustomed to those days, hoping to find Merlin dozing in his living room or knocking around in the kitchen when he staggers out of bed, and fighting the deep ache of disappointment on the days when he wakes up to find that he's alone in the apartment. He doesn't have much time to think about his obvious growing interest in Merlin, though, and before long they're back at Parson's.
Zach is in very good humor when they return, even more energetic than usual as he trots around applying trims and fitting pouty models. "See this look?" he says, pointing at his face, "This is the look of a well-fucked man, okay people?"
They all laugh, even the omnipresent producers, who are muttering about how much of that sentence can be aired.
After that, things are a blur. Arthur had thought he'd had things entirely under control, but in the last few days, an impossible number of things go wrong, including missing models, mysterious rips and various fit issues. It's true of all of them, though, and by the end, even Leon is tense and irritable, almost entirely silent.
On the night of the show, they all wait backstage, watching the chaos of one another's preparations. Gaius is running circles around all of them, shouting things like, "Designers, this is unprecedented, and not in a good way!" and, "I need everyone here ten minutes ago!" Nobody's really listening, though, because it's finally done, and they're finally here.
Zach's show is first, and they can hear his bellowed "Hello bitches!" from their positions behind all the sound-cancelling set walls and curtains. "This is for my baby," Zach concludes, and then his show begins, a parade of the intricate detail work and casual grace that has defined him since the beginning, set to some insane technopop that perfectly sums up his personality. He's in fine form himself, in the tightest jeans Arthur thinks he's ever seen, along with what he himself described as fierce black leather ankle boots and a misleadingly casual plaid shirt. The hair is on a level of its own, possibly erected with small scaffolds and gorilla glue. In short, he looks like Zach.
Merlin is next, friendly and polite in a slim suit, and his collection looks soft and pretty under the lowered lights, all nature-toned and gently swaying. Then it's Leon, whose collection is full of modern shapes and excellent tailoring, and finally Arthur finishes the show with the line that he's torn his hair out over for months. It's a shock, seeing it all moving on his models, and he's completely happy with it. He can see Merlin in it, too, in the little subtle touches that he never would have thought to add if Merlin hadn't helped him to relax, and Arthur manages to smile in a completely genuine manner when he follows his last model out at the end of the show. No matter what, he decides, he's pleased with how far he's come, and it fills him with an odd confidence.
He pulls Merlin aside once they're all back in the holding room. "Listen," he says quietly, "I don't know what's going to happen out there, but I've never worked as well as when I was partnered with you, and maybe, uh," he finishes in a rush, "Maybe you could think about starting a joint line with me."
"Oh," Merlin says, "Yeah," and his lips quirk into a grin. "I'd love that. Wow, yes, definitely." It sounds almost casual, but his expression is delighted, open and honest and happy.
"Okay," Arthur says, exhaling in rush of relief. "Let's go see who won this thing."
It's Zach, and it doesn't hurt at all, losing to him. Yeah, the money would have been nice, but Merlin reaches out and grabs his hand just before the results are announced, and he doesn't let go even after they find out neither of them has won, just holds it tighter. In a way, it's a relief, because it would have been awkward if one of them had won but not the other, but Arthur has a hard time thinking about even that. He's pretty focused on the warm pressure of Merlin's fingers, wrapped around his own.
Zach drags Chris into a big, sloppy kiss as soon as the results are announced, and he doesn't let go of him at any point after that, during his final interview, his congratulations by the judges, or the reception after the last bit of filming is completed. They look bright and happy, tucked closely together and half swaying in place as they talk to various b-list celebrities and contestants' family members. Arthur drinks a glass of champagne and watches them work the room, tired and overwhelmed, but still basically happy. He's going to work with Merlin, maybe see him every day. It isn't exactly what he wants, but it's still amazing.
Zach finds him toward the end of the evening. He's still wrapped around Chris, which has become somewhat dangerous now that they're both beyond tipsy. "Go find Merlin, you dumbass," Zach says. "Kiss the hell out of him, okay? I wanna see some nasty tongue action, or I'm going in there myself and I'm gonna make you."
"Um," Arthur says. "Wouldn't Chris be mad about that?"
"It's for a good cause," Chris says lazily. "You heard him, get lost. But hey, dinner at Zach's next week, I'm cooking."
"Zach's a bad influence on you," Arthur says sulkily, but he goes, calling back, "And yes to dinner."
He finds Merlin outside, sitting on a concrete step and looking up at the lights of the cityscape. "Hey," he says, sitting down next to him. It's cool out, and Arthur doesn't feel too guilty about sitting close enough that their trousers brush. "You okay?"
"Absolutely," Merlin says, and turns to grin at him. "Just thinking about how good things are. So many great possibilities opening up, you know?"
"Yeah," Arthur says, and then, before he can regret it, adds, "I'm going to kiss you now, okay?"
Merlin could easily mock him for that, but he just smiles. "I'd like that," he says quietly, and turns toward Arthur. His eyes are dark and warm, luminous in the streetlamp lit night.
It seems like it should be a monumental thing to close the distance between them, but it isn't, and then they're kissing, soft and slow and champagne flavored. Merlin rests his hands on Arthur's forearms, gently soothing, and the last of the tension flows out of him, replaced with something that goes far deeper than affection and stains Arthur's cheeks red. "I'm glad I'm going to be working with you," he admits quietly, "And I'm glad about this too. Want to show me your cozy apartment?"
"Yeah," Merlin says, and it's that voice that Arthur wants to keep all for himself, finally directed at him. "Yeah, I really do."