They were about to run out of cheese nibblies and Gwen couldn't figure out where Merlin had hidden the rest of the food. She knew it had to be in the house somewhere, because she had seen his car before he unloaded the party supplies, and there had definitely been a lot more food in it than all the guests could have consumed in the last fifteen minutes. Or so she hoped – Vivian had gone through a suspicious amount of chicken and Gwen wasn't sure she was actually eating it so much as hiding it in the bin, just because that was the sort of thing that was most likely to cause Gwen to have a nervous breakdown at the moment.
That was an ungenerous thought. Gwen didn't really think any of her guests were deliberately out to sabotage her, even the ones who had sworn undying love to her fiancé and had to take a world cruise to recover from the relationship. She didn't, really. If they were out to sabotage her, then surely her best friend wouldn't have invited them to her hen night along with all of her fiancé's other ex-girlfriends, because Merlin was her best friend, and he wanted her to be happy, and he would never deliberately do something like surround her with women she barely knew except as Arthur's ex-girlfriends if they all hated her. And if he were to do something like that, just by accident, then at least he would provide enough food to keep them from getting hungry and possibly thinking about eating Gwen at her own hen night, which was how she knew there had to be more cheese nibblies somewhere in this house.
It was, just barely, possible that Gwen was having a complete meltdown. She picked her way past the sofas dominated by Morgana and her sister, who were having a competition to see how many of the straight girls they could make out with before the alcohol set in and took all the challenge out of it. Merlin had taken over the loveseat in the corner with the girl he had met the week before and decided he wanted to run away to Ireland with as soon as the wedding was over. Gwen was pretty sure he'd promised to wait until after the wedding.
"Where's the rest of the food?" she asked the entwined couple, and then had to repeat it loudly when it didn't carry over the sound of frantic kissing.
"Mm, aah, wha–?" Merlin said, coming up for air with a dazed look on his face.
The doorbell rang and Gwen abandoned Merlin to his fate. She took the long way around to avoid the le Fay orgy in the sitting room, only to run into Sophia and Nimueh in the kitchen instead. They were bent over a pot on the stove, Nimueh muttering insistently and Sophia stirring its contents slowly with a long, carved wooden spoon that Gwen was quite sure hadn't come from her pantry. She decided that it was very nice of them to brew some extra tea and that she wasn't at all thirsty, herself.
She almost made it to the door without tripping over any of her guests, but then Merlin's wedding present got underfoot – it was a dog that looked just like the statue they'd had stolen from their drive, but Gwen tried not to think about that too much, as it just gave her a headache – and Gwen went flying headfirst at the door. Fortunately the person waiting at the door had chosen that moment to try the door for themselves, and instead of gaining a concussion, Gwen went sailing straight through the open doorway and fell into the waiting arms of a fireman. She had about five seconds to be horrified about running – literally – into one of Arthur's coworkers before she recognized the face beneath the helmet.
"Lancelot?" she gasped, half in surprise, and half because she'd just had the wind knocked out of her.
"Guinevere?" he asked, in at least equal disbelief. He helped her get back onto her feet.
"What are you doing here?" they asked each other at the same time, and laughed.
"Who is it?" someone called out from the sitting room, and Morgana called out, "fresh meat!" and stumbled out into the foyer, looking dishevelled.
"Oh, it's only the male stripper," she said disappointedly, and then, "haven't we met? Did you do Arthur's bachelor party as well?" She wandered off again without waiting for a reply. Back in the living room, Gwen could hear her complaining to Merlin, "You promised me equal representation! What am I supposed to do while the pretty boy dances?"
Merlin apparently detached his face from Freya's in order to reply, "Sophia's in the kitchen, why don't you try her again?"
There was a long silence, and then something crashed and Nimueh stormed out the front door, pushing past Gwen and Lancelot.
Gwen made a concerted effort to sink down through the floor, but it remained inconveniently solid.
"I'm so sorry about this – it's just – it's all a bit hectic at the moment, you can come through. Did my – did Arthur send you for something?"
Lancelot was still standing in the doorway, his face darkening into a deep flush. He was staring hard at the floor as if he too were hoping it would experience a sudden epiphany, change life goals, and decide to become a yawning void.
"Oh, are you not – if Arthur didn't – are you – here to see me?" Gwen asked in a very small voice.
Lancelot, who was looking everywhere but at her, said, "Actually I was – I believe there's a – this is the Smith bachelorette party? I was supposed to, ah – you hired a... dancer?"
"Oh," Gwen said faintly. "So you are the – oh."
They stood there in awkward silence.
Merlin, who by some miracle had managed to disentangle himself from Freya for long enough to stand up, joined them by the door.
"Oh, hullo, Lancelot, what are you doing here?" he asked.
Gwen pasted her very best smile on her face – it was the one that said, "everything is fine, I'm very happy to see you, and nothing whatsoever is on fire in the near vicinity" – and said sweetly to Merlin, "he's here because you hired him."
"Wha – I didn't... Oh, wait, no, did Arthur finally manage to get you back your job at the station?" Merlin clearly wasn't catching on. "That's fantastic, congratulations!" He clapped Lancelot on the shoulder. "See, I told you the Fire Marshall would see reason eventually."
Lancelot opened his mouth, shut it again, and looked at Gwen helplessly.
Gwen thought about stepping on Merlin's foot, but reminded herself that she didn't believe in violence. Besides, Merlin was her best friend.
"No, he's the one you hired," Gwen ground out, "from the agency, for the party."
"What agency? You mean the – but you – but you're a real fireman!" Merlin exclaimed in disbelief. "I saw you train and everything – you told me you got a job in another district!"
"I did, it just wasn't exactly... the same job." Lancelot winced. "Just the same uniform. If I could just get started?"
"No!" Gwen found herself protesting, "you don't have to, it's all right..."
"Please, just let me do what I – let me do my job."
"If you're sure..." Gwen said, uncertainly, but then she was being scooped up off the ground by a pair of strong arms and deposited back in the middle of the sitting room, suddenly breathless.
Someone started music playing over the stereo, loud dance music, and of course the first song just had to be "It's raining men" – Gwen could hear Morgana complaining that some people didn't want men raining all over them, thankyouverymuch, over the thump of the bass beat. Most of the women pressed into a circle around him, whistling and hooting as Lancelot started unbuttoning his "fireman's jacket" – of course now Gwen could see that it was just a flimsy costume piece.
Lancelot didn't seem to notice any of it; he was lost in the music already, or doing a good imitation of it. He writhed in a gyrating circle, his jacket working its way slowly down his arms until it slipped off completely. He let it trail along the ground for a moment before tossing it deliberately into Gwen's lap. She ran her fingers along the edge of the fabric unconsciously, feeling a flush of heat rise up through her neck and cheeks to the very tips of her ears. A flash of bare skin was already showing beneath the bottom of Lancelot's shirt that winked and vanished again when his hips turned to face in the other direction.
When he turned back again, his eyes were dark and intent on hers; his embarrassment from earlier seemed to have vanished. His gaze dropped briefly down to her lips and Gwen realized she had been wetting them unconsciously. He ran his tongue slowly over his own lips and started working the top buttons of his shirt open.
There was a series of catcalls from the other women watching the show and then Gwen felt a few drops of water hit her neck. She touched her neck, confused, then turned around to see Sophia giggling over the bucket that had held iced drinks.
"Don't – " Gwen said, and started to stand just as Sophia tossed the contents of the bucket at Lancelot, crying out, "here's something to cool – oh, fuck, Gwen!"
Most of the water went sailing over Gwen's head, but some caught her in the face, along with an ice cube that hit her cheek just under her left eye.
"Shit, did she – " "Are you okay?" "I'm so sorry, I didn't – " "Gwen, wait!" A chorus of voices followed Gwen out of the room, but she ignored them, walking away down the hall and through the first door she found, which turned out to be a bedroom. Gwen stood in the middle of the room, breathing slowly and deeply. She realized she was still holding the jacket from Lancelot's costume, and tossed it aside.
A moment later, there was a knock at the door, which Gwen ignored. A pause, and then someone came in behind her.
"It's fine – " Gwen started to say, just as someone else started, "I'm sorry – "
Lancelot was hovering apologetically just inside the door. The water had hit him squarely in the chest, and his shirt was plastered down over his stomach, a few stray droplets falling from his face and hair. Gwen watched a single drop carve its way along his collar bone and thought about how she was fairly thirsty after all; she hadn't had anything to eat or drink since the party started, or for two hours before, with all the preparations.
"I'm sorry," Lancelot repeated, "I shouldn't have stayed, I'm sorry if I've – "
He cut off with a startled "oof!" as she pushed him back against the wall and then reached up to take his mouth in a kiss. His lips were still slightly parted in surprise, so she drew the lower one into her mouth, sucking on it lightly. Lancelot let out a faint groan, and leaned into her – the water from his shirt soaking through until she shivered and pulled back.
Gwen stared into his eyes, breathing heavily, and thought about what it would be like, to shut the door and lock it, let their bodies press the rest of the way together – there were footsteps in the hall and then Morgana was bursting in on them.
Morgana raised an eyebrow at their position, but Gwen didn't step back. She let her hands come to rest on the front of Lancelot's shirt.
Morgana shrugged and said, "Sophia's calling her lawyer, trying to find out how much you could sue her for, Merlin's having some sort of a breakdown, Freya's disappeared, and Vivian is complaining that this is the first hen party she's ever been to that didn't include a catered 12-course meal with vegetarian options. Oh, and I think Nimueh might have done something to spike the drinks before she left, because Helen's gone out singing 'it's raining men' to the street. I just thought you should know."
She turned on her heel and left.
Gwen felt a bubble of laughter work its way up from her stomach until she was shaking with giggles against Lancelot's chest. She felt drunk, even though she hadn't been drinking.
"I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head at Lancelot's concerned expression, "it's just – this has been a really awful week, you know? And I think – I think – I'm supposed to get married in a few days. Isn't that ridiculous?"
Lancelot lifted a hand to run his fingers gently over her cheek.
"Not if that's what you want to do." It was the unspoken question behind the words and the tenderness in how he touched her that finally made Gwen retreat to a safer distance.
"I'm sorry this has been such a mess," Gwen said, then darted in again just to give him a kiss on the cheek. "Tell Merlin to pull himself together enough to see you out, or ask Morgana. The bride-to-be is going to have a short meltdown of her own, but she'll be out in time for cake."
"As you wish." Lancelot inclined his head in an oddly formal gesture, then left her alone to wonder where all the ice was, now that Sophia had tipped it out of the bucket.