Early September was warm but not humid, it rained enough to ensure that trees and other foliage remained green and lush, but not enough to make for soggy puddles or muddy grass. It was perfect weather for a simple outdoor wedding, complete with an outdoor reception and a string quartet seated beneath a beech tree, playing Mozart softly just before and just after the ceremony. The guests consisted of the Institute staff, some close friends of the bride and groom, and their host, Morgana's friend, a university professor who also collected eighteenth century oil paintings. The professor's rambling, old stone farmhouse and white-painted barn (used as a study) stood a short distance away.
Gwen made a beautiful bride. In true bridal fashion, she was quite flushed and radiant in her gown of heavy, matte white silk. The skirt was very full, but the bodice was fitted and cut low across the chest, with tiny sleeves just off the shoulder. Morgana had helped her weave white rosbuds into her curls. Lance was jaw-droppingly handsome in his morning coat, waistcoat, and striped trousers, and Morgana, the sole bridesmaid, wore a frothy short frock in pale green. Arthur, Merlin, Will, and Leon also wore morning dress, and Gwen insisted that she had never seen so much male eye candy in one place at one time, in her entire life.
"You look godlike, Arthur," she said honestly as the Assistant Director took his place beside her. "I can't think what possessed me to give you up, all those years ago."
Arthur smiled because it was quite plain to see that she was joking. "Want to tell Lance you've changed your mind?" he teased, looking over at the groom who was struggling with his collar and chatting with Gwaine.
"Certainly not," she retorted, giving his arm a little squeeze. "And Arthur," she added in a whisper, "I hope someday you'll admit to how very much you're in love with Merlin. Not everybody can see how much, but I can. And heaven only knows, you're one of the most delicious-looking couples I can think of."
"You're such a hopeless romantic," Arthur said, eyes rolling skyward. "Now just concentrate on your vows and don't trip over the hem of your gown, and everything will be fine. Incidentally, if you can get Lance's mate to stop flirting quite so openly with Merlin, I'd be very much obliged to you."
"Gwaine flirts with everybody, Arthur," Gwen said patiently. "Including me, and your gorgeous stepsister. He'd flirt with you, if you'd let him. I'll ask Lance to have a word with him, but I doubt he'll stop."
True to his word, Arthur walked Gwen down the "aisle" formed by the parted guests to where Lance stood waiting for her with Gwaine and the judge who was to perform the ceremony.
Mordred was the ring bearer.
"He does look like a little hobbit!" Will whispered, and Morgana smacked him on the wrist and shushed him.
Arthur surreptitiously peeked at Merlin, where he was standing with the other guests. The morning coat suited him, his spiky layers of fringe had been trimmed just a bit, and the sunlight had brought a little warm color into his thin cheeks. His blue eyes met Arthur's gaze and held it, and Arthur felt a peculiar sort of warmth flood his own chest, and had the horrible suspicion that he might be blushing. His pulse seemed to have a will of its own, and his palms felt moist. It wasn't just lust (although, if they had been alone, Arthur would have already tugged off Merlin's elegant morning coat and been halfway through unfastening the waistcoat by now), or appreciation of his conservator's odd, understated beauty. It was a ridiculous feeling, Arthur told himself, absolutely, totally ridiculous and girly, and he was going to stop looking at Merlin this very instant, except that he couldn't.
Honestly, if he was going to have to admit to anybody that he was hopelessly in love (serious love) with his junior conservator…
The wedding brunch had been set up on long tables covered with starched white tablecloths, with flowers and mitred, white linen napkins. There was champagne, and then a towering white cake; everything looked supremely elegant but the atmosphere was casual and informal. Guests stood near the tables, nibbling and chatting, and the men shrugged off their morning coats and broke off from eating to kick a football around. The bride discarded her high-heeled slippers to walk barefoot over the grass, and Merlin picked up Arthur's discarded Ray-Bans and put them on. Gwen surveyed him with her head to one side.
"Put the shades down, Merlin, you look ridiculous," Arthur muttered, smiling.
"But the morning coat looks wonderful on him," Gwen said. "In fact, all of you gentlemen look wonderful."
"I don't much care for these braces," Arthur replied, rotating his shoulders. He had found his own formal clothes in a garment bag at the back of his closet, but Merlin had fully intended to rent a set for the event, rather than spend a large portion of his salary to purchase one. Ignoring this, Arthur had gone out and bought him everything that was needed, a move that had resulted in a great deal of shouting on Merlin's part when the Assistant Director returned to the flat with shopping bags. Merlin had insisted that Arthur stop spending money on him; they had yelled at each other for a good part of the evening, and then had had truly spectacular make up sex afterwards.
"Let's go for a little stroll," Arthur said now, gesturing at Merlin. "I've never been here before. Join us, Mrs Lance?"
"No thanks, love, I think I'll have a slice of this divine cake," Gwen murmured, waving them away. "Don't be too long, though, or it'll all be gone by the time you get back."
Arthur set off through the trees, eyes moving along the little trail in the grass. He could hear Merlin ambling behind him, crashing absent-mindedly through undergrowth and small bushes. Within a few minutes they found their way into a small clearing, and paused.
The sunlight fell in dappled warmth all around them; the setting couldn't have been more poetic if it had been scouted by a cinematographer, or computer-generated for a special effects seminar at a film school. It was almost too much, but Arthur wasn't really taking it in, he was eyeing Merlin, who was staring back at him, perplexed. Arthur maneuvered him gently back against a conveniently situated tree, put his hands on the rough bark, on either side of Merlin so that he couldn't get away, and kissed him deeply. Merlin made a tiny, breathy sound against his mouth and kissed back.
Arthur curved one hand around the back of Merlin's head and continued to kiss him until they were both weak at the knees. The short, tufted hair under his palm felt like prickly silk, and Arthur laughed a little shakily as he broke their mouth to mouth contact, resting his brow against Merlin's.
"You're like a porcupine, Merlin," he murmured, letting his fingers comb through the inky darkness. "All spiny and mysterious."
"What makes you think porcupines are mysterious?" asked Merlin, sounding dazed and almost groggy. "They…erm…" Arthur was nipping lightly at his upper lip. Merlin waited for him to say "Mine!" or something similarly possessive, as he often did when he was feeling amorous, but Arthur was silent and simply went back to kissing.
There was a tiny, crackling sound, as of leaves and twigs underfoot, and they both turned their heads to see Morgana stepping into the clearing, her eyes lifting from the path to the unexpected sight of the two young men embraced against the trunk of a tree. She stopped short, her mouth opening in surprise, and blushed, but her eyes lit up with a kind of gleeful delight as she made a half-heartedly apologetic gesture.
"Morgana!" Arthur grated out testily, stepping back.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry," she said, flapping her arms and retreating. "Wasn't following you, really. Splendid wedding, don't you think? Come back and have some cake."
"Morgana's been dying to catch us at something," Arthur said, frowning, as he watched his stepsister walk away. "At anything. Such a voyeur, I mean voyeuse. She probably imagines us in bed together all the time."
No way," stammered Merlin, turning red.
"Oh yes, I'm sure she's got a picture in her mind, of us rolling about in slow motion, sighing langorously, like people do in the movies, whilst the Flower Duet from "Lakmé" plays in the background." *
"Oh," said Merlin, still red-faced. "Well, let her keep her fantasies, then. The truth is so much more…erm…rambunctious?"
"I don't know if that's quite the right word," Arthur replied. "We'd better get back to the rest of the party before Morgana tells them something really outrageous. And before Mordred eats up all the cake."
By the time they returned to the tables of food, Merlin was still faintly flushed, and his hair was sticking up where Arthur had forgotten to brush it back down. The cake had been largely demolished, although Gwen had insisted that the others leave two good-sized slices for the Assistant Director and junior conservator. Mordred watched rather regretfully as Arthur downed his slice in three huge bites.
The Pendragon step-siblings were pleased to see that Mordred had enjoyed Gwen and Lance's wedding almost as much as the adults had. Apart from that, being the unflappable sort of child that he was, he was taking life in New York very much in stride. He organized all of his belongings in his new room within a day, and memorized the bus route to and from his new school. He also learnt to navigate the areas around the Institute and Morgana's flat, and insisted on being allowed to go out by himself. Uther had muttered nervously about kidnappers and the dangers of the New York streets, but Arthur assured him that hardly anybody in the States knew the extent of the Pendragon family wealth, and that the streets of Manhattan were not especially dangerous – particularly in Morgana's posh neighborhood.
When his schedule permitted, Arthur picked his half brother up from school and brought him to the Institute, and when he was too busy, Merlin sometimes came in his place. Because of Mordred's dark hair, ivory-pale complexion, and blue eyes, it was generally assumed, by the school staff, that they were related. In spite of his overall stoicism and poker-faced demeanor, Mordred did display – on rare occasions – an actual sense of mischief, and once he became aware of this rumor he took a childlike pleasure in bamboozling teachers into thinking it was true.
"Hullo, Cousin Merlin!" he chirped loudly when Merlin appeared at the school's front door, where his maths teacher stood monitoring pupil departures. "Ready to go now. Lots of reading homework."
"Hi, Uncle Merlin!" he called, in front of his English teacher two days later.
"Hey, bro!" he said the following week, but here Merlin drew the line, and quietly explained to his confused music teacher that he and Mordred were not connected by blood.
"Mordred, erm, that won't make your father happy," he remonstrated gently as he walked the youngster to the Institute. "Look, I'm glad you're picking up American slang and getting on with your classmates and all. But you can't lie to your teachers, or to anybody for that matter, and tell them we're related. It isn't right."
"Yes Dad," Mordred replied ingenuously, and Merlin had to laugh, although he gave him a little lecture afterwards, and warned him about the importance of making a good first impression with his school's faculty.
"Yo, no sweat, man," Mordred said earnestly. "Won't do it again," he added, and Merlin checked to make sure his fingers weren't crossed.
Arthur lectured Mordred as well (being careful not to sound like Uther), but he also laughed about the whole thing, privately with Merlin. And he did tell his young half brother to please stop calling him dude.
It never took Mordred long to finish his homework. Morgana was planning to buy him a MacBook, but for the time being he typed his school essays on Arthur's new, just-arrived laptop, a red and gold custom-colored affair that was the subject of never ending jokes by most of the staff. Homework completed, he often went downstairs to the paper conservation studio to watch Merlin work. Every now and then, he trotted next door to objects conservation, where Will unbent enough to allow Mordred to examine his final treatment of Lord Moldywart. Arthur even discovered him in front of the Courtiers Tapestry, chewing on his knuckles and frowning. When asked what he was doing, he replied that he had done some research and was trying to determine the identities of the various figures.
"Can you believe this kid?" Will asked Lance later, rolling his eyes.
Not surprisingly, Elaine periodically mailed boxes of things she felt her young son would need in the wilderness of New York City. A Barbour, underwear and socks, Mordred's favorite sweets, and packets of tea ("They do sell these things in the States, Mum," groaned Morgana) were among the contents of the various brown-wrapped packages delivered by the postal service.
One morning not long after the wedding, a rather large parcel arrived from London, but it was delivered to Arthur's flat rather than Morgana's, and was addressed to him. Arthur was fairly certain it was some sort of Care Package for his half brother and sighed with the expectation that he would have to lug the bloody thing to Mordred's new home. He hefted it, finding it surprisingly light, and ripped off the brown paper wrapping, pulling off the lid of the box inside. He half expected a cascade of English choc bars, and was astonished to find a carefully folded garment of red velvet within.
It was his crimson Thriller jacket.
Arthur struggled into it, being careful not to rip the seams. He had grown taller since he was sixteen, and his chest was broader, but the jacket still fit. It was tight, however, so he left it unfastened. Not wanting to make any noise, he toed off his shoes and crept down the hall to the bedroom, wanting to surprise Merlin, and vaguely hoping that he would find him naked.
His young conservator was indeed devoid of clothing, but he had washed and shaved and was lying on his side, wearing his horn-rimmed glasses, the bedsheet pulled up to his waist. He was perusing the pages of the newspaper with concentration, and as Arthur watched, he located the Arts Section and studied its headlines.
"There's a short article about the Courtiers Tapestry in the Arts Section," he said without looking up. "They refer to the exhibition of Sigan's things next year, and there's even mention of the recent marriage of the Institute's arms and armor curator to the textile conservator."
Merlin continued to stare at the front page of the Arts Section, drawing his brows together. Then the pink tip of his tongue appeared and swiped his upper lip…and Arthur pounced.
"Ow!" said Merlin, who hadn't seen it coming. After he had caught his breath, he looked his assailant over and his mouth fell open.
"I can't believe it still fits," Arthur said with a satisfied air. "It's too tight, but you don't really notice unless I bring my arms together."
"It's awesome," mumbled Merlin seriously, sitting up and running his fingers lightly over the red velvet and the still-shining buttons.
"I thought you'd be pleased to see it," Arthur said, peeling himself out of the garment in question. "But I can't wear it out of doors, not any more. Perhaps I should give it to Mordred?" He tossed the jacket onto a chair, where it was presently joined by his shirt and trousers.
"It would be almost a shame to give it away," Merlin half-whispered musingly. "But if, as you say, it's too tight for you-"
"You're not going to tell me I'm fat, are you?" Arthur said somewhat reproachfully. "Because I am not. I'm fighting fit, and I exercise regularly. I don't take this matchless physique for granted, you know."
"You take me for granted," Merlin replied, suppressing a grin with remarkable success. "And when you fling yourself on me, you never ask me if I want to or not."
Arthur replied by flinging himself on his conservator with a great deal of vigor and climbing on top almost instantly. Merlin put up very little resistance, and anyway, they were laughing too hard for him to even try to disentangle himself. If he pretended to struggle it was only for the sheer pleasure of feeling the play of Arthur's muscles beneath his hands. After a few moments of horseplay, his breathing seemed to be running races against his heartbeat, and he caught his lip between his teeth as Arthur slid a hand beneath his back, moving it down to spread flat against the little hollow curve at his waist, then lifting him.
"What if I said I didn't want to?" Merlin asked, looking up at Arthur and smiling faintly.
"Merlin," muttered Arthur irritably, but there was a note of entreaty underneath.
Merlin relented and put both hands into Arthur's blond hair, tugging him down.
"I didn't mean to bite quite that hard," Arthur said two rounds later, carefully sliding out from beneath an armful of Merlin.
"Prat," Merlin mumbled feelingly. He raised himself on one elbow, took Arthur by the chin, and turned his face slightly towards him. Then he lifted that pink upper lip with a cautious finger and inspected the sharpness of those eyeteeth.
"Merlin, what are you doing?" Arthur asked as distinctly as he could with Merlin's finger in his mouth.
"Are you sure you weren't one of those prehistoric sabre-toothed cats in a previous life?" Merlin responded, withdrawing his finger. "Or at least a vampire?"
"Vampires don't have previous lives, idiot," Arthur replied, smirking. "They just have one really long one."
"Perhaps you're simply related to one," Merlin said with conviction.
"I realize that vampires are a hot item in popular culture these days," Arthur murmured, frowning a little. "But I have no desire to join the ranks of the so-called undead. They are actually dead, aren't they? I mean, in the books they have no pulse or anything, do they? Dracula can't go out in the sun, can he? That sort of life - bloody hell, it isn't really a life, is it? - is not for me."
"That's good," said Merlin, and flopped back down next to him.
"Yes it is good," said Arthur, suddenly grinning. "Unless you happen to fancy necrophilia."
"That's disgusting," said Merlin, who of course had absolutely no interest in anything even resembling necrophilia. To prove this, he took his unguarded and semi-exhausted Assistant Director quite by surprise, mastering him with his clever touch, the softness of his pillowy lips, and a limber, wiry body whose strength Arthur had a tendency to underestimate. Having gained the upper hand, so to speak, he worked Arthur over for a good while, making certain that he arched and writhed and moaned in such a way as to indicate that he was very much alive, and that his heart, his lungs, and other parts were in perfect working order.
"My mistake," he mused when it was over, and Arthur was panting beside him. "You bear absolutely no resemblance to a vampire. Apart from those teeth."
"I suppose you're very pleased with yourself," mumbled Arthur, cracking one eye open. Then he stretched and yawned with pleasurable fatigue. "Taking advantage of my temporarily weakened state." He opened both eyes, and then narrowed them dangerously when he saw Merlin grin. "I have never been to bed with a more insolent, impossible person in…my…entire…life."
"Right," said Merlin in a voice of total disbelief. Arthur couldn't help himself; he chuckled, and brought his hand up to rest on Merlin's cheek. Merlin turned his head a little and kissed Arthur's wrist, and then brought his own hand up to grasp it.
"You're mine," he said conversationally, and waited to see what would happen next.
"I can't believe your insolence," Arthur replied in a voice of completely phony wrath. "And I'm going to pay you back, when I'm feeling a bit, er, stronger."
Their eyes met, and they both smiled.
"Right," Merlin said again, stifling a yawn and pulling at the rumpled sheet.
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur breathed, and was asleep even before Merlin tucked the sheet carefully around his shoulders.
*In the film "The Hunger," a modern vampire story, the Flower Duet from the opera "Lakme" played in the background as Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve made love.
As for vampires, I've been enjoying the Merlin fic "Once Bitten," by SnowWhiteQueen21.
For those who haven't noticed Bradley James' lovely sharp teeth, watch the water ride section of the video extras from the Series One DVDs (also available on youtube).
Thank you to all the readers who've had the patience to slog through 35-plus chapters. :)