For Lucy and Summer.
First venture into the Merlin fandom. This is a scary venture full of possible OOC-ness and crap writing, but we'll see how it turns out.
The usual disclaimers apply.
Merlin wasn't where he was supposed to be.
It wasn't exactly a rare occurrence, or even much of a worry – Merlin was very rarely where he was supposed to be, and Arthur had long ago given up trying to shepherd him around like a child – but it did tend to be a nuisance, especially when Arthur's goblet was not being refilled with wine like he'd asked.
The Pendragon household were entertaining various nobles who'd travelled from all over the country to celebrate the Lady Morgana's birthday. Most of them were staying for about three days, all of which generally consisted of Morgana being fawned over and spoilt and ogled by any men from the age of ten to seventy-five. The finale commenced on Morgana's actual birthday, when the big celebrations would take place throughout the night, including a banquet and a dance. Arthur found the whole thing pointless – to kick up this much fuss about being another year older – but Uther was under the impression it would be Morgana's last birthday as an unmarried woman, and therefore an important one.
Arthur sometimes wondered if Uther knew his daughter at all.
Caught up in feigning banter with an old lord who had particularly bad breath, it took Arthur a few minutes to realise his goblet was still bone dry. The prince glanced around, thinking the idiot had been daydreaming and missed his signal, and raised his eyebrows at – an empty space behind him.
Merlin wasn't there.
Arthur slumped down in his chair, mentally cursing Merlin for running off again. Had he not been there the whole time? Gwen, noticing his predicament, rushed around the table from her place behind Morgana to refill the prince's goblet, but he waved her away.
What the hell did Merlin think he was doing? Arthur had explicitly told him that he had to act like a normal servant during these three days, had explicitly told him that he had to show up to this particular meal or it'd be him in the stocks. And what did Merlin do?
Not turn up.
And now Arthur's goblet was empty.
As soon as he could, Arthur made his excuses and left as quickly as possible. Morgana threw him a filthy look, almost as though she expected him to stay and suffer Lord Bad Breath with her, but Arthur ignored her and marched through the doors, heading straight to his bedroom.
Bristling with anger, he slammed open the door to his chambers louder than he'd meant to, striding in and fully expecting Merlin to have fallen asleep on the floor hours previously. Later, he wished that was what he had seen.
"Merlin, what the hell are you doing?"
Merlin froze mid-twirl, one foot colliding with the other and making him trip up and land, thankfully – because Merlin couldn't really afford to lose anymore brain cells – on the tick rug in front of the fire. Arthur rolled his eyes, his anger reluctantly starting to ebb away, and crouched near Merlin's head. Merlin blinked.
"I was cleaning," the manservant claimed, staring at the prince hopefully.
"I see. And does your cleaning usually involve pirouetting?"
Merlin's ears turned red. "Fine. I was –" – he buried his face into the rug – "- dunfig."
"I'm sorry, Merlin, but what was that?" The flush spread to his cheeks, and Arthur smirked despite himself.
"I said I was dinzig."
Sighing, Arthur grabbed hold of Merlin's neckerchief and yanked him up to what would be a sitting position if Arthur wasn't holding him up in the air. "I didn't quite catch that."
"Dancing!" Merlin spluttered, the neckerchief tightening around his throat. "I was dancing!"
Satisfied, Arthur let go of him and retreated to lean against the edge of the table, arms folded across his chest. Merlin scrambled to stand quickly, certain Arthur was thinking up a range of insults and punishments to throw at him for not doing his job at the dinner this evening. He studied Arthur's unreadable face as the prince considered him, wondering if it was worth trying to defend himself.
"So, what you were just doing… that was dancing?"
The words took Merlin by surprise. Arthur wanted to talk about Merlin's dancing and not his failure as a servant?
Merlin's heart sank.
"Yes?" he said hopefully, fearing the prince's answer.
Arthur shook his head. "Merlin, that was not dancing. That was flailing."
"Flailing," Arthur confirmed, with a grim nod of his head. "It was painful to watch. Frankly, I can't imagine how painful it must have been to actually contort your body like that."
Merlin blushed at the mention of contorting his body into certain positions. "Well – I'd like to see you do any better," he grumbled, both mortified and fed up with Arthur now.
Choosing to ignore that comment, Arthur readjusted his position so his feet were crossed. "Why exactly were you dancing in my bedroom when you were supposed to be serving me downstairs, Merlin? I can't say I was that concerned for your safety given you could be anywhere and in any kind of dangerous situation, but apparently I'm required to punish my servant if he does fail to show up, which is the only reason I left a perfectly pleasant evening to come looking for you."
The corner of Merlin's lips twitched. "Pleasant, was it?"
Sighing, Merlin mumbled, "I was teaching myself to dance."
Arthur looked vaguely surprised. "Why?"
"For the dance tomorrow evening for Morgana's birthday. I promised Gwen I'd dance with her, because as servants we don't get much of a chance to, and she doesn't want to not dance for the whole night if Lancelot doesn't ask her to dance," Merlin explained.
Arthur snorted. "I don't think Guinevere has to worry about Lancelot's affections for her."
Merlin shrugged. "I think it's something to do with being a girl. Apparently they spend a lot of time thinking about these things."
The prince sighed, stood up straight and stretched, his shirt riding up a little. Merlin averted his eyes. He'd seen the prince in a lot less, but the flash of skin made him flush slightly. "Very well, then," Arthur drawled, as if preparing to face a long and boring chore. "Come here."
Merlin looked at him blankly.
"Do you want to learn to dance or not?"
The realisation of what Arthur was proposing dawned on him, and the warlock gulped nervously. "Erm, not. Definitely not."
"Too late." And before Merlin could even register what was happening, Arthur had grabbed Merlin's arm and rather forcefully pulled him so they stood about a foot apart. "We don't want poor Guinevere being more embarrassed than she and everybody else already is when in your presence, do we?"
Merlin tried to scowl at him, but his "No" came out breathier than he'd meant to because at that point Arthur inclined his head slightly towards him. What on earth was he turning into, a girl?
At least Arthur would be happy he'd been proved right, Merlin mused.
"Good. Now, first – positions. You need to put your left hand on my shoulder – no, my other shoulder, Merlin – and I'm going to put my hand on your waist –"
"Where?" Merlin yelped, jumping about half a foot when he felt Arthur's fingers touch his waist.
"Merlin," Arthur said between gritted teeth. "The sooner you do as I say, the sooner we can get this over with and never speak of it again."
Merlin nodded slowly, and stood unnaturally still as he let Arthur's hand rest on his waist. Arthur joined their free hands together, a little more tentatively this time as though he expected Merlin to protest again, but when Merlin made no complaint he relaxed again.
"Good. This isn't very difficult at all, is it?"
"You're difficult," Merlin grumbled, but raised his eyebrows expectantly nonetheless.
"Now, I'm going to step back, and you're going to follow me because I'm the lead," Arthur told him.
"Wait, you're the lead?" Merlin was horrified. "Why am I learning the girl's part when Gwen is going to be the girl?"
"Guinevere could dance the lead a lot better than you, Merlin. Don't argue, and follow me."
Arthur's step back was a little exaggerated as he all but dragged Merlin with him, the black-haired boy's feet staying planted as he failed to register the instruction. Instead, his upper body was yanked forward and he found himself being propelled straight into Arthur's chest.
"Arthur! You didn't tell me you were starting! And why is your chest so hard?"
Arthur quirked an eyebrow at him as he took hold of Merlin's shoulders and steadied him. Merlin hoped he wasn't as red as he felt.
"Hard like a boulder. A big, ugly boulder."
Arthur stared at him. Merlin shrugged.
"Look, let's just start again and try not to kill ourselves this time." He replaced his and Merlin's hands where they were before, and Merlin huffed – he did know the positions. "This time I want you to follow my lead. This is a different technique from the first time, because this time you're actually going to do it."
"Prat," Merlin said irritably, and Arthur pretended to not hear him,
This time when Arthur stepped back, he was slower, and his grip firmer on Merlin's waist. Merlin followed immediately, and as Arthur made the next few steps, Merlin kept his eyes on their feet as he concentrated on moving them in the right places. He unconsciously held Arthur's hand tighter, and Arthur chose not to tell him that he was focusing so hard, his tongue was poking out.
Leading him around the room slowly – Arthur suspected Merlin's coordination wasn't quite ready for the actual pace of the dance yet – the two young men fell silent, both concentrating on different things. Merlin was trying hard not to trip over his own feet; Arthur could do these steps in his sleep and instead kept his gaze on Merlin's face. Every so often, the manservant would glance up and smile at him – probably convinced he was becoming some kind of expert, Arthur mentally scoffed – and every so often, Arthur would unconsciously smile back.
Of course, the dance wasn't without its faults – this was Merlin he was teaching. Merlin would frequently step on Arthur's foot, or get his leg tangled up with either his other leg or one of Arthur's, and once, he even managed to twist so that he and Arthur were back to back, both facing completely the wrong direction with arms in a tangle behind their heads. The prince of Camelot didn't really know how that had happened, but Merlin had a talent for things that probably shouldn't be seen as talents.
At some point, Arthur noticed the room had been deadly silent for a few minutes, filled with just the scuffing of feet on stone. He hadn't needed to insult Merlin for a while, which confused Arthur until he realised Merlin wasn't actually doing the steps right. His manservant's face was the picture of concentration, and Arthur could almost see the cogs turning in his brain. He fought a smile and cleared his throat.
"That's enough of that, I don't think you're going to get any better," the prince said gruffly. Merlin didn't look deterred.
"Can I try leading now?"
Arthur sighed. "Merlin, do I really look like I could carry out the girl's part?"
Merlin stood back, looking Arthur up and down in mock consideration. Arthur felt oddly embarrassed as blue eyes raked over him. "I don't know…"
Arthur sighed, and clipped his manservant's ear. "Get on with it, then."
Merlin didn't appear too hurt by that, and proceeded to mimic Arthur's previous position as lead. He took a deep breath. Arthur raised his eyebrows, and Merlin begun.
It felt strange, at first, to have Merlin guiding him around the room, one hand gripping his and the other firmly on his waist. He was always the one ordering Merlin around; making him go places (that he usually didn't go to) and making him do things (that he usually didn't end up doing). But a few minutes in, Arthur felt himself relaxing as Merlin's confidence grew, and even found himself somewhat enjoying the dance – despite the fact that his partner was his scrawny, skinny, too pale manservant who wasn't nearly as good at this as all the girls tomorrow night would be.
Arthur didn't even notice when he took all his attention off his dancing and concentrated on Merlin. The boy was frowning, eyes firmly fixed to his and Arthur's feet, except when he would glance up every so often to make sure Arthur wasn't silently making fun of him. Merlin wasn't the most natural dancer in the world, and distinctly lacked any sense of grace at all, but his steps were purposeful, practised, and he knew where he was going and what he was doing. Arthur knew it was highly inappropriate, but he felt secure in the leading arms of his manservant – even safe, although he wasn't sure what the dangers were, other than breaking a few toes when they were stepped on.
He was so engrossed in studying Merlin that he didn't realise they'd stopped dancing until his vision was suddenly full of Merlin's face. The boy had lifted his head and they'd drifted closer together without realising it, and suddenly all Arthur could see was a pair of vibrant blue eyes searching his own.
"How did I do?" Merlin asked, a nervous smile tugging at his lips.
"I – fine. I mean – you'll do, I suppose. You probably won't…" He struggled for a moment to think of why they'd been dancing for so long. "… kill Guinevere at the dance tomorrow."
Merlin beamed, more than satisfied with this answer, and it almost hurt Arthur to look at him. He stepped back quickly, avoiding Merlin's eyes.
"Right. Well, now that's… finished, you can go muck out the stables, polish the armour I used this morning and then go exercise the dogs. Then you can go give Guinevere her flower."
"Merlin, do you have any idea about these dances whatsoever?"
Merlin looked blankly at him. Arthur sighed.
"It's tradition to give the girl you're going to a dance with a flower, either at the dance or before you get there."
"Oh, we're not going together. We're just dancing together," Merlin said quickly. "I think Lancelot's planning on giving her one, anyway."
Arthur frowned. "I thought you said Guinevere thought Lancelot wasn't going to ask her dance?"
"Well, she doesn't know Lancelot's going to ask her, does she?" Merlin huffed. "Besides, what if I want to dance with my best friend tomorrow night?"
"Guinevere's your best friend?"
"Don't be an idiot, Merlin," Arthur said irritably, swinging the door open and gesturing for Merlin to leave. The manservant grinned, and even as Arthur glared at him on the way out, he didn't find it very infuriating at all.
The hall pulsed with life as if there was a beating heart under the stones beneath their feet, music, laughter, and drunken banter resounding around the room. The tables from the banquet had been cleared away along with the leftover food, leaving only the head table for the royals and an unlimited, constant supply of wine, which was probably responsible for most of the energy thriving in the room.
Arthur sat slouched in his seat at the head table, because his father had forgotten about him about half an hour and two goblets of wine ago, around the same time the women had started to leave him alone. Two hours of being ambushed from all sides by very tipsy, very giggly and very eager young ladies of supposed noble birth dragging him off for a dance had taken it out of the Crown Prince, and he felt he more than deserved to watch everyone else for a while, whilst trying to hide from any more sneak attacks.
Morgana hadn't been out of the company of less than three men all night, although she'd sent Arthur a few long-suffering looks that told him none of her hopeful admirers would be hearing from her ever again. His knights were getting as drunk as humanly possible, making their rounds amongst the pretty young ladies in the room, of which there were many. Guinevere and Lancelot seemed to be enjoying themselves – Guinevere sported Lancelot's purple flower in her dark curls, and they'd barely left each other's arms all night. Earlier, Arthur had watched with amusement as Merlin led Guinevere in a few dances. He wasn't that bad – in fact, Arthur was reasonably impressed with how much Merlin had retained in that admittedly small brain of his. Afterwards, Guinevere hadn't come off looking too injured and she was even laughing as Merlin handed her over to Lancelot.
As per Morgana's request, the usual servants had been let off for the night, and Merlin had spent most of it chatting to various knights and servants, or watching the dancing with a smile on his face. Absorbed in other people's happiness, content to just watch others as Arthur was unconsciously watching him. And if Arthur had been aware of how much he'd been staring at Merlin when he had a chance, he'd have been shocked at himself. But as it happened, he wasn't aware at all, and nearly jumped out of his skin when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"Jumpy, sire?" Guinevere's small smile was a contrast to Merlin's smirk yesterday, but otherwise the two sounded almost exactly the same. Arthur thought it was weird. "Or just distracted by someone?" Her knowing tone irritated Arthur, and made the heat rise in his cheeks.
He didn't miss a beat as he replied, "I've been on the lookout for drunk women trying to seduce me all evening, of course you scared me. You could have been one of them."
Guinevere shrugged. "Maybe you should try to seduce someone."
The word seduce sounded odd coming out of Guinevere's mouth, a person who was usually all flowers and sweet words and shy smiles. But now she just looked faintly amused.
"Who do you suggest?" Arthur asked, sounding bored.
Guinevere sighed, getting up and brushing her dress off. "Don't be such a coward, Arthur. You're not fooling anybody. Didn't you even give him dance lessons yesterday?" And then she swept off to find Lancelot.
Arthur stared after her, his jaw slack.
He was not going to seduce Merlin.
Who did she think she was, suggesting such a thing to the Crown Prince of Camelot? Arthur Pendragon was the last person who would ever have feelings for Merlin.
Merlin was his manservant. Merlin was an idiot. Merlin was too pale and skinny and gangly to be normal. Merlin was incompetent. Merlin hadn't known how to dance until yesterday. Merlin was annoyingly cheerful and optimistic. Merlin never stopped irritating him. Merlin had a stupid grin that destroyed all signs of intelligent life.
Merlin was Merlin, and the idea that Arthur harboured any feelings of that sort towards him was absurd.
The blonde slouched stubbornly in his seat, and when he looked back at Merlin, the manservant's eyes were already on him. Merlin grinned when he caught his eye, and Arthur nodded back, face reddening for some inexplicable reason. He hadn't seen Merlin smile that widely all evening, and something about the idea of Merlin smiling the most for Arthur would have made Arthur's heart swell if he'd known it was possible for a heart to actually swell.
Which it wasn't.
Merlin made beckoning motions with his hands, and Arthur stared at him a little confusedly before realising that Merlin wanted Arthur to join him. For a split second, Arthur was tempted to. But then he caught himself, and shook his head once, before turning away so as not to suffer the absolutely-in-no-way-adorable-or-guilt-inducing look of disappointment on Merlin's face.
As luck would have it, his gaze was dragged back to Guinevere – dancing with Lancelot once more – who was staring at him, eyebrows raised and lips pursed, with something akin to annoyance in her eyes.
Arthur now felt rather uncomfortable, with two either very hurt or very frustrated faces staring at him. And – well – he was starting to get restless sat up here on his own. He'd be accused of being unsociable before long by Morgana or his father.
There was also the miniscule, completely unimportant fact that a tiny part of him did want to dance with Merlin, and why should Arthur deny himself anything?
Abruptly scraping his chair backwards, Arthur stood and edged around the table before marching towards the stone pillar Merlin was leaning against, catching the attention of several girls who began to whisper and flit towards him. They floated into small congregations and giggled amongst each other, their interest peaked as Prince Arthur came to an awkward stop behind his manservant.
Arthur decided to go through with this before common sense kicked in. He squared his shoulders and coughed, making Merlin twist round, his face automatically lighting up at the sight of Arthur.
"Did you get off your arrogant high horse for once and change your mind?" Merlin asked, the corner of his mouth twitching.
Arthur held back a scowl with great difficulty. "I would remind you that we are in a room full of people who are aware of your status compared to mine, and such a remark heard by the wrong ears would land you in the stocks for a month."
Merlin frowned. "You would remind me? Then why don't you?"
"Because I'm about to do this."
Arthur held his hand out to Merlin, a flower he'd stolen from one of the arrangements on a whim lying in it.
Merlin's face was priceless.
Arthur knew it was now too late to claim it was a joke.
"I – Arthur – what –"
"Merlin, just take it, we both know it wouldn't do for the Crown Prince of Camelot to be turned down. I would never hear the end of it from Morgana."
Almost defensively, Merlin snatched the flower from Arthur's palm and attached it to a buttonhole in his jacket. Then he turned an almost shy smile on Arthur, making the heat rise in the latter's cheeks again.
I need to get that under control, he thought vaguely, as he tentatively slid a hand into Merlin's, acutely aware of the looks they were drawing from around the room.
"Dance with me?"
He couldn't quite meet Merlin's eyes, his face still red. Merlin's beam, on the other hand, was positively blinding. "I thought you'd never ask, sire."
The crowd cleared to the sides of the hall as Arthur led Merlin to the middle of the room, gesturing for the music to keep playing. Merlin was suddenly all too aware of all the eyes on them.
"Arthur," he hissed, "Arthur, everyone's staring."
To his surprise, a smirk twisted Arthur's lips as the prince put his free hand on Merlin's waist. "That's all people ever do. I'll lead this time, if it's alright with you."
Merlin nodded dumbly.
Then they were dancing, the strangest couple in the room, the Crown Prince of Camelot leading his manservant in an intimate dance while the music played louder than ever behind them, drowning out the whispers and the gasps and the giggles. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur could see Gwen's face – too smug for her own good – and Morgana's smile, for once genuine. He also caught his father's eye once, but one look at Uther's stony face and he decided he'd deal with that later.
Mostly, however, his gaze was fixed on Merlin's face. Merlin, who was now concentrating harder than ever on not slipping up in front of so many noblemen. Merlin, whose flushed cheeks and disbelieving, bright blue eyes made Arthur's breath hitch. Merlin, who was staring up at his prince in complete and utter adoration.
Arthur supposed he looked much the same.
Eventually, Gwen and Lancelot joined them at the same time Gwaine finally accomplished his goal of the evening and led Morgana out. Taking their lead from the three couples stealing the spotlight, more and more people began to drift into the middle of the room, until the room was once again thriving with laughter, music and bodies moving perfectly in sync with each other.
At some point, Merlin and Arthur had blended in with the rest of them, and lost sight of anyone that they knew well.
"I think I'd quite like to do this again sometime," Merlin said slyly, biting his lip slightly. Arthur's heart missed a beat before hammering ten times faster than before in his chest.
It was honestly ridiculous that Merlin could do this to him, but Arthur found he didn't really mind.
"I think that could be arranged."
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