Title: Like a Fine Wine 
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: Arthur didn’t believe in love at first sight or any of that romantic rubbish, but he had to admit this seemed to come awfully close.
[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | AO3 ]
Word Count: 1000w
Prompt: 324 Entangle, Courage, Attic.
Author's Notes: I honestly had no intention of starting yet another WIP, and yet, here we are. Why does this always happen to me? I have no idea where it's going to go next, but I hope you all enjoy the ride XD
It was hard to stop looking at Merlin.
Up close, his face was more compelling than ever, and he had an unfairly attractive mouth which did things when he smiled that made Arthur want to lean across the table and kiss him. Arthur didn’t believe in love at first sight or any of that romantic rubbish, but he had to admit this seemed to come awfully close. He had never been so deeply attracted to someone before, especially someone he had barely said more than a few words to. It was unnerving.
Fortunately, Merlin appeared to be similarly overwhelmed; he kept glancing at Arthur over his glass then looking away, the tips of his ears turning red as he blushed, and it was only thanks to his awkwardness and obvious embarrassment that Arthur finally got up the courage to ask him a question.
“So,” he said, picking up his tankard and staring into its depths so that he wouldn’t have to look the other man in the face. “You said we’ve never met before, right?”
“Right.” Merlin coughed a little as he swallowed, then pushed his beer away with a wary expression, his shoulders tense. “We haven’t.”
“So you’ve said.” Arthur waited, but when Merlin didn’t respond any further, he went on. “Which kind of begs the question: why did you run?”
“When you first saw me,” Arthur elaborated, enunciating the words clearly even though he knew Merlin knew what he was talking about. There was something about his eyes; that clear blue gaze couldn’t lie. “You bolted out of here like you owed me money or something. Which is kind of an odd reaction to a total stranger, don’t you think?”
There was a long silence, during which Arthur could hear the sound of someone playing Toxic on the old jukebox over in the corner. Behind the bar, the bartender was cracking jokes with Gwaine, who had apparently gotten bored with waiting for Arthur to score and had decided to do it himself. It was an ordinary night in an ordinary pub, and yet Arthur couldn’t help feeling that there was a charge of electricity in the air, as though a storm were about to break.
“Okay,” Merlin said finally, blowing his breath out in a rush. “Okay, this is going to sound crazy, but hear me out. I think I’ve seen you before.”
“Okay…?” Arthur just looked at him, waiting for the punchline. “That’s a bit of a coincidence, I guess, but so what? Did you steal my parking space or something?”
“No, you don’t understand.” Merlin shifted in his seat, reaching down to rummage in the pocket of his jeans. He eventually drew out an old photograph, creased at the corners, and shoved it across the table to Arthur. “I found this in my uncle’s attic six months ago. Tell me you don’t think there’s something odd about it.”
Arthur picked the picture off the table. There were two men in it, both of them dressed in white linen suits of a sort that had gone out of style at least a hundred years ago. They were solemn-faced, as subjects of those times often were, but there was something about their expressions that spoke of a painful kind of happiness, hidden beneath the surface. It was perhaps to do with the way they were looking at one another instead of at the camera, and the way their postures mirrored one another, bent forward like two men complicit in a secret.
They were also identical to him and Merlin, down to the last freckle.
“This is a joke,” Arthur said flatly, pushing the photograph back across the table. “You’re setting me up.”
“I swear, I’m not,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t believe it either, when I saw you. I thought I was losing my mind. But I swear, I swear to you, if it’s a joke then I’m not in on it. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw your face.” He reached across the table and put a hand on Arthur’s wrist, causing a shudder to ripple through him at the contact. “I promise, I’m not trying to trick you, Arthur.”
Arthur yanked his hand away and pushed back his chair. “Stay away from me,” he said, his voice shaking. His heart was beating uncomfortably fast at the base of his throat. “I don’t know what stupid game you think you’re playing, but this isn’t funny, and if you come near me again I’m going to call the police.”
Arthur cut him off. “I have to go,” he said brusquely and made a beeline for the door of the pub, desperate to get some air. Had Merlin been following him—spying on him? It wasn’t exactly normal behaviour, was it, to have photoshopped their faces onto this old photograph? What if Merlin was some kind of crazy stalker who had chosen Arthur as his next victim?
Only—it was a very old photograph. Too old to have been newly printed. It was scuffed and faded and worn, and there were smears of ink on the back—and the clothes…
If it was a fake, it was a very convincing one. Why would anyone go to all that trouble?
Arthur stopped just outside the pub doors, hunching his shoulders and stepping into the lee of the building to avoid the rain. Cold chills were running down his spine, but not from the weather.
A fake photograph wouldn’t explain his feelings about Merlin, the way he’d been drawn to him irresistibly from the moment they’d met; nor would it explain his conviction that the two of them must have met somewhere before. The last thing he wanted to do after the whole mess with Sophia was to entangle himself in whatever the hell this was, but even though he’d tried, he couldn’t deny the truth.
Something strange was going on. And he wanted—no, he needed to find out what.