Title: Better Late Than Never
Summary: Modern AU. Gwen arranges a Christmas Eve date with Merlin. Except he doesn't know it's a date. Yet.
Warnings: High on the schmoop meter
Word Count: 1604 (I just couldn't stop!)
Prompt: #143, late
Author's Note: Inspired by this KMM prompt: "Gwen/Merlin, fumbling, feet-in-mouth confessions and embarrassed but happy intimacies. Something bubbly."
What was I thinking? He’s not going to show. Why would he? I’m nothing like the girls he sees every day. He’s not here because he’s got better things to do with his Christmas Eve, none of which are me--
Then there he is. Running across the street to get to the pub. Waving off the taxi that almost hit him in his haste. Breaking into that brilliant smile the second he spots Gwen waiting outside for him. In that moment, she forgets everything she’s just been thinking.
That happens a lot when he smiles at her.
“I’m so sorry.” His words are almost lost when he surprises her with a quick hug. “I can’t believe you waited for me.”
“Of course, I’d wait for you.” Meeting with Merlin is her entire plan for the night. It had taken her weeks of building up her courage to suggest it in the first place. “I thought maybe I’d messed up where we agreed—”
“You? Make a mistake like that?” He laughs, and her heart is automatically lighter. “No, this was all Arthur. As usual.” He jerks his head toward the door. “Let’s go inside.”
She lets him order their drinks and then carry them to a table in the corner where they’re half-hidden from the rest of the patrons by the pub’s huge Christmas tree. Her stomach flutters when she has to take off her coat and reveal the red foil gift she’s been clutching like a life preserver.
His eyes widen. Good lord, he has the most beautiful eyes. “Is that for me?”
“Who else?” She slides it closer to him, only to jerk her hand away when he sets down a flat silver-wrapped box in front of her. “Merlin. You didn’t.”
“Of course, I did. Go on. Open it.”
Except her hands are shaking and she feels nauseous. I shouldn’t have done this. I’m going to embarrass him because he probably got me a pen and if he says yes about later then it’s just going to be because he feels guilty or sorry, and oh god, I completely buggered this up. “You first.”
“My mum would have a fit if I didn’t let a lady go first.”
“How about the same time?” Which is actually the best all around because then he’ll be too busy unwrapping his gift to notice how nervous she is.
Merlin regards her for a long minute with that head tilt he does when he’s really thinking about something. I spend too much time watching him to know that kind of detail. “All right,” he finally says. “Together.”
They move at the same time. Normally, Gwen would slit the sello and preserve the paper, but Merlin is tearing into his gift, and the last thing she wants is for him to be done and watching her. She matches his vigor, laughing when their hands knock against each other in their enthusiasm, only to have her heart stop when she pulls the lid off the box.
Merlin freezes the second after she does. When she neither moves nor speaks, he clears his throat. “That’s the one, right?”
Mute, she nods. Inside, nestled on a bed of lavender silk, is the silver hand mirror she found six months earlier when she went shopping with Morgana. She’s never mentioned it to anyone, least of all Merlin. They had been looking for a gift for Uther at his favorite antique store, but the delicate etching had captivated her for long minutes before Morgana pulled her away.
Why would Merlin give her this? “Did Morgana put you up to this?” she blurts.
A startled Merlin sits back. “No. Arthur and I saw you two that day. He had the same idea Morgana did about Uther’s birthday gift.”
“But…” The words refuse to come. Morgana is the one who gets such beautiful presents, not her.
Merlin makes up for the silence. “I wanted to give it to you for your birthday, but then Morgana took you to New York—”
“That was for work.” Thanks to Uther. Morgana had felt terrible about it, but as her assistant, Gwen had no choice in the matter.
“Which I found out after the fact.” His sheepish grin returns. “Better late than never.”
None of it explains why he would give her such a gift. Does he think I’m that vain? He can’t. He knows me. Except he doesn’t know everything, because she has made it her second job to keep Merlin from finding out about her crush on him. Tonight was supposed to change all that, but if she tells him now how she feels, will he think she’s only saying it because of the gift?
“You’re not saying anything.”
“I…don’t know what to say.”
“Do you like it?”
She lifts her eyes to meet his. “I love it. Thank you.”
Merlin turns back to his gift with a relieved grin. “I never understood why you didn’t buy it yourself if you liked it so much. Turned out lucky for me, though.” His face brightens even more when he sees the Bose earbuds she’s bought for him. “Hey! These are brilliant! Thanks!”
“They’re noise-cancelling, too.” She offers a wan smile. “So you can block out Arthur whenever you want.”
“And you don’t have to worry about them fitting over my ears,” he jokes.
Her cheeks heat. “That didn’t even occur to me.”
“I’m just teasing. Though Arthur will likely say something like that when he sees them.”
“I’m not Arthur.” She sucks in a hard breath and decides to go for it. “Your ears are perfect, just as they are.”
Merlin pauses at her comment, then plucks the mirror out of its wrapping, looks into it, and shakes his head. “Nope. Don’t see it.”
“Then perhaps you need glasses, not a mirror, because I happen to like them.”
He whips the mirror around to force her to look at her own reflection. “And what do you see now?”
She stiffens and looks past him to avoid the truth. “I’m a wreck.”
“You’re beautiful,” Merlin corrects. His voice has gone soft, just like his gaze. “I hate it when you say things like that about yourself.”
“Because you’re my friend.”
“Because it’s not true.” Setting down the mirror, he reaches across the table and brushes a stray curl away from her face. “I hoped your Christmas gift would tell you what I haven’t been able to, but I guess that was foolish.”
Her pulse stutters back to life, charging into thunderous pounding before he withdraws his hand. “My gift didn’t do what I wanted, either.”
“Clearly, that means we’ve spent too much time answering to Arthur and Morgana’s whims rather than ours.”
She bites back a smile. “They are rather demanding.”
“Do you know why I was late tonight? I had to go tie-shopping, because Arthur decided at the last minute that none of the eighty-three ties he already possesses were good enough for Uther’s Christmas Eve dinner.”
Now, she laughs. “Morgana has a dozen different dresses picked out. I had to pay one of Uther’s maids to send pictures of what all the women are wearing to Morgana, so she can be the last one to arrive in a color nobody else has chosen.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t make you do it yourself.”
“Only because personal assistants are never invited to Uther’s holiday parties.”
“Lucky for both of us.”
This is more normal, complaining about their employers, de rigueur for their usual stolen moments together. From the second Merlin came to work for Arthur, he was a confidant and friend, a haven of sanity amidst the Pendragon madness. Is it any wonder she has fallen in love with him along the way? All right, perhaps almost from the beginning, when he was the only one who could make her smile during a very bad day.
Merlin makes it very easy to love him. In a million different ways.
So why is it so hard to tell him?
“It really is beautiful,” she says, picking up the mirror. When she catches something in the reflection, she glances at the ceiling.
Merlin follows her gaze. “It looks like we sat under mistletoe.”
From a quick scan of the room, their table is the only one with the adornment. “Do you want to move?”
“No. But, you know…it’s mistletoe.”
“Isn’t it bad luck if we ignore it?”
“I’ve never heard that.”
“Oh, yeah, very bad luck. And considering who we work for, I don’t think we should tempt fate.”
Before she can muster more protest, Merlin stretches across the table—she’s going to chalk this up as yet another plus to his long, lean body—and kisses her.
His lips are still cold from the frigid temperatures outside, but then again, so are hers, so really, it’s a perfect match, especially when they each manage to tilt just so to make the kiss sweet rather than clumsy. He is smiling when he pulls back, and it takes her the briefest of moments to realize she is, too.
“I was planning on doing that on your birthday, too,” he says.
“How were you going to find mistletoe in August?”
“I hadn’t thought that part through.”
“Can I kiss you again?”
“Haven’t we banished our bad luck already?”
“This one’s just for us.” A twinkle appears in his eye. “Or more than one, if you’ll let me.”
Her heart is so full of joy, she’s going to burst. She has only one thing to say to Merlin before meeting him halfway for the kiss.
“Better late than never.”