Prompt: The Philadelphia Story
Pairing: Arthur/Merlin, Lance/Guinevere, (previous Arthur/Guinevere)
Word Count: 5,033
Notes: Written for reel_merlin. I've tried for 1930's idioms, but I don't know how well I've managed it! Also, there is a liberal sprinkling of dialogue lifted from the movie and one line of Shakespeare.
Summary: There's nothing quite like a wedding in Philadelphia - for Merlin Emrys, reporter, writer and all around nice guy, it's a chance to become more than the hack he's been reduced to. And for Arthur Pendragon, rich, spoilt and trying to do the right thing, it's a chance to atone. If only he can get over his own prejudices...
It had to be said - there was nothing like a wedding in Philadelphia. For a good old blue-collar working guy like Merlin Emrys it was meat and drink, literally in this case. Merlin might have a chip on his shoulder a mile wide but that didn't mean he was going to turn down the most upmarket spread he'd laid eyes on since he was last invited to his boss' hideaway in the Hamptons - which was never, but a guy could dream, right? Besides, Merlin had been there, he just hadn't been invited...
His photographer, Gwaine Knight, was lurking behind a pot plant, and trying to look like he hadn't stolen the silver - which would be difficult, Merlin thought in amusement, since in order to steal this dame's silver you'd need a small truck at the very least. And maybe an encyclopedia since he had no idea what half the items even were. Did the very rich just silver-plate anything that didn't move fast enough?
The image made him smile, so it was lingering on his lips when Merlin turned round yet another corner and bumped into one of the last people he'd been expecting - since it had been in his own boss Sidney Kidd's office that he'd last seen him, when he'd been blackmailed into accepting Kidd's offer of a wedding exclusive for 'Spy' magazine on behalf of Guinevere Smith, socialite extraordinaire and also his ex-wife. Arthur Pendragon was of the same social class as Smith, which was to say considerably higher than Merlin's, but he found he couldn't hate him for it, however much he wanted to, on account of the aforementioned blackmail. Perhaps it was the romantic in him but Merlin liked that Pendragon was trying to help Smith out, even now, when he didn't owe her a thing. That smacked of loyalty, that did, and he liked that, even if it was from some stinking rich, blond-haired, blue-eyed Adonis. Crap, where did that come from?
Pendragon meanwhile was staring at him lazily, as though arrested by the sight. Perhaps he wasn't used to hoi polloi reporters stinking up his ex-wife's mansion? It made Merlin become very conscious of his ears, and his shabby off-the-peg suit, that hadn't been new when he got it. Still, he was working here, not goofing around; it didn't matter what Pendragon thought.
"So how do you want us to play this?" he asked, brusque to the point of rudeness, chiefly due to embarrassment.
Pendragon just seemed to find him funny. "You are to be intimate friends of Guinevere's brother Elyan. If that's alright with you."
"So, we're to be Elyan's friends, are we? How nice. How is dear, dear Elyan?" asked Merlin, since he'd always subscribed to attack being the first form of defence.
Pendragon raised an interested eyebrow. "He's in South America. Ranching cattle. How is Argentina at this time of year?"
"Tall," said Merlin, shortly, and that seemed to be that.
Guinevere herself seemed to be taking it in her stride. There'd been some teasing, but Merlin rather liked that - meant she wasn't a complete stuck-up bitch. Which would make Sidney Kidd sad, since he wanted an angle and that would be a great one. Still, Sydney Kidd could go hang himself as far as Merlin was concerned, because Guinevere Smith was a peach. She'd offered to read his book for a start. About twenty people in the whole world had read his book, and Guinevere would make it twenty one. His book had come of age! Yeah, right. Keep on dreaming, Merlin.
She asked him to go for a swim that afternoon, in the pool in the backyard. If the word backyard was still appropriate when it included a small forest, several acres of grazing land, stables, garage, and a pool-house bigger than Merlin's apartment block. It made Merlin uncomfortable, but name something that didn't on this ridiculous assignment? He was standing there trying not to fidget in the fluffiest white bath robe he'd ever had the pleasure of wrapping around his scrawny frame, when Arthur Pendragon strolled up and his looming, elegant, linen-suited presence nearly made Merlin trip over his own feet. And he wasn't even moving - life was so unfair. It turned out Pendragon had a wedding present for Guinevere, but he didn't ignore Merlin, just slid that cool amused gaze across him, as though in surprise.
"Oh Arthur, thank you!" she said, looking up at him adoringly, and Merlin wondered in disgust why they had ever bothered getting divorced if they could look that revoltingly happy afterwards.
It was a model of a yacht. Guinevere sailed it at the edge of the swimming pool, and the light reflecting from the water looked like jewels in her hair. "It's a model of the 'True Love'," Guinevere explained, her eyes dreamy, "We sailed it up the coast the summer we were first married, didn't we, Arthur? My, she was yar."
"She was. But I wasn't though, was I, Guinevere?"
"Not very. But...oh, I didn't mean..."
Guinevere Smith also blushed quite prettily, her skin flushing darker than usual, her eyes sweeping closed in mortification. She looked adorable. Pendragon just had to be charmed. But instead there was a wry twist to his lips when he took her by the hands and said, "Good at the brightwork, that was me. It's ok, you know."
Pendragon could make anything shine, in Merlin's opinion. But no-one was likely to ask.
"DuLac, Lance DuLac," said the guy with the pearly white smile and the unfeasibly shiny hair, "It's nice to meet you. I'm Gwen's fiancée, you must be Elyan's friends."
"That's us," said Merlin, "Dear Elyan." He winced as Gwaine took another picture, right in DuLac's eyes. Who didn't even blink.
"Well, that's swell, any friend of Elyan is a friend of mine," said the suspiciously perfect man in front of them, while Merlin was left wondering if everyone in these rarefied circles was this good-looking. Maybe they threw the ugly ones back in the sea. Or swapped them at birth. Or... no, that wasn't right. Wasn't Lance DuLac a self-made man? A 'man of the people' as Time magazine had dubbed him, and hadn't Sidney Kidd been mad that they'd lost that exclusive.
"Isn't he something though?" said Guinevere, as she came up to the pair of them and took Lance's arm. He smiled down at her as though she hung the moon and the stars as well.
"Oh, don't be like that, Gwen, you know that you're so high above me, I can barely see the pedestal. Like a beautiful goddess, or a queen maybe, regal and perfect - I can hardly believe my luck that you ever said yes," declared Lance, his expression heartfelt, and his tone fervent.
Gwen gazed up at him lovingly, which was just as well, Merlin thought, given she was marrying the guy tomorrow. But Lance seemed too much of a stuffed shirt to him, too earnest and sincere. For his own part, he preferred a guy with more of a sense of humour.
The ball that night was sparkling, as was the champagne. Merlin watched Guinevere being swirled around the dance floor under the light of silvery chandeliers and felt bitter. He drank more than he should while failing to avoid Gwaine's advances, although having his ass pinched seemed to be an occupational hazard in this house, since Guinevere's father, Tom Smith, had also had a go. As shouting I'm a writer not a gigolo would likely get him thrown out, Merlin had just stuck with the champagne.
He saw Guinevere go out on the terrace, and on a whim, followed her. She was humming and swaying as though she had an invisible partner, so Merlin didn't think she'd mind if he joined her. She giggled, before tapping him on the nose.
"You're Merlin, and you're awfully sweet. You write beautifully, and you deserve better than to work for a filthy rag like Spy. I have a darling little cabin in the woods, I'm barely there, except in hunting season, and not so much then - it's yours if you want it." She made a little face then, her mouth round with shock. "Oh, I'm not meant to know that, am I? Oh dear."
"It's fine," said Merlin, "Everything's fine. For example, don't you think that it's a fine night?"
"Well, that's all that matters then."
He took her in his arms, a warm sweet-smelling armful, and they danced. Guinevere was an excellent dancer, Merlin not so much. Luckily if he did tread on her feet, she was too soused to notice.
"So tell me about Pendragon," asked Merlin, "Because I'm not meant to be writing this piece about him, so it's completely safe."
"Really? Well, I suppose if you say so, you're the professor." She giggled again. "Arthur is... Arthur lets people down, I suppose. He doesn't mean to - he always tries to be the very best, but when he doesn't match up to his own completely impossible ideals, he falls. Then the guilt just eats away at him until he does things he regrets. He'll never be a first-class human being or a first-class man, until he's learned to have some regard for human frailty."
"Is that so," Merlin murmured to himself as much to the lovely Guinevere, "Well, I have a bone to pick with the high and mighty Arthur Pendragon. Right now."
He went to find his car.
"Arthur Pendragon! That's right, you just park yourself there, how nice you haven't turned into a pumpkin and six white mice, since midnight's come and gone. That's good. Arthur Pendragon!"
Merlin hiccuped, and grabbed for the bottle of champagne he'd brought with him from the party. He wasn't in the habit of talking to motor vehicles but since his car had kindly decided not to leave the road and get friendly with a tree, and seemed to have rolled to a halt just nicely in front of Arthur Pendragon's mansion without Merlin having to do much of anything, he felt it deserved acknowledgement.
The light on the porch had come on, and that was terribly convenient, since Merlin wanted to go inside - they must have known he was coming. Merlin couldn't think how.
"Yes, yes," said the man himself, testily, "I don't know what I might have done in a former life to deserve this - or actually, maybe I do."
Merlin blinked at him. Pendragon was dressed in a pair of white silk pyjamas that left absolutely nothing at all to the imagination. He also looked deliciously rumpled and a tad grumpy, and while Merlin had no idea why the grumpiness was so endearing, it most definitely was.
Rather than reaching out with greedy hands, Merlin chose to flip at the ends of his own untied bow-tie - now when had that happened? He watched Pendragon follow the movement with great interest.
"I've come to talk to you, Pendragon," said Merlin, and waved the bottle in the air, "With Cinderella's slipper. Champagne is a great leveller. It makes us equals."
Pendragon smiled, his mouth a little wry. "Almost equals."
"You're right - you're nearly my equal. Now, I wanted to say something," said Merlin, grandly, while trying to remember through the pleasant fuzziness. Oh yes. "Are you still in love with her? Gwaine thinks you are. And if you are, you should man up! That's what you should do."
"With Cinderella's slipper?" Pendragon's voice had gone so far away. Merlin peered closely at him to see where it had gone. He smelled good - so good it must be expensive. "You should call me Arthur, you know," said Pendragon then, his tone soft, but altogether there again. Somehow Merlin's arms had gravitated to hold onto soft silk sleeves. His black tux next to the pajamas made a nice contrast.
"If you love her, why are you letting her go? I don't understand. You should fight for her!" said Merlin, experiencing a revelation.
Arthur's arms were circling his waist and it felt nice, just firm enough, and warm. He was being steered to the comfort of a couch. "You think I should fight Lance?" asked Arthur, and that was better, Merlin could hear the underlying amusement again.
"Because Cinderella's slipper let me down. And I let myself down, and everyone really. But Guinevere most of all."
"What?" Merlin really shouldn't have had that last glass. He blinked at Arthur rather owlishly.
Who huffed a tiny laugh. "When I couldn't be what Guinevere needed me to be, I took to drinking, Merlin. Is that clear enough for you? I was no kind of a husband."
"But you'll spare her blackmail, if you can." He was still trying to understand.
"She's a wonderful girl, it's the least I can do."
"You know, I wish I could help," said Merlin. And he did, he wanted to help Arthur, who smelled so nice, and had lovely arms, and a gorgeous ass, not that Merlin had been looking, no sirree. "Sidney Kidd is a heel, that's what he is. A no good, cynical, stinking louse. The things I know about him would curl your hair - like the time he went to Boston to be awarded the Sarah Langley Medal for World Peace. The true story on that little jaunt would ruin him."
"Really?" Arthur was looking intrigued through his amusement, and it made Merlin happy, seeing him smile. "Well, that's how we'll do it then. You see, Kidd is holding a dirty piece on Guinevere's father. This might stop him."
"If I give up my career to spill my guts and get fired," said Merlin, blissfully.
"Will you do it?"
"In a heartbeat. Let me get my pen..."
"This Sidney Kidd, ladies and gentlemen, this Sidney Kidd who at the exact same time was entertaining a South Carolina Mata Hari on his yacht..."
The doorbell went, and Merlin shut his mouth. Arthur had taken over writing down Kidd's exploits, in order for Merlin to alternately wave his hand in glorious emphasis, or drink from his bottle of champagne. There was a heavy mist before his eyes, so Merlin wasn't even sure he could see to write any more. He felt quite grateful to Arthur - he hated his job anyway, so why not do this? Maybe he should take up Guinevere's offer of a cabin in the woods.
"There's my wandering parakeet," said Gwaine, his expression fond.
Arthur snorted. "He's certainly been singing like a canary. Have you come to pour him into bed?"
"Something like that," said Gwaine.
There was a complicated series of looks going on over his head, which he was in no state to appreciate, but finally there appeared to be détente. Gwaine sighed and took his arm, a lot more impersonally than Merlin had been expecting. "Come along then, let's get you home."
Which surprised Merlin until he realised that Gwaine didn't mean Ealdor, Colorado but Camelot Mansions, Philadelphia.
Gwaine turned out to be the perfect gentleman, but even once in bed Merlin wasn't tired. He ended up wandering down to the Smith's impressive gardens to clear his head, wrapped in his fluffy bath robe. It seemed only right and natural to bump into Guinevere - since she'd been drinking too.
"Come on, let's go for a swim!" she suggested, her eyes sparkling nearly as hard as the champagne.
"Ok," Merlin agreed, "But I want you to know that my revolutionary heart rebels, even if the finest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges."
Guinevere huffed, a delicate noise, like a cat sneezing. "Oh really? Why you're a snob, Merlin Emrys, and one of the worst kind. An intellectual snob."
"No doubt, but at least I'm not arrogant. Or, at least, only arrogant enough to know it."
Guinevere put her hands on her hips in an unconscious gesture of impatience that had Merlin smiling. She was so absurd and so brave, all at the same time. It was sweet.
"Well, I never knew such a man!"
"Not even your precious Lance?" Merlin laughed, his head spinning. "Oh, you're wonderful, you know? There's a magnificence in you, Guinevere, it's like you're lit from within. You've got fires banked down in you. Hearth fires and holocausts!"
She was smiling at him now, as though he were the adorable one, and kissed him quickly to prove it. "Oh hush now. You'll be a first class writer one day, Merlin, if you don't get murdered first. Now how about that swim?"
He stole from the best. "I will live in your heart, die in your lap, and be buried in your eyes!" He winked. "Moreover I will go with you to your swimming pool."
The morning dawned fair and lovely, and Merlin would have thanked it, if he hadn't been swearing and trying to remember his own name. He could have done without some of its brightness, and rather than breakfast wished instead for a large stinger that might take away some of the sting. When he finally stumbled downstairs he was greeted by the pristine form of Arthur Pendragon in more impeccable white linen. Merlin winced and shaded his eyes from the glare.
"Here," Arthur said and shoved something the colour of blood into Merlin's hands, "I've been told this will pop the pennies off the eyelids of dead Irishmen. Why don't you try it and see?"
Merlin could only groan.
His one consolation was that Guinevere wasn't in any better shape. But she came out to the terrace in sunglasses, and Merlin cursed her forethought.
"So, Guinevere," said Arthur, his voice a shade colder than Merlin had ever heard it, "Do you remember much of last night?"
She picked up a piece of toast and bit into it enthusiastically, as Merlin watched with a glum face and queasy belly. "Of course, I always remember my parties - I've got an excellent head for wine. Has anyone seen my bracelet and engagement ring, by the way? I know I left them out here somewhere."
Without saying a word Arthur brought the offending articles from out of his pocket. Guinevere smiled up at him as she slipped them on. "Thanks, you're a prince."
There was a certain amount of silence then, although Merlin didn't feel it was an empty one, by any means. Guinevere ate her toast, everyone else drank coffee, while Merlin slowly sipped his concoction which tasted like it wanted to blow the top of his head off. Luckily, it also seemed to put it on again the right way round afterward, so Merlin was feeling almost human after a few minutes and ready for anything. He kind of thought he might need to be, as Arthur was staring at Guinevere through narrowed eyes as she blithely crunched away.
"We're expecting Lance soon," said Arthur, "I sent him a note."
"Oh, that's grand!" Guinevere's face lit up, like a flower turning towards the sun, "Although it's bad luck to see the bride before the wedding - Arthur, are you sure?"
His tone grim, Arthur said, "I'm sure."
There was nothing left to do but wait. Merlin got changed so at least he wouldn't have to face the perfect, handsome face of the 'man of the people' without the armour of suit and tie - this one pin-striped - even if he did manage to crumple it somewhere between his bedroom and the bottom of the stairs. His sartorial shortcomings made Arthur's lips twitch which Merlin counted as a win, ignoring the resultant surge of warmth that swelled in the pit of his stomach. Even if he was a reporter, some things were always best left unexamined.
Lance announced his arrival first with a toot of his horn, and then with the tipping of his hat. His smile was blinding.
"So what's all this about, then?" asked Lance, as he sat down at the table. He was holding an envelope. Arthur looked tense, but Lance was still nodding easily at everyone. Guinevere seized his hand.
"Oh, some absurd nonsense of Arthur's - you know what he's like when he gets a bee in his bonnet! It's so good to see you."
"And you, my dearest."
Merlin thought he was going to be sick. But that might just be the hangover cure.
Lancelot looked round at them all, comfortably. "I received a letter this morning asking me to come and there were also some accusations that... Well. I'm not sure I should say."
"Oh do," said Arthur, cuttingly, "We're all friends here."
Merlin had a secret guilty longing. He wanted Lance to get angry, to start puffing up, and declaring that he'd never heard of anything so ridiculous in his life, to become incensed and maybe a little red in the face. Maybe even for Arthur and Lance to have a knock-down, drag-out fight, fifteen rounds with no decision. He fancied a little bit of all that perfection to be mussed, but he didn't get his wish.
Lance merely blinked, and began to read in his measured voice. "My dear Lance: I want you to know that I will always think kindly of you, but I will understand if you do not return the sentiment after this. You must know that your fiancée's conduct last night was so shocking to the ideals of womanhood that your attitude toward her and the prospect of a happy and useful life together can only be changed materially. To have, on the very eve of her wedding, an affair with another man is shocking beyond belief. Her breach of common decency certainly entitles you to a full explanation before going through with your proposed marriage. In the light of day, I am sure that you will agree with me. With profound regrets and all best wishes, yours very sincerely... Arthur Pendragon."
Merlin realised he was gaping and closed his mouth with a snap. Surely this was when the sparks would fly, and the terribly expensive china would get thrown? How could Arthur have done this, to have been so cruel - how could any man stand it? How could any honest and spirited woman bear the shame?
But no-one was doing anything of the kind. Lance picked up Guinevere's hand and kissed her knuckles tenderly before saying, "Sweetheart, you make me the happiest man alive, as always. I am so proud that you would consider stooping so low as to marry me."
"Well, that's just silly," Guinevere said, with a shy duck of her head, "It's me who should be thanking my lucky stars that I've found the best, most decent man in the world to love."
Only Arthur seemed to be reacting at all normally. He got up and started pacing the terrace, his hands in his hair, disordering the immaculate blond locks delightfully. Only when he veered a little too close to Guinevere did Lance hold up a warning hand, "Easy now."
"But I don't understand! How can you sit there so calmly - don't you care that she had an affair? On the night before her wedding no less! For Guinevere to fail so clearly in her duty to you, and to herself - I don't know how you can stand it, never mind sit there like some kind of stuffed shirt, or smiling dunce, I just... Don't... How...?"
Arthur eventually ran out of coherent words, and ended up spluttering into the silence like a pan left to boil over.
It was all the more impressive when Lance stood up, quiet and imposing, his hand still held in Guinevere's.
"I can stand it, Pendragon, because I don't believe a word of it. I know Guinevere rather better than you do, I suspect, for all you have a husband's right until the ceremony. But even if I did remotely believe it, then she would have made a mistake and as such it would behoove me to forgive her, as a loving husband should, because it might be my mistake the next time and I would like to believe that I too could hope for some forgiveness for my own simple human frailties."
You could have heard a pin drop. Or at least a silver knife clatter the last inch onto porcelain. Merlin wanted to say something, to stick in his own particular oar, but the reporter in him couldn't bear to interrupt a good dramatic scene. He rather thought that DuLac couldn't look a speck more noble than he did right at that minute, even if he wasn't Merlin's type. For once he forgave Guinevere's worshipful gaze.
"Come along, honey," said Lance, at last, "I think you had better retire to change. The wedding's only a hop, skip and a jump away."
"Yes, dear," said Guinevere demurely, but there was a spark of amusement in her eyes as she glanced sidelong at the gaping form of Arthur Pendragon, dishevelled, and indignant, and yet still so deliciously perfect. She quickly ran over to him, and planted a soft kiss on his cheek. "Dear Arthur. You have to forgive yourself, don't you see? And that's got nothing to do with me."
It was so obviously a goodbye.
The day was still just as bright and fine, the breeze still as fresh, the people still as rich and classy, and yet nevertheless some of the shine had been rubbed off it. Merlin sat with a linen napkin in his lap and a certain disappointment in his heart, wondering what to do. He chose in the end to let his feet do the talking and stalked over to Arthur Pendragon, who was obviously a man in the throes of a crisis. But Merlin wasn't a reporter for nothing, he ignored the anguish on the guy's face, in favour of jabbing his forefinger into his sternum.
"Now see here, I don't know what kind of gall you've got, spreading muck like that and insulting people to their faces. I may only be some hick from Ealdor, Colorado when all's said and done, but in my neighbourhood you don't talk about a fella like that unless you've got evidence and don't mind a kicking. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty?"
It had taken a while but Merlin wasn't completely naive, he'd worked it out eventually, reading between the lines, so oblique and appalling as the implications were. Arthur thought Guinevere had had the affair with him.
Arthur was looking at him in disbelief, as though he was in the middle of a bad dream, but Merlin didn't see any need to stop. Arthur might look like a model out of some designer's Spring Collection, but that didn't mean he could just ride roughshod with his accusations and assumptions.
"It may interest you to know," said Merlin, "That the so-called 'affair' consisted of exactly one kiss and a rather late swim... Both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the memory of which I wouldn't part with for anything - but neither happens to constitute an affair."
He stopped, his breath coming short with emotion. As he took a second to get it back, Merlin realised he was much closer to Arthur than he realised, possibly invading-his-personal-space close. Merlin wondered what it said about him that he hadn't even noticed.
There was one good thing. Arthur appeared to be smirking again. The rush of relief on seeing that cool amusement return to his stupid beloved face was... Hold up. What was that?
"Well, how was I to know?" said Arthur, his eyes crinkling at the corners, "You can't trust the morals of common reporters who tell lies for a living and profit from filthy blackmail. You could have had designs on Guinevere's virtue, not to mention her money. She would hardly have been able to resist all that peasant charm of yours."
"Oh, for goodness' sake, Arthur!" said Merlin, exasperated beyond endurance, "I'm gay, alright! I wouldn't know what to do with Guinevere's virtue if it was handed me on a silver platter garnished with the Kama Sutra! Now... mmmph."
It was the only reasonable thing to do. Stranded here in these majestic rarefied heights had obviously addled his brain. When a warm, soft mouth descended on his, and broad hands encircled his shoulders, it was obviously only logical to kiss back.
"What an evocative picture you paint. Did anyone tell you that you might have a career in writing?" Arthur whispered against his lips, causing the most delicious shiver to run down Merlin's spine.
"Well, now that you've got me fired, I suppose anything is possible," Merlin whispered back, before diving in to taste those lips again. The smell of cedar wood and spice enveloped him, and the feel of a ridiculously soft shirt was delightful under his fingers - although exactly when he'd slipped his hands beneath Arthur's jacket was beyond him. Arthur was actually almost of a height with Merlin it turned out, which pleased him; it was so easy to stay there, lazily trading kisses and forgetting the world.
Only the sound of the band tuning up and beginning the Wedding March brought them back to their senses. Arthur looked sheepish, which made him seem ten years younger and made Merlin want to dirty him up even more.
"I've made a terrible fool of myself - which isn't unusual," said Arthur, "But I resolve to make it up to you, if you'll let me. I said I was no kind of a husband for Guinevere, didn't I?"
"You did," said Merlin, wondering why it felt as though his heart was doing somersaults in his chest. "Now it so happens that I may be sticking around to take up an offer from that self-same lady and borrowing an apparently darling little cabin in the woods. I've been told she's barely there, except in hunting season, and not so much then. I expect there's room for two."
"How beautifully planned," said Arthur, his mouth still but his eyes dancing.
"Isn't it?" agreed Merlin smugly, and kissed him again.