As far as Alex was concerned, this was probably the third worst party he had ever been to.
And given that he’d almost died at the first two on that list, that was saying something.
Technically, this was the 33rd Annual Charity Gala of some environmental organization whose name already escaped Alex. But the uniformed waiters, the upscale trappings, and the ballroom packed with people whose shoes cost more than Alex would ever earn in a lifetime brought back more than their share of uncomfortable memories.
He didn’t have to come tonight. Logically, Alex knew that. There was no MI6 leaning on him, no mission to be completed. He was a free man. But ditching tonight would also mean abandoning Artemis to his own trauma surrounding the last time Alex had attended such an event. And judging by their mirrored sleepless nights, it was a difficult memory for both of them to forget.
So Alex put his best suit and tie (which Artemis had immediately fixed the moment he had laid eyes on him) and smiled as he joined Artemis and his parents for a night that was certain to be hellish for the both of them.
Still, Alex hadn’t been able to fully relax since the moment he stepped through the double doors. Statistically, he knew that it was highly unlikely that a random charity gala would be the subject of an attack by any nefarious party, but Alex found he couldn’t stop scanning the crowd for signs of suspicious activity or watching the doors to ensure they remained untampered with. The only comfort was that Butler had accompanied them for the evening, and was currently lurking (as much as someone of his build could lurk) towards the side of the ballroom. Far enough away to give Artemis and him space, but close enough to intervene if things suddenly went south, an arrangement Alex was more than thankful for. He wanted Artemis to be safe, but it was also difficult to be very romantic with your boyfriend with his bodyguard hovering over his shoulder.
Someone pressed a flute of champagne in Alex’s hands. He looked over to see Artemis, holding a flute of his own and studying him.
“You look tense,” Artemis commented. “I figured you could use it.”
Alex grimaced and took a sip of the champagne. It tasted like relief. “Thanks. Is it that obvious?”
“You keep looking at the chandelier like you’re expecting it to explode.”
“Given our luck, would you really be surprised?”
Artemis sighed and took a long sip of his own drink. “…I suppose not.”
Alex switched his drink to his other hand and reached out to take Artemis’s hand in his own. He gave it a light squeeze. “…Sorry. Didn’t mean to bring the mood down.”
Artemis glanced at him. “Don’t be. I’m sorry I dragged you out to this miserable affair.”
“I’ve been to worse,” Alex said with a shrug. Though judging by Artemis’s wince, that had been the wrong thing to say. He internally kicked himself.
“My point exactly,” Artemis said, brow furrowed.
“I wasn’t going to leave you to suffer through this by yourself. What kind of boyfriend would that make me?” Alex said, laughing a little. Then he lowered his voice. “Though you know you didn’t have to come at all, right?”
Artemis’s eyes slid away from Alex’s and out to the center of the ballroom, where somewhere in the crowd Artemis Sr. and Angeline were enjoying themselves, oblivious to the burdens of their eldest son. “…Didn’t I?” he said eventually, voice quiet.
Alex pressed his lips together. This wasn’t the time or the place to try to tease apart the complicated relationship between Artemis and his parents, but sometimes he wished the Fowls were able to make Artemis feel like a decent son without him complying with their every demand.
“Do you want to get out of here?” Alex asked suddenly. “Find a dark corner to make out in or something?”
Artemis started. “Whoever will be on chandelier duty, then?” His tone was wry, but there was an unmistakable tinge of anxiety to it. Alex could sympathize.
“I’m sure Butler can handle it for a few minutes.”
His boyfriend flushed and stared pointedly into his champagne. “I’m not sure that’s entirely a good idea.”
“Boo,” Alex said, trying to hide the real disappointment he felt. “You’re no fun.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to inform me of that,” Artemis said, making a face that most likely indicated he had dredged up an unpleasant school memory.
It was then that the music, lively up until this point, began to slow down. Alex watched couples begin to partner up on the dance floor, and an idea began to bloom in his mind.
“Or,” Alex said, nudging Artemis lightly with his elbow, “We could dance.”
Artemis stared at him with the same horror he would have if Alex had asked him to strip naked and sing ABBA to the entire gala. “Absolutely not.”
“Why not?” Alex asked, crossing his arms.
“Because I’m an utterly abysmal dancer, and I’m not in the mood to humiliate either of us, not to mention scuff my shoes in the process.”
“Surely you can’t be that bad.”
Artemis raised an eyebrow. “Feel free to ask Butler. He attempted to teach me several times throughout my childhood and only managed to get his toes stepped on more times than possibly could be counted.”
Alex made a mental note to ask Butler about more of Artemis’s embarrassing childhood stories when he got a chance. “What about that fancy school you went to? Didn’t you have dances there?”
Artemis wrinkled his nose in distaste. “If they could be called such. We would have occasional mixers with the associated all-girls school, but I was hardly, well, comfortable, for lack of a better word, with my peers, much less my sexuality, at that point, so I never attended. Besides, my classmates didn’t call me Left Foot Fowl for no reason.”
“Pricks,” Alex muttered under his breath.
Artemis managed a quick smile at that, then shook his head. “Maybe so, but in that particular case, they weren’t wrong. I can’t dance, Alex, and I highly doubt anything you can do will change that fact.”
Alex poked him gently. “Hey, it’s been years. You never know. Please?”
Artemis looked back out into the ballroom as he took another long sip of his champagne. “I’m sure there are plenty of other nice ladies and gentlemen who would love to dance with you.”
“I don’t want to dance with any of them,” Alex said softly. “I want to dance with you.”
Artemis swirled his flute silently, his lips pressed into a thin line.
Alex sighed. “Listen… The last time I went to a party like this, it was probably the worst night of my life. And that’s saying something, considering.”
“It wasn’t one of my favorites either,” Artemis muttered, tightening his grip on the stem of his champagne until his knuckles were white.
“My point is,” Alex continued, shifting, “Is that I’d rather spend my time here making new memories with you instead of dwelling on our collective trauma.” He held his hand out tentatively. “No pressure, of course, and I won’t hold it against you if you say no. But genuinely, nothing would make me happier right now than to have you in my arms.”
Artemis stared at Alex’s hand for what felt like a solid minute. Then he downed the rest of his champagne in a suspiciously practiced motion and set the flute down on the closest flat surface.
“One dance, Rider,” Artemis said, accepting Alex’s hand gracefully.
Alex’s face broke out into a grin. “You won’t regret it.”
Artemis flushed, though whether it was from Alex’s attention or the alcohol was unclear. “That remains to be seen.”
After placing his champagne down next to Artemis’s, Alex guided them both out onto the dance floor, among the couples already swaying to the down-tempo song that filled the air. He found them a space to themselves, far enough away from onlookers on the outskirts of the ballroom but also far enough away from the other dancers that the chances of a collision were minimal. Alex doubted Artemis was really as bad a dancer as he claimed, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious.
Apprehension was rolling off Artemis as they turned to face each other.
“Relax, babe,” Alex mumbled. “We’re not in a warzone. I’ve got you.”
“Easy for you to say,” Artemis hissed back, but some of the tension did leave his shoulders.
Alex gently guided Artemis’s hand to his waist, then intertwined the fingers of their other hands together. He took a deep breath and they began to dance.
It was slow going at first. If slow going meant having Artemis almost step on him at least three discrete times within the first minute. Alex was thankful his reflexes were quick enough to avoid his toes being repeatedly squashed. He made a mental note that if he was ever going to do this again, he was going to get Smithers to make him a pair of steel-toed dress shoes.
Artemis looked somewhere between profoundly miserable and profoundly apologetic. An “I told you so,” seemed to be hanging on the edge of his lips, but it was hardly a smug proclamation.
Still, Alex was determined to have a good time tonight, even if he killed him. Then he quickly backtracked that thought. It was exactly that sort of thinking that got you in trouble in this line of work.
He moved his hand to the small of Artemis’s back and pulled him closer, enjoying the blush that crept up his boyfriend’s neck. “You’re overthinking it.” Alex mumbled next to his ear, “Just let go and let me take the lead.”
“I’m not entirely sure I know how to, if I’m being honest,” Artemis responded at the same volume, shooting Alex a look that looked more than a little lost.
Alex kissed him lightly. “Just give it a shot, yeah?”
Artemis’s eyes closed briefly as he let out a long exhale. “Right. Lead on, then.”
They danced on, haltingly at first, then a bit more gracefully as Artemis managed to get somewhat better at stepping places that didn’t include Alex’s feet. If this were a movie, they would have danced until they realized that the rest of the ballroom had stopped dancing to watch them, awed by their skill and their passion. Maybe there would be applause. He and Artemis wouldn’t care, though, because they would be too wrapped up in gazing into the other’s eyes for any of that to matter.
Of course, it wasn’t a movie, and hardly anybody on the dance floor spared them a second glance, much less cheered for their romance. But there was one thing the cheesy teen movies Alex had seen got right.
The rest of the world completely disappeared while he was holding Artemis. It was just the two of them in the entire room, each completely lost in the other.
It was when the song switched from an 80’s ballad to a heartfelt pop song from the mid-2000s when Artemis surprised him by suddenly leaning forward and tentatively resting his head against Alex’s shoulder. The height difference should have made it awkward, but Alex found he didn’t care in the slightest.
“Is this alright?” Artemis asked softly.
Alex wondered if Artemis could hear the sound of his heart beating loudly from its current residence in his throat. “Uh, yeah,” he managed to choke out. “That’s great.”
The barest hint of a smirk ghosted across Artemis’s face. “I’m glad.”
Then Alex rested his head on Artemis’s and he couldn’t see his boyfriend’s expression any longer. Artemis must have closed his eyes, because his dancing decreased notably in quality, but Alex didn’t care. He’d endure being stepped on a thousand times if it meant he could live in this singular moment.
For the first time that night, Alex let himself lose track of where the nearest exit was.
They danced like that for several minutes, barely able to tell where one body ended and the other began. It was only when Alex realized the song was ending that he was snapped out of his reverie and was at the same time struck with a wild idea.
“I’m going to dip you now,” Alex said.
“What?” Artemis said, alarmed, and Alex could imagine his eyes shooting open in concern.
But it was too late, because Alex was already elegantly dipping Artemis down towards the floor, holding him aloft with his arms. Artemis gave a rather inelegant yelp as he pitched downwards and clung to Alex for dear life.
Alex couldn’t suppress a grin as he held Artemis there for a few seconds, then lifted him upwards once more.
Artemis began to sputter as soon as he was upright again. “A-Alex, you absolute-!”
Whatever he was going to say was lost when Alex leaned forward and kissed him passionately.
Eventually, they broke apart when they belatedly realized that the song had switched to something more upbeat an embarrassingly long time ago. As much as Alex was loathe to ruin the moment, it was probably best to, well, evacuate the dance floor before things got too overwhelming. He kissed Artemis’s knuckles lightly before interlocking their arms together and leading him to the side of the ballroom.
“So,” Alex said conversationally, glancing over at Artemis, who seemed deep in thought, “Was it as bad as you thought?”
“I feel sorry for your toes,” Artemis said, quirking an eyebrow.
Alex gave him a look.
Artemis sighed and looked away. “…Alright, it wasn’t nearly that bad. At least, because of you, it wasn’t.” He shook his head. “You were right. It’s nice to have memories of you that don’t involve any sort of conflagration. Thank you for giving me that.”
The look Alex gave him this time was one of incredulity. “You don’t need to thank me, Arty. I treasure our time together just as much as you do. You make me incredibly fucking happy, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Artemis’s expression was impossibly soft. “You make me happy too.”
The rare moment of peace and genuine happiness enveloped them, and they stood like that for a minute, simply enjoying it. It wouldn’t last, of course. It never did. But for now, they had each other, and that was what mattered.
Eventually, though, Artemis cleared his throat. “Do you, by any chance, remember your suggestion from earlier?”
It took Alex a moment to realize what he was talking about. “The one where we ditch this and find a place to make out for a while?”
“The very one.” Artemis had turned a delightful shade of pink. “I would… I think I would like to take you up on that offer, if you’re still willing.”
As if Alex wouldn’t be. He smiled so wide it nearly hurt.
“I’d be happy to.”