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No Matter How Far Away You Roam

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“So. Merlin.”

Merlin looks down at the delicious panini on his plate, back up at Arthur, back down at the panini, and realizes that he has been pulled into a clever trap. Arthur has his favor face on. Arthur’s favor face never ends well for Merlin, possibly because he is completely unable to say no to it. “I refuse to get arrested for you, it’s almost Christmas.”

“Yes. Christmas. I have a bit of a favor to ask you about that, actually?”

“Arthur, no. I am not going to pretend to be Santa Claus and traumatize small children, I am not cutting you a Christmas tree, I am not decorating a Christmas tree, I am not buying presents for your terrifying sister or father or stepmother, I am not spilling eggnog on your date, I am—”

“I was wondering if you might come home with me.” Merlin stops mid-rant and stares at him, and then down at his panini again, and back at Arthur. This is a panini of lies and pain. He can tell already.

“For Christmas? I’ve got an uncle and a mother and a sister waiting for me at home, in case you hadn’t remembered, I’m not going home with you just because you’re a workaholic.”

“No, it’s. My mum might be under the impression that we’re a little bit married.”

Merlin stares at him and takes a bite of his panini. “Your—how can one be a little bit married?”

“I said it was a small thing, just the paperwork, or she would have cried about not being invited. And obviously, not just my mum. The whole family. Thinks we’re married.” Arthur winces. “Sorry.”

There is a huge, obvious flaw in whatever plan Arthur thinks he is enacting. “Arthur. In case it has escaped your notice, we are not actually married. A little bit or a lot. Neither of those things. No marriage at all.”

Arthur gives him the charming smile and the favor face at the same time, Merlin is fucked. “But you could pretend, couldn’t you? Just for a few days?”

“No,” says Merlin. It’s at least a good negotiating point to start from. “I have a family, I told you this already, and I am fairly sure that being a consultant for your company instead of an employee means you can’t order me around, and also, we aren’t even dating, why would you tell your family we’re married? Wouldn’t dating be the first logical step in your elaborate path of lies and weeping?”

“They might have thought we were dating for a year or two before that. So my mum started asking why she’d never met you, and—”

“This explains so much about your sister and how she acts with me,” Merlin says in dawning horror. “Do you mean to say that Morgana actually thinks we’re properly married? Like, living together and things?”

“Our anniversary is coming up in April.”

“I’m not hearing this.”

“Look, Dad’s country seat is obscenely large, invite your family too. Our mums will get along, Gaius already knows my dad, and Freya and Morgana …” Arthur trails off. Merlin ponders exactly what sort of influence Morgana Lafayette is going to have on his sweet little sister and concludes that the world won’t survive. “Please, Merlin, just a few days.”

The panini is not going to fix this. No wonder Arthur offered to buy him dessert too. Merlin is going to get cheesecake. He may in fact get a whole cheesecake. “So, you know, just pointing out little hiccups in your plan: my family doesn’t think we’re married, or dating, which is sort of a problem.”

“Freya will think it’s funny, and your mum and your uncle are used to things being odd around you.”

Merlin windmills his arms and gets a dirty look from a nearby waitress, but nothing else will convey how completely stupid he thinks Arthur is being. “What possessed you to tell any of them that we were dating in the first place?”

Arthur turns red, and Merlin thinks about mouthing the next words along with him. “My mum. She wants us to be happy, and she means well, and she would get worried every time I showed up to a family event without a date, so I finally just blurted that actually I had someone, and I wasn’t going to make a person up before my dad does background checks—”

“Your family is legitimately terrifying.”

“—so I sort of settled on you.”

Merlin gives him a helpless, pained look. Arthur usually thinks those are funny. Today he just sort of does the same in return. “You know all sorts of nice, eligible people, Arthur. There’s Mithian—”

“My cousin.”

“—and Elena—”

“Also my cousin, albeit on the other side.”

“—and Vivian—”

“Are you joking?”

“—or hey, there are the other men! The ones who know what forks to use! Leon would be your fake husband, he’s the marrying kind.”

“Leon was dating Sophia at that point, though, Morgana would never have believed me. And anyway, now he’s with Gwen, which is why Gwen isn’t an option. And it’s a done deal, I really can’t change it at this point.”

Merlin makes another gesture that he hopes encompasses just how much he is not a suitable partner for Arthur Pendragon, a posh business mogul who doesn’t bother using his hereditary title unless he’s trying to flirt with Americans. He sometimes feels like he’s going to get kicked out of the places Arthur drags him to after work, and he’s not doing so badly for himself professionally either. “You are aware that this is mad, right?”

Arthur shrugs, looking suitably abashed, or maybe just pretending to. “Merlin, it’s my mum, I can’t just disappoint her. It’s almost Christmas.”

“If she’s anything like the rest of your family, she’ll think it’s funny.”

Arthur looks like he may be seeing the justice in that, but then he shakes his head. “Look, it’s one holiday, I will owe you a hundred favors if that’s what it takes, but we can put on a good Christmas, the family always does even if Nimueh and my dad fight like cats and dogs and Morgana serves dodgy cocktails. The cocktails make it more bearable, actually, especially since Morgause and Agravaine are coming for Christmas Eve dinner. Your family would be welcome, and mum wants to meet you so badly, and I can break it to her in the new year, but don’t we deserve a good Christmas?”

Merlin is a terrible, terrible pushover where Arthur is concerned. Gwen always tells him this with great sympathy, and Gwaine with a complete lack of it. “I’m going to assume you already have a wedding ring,” he says, and sighs when Arthur beams at him, all smug triumph now that he’s assured of his victory.

*

“So I have an interesting idea for Christmas,” Merlin says on the phone to Freya that night.

Freya hums. “The kind of idea that you tell me first so I can be the one to convince Mum?” Merlin lets his guilty silence speak for itself. “What’s this brilliant plan, then? A beach in the south of France? Donating our time to a charity in the city?”

“I didn’t say brilliant, I said interesting.” Merlin swallows. “How do you feel about spending Christmas at Pendragon Manor helping me pretend I’m Arthur’s husband?”

There’s a long, long pause that is presumably Freya waiting for the punchline. If only there were one. This may well go down in the history books as one of Merlin’s worse life choices, perhaps second only to becoming friends with Arthur in the first place. “I think I’ll skip asking all the obvious questions,” she finally says.

“I asked them all at a fairly high volume, but somehow I got myself talked into it anyway. But I said only if you all agree. I’m spending my holiday with my family.”

“Oh, I’m coming if Mum and Uncle Gaius do, because this is going to be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, I’m pretty sure.” Freya snorts. “I want to tell Uncle Gaius, I want to see his face.” Merlin has been imagining that too, with more trepidation than amusement. “Really, Merlin, his husband?”

“Will you help me convince Mum?”

“Mum will be so happy she doesn’t have to cook that she’ll put up with your and Arthur’s latest hare-brained scheme from sheer relief.” Merlin thinks about objecting to that, but it’s probably pretty fair. He’s really glad he bought her an amazing Christmas present, she deserves it for this. “But his husband?”

“Don’t ask me, ask Arthur, he’s the one who sprung this on me.”

“Is he buying you diamonds? He ought to buy you diamonds. And I think I shall ask him,” says Freya, and then, horrifyingly, hangs up.

Even more horrifyingly, Merlin gets a text fifteen minutes later from Arthur that says Freya and I agree that a princess cut diamond is clearly the only choice. She says she is calling your mum to get her opinion.

*

The ride out to Pendragon Manor, somewhere in the posh countryside, is quiet for about the first fifteen minutes, before Arthur says “So, perhaps you should know exactly what I’ve told them about all of this.”

Merlin groans and tips his head back and wonders why he didn’t go home first so he could take an uncomfortable train ride with his mother and his uncle instead. Freya’s coming right from uni, since she stayed a few extra days to spend time with some friends. “Yes, perhaps I should.”

“We started dating in June two and a half years ago now, you’ve had bad luck with holiday scheduling. You moved in with me last August, since I live so close to where we both work. We got married in April through mutual agreement rather than either of us proposing.”

Merlin waits for more, but Arthur isn’t forthcoming. “That’s it?”

Arthur blinks at him. “It didn’t take much more inventing than that.”

“Morgana has been to your flat—your family has visited in the city—since last August, where do they think I was?”

“Business trips, out with friends.” Arthur doesn’t do shame except where his mother is concerned, so Merlin is very nervous when he starts looking uncomfortable. “I might leave a few things around when they’re in town that make them think two people live there.”

“It really never once occurred to you to tell me I was your fake boyfriend? Husband? Like, not once? This seriously explains so much about my relationship with your sister and the amount of innuendo.” Arthur looks vaguely ill. Serves him right. “Thank God I haven’t seen your father in years. Do we go on dates? Are we planning on kids or obnoxious purebred dogs or particularly hardy cacti?”

That puts Arthur back on surer ground. More’s the pity. “We do go on dates, otherwise the amount of stories I tell about you when we’re out to dinner would be ridiculous.” Merlin stops before he can ask any questions, startled. “We aren’t ready to take care of anything yet, other than you periodically buying a houseplant and fretting over it until I kill it through neglect when you’re on a trip. Maybe a cat someday, and you’re fond of birds but I have a horror of waking up in the middle of the night to something croaking that it wants a cracker. We’re not sure about kids, and don’t let anyone bully you about that.”

“What, they’re likely to?” Merlin asks, in sudden terror, and then his ears catch up with them (it’s the wind resistance that makes them take so long, and God, he’s around Arthur and Gwaine too much if he’s making stupid jokes about his own ears at this point). “Those are pretty much exactly the answers I would have given, wow. Though I didn’t know that about you and birds, that’s hilarious.”

“Shut up,” says Arthur, and then rolls his eyes at whatever expression Merlin has on his face. “Of course they’re the answers you would have given. You steal covers in the summer but not in the winter because you’re too busy being a limpet, you refuse to cook anything that once had a face even if you’re fine eating those things, your sister wants to be a doctor like your Uncle Gaius, and I picked you as my spouse because I know you, Merlin. This wouldn’t have worked with anyone else.”

Merlin, entirely wrong-footed, has no coherent answer for that. “And what am I to say when they ask me about you?” he finally manages.

“Oh come on, Merlin, you know the answer to that.”

And he does. He knows Arthur talks in his sleep when he’s particularly tired and that he can’t get ready for work without terrible morning television going on in the background and all the frankly ridiculous complicated family history that’s leading to them spending Christmas with his father, his mother, his mother’s wife of ten years, his half-sister, and apparently at least one meal with his half-sister’s half-sister and a creepy uncle of some sort. And it’s not like he didn’t know that he and Arthur pretty much live in each other’s pockets sometimes, but it’s another thing to have him laid out in front of him like this and put in the context of marriage. It’s the kind of thing Merlin doesn’t let himself think about because it sounds tempting in the worst sort of way, the sort of way that is going to end with him heartbroken in five years if he thinks about it too much, and hearing that Arthur’s thought about it so much, told his family about it, makes him unsure if he wants to hit Arthur or do something really dangerous, like kiss him.

“There’s a box in my jacket pocket, I ought to have given it to you before we left,” says Arthur when he’s deemed that Merlin has had sufficient time to mull over a few things. “Grab it out, will you?”

Merlin does, because it’s not as though it’s the most intimate he and Arthur have ever been. Grabbing what is quite clearly a ring box out of Arthur’s jacket pocket doesn’t compare to checking him for rashes or getting called to pick him up half-naked from a fling’s house or any number of other things. It’s a plain black box, and at Arthur’s nod, Merlin opens it up: two rings, plain gold (Merlin is willing to bet real gold, even), one a little thicker than the other, both etched on the inside with—“Really, Arthur? TH White?”

“You like TH White. We bonded over TH White. ‘Once and future’ seemed romantic without being soppy. Put it on, Merlin, we’re going to have to get used to it.” Merlin takes his ring out, fumbling and refusing to have any ceremony whatsoever about sliding it on his ring finger, where it fits perfectly because Arthur is a deeply horrible human being. “With this ring, I thee wed,” says Arthur once it’s on. “Hand mine over, please.”

Merlin does, and it’s weird, watching Arthur put the ring on, businesslike as he does the one he wears on his thumb, an heirloom from his mother. He feels like he should say something, like Arthur did, but he’s sort of terrified it would come out overly earnest, so he stows the box in the glove box and looks out the window and tries not to fidget too much with the feeling of unfamiliar metal on his hand.

*

Pendragon Manor is just as massive and posh as it is in pictures. Arthur told him proudly that they filmed a costume drama in it last year while his father was on a trip to Spain. Merlin can believe it. The driveway is long, and the shed that’s been made into a garage is quite a walk from the house, leaving Merlin pink-cheeked with the cold by the time they make it to the massive doors and Arthur keys through them.

Morgana greets them at the door, cheerfully tipsy and with a bottle of cider in hand for each of them. “You’ll need these,” she says, all serenity and smugness, and then inspects them. “You really ought to have brought your family with you all at once, to shield you,” she tells Merlin, and disappears inside the house.

“Why are you two the way you are?” Merlin asks under his breath.

Arthur puts his arm around Merlin’s shoulder to usher him inside. “Years of upper-class repression, my mother leaving my father for my nanny, the revelation that Morgana is actually my father’s daughter, take your pick.”

Merlin doesn’t even have time to admit that that’s probably fair before Arthur’s parents descend on them. Uther is as terrifying as ever, possibly all the more terrifying for the fact that he’s wearing a pin shaped like a wreath on the lapel of his business jacket. The other two Merlin hasn’t met, just seen in pictures: Arthur always talks about Ygraine like she’s an angel, and she sort of looks like one, blonde and stupidly gorgeous just like her son, throwing her arms around his neck right away. Nimueh, the stepmother, follows at a more sedate pace, winking at Merlin when she catches sight of him.

The reason for the wink becomes clear when Ygraine releases Arthur, turns to Merlin, and promptly looks as though she’s going to burst into tears all over him. “Merlin, it is so good to meet you at last, Arthur’s been so selfish, keeping you all to himself. He’s been telling me about you for years, I was so glad when he finally admitted you’d been dating. Your family is coming?”

“They should get to the train station this afternoon.”

“You and I will go get them, how does that sound? We’ll leave Arthur here, he had to drive the two of you up from London, how was the traffic, darling?”

“It was fine, Mum,” says Arthur from where he’s hugging his stepmother.

Merlin finds himself wrapped up in a firm hug from Ygraine, followed by a kiss on the cheek. “I’m so glad to finally meet you. I’ve wanted to for ages, but I could never find a time to visit London and you were always so busy with your family, I don’t know why I didn’t suggest they come stay with us before.” She puts her arm through Merlin’s. “Come with me, I want to know you, there’s a fire in the sitting room and some eggnog, and we’ll have a bit of the non-alcoholic sort before we go pick your mother up. Do you think she’ll mind awfully that I only bought her a scarf? It’s so hard to buy things for people you don’t know.”

Merlin blinks, a bit bewildered. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, she isn’t expecting anything.”

“Nonsense, and if she’s at all like Arthur described, she’ll have something for everyone here, so it’s the least I could do to return the favor.”

Merlin gives Arthur a baffled look and Arthur gives him a smile that’s equal parts apologetic and amused. Merlin definitely understands far better why Arthur would make up a husband to make his mother happy, all of a sudden. “Mum,” Arthur says when Ygraine continues asking him questions he hasn’t got time to answer and giving him periodic overcome looks, “maybe let Merlin breathe? And introduce himself to Nimueh? He hasn’t seen Morgana or Father in a while either.”

“Of course, Arthur.” She backs off and looks between them, looking a little tearful.

Merlin hastily searches for something, anything to say. “The manor is lovely.”

“Isn’t it? I couldn’t bear to leave, and it’s so large that it hardly matters that Nimueh and I still live on the estate with Uther.” Merlin is never, ever going to understand the Pendragons.

Morgana is in the sitting room when they get there, and she widens her eyes at Merlin like she’s saying I know, aren’t they ridiculous, which she isn’t allowed to do, because she’s the one who answered the door and informed them they would need alcohol. “Merlin, darling, it’s been ages. Not since you married my brother, in fact!” It occurs to Merlin that all of this explains the accusatory and confusing texts about being sneaky throughout the last few months.

“Well, you know, newlyweds. We were a bit busy.” Arthur makes a choked noise, which serves him right.

Morgana laughs, and so does Nimueh, which is mildly alarming. At least Ygraine and Uther both mostly just look disapproving. “Come on, Merlin, you’re going to need a cocktail or two before you can handle this lot,” she says, and Merlin holds up the bottle of cider he hasn’t even cracked yet. She rolls her eyes. “Really, that’s just getting started.”

*

Mum and Gaius’s train is due to arrive twenty minutes before Freya’s, and Merlin steals Arthur’s car keys to go and pick them up, since Arthur is well on his way to drunk. He almost gets away, even, before Ygraine taps him on the shoulder, already wearing her coat. “You didn’t think you could sneak away without me, did you?”

Merlin tries not to turn red and probably fails. “Um, maybe a bit? Nothing against you, honestly, I just thought you might want some time with your son.”

“That’s thoughtful, Merlin, but you’re my son-in-law and I hardly know you, so for now I’m going to go with you. Arthur’s car is big enough to hold the five of us without squeezing too much, including luggage.”

There isn’t much to say to that, so Merlin offers her his arm to the car after giving Arthur a helpless look (and getting a blown kiss in return because Arthur is an awful human being). Ygraine takes it, and to his surprise she doesn’t chat at him much while they walk. His first impression was almost being bowled over with affection, but perhaps she’s a bit quieter when she’s not part of a crowd of mad Pendragons. He’ll hope so.

“I imagine you must have been avoiding us, until now,” Ygraine says when they’re in the car, and Merlin almost chokes on his own tongue, because of course that’s the conclusion she jumped to and he really has no way of countering it. “But I promise, I really do, that we’re only awful in groups. Singly we aren’t so bad.”

“You aren’t bad at all,” Merlin protests, and casts around for anything that doesn’t sound horribly false. “Overwhelming, maybe, but—it was more that I was sort of worried you’d hate me. I mean, not Morgana and Uther, I’ve met them, and they’re intimidating but Morgana seems to like me and Uther hasn’t actively tried to ruin my life, but you, well. Arthur loves you, and what if you’d hated me?”

“Oh, sweetheart, I couldn’t possibly.” She looks a little teary all of a sudden, and Merlin can deal with tears, he was raised by a single mother and has a little sister, but he doesn’t want to make Arthur’s mum cry, because Arthur will kill him. “I heard about you long before Arthur finally got up the courage to ask you out, I’ve wanted to meet you for ages and ages. You’re good for him. Just the way he talks about you, Merlin, anyone who makes my son that happy has to be someone I’ll like.”

Merlin swallows and doesn’t fiddle with his wedding ring, because people who have been married for eight months probably don’t fiddle with their wedding rings. Or maybe they do. He doesn’t want to make it obvious how new it is, though. “Well, I like you too. Arthur’s always spoken highly of you.”

Ygraine smiles at him and the rest of the ride to the train station is much more comfortable, which is a blessing since his mother’s train is ten minutes late, and spending the extra ten minutes with someone who thinks he hates her wouldn’t be terribly fun.

*

His mum and Ygraine take to each other instantly, enough that his mum gives him a few disapproving looks in the midst of kissing him on the cheek and telling him he needs to feed himself once in a while in the city, probably for helping Arthur lie to his mother. Gaius greets Ygraine pleasantly, since they know each other, and then talks to Merlin about his latest research while the mothers chat and they all wait for Freya’s train.

Freya steps off her train and is immediately swept up into their mum’s fussing, and then Ygraine’s, and then Gaius’s, and it takes Merlin an age before he can actually hug his own sister. “How are things so far?” she asks, and he hopes his helpless shrug can be interpreted as him holding her tighter by Ygraine.

The whole situation is that much weirder with his family around, because they all know, of course, so his mum keeps looking disapproving and Uncle Gaius keeps doing the damn eyebrow thing, and Freya gives his not-wedding ring at least three alarmed looks while he loads luggage into the boot of Arthur’s car. Merlin really needs to talk to the three of them without any of Arthur’s family around at some point so he can thank them and apologize to them all at once. None of them really hold things against him, because they’re amazing, but they’re still all going to look at him, and Freya is going to laugh at him every time Arthur does anything husbandly.

Freya and the mums end up sitting in the backseat, so Merlin keeps one ear on their conversation (something about tree decorating, which the Pendragons don’t do until Christmas Eve morning, the day after tomorrow) and mostly talks to Gaius about work and other very innocuous things, though Gaius does say “Arthur—you know, your husband” in an unnecessarily judgey tone a few times.

The door is thrown open for them before they’re even quite at it, and the entrance hall is full of Pendragons. Merlin feels a little sorry for his family, he couldn’t very well warn them about Pendragons en masse while Ygraine was there. Morgana is instantly making grabby hands at Freya’s coat and her earrings, barely giving Arthur the time to tell her hello, Nimueh and Uther vie for Gaius’s attention, and Ygraine pretty much drags Merlin’s mum towards the sitting room, promising her a good sit-down, and oh, does she want some tea, Ygraine can ring for some tea (because of course they have a cook-slash-housekeep to ring for, or possibly more, Merlin sometimes tunes Arthur out when he’s talking like a posh person).

Merlin finds himself standing next to Arthur, feeling a little shell-shocked all over again about Pendragons as a species. He can’t exactly tell Arthur that Arthur owes him so many favors, but he does the next best thing and turns to him and says, as solemnly as he can, “Next year we are spending Christmas in Siberia.”

Arthur, much more sober than when Merlin saw him last, nods fervently. “That may in fact be the wisest plan.”

*

Merlin has prepared himself for having to share a bed with Arthur as long as they’re at the Manor. Husbands don’t sleep in different beds, or on the couch, unless they’re fighting, which they’re not meant to be, and the floor is definitely not an option because the Manor, Morgana warned him over dinner, gets cold as fuck at night. So, Merlin has been preparing himself ever since Arthur talked him into this.

Arthur, to Merlin’s surprise, is the one who freezes at the door to his childhood bedroom. It’s closer to Ygraine and Nimueh’s wing than to Uther’s, with a big red-draped bed in the middle of it, and the bed looks comfortable after three of Morgana’s dangerous cocktails, some not-so-subtle needling from his family, a thorough examination of his professional and financial future from other, and Arthur holding his hand for most of the evening after dessert. Merlin could use some sleep, which is why he isn’t terribly impressed to be held up running into Arthur’s back. “What?” he asks.

“Nothing,” says Arthur in a tone that patently means something. Their bags are already sitting at the foot of the bed, and Merlin is pretty sure Morgana said all the rooms have ensuites, he really does not want to deal with Arthur’s attack of conscience right not. “Sorry, come in.”

Merlin does, and waits till the door shuts behind him to cross his arms. “You do not get to freak out about this.”

“I am not ‘freaking out,’ Merlin, honestly.” Arthur even does the air quotes, like that helps his case at all. “What even makes you think I am?”

“You look like the bed is going to bite you. If you have bed-warming corgis or something, you really need to tell me. That’s not the kind of thing you spring on a person. Like, oh, marriage.”

“There are no bed-warming corgis. Or greyhounds, or any other sort of dog. And I don’t think the bed is going to bite me, Merlin, don’t be ridiculous.”

Merlin goes over to his bag and rummages around for his pajamas. Normally he doesn’t wear more than boxers to bed unless it’s really cold, but in deference to bed-sharing he’s packed quite a lot more. He’ll probably kick off the covers and confuse Arthur, but it’s better than cuddling by accident. “You’re allowed to be nervous, I guess.”

“I’m never nervous.”

“Right.” He finds them and makes a triumphant noise. “I’m going to change, back out in a minute. If you try to mention work to me tonight, I am going to stab you.”

Arthur makes indignant noises that might be words when Merlin shuts the bathroom door behind him, but Merlin decides not to care. Instead, he changes as quick as he can, and Arthur was right, the air is a lot chillier than it is even in Merlin’s flat, which he keeps cold. He cleans his teeth while he’s at it, and by the time he comes out, feeling much more sober but miraculously no more nervous, Arthur is waiting by the door, already wearing his own pajamas. And his wedding ring. Merlin left his on the counter by the sink, and now he feels inexplicably guilty over it.

Merlin gets into bed while Arthur is still in the bathroom, since he figures it will be easier on them if they don’t have to get in at the same time. Arthur likes to be on whatever side is closer to the window (why does he know that? Merlin needs to stop knowing things like that), so Merlin takes the other, curling up under the duvet. It smells like laundry soap and some kind of winter-themed freshener, and it has him half-asleep already by the time Arthur comes out of the bathroom and then hesitates really obviously at the side of the bed. “Just get in already,” says Merlin when he can’t stand it anymore, thumping the mattress on Arthur’s side of the bed. “There will be uncomfortable cuddling and probably even more uncomfortable morning erections for a few days, but I’m fairly sure our friendship has suffered worse. Like fake marriage, for instance.”

“Shut up,” says Arthur, but he gets in bed. His feet are freezing, because Arthur has terrible circulation, and when his hand brushes Merlin’s trying to get pillows arranged to his satisfaction, there’s a cold shock of metal on it, and since Arthur always takes his thumb ring off at night, Merlin knows what it is.

There are a few minutes of silence when they’re both settled, Merlin curled towards the wall and Arthur flat on his back, both of them knowing the other one isn’t asleep. “At least the families get along,” he offers when Arthur makes it quite clear he’s never going to say anything.

“That will be a great comfort at the fake divorce proceedings.”

“Oi, you don’t get to be a dick about this, this was your idea.”

“You should have said no like a reasonable human being and sent me here in disgrace and shame or to continue the façade!” Arthur pauses, because even he has to realize how insane that sounds. “Look, thank you. It’s just weird, suddenly having my best mate be my husband.”

Merlin tries really hard not to turn pink and mostly finds himself grateful that the room is dark. “Your best mate?”

“Shut up, I’m not saying it again.” Arthur makes a gloomy noise. “My mum loves you.”

“That’s because I’m charming.”

“God knows what the appeal is.”

“You could have picked a different fake husband.”

“I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. No, but … thank you, Merlin, really. Somehow you’ve managed to be quite a passable husband, my mother is charmed, my stepmother is amused, my sister liked you already, and my father is at least willing to deal with you. So thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” says Merlin, and decides it’s in his best interest to start pretending he’s asleep before Arthur starts saying anything else stupid and lovely.

*

The Pendragons are a late-sleeping breed, so Merlin manages to have breakfast with his family in the morning. All three of them are waiting in the kitchen when he gets there, like they’re waiting to have an intervention, but none of them does anything more than gesture at the counter and the bounty of food laid out on it before going back to sipping at their morning tea.

“Enjoying it here?” Merlin asks, because it’s his fault they’re here at all.

“Morgana says they’re getting a twelve-foot tree,” says Freya with all the wide-eyed wonder of a six-year-old. “We’re going to have to use ladders to decorate.”

“It’s lovely,” his mother translates, smiling at Merlin as he sits down across from her at the table. “You’re doing well?”

“Oh, you know, it’s all a bit surreal.” He taps his ring against his glass of orange juice, and all of them look at it. “But believe it or not, Arthur and I have been in worse scrapes.”

His mother frowns. “I can’t imagine how Ygraine will react when Arthur tells her.”

Merlin looks around, automatically expecting a Pendragon to pounce. When none does, he lets himself relax a bit. “I feel shit—sorry, I feel bad about it too, Mum, but … I don’t know, I just—”

“Can’t say no to him,” Freya says, which is blunter than Merlin would have put it but still true. “I have to say I’m a little miffed none of us got to come to the wedding, it would have been an excuse for a new dress.”

“You’re awful, everyone is awful.” Merlin gives Gaius a silent appeal for support and gets only the eyebrow thing in return. Fine, then, he’s awful too. “This is why I married into the Pendragons. They’re mad, but they’re nice to me.”

Uther chooses this moment to turn up, give Merlin a loathing look that would be hilarious if it weren’t so terrifying, make a little facial twitch that might be a smile for the other three, get his coffee, and stalk away. Merlin decides to stop talking about the Pendragons.

*

The morning is quiet at Pendragon Manor, everyone wandering in and out of rooms reading and chatting, but after lunch Merlin finds himself dragged to the library to do work with Arthur, who does not believe in holidays even when he is making Merlin pretend to be his husband.

Gaius is with Uther, the mums (and stepmum) have congregated in Ygraine and Nimueh’s sitting room to make sure everyone has the proper amount of gifts, and Freya and Morgana are both on the phone with friends, so Merlin lets himself relax. He and Arthur sit on the loveseat in the library swapping laptops back and forth while Arthur says what he wants and Merlin works on implementing ways to make it happen.

“Feeling any better about things today?” Merlin asks after a while, when there’s a lag in their work and Arthur for once doesn’t seem inclined to start right up again.

“I was never feeling anything less than fully confident in my plans,” Arthur blatantly lies. He doesn’t even have the grace to look ashamed of himself. “You should really have more faith in me, Merlin.”

“You are impossible.”

“Explains why you married me.” Arthur nudges him with a shoulder, grinning, and Merlin rolls his eyes. “Come on, you know it, I’m a catch.” Merlin elbows him away when he leans closer. “Just say it, I’m the best husband, couldn’t have asked for better.”

“You’re a prat and we’re getting a divorce.”

“Come on, Merlin, you can do better than that.” Arthur leans in again until he practically has Merlin pinned against the back of the loveseat, and suddenly Merlin’s tight jeans are doing him no favors. “Tell me what a good husband I am.”

“Terribly behaved, no sense of romance at all.”

“I’ll show you romance,” says Arthur, who is still practically on top of Merlin, why is this happening to him, he will shortly have no blood in his brain at all.

There’s the sound of pointed throat clearing from the library door. Both of them freeze, and after a second Arthur vacates Merlin’s lap, leaving Merlin a view of Freya standing there, looking like she’s not sure if she’s more traumatized or amused. “You two are such idiots,” she says, and comes in. Merlin makes a note to thank her for the rescue later.

“I take offense at that,” Arthur says, settling back in with his laptop like none of it ever happened. “Also, why?”

Freya stares at them for a second before settling in an armchair nearby. “There are a lot of reasons. I’m not going through them all. Morgana is on her way in here, she decided we should, and I quote, get started.”

Merlin ponders what might be holding Morgana up, and all the myriad and terrifying possibilities suggested by that statement. “Any idea what we’re supposed to get started on?”

Freya shakes her head, biting her lip. “She, ah, said that the day before Christmas Eve is game day, told me to come in here, and disappeared.” She looks at Arthur. “Should I be as worried as I think I should be?”

Arthur sighs. “Probably, yes.”

*

Merlin should really not be surprised that the Pendragons’ version of a game day is nothing less than all-out warfare. They’re all viciously competitive, and Merlin’s family gets dragged in too, for at least three board games, a round of charades that Freya and Morgana beat everyone else at, more party games, and then a round of sword fights with old wrapping paper tubes that Merlin’s mum and Uncle Gaius beg out of.

By late evening, Merlin is exhausted, and Arthur and Morgana have taken to arguing over the chess board. Merlin sits by the fire with a glass of wine he’s nursing more than drinking, and is surprised when he turns at a tap on his shoulder and finds Nimueh there instead of Freya or his mother. “It’s always like this,” Nimueh says with great sympathy. “You adapt.”

“They always beat each other with cardboard tubes?”

She grimaces. “I’m afraid that was my fault. Arthur and Morgana went through a phase of fencing with sticks. I thought this would be safer.”

Merlin has a welt or two that says it isn’t. “I don’t know if I’ve heard anything less surprising about those two.”

“Yes, they’ve always been like this. Pendragons.” Nimueh shakes her head, like she hasn’t been taking part in the madness with great enthusiasm. “The thing is, they’re worth it.”

Merlin looks up at her, startled. “What?”

“Believe me, I’ve been where you are. You are looking at your choices and wondering exactly how this is going to work, and it’s worse for you because your family is here.” Nimueh takes a sip of her own drink and looks across the room at Ygraine, who smiles back over at her. Merlin can’t even bring himself to say that Ygraine isn’t technically a Pendragon, because she sort of is, apparently. “They’re competitive and they squabble constantly and they will never admit how protective of each other they are, but they are worth the trouble.”

Merlin looks over at Arthur and catches him looking, somewhere between trepidation and fondness. “I guess they are,” he finds himself saying.

Nimueh laughs and clinks her glass against his. “Welcome to the family, Merlin. I’m glad to have some company.”

*

“Wake up, it’s Christmas Eve.”

“I’m fairly certain we’re only supposed to be woken at awful hours on Christmas,” Merlin argues into his pillow, but judging by Arthur’s warm laugh, it doesn’t come out half as coherent as he would like. “Why are you awake before me?”

“Because it’s Christmas Eve and we always decorate the tree Christmas Eve morning. Father and Nimueh will be dragging it home right now because Christmas trees and my mother being amazing are the only two things they’ve ever agreed on, and that means we all have to be ready to go downstairs and applaud their choice and decorate it.”

“Of course you have proper woods on your property for your family to go out the day before Christmas and bring back a massive tree, I don’t know why I’m surprised.” Merlin forces himself into a sitting position and squints at a clock. Not quite six. He may kill Arthur. He’s used to being the one with the upper hand in the mornings, this is going to throw their whole routine off. “Does the rest of my family know we’re supposed to be up?”

“Probably my mum told yours and your uncle, and someone will have told Freya, they all just assumed I would let you know because we’re married.”

“And you didn’t because …?”

“Because this is more fun. Come on, get up, we do this in our pajamas because Father always made us get properly dressed on Christmas morning before we could open gifts. Christmas Eve is our Christmas, really.”

That’s what makes Merlin get up, albeit with a lot of grumbling and groaning and telling Arthur that forget everything else, Merlin is spending his favors on a million pairs of wool socks because his feet will never be warm again. There’s a knock on the door while he’s still struggling his way into a sweater, and Arthur opens the door to the improbable sight of Morgana wearing flannel pants with penguins on them, a yawning Freya in her wake. “Good morning, you two. Hope I didn’t interrupt your morning fuck,” says Morgana, because Morgana is terrible.

“We’re dressed,” says Merlin, and Freya makes a horrified face.

“It’s cold. I would never judge a little clothed frottage,” says Morgana, to which everyone makes a horrified face, before lacing her arm through Merlin’s and dragging him out, Arthur tripping along in their wake, muttering that his mother is going to be downstairs and really does not need the details of her son’s sex life.

The four of them get down to the sitting room where the tree goes at the same time as Ygraine and Hunith, who are both carrying boxes of ornaments. Merlin takes the box from his mum, and Morgana takes the one from Ygraine, and the whole lot of them start sorting through what there is, fancy bulbs and antiques in there along with terrible primary school crafting efforts from Arthur and Morgana, neither of whom has an artistic bone in their body. Merlin’s mum has a little box of some of their ornaments: the wooden dragon his dad whittled when they were kids, a craft project from Freya that looks more like an Elder God than a reindeer, a little embroidered sampler from their grandmother with a horrid cheesy rhyme on it. When Gaius arrives, coming from the direction of the kitchen with a tray of steaming hot cocoa, he has an ornament tucked in his pocket as well, and that’s enough to make it feel a little more like Christmas at home.

They’ve barely sorted through when Nimueh and Uther burst through the door, carrying a trussed-up and truly impressive tree between them, pink-cheeked with cold and exertion, dripping snow everywhere. Merlin helps Arthur hold the tree steady while Morgana and Nimueh argue about how it goes in the stand and Ygraine unhelpfully tells them it’s crooked every three seconds and Uther even more unhelpfully tells them it’s crooked in the opposite direction.

It should be unpleasant, but Arthur is laughing and looking like a little kid and Merlin’s mum is taking pictures and there’s cocoa with candy canes stuck in, and Merlin forgets about the wedding rings and the deadline on all this for a few minutes, lets himself pretend this is what Arthur’s family thinks it is, and tells Arthur that clearly it’s his fault the tree is listing to the left just to see him wrinkle his nose in mock offense.

*

By ten in the morning, the tree is decorated, strung with lights and ornaments and a horror-movie angel (“Don’t blink,” Freya whispers when it comes out of its wrappings, much to everyone else’s amusement. Not that Merlin would dare look away from it for long) that Uther insists is a family heirloom and has Freya put up in a misguided gesture of kindness.

After, they all lounge happily around the room, surveying their handiwork. Uther has a tablet out, doing work even on Christmas Eve, and Merlin’s mum is doing knitting while Gaius and Ygraine talk about politics and Nimueh teaches Freya and Morgana some heinously complicated card game. Merlin finds himself sprawled across Arthur on the couch, halfway to drowsing, holding left hands, the metal clinking together. “You’re very comfortable,” Merlin informs him.

“One of my finest traits.” Arthur musses his hair. “You can take a nap, if you like.”

“What and get awful things done to me by this lot? I know that trick.” Merlin grins up at Arthur, who just rolls his eyes. “I’m fine, honestly, I don’t particularly like napping, you know that.”

“Mm, but it’s Christmas.”

“Eve.”

“Whatever, as close as makes no difference. But if you don’t want to nap, I won’t make you. I just thought you could use your energy for Morgause and Agravaine later.” Arthur grimaces, and Merlin tries not to laugh, because he’s heard complaints about the two of them around holidays pretty much as long as he’s known Arthur. “I certainly could.”

“Then you nap.”

“And get awful things done to me by this lot?” Arthur smiles down at him, and Merlin’s heart hitches in his chest because oh, there’s his good sense telling him this is a bad idea again.

“We missed out on a good chance to put up mistletoe,” says Freya across the room, and both of them start, and that means they got caught staring at each other, and Merlin really did not need that.

However, before he needs to examine his very-well-repressed-till-recently-thanks feelings any further, he’s neatly distracted by every last one of the Pendragon contingent freezing and looking mildly traumatized. “We don’t do mistletoe,” Ygraine finally says, in a tone clearly meant to be diplomatic.

“Not since the Incident of ’02.” Morgana sounds solemn, and Merlin can hear her implying the capital letter quite clearly.

“I’m sure they kiss plenty on their own,” says Nimueh, and the room moves on, with a bit more awkwardness from the Pendragons, and Merlin will really have to needle Arthur about that conversation later, because it sounds potentially amazing.

As it is, though, Arthur doesn’t move away, so Merlin doesn’t either. It’s Christmas, and things were always going to go this way eventually. If he finally admits he’s in love with his best friend to himself in the middle of pretending to be married to him, well, it’s probably no stupider than letting himself fall for Arthur in the first place.

*

Morgause and Agravaine look about exactly as intimidating as Merlin had assumed they would. Morgause wears a lot of eyeliner and has a big bag of presents, and Agravaine wears a badly-fitting black suit and looks sort of like a poor man’s Professor Snape and has an envelope filled with miscellaneous gift certificates. Morgause, Morgana, and Nimueh all adore one another, clearly, and Agravaine sort of hangs about them hopefully in a way that’s creepy when Merlin stops to think about it for a few seconds.

As non-festive as the two of them are, they seem to bring Christmas with them. Everyone scatters to get their nice clothes on for Christmas Eve dinner, Merlin fumbling with a tie and ignoring Arthur’s mockery of his sweater vest and also ignoring how truly devastating Arthur looks in a dark red blazer while they get ready in their room, not caring for once that they’re stripping in front of each other because they want to get to the meal.

The fancy dining room is next to the sitting room with the tree in it, and they leave the door open so they can see while the housekeeper sets the dishes down on the table before being dragged to sit in an extra chair next to Uncle Gaius, who she flirts with the whole meal, much to everyone’s amusement. The extra Pendragons only seem to add on to the madness, but by now Merlin’s family has been fully indoctrinated, heaven help him, and the meal is boisterous and loud and full of arguments all round.

“So, Merlin,” Morgause says just when Merlin has started to think he’d escaped her scrutiny, and Freya starts giggling into her drink because she’s a traitor. “Arthur’s spoken so highly of you, it’s lovely to meet you at last.”

“Lovely to meet you as well,” says Merlin, because he can’t say Arthur spoke highly of her without lying through his teeth.

“I can’t help but wonder why you haven’t come to holidays before this, though. I mean, you’ve been quite serious for quite some time, from what I understand.”

Merlin shrugs. “It just never worked out. Life gets in the way, you know?” Arthur squeezes his hand under the table and Merlin tries not to look as startled about it as he feels. “But now we’re married, it seemed silly not to just combine our gatherings.”

“And it’s been lovely so far,” his mum says, because she’s the best, smiling at Morgause. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, you must tell me all about being a private investigator, I read far too many crime novels and it probably isn’t half so interesting.”

“You’d be surprised.” She smirks at Merlin, though, and Merlin puts her profession together with the fact that she probably knows oh God. She doesn’t say anything about it, though, so either she didn’t care to check or she’s waiting for a more dramatic time than Christmas Eve dinner to share the revelation. “Though really,” she adds, “there are quite a lot of cheating spouses and parents spying on their children.”

The conversation moves on, but Merlin doesn’t lose the sense of waiting for another shoe to drop the whole meal. Arthur keeps giving him worried looks and nudging him, and that only makes Merlin feel worse. He’s lying to Arthur’s family and it will be stupidly easy to disprove their story, and he likes these people. It’s not as though he asked Arthur to start the whole thing (except maybe, maybe there’s a little glimmer of something these last few days, the kind of thing that will make the eventual embarrassment and apologies worth it, but Merlin is really not getting his hopes up about that yet).

“Merlin and I will clear the plates,” Arthur says when everyone’s done eating and they’re all groaning and looking at each other to see who the first challenger for dessert will be.

“Darling, you don’t have to, or I’ll help,” says Ygraine.

Nimueh puts a hand on her arm and smirks at Arthur and Merlin. “Let the newlyweds do it, Ygraine, you know how it is.”

Merlin is fairly sure he turns the approximate color of red cabbage at that, but he gathers up plates and lets Arthur take silverware and the two of them take them out to the kitchen, which has been abandoned by the housekeeper, who apparently has the next forty-eight hours off. Merlin is fairly sure they’re going to starve to death by the time they leave on the twenty-seventh, unless his family takes over the cooking. Pendragons don’t cook.

“Are you okay?” Arthur asks once they’re safely in the kitchen and out of earshot because, again, the Manor is stupidly large. “You went sort of green during dinner, I know Morgause and Agravaine can have that kind of effect on people, but I thought I would check in.”

“Just my daily freakout,” Merlin says, waving it off.

Arthur shakes his head. “Come on, Merlin, don’t you think I know you better than that by now?”

“I forgot Morgause was a private investigator. Do you think she knows?”

Arthur frowns. “Maybe. She’ll probably try to blackmail me. It wouldn’t be the first time.” Merlin is never going to understand this family, no matter how much time he has to do it in. Maybe he’ll be like Ygraine and a little bit Nimueh and go native eventually, but it seems quite far-off at this point. “If it helps, I’m planning on telling them in the new year. You can listen to me do it, if you like. This isn’t fair to you.”

“They’re all great, and I like them, please don’t make them hate me.”

“Believe me, it’s me they’ll be mad at, but we forgive each other. Mum will try to fix me up with someone in revenge and Morgana will laugh and Nimueh will pat me on the shoulder and give me chocolate, and it will have all blown over by Father’s birthday party in March. Which is good, when they’re mad at me while we play polo it never ends well.”

Merlin stares at him. He doesn’t know why he’s surprised polo is involved in Pendragon family gatherings. It seems exactly up their alley. “Should I even—”

“I’m going to try something,” Arthur says suddenly, like he’s just deciding it. “Because I don’t have mistletoe to make the decision for me, like in the movies, but I have to try, I can’t not, you’re wearing my damn wedding ring,” and then Arthur is kissing him.

Arthur kisses exactly like Merlin expects, which is maybe weirder than if it were a complete surprise. Arthur is take-no-prisoners, expecting Merlin to either give in or shove him off, and he lets out a surprised and satisfied little hum when Merlin does neither and takes a second of surprise instead before he starts giving back as good as he gets. Arthur backs him up against a counter and Merlin lets him, but makes sure to keep his arms around Arthur’s neck so he can’t go anywhere. If Arthur is going to do this, Merlin is going to be right there with him. Arthur puts a hand on his face and it’s his left, which means it’s the hand with the wedding ring, and that’s enough to make Merlin want to drag him back up to Arthur’s room and the stupid tempting red bed and do everything they ought to have been since they arrived at the Manor.

Someone in the doorway clears their throat, and Merlin lets Arthur go, since he doesn’t really have anywhere to back away two. They hold each other’s eyes for a second before Merlin dares to turn to the door. It’s Freya, which is probably more embarrassing than it would have been if it were one of the Pendragons. She’s got her hands full with a mostly-empty platter of goose (because of course they have Christmas goose) and her eyebrows up so high Merlin vaguely worries they might take flight before he reminds himself that his blood is not in his brain and he should not verbalize that thought. “I thought it would be safe. Apparently I was wrong,” she says when it’s quite clear Merlin and Arthur aren’t going to be able to explain themselves.

“Just a bit,” says Arthur. “Um, could we …?”

“Don’t mind me,” she says, hastily putting the platter down on the nearest counter and fleeing.

That leaves the two of them staring at each other. “That was fine,” Arthur says, more a statement than a question.

“I agreed to pretend marry you. That’s not really the kind of thing normal friends do,” Merlin points out, just to see Arthur’s grin. “But maybe we shouldn’t talk about this right now?”

That makes Arthur go all predatory, and oh, apparently that’s going to make Merlin’s knees weak now instead of making him laugh, good to know, he’ll have to start clutching at desks like a Victorian maiden every time Arthur goes in for the kill at work. “There are definitely better things to discuss,” says Arthur, and then his arms are around Merlin again.

Merlin lets this kiss last for a few seconds (or a lot of seconds. It might stretch into two-minute territory, but that’s because Merlin decides it’s urgent to show Arthur everything he can do with his tongue so he’ll be excited for later, which judging by the way Arthur grinds against him works) before he pushes Arthur away. “I mean that we should actually talk about it in our room tonight, and that maybe we should go back to your family before your sister shows up and tells us not to desecrate the counters because you know she would.”

Arthur makes a horrified face, but he reluctantly backs off. “In our room tonight, then. Time to go back to Morgause and Agravaine, heaven help us.”

“I don’t think I mind as much now,” says Merlin, almost embarrassed at his soppiness, but it makes Arthur smile, so it can’t be too bad.

*

They go to the room with the tree after they finally conquer dessert, where they exchange presents with Morgause and Agravaine—they don’t all do it, but those two have other places to be tomorrow, probably doing very shady things, so it’s apparently tradition to do this part of things a day early. For these two, he just signed his name on Arthur’s cards, and pretends not to be surprised about the high-quality whetstone (for Morgause, who apparently has a collection of fine knives) and the boring gloves (Agravaine, obviously, everything about him somehow manages to be both bland and creepy).

Agravaine gives him a gift certificate to some new coffee chain that Merlin has heard everyone he knows complain about at some point. That’s fair, considering he’s never met Merlin and Merlin wasn’t expecting a present from him.

Morgause’s package is addressed to both he and Arthur, and it contains cock rings. “I’ve had to share quarters with him a few times,” she says in a confiding voice to Merlin while Morgana and Freya laugh hysterically, Merlin’s mum turns pink, and Uther looks like he wants to sink into the floor. “If he’s anything like that in bed, I thought you could use these.”

“Oh my God.” Merlin looks over at Arthur, who’s wearing the expression that says he’s unsure whether he’d rather hide his face in shame or throttle someone (a fairly common expression, for Arthur), and then he’s laughing. It’s half Pendragon-induced hysteria and half sheer relief that everything is turning out fine, and it lasts until Arthur puts his arm around Merlin’s neck and kisses the laughter right out of Merlin’s mouth until someone (Nimueh) lets out an inappropriate wolf-whistle.

*

In their room that night, things are awkward for a few seconds. They’ve seen Morgause and Agravaine off, they’ve promised to be dressed and downstairs no later than eight thirty in the morning so they can eat breakfast and open gifts, and now they’re alone for the first time since the kitchen, and Merlin doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Or his mouth. Probably he should use it to talk, first, that’s the responsible adult thing to do. “You’re still going to have to tell your family we aren’t actually married,” Merlin finally blurts, which is definitely not a good way to start a responsible adult conversation.

Arthur just smiles and rolls his eyes. “Really? I hadn’t guessed. I thought I’d just assume they never had to know and that in a year or two it wouldn’t be a lie anyway.”

“That would work out great except then they would be confused if wedding pictures showed up a few years late and with my family in attendance.” Merlin turns away and strips off his shirt so he can keep his smile to himself, and a second later he finds himself half-tackled by Arthur, staggering into the bedpost. “What?”

“You’re stupidly amazing, I’m so glad I picked you as my fake husband,” Arthur says, and kisses him, pretty thoroughly. “I almost didn’t, you know,” he adds when he pulls away.

Merlin frowns, a bit offended. “Why not?”

“Didn’t want to get my hopes up.”

This time, he blinks. “Arthur, you said you’ve been using me as your anti-matchmaking beard for years, did you really—”

“Shut up, we don’t need to talk about anyone pining for anyone, there are much better conversations to have,” Arthur says, and proves it by kissing him again and then pulling away. “Like this one: are we having sex tonight?”

“For preference, yes.”

“Good, that’s great.” Arthur barks out a laugh that sounds nearly as hysterical as Merlin’s fit of giggles earlier. “I didn’t pack lube. Didn’t want to—”

“Get your hopes up,” Merlin finishes, and snorts. “We could always go down the hall, ask your sister for some, you know she travels with that kind of thing for emergencies.”

Arthur looks horrified, and then like he’s considering it, and then horrified again. “No, I don’t think my dignity can stand it, and so help me, Merlin, if you ask me what dignity I am going to put Morgause’s present to good use.”

Merlin tilts his head and considers that proposition from all angles, and then decides to go back to kissing Arthur, tugging at his shirt until he gets it off and then going to work at the trousers. It’s going to be cold, going to sleep naked, but he’s fairly sure they’re up to the task of keeping one another warm.

For right now, though, it’s cold out from under the covers, and Merlin is glad to let Arthur steer him onto the bed, both of them struggling out of their clothes all pressed together and horizontal, before they make it under the covers and huddle together for a minute, breathless and inclined to laugh even if nothing’s really been funny. “Tell me if I do anything you don’t like,” Merlin says eventually.

Arthur, to his surprise, doesn’t scoff, just kisses him. “I don’t think you possibly could.”

“You aren’t going to say the same to me?”

“I know you will, you’re never afraid to tell me when I’m being a bastard.” Arthur wraps a leg over him. “So what do you think we should try first?”

“Maybe we should save the cock rings for after our first date,” says Merlin, and kisses him, since that’s always a good place to start. He doesn’t particularly want to do anything that will require suffocating under the covers, and handjobs don’t seem to quite cover the culmination of years of pining, and it takes him a while of kissing (it doesn’t help that Arthur is distracting and seems to be very interested in the idea of pinching Merlin’s nipples and kissing his neck) before he strikes on what feels like the right idea. That requires turning over, though, and Arthur does not seem to be in favor of that plan. “Come on, I’ve got an idea.”

“We’ve got no lube, in case you haven’t recalled in your sex stupor.”

“It’ll chafe a little, but we’ll manage, I’m sure.” Merlin pauses. “Not you fucking me, just … trust me, okay? I’m good at this.”

“You’ll make me jealous,” Arthur says, but he says it in a low rumble right in Merlin’s ear as Merlin finally manages to roll over, and Merlin decides he’s well within his rights to ignore anything Arthur says in that tone of voice.

Arthur doesn’t take long to get it, once Merlin’s in position, both of them on their sides. He slides his cock between Merlin’s thighs—it’s a little dry, but Arthur is already dripping precum so it won’t be terrible—and starts shifting his hips, oh-so-gently. Merlin doesn’t particularly want him to be gentle. He reaches back, grabs Arthur’s hip and pulls. Arthur goes gladly, breath coming in puffs against Merlin’s ear, silent while Merlin babbles out stupid words he’s choosing to forget.

He doesn’t come, despite Arthur’s cock jostling against his on almost every thrust, until Arthur reaches out and puts their left hands together, the rings clinking in a way they feel rather than hear, muffled by the covers. Merlin will never admit it, but that’s what pushes him over the edge, making a mess on his stomach and the sheets that they’re going to have to put in the laundry tomorrow. Arthur laughs, because Merlin doesn’t need to admit things for Arthur to know they’re true, but he squeezes Merlin’s hand, and it only takes him a few more thrusts to follow.

They pant together, afterwards, until Merlin manages a look at the clock. It isn’t quite midnight yet, but he says “Merry Christmas” anyway, just to listen to Arthur laugh.

*

Ygraine greets them both with a kiss on the cheek in the morning. “I was hoping you’d get over feeling awkward about having sex at home,” she says cheerfully, because Pendragons don’t have boundaries, and Arthur just grins at her while Merlin’s whole family looks happily scandalized.

“You’ll have to send Morgause a very nice thank you note,” says Morgana, and Merlin buries his face in Arthur’s shoulder and decides nothing’s going to tempt him out, not even presents.

At least until Arthur pulls his face up and kisses him, but that’s extenuating circumstances.

“Perhaps we ought to eat breakfast,” Uncle Gaius says, taking pity on them. “There’s quite a large stack of presents under the tree, and I’m not getting any younger.”

The Pendragons make a large and messy batch of French toast for all of them, getting their nice Christmas clothes covered in flour and egg and none of them caring. Merlin sits back and grins until Morgana tells him he doesn’t get to sit out anymore, he’s a Pendragon now, and he thinks about objecting, but, well. Arthur is beaming at him and his family is sitting at the kitchen table with their morning coffee in their hands and fond smiles on their faces, and Merlin gives up and joins the madness.

It’s Christmas, after all.

*

“I’ll go down again the weekend after New Year’s Eve,” Arthur says when they’re in his car again a few days later, moving directly on from the train station. “You don’t have to be there for that particular conversation.”

“You don’t need moral support?” Merlin fidgets with his ring. He isn’t quite sure when to take it off, since Arthur is still sporting his.

“No, I got myself into this mess, I can get out of it as well. You’ve been a good sport, but you do not need to deal with my family when they’re angry.”

Merlin winces. “How bad will it be?”

“Father and Morgana will be angry with both of us. Mum and Nimueh will mostly be angry at me.”

“If it’s any help, my mum isn’t too thrilled with me right now. Even when I told her it isn’t faking anymore, except for the marriage bit. She will forgive us, though.”

“They’ll all forgive us eventually.” Arthur works his ring off while he drives and hands it over to Merlin. “Box is still where it was on the way up, keep them safe, will you? They’re part of the eventual plan to get our families to forgive us.”

Merlin looks at the inscription again, the once and future that suddenly seems less like a ridiculous reference and more like a promise, if one with an in-joke. “I refuse to believe this has been some epic Machiavellian plot to get us together,” he says preemptively.

“Believe whatever you like,” Arthur says. “You’re never getting free now, though. Angry or not, my family will be beating down your door every major holiday and birthday from here on in.”

Merlin grins and finally works his ring off, placing it next to Arthur’s in the box and then stowing it back in the glove box. It seems to be a good storage place for now, anyway. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says, and holds hands with Arthur over the gearshift like teenagers the whole way back to London.