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Winter Kiss

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Winter Kiss

 

Arthur is born on the cold, windy evening of January 16th.

 

He won't remember it later, of course, but it's simultaneously the happiest and the saddest day of his father's life. His mother doesn't even get to see him, because her weak heart gives out on the way to the hospital and by the time they get there, she can only be pronounced dead on arrival as the doctors struggle to save him via emergency C-section. By the time he takes his first breath, his father has already been informed of his mother's fate and is outside the operating room, shaking the nurse who told him about Igraine's death, screaming that she must be wrong.

 

And that's how his life starts, in a cold, sterile room full of strangers dressed in light blue, with his mother's lifeless body not two feet away from him and a father who already can't forgive him for a mistake he's not even aware of making, while the wind howls outside and small, white flakes of wet snow make the slush even worse. His big sister is happy to see him, but she's four and she doesn't know yet, and even when she finds out, she won't understand, not for another few years. But then, Arthur doesn't understand either, and he won't for much longer than just a few years; he won't realize why he's treated like a prince, but his father won't hug him, sometimes can't even look at him, him who, with his blond hair and blue eyes, is the spitting image of his mother, the woman he never got a chance to meet, but whose shadow he will live in for the rest of his life.

 

~*~

 

It's mid-February, four years later, when Arthur first gets a taste of his father's bitterness. This, he does remember.

 

Arthur is sick. He's coughing and sneezing and he can't breathe through his nose, but Gaius, the family doctor, assures him he'll be fine. Arthur trusts Gaius, even though he's never felt worse in his, admittedly short, life. He takes the spoonful of syrup that Gaius brings up to his mouth and grimaces at the foul taste of it, but when, 15 minutes later, Gaius returns with Morgana (who's been declared equally sick and therefore unnecessarily isolated from her brother), he does actually feel better. So he does what every 4-year-old would – he asks questions.

 

“Gaius, why do I have blue eyes?” is the first thing that comes to mind.

 

Gaius gives him a smile that somehow doesn't quite look happy; Arthur is not sure why. “Because your mother and your father both have blue eyes,” he replies. He doesn't mention that the green of Morgana's eyes is a clear indication that she's not Uther's daughter, but Arthur's too young to understand genetics, so he doesn't figure it out anyway.

 

“And why do I have blond hair when Father's hair is grey?” Arthur asks then. Gaius answers his questions one after the other for hours because Arthur is four and he has a lot of questions. Morgana falls asleep at his side after a while and Arthur feels kinda tired too (which, Gaius informs him, is because the cough syrup makes him sleepy), but he forces his eyes to stay open until his father returns home and Gaius leaves. His father comes in after a while, tucks the blanket tighter around them both and strokes a hand through Morgana's hair. “Father, how come you never speak about Mom?” Arthur murmurs as he struggles to stay awake even just a minute longer.

 

His father's hand freezes and he stiffens, sitting up and drawing himself away from his children. “Your mother is dead, Arthur. There's not much to speak about,” he answers coldly.

 

Unfortunately for him, Arthur is too young to understand social cues, so he ploughs on, “What does that mean?”

 

“It means,” his father replies, standing up and crossing his arms, “that she would be here if it weren't for you.”

 

Arthur doesn't understand, but when his father strides out of the room and shuts the door so loudly Morgana wakes up, he knows never to bring up his mother again.

 

~*~

 

He spends more than a few days away from Morgana for the first time five winters later.

 

She's thirteen now, and he is only nine and he's no longer the fun little brother she shares snacks with, he's a nuisance when she has to babysit him and a don't mind Arthur, he's just a big baby, when he wants to hang out with her and she has friends over. She still buys him sweets and hugs him when their father yells at him, but it's different somehow, they don't understand each other anymore, she does make-up and goes out with boys, while he watches TV and reads and plays sports. Their father insists that they have very specific skills appropriate for their respective assigned roles, and Morgana hates it and she hates the expensive violin their father buys for her, and she hates the ballet lessons that make her feet hurt, and she hates her new pink dress, and she will do anything to piss their father off. Arthur doesn't like football either, but his father looks at him like he's a freak when he says that so he pretends he enjoys going to practice. He's good at it, anyway, so it doesn't matter. After all, Father always says that so long as you are good at something, you should do it, because it matters more to be the best than to love whatever it is that you're the best at.

 

That December, Morgana comes home late every night and her grades drop and she is constantly bringing over some Leon guy, so Father sends her away for the winter holidays to some girl camp. She comes back even more angry, breaks her violin and rips her dresses until all the clothes she has are either black or dark green, and she starts wearing red lipstick and black eyeliner and she starts dating a guy who is five years older than her and when Father tells her off she just snorts and replies that he should mind his own business and that he has no right to dictate her life.

 

Arthur doesn't know why this happens, he just knows that Morgana becomes even more distant than before, that she stops hugging him and that she starts acting like he did something wrong. He also knows he missed her, but when he tries to tell her that, she shuts the door in his face.

 

~*~

 

On his twelfth birthday, Arthur finds out that Morgana is not his sister.

 

It's the last year he's spending in that house because next year, he's starting boarding school. His father has a huge party organized, and every single one of Arthur's and Morgana's friends is invited, and their whole family is there, and his father's co-workers and some people that Arthur can swear he's never seen before but who keep telling him that they've known him since he was this tiny. He gets all kinds of gifts, from expensive watches to cuff links he has nothing to wear with, to remote control choppers and DVDs with his favourite movies.

 

Gaius gives him a book. Arthur's always had a feeling that Gaius understands him better than most grown-ups he knows, even though they don't see each other often. It's a textbook he'll need for his new school, about science and biology and there's a chapter marked with a yellow post-it.

 

That night, as soon as the party is over, Arthur takes the book and goes to his room where he quickly finds the chapter Gaius meant for him and starts reading. It's about a guy called Mendel and about his peas, and about genes and colours, and there's a scheme a few pages in dedicated to the inheritance of eye colour and the dominant and recessive genes participating in it. It very clearly says that a blue-eyed couple can only have blue-eyed children. Suddenly all the angry, screaming music and the dark clothes and the defiant remarks that Morgana's been living in for the last few years make much more sense.

 

~*~

 

Coming home for winter holidays next year is the sweetest relief, until it's the worst torture.

 

Arthur is by no means stupid, he knows that, but he's apparently not very academically inclined and also, in deep denial because he honestly never really made the connection between his old school's new computers or newly air-conditioned office or refurnished classrooms or new science lab and his suddenly amazing grades. In his old school, he was popular, and everyone wanted to hang out with him.

 

His new school is different. It's the best school money can buy, which is exactly why money can't buy it (not that his father hasn't tried, and tried very hard), so Arthur is left to his own devices, working his ass off to get grades that are only decent and far below his father's criteria for a successful child. But it's difficult to study when every few minutes somebody whose parents got screwed over by his father one too many times, or somebody who's there on a scholarship and actually had to be one of the best students in the country to get there, or somebody who just doesn't like him because he's new sticks their head into his room to call him a stupid sissy or to ask him if he's gonna run to his father and cry.

 

And then there's Gwaine, who's the worst of them all, until he's not. Gwaine is possibly the richest kid of everyone there, and that's saying something, but he doesn't act like it at all, he scoffs at all the designer clothes other kids get from their parents and he travels home by bus, not letting his parents pick him up in a limo (which they totally could and would, Arthur assumes), and he doesn't brag about all the cool stuff he has at home, and he doesn't carry the newest gadgets down the hallways hoping someone would ask him what they are. And still, somehow, he's arguably the most popular person there. He's three years older than Arthur, and he's handsome and smart and funny, and Arthur can appreciate his humour when it's not directed at him, but when it is, it's like being hit with a whip, quick and precise and stingingly painful. Then again, Gwaine teases everyone, and he hangs out with the scholarship kids, who are seen as the biggest losers there, and everyone still wants to be him or at least be close to him.

 

Arthur kind of secretly hates him until November 29th, when it's Morgana's birthday and he wants to be with her for it (even though her only reply to his greeting was a polite, but distant Thank you), but he's not, he's at this stupid school that he hates, studying stupid Spanish that he also hates, surrounded by stupid people he hates and he's having a really bad day. And then he turns the wrong corridor as he's walking back to his room and he runs into some older boys bullying this girl he sort of knows from his algebra lessons (and she's nice and pretty, but she's a scholarship kid, and she's Arthur's age, and also, she's Indian and has an accent that everyone laughs at), and something inside him snaps. He's no match for the guys standing in front of him and he really, really shouldn't get involved, and his father is going to be so mad, but it's not right, standing there and watching it happen, it's not okay to look away or close his eyes, because the look in the girl's eyes is pure desperation and fear, she's crying and they're laughing at it; it disgusts Arthur that someone can take pleasure in hurting another person like this so he calls out to them, tells them to stop.

 

It goes exactly as Arthur expected, they gang up on him, shove him against a wall, tease him until, only minutes later, Gwaine walks in on them and yells for them to stop. They run off and Arthur is left standing there in complete shock, because Gwaine just defended him. If there's anything Arthur knows about Gwaine, it's that the guy hates rich, spoilt kids, and Arthur fits that bill to a T.

 

“You all right?” Gwaine asks and Arthur can only nod, still nonplussed by Gwaine's sudden care for him. “I, uh. I saw what you did there. Very brave,” Gwaine continues, holding out a hand and helping Arthur stand properly. “I, er, guess you're, um, not as bad as I thought,” Gwaine eventually offers with a small smile. Arthur is still confused.

 

But that's how Arthur makes a friend for life. They start hanging out and Arthur finds out that Gwaine is, when you're on his good side, as protective and loving and loyal as he is scathing and hurtful when he doesn't like you. Gwaine makes Arthur's life at the school better, easier. Other kids still tease him and he still hates being there, but at least now he has someone on his side.

 

It's still good to go home for the holidays. It's nice to sleep in a bed that he knows, to wake up to a room that's his and, yes, it's good to be treated like he's a prince. But if Arthur is the prince of the household, his father is the king, and a cruel, demanding, unhappy one. Morgana is still in her rebellious, defiant phase and Arthur's grades are not what they should be, and a recent, more liberal law that was passed is making Uther grumpy, so soon enough, Arthur's holidays turn into hell on Earth. Dinners are awkward, days are lonely and the little time that Arthur tries to make theirs usually ends in his father yelling at him for being incompetent and for depending on his wealth to get anywhere. The words sting more than Arthur is willing to admit, because they're true and because he's heard them before in all the friends who no longer call and all the disappointed looks from his teachers and all the jabs from Gwaine.

 

So, when it gets really bad one day and Arthur storms out of the house without a jacket even though it's snowing outside and he's shaking from the cold within seconds, Arthur swears to himself that he won't be just the son of Uther Pendragon, he will be Arthur, and he won't depend on his money, or his family name, or his father, he will be himself and he will earn himself a spot in the world. Gwaine will be proud of him, Arthur thinks, watching the snowflakes melt on his palm.

 

~*~

 

At the end of February, he experiences his first love, first kiss and first heartbreak.

 

Her name is Sophia, she's his age and goes to his school; she's pretty and smart, but there's always something missing. Arthur dates her because she asks him and he's already fourteen so it's expected of him. It's not bad. But it's not spectacular. Usually, she's the one asking him out, she's the one touching his arm and she's the one who kisses him. Arthur sits with her awkwardly, mostly panicking over the fact that he has no clue what to do.

 

When she kisses him for the first time, it's wet and awkward and unpleasant, Arthur does what Gwaine told him to and Sophia smiles at him afterwards, but Arthur doesn't feel like repeating that ever again. He spends days wondering if there's something wrong with him, because everyone he knows just loves kissing and making out and he's a teenager for Christ's sake, he's supposed to be way into this. He imagines himself telling his father that he just doesn't like relationships and that no, thank you, but he doesn't want to date or get married or have kids. He can clearly picture his father's disappointed, outraged face, and that's what makes him swallow down his complaints and pretend he enjoys kissing Sophia.

 

Apparently, he's not very good at it, though, because she dumps him only a week later. At first, he's hurt and wonders what he did wrong, but as he walks back from the coffee place where they met up, he realizes he doesn't actually feel heartbroken, he just thinks he should. It's actually a relief to be without her, not to have to worry about always being the perfect gentleman or to always remember the dates and everything she says on them.

 

He goes back to Gwaine and Lancelot's room and tells them that he's not actually sorry about what happened, because they're the only people he trusts not to laugh at him and not to judge, and he is so grateful that he does actually have someone like that. Gwaine and Lancelot are the ones who teach him that it didn't matter whose child you are or what kind of legacy you are expected to carry on, what is important is to be yourself. They're the ones who teach Arthur that he needs to make his own decisions and create his own future. Arthur doesn't know that yet, but he already knows Gwaine and Lancelot are the true friends he's always wanted.

 

As predicted, they don't call him a freak and they seem to understand where he's coming from. When Arthur wonders out loud, not really expecting an answer, why he never really cared about Sophia, Lancelot just smiles secretively, but Gwaine laughs, puts a hand on the back of Arthur's neck and kisses him. And that, that feels heavenly, and Arthur never wants it to end, that is what he's felt like doing all along, that's what gives him the tingles.

 

“That's why you didn't care about Sophia,” Gwaine tells him and Arthur has to agree.

 

When he goes back to his own room that night, holding his jacket tightly around himself because god damn it, it's cold, Arthur wonders if he will ever be able to tell his father that he actually kinda sorta prefers guys. He doesn't think he's come quite that far from idolizing his father and needing his approval just yet.

 

~*~

 

It's a few days before Arthur's sixteenth birthday when Morgana brings home a girl, dark-skinned and with snowflakes in her long, brown curls. Morgana introduces her as Gwen, my girlfriend.

 

Uther yells at her until he is almost literally blue in the face. Morgana stands with her chin jutting out defiantly, an uncaring smirk on her face, almost like this is exactly what she wanted. Uther threatens to disown her, to kick her out, to destroy her, and she stands there, like she's challenging him to do just that. Gwen looks incredibly awkward, somewhat embarrassed and definitely unsure of what to do. Arthur stays out of it, just looking on from the door that he was just walking through when it all started. Uther throws around words like sick and unnatural and despicable and my daughter will not be a freak and Arthur listens, knowing that they're meant for him as well, even if Uther himself doesn't realize it.

 

It's difficult to hear and it makes him feel nauseous to know that his father is one of those people who will never accept him for who he is. It's not news to Arthur that his father is an old-fashioned, bigoted man, or that he expects too much or that Arthur will never live up to the ideal son his father has created in his head, it's not news that Arthur wants to be a different person from what his father expects him to be, but it still hurts to hear it so plainly, because this is his father, a man he's always loved and probably always will, a person he will always want to impress, his only living family.

 

But then he looks at Morgana, who's still standing in the middle of the room, strong and unmoved, proud and Arthur remembers in that one moment all the times when Morgana helped him, every hug she gave him, all the times when Morgana was his best and only friend. So no, he decides, Uther is not his only family. Morgana is his sister, if not by blood, then by choice.

 

“Father, Morgana can date whoever she wants,” he finds himself saying. He walks to stand by Morgana's side and the look she gives him is worth the way his father's eyes widen.

 

Things get better between him and his sister after that.

 

~*~

 

He gets drunk for the first time the week he goes back to school.

 

It's the last winter Gwaine and Lancelot are spending at that boarding school, so Arthur does everything he can to spend as much quality time with them as possible. It's kind of bittersweet, because as much fun as he has with them, he can never quite get away from thinking that it's the last time they're doing it.

 

Once Gwaine and Lancelot are gone, Arthur is left alone again. This time, though, it's okay, because he knows who he is and who he wants to be, and also a little bit because he texts with Morgana and Gwaine and Lancelot all the time, and he knows he's not really alone. He starts studying and his grades get better, he has two short, but very enjoyable relationships, and he decides to become a lawyer not only because his father wants him to be one, but also because he enjoys it. For the first time in his life, he is not actually pretending to be strong, he feels confident and powerful and he is looking forward to what the future brings.

 

~*~

 

It ends in November, but Arthur's whole winter is grey and dull and the snow that crunches under his boots is not as inviting as it was last winter.

 

College is everything Arthur expected it to be – exhausting, challenging, enlightening and fun. It's also unhealthy, but that may well be because Arthur procrastinates till the last possible minute and then has to forego sleep to get those few extra hours of studying.

 

He learns a lot. He learns about the legal system of the Roman Empire, and he learns the psychology of lying, they teach him how to talk to victims and how to crush people in examination, he masters the skill of working the courtroom in the mock trials they organize as part of their practice.

 

He also learns that his roommate from second year, Percival, is really hot and kisses really well. He learns that sex is kind of the best when it's quick and rough, but it's also really good when it's slow and lazy. In the two years that they spend together, Arthur learns he likes walking in the snow and kissing in the hallways, that he can throw a mean punch when someone insults those he cares about, that, although control is something he is constantly fighting to gain, it feels great to give it up as well.

 

When they go their separate ways in November, Arthur thinks that that's it, it's over, he will never love anyone the way he loves Percival. He mourns with lots of alcohol, a few one-night-stands and not just one failed exam. It feels like the worst winter of his life – the wind is harsher than it ever was, the snow is a nuisance, the skies are constantly grey and no amount of clothes and blankets makes him warm enough.

 

But then Morgana gets over Gwen (who broke up with her months ago), finds a new boyfriend and she's smiling again, going out and having fun and Arthur suddenly knows he'll be okay too.

 

~*~

 

They meet in early December, the year after Arthur returns from college.

 

Arthur's just bought his first apartment and is struggling to make ends meet with his frankly miserable pay check, and there's an easy solution to all his problems because his father has already offered him a partnership at their family firm, but Arthur is on a mission, he has something to prove, to his father, to his friends, to himself – that he can be independent, that he can make it without his father holding his hand. So Arthur takes his MSc in criminology and criminal justice from Oxford and goes to a minor, more local firm that barely even registers on his father's radar. It's a nice environment, his co-workers are pleasant, and he is treated with respect, there is no pressure of always having to be the best, no feeling that he's not good enough. Of course, there are also no high profile cases, and he doesn't make a fraction of what he would at Pendragon & De Bois, but that's okay. One day, Arthur is going to earn himself a partnership there.

 

He's preparing his closing argument for the robbery he's working on when Merlin walks in.

 

It's an open and shut case, it's plain for everyone to see, but the thief, for some reason, thinks himself to be Jim Moriarty or something, and won't plead guilty. Arthur could have gotten a conviction in his sleep, but he still spends all his free time making strategies and preparing cross-examinations and finding precedences because he knows that every case means the world to his clients. He's closing his briefcase and getting out, so he only catches bits and pieces of the conversation between some tall kid in dark jeans and a plaid shirt and his boss, things like I'm sorry, Mr. Emrys, but you have no experience working for a law firm and I'm a quick study, I promise!, but it doesn't concern him, so he walks out.

 

Of course, his car won't start. It's probably the cold, because really, Arthur doesn't remember a winter this cold ever happening before, which is also why there is no way he's running to the courtroom – it hurts to breathe at all, cold air filling his lungs like little needles, and the snow is far too deep to even walk through.

 

“Hey, need a ride?” someone asks behind him. Arthur could kiss him.

 

“Yes!” he agrees before he even turns around. “Thank you.”

 

“Hey, I'm not doing it for free,” the guy says. It's the kid from inside, the one looking for a job, and now that Arthur looks at him more carefully, he's not really that much of a kid, maybe only a few years younger than Arthur himself. He already has his keys in his hand and he's leaning against a battered looking old Honda. Arthur doesn't have a lot of choice.

 

“How much?” he asks, and the guy grins at him and opens the door for him.

 

“Talk to your bosses. I really need that job.”

 

“I'll see what I can do,” Arthur agrees getting into the car. “Does this thing even drive?” he can't resist inquiring as soon as the guy sits behind the wheel. The guy looks at him pointedly as he inserts the key and turns it. The engine revs into life.

 

“It starts. Unlike yours,” he points out with a smirk.

 

~*~

 

By January, they're living together.

 

It's not really planned, it's more of a decision made on the spot, a bit reckless and risky, but it works out in the end. Arthur does manage to convince his boss to hire Merlin, and Merlin, while he's not the best assistant ever and he takes a bit to learn all of his duties, is actually an asset to the firm in the end. However, his pay is even worse than Arthur's, and his family is poor, and he's about to be evicted; Arthur is barely managing to pay the bills for his apartment, so he offers cohabitation to which Merlin desperately agrees. Neither of them thinks it through, though, and at first, it's pretty damn awful.

 

Merlin is messy and lazy, he sleeps in whenever he can and his stuff is all over the place. He prefers to study (he's studying medicine, and it takes Arthur a long, long, time to be able to imagine Merlin as a doctor and to see why Merlin will be good at being one) at night, which usually doesn't bother Arthur, but Merlin is clumsy, like, really clumsy, and he usually ends up falling or knocking over one thing or another, which in turn wakes Arthur up. Arthur plays the part of the pushy, demanding, overbearing landlord and pretends he doesn't realize it when Merlin calls him on it.

 

On the other hand, it's fun, and it's nice to have someone around. Arthur loves their mock bickering, and Merlin's sarcasm, and the fact that someone is there when he comes home and he's no longer the crazy guy talking to himself. And besides, his messy ways notwithstanding, Merlin is a good tenant. He doesn't go out late and he doesn't bring anyone home, he gives Arthur enough personal space while still spending enough time with him for them to become friends. He pays his share in time, even when Arthur knows he doesn't have much, because the pay is late.

 

After a while, Arthur gets used to more noise and more clutter and more Merlin. It's totally worth it.

 

~*~

 

Arthur knows he's in love in July, when Gwaine, who is visiting for a few days, flirts with a very shirtless Merlin, who walks out of his room complaining about the heat and who flirts back, and Arthur gets ridiculously jealous. However, Christmas is weeks behind them when he first asks Merlin out.

 

There are several reasons why Arthur doesn't do it sooner, not the least of them being his absolute refusal to believe that he's in love with the man who's quickly becoming one of his best friends. So, he makes a point of going out with every guy who wants him (which a considerable number) and bringing them home as often as possible. None of them stays for longer than a couple of weeks, but at least the sex is good. And for some reason, even better because he knows Merlin can hear them.

 

Of course, then he ruins it by asking Merlin if he minds, which leads to the conversation Arthur kind of dreads, but also is kind of dying to have, the conversation that drags through the entire night, about there respective sexualities (Merlin declares his bisexuality with pride) and their stories of discovery and their families' reactions; it leaves Arthur slightly jealous of Merlin's accepting mother, and kind of liking Merlin even more because Merlin proclaims Uther the worst parent ever and feels righteously angry on Arthur's behalf, and hopeful, because Merlin is, in fact, into guys as well (which is stupid, because Arthur is not actually in love with Merlin, of course).

 

And then, just when Arthur realizes he's being bloody ridiculous, Merlin starts dating. And it's Morgana of all people. Arthur is torn between being so angry he wants to strangle his sister with his bare hands and being so contrite he kind of wants to slap himself.

 

But he moves on. Well, in the sense that he resigns himself to the future in which Merlin is just a friend and Arthur is a miserable old man. Which is, of course, the point when Merlin breaks up with Morgana.

 

It's been two weeks since then, and Arthur feels that he's given Merlin enough time to get over it. So he goes to Merlin's university, picks him up and takes him out for coffee. The venue and the hour aside, it's not much different from any other time they've gone out. Which is probably why Merlin doesn't even know it's a date until Arthur pays for them both (at which point Arthur realizes Merlin doesn't know, because Merlin's eyes give off surprise, then confusion, and then Arthur stops looking because he's afraid of what else he might see).

 

They get dressed and walk to Arthur's car in uncomfortable silence. Arthur considers just driving Merlin back and pretending nothing happened, but he thinks Merlin (and their friendship) deserves more of an effort so he turns around and opens his mouth to apologize, but then promptly shuts up because Merlin's face is about an inch away and Merlin's nose is red from cold and Merlin's smiling like his birthday came early.

 

“Idiot,” Merlin says fondly before kissing him.

 

Merlin's lips are chapped from the cold, his fingers are like icicles on Arthur's face and there is snow in his hair that Arthur can't stop staring at, until he realizes that he is fucking kissing Merlin, at which point he closes his eyes and kisses back. It feels like they've been doing this forever, there is no awkward bumping of noses or unpractised clanking of teeth, just the wet, gentle softness of Merlin's lips on his, of Merlin's tongue in his mouth and it's good, it's so good, it's better than Arthur imagined; Merlin seems to know exactly what to do, kisses like he was born to do that, and Arthur feels a little weak at the knees, but also a little angry because he kind of wishes Merlin knew nothing about kissing, kind of wishes he were the one to teach him, because he really doesn't dare to think how many people Merlin's kissed so far to know all these tricks.

 

On the other hand, Merlin's expertise has its merits, like how Arthur has to lean against his car because he can't focus on standing up while the tips of Merlin's fingers stroke his cheekbone and Merlin's tongue slides over the roof of his mouth and Merlin's body presses against his with far too many layers of clothing in between.

 

When Merlin steps away, Arthur wants to grab him by the shoulders and kiss him again and again and again, but instead, he opens his eyes to see the expression on Merlin's face. Merlin is smiling brightly, and his eyes are shining and his cheeks are stained red and Arthur has to smile goofily back at him. They stare at each other like lovesick fools (which they are, Arthur admits to himself grudgingly) for a while before Merlin snaps out of it and laughs.

 

“Take me back, I'm already late!” he says, shaking his head and still smiling.

 

~*~

 

This is how they spend the last moments of that year and the first minutes of the next:

 

They're drunk. Well, Arthur is drunk and he is pretty sure Merlin is drunk too, but he can't be sure because he's too drunk to be sure. Which is not surprising, because this is Gwaine's party, and that can only mean one thing – alcohol. Copious amounts of alcohol. Arthur half expected alcohol to be falling from the skies.

 

Fifteen minutes (or something) ago they were dancing. Arthur doesn't like dancing and he's not very good at it. But he was already drunk and didn't care. Merlin was dancing with him, of course, his back to Arthur's front, and he was grinding his ass against Arthur's crotch and what was Arthur to do other than get hard. So Merlin suggested they start the new year not with dancing, but with sex. Certainly a more appealing activity in Arthur's (not so) humble opinion. So Arthur took Merlin's hand and dragged him to the bathroom.

 

Which is how they ended up here. Merlin is on his knees in front of Arthur and Arthur is holding on to the wall because his legs are shaking and he doesn't trust himself to stay up if he doesn't have something solid to lean on. Their friends counted down to midnight some time ago, while Arthur could still form more or less coherent sentences, and what brain function he was temporarily robbed of, was lost to drunkenness, not to Merlin's ridiculous skills at sucking cock.

 

But that was then, and this is now – one of Merlin's hands is wrapped around the base of Arthur's cock, holding it as Merlin slides his mouth on and off with obscene slurping sounds, his other hand is cupping Arthur's balls, fondling them and playing with them, while the tips of his fingers press very deliberately into the sensitive skin behind; Arthur is moaning so loudly that he thinks the whole street would hear him if not for the music, and god, it only occurs to him right then that the door is not locked and someone could walk in and see them and that somehow, for some reason makes him impossibly harder. Merlin hums around him and swallows and Arthur can't stop his hips stuttering forward, but that, thankfully, only makes Merlin moan and open his mouth wider. Arthur fucks it in quick and hard thrusts, completely out of control; he's so close, he can taste it and he is pretty sure Merlin can too, because he thinks he's leaked more come during the last few minutes than he shot the first ten or so times he jerked off. He doesn't think he's ever been with anyone who can give such amazing head while so epically drunk.

 

And then, in an apparent attempt to blow Arthur's mind instead of his cock, Merlin opens his eyes and looks up through his lashes, slowly, pointedly unwrapping his fingers one by one from Arthur's cock, then sliding down all the way, the crown of Arthur's dick going straight down Merlin's throat. Arthur wants to scream from the pleasure building up in him, but Merlin's now free hand moves behind him, grabs his ass and squeezes briefly, before his fingers slip between the cheeks and one of them presses right against Arthur's hole; the air from Arthur's lungs is suddenly gone as he comes down Merlin's throat so hard, he almost blacks out.

 

When he can finally breathe again, Merlin is crowding him against the wall, his jeans undone and his hand moving frantically over his flushed cock as he slurs sweet, drunken words into the skin of Arthur's neck.

 

“God, you're so good, I love to see you come undone like that, love to taste you on my tongue for hours after we're done,” Merlin is moaning, voice rough and scratchy and Arthur can do little other than put his arms around Merlin's waist and rest his forehead against Merlin's shoulder and watch, hypnotized, as Merlin strokes himself at near-impossible speed. “Hnnng, Arthur, you don't know, I dream about this,” Merlin goes on, babbling to the top of Arthur's head, “sometimes I just can't stop thinking about this, wanna kneel in front of you and suck you till I can't breathe, wanna feel you come down my throat and drink it all...”

 

“God, Merlin, you say the filthiest damn things,” Arthur comments with a breathy laugh, because he can feel his cock twitching uselessly and he's pretty sure he'd be up for another round now if he weren't so drunk and if he hadn't just come as hard as he had.

 

“Mmmm,” Merlin hums, kissing the side of Arthur's head. “There are times when, oh god, I see you at work, and all I can think about, fuck—“ Merlin is close now, Arthur can tell, so he moves one of his lazy hands to Merlin's front and find his nipples under his shirt, starts playing with one of them; as if on cue, Merlin moans and throws his head back. “...think about is bending you over your desk and taking you raw, damn it,” Merlin rants, his whole body restless and flushed and covered in sweat. Arthur is beginning to get a grip now, so he starts kissing whatever part of exposed skin he can find, continues to play with Merlin's nipples and grabs a handful of his ass, squeezing rhythmically. “...or lying down on the floor and spreading myself for you, mmmmh, we need to do that sometime.”

 

Arthur laughs even though he's pretty intrigued by the idea as well, finds Merlin's mouth and kisses him, just wet, uncoordinated licks of his tongue and too much spit and too little lips. Merlin barely responds, quick laps and little bites in between moans and grunts and indistinguishable words and Arthur enjoys every single second of it, especially when Merlin finally shuts up and seals their lips together as he comes in hot spurts over Arthur's stomach, cock and balls. Then it's Arthur's turn to wait for Merlin to recover while he watches the dimly lit white tiles of the bathroom and listens to the repeatable beat of the music. He thinks he hears the click of the door closing, but he doesn't care, too lost in the pleasant haze of post-orgasmic bliss and alcohol. It's a good start to the year.

 

~*~

 

That turns out to be the last time Arthur celebrates New Year without being an orphan – his father dies on December 21st.

 

The funeral happens to be on the day before Christmas, and it's the worst timing ever, but there's nothing to it when it needs to be done. Arthur organizes everything and pays for it with money he's just inherited. Morgana is of little help, by her own choice. She doesn't even show up at the service. Arthur understands, to a certain extent, but he wishes he didn't have to go through it alone anyway. Merlin's home for the holidays. His mother is sick and he needs to take care of her, and Arthur understands that as well, but it doesn't stop him from selfishly wishing Merlin was by his side as he leafs through a collection of caskets.

 

The thing is, Arthur is still kind of new to the whole being independent thing. Sure, he's long come to the point in his life where he doesn't need his name or his wealth or his father because he's made a name for himself as one of the best young lawyers in the country, and he got to pick where he wanted to work a couple of months ago when he decided to leave his old firm, and he had enough cases to refuse them, but through it all, someone's always been there; and besides, he's always had the reassurance of knowing, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he had a father, one with whom he'd become very estranged, one who didn't care to call for his birthday, one who hated the one person he couldn't imagine his life without simply because of their gender, but a living, breathing father nonetheless.

 

Morgana calls him every evening and asks if he's okay. He says he is. The conversations are short and strained, but they always happen nonetheless and Arthur is grateful for them. He knows that it's not easy for Morgana either, but she's too proud, too opinionated to show it. And that's okay, because everyone deals with their grief in their own way.

 

Gwaine and Lancelot, who remain his best friends aside from Merlin, are on a holiday in France, but they call him as soon as they hear and offer to come back. Arthur refuses, because he doesn't want to ruin their trip and be a burden, so instead they text him periodically, probably more out of concern than actual need for socializing. That's okay too, they're his friends and they're allowed to worry, but they should have their own lives.

 

Merlin, on the other hand, is on the phone with him almost constantly; they talk until their batteries die and then they talk again as soon as their phones are recharged. Merlin immediately offers to come back, but Arthur knows how important it is to him to be with his mother at this time, so he says no even though he desperately wants Merlin there. Merlin doesn't ask him if he's all right, doesn't ask what he needs or how he's doing, like he can sense that Arthur has other people to inquire about that. Instead, he talks about his days, about how his mother is recovering and how behind he is on his studying, he tells Arthur about his friend Will, whom he hasn't seen since he moved to London, and Arthur would probably be jealous, if Merlin didn't say, at least four times per every conversation, just how much he missed Arthur. So that's okay too, Merlin being away, because they find ways of staying in touch.

 

Except that none of it is okay, because Arthur's just lost his father, and yes, they had issues, and yes, in many ways (as awful as it is for Arthur to admit) this is a relief, and yes, they've barely spoken in the last two years or so of Arthur's relationship with Merlin, but this was his father, god damn it, and he grew up idolizing the man, wanting to be like him, and it's still a lot to deal with, and god, he really wishes he didn't have to do it alone. It's suddenly all too much, far too much for him to deal with, for anyone to deal with on their own, and as his newly acquired sleek, fancy car gets closer to the cemetery, driven by his father's driver, Arthur feels like he's about to break down and cry, which is the last thing he needs happening in front of his future associates and his father's intimidating acquaintances, the people he will now need to impress anew. Suddenly, this strong, successful, independent young man that he's become seems like an act, and he feels like he's 13 again, the new kid with no one on his side. It's ludicrous to blame his friends for not being here, and Arthur does understand they have their own lives, he really does, but he selfishly, petulantly wants them to be here.

 

He doesn't really have the time to compose himself before they arrive, so it's a good thing he's developed pretty admirable acting skills over his time as Uther Pendragon's son, who also happens to be a lawyer. Kind of sad, but most of his life consists of acting in one way or another.

 

However, when he steps out of the car, things take a sharp turn as he sees a familiar battered Honda parked a bit to the side of the cemetery gates, his beautiful, wonderful, amazing partner, wearing a smart black suit, leaning on the hood, an older woman standing by his side. Once Arthur convinces himself he's not, in fact, dreaming, he wants to run to Merlin, hug him, and kiss him, and thank him, and he would probably do just that, but a group of men his father's age approach him with stern expressions on their faces and deep, flat voice that express dishonest sympathies, and judging eyes that only see his age and the ways in which he differs from his father.

 

He's ready to get rid of them as fast as possible without seeming rude, but while he's still talking to them, Merlin spots him and approaches. He seems uncertain on whether he should join the conversation or stay on the sidelines, if he should pretend to be a friend or be honest about their relationship. But Arthur is at that point when he couldn't care less what other people will think, he needs the comfort of Merlin's hands and Merlin's kisses and Merlin's support, he can't bear to see Merlin standing just out of reach, so he offers Merlin his hand and Merlin takes it easily, with a small smile.

 

Once Arthur can squeeze Merlin's cold fingers, feel them there, he doesn't want to let go. It's like he's just split the weight of all the feelings that have haunted him for the last two days in halves, and Merlin is carrying one now.

 

“Hi,” Merlin breathes, pressing a brief, chaste kiss to his lips.

 

“You're here,” Arthur says stupidly, holding Merlin's hand probably a bit too tightly, but Merlin doesn't complain.

 

“I couldn't let you be alone for this,” Merlin replies, sliding his hand out of Arthur's and snaking his arm around Arthur's waist. “How are you holding up?” he whispers, just for Arthur's ears and Arthur could kiss him for it. Actually, he will. He buries his face in the crook of Merlin's neck and inhales his familiar scent; it's like coming home after an extremely long day.

 

“Better,” he replies.

 

“Good. Come, I want you to meet someone,” Merlin says, with a contained smile that Arthur can hear in the words.

 

During the funeral, Hunith stays a polite distance away, while Merlin holds Arthur close and kisses him every time Arthur feels like he might break down. Merlin later insists that Arthur come back to his village for the rest of the holidays, so Arthur does. Hunith turns out to be the mother Arthur has always imagined Igraine would have been. It's at once the best and the worst winter holiday season of his life. Oddly appropriate, considering where he started out, like closing a full circle, ending a chapter in his life.

 

~*~

 

He loses a case in February.

 

It's too early to go back to work, only a month since his father's death, it's too early and he's not ready, but he has to prove himself and the only way he can do it, is by winning cases. Now, Arthur was born and raised not to be good, but to be the best, and that's what he's become, never having lost a case. Until, of course, it is vital not to lose, which is when he screws up.

 

Now, his client, admittedly not a very good man, is going to jail for 8 years, for a crime he didn't actually commit. It should have been easy, for a lawyer as good as Arthur, it should have a been a piece of cake to get an acquittal with an innocent client, but something went wrong, and the worst thing is, Arthur doesn't know what.

 

He feels like his brain has grown to the size of Jupiter, but is still crammed inside his regular-sized skull. It hurts like hell, hurts worse than it did when he got his first hangover, and that's saying something. He walks into their apartment exhausted and cranky, drops his stuff in the hallway, takes off his shoes and flops down on the sofa. It's about as much as he feels capable of doing.

 

“Hey,” he hears Merlin say from the general direction of the bedroom. He mumbles something gibberish in response. He knows that Merlin will, of course, pick up on something being wrong immediately, but he can't bring himself to say anything more at the moment. And, sure enough, “What's up?”

 

“I have a headache,” Arthur replies, rubbing at his eyes. He doesn't want to talk about it, doesn't want to have to tell Merlin that he failed or see the disappointment in his eyes. He feels it when Merlin leans on the back of the sofa and Merlin's fingers trail over where Arthur's clavicle is exposed by his loosened tie and unbuttoned shirt.

 

“I can help you with that,” Merlin whispers, words laden with innuendo. “Your body produces hormones that are basically the natural pain—“

 

“I get it, Merlin, you passed your endocrinology exam,” Arthur snaps, batting Merlin's hand away.

 

“Whoa, okay,” Merlin says, retreating his hands. For a moment, Arthur actually thinks Merlin's given up, but then the sofa dips and one of Merlin's skinny legs is pressed against Arthur's side as he sits down. Merlin's fingers gently pry Arthur's hands away from his face, then replace them, stroking his cheeks and brows. “Hey... What happened?” Merlin asks with such care and tenderness, Arthur feels like kicking himself for snapping at him.

 

But instead of apologizing, he looks at Merlin's face and just says, “I lost,” counting on Merlin to hear the sorry. They're equally difficult to say anyway.

 

“Oh,” is Merlin's only answer. There's no disappointment in his eyes, no judging, he doesn't look shocked or repulsed, just understanding and a little sad. “You can't win every time, you know,” he adds later when Arthur's relaxed a bit, started leaning into the stroking of Merlin's fingers through his hair.

 

“There's no can and can't right now; I have to win every time,” Arthur replies, because it's true, he's taking over the family business from none other than Uther Pendragon – those are big shoes to fill, and Arthur is not sure he's up to the challenge anymore. He's not used to losing. “There's an innocent man going to jail today because I screwed up,” he finally voices what he's been thinking for the last few hours.

 

“Hardly innocent,” Merlin huffs, kneeling down on the floor next to Arthur's head and kissing his forehead. “Hey, don't blame yourself, okay? You did your best. It's not your fault that he's a dick and the jury didn't like him. Hell, even you didn't like him.”

 

And Arthur knows Merlin is right – truth be told, he doesn't feel bad for not keeping Aredian free (honestly, the man is a horrible person, and perhaps he didn't orchestrate the robbery that he was charged with this time, but he is really not that innocent; as far as his clients go, there were worse people to let down); what's eating at him is that he lost. Ever since everything began with losing his mother, he's always been petrified of losing things and people from his life, it's part of the reason why he's so possessive and protective.

 

Merlin nuzzles his cheek and kisses it, murmuring, “You're still one of the best lawyers out there, don't let anyone tell you different.” And Arthur really, honestly doesn't know how he ever managed to get through more than twenty years without Merlin or what he would do if Merlin suddenly wasn't there. He tilts his head and rubs their noses together just to watch Merlin smile at him. Then he kisses that smile off.

 

It can't be a very comfortable position for Merlin to be in, on his knees and twisting his neck to get to Arthur's mouth at the right angle, but Merlin doesn't complain, so Arthur doesn't stop. He kisses Merlin slowly, lazily, just for the sake of kissing him, not even trying to get anywhere with it, and Merlin kisses back at the same pace, just easy, unassuming licks of his tongue behind Arthur's teeth and over the roof of his mouth. Without noticing, Arthur lets Merlin dictate the kiss and take over control, something he wouldn't let just anyone have, but Merlin is different, he trusts Merlin, knows Merlin won't let him down.

 

Merlin's hand is on his chest, undoing his tie and unbuttoning his shirt, just pushing them aside so his fingers can have access to Arthur's skin, dance over his chest and stomach, more teasing than really touching, so light, Arthur only feels them as a ghost of a tickle. Merlin doesn't break the kiss even as he single-handedly undoes Arthur's belt and trousers, then runs a finger over the length of Arthur's half-hard cock. Arthur is barely even aware of any of it happening, like it's background noise to the single clear note of Merlin's kiss, so when Merlin moves away, just far enough to be able to ask, “What do you want?” Arthur is not really sure what he's being asked. Luckily, that seems to be answer enough for Merlin, who stands up, presses a kiss to Arthur's forehead and disappears into their room for a few minutes, coming back with the half-spent bottle of lube and a condom in his hands.

 

Arthur hasn't moved since Merlin left, opting to stay sprawled over the sofa, his head on an arm rest, his clothes, mostly, still there but pushed aside. His body feels too heavy to move, like he's so tired he literally can't even lift a finger anymore, the emotional drain of doing a high profile case, and losing it on top of that, catching up with him and making him exhausted. But it doesn't matter, Arthur realizes, as he watches Merlin strip quickly and efficiently, dropping his clothes on the armchair next to the sofa, because as long as Merlin's here, Arthur can sometimes be tired, and lazy, and drained, and Merlin will take care of him.

 

Merlin catches him watching and smiles, an unguarded, intimate little smile that Arthur has only ever seen directed at himself and that he doesn't want to share with anyone; he smiles back and folds his legs up so Merlin can kneel on the sofa with him. Merlin runs his hands over Arthur's legs, up from is ankles to his knees, which he squeezes lightly, then all the way to his hips, where he hooks his fingers into the fabric of Arthur's trousers and underwear and pulls them down, letting them bunch up around the middle of Arthur's thighs. Arthur just watches, still feeling like he is in some kind of a daze, like he's trying to move underwater, and the best he can do is rest one of his hands on Merlin's shoulder, while letting the other roam absently over Merlin's chest. Merlin doesn't seem bothered by this lack of participation as he manoeuvres Arthur's legs to the side, so that they hang over the sofa, bends over and kisses Arthur again.

 

Arthur gets lost in the kiss, everything else blurring away as he closes his eyes and just enjoys the way Merlin knows exactly the rhythm Arthur needs right now. He is dimly aware of one of Merlin's hands stroking him to full hardness, while the fingers of the other run teasingly over his cleft, but he can't bring himself to focus on that when he's too busy enjoying the way he can close his eyes and not be afraid that once he opens them, Merlin will be gone, the way he can let Merlin take away his control and not be afraid of it not being given back, the way Merlin still kisses him lovingly and like he's the most wonderful thing that ever existed, even when he screws up. It's easier to relax and think and come to terms with having lost when he can feel the reassuring press of Merlin's lips against his.

 

He doesn't know how long it is before Merlin nips at his lip and says, “You know, I'm only slightly offended that you're not paying attention.” But it's teasing and sweet, especially when Merlin's lips then trail over Arthur's cheek and to his ear and he asks, quietly, like someone might hear, like it's a secret, “Is this working for you?”

 

They've been together for two years and they've had sex plenty of times, so Arthur knows it's not performance anxiety that makes Merlin ask that; he squeezes Merlin's shoulder and nuzzles his neck, breathing, “Yeah, yeah it's working,” in the same hushed voice, as if speaking any louder will break the spell.

 

“Good,” Merlin replies, pulling a little bit away and reaching out to the coffee table, “because I'm only just getting started.” He moves their supplies to the bed and Arthur watches intently as he opens the cap of the lube and spreads the clear gel over his right hand, making a show. It works, of course, Arthur's cock twitches in anticipation and his ass clenches on nothing, a reaction that's become almost instinctive upon seeing Merlin play with lube. Everything is sharper and more focused than it was only seconds ago now that Merlin is not directly on top of him, kissing him and distracting him, violently different, and although Arthur enjoys the ways in which Merlin can make his skin prickle and his fingers itch with the need to touch, today is not that kind of day, and Arthur already misses the feeling of heady, hazy drowsiness of being drunk on Merlin's lips.

 

Merlin seems to understand that, because he leans forward and carries on kissing Arthur; Arthur closes his eyes and gets lost in the way Merlin's soft, wet mouth soothes him as Merlin wraps a hand around his cock and starts pumping. There's a certain kind of ease, of assurance in the way Merlin moves, slow kisses and strong strokes and wet, probing fingers stroking over Arthur's hole, something that makes Arthur want to give in and let Merlin take charge, let someone else be in control for once in his life. It's easy with Merlin, because Merlin knows how to get him to that point when he wants to give in, knows how to relax him and soothe him, without making him feel like he's somehow lesser for needing that. He doesn't really know why Merlin is so special, but he is, and Arthur feels comfortable enough with him to sink back into the soft cushions of the sofa and let Merlin do whatever he wants.

 

Everything Merlin does stays slow, from the kisses, to the way he strokes Arthur's dick to the eventual ease of his slick fingers into Arthur's hole; the position Arthur is in makes his muscles stretch and burn and that, too, feels good, and Arthur has no doubt that Merlin positioned him like that for a reason. Arthur keeps his eyes closed, like a barrier from the world, focusing only on Merlin, the smell of Merlin filling his nostrils, the feel of Merlin's naked body over his, still mostly clothed one, the taste of Merlin in his mouth, the tips of Merlin's fingers stroking inside his ass; Merlin is everywhere around him, over him and inside him, and Arthur just soaks in that knowledge, in the feeling of being completely and utterly one with someone. It's a connection he's never felt before, and he distantly thinks that he never wants to let it go, that he wants it to be forever.

 

Arthur thinks that maybe he's melting, or his body has just turned to warm wax or something equally easily manipulated, he feels completely boneless and can't bring himself to move a single muscle more than what is necessary to keep his arms around Merlin's neck and to respond to Merlin's kisses. It's like becoming jelly, or maybe clouds or smoke, something that is barely physical, something to be created and shaped by Merlin's expert hands; he's no longer Arthur, the lawyer who lost a case, or Arthur, the failing son, he's whatever Merlin wants him to be, he's reduced to the moaning, shaking pile of relaxed muscles and hazy thoughts, and it's exactly the respite he needs from his stressful, every day life.

 

When he comes, it's not the usual, explosive and breathtaking orgasm that he knows Merlin is capable of bringing him to, it's a slow, burning build-up that lasts and leaves him tingly all over his body. It doesn't break the pattern of their (and Arthur never believed he'd ever be in a situation where he'd use this phrase in a tone that is not heavily ironic and mocking, but he honestly can't think of it in any different way) love-making, and Arthur is perfectly capable of staying in his almost-ethereal state as Merlin carefully extracts his fingers and gives Arthur's spent cock one more squeeze before taking his hand away. He has to stop kissing Arthur as he moves away to dig out the condom from the mess of Arthur's clothes and legs, but this time, it doesn't break the magic, and Arthur is still stranded somewhere in the land between alert and unconscious as he watches Merlin rip the foil of the condom.

 

“Don't,” he finds himself saying. Despite the way he feels distant from the world, he doesn't sound it, he just sounds wrecked and maybe a bit sappy, as he reaches out and bats the condom away. “I want to feel it when you come.” Merlin raises an eyebrow, even though he doesn't reach out to take the condom from where it's fallen to the floor. “I'm clean, you're clean, we're monogamous. Where's the risk?” Arthur asks with a shrug.

 

Merlin studies his face for a few seconds longer before moving his hips forward and entering him in one smooth move. “In your ego,” he moans, folding over to lick at Arthur's lips with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Arthur laughs and it's honest and light, like the small, belated snowflakes drifting past the window.

 

~*~

 

They have their biggest fight when they come home from Morgana's birthday party that year.

 

It's so late, that it's actually early, they're both sleep deprived and a bit tipsy, they're soaking wet from the rain that's falling heavily outside, and the apartment is pretty cold since they've been away for hours now. Arthur has his arms wrapped around Merlin's waist, hugging him from behind and kissing up the side of his neck, as he rants on and on about something that's been on his mind in the recent hours – Elena, Gwaine's sister, announced she was pregnant during Morgana's party and it reminded Arthur of his own childhood dreams (probably affected by his father, but he is not gonna think about that now) of having a family.

 

“Think about it, we could find a surrogate or adopt, we could do both!” he mumbles against the soft skin of Merlin's neck, damp from where the droplets of rain slid down from his hair. “We would move to the house, now that it's empty. And imagine us, old and wrinkled with a bunch of grandkids running around the yard, it would be so amazing! Don't you think?”

 

It's only when Merlin sighs and steps away from him that Arthur notices that Merlin's gone stiff and looks like he's bracing himself for saying something Arthur is not going to like, which Arthur has learnt to be a good sign that they're about to have a fight.

 

“Arthur,” Merlin says in a placating, but firm tone, “I don't want children.”

 

Arthur half expects it to be a joke, but Merlin stands firmly in front of him, not moving a muscle, a calm but determined look on his face. “You what?” Arthur asks, still in the process of not believing his ears. He hasn't given it much serious thought until then because he's never really had anyone he cared for as much as Merlin, cared for enough to even think of starting a family with, but with this reminder of the fact that they're all grown up now, in their early and mid-thirties, that his friends are starting their own families, getting married and having children, he is suddenly struck with how very much he's not okay with not having children. Sure, even when he was a teenager, he knew that, what with being gay, there was a possibility of him never having anyone to raise and keep and protect and leave his heirloom to, but he never really did accept that fully. It's probably the part of him that still idolizes his father, that was raised by a traditionalist and shares those views, that wants a little boy or girl to fulfil his life, but whichever part of his personality it is, Arthur has never really stopped dreaming of growing old with the man he loves, in the closest he can get to a white picket fence house (which is his father's mansion, so hey, not that bad), with little blond kids on his lap.

 

“I don't want children,” Merlin repeats calmly. “I sort of assumed you'd... come to terms with not having kids, considering your sexuality. That's why I never brought it up.”

 

Arthur stares at Merlin feeling as if he's seeing him for the first time. It never occurred to him before that Merlin would somehow clash with his vision of the future. Then again, until recently he hadn't even realized how important that subconscious desire was to him. He tries to think rationally, maybe he's just... blowing it out of proportion. The idea of children, after all, has never been at the forefront of his mind before now; but as Merlin pointed out, he hasn't had need for concern until now.

 

“But why?” he asks, having trouble reconciling the thought of having either Merlin, or family and honestly baffled as to why he has to choose when they would be good parents together, he knows they would – with Merlin, he's the best person he can possibly be, they don't argue much and they would love their children unconditionally, Arthur knows that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

 

“Because I don't... I don't want that kind of responsibility, I guess?” Merlin replies, shrugging. “I'm gonna be a doctor soon, Arthur, people's lives will depend on me. I don't want to have that kind of pressure at home as well.”

 

To a certain extent, Arthur does understand, because the responsibility is kind of a lot for him, too, but he trusts himself with Merlin and, although he knows Merlin probably doesn't mean it that way, the fact that Merlin doesn't want to raise kids with him somehow feels like a personal blow. It makes all his old insecurities and fears resurface and he feels like he is being told, yet again, that he is not good enough. He opens his mouth to accuse Merlin, but Merlin beats him to it.

 

“I know, it's selfish,” he says with a roll of his eyes. “Look, I'm sorry, but this is important to me. I do not want children.”

 

There is a finality to Merlin's tone that makes Arthur easily realize that Merlin won't budge on this particular issue, which only serves to make him angry, because this is a matter of their relationship, damn it, and Arthur has a say in it.

 

“I've just... never seen myself with children,” Merlin ends, and it's a damn stupid reason if Arthur's ever heard one and he should say well I've never seen myself without them, but he's not thinking straight, the mix of the slight buzz of alcohol and the storm of his anger making it difficult to be reasonable. So what he does instead is use what he knows about Merlin to make a jab he knows will sting.

 

“Of course you haven't, I dare say you haven't seen yourself anywhere, what with the way you plan ahead and think about the future a lot.”

 

For a moment, Merlin looks like he will just ignore it, but then his fists clench and he licks his lips quickly and Arthur knows this is not gonna be pretty.

 

It all kind of devolves from there. Arthur can throw a mean insult when he wants to, it's something he learnt from his father pretty early on, but Merlin is not far behind. They end up yelling at each other, using everything they know about each other (so, considerable amounts of ammunition) to make every word hurt like a slap; Arthur has never been in an argument so exhausting, so painful, and it figures that Merlin would be the one to push him to new lows as well as highs.

 

It's well past dawn when it all ends in what turns out to be a pretty anticlimactic finish, when Merlin says in one breath, “You're not that different from your father, you know, and one would think, given your experience, you wouldn't want to put a child through the hell of having that kind of a parent oh my god I am so sorry, I have no idea why I said that.”

 

But the words hit Arthur like a punch to the gut and he deflates, all his anger leaving him in the one exhale that follows Merlin's sentence; he sits on the sofa feeling completely beaten because that is the point – the reason why he's felt all along that Merlin was telling him he wouldn't be a good parent, is that he actually thinks so himself, that he's telling himself that, so it was easy to hear it in Merlin's voice as well.

 

Merlin sits down next to him and takes one of his hands in both of his own. “Arthur, listen to me. That was the stupidest thing that ever crossed my mind,” he says, in a voice not unlike the one he would probably use to calm down a skittish horse or something. He lifts Arthur's hand to his mouth and kisses it. “You would be a great father, okay? There's no doubt in my mind that any child would be lucky to have you.” He sounds so honest and apologetic, Arthur kind of wants to cry. “And if you really want children, I want you to have them. But it won't be with me. I'm sorry, I'm afraid this is a deal breaker for me,” he finishes, his voice breaking at the last few words and Arthur's decision is made at that, he knows; but even if it weren't, when he thinks about it, it's easier to imagine the future without children than without Merlin – in fact, he's not even sure how to imagine it without Merlin. His only response is to lean into Merlin, nuzzle his neck and let Merlin's arms wrap around him. “I'm sorry,” Merlin whispers into his hair.

 

“Don't be,” Arthur replies. Merlin is more than enough for him.

 

~*~

 

At the end of that winter, Merlin passes his last exam.

 

He's been preparing it for days, sometimes even getting so involved in his studying, that he forgets to sleep. Arthur would find it all very funny if he wasn't too busy drooling at the sight of Merlin walking around with his face in a book, wearing comfortable, often Arthur's, pyjamas, his hair a bit longer than usual, his normally clean shaven face sporting a heavy stubble, an almost mad look in is eyes. Arthur is temped to call the university to tell them to fail Merlin, just so he could enjoy the view some more.

 

Of course, the downside of it is that he only gets to look, as Merlin is too busy to actually fulfil any of Arthur's many, many new fantasies. Instead he just walks around the apartment being gorgeous and doing nothing to help with Arthur's seemingly perpetual semi hard-on.

 

So, because Arthur knows how to be a tease as well, he goes to their room one evening, when Merlin is in the kitchen, drinking his certainly-this-amount-is-unhealthy-th coffee of the day, and, of course, studying, he deliberately doesn't close the door and instead just drops on top of the covers. Kitchen is close enough that he's pretty sure Merlin can hear him blindly opening the drawer and rummaging through it. He hopes Merlin can hear him.

 

He's been half-hard since about an hour and a half ago when he watched Merlin walk out of the extra bedroom that he now uses for studying, looking deliciously sleep-rumpled with pillow creases on his cheeks and his hair sticking out every which way, wearing nothing but pyjama bottoms and a white undershirt; he mumbled a hello and proceeded to put on a random hoodie that was on top of the pile of clean clothes Arthur was about to put away – it so happened that the hoodie was actually Arthur's, but Merlin put it on either way, like it didn't matter and Arthur felt at once warm with the fondness over having Merlin so at ease with sharing everything with him, and possessiveness over seeing Merlin in his clothes. He focuses on that image as he pushes his hips forward and rubs himself against the mattress.

 

He might be developing a kink for this new, scruffy side of Merlin, he realizes as he finally digs out the lube and places it on the bed next to him. He's hard now, from just imagining Merlin, looking like he's forgotten how to do his morning routine, and while he doesn't think he can come solely from rutting against the sheets and thinking, he's perfectly happy to continue doing just that for a while longer. The room is pretty cold because nobody's slept in it ever since Merlin started preparing for his exam (Merlin sleeps on the kitchen table, mostly, and Arthur doesn't like sleeping alone in their huge bed, so he usually spends his night on the sofa in the living room where he can see Merlin), so there's been no need to turn on the heating, and Arthur doesn't really feel much like stripping in such cold.

 

That is, until he hears Merlin reading his textbook out loud, in that low quiet voice, a bit scratchy from the fact that he hasn't used it in a while, except that it sends images – memories and ideas, flashing through Arthur's mind (Merlin on his knees, lips shiny with spit, saying the dirtiest things as he jerks Arthur off, until Arthur comes all over his face; Merlin on top of him, fucking him slowly, deeply, whispering the sweetest things in his ear in that wrecked voice; Merlin complaining that Arthur's pulling out, even as he's screamed himself hoarse before that), and suddenly, Arthur's flushed and the room is hot and the lazy thrusting against the sheets is so not enough.

 

He turns over on his back, shimmies out of his tracksuit, and squeezes out some lube on his hand. When he wraps his fingers around himself, he lets out a shaky breath, then strokes himself slowly, root to tip, with a firm grip, moaning. It's only a bit of a show – he likes to be vocal and he's only enhancing it a little for Merlin to hear. Merlin, who is probably still sitting at the kitchen table, nursing his unusually large mug of coffee and memorizing diagrams with that look of intense concentration on his face, maybe frowning or biting his lips; and Arthur's taken Merlin on that table, sucked him and fingered him and fucked him until Merlin was a whimpering mess (his hand speeds up without his conscious decision, but instead of complaining he just moans loudly as his thumb runs over the head, pressing just a little harder over the slit), but he's also been bent over that table, held down with one of Merlin's hands pressing on his lower back, the fingers of the other holding his ass spread as Merlin licked him and kissed him and fucked him with his tongue. And Merlin is fucking brilliant with his mouth, Arthur's learnt, so he focuses on that as he runs a hand over his torso, pinching his nipples and scratching at his stomach.

 

The movement of his hand speeds up and focuses on the upper half of his dick, he squeezes the sensitive head and twists his wrist to run his palm over it, all the while imagining what it would be like to have Merlin's head between his legs, to be able to grip and pull on Merlin's locks, wondering if he would be able to feel the light scratching of Merlin's beard on his balls when Merlin deepthroated him. He lets his other hand trail down to his balls, cupping them and rolling them in his palm before his fingers slip past and tease over his hole, but they're dry, not like Merlin's tongue would be, and oh god, Merlin's tongue would be wet and soft and perfect, and Arthur would definitely be able to feel the scratch of his beard there, and that would burn and it would be perfect and Arthur would be a total slut for that, would shove his ass at Merlin's face and beg for Merlin to eat him out and Merlin would do it and he would do it well, and just imagining it makes Arthur lift his hips upward and fuck his own hand and want to come and come now.

 

He doesn't even notice how loud he's being until he hears a long, deep grunt that he doesn't even recognize as his own voice at first. He opens his eyes and looks down his body, his shirt pushed up to his chest, his body covered in a light sheen of sweat, the muscles in his stomach contracting, one of his hands disappearing between his legs as the other one strokes furiously over his flushed cock, the head of it peeping out of his fist and oozing drops of pearly liquid. He also sees Merlin in the doorway, his textbook in one hand, a half eaten slice of toast in the other and his cock obviously hard in his pyjamas.

 

“I hate you so much right now,” Merlin simply states in that deep, tired voice and Arthur would laugh, but he's too busy moaning as his cock pulses in his hand and he comes all over his stomach. “So much,” Merlin repeats, shaking his head and shoving the rest of the toast in his mouth. Arthur laughs as Merlin trudges off, his face once again buried in his book. It might be the post-orgasmic endorphins, but he finds it kind of cute, how much Merlin is freaking out, especially when it's clear as day to Arthur that he's passing the exam, he's too smart not to.

 

~*~

 

In a cruel and ironic twist of fate, Merlin's mother dies on December 21st.

 

Arthur remembers the pain and loneliness of dealing with that alone, so he takes days off work and spends every second of every minute of every hour of every day with Merlin, who seems unable to decide if he wants to cry or be angry or just curl up somewhere and sleep off the rest of his life. Arthur understands, though, he really does, because he's been there too. So what he does is adjust. He's learnt to read Merlin easily, to always be able to guess what Merlin is feeling and what he needs, so he curls up around Merlin at night and holds him through the crying, and he stands impassively as he gets yelled at for things that are not his fault, and then hugs back when Merlin clings to him and apologizes, and he wipes away the tears when Merlin cries, and he keeps his distance when Merlin sits in the middle of his mother's living room and stares at the black TV screen.

 

The funeral is short and intimate, only the closest family friends and Arthur feels like he's intruding every time someone he's never seen before gives Merlin condolences and awkwardly shakes Arthur's hand. But then Merlin leans on him and kisses him briefly, chastely, just the touch of cold lips and Arthur knows he could never be anywhere else at that moment.

 

They stand at the grave long after everyone else has left, and Arthur hugs Merlin from behind, and Merlin's cold hands in fingerless gloves never leave Arthur's bare ones where they rest around Merlin's waist.

 

“She really liked you, you know,” Merlin says after an indefinite amount of time and Arthur can hear in his voice that he's crying, but he has the courtesy not to mention it. “She thought we were meant to be,” he adds, with a little laugh. Arthur doesn't know what to say, other than something cheesy, so he buries his cold nose between Merlin's warm neck and his blue scarf. “She had an argument with her neighbour last month, because he told her it wasn't natural, you and me.”

 

And yeah, Arthur can see how Hunith would want to slap that person. He's grown very fond of Hunith over the years, especially over her support for them. He remembers London Pride earlier that year, when Hunith went with them, walking down the streets wearing a banner that said My son deserves the right to marry his amazing boyfriend. He smiles at the memory, even though he can't deny the little itch of jealousy, because his father would never have done something like that.

 

But then it occurs to him. “Marry me,” he whispers right into Merlin's ear.

 

“What?” is Merlin's immediate reaction, before he even twists in Arthur's arms to look at him with wide eyes, surprised and hopeful.

 

“Marry me,” Arthur repeats, louder and more certain this time, smiling at the expression on Merlin's face. “I don't have a ring on me, but I'll get you one later. Just say yes.”

 

Merlin stares at him for a bit longer, apparently trying to figure out if he's serious, and Arthur lets him, because he knows Merlin will see that, yes, this is pretty unplanned and he hasn't actually thought about it, but he means it either way. Then Merlin surges forward and kisses him so hard Arthur's teeth hurt, but he doesn't say anything, just kisses back, placing his hands on Merlin's face, warm from crying, probably the only warm thing for miles and definitely all the warmth Arthur needs.

 

“Yes. Yeah, I'll marry you. Idiot,” Merlin mumbles between kisses. The wind does little to cool down the quick spread of warmth through Arthur's chest.

 

~*~

 

They get married on January 27th.

 

It's not a special day until the moment they sign the papers, they choose it randomly, just because it's the earliest even Arthur can push the clerk to schedule. They tell no one, lest one of their friends (most likely Morgana) decides to organize some ostentatious, over-the-top celebration. They invite the closest people they have left (Morgana, Gwaine, Lancelot, Gwen – who turned out to work in the A&E at the hospital Merlin was trying to get a job at, so they met and quickly became friends, Gwen's brother Elyan, Morgana's partner Morgause, Elena and her husband and their kid), under the excuse of going out for a dinner together, as a sort of fancy, bonding, friends-only evening.

 

It's funny to watch their faces when the cabs Arthur ordered to pick them up arrive at the registry office.

 

It's all very formal and pretty generic and only a tiny bit personal, it's like signing any other document, and the dinner they go to afterwards is not at all a large, fancy ceremony, it's basically just another night out for them, only with all of their friends there and with more congratulations, but Arthur feels giddy all day and Merlin giggles a little every time their eyes meet, and Arthur holds Merlin's hand through the whole thing even if it means that he must sign his name with his left hand, and Merlin kisses him at the most random times just because, and it's the best day of Arthur's life.

 

They're not even technically, legally married, they've entered a civil union, which is basically the same thing as civil marriage, but since they live in a world where equality is still only a dream, it's called differently. Not that it's gonna stop Arthur from referring to Merlin as his husband from that moment on.

 

~*~

 

The awful part of Merlin's job first becomes their problem in the beginning of February next year.

 

Merlin has trouble finding a job for a while, but in January that year, Gwen somehow manages to get him a spot at her A&E, which is basically everything Merlin's worked for over the years. And for a while, it's all good, and Merlin is doing what he wants to be doing, helping people and saving them, but then it happens and Merlin comes home, bundled up in his scarf, with this expression on his face, and with a different quality to the way he moves and Arthur just knows.

 

He doesn't ask anything at all – by this point, they know each other too well to need words in situations like this – just walks up to Merlin and helps him out of his clothes. Merlin has this sort of haunted, empty look in his eyes that worries Arthur, but he knows better than to say anything – Merlin will talk to him when he's ready. He makes some mint tea and Merlin drinks it, still without a word. Arthur stands next to him, a hand on his shoulder and waits.

 

“I know it's stupid,” Merlin eventually says, “I know she's just the first of many, it's a fucking emergency department, I know this. But she was three, Arthur, she was three, and her mother was drunk, and it was an accident, and I don't think there was a bone in her body that wasn't broken, and there was blood fucking everywhere, and we couldn't...” He looks up to the ceiling, clearly trying to calm himself down, takes a deep breath, holds it, then lets it out. Arthur puts an arm around his shoulders and pulls him closer. “She was three, and she was dying and I couldn't do a fucking thing to save her,” Merlin mumbles, leaning into Arthur with his whole body, as if trying to morph into him. Arthur holds him tighter and walks them to bed.

 

Merlin doesn't sleep that night, and by extension, neither does Arthur, because when Merlin is sick, or not feeling well, Arthur has to be the mother hen and look after him, there's just something in him that makes him do it. So they lie on their sides, face to face, and Merlin never moves more than a fraction of an inch away from him, and they just stare at each other all night; Merlin leans in every once in a while and kisses him, and Arthur strokes his hair, but they don't talk and they don't move and they don't sleep. In the morning, Arthur leaves for work first, and Merlin walks him to the door and kisses him and says, “Thank you,” even though Arthur doesn't need to hear it.

 

~*~

 

It's Arthur's thirty-fifth birthday. It's also the last night they're spending in their home of eight years, because tomorrow, they're packing their shit and moving to the Pendragon mansion, which they will be sharing with Morgana and her husband – Leon, whom Arthur still remembers as a gangly teenage kid from years ago, even though Morgana and him have been together (again) ever since they ran into each other at Tesco sixteen months ago. So they're celebrating.

 

“Fucking fuck, Arthur, just fucking stop teasing me and fuck me already,” Merlin curses breathlessly, arching his back and pushing himself further onto Arthur's fingers. Arthur tries to hum non-committally, but it comes out more as a moan when Merlin fucks his cock deeper into Arthur's mouth. To be honest, Arthur's pretty worked up himself, and he's not sure how long he can go on like this, but Merlin doesn't need to know that.

 

Arthur's lying on his back, his face aligned with Merlin's crotch where Merlin is on all fours above him, he's sucking Merlin as best as he can in his current position (and drooling – honestly, he doesn't know how he hasn't choked already – over it like he hasn't done it countless times, but damn, he loves sucking Merlin off), and his fingers have been in Merlin for probably too long because they're starting to cramp, but he can't bring himself to stop because he wants to listen to Merlin losing it for-fucking-ever, the breathy moans and slurred curses going straight to Arthur's cock, which is twitching, neglected, against his stomach.

 

He looks up, sees Merlin looking back and shudders at the way Merlin's eyes are unfocused, pupils blown, lips parted and bitten blood-red, face flushed, a drop of sweat running down his straight nose and falling down. He tries to grin as much as he can while his mouth is still full of Merlin's cock; it seems to get the message across because Merlin grits out, “Fucking hate you, Arthur fucking Pendragon, fuck you,” punctuating every word with a harsh shove of his hips, until Arthur is choking, but Merlin fucks into his mouth a few more times, only pulling out when Arthur is actually feeling dizzy from lack of oxygen. He uses the minute or so that Arthur needs to regain cognitive function to push Arthur's arms away from his body and slide down until he's straddling Arthur's hips. When Arthur opens his eyes and the image comes to focus, Merlin is holding himself up on his knees, one of his arms behind his back, the hand gripping the base of Arthur's cock to hold it up. Merlin smirks at him and says, “You know what I should do now? I should flip you over and fuck you dry, so you can feel it for days.” Arthur mewls at the idea, warming up to it in seconds, and actually hoping Merlin would do it. “But, sadly, I'd probably come before you, so,” Merlin continues in a tone that is damn close to conversational, all things considered, as he lowers himself on Arthur's cock in one smooth move.

 

“Oh, fuck,” Arthur breathes, not quite managing to stop himself from lifting his hips and pushing himself further into Merlin. Merlin doesn't seem to mind, since he throws his head back and moans loudly before immediately starting to move, not even bothering to go slow, but starting out by fucking himself on Arthur's cock hard and fast and deep; Arthur's hands grip Merlin's hips hard, but he doesn't guide Merlin's movement, because watching Merlin's face as it goes through expressions of bliss is totally worth letting Merlin set the tempo.

 

Not that Arthur wants to complain, not with Merlin tight and hot around him, the muscles in his thighs working as he moves up, then drops back down, always impaling himself fully on Arthur's cock, squeezing it like it's his first time and like Arthur hasn't opened him up enough. Merlin's hands grip Arthur's wrists and Arthur looks at him; Merlin just smiles and speeds up. It's not long before Arthur can't stop fucking up into Merlin every time Merlin goes down, drawing out gasps and grunts from them both; Merlin's normally pale chest becomes flushed with exertion, and he's panting, sweating and moaning almost continuously, but he never breaks eye contact, and Arthur wants to scream with how good it is, to have that kind of intimate connection, even when the sex is quick and hard and desperate.

 

“Oh, god, oh, fuck, urgh, Arthur,” Merlin starts chanting when Arthur finds a particularly good angle, Merlin's nails dig into the skin of Arthur's wrists with every thrust. Arthur just lies back and watches, because Merlin is so beautiful like this, his pale skin now red, covered in sweat, his hair curling at the tips, his face slack and relaxed, nipples perked and his cock jumping with the movement of his body, lightly hitting against both of their stomach, leaving wet trails of pre-come. Even if Arthur wanted to do more than sit back and enjoy the show, he doesn't think he could draw his eyes away or focus on anything else. “Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Merlin curses under his breath, rolling his hips a few times with Arthur's cock buried deep inside him, before he comes, untouched over them both; it's one of the hottest things Arthur's ever seen, so he doesn't even wait for Merlin to be done, just sits up and kisses him, wet and sloppy and uncoordinated, especially once Merlin goes boneless on top of him and just drapes himself over Arthur's body, his mouth by Arthur's ear, babbling, “God, that was amazing, I love you, love you so much, happy birthday, fuck, gonna miss this bed, fuck me,” and other indistinguishable, incoherent gibberish. Arthur wraps his arms around Merlin's body and holds him in place as he manages a few more shallow thrusts before spilling inside Merlin's hot, tight body as Merlin licks at the shell of his ear and keeps repeating, “I love you, Arthur Pendragon, love you even though you're an idiot.”

 

~*~

 

Arthur leans against the wall next to the window, draining the last of his hot cocoa as he watches the children in his yard throw snowballs at each other and roll around in the piles of snow on the ground. Granted, only one of the children is actually young enough to be called that – Mordred, Morgana's wonder kid whom she proclaimed she didn't want, and then ended up spoiling rotten (not that Arthur didn't help, profusely) is turning four this year, but Gwaine and Lancelot are not acting their age today, so Arthur feels perfectly fine calling them children. Rex, the Pendragon family hound (nope, actually just a stray that Merlin picked up on his way home six years ago, when he was just a puppy) is running around, barking at everything that moves and curiously sticking his nose into piles of loose white everywhere, so Arthur thinks it's safe to say he's regressed as well.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Merlin asks, coming up to him from behind, placing a hand almost possessively on the small of Arthur's back and kissing his cheek. He extracts the mug from Arthur's hands and places it on the kitchen table nearby, next to his own.

 

Arthur shrugs. “Nothing in particular,” he replies, even though they both know it's not true. It's been sort of a haunting ghost of their relationship, Arthur's unfulfilled desire to have children, especially since Mordred, and he always bitterly throws it into Merlin's face when they're arguing, but Merlin, although he flinches every time, always apologizes and looks guilty, stands his ground. Arthur respects that, most of the time he doesn't even mean the shit he says, but he can't stop himself saying it. Still, when he feels Merlin's arms snake around his middle, Merlin's breath tickling behind his ear, Merlin's lips running gently, lovingly over his neck, still so perfect even after all these years, he knows he made the right choice – Merlin was always going to be his destiny, his life, children or no children.

 

“Come on!” Merlin says cheerfully after a while, turning Arthur's face to the side with his fingers and kissing him on the lips, “Let's go out!” Arthur rolls his eyes, wondering if winter just has this de-ageing effect on everyone, but he complies, letting Merlin drag him to the hallway and make him put on his coat and scarf (no gloves though, they've always had that sort of tradition of going out without gloves, probably because the feel of each other's hands was more pleasant than wool) and push him out the door. Rex jumps on them, wagging his tail and Mordred grins in their direction, while Gwaine and Lancelot greet them with snowballs. Merlin flips them off once he's made sure Mordred is not looking.

 

“What, we're not joining the snow war?” Arthur asks as Merlin pushes him backwards with a mischievous grin.

 

“Nah, I'm more the snow angels type,” Merlin answers, grinning and shoving Arthur in the chest hard enough to make him topple over and fall into the snow. Fortunately, he's not quick enough to move away, so Arthur manages to grab his arm and drag him down as well. They land in the fluffy, soft snow with a slight oof, Merlin on top of Arthur, both grinning. “Idiot,” Merlin says fondly, but ruins it by kissing the tip of Arthur's nose.

 

“I love you,” Arthur replies, saying the words for what he thinks is the first time. He doesn't know why it took him so long, when he's known it to be true for ages now; when he looks at Merlin's smiling face, and his shiny, blue eyes and his soft lips stretched in a wide smile that shows off his perfectly snow-white teeth, it's obvious that it was all worth it, every fight, every argument and every battle, just to have this, right now.

 

“I know,” Merlin replies, kissing him briefly, before rolling over to the side and stretching his arms and legs. Arthur watches him make a snow angel then decides that, fuck it, even full grown men deserve a day of childish fun every once in a while, and making his own angel that ends up looking like it's sharing a wing with Merlin's. Merlin laughs at how defective their angels look, but Arthur actually thinks they're kind of appropriate.