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I've Built My Dreams Around You

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I’ve Built My Dreams Around You

Arthur

“No, no, no!” Arthur groaned, and the piano ground to a halt as he hit his baton irritably against his music stand. “I just told you, I don’t want to hear any of this...this sliding between notes. None of you are Mariah Carey, thank God, so can we have nice, clean, separate notes on each syllable?”

“But, sir!” One of the kids stuck a hand in the air, and Arthur drew in a deep breath before looking at him. “I thought we were singing ‘All I Want for Christmas’?”

“George,” Arthur spoke through gritted teeth, “if you cared to even look at the programme, you would notice that I have very carefully written out which songs we are performing. “‘All I Want for Christmas’ is definitely not there, and there are a thousand different reasons why.” He didn’t bother to explain that a majority of those reasons consisted of ‘none of you can sing’. “Now, Morgana,” he turned his head sharply to call over his shoulder to his younger sister, who was sitting behind the piano and looking mutinous. “From the top.”

There was a moment of shuffling papers as Camelot’s choir straightened up, eyes rolling as they purposefully checked watches and poked at whoever was standing in front of them, just for the sake of it. Then Arthur rapped his baton against the stand for what he hoped would be, but knew wouldn’t be, the final time. The ensemble did by no means fall silent, but the mutterings died down as Morgana played the intro to ‘Silent Night’.

The fact that they even needed to practice such a basic carol was grating on Arthur’s nerves, and he gritted his teeth. After having spent four hours in a church that appeared to have no heating whatsoever, even the sweet voice of his lead soloist couldn’t pull him out of his bad mood. He glowered at Gwen the same as he glowered at everyone else, trying to ignore the prickling at the back of his neck which told him that his sister was boring holes into his skin with her gaze, and wished dearly that he could be anywhere else.

It was another thirty minutes before Arthur gave up, rubbing a hand tiredly over his eyes and waving the teenagers from the building. A few of them waved back, with calls of “See you next week, sir!” and “Merry almost Christmas!” But Arthur merely snorted at each statement in turn and leaned heavily against the piano.

Gwen was the last to leave. Arthur watched as she carefully pulled a woolly hat down over her ears and dragged soft mittens onto her fingers.

“Bye, Mr Pendragon.” She smiled in a sympathetic way that instantly made Arthur feel bad for being short with her earlier. Not that she seemed to have minded—the girl really was an angel.

“Bye, Gwen,” he replied, half lifting his hand in another wave. Behind him, Morgana pushed back her piano stool then got to her feet and brushed past her brother with an irritable sigh.

“I’ll see you at home,” she huffed, in a tone that was slightly too ominous to give Arthur any good feelings. Before he had time to answer her, she had caught up with Gwen, threading her arm through the other girl’s, and Arthur pretended not to notice how Gwen’s cheeks flushed or how Morgana’s sought to twist their fingers together.

He waited until they had both left. Then, he had shoved all the various music scores into his bag before heading off himself.

It was a two minute stroll from the church to the cafe on the corner, but it felt like something of a trek to Arthur as he locked the double doors behind him and shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. The ground wasn’t quite icy, but it was scattered with salty grit that crunched beneath the soles of his shoes, and the cold air crept below his collars to lay freezing fingers against his skin.

As he walked, shoulders hunched against the wind and chin buried within the folds of his scarf, he thought about all the ways he could be spending his Christmas holidays and all the ways that he wouldn’t be. He supposed it was his own damn fault for ever becoming a teacher, but no one had ever mentioned the possibility of him training up a bunch of tone-deaf, very-much-the-opposite-of pitch perfect teenagers (excluding Gwen, of course), to sing in a carol service at the local church.

He had been working on it for weeks during term time, and now the blessed thing was taking over his holiday as well. He sighed into the confines of his scarf, soaking up the warmth from his own exhale as he stopped outside the door to the cafe and pushed against it, feeling himself relax almost immediately as the welcome bells jangled.

He had barely gotten both feet onto the scruffy, worn down welcome mat, when a heart-warming, familiar voice called his name from afar.

“Arthur!”

He looked up to see Merlin falter a few steps away, pulling up short with his teeth biting into his bottom lip. “I mean, hey, Mr Pendragon.”

Arthur rolled his eyes but had to fight to keep a fond smile from curving up the corners of his lips—the one that he usually reserved for when he and Merlin were alone, most often at Arthur’s house with the blinds drawn down. “Hey,” he brought himself to reply nonchalantly, already beginning to feel nervous in the way only Merlin could ever make him feel— not least because the relationship between them was still terrifyingly new, and dangerously delicate.

He nodded his head vaguely off in the direction of the table that he always sat at, and Merlin backed away with his own head bobbing. “Hot chocolate?” he asked, and Arthur watched as he tried to act normal. As normal as Merlin was ever capable of acting, anyway, with his hands shifting to twist behind his back as he rocked on the balls of his feet.

“That’s your favourite, Merlin,” Arthur reminded him with a grin as he slid into his seat and resisted simply slumping forwards over the tabletop and succumbing to his exhaustion. In lieu of sprawling like one of the kids he taught though, Arthur merely shut his eyes and let his chin hit his chest.

“Oh yeah,” he heard Merlin say, as if he had honestly forgotten that he consumed hot chocolate at a rate that was, quite frankly, alarming. Arthur smiled a little, picturing how Merlin looked with a chocolate-y moustache and his porcelain fingers wrapped around a porcelain mug. He was just thinking about the way Merlin’s tongue would flick out and run across his foamy, soft upper lip, when he felt a risky brush of fingertips against the back of his neck as the subject of his thoughts darted forwards to touch him, briefly, then away again. The action made Arthur shiver, almost imperceptibly, but he knew Merlin would have noticed.

When Merlin returned, he was carrying two mugs of hot chocolate even though he knew Arthur preferred coffee. Arthur glared up at him blearily and opened his mouth to ask whether he could request a different waiter who actually gave a damn about customer service, when Merlin took the seat opposite him.

Arthur blinked. “Merlin,” he began, sitting up straighter and glancing around at where other people and other—Arthur felt a pang of emotion that he didn’t want to put a name to just then—couples were eating and drinking. None of them had eyes for the blond adult and the dark-haired teenager (Arthur supposed that Merlin was technically an adult, but still), sitting with their feet touching beneath the table. “Did you ever listen to me when we had the conversation about being inconspicuous?”

“A conversation,” Merlin mused, propping his elbows on the table and cradling his mug in his hands (in just the way Arthur had imagined), “implies that I was mutually involved, but I don’t remember being able to get a word in edgeways. If you’re asking whether I listened as you ranted on about the importance of not being caught together, then yes, I did. But I have chosen, at this moment, not to care.” A smile widened across Merlin’s face, and Arthur felt his breath catch a little in his throat at the sight. “It’s Christmas, Arthur. No one’s gonna be looking at us.”

It took a moment for Arthur to recover his disapproving frown and direct it back at Merlin, who was now running the toe of his right trainer slowly up Arthur’s left leg. “What if your uncle walked over here, right now?”

Merlin shrugged, and Arthur cursed inwardly as his foot continued its treacherous ascent. “I would tell him that you wanted to talk to me about school stuff.”

“School stuff?” Arthur pressed, but it came out as a slight gasp that made Merlin’s grin impossibly grow bigger.

“Yeah...I’ll say you came to tell me the Christmas homework, to pass on to Gwen, seeing as I’m not actually in your class.” Arthur heard the smugness in Merlin’s tone as he said that, and knew that it was probably half because of his good excuse for them to be seen together and half because he was proud that anyone had anything to see, considering Arthur had never actually given Merlin a single lesson.

Arthur managed to hold out for another second or so before giving in and closing his fingers firmly around Merlin’s ankle. “Later,” he murmured quietly, allowing his thumb to apply a slight pressure to the subtle bone structure beneath Merlin’s skin, before letting him go. Merlin’s leg dropped back to the floor, and he smiled ruefully at Arthur as he lapped absentmindedly at the edge of his mug.

“Fine,” Merlin said, once he had successfully removed any smears of chocolate from around the brim. “Also, Morgana popped her head round the door about two minutes before you did to say that you’re not actually allowed to see me until you go home and talk to her first. But then you walked in here looking remarkably like death, so I decided to ignore her.”

“You ignored Morgana?” Arthur asked, only half teasing when he added, “you brave, brave soul.”

“Yeah, well,” Merlin grimaced as he reached over to pluck a marshmallow from the top of Arthur’s untouched beverage, “just don’t tell her, please.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow and commented, “Little thief,” when Merlin popped the marshmallow into his mouth and bit down with a blissful expression that was similar to the one he wore when he woke up after a few hours of sleep beside Arthur. “And I won’t. I don’t want you to be murdered...at least, not before you see the wondrous thing that is you school’s carol service.”

At the mention of the service, Merlin quickly winced—it was an impressive display of distorted features that Merlin had spent time perfecting ever since Arthur had first told him about his attempts to make Camelot’s seventeen music A-level students sing in harmony.

“Oi,” he huffed, catching himself from hitting Merlin lightly around the head just in time. His hand hovered between them, Merlin leaning away from him with a half formed laugh on his face that flickered. There was a pause, then Arthur coughed and lowered his hand. His earlier promise of ‘later’ seemed to echo quietly around them, and Arthur tried to ignore the moue of Merlin’s lips.

He sighed and reached out beneath the table until his hand found Merlin’s knee. He saw some of the tension seep from Merlin’s shoulders, and his face lost some of the disappointment that weighed down the corners of his mouth.

“I better find out what Morgana needs me for,” he said, unwilling to remove his palm from where it was pressed so close to Merlin’s skin. “Come round when your shift’s over.”

Merlin licked his lips, eyes darting up to meet Arthur’s as he nodded.

Arthur got to his feet then, losing all physical contact with the other man who remained seated. Merlin’s gaze moved to fix morosely on the bottom of his empty mug and Arthur, finding himself suddenly unable to leave, leaned close enough to quickly skim his lips across Merlin’s temple.

After that, it wasn’t so hard to turn around and stride from the cafe. Arthur didn’t look back; he didn’t need to see the surprised, heart-breakingly delighted expression that he knew would be on Merlin’s face.

***

Arthur had been a music teacher at Camelot’s for four years before Merlin Emrys moved to the area, joining the school halfway through year eleven. He hadn’t ever been in Arthur’s class—as far as Arthur was aware, music had never been a point of interest for the skinny boy who walked around as if he were in constant danger of bumping into something. Arthur could remember a hundred and one occasions when he had yelled, “EMRYS!” down a corridor, torn between laughing and wincing as he watched Merlin spin around and narrowly avoid colliding with an art display that he hadn’t noticed three inches in front of his face.

It had been Arthur who had rang the Emrys household to tell Merlin’s parents that their son might need glasses. Only, it hadn’t been his parents who’d answered the phone, but a Mr. Gaius, who’d explained that Merlin had moved to Albion from Ealdor after the death of his father. Gaius was Merlin’s uncle and, coincidently, the man who owned Arthur’s favourite cafe.

It might have been the fact that Arthur didn’t want Gaius to start spitting into his latte, or maybe because he had always been a little endeared by the sight of Merlin, staggering towards the history classrooms with more books in his arms than could be healthy, but after that phone call Arthur looked upon Merlin in a slightly different light.

Now, two years on, Merlin chewed the arms of his glasses more than he wore them, in a way that made Arthur narrow his eyes in reprimand when they were in public. When they were alone, however, and Merlin was sitting with his legs parted in one of Arthur’s leather armchairs with the plastic resting on the bow of his lip (which was always always curled up into a smirk that was positively delectable), Arthur merely licked his way around it, wondering how he could have ever been so lucky as to have this.

***

“You went to see Merlin, didn’t you?” were the first words that came out of Morgana’s mouth once Arthur had hung up his coat on the hook just inside the door and kicked off his boots. He looked up at her from where he was crouched down, pushing the shoes onto a rack he had bought that summer, when Merlin had decided that he never wanted to take the bus anywhere again and instead took all the muddiest paths from his house to Arthur’s.

“No?” he attempted, running a hand through his hair to stop the blond strands from getting into his eyes as Morgana put her hands firmly on her hips.

“He is useless,” she grumbled, tossing her own hair back over her shoulder, eyes flashing. “I told him not to take you in, even if you wandered in looking like a fucking lost puppy.”

“He didn’t mention that bit,” Arthur told her dryly and straightened up to get a look of himself in the hallway mirror. He guessed he did appear a tad rumpled and self-consciously smoothed down the collar of his shirt that had been tugged up the wrong way when he took off his coat. Behind him, he saw Morgana roll her eyes in the reflection. “Alright then,” he said, turning around to face her, “what’s the problem?”

For an instant, she didn’t say anything, and Arthur braced himself as he waited. His sister, who was the same age as Merlin (although he tried not to dwell on that too much, or too often), was usually most dangerous after she had taken a few moments to prepare herself.

He watched as her gaze flattened, broadening to take the whole of him in, and her arms dropped to her sides. It would have looked like an action of defeat on anyone else—with Morgana it was more like she was getting ready to pick up a bigger, and better, weapon.

“I am fed up,” she began, voice steely, “of playing that fucking piano which, by the way, needs some serious tuning, for someone who does nothing but flap a baton around for a few hours every week. Fed. Up. It’s just not worth it! Not when none of them can hold a tune, I mean for God’s sake.” She flung her arms up in the air and marched towards the living room, giving Arthur no choice but to follow her in resignation. “Is Gwen the only decent thing on the planet right now?”

“Morgana,” Arthur exhaled as he dropped onto the sofa, “we’ve spoken about this before—you promised to help me get this carol service sorted, and I promised not to interfere while you wooed my top student.”

“Yeah,” Morgana replied sourly, “because it’s not like you don’t already owe me a shitload for keeping my mouth shut about Emrys.”

Arthur couldn’t stop himself from flinching at that, fingernails digging into the cushions of the sofa. “Morgana...”

“It’s alright, Arthur,” she sighed, waving her hand wearily, “I haven’t told anyone for six months, have I? I’m not about to out you because I’m pissed off at a shite piano. Just, ugh!” She flopped down beside him. “It’s hopeless! I can’t keep playing for a bunch of people who can’t sing.”

“I’m trying,” he replied, unable to help sounding slightly wounded, and also a bit pathetic. “I’m not sure what else I can do.”

“Well, don’t sign up to give it another go next year, that’s for sure.”

Arthur stared at her in disbelief. “Sign up? You think I’d ever sign up for this? It’s like torture, having to stare at their gormless mugs while absolutely nothing worth listening to comes out of their mouths.” He groaned, burying his face in his hands. “I miss Christmas when it was just Christmas.”

“Merlin wasn’t here when Christmas was just Christmas,” Morgana pointed out, after a short pause. “And I guess we can still make it work, if you promise to stop being such an arse to me while we’re practicing. ‘From the top!’” she mimicked with distaste, before continuing, “and if you get a new piano. Gwen’s good...really good.” A small, fleeting smile passed over her face that Arthur didn’t miss. “And Mordred’s not too bad. In fact, I think he’s pretty decent, if you’d just stop fussing over how he and Merlin aren’t the best of friends.”

Arthur let out a derisive snort at that, and Morgana hastily amended, “Okay, so they beat each other up, but it was once, and all the teachers actually agreed that Merlin was to blame. Other than you.”

“He hit Merlin,” he said with a scowl, before carrying on quickly so Morgana couldn’t point out that Merlin had hit Mordred back, “but yeah. Mordred’s not bad, and he’s...he’s a sweet kid, most of the time. Him and Merlin even hang out sometimes now, I think.”

“Exactly,” Morgana was nodding, counting things off on her fingers. “So give him a solo too, then we can cut out some more of the whole choir singing. Is there anyone else? You know, the worst song is ‘Silent Night’. If you could just have some poor sod sing that by himself, you’d be good to go.”

“Why can’t Gwen or Mordred?”

“Because ‘Silent Night’ is the worst after ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’.”

“Oh,” Arthur dragged the cushion he’d been playing with up and on top of his face. “Can’t one of them double up and sing two?”

“That wouldn’t be fair,” Morgana prodded him through the fabric, “you shouldn’t get to spend more time with Gwen than me.”

Arthur frowned beneath the cushion, then pulled it down so he could just about see his sister. “Are you serious?”

“Deadly,” she said, firmly. “I think you should get Merlin to sing it.”

It took about twenty seconds for that to sink in, and then Arthur was spluttering, “Merlin? What? Merlin Merlin? My Merlin?”

Yes, Arthur.” Morgana stood up, looking exasperated. “What other Merlin is there? Or have you seduced another schoolboy with that name?”

“But,” Arthur pressed, ignoring her last words, “Merlin can’t sing! He’s not even in the choir!”

She just smirked, reaching out to give him a condescending pat on the cheek. “Oh, Arthur. You didn’t really think you knew all that boy’s secrets, did you?”

“What? Morgana, he can’t sing, I would bloody well know, I—” But she had already swept from the room before he could finish his protestations, leaving him blinking and trying to conjure up a time—any time—that he had heard Merlin using his voice to make music.

He knew what Merlin sounded like when he was talking (it was impossible to be acquainted with Merlin for more than a minute without knowing that) and when he was yelling. He knew the timbre of Merlin’s voice when it was a whisper: a spectrum of sound that ranged from low and breathy to high pitched and sweet.

He knew how Merlin’s voice changed when he had a cold, and it went nasal and cracked. He could tell from down a phone line whether Merlin was smiling, because the words came out differently, and when he had been crying, the noise was thick and messy at the same time as it was small and breakable.

Arthur had thought that he had heard every sound—every noise and murmur, gasp and shout. But he had never, ever, heard Merlin sing.

***

There were certain things about Merlin that made it okay. While Arthur was twenty-nine and a teacher, Merlin was eighteen and a student at the school where Arthur worked.

But it was okay because when Arthur decided to love Merlin, it wasn’t really a decision at all: no choices were made, and there were things like the lobes of Merlin’s ears, the texture of his hair, and the way he insulted Arthur without caring. The way he cared about some things so much that you could see the ache they left, like a pattern over the features on his face. Things like the breathless spaces behind his teeth and each shadow beneath each rib. They made it fine, and precious, and Arthur loved Merlin. That’s all that mattered.

Just one of the things Arthur loved about Merlin were his feet. They were the only part of him that he hadn’t already seen before the first time Merlin came back with him to his house—at school, the shoes had never come off. Arthur had always found that odd, until Merlin confessed into his ear on a heady exhale that he hated his feet. He said it was them that made him so clumsy, and his face had flushed a heated red when he admitted it.

That night, when Gaius hadn’t been expecting Merlin home until nine, Arthur had instructed Merlin not to move a muscle before pressing a kiss to the inside of his knee as he drew off Merlin’s socks.

“Arthur, no—” Merlin tried to jerk his leg away, but Arthur just tightened his grip, holding on until Merlin relented and fell back against the pillows with a gasp of, “Prat.”

He chuckled, but only for a moment, because he had Merlin’s right foot in his hand and it was heavy and hot, with the heel of it burying into the centre of Arthur’s palm. Merlin’s toes curled instinctively, and when Arthur looked up he could see that the boy looked almost as curious as Arthur felt. Like he was waiting for a verdict.

Arthur blew gently on the webs between his toes, grinning when Merlin let out a small, breathless laugh.

“Tickles,” he chuckled but didn’t try to pull back. Arthur took this as a sign to keep going, and he only hesitated for a moment before running his tongue swiftly along the blue vein that followed the arch, stopping at the root of his big toe.

When he chanced another glance at Merlin, he saw that his mouth had gone slack and wide, like an invitation. He hadn’t been able to resist crawling up the bed and claiming what was waiting for him, damp and cloying with everything that was Merlin. He had slipped an arm beneath Merlin’s slim frame, gathering him up and pulling him into a sitting position, manoeuvring them so that they didn’t need to break apart but Arthur could still curl his pinkie finger around the smallest toe on Merlin’s foot.

Arthur sucked at the corner of his wet mouth, hard enough to hurt but never to bruise—couldn’t bruise, mustn’t bruise— and flicked a nail over the balls of Merlin’s feet, calloused from all that damn walking. The noise Merlin had made then was unlike anything Arthur had heard.

And Arthur was a fucking music teacher.

***

When he heard the knock at the door, Arthur was up and off the sofa in an instant, walking briskly down the hallway and wrenching it open by its brass handle, to find Merlin standing on the step outside. He had the sleeves of his hoodie pulled down to cover his hands and keep them warm, and his ears were plugged up by headphones. The tip of his nose was pink from cold.

Arthur made himself wait until Merlin was inside before kissing it and running his hands up and down Merlin’s sides to try and bring him up to room temperature.

“Take those things out,” he said, once it appeared that Merlin wasn’t about to freeze to death and actually looked more like he was going to tease Arthur for acting like a mother-hen. Arthur tugged at the wires from Merlin’s ears until they came free. “I’ve already had to put up with enough kids refusing to listen to me today, without it extending to you.”

“’M not a kid,” Merlin protested, wrapping his arms around Arthur’s waist and bringing them closer together so he could nip along Arthur’s jaw.

“Sure you are,” Arthur said, biting back a moan. “You’re not even dressed properly! Why don’t you have gloves?”

“Don’t need any,” Merlin whispered, and suddenly their noses were touching, their breaths mingling. Merlin still smelt like chocolate. Arthur opened his mouth slightly, to ask Merlin why he was exempt from getting his fingers frozen off when the rest of England wasn’t, when Merlin stopped him by sliding his hands under Arthur’s shirt and pressing them flat against his abdomen. “I’ve got my own personal heater.”

“Fuck that,” Arthur gasped, the chill from Merlin’s touch zinging through his body like electricity, and decided in that moment that if he was going to find out Merlin’s vocal range then he didn’t have the self-restraint to be professional about it.

He pushed Merlin back against the wall, cornering him as their shins collided with the shoe rack, until the back of Merlin’s head was leaning against the plaster, inches from where the mirror hung. Arthur took a moment to look at him, a shiver of want vibrating up his spine at the feel of Merlin’s palms still flat against his skin.

“I’m not changing my mind,” he murmured, nosing languidly up the tendons of Merlin’s neck and making him sigh contentedly, long fingers moving to curl in the loops of Arthur’s trousers. “If you were dressed properly, there wouldn’t be nearly as many layers.”

Merlin laughed and said what sounded like, “I could say the same about—” but Arthur cut him off by kissing him. Merlin didn’t react for a moment, stunned into standing still, in the same way he always was—Arthur had yet to press his lips to Merlin’s, and have him act like he’d expected it.

Arthur knew the feeling: every second spent alone with Merlin was a surprise—surprising that Arthur was finally getting something he had barely dared to dream of.

It took a little while for Arthur to remember that he was meant to be coaxing sounds from Merlin, rather than stealing his voice away completely. He broke the kiss, fingers flitting upwards to work at the buttons of Merlin’s duffel coat. They fumbled under other’s glassy-eyed stare and the soft breaths he could feel against the skin of his cheek.

Arthur cursed quietly when one, shiny red button stubbornly refused to be undone, and Merlin started to help, gently pushing Arthur’s hands away and doing it himself. Once the coat was off, Arthur hooked his fingers around the hem of Merlin’s hoodie and tugged it up and over Merlin’s head, leaving his dark hair sticking out at odd angles apart from where a few curls twisted around his ears.

“Bedroom?” Merlin asked then, voice low with just a hint of the desperation that Arthur could feel simmering in his belly. Merlin pulled at Arthur’s sleeve, looking unfairly young now in just his white tee and jeans as he toed off his trainers, and Arthur hesitated, giving himself time to admire the way Merlin’s hipbones were visible, even under the denim, jutting and sharp. He stared at the fragile looking collarbones and the dark dips beneath his eyes—hollows that were shadowed blue with a tiredness that contradicted the bright eagerness in his irises.

I love you, Arthur thought, unable to stop himself from dragging Merlin to him, away from the wall and into his arms. His hands cupped the back of the boy’s head, feeling the warmth that stemmed from the base of his skull, then smoothed down the knobs of his spine to curl possessively around his arse. Merlin’s breath hitched, a tiny sound that filtered into a high-pitched whine.

Sir,” he mumbled against Arthur’s throat, and Arthur could feel the shape of the smile that was pressed against his fluttering pulse.

He sucked in a breath, cradling every part of Merlin that he could reach, before agreeing in a hoarse whisper, “Bedroom.”

***

Until Arthur met Merlin, he had always assumed himself to be a good judge of character. Until Arthur met Merlin, he had assumed himself to be a lot of things that he now knew he wasn’t.

Things like a decent human being, for instance, but Arthur wasn’t going to think about that right now.

When he had first seen Merlin, he had immediately decided that the kid was probably smart but acted in a way that made him come across as a tad idiotic. He was too long limbed and disproportionate to be elegant, and Arthur knew he had a bit of sass in him when he heard him telling Valiant, who was roundabout three times the size of Merlin, to fuck off.

Apart from that, he seemed nice enough—a bit annoying, maybe, with an attitude that suggested he knew how to take care of himself if he needed to, but not the type to purposefully go looking for trouble.

Which was why it had thrown Arthur for a loop when he found out that Merlin and Mordred had engaged in what could only be described as a bloody brawl, just outside his classroom.

Mordred was a year below Merlin, and Arthur had been fond of him since he had arrived at Camelot’s—an external student with a serious expression and an aptitude for playing pretty much any stringed instrument that you put in front of him.

He was the only kid, other than Gwen, who ever stayed behind after school to practice, and Arthur didn’t have enough fingers to count the hours that they had spent going over various pieces together, with Arthur on the piano and Mordred standing at his side with his violin lodged beneath his chin.

It was after one of these sessions, once Mordred had packed up and left with a smile and a wave, that Arthur heard the sounds of raised voices outside of his door.

“Fucking hell,” he muttered, casting a final glance over the paper he had been trying to mark before getting to his feet and pulling the door open, preparing to yell at Valiant and tell him to get his arse home before his parents were called in for the eighth time that term.

What he found instead, though, pulled him up short, and Arthur can recall quite clearly how Mordred had been sitting on the floor with his hands pressed to his jaw, blinking up at the person who had, moments ago, punched him in the face.

Merlin stood there, wide-eyed as he blinked as though coming out of a trance, looking between Mordred and Arthur with an expression that only vaguely hinted at some of the fear he might have been feeling. Other than that, he mostly just seemed bemused by his own actions.

Arthur had been torn over who to talk to first and, in the end, he started by helping to haul Mordred to his feet. Then he turned to get a closer look at Merlin, whom he noticed had not exactly come away from this....whatever it was, unscathed. There was a faint bruise blossoming on his cheek, and the sight of it sent a jolt of unexpected anger through Arthur, as though it was him who had been hit.

Later on, much later, months later, when Merlin was curled up at Arthur’s side with Arthur’s arm wrapped around the smaller body, fingers lazily tracing the dark pink outline of Merlin’s nipple, Arthur asked him:

“What was all that about, with Mordred?”

Merlin stiffened, his knuckles whitening as he clenched his fist on top of Arthur’s chest. Arthur hesitated, thinking back to how he had felt after seeing Merlin’s bruise at the same time as realising that Merlin could really pack a punch.

“Tell me,” he murmured, pinching Merlin’s nipple lightly between his fingers to draw out a quiet gasp, before moving to gently straighten out Merlin’s hand—soothing away the tenseness that was visible in the paleness of his bones, pushed up against his skin.

Merlin still didn’t speak, stubbornly pursing his lips as a blush worked its way up his neck and crept blotchily onto his face. The sight only worked to increase Arthur’s curiosity, as well as arouse other things, and he pulled away from Merlin, moving until he was straddling the younger man’s waist and pinning him down.

“Come on,” he urged, tugging at some of the dark hair that grew in sparse tufts on Merlin’s chest. Merlin wriggled, pouting up at Arthur and batting at his hands.

“I don’t have to,” he replied, looking like he wanted to fold his arms but Arthur caught them and held them down before they could do any more than twitch.

“Are you sure about that?” Arthur asked, keeping his voice light as he bent down to flick the tip of his tongue over the nipple that he had been playing with for the last half an hour. He had already caused it to peak and pebble, ages ago, but it seemed to harden even more at the sensation. Arthur managed to limit his awe at the responsiveness of Merlin’s body, that was always in turn endearing or sexy (or both), to a small smirk.

He shifted slightly above Merlin, watching for his reaction as their cocks, naked and erect, brushed together, and he revelled in the sight of pupils widening and a throat working desperately to swallow. “Y-yeah,” Merlin breathed, the determination in his voice stuttering until it became a waver. He was already trembling—a fine tremor that Arthur could almost see skittering up from the tips of his toes to the sharp slopes of his shoulders.

After that, Arthur gave in, leaving Merlin to his secret in favour of sinking low between his legs and taking his cock into his mouth, opening himself up to the erratic rocks of Merlin’s hips and letting his fingers nudge between Merlin’s arse cheeks, teasing at his hole until Merlin’s entire body tensed—tightening with his muscles becoming ropes beneath his flesh, ready to be pulled and then let go.

Tell me,” Arthur’s voice came out cracked and rough against Merlin’s ear as he dragged himself back up, leaving Merlin’s cock aching and glistening with a mixture of saliva and precome. His fingers left where they had been circling the dark entrance to Merlin’s body, coming to rest on the side of his neck instead. He licked at the shadowed places behind Merlin’s ears and bit down gingerly on spots that would be hidden later, once they were both dressed again.

“I—” Merlin panted, and there were traces of an expression on his face that, as far as Arthur was concerned, didn’t belong in the bedroom: a quiet panic that manifested in place of the laugh lines around his eyes that sometimes appeared when Merlin turned up at Arthur’s house with his satchel, saying he had a tonne of homework to do before the morning. “I...” Merlin said again, before Arthur could change his mind and tell him that he didn’t need to know. “I always saw you with him.”

“What?” Arthur almost pulled back, but Merlin had wrapped his legs around Arthur, locking them together as he stared at a patch of skin on Arthur’s chest.

“I didn’t realise properly that I loved you, until I thought you might be in love with Mordred,” he spoke the words quietly, but there was an edge of defiance behind them, as though he were daring Arthur to laugh at him.

Arthur didn’t laugh, but he did smile, unendurably fond. “Idiot,” he said, because he could get away with insulting Merlin at school as easily as he could get away with calling him ‘sweetheart’.

Merlin grumbled something under his breath about clot-poles, and having second thoughts—Mordred was welcome to his royal highness, if he wanted, but Arthur just pressed a kiss to his blushing forehead and wrapped his hand around Merlin’s cock, which had only wilted slightly in his embarrassment, to finish what he had started.

***

“I’m cold,” Merlin muttered, and Arthur raised an eyebrow at him.

“You’re a menace.” he stated, even as he tugged the duvet more firmly around Merlin’s skinny frame, although he was already so swamped in Arthur’s bedclothes that you could barely see him beneath all the quilts.

Merlin’s scowl turned into a wicked grin, and Arthur had to fight from squirming when he felt the tip of Merlin’s finger poke at his hip. “I thought you liked it when I was being a menace,” he said, “or, at least, you didn’t seem to be minding just now.”

“Shut up,” Arthur told him, grasping his fingers before they could wander any further. “Or I’ll have to punish you for being such a brat in the cafe, earlier.”

Merlin snorted, rolling around until he was on all fours, “Come on then, Mr Pendragon, give me your worst,” he purred, nudging at Arthur’s jaw-line with his nose.

Brat,” Arthur repeated firmly before tackling Merlin to the side, pushing him down so that he was wriggling and laughing with so many inches of skin flushed against Arthur’s. They could only keep it up for a few minutes, with Merlin writhing and howling around each of his giddy bursts of laughter, flapping wildly at Arthur’s chest as his blue eyes sparkled playfully.

In the end, Arthur slumped beside him, grinning from ear to ear as Merlin called him an “old man with absolutely no stamina.”

“At least I’m not an impudent teenager,” he countered, with no real heat behind it. Merlin just stuck out his tongue and draped himself over Arthur’s back, playing with the blond hair at the nape of his neck and pulling the blankets back over them both.

“You wouldn’t have me any other way,” Merlin said, in a voice that brooked no argument. He had taken to saying that a lot lately, as if by repeating it he could make it truer.

Arthur never contradicted him, even though there were some nights when he couldn’t sleep because he could still taste Merlin on his tongue, and his mind reeled with thousands of ‘if only’s. If only Merlin was older. If only Arthur had never become a teacher.

If only Merlin’s father had never died, and Merlin had stayed, tucked away out of Arthur’s life in Ealdor.

Although, Arthur couldn’t help but feel that no matter what the circumstances, this would always have been the end result: the two of them piled together in one bed, adamant that they would not be parted.

“I was talking to Morgana earlier...” Arthur began, after a comfortable silence had passed between them, “and she seems to think that you can help us out with the carol service.”

Merlin shifted slightly where he was laying on Arthur, his breath pulling up gooseflesh along the back of Arthur’s neck. He fiddled with the pillow that Arthur’s cheek was against. “Why does she think that?”

“You tell me.” Arthur rolled over, dislodging Merlin who fell to the mattress with an ‘oof and a scowl. “Or, you know, show me...because Morgana is under the impression that you can sing, when you’re not prattling on about…” He waved his hand dismissively. “…all the things you prattle on about.”

“I don’t prattle!” Merlin protested, looking mildly affronted, “and I don’t sing, either.”

“Then why does Morgana say that you do?” Arthur asked, circling Merlin’s hipbones gently with his thumb, and then moving on to press lightly about his belly button. Merlin watched the journey Arthur’s hand was making, opening and closing his mouth uncertainly.

“Because—”

“Because I bloody well heard him,” Morgana’s voice was louder than Merlin’s as she pushed open the door to Arthur’s bedroom, startling them enough to make Merlin jump beneath Arthur’s touch, and for the two of them so shuffle guiltily away from each other. “And it sounded a whole lot better than the constant sound of the two of you fucking, Jesus Christ.”

When she stalked out of the room again, the door shut behind her once more with an irritable click.

***

Since Arthur and Merlin had started going out—or however you wanted to call it—Arthur had seen the latter drunk twice.

The first time had been a week and a half after their first kiss, which had left Arthur so heavy with regret that he hadn’t been able to look Merlin in the eye until the kid had wandered into school absolutely pissed.

Arthur hadn’t noticed at first—he had no reason to see Merlin at school unless they brushed shoulders in the corridor, or Merlin purposefully lingered around the music department, with that ridiculous red tie he was so insistent upon wearing hanging slightly crooked, in a way that begged to be straightened. Arthur always resisted, of course, doing no more than nod at Merlin as he walked past, swallowing away the dryness in his throat.

That Wednesday, though, Arthur didn’t even glimpse Merlin until he caught the tail end of George’s conversation with Gwen as he walked back from lunch,

“—he’s completely out of it. He told me that he wanted to see Mr. Pendragon, except he kept calling him ‘Arthur’, like what the fuck? I told him he’d get excluded if he didn’t get sober.”

Gwen’s mouth had fallen open, eyes round, “You left him? George, you twat, do you think Merlin would get like that without a reason? Oh my God, where—”

“Where is he?” Arthur finished Gwen’s question for her, stepping in between them with his heart racing. Gwen took a surprised step backwards, and George appeared to shrink a little.

“Uh...toilets, I think.” He said.

Arthur didn’t hesitate to thrust his tray of food, which he had been intending to finish alone in his classroom, into George’s hands. “Right, take this. And next time something like this happens, don’t keep it to yourself.”

He didn’t start running until he could see the door to the boys’ toilets, for once grateful that Camelot’s had never been able to afford more than the seven stalls on the first floor.

He slowed down as he walked inside, trying to disguise his heavy breathing in case there was someone else apart from Merlin locked inside a cubicle, but there wasn’t anyone, and it was quiet apart from the sound of feet tapping on the floor.

Arthur walked down to the far end of the room, turning to look at the seventh, dark green door.

“Merlin?” he called, hesitantly, pressing his hand against the plastic. The tapping stopped, and Arthur only had to wait for an instant before the door was pulled away and he was being dragged inside the stall.

Merlin was listening to music, earphones trailing into his pocket, and Arthur could smell the alcohol; could see the redness around his eyes. He only just had time to register that Merlin was, in fact, a couple of inches taller than him, before their lips were being crushed together.

Their second kiss tasted like cheap wine and almost caused Arthur to have an aneurism for fear of someone finding them. Merlin didn’t seem to notice, and talked in between each dangerous twist of his tongue.

“Can’t stand it when you ignore me. Can’t...don’t leave me, need you, Arthur—”

Arthur couldn’t do anything but let his heart pound and kiss Merlin back, rubbing his back and promising him with every movement that he’d try. That he wouldn’t ever let it get this far again.

The other time Merlin got drunk was just three months ago, and had nothing to do with Arthur at all, other than it had been Arthur who had bought the vodka and provided the shoulder for Merlin to lean against.

Despite it being the anniversary of Balinor Emrys’ death, Merlin hadn’t wanted to visit his grave. He hadn’t even wanted to see his mother, or so he insisted. He only wanted the solidness of Arthur’s arm against his, and they pressed close that evening, until it became late enough that Gaius would start worrying.

Arthur had dragged his thumb through the tear that had started gleaming at the corner of Merlin’s eye, and pulled him into a rough hug before letting him go, hoping that something helpful would bleed through the contact.

Merlin had said a lot of things during those hours, and most of them had been forgotten by the morning, but not all.

For instance, it had been the first time Merlin had shown Arthur his iPod, scrolling through the list of artists and pointing out where his father’s name was on the list. “He used to be in a band,” Merlin told him with a watery smile, and an embarrassed shrug of his shoulders. “Mum always said he had a right pair of lungs on him.”

Looking back at that moment now, Arthur supposed that a lot of things are hereditary.

***

“Arthur, this is stupid.” Merlin’s arms were crossed self-consciously over his chest, which was padded by the three jumpers he wore beneath his duffel coat.

“Unfold your arms,” Arthur instructed, tone taking on the businesslike quality it always did when he was teaching. He saw Merlin’s eyes darken slightly with something that was unmistakably arousal, and sighed inwardly. This was going to be so much more difficult than dealing with his choir, and that was saying something. “Now, Merlin. Come on, you can’t sing if you’re constricting yourself like that.”

Merlin shot Arthur a filthy look before unfolding his arms and letting them hang at his sides.

“Adorable,” Arthur commented, without thinking, and it only caused Merlin’s expression to grow ever more disgruntled, although still with that tiny spark of want that lingered in his eyes.

“I’m not adorable,” he huffed, pulling at the bottom of one of his jumpers, “and I can’t sing no matter how I stand.”

“That’s not true,” Arthur said briskly, “Morgana said she heard you, and I trust her judgement. Although,” he added as an afterthought, “it’d be in your interest to never, ever tell her that.”

“She didn’t hear me!” Merlin exclaimed, frustrated, “I mean...she did, but she wasn’t supposed to.”

“It doesn’t really matter whether you meant for her to hear you or not, does it?” Arthur pointed out, “the fact is that she did, and if you don’t want me to crash and burn on the twenty-fourth then you should sing me a ‘C’.” He pressed down on the note with his forefinger, watching Merlin with anticipation.

Merlin swallowed, gaze now directed at the piano. “Okay.” he muttered, voice set so low that Arthur had to strain to hear.

He frowned. “Are you really that nervous?”

Merlin’s eyes flashed, and he drew himself up a little taller. “No. I just...I don’t sing.”

Arthur sat still for a moment, thinking, then got to his feet and walked to stand directly in front of Merlin. “It’s easy,” he said, “anyone can sing, really. A bit of raw talent is definitely helpful though,” he thought ruefully of his choir, before placing a finger below Merlin’s chin and tilting his head upwards. “Raw talent which I’m sure you’ve got. Look at me.”

Merlin sighed, then made his eyes meet Arthur’s. They were a shimmering, ocean blue.

“That’s it. Relax, and take a deep breath—”

“This is dumb,” Merlin interrupted, and Arthur closed his eyes, sending a quick prayer up to the heavens. They were in a church, after all.

“Singing isn’t ‘dumb’, Merlin. It’s part of my job.”

“And you hate your job,” Merlin told him, looking like he was about to resume his earlier, sullen position of eyes downcast and arms crossed. Arthur placed one hand on each of Merlin’s shoulders as a reminder for him not to move.

“But I like singing. And I like talented people. So stop being such a baby, and maybe I can find yet another wonderful use for that mouth of yours.”

Arthur was sure Merlin would have blushed, if he hadn’t already been so hot under all his clothes. As it was, the tips of his ears glowed. “Fine.” he said, with the smallest of smiles twitching at the corners of his lips.

“Good,” Arthur nodded approvingly and then, church be damned, kissed Merlin swiftly before going back to the piano, “‘C’ now, please.”

As it turned out, Merlin could sing. He was a little husky at first, playing nervously with his sleeves and his skin did not fade from an embarrassed pink for a full twenty minutes. A couple of times he came to complete standstills, pressing his hands over his face and mumbling, “Sorry, sorry, that just sounded wrong, can we go again?”

Arthur just nodded every time this happened, and went back to the start of whatever phrase they were on. They kept on going until Arthur realised that Merlin, beneath all his agitation, had a voice that was purer even than Gwen’s.

They stopped for a break after forty minutes, and Arthur dug around in his bag until he found a bottle of water, which he pulled out and handed to Merlin. Merlin took it and unscrewed the cap with fingers that were trembling, before drinking half the water in about two swallows. Arthur watched the smooth bobbing of his Adam’s apple, and shifted a little on the piano stool.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me how good you are?” he asked, once Merlin had thrust the bottle back at him and gone to sink down on one of the pews. He shrugged, tucking his hands under his armpits and shrinking a little further into his coat.

“I’m not that good.” Merlin glanced over at Arthur and Arthur was momentarily shocked to recognise the shininess in the other’s eyes as unshed tears which, after a short pause, he brushed any traces of away angrily. “My dad was better.” he said, finally, when Arthur refused to do anything more than wait.

“Oh.” Arthur stared at Merlin, as something clicked into place. “Oh, Merlin—”

“It’s fine,” Merlin pulled his leg up to cross on the bench, looking as if he was trying to huddle up and become as small as was physically possible. The length of his legs made it hard, though, and Arthur was surprised to feel something inside him splinter at the sight. “You don’t need to feel sorry for me, or anything. It’s just the truth.”

“I’ve never heard your dad sing,” Arthur said, somewhat stupidly, because of course he hadn’t heard the dead man’s voice. He just wasn’t sure what else to say.

Merlin, however, was suddenly grinning. “Do you wanna?” he asked, pulling his iPod out of his pocket even as he spoke.

Up for anything that would keep Merlin’s smile firmly fixed in place and, honestly, because he was curious, Arthur nodded.

“You’ve got to come over here then, old man.”

“Whelp,” Arthur answered, but his mouth was dry in the face of Merlin’s expression which was clearly anxious, no matter how hard he tried to hide it under a teasing tone. His hands clenched tightly around the iPod, and the grip didn’t loosen until Arthur was seated beside him, holding out his own hand.

“Gimme,” he said, and Merlin huffed out a laugh.

“No chance,” he replied, reaching to put one earphone in Arthur’s ear, and one in his own, instead. Then he was fiddling with the iPod, and Arthur saw him press down on ‘Balinor Emrys’, before music was flooding up into his skull.

Balinor’s voice was deep and rich, layered with the huskiness that had hidden Merlin’s talent, but only emphasised Balinor’s. It was, Arthur mused before feeling absolutely horrified with himself, a bit like listening to sex.

Beside him, Merlin moved so that his head was resting on Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur looked down at him, trying to make a link between the voice he was listening to, and the boy who was fisting his hand in Arthur’s trousers. It wasn’t until the song reached a crescendo, the sound vaulting upwards in a cacophony that made Merlin twitch with emotion, twisting until his eyelids were fluttering against Arthur’s neck, that he heard everything.

The trips to the local park and the handmade gifts given from father to son, and vice versa. The morals passed down about standing up for yourself and not putting up with bullshit from anyone (not even Arthur). The sharing of kindness that Merlin now had in abundance and the lessons in caring for others.

There was everything that Balinor hadn’t been around to teach Merlin, too—or, the things that he had given without meaning to: how talkative Merlin was, and how enthusiastic he tended to be about every little thing. His eagerness to be busy and his general, heart-warming love of life.

It only really hit Arthur then how broken Merlin must have been after first arriving in Albion, and how there were probably some pieces still missing, judging by the way he was being clung to in that moment.

When the song ended, Merlin stayed where he was for a heartbeat longer, his breaths damp and shallow against Arthur’s skin. Arthur just held him close, unaware that he was rocking slightly with Merlin cradled in his embrace, until the other pulled away looking sheepish.

“Sorry,” he muttered, rubbing his eyes, “um.”

Arthur took one of Merlin’s hands and rubbed his thumb over the knuckles. “He could really sing.”

“Yeah,” Merlin let out a shaky breath and laughed, “yeah, he could.”

“Different to you though,” Arthur added, threading their fingers together, “did he teach you?”

“To sing?” Merlin looked bemused at the idea. “Nah...he didn’t teach me, but he was ace on guitar, so we used to muck around a lot, but...” He shrugged, staring hard at the way their hands were linked, as if all the answers to the universe were stamped in ink across the cool flesh.

“But what?” Arthur prompted, nudging Merlin’s foot with his.

Merlin’s shoulders lifted and fell once more. “After he died I didn’t...I haven’t really sung since.” he laughed, and it rang with a bitterness that Arthur wished he could eradicate. “You know, I used to do music in Ealdor? I took it for GCSE, but when I moved here I replaced it with art. Didn’t want anything to do with any of it.” He shot Arthur a sideways look that made something in his gut twist: it was a look that read, ‘until you came along’.

“I didn’t realise.” he spoke honestly, wondering how much sooner all of this would have happened, all of them would have happened, if Merlin had never given up music. “Look, Merlin...you don’t have to sing if you’d rather not.” He took a deep breath. “Just...I’m not going to force you to do anything if it makes you unhappy, alright?”

Merlin just smiled, and Arthur felt warmth flood through him. “No way am I quitting,” he said as he stood up, “that was something dad said—he told me to...to keep going till the job was done. And not to give up on things that I love.”

And as he pulled Arthur to his feet, too, and kissed him, Arthur felt that he owed Balinor very much indeed.

***

“Hot damn, she is gorgeous,” Morgana whispered from behind Arthur, where she stood with one hand resting on the keys of the piano and her eyes focused on the girl who had just walked into the church. Whereas Morgana was wearing a black dress that dipped low at the front to reveal what Arthur (and the rest of the population) considered to be an impressive amount of cleavage, Gwen’s red dress was more subtly flattering in the way that it clung to her curves.

She was walking shoulder to shoulder with Mordred, laughing with him before lifting her gaze to catch eyes with Morgana, over the heads of the congregation.

Arthur’s lips tilted slightly at the way Gwen dimpled as she ducked her head and returned to chatting with Mordred. Morgana’s sigh was wistful.

“By the end of this evening,” he heard her swear, and he was about to turn and wish her the best of luck, when he saw Gwen glance over her shoulder, back towards the entrance of the church, and beckon to someone who was obviously hovering just outside.

He didn’t realise that he’d been holding his breath, until he let it back out in a rush of relief at the sight of Merlin, slinking into the building with his hands deep in his pocket and a small smile playing on his face as he hurried to catch up with Gwen and Mordred.

“Well,” Morgana’s voice dragged his attention away from Merlin, who was now grinning blindingly at something Gwen was saying in his ear. “He’s looking pretty dashing, too. Way out of your league, Arthur.”

“Piss off,” Arthur shot back at her, even though he knew she was right. Merlin’s suit, which Arthur had practically ordered him to wear for the service, was such a dark blue that it was almost black, but his tie was the same as the one he always wore to school, and the obnoxious red made something in Arthur ache with fondness.

“I’m just glad he actually turned up,” Morgana admitted, voicing aloud the fear Arthur had been keeping to himself, “and that he’s as good as I remember. I wish you’d been there, though, Arthur.”

“Been where?” Arthur asked, only half paying attention as Merlin spotted him and lifted his hand in a shy wave.

“At the cafe, when I heard him singing!” Morgana laughed, “It was brilliant. I went to the kitchens to ask why the hell my coffee was taking so long, to find him wiggling his arse around and listening to that bloody iPod. He has a whole Christmas playlist, you know...I caught him in the middle of ‘Fairytale New York’, and he was belting out the line about faggots—”

“Morgana,” Arthur spoke up quickly when an elderly lady who was making her way towards the alter cast them a scandalised look, “perhaps it’s best if you don’t talk about Merlin’s music taste, just at this moment?”

Morgana was probably about to retort, and say that talking about anyone’s music taste was better than talking about Arthur’s music taste, when they were all but bombarded by seventeen music students, and one Merlin Emrys.

Arthur tried not to sigh too obviously as he told the sopranos and altos to stand on one side, and the tenors on the other, watching with vague amusement as they jostled each other to get into position.

He couldn’t quite believe that it was today, in all honesty: Christmas Eve, and Merlin wasn’t just sitting in the back row with his uncle Gaius, but shooting Arthur a grin from where he stood beside Gwen, as part of the choir.

Since the first time he had coaxed Merlin to sing, they had rehearsed twice more, and both times had set Merlin’s limbs to shaking uncontrollably with adrenaline, with the lyrics to ‘Silent Night’ quaking in his hands. Arthur was sure that it was the most endearing thing he had ever witnessed, and the pride he felt now as the congregation went quiet and Merlin waited in front of him, feet set apart and lips moist from where he had just licked them, was enough to make him want to take Merlin there and then.

To bend him backwards with the force of a kiss, in front of everyone, that would rid his world of secrets.

It was almost enough to make him not care about the consequences.

Arthur cleared his throat wordlessly, and nodded at Morgana, who began playing the chords to their opening carol. Merlin’s eyes darted down to his programme to read through the first line of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ before looking up again to lock gazes, for a second, with Arthur.

Lashes cast long shadows over high cheekbones, and a pink mouth curled. Arthur heard his own breath catch, and his fingers tightened ever so slightly around the handle of his baton. Merlin’s eyes crinkled around the edges from the force of his smile, and he leaned forwards on the balls of his feet.

It was hard to tell, in the flickering candlelight that illuminated the church, but Arthur was sure he read the word, “Later,” being shaped silently by Merlin’s lips.

Cheeky little bugger.

***

Merlin

“Merlin, my dear boy,” Gaius beamed, pulling Merlin into a hug, “you were excellent! Really, truly, excellent.”

Merlin laughed, aware that his voice was breathy and that every sinew in his body seemed to be trembling in the aftermath of his solo. “Thanks, Gaius,” he chuckled, “I...hell.” He stepped away when Gaius released him and shook his head. “I was terrified.”

“You looked like you were enjoying yourself to me,” Gaius patted Merlin on the arm, “reminded me of your father.”

Merlin couldn’t help looking pleased, feeling happiness steal over his heart at the words. “Isn’t Gwen brilliant too, though? And Morgana, on the piano...she doesn’t go to Camelot’s, but she’s Ar—uh, Mr Pendragon’s sister.” Merlin licked his lips, looking quickly away from Gaius and mentally kicking himself for never remembering that it wasn’t Arthur, and it couldn’t be for a while yet.

Not until Merlin had finished school, anyway.

When he looked at Gaius again, the old man’s expression was far too knowing. “They were very good. I enjoyed the entire thing.”

Merlin shifted on his feet, sticking a hand in his pocket to fiddle absentmindedly with his earphones. Arthur had told him to leave his blessed iPod at home for once, but Merlin had dutifully ignored him. He liked having it with him, even if he wasn’t listening to it.

“Um, Gaius? I was thinking about...I was gonna go get some drinks, with the others,” he gestured behind him at where the choir members were beginning to disperse, chatting to members of the congregation that were their family and friends.

Gaius raised a single, grey, disbelieving eyebrow. “Drinks?” he inquired.

Merlin swallowed, wondering if he was really so transparent that even a lie as perfectly plausible as popping down to the pub was see-through. “Yes?” he ventured hopefully.

“Alright, Merlin.” His uncle’s hand landed heavily on his shoulder before squeezing it tightly. “So, shall we just say that I’ll see you some time tomorrow morning, then?”

“What?” Merlin blinked bemusedly. “But...but it’s only drinks, Gaius, I won’t be out all—”

“You’ve always been an awful liar, Merlin,” Gaius interrupted, “and I understand there are some things you’d rather not discuss with someone like me. So just...” His eyes travelled over Merlin’s head, before coming to rest somewhere particular. “Have fun, and try and get back for breakfast. It will be Christmas Day, after all.”

Gaius let go of him then, and began to make his way out of the church, leaving Merlin to stare after him with a queasy feeling in his stomach that turned into damn right nauseous when he turned and realised that, yes, Gaius had been staring directly at Arthur.

Arthur, who was watching Gaius go with a look of strong disconcertedness mapped out over his features. Merlin waited for a moment before Arthur’s gaze shifted onto his face and they exchanged fleeting smiles.

It was only once everyone else had left—after Gwen and Morgana had slipped out with their hands around each other’s waists, and after Mordred had offered Merlin a sort of odd, jerky nod of the head in ‘goodbye’, that what Gaius had said sunk in. Merlin looked at Arthur, revelling for a moment in the silence before he said, voice dumbfounded,

“I think Gaius might have given us his blessing.”

“Well, thank God for that.” Arthur took a step towards him, placing a hand on Merlin’s hip. “I thought he was trying to skin me with his eyes.”

Merlin snorted. “I suppose if anyone could cause physical pain with a single look, it’d be Gaius.”

“Mm,” Arthur murmured in thoughtful agreement, “although...” His fingers trailed up the front of Merlin’s suit and brushed against his throat. “You’ve given me a few glares, in your time.”

“That’s because you’re insufferable,” Merlin told him primly, before ploughing on, “but Arthur, you’re not listening.”

Arthur rolled his eyes but his fingers lingered in gentle contact with Merlin’s skin. “How am I not listening?”

“Because if you were then I would have already got to the part where I told you that we’re having a sleepover.”

Arthur’s hand froze against Merlin’s neck, and Merlin wondered whether the sound of his heart, ramming violently into his ribcage, was audible. “Excuse me?”

“I said,” Merlin moved so that their toes were touching, “that we’re having a sleepover. I am staying at yours tonight.”

“At mine...” Arthur said, eyes widening, and the hand on Merlin’s waist tightened until it felt bruising. “God damn it, Emrys,” He was pushing Merlin back, manhandling him and dragging him towards the door. “You’re going to be the death of me.”

“Hey! Arthur, you prat.” Merlin felt giddy as he tripped over his own feet, yet stayed secure with Arthur forcing him out into the cold, bundling him up until they were up against the church wall. “What are you doing?”

Arthur didn’t speak for a minute that seemed to drag on forever. Merlin’s teeth were beginning to chatter, and he hugged Arthur close, trying to be patient though he was unable to help prompting with a helpless, “Arthur, what is—”

“Shut up, Merlin.” Arthur placed a finger over Merlin’s lips, and Merlin rolled his eyes but fell silent. “I am trying to properly anticipate spending my first night with you.”

“Same,” Merlin managed to mumble around the other’s finger, “I’d hate to end up with PTSD.”

There was an instant where Merlin wasn’t sure if Arthur had heard him, and he took a breath to repeat himself, but then Arthur let out a bark of laughter, “You insolent little....I’ll give you PTSD—”

And Merlin felt all the breath leave him as he was tackled to the ground, carving shapes into the snow that must have fallen during the carol service. He could feel it soaking into his hair, and ruining the suit that Arthur had insisted he wore, but none of that mattered.

He struggled fruitlessly, not really aiming to get free, and only went still when Arthur’s mouth finally found his. Their lips were cold, and the time was edging steadily towards midnight. Merlin considered pulling away in order to wish Arthur a ‘Merry Christmas’, but it occurred to him that there would be plenty of time for that later, when he woke up in Arthur’s bed with morning sunlight filtering through the window, rather than the glow from the evening moon.

He grinned into the kiss, thinking to himself how once he had left Camelot’s in—

What? Another seven months?

Then, he and Arthur would have all the time in the world.