Tradition is the illusion of permanence – Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry
Arthur is rushing around as usual, looking for something while Merlin sits sleepy-eyed at the kitchen table, hunched over his toast. They're neither of them morning people; the difference is that Arthur (once Merlin has managed to drag his lazy arse out of bed) thinks that he ought to be. Merlin just rolls with it, accepting that he won't be fully functioning until after at least two coffees.
"I don't know what I'd do without you, Merlin," Arthur says with a grin as Merlin wordlessly hands him his missing keys. It's a silly throwaway comment, actually the closest to a compliment Arthur usually gets, but it twists the knife deeper into Merlin's chest.
Because Merlin really, really doesn't know what he's going to do without Arthur, and soon enough he's going to have to find out.
Four years earlier, Christmas 2008
Merlin M. Rhys is 21 and newly employed on the Graduate Recruitment Program at Camelot Industries.
Somehow he makes it through to Christmas without being fired, and to the office Christmas party which is being held at a restaurant a short distance from the flat he shares with his colleague, Lancelot. Merlin doesn't remember an awful lot about that night, so when he stumbles out of bed the next morning, hungover and bleary eyed, to find a fit, shirtless blond on his sofa, he can be forgiven for thinking he's dreaming. Merlin closes his eyes, opens them again, and the man is still there.
"Is it Christmas?" he asks, thinking that quite possibly all his Christmases have come at once.
"Oh fuck," says the man, and promptly vomits all over the carpet.
As it turns out, the man is in fact Arthur Pendragon, who is in charge of his own department at Camelot. It seems that although he can't remember it, Merlin saved Arthur's career and quite possibly his life by refusing to let him drink drive after the Christmas party, insisting that he stay on their sofa instead. Arthur, who curses and stumbles about the flat and makes Merlin clean up the sick is not, in Merlin's opinion, sufficiently grateful for this. Merlin spends Christmas lunch at his mum's house complaining in great detail about what an arse Arthur is (because it's either that or talking about what a great arse Arthur has, and he's pretty sure his mum doesn't need to hear about that over the roast turkey and trimmings).
Come the new year, though, and Merlin finds himself seconded to Arthur's department, which is a sort of promotion, if a sideways one, so he can't really complain (although he does, frequently). He's forced to concede that Arthur is perhaps not quite as much of a prat as initial impressions suggested, and that judging a man by how he behaves when he's hungover is perhaps not entirely fair. Although he maintains that Arthur owes him a new carpet.
Lancelot is dismissed a few months later for having lied on his CV. He tells Merlin that it's a blessing in disguise and goes off to build a school in Eritrea. Merlin, left to pay the whole of the rent by himself (and with no hope of getting the security deposit back, what with that stain on the carpet) can't quite bring himself to agree. Around the same time, Arthur breaks up with his girlfriend, Sophia, and they somehow decide that the best solution to both of their problems is to move in together.
Being Arthur's flatmate is weird at first, since Arthur is sort of his boss. Then it's sort of brilliant, since Arthur is his friend, and bickering over housework aside, they get on better than Merlin had ever imagined. Also, getting to see Arthur dripping wet after a shower, or doing press ups, or curled up sleepily on the sofa with a book is sort of brilliant. Until it's the sort of brilliant that's tinged with the sadness of longing for something you can never have.
Arthur isn't even supposed to be there. Arthur is supposed to be skiing in Chamonix with Vivian. Merlin hates Vivian, which is only 40% because he's in love with Arthur and 60% because she's a gold-digging bitch (everyone agrees on this point, even Gwen, the receptionist, who is always super nice about everybody). Merlin is supposed to be going round his mum's for Christmas lunch, like he does every year. He's maybe a bit disappointed, since last year he and Arthur had had breakfast together and exchanged gifts before going to their respective families for dinner. Merlin had sort of been looking forward to that little bit of domesticity, just being able to wish Arthur a happy Christmas and see the look on his face when he opened his present. He might even have been able to get away with a hug.
But then Vivian breaks up with Arthur three days before Christmas. Merlin isn't completely sure why, and Arthur won't tell him, just sits around moping all over the house. By the time Christmas morning comes around and Arthur sighs, "Don't worry about me, Merlin, I'll be fine here with my friend Jack Daniels," Merlin knows he has no choice but to drag him along to Ealdor for Christmas lunch. His mum always makes more than enough for two, anyway.
Arthur is polite and charming, the perfect guest. The perfect boyfriend, Merlin thinks, and knows he's truly and utterly fucked.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Merlin," his mother says, later, collaring him into helping her in the kitchen despite having refused all of Arthur's offers of help.
"Of course," Merlin says, not meeting her eyes.
"Because I know you, my lad, and I don't want to see you get hurt."
Merlin thinks it's probably too late for that.
That night Arthur falls asleep on the sofa. Merlin covers him with a throw and sighs, allowing himself to brush the hair back from Arthur's forehead -- just the briefest of touches, nothing Arthur could object to. He wishes with all his heart that Arthur would wake up and see what was right in front of him.
Not long after Vivian, there's Elena. Merlin finds it impossible to hate Elena, who is lovely, endearingly clumsy and not at all concerned with shoes and make-up and faddy diets like Vivian. She wears trainers and sits on the sofa eating curry with Merlin and Arthur. He's almost sorry when they decide they're better off as friends and split up.
It's not that Merlin is celibate all this time he's pining for Arthur. There's Percival, and Elyan and Gwaine, and some one-night things whose names he can't remember. Some of them last longer than others. Gwaine is the only one who really seems to want more than sex and companionship, and they give it a go for three months until it becomes painfully clear to both of them that Merlin hasn't got any more to give.
After that he finds its easier to stick to anonymous sex. Arthur never seems to get on with any of his boyfriends anyway, although he can't fathom why.
Sometimes he goes out and hooks up with a guy, and comes back to find Arthur still sitting up on the sofa. Sometimes he sits down next to him instead of going straight for the shower, lets Arthur put his feet in his lap and wonders if this slightly twisted version of co-dependent domesticity can continue indefinitely.
It can't, of course.
Two months after their fourth Christmas together, Arthur starts seeing Gwen.
Hating Gwen is even more impossible than hating Elena. Especially since Gwen had been Merlin's friend first. When he comes home to find the two of them cuddled up on the couch, Merlin is shocked, to put it mildly, maybe even a little bit betrayed. It's not that Gwen has any idea about his feelings for Arthur (at least Merlin doesn't think so. He's probably mentioned that he thinks Arthur's fit, but really he'd have to be blind (or straight) not to notice that). And goodness knows Arthur is continually oblivious to Merlin's feelings. But it still feels a bit like a double blow, losing two of his best friends at once.
Not that he's really losing either of them. Arthur stays where he is, in their flat, with his feet in Merlin's lap more often than not. Gwen doesn't even come round all that often, and when she does, her and Arthur's relationship is remarkably chaste, no snogging on the sofa or ladies' underwear in the kitchen, they don't keep him awake with all night sex marathons or anything like that. All in all the situation, although far from ideal, is bearable.
But now that's about to change. After this Christmas, Merlin knows, things won't ever be the same again for any of them.
Merlin doesn't mean to snoop. Arthur calls him from work, asking if he's left his flash drive behind. It's not in Merlin's official job description to run around fetching things for Arthur, not anymore, and certainly not on his day off. But it does seem quite regularly to fall under his flat-matey duties. He gets out of bed with a groan, ignoring Arthur mocking him for his laziness through the phone. Pushing open the door to Arthur's room, he makes a face at the state of the floor before crossing to the bedside cabinet.
"You're sure it's here?"
"No, Merlin, I'm not sure. If I was sure it was there, I would have taken it with me in the first place, wouldn't I?"
"Hang on." Merlin rifles around in the drawer a little more, loose change, spare keys, cufflinks, small bottle of lube (cherry flavour). And then, a small red velvet box. Probably more cufflinks. Merlin almost dismisses it, but then again, Arthur is the sort of person who might keep his flashdrive in a jewellery box. He flicks it open and feels suddenly sick. Inside is a white gold band with an impressively sized diamond. Unmistakably an engagement ring.
"Merlin? Merlin are you there?"
"Y-yeah," he says shakily. "It's not here."
This changes everything. When Arthur gives Gwen that engagement ring (probably at Christmas; he can just imagine the suitably romantic scene, twinkling Christmas lights and snowfall, violins playing in the background, Arthur's soppy grin and Gwen's delighted squeals), they'll be engaged to be married. Arthur will move out. Or ask Merlin to move out. This is the end.
Now that he thinks about it, Arthur has been acting oddly for a good few weeks now. This, though, explains everything.
It's so soon, he thinks. They've only been together a few months. But then Arthur is older than him, nearly thirty, and Gwen a couple of years older still. There are probably social pressures piling up, biological clocks ticking and all that.
It's not even as though he'd thought they'd live together forever. Only now that he's confronted with the reality of the situation, he realises that he sort of had thought that after all.
Merlin had expected having his heart broken to be more of a sudden catastrophe; instead it's more like a slow bleed out, hour by hour, day by day. Christmas is a matter of days away and Merlin is torn between resenting each sprig of holly and mince pie as a sign of the impending doom of life as he knows it, and trying to cling on to every last second they have together. Arthur doesn't tell him about his proposal plans and Merlin doesn't tell him he knows. It's a sort of stalemate.
But then it occurs to him that there will be a wedding, and he begins to think of all that will mean. Flowers, dresses, cakes, speeches, bridesmaids, a best man. Of course there's a chance that Arthur won't ask him to be best man. He and Leon go way back, after all, and Merlin's seen them a couple of times over the last few weeks, chatting together in furious whispers, usually ending with Leon patting Arthur heavily on the back. Merlin almost doesn't know which would be worse, being asked to be best man at Arthur's wedding, or not being asked.
The day before Christmas Eve, he and Arthur sit on the sofa watching their favourite Christmas movies together (A Muppet Christmas Carol - Merlin, and Die Hard - Arthur). It's their tradition. It will be the last year for this as well; next year Arthur will be all cosied up to Gwen wearing matching slippers, sipping mulled wine and watching something schmaltzy with Jimmy Stewart in, most likely. Merlin sniffs. Christmas won't be Christmas without Bruce Willis shouting "Yippee ki yay, motherfucker".
They're up to "Now I've got a machine gun, ho ho ho," when Arthur turns to him and says, "Merlin" in a significant sort of voice, slightly shaky, almost as if he's nervous and all Merlin can think is oh God, he's going to ask me to be best man. There's no reason for Arthur to be nervous, though, unless he knows.
The idea that Arthur is hesitant to ask because he knows that Merlin is in love with him and is worried about his reaction is more than he can bear and Merlin shoots out of his seat saying, "More popcorn? I think we need more popcorn. And nuts. Mustn't forget the nuts, it is Christmas after all."
When Merlin comes back, laden with popcorn and two kinds of nuts, having given himself a stern talking to and a stiff drink in the kitchen, Arthur is staring glumly at the screen. He doesn't try to talk to Merlin again and they watch the rest of the film in silence.
Christmas Eve is a half day, with the party in the evening, as is Camelot tradition. Not a lot of work gets done in the morning, and most of the employees slope off down the pub the second the clock strikes one. Merlin spends most of the afternoon in the Rising Sun, pressed up against Arthur's side, soaking up the warmth of him as though he can store it up and save it for the bleak, lonely winters ahead. Gwen is there, too, chatting to Mithian, Leon's girlfriend. She waves when she spots the two of them but doesn't come over and Merlin's selfishly glad.
As the afternoon draws on, people start drifting away to eat or to change for the party, or to go home to their families. As the crowd thins out, Merlin catches Arthur looking at him with that odd expression once again.
"Merlin," he begins, "I need to ask you something."
Merlin panics. Can't this wait until after Christmas at least? Can't Arthur give him just these last couple of days?
"Can this wait until later? I need to shower and change," he blurts out to forestall whatever Arthur is going to say. "I'll catch you at the party, yeah?"
He leaves before Arthur can say anything to stop him, heart pounding, knowing he's being a prick but unable to stop. He can't hear it, he just can't.
Safely back home, Merlin strips off his suit and tie and takes a long shower, the hot water doing little to calm the churning in his stomach. He dries off and changes into some less formal trousers fluffing his hair into a more casual style and applying just a touch of glitter. He's still barefoot, lip gloss in hand, when he hears the front door slam shut.
Merlin pads out into the living area.
"Who did you think it was, a burglar?" Arthur just looks at him, his arms folded over his chest.
"And you were what, going to fight them off with a tube of lip gloss, were you?" Arthur asks, frowning at the object in Merlin's hands.
"What are you doing back? I thought you and Leon were staying out?"
"I need to talk to you," Arthur says, running one hand through his hair. Merlin's face falls.
"Please, Merlin, just hear me out, ok? I --"
"I found the ring in your drawer," Merlin interrupts. "And I'm sorry, Arthur, but I just can't be your best man, ok, I can't do it. I don't think I can even go to the wedding. And I know that's stupid and selfish and I want to be happy for you, but I just don't think I can be there to see it."
"Merlin, you idiot, what are you talking about? You're not going to be the best man, I am. That's why I have the ring, obviously. And why can't you go to Leon's wedding? I thought you loved weddings. You cried like a baby at Morgana's. And you elbowed that little girl out of the way to catch the bouquet."
"What do you mean, Leon's wedding?" Merlin says, too fixated on that part of Arthur's speech to even defend himself against the scurrilous accusations of bouquet-stealing.
"The wedding that involves Leon getting married to Mithian. Assuming she says yes. Which she will, obviously."
"So that ring is..."
"The engagement ring Leon bought for Mithian," Arthur says in the slow tone he reserves for people who are being particularly dense. "He's going to give it to her tomorrow, I'm looking after it because she's bound to go snooping around for her Christmas presents and ruin the surprise. Or so Leon says."
"So you're not." Merlin can hardly breathe. "Not going to propose to Gwen?"
"Merlin, Gwen and I split up months ago, what's the matter with you?"
"I think I need to sit down," Merlin says faintly, and does. The sofa dips next to him and Arthur's hand comes up to rest on his shoulder. It's probably intended to be comforting, calming, but right now it's only making Merlin's heart and mind race all the faster.
"I know we don't really talk about relationships much," Arthur says, "but I thought you at least realised that Gwen and I had broken up." He coughs awkwardly. "You're. You're sort of the reason, actually."
"I – what? What did I do?"
Arthur sighs. Merlin feels like he's missing something really important and really obvious.
"I don't know if --" Arthur hesitates. "I wasn't sure I should say anything. You're the best friend I've got, and I don't want to do anything to ruin that, but Gwen said she was sure you felt the same way and – Merlin, look at me, would you?"
Merlin does, his heart in his mouth. He's seen that expression on Arthur's face before, but never once directed at him, and if he thought it was hard to breathe before, now it's nearly impossible. Arthur's eyes are very close and very blue and Merlin doesn't know why he hasn't expired from want already.
"Arthur," he croaks.
"It took me a long time to realise," Arthur is saying, his fingers coming up to brush softly along Merlin's temple. "I didn't know why I hated it so much when you brought boyfriends round, or why I wanted to touch you, all the time."
Merlin closes his eyes and opens them again. Not dreaming. He leans into Arthur's touch as Arthur continues, "When you kept running away every time I tried to talk to you, I thought you must have figured it out, that you didn't want --"
Merlin shakes his head, grabbing hold of Arthur's hands and clutching them tightly.
"I want," he says. "Arthur, you have no idea how much I want. But you, you're not --"
Arthur leans in and kisses him, sure and sweet, a soft press of lips and no more, but enough to silence Merlin's protests. He feels numb. The shock of change from despair to hope to elation is almost too much. Arthur is kissing him. Arthur is not marrying Gwen. Arthur is kissing him.
Slowly at first, still hardly daring to believe it, Merlin begins to kiss back, allowing one hand to creep up into Arthur's hair, just as he's fantasised about since the first time he saw him. Arthur's tongue slides into his mouth as though it'belongs there. Arthur's hand settles on Merlin's hip, fingers bunching the back of his shirt, thumb brushing lightly against the skin of his lower back, causing Merlin to shiver and pull back with a breathless laugh, not sure he can make himself stop if they take this any further.
"We'll be late for the party," he says.
"I don't care," Arthur says, finding his lips again.
"We always go to the office party," Merlin says between kisses. "It's tradition."
"Well, how about we start a new tradition," Arthur breathes, hands tugging at Merlin's belt. "Turning up to the office party late and well and truly shagged."
Merlin half growls at that, not bothering to protest further. He reaches for Arthur and kisses him fiercely, devouring him like a starving man presented with a feast.
Later, when Arthur has stripped him and pressed him down into the sofa (almost certainly losing them the security deposit on this flat as well in the process), after they've kissed and kissed until their lips are swollen, when they've shown up late to the party with their shirts buttoned up wrong and received some knowing looks from their colleagues and friends; later, Arthur will apologise for all the wasted time. Merlin will smile and shake his head because none of that matters, not now this isn't going to be their last Christmas together after all. And what better Christmas present could he have asked for than that?