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Maybe We Were Coming All Along

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*** 

 

Arthur tapped his ring compulsively against the mahogany, listening to the gentle ring on the phone as he waited for Merlin to answer.

Tap tap tap.

Not that he was nervous or anything. Not at all. Just calmly waiting, as one does.

Tappity tap tap, tap tap.

Yes, everything was perfectly fine. He frowned down at the slight scuff his ring was leaving on his Great-Great-Aunt Margaret's antique writing desk. Bugger.

What on earth could possibly be keeping Merlin from answering his phone? Arthur was calling and he definitely didn’t have time for Merlin to ignore him now, or get lost in that little head of his as he was wont to do.

Voicemail, dammit. Arthur jabbed at the screen, ending the call, and immediately pressed redial. “Answer your sodding phone, you wanker—”

“Remind me why I shouldn’t just hang up on you?” Merlin asked in irritated exasperation.

Arthur cringed. “Because as your future monarch, I’ve told you on multiple occasions that you should have your mobile on you at all times in case I need to contact you, and you have definitely failed in your duties tonight.”

“I know this might come as a shock to you, Your Highness, but I am not and have never been at your beck and call, no matter what era you seem to think we live in,” Merlin said and Arthur could practically hear the eyeroll in his voice.

“Nevermind all of that, this is an emergency, Merlin. An emergency. So forget whatever calculations or sketches you were buried under for a minute,” Arthur snapped.

Merlin sighed heavily. “Go whinge to Leon or Gwaine or someone who isn’t busy right now. I know, go find Lance, he’ll always listen since he’s far too polite to ever tell you to shut it like—”

Merlin, I need your help, all right? My father had me cornered and has apparently decided that I should be married within the year, so I told him I was gay!”

*

Arthur didn’t fidget, but only just. Not that his father needed to know that. This drawing room always left the impression upon him that his ancestors deeply disapproved of him and his choices, their pinched faces staring back at him from their perches on the blue eggshell wall. That and the blue velvet couches on which they sat facing each other, whilst certainly unfathomably old and museum worthy, were both hideous and hideously uncomfortable, forcing Arthur to sit upright in a way that left him perpetually off balance, which is no doubt why they were Uther’s favourite.

He suspected that was why his father always picked this room whenever he wanted to pass judgement on Arthur.

Arthur swallowed as the faces bore down on him and the room seemed to close in, tightening around him.

Relaxed and perfectly at ease, Uther assessed him over his tumbler of whisky, his suit as crisp and unwrinkled as when he’d put it on in the morning, and Arthur resisted the urge to tug at his collar and smooth down his clothes (light lavender shirt with a deep purple jumper overtop and well-fitted dark grey trousers — not that Arthur was particular about colour schemes or anything of the sort).

“You’ve done well this year, Arthur. Graduated with top marks and you have a promising career ahead of you once you start at that sustainable design firm you’re so set on in the new year.”

“Thank you, Father.” Arthur gritted his teeth and forced himself to smile back, already dreading whatever this speech was setting itself up for.

“It’ll be good for the monarchy for people to see their prince being a productive member of society, reimagining the way we live and making an impact, and not just resting on your laurels.” With a magnanimous nod, Uther continued, “You’ll be turning 26 in the new year as well, which is high time enough for you to find a suitable wife and settle down.”

Christ, it was worse than he’d imagined. Arthur downed the rest of his whisky in a single gulp, even though he knew it would make his father frown at the impropriety.

He was going to need it for this conversation — the one which he’d been dreading and yet trying to ignore the fact that it would inevitably happen. His father had been hinting for years about his grandchildren.

“So I’ve arranged to have a number of women that I think you’ll find acceptable visit over the holidays.”

*

Merlin was quiet for a moment. "You're bi," he said slowly.

"Yes, well, he doesn't need to know that! Not yet anyway. If he thought I was bi, he'd still be trying to set me up with every eligible girl in the kingdom."

He could hear Merlin's snort through the static across the line. "So I take it the conversation went well? You don’t sound like you’ve been disowned."

"What I wasn't expecting was for my father to nod at me without batting an eyelash and start laying out his plans to have gay marriage legalised post haste and to make sure I was set up with every eligible gay man in the kingdom! He wants me to go to dinner with Cenred! He’s 15 years older than me and the last time I saw him he wouldn’t stop making comments about how ‘juicy’ and ‘bootylicious’ my arse looked and I was too horrified to tell my cousin she needed to take the Destiny’s Child albums away from him, not that Morgause was doing anything but grinning like an evil cat that got the cream the entire time, the fucking witch," Arthur shouted and waved his free hand about even though Merlin couldn't see it — although he was sure Merlin could well imagine exactly what he looked like, with his restless pacing and flailing hands.

By this point Merlin was laughing so hard Arthur could hear him gasping for breath. "Oh my god, Arthur, I would've paid to have been a fly on that wall. But if this gets your father to throw his support behind gay marriage, then at least something good will come of it."

Arthur took a deep breath. "Right, so, it was an emergency. I can't have my father trying to marry me off, not only does he have the worst taste, if he had his way I'd be married within the year. So I might've told him I was already seeing someone and he might've assumed itwasyou and I might've not corrected him about that assumption," Arthur mumbled.

There was a pause. "Wait… You what?!"

"My father might be under the impression that we are in fact… a couple." Arthur pivoted on his feet and stopped in the middle of the room, falling still.

*

Arthur paused to consider his options for all of five seconds, before blurting out, “Actually, Father, before you do that, there’s something you should know. I’m gay.”

Jesus fucking Christ in a manger, he couldn’t believe he’d actually done that. Admittedly, he’d imagined telling his father the truth about his sexuality for as long as he’d known he was bi (he’d been 15, in the boarding house, and very much aware that he was going to like cock until the day he died as he panted in the aftermath of his first time). It had just never seemed like a good time and with the utter dearth of serious relationships with either men or women recently it was hard to be arsed enough to bring it up — or at least that’s what he told himself, as he ignored the lingering fear and trepidation in the back of his mind.

Certainly, this wasn’t exactly what he’d imagined telling his father. But it was close enough for now, because, god, if he could only get his dad to grumble about his sexuality and succession for the next few years and forget the marriage idea altogether for the time being, it would be more than worth it. He couldn’t very well marry a man yet, not legally anyway. That had to be at least a few years off, right?

Arthur was not going to ‘settle down’ simply because Uther told him to. He was perfectly capable of finding someone in his own time.

Clutching at his empty glass, Arthur felt his ancestors’ gazes sharpen on him, like piranhas circling for the kill — except with more priceless antiques and hideous brocade in the way. His inner designer shuddered and the pinched faces simply came closer and closer, laughing at him and his stereotypical fussiness with clothing and interior decorating. And that really wasn’t fair at all since neither was he gay nor was Merlin, one of the gayest men in his acquaintance, particularly well dressed or arsed about interior design. Actually, Merlin had some of the worst fashion sense he had ever seen.

Uther sighed and gazed at him seriously. “And you’re just telling me this now? These things take planning; we can’t just spring this sort of information on the public. No matter, we can push to make sure gay marriage is legalised soon enough and my people can handle the rest.”

What?” Arthur whispered.

Uther scowled. “What, did you expect me to toss you out? I’m old-fashioned, I know, but not completely ignorant. I’ve seen how close you are to some of your… friends. I’d have thought you’d come to me before now though, if you—” Uther made a face like he’d bitten into a lemon “—preferred men.”

“Yes, well, I’m very sorry,” Arthur said faintly, wondering if he had actually entered the twilight zone. This conversation was not going how he’d imagined at all, to be honest.

“I'm not a barbarian, Arthur. This is a thoroughly modern country, and, anyway, we can't be seen as inhibiting progress. Actually, this will be a perfect opportunity to show the world our support for the next great modern cause. We'll come out ahead of Parliament!"

"So you're going to use this as a PR stunt."

Uther waved his hand. "Of course not, Arthur. But I've been reliably informed that you people can't change these preferences, so I don't see any point in not making the most of the situation."

"You people," Arthur whispered to himself and wondered if his father would even notice if he just lied down on the floor and pretended none of this was happening. He was running full steam ahead now, it wasn't like he was looking for any input from Arthur at this point.

*

"Arthur, I can't pretend to be your boyfriend. I don't know if you've forgotten recently, but you're the bloody Prince of Wales! You have paparazzi that follow you around everywhere — and take photographs!" Merlin was quickly falling off the edge into full-blown hysteria.

Bollocks.

“Merlin, deep breaths! We don’t have to go around the city snogging or anything” — a high-pitched whine greeted that statement — “I just need you to come around for a few dinners, come by on Christmas day, it’s only to appease my father.”

Come by on Christmas day!” Arthur cringed and held the phone away from his head for a few seconds.

“Bloody ow, what are you, part feral cat? Where’d you even learn to make that noise?” Arthur groused.

There was a loud banging across the line and some more garbled noises. “Those are the noises that they teach the common folk in schools all over the kingdom for when they have to deal with their completely annoying git of a royal prince. They designed them specifically for you once they saw what a terror you were after you were born.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Now you’re just being ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous is thinking that the Prince of Wales can have a fake boyfriend and not have every bleeding paper in the world find out!”

*

“Regardless, it will take a bit of rearranging, but I’ll have my people make sure to have you seated somewhere appropriate for our upcoming dinners. Luckily there are a number of very eligible men whom I’m certain would love the opportunity to make your acquaintance better. If this is handled appropriately, there’s no reason for you to be delayed much from settling down with a proper husband.”

Uther nodded to himself firmly, seemingly content with his plan of action. Arthur blinked and opened and closed his mouth a few times, rapidly beginning to suspect that everything was slipping out of his control much more quickly than he could have ever imagined. “Right,” he said. “Erm.”

“Both the Duke of Westminster and the Earl of Strafford are out of the closet, or what have you, I believe. They’d both be great choices, of course, and there are some more minor barons I’m sure we can dig up and invite who would be suitable,” he continued on, as Arthur felt himself grow more and more lightheaded.

Cenred and Valiant?! That was too horrifying to even contemplate. Arthur flailed around desperately for something, anything, to make his father stop. “Father, well, the thing is— before you do all that, you should also know that— that I’ve started seeing someone. So. Whilst I appreciate your… encouragement, that really won’t be necessary, not for the moment anyway. I’d like to see how this goes first.”

Uther studied him for a moment. “Quite.” He paused and set aside his glass, sitting forward very slightly. “It’s that Merlin fellow, isn’t it? I used to suspect as much, the way you two bicker, and especially now that you've informed me of your leanings,” he mused thoughtfully. “Well, I certainly don’t know that that is an ideal match, but I did have his background checked very thoroughly once the two of you became close and he isn’t the worst man you could have come up with, I suppose. I’ll need to be introduced more properly, mind, before I can give any sort of blessing. You must have him come to our holiday dinners and benefits — and on Christmas as well.”

“Come for Christmas,” Arthur whispered back, hysteria bubbling up underneath his ribcage as he imagined awkward, grinning Merlin in his gigantic multicoloured tatty scarves plopped in the midst of their Christmas celebrations, between Morgana’s little black dress and killer heels and his father’s impeccable Armani tuxedo and he nearly laughed outright.

"Nothing official yet, of course. I'll have the PR people start on a plan for your coming out immediately, but we should have Merlin here to meet with everyone and prepare for when everything does go public."

The 'and so I can size him up' went unsaid.

"And we'll definitely have to start talking to those in Parliament and the Church about how to have the laws changed. It will have to be done quickly if we're to have you married within the next couple years, as you should be. And then there's the matter of finding a proper surrogate…"

"Surrogate?" Arthur breathed. He was fairly certain he could hear the sound of his blood rushing out of his face all at once.

"Well, of course. It's the 21st century now, nothing that a bit of science and a woman with good genes can't provide as far as our need for an heir. We can't very well have one of your idiot cousins and their children inherit the throne, now can we?"

*

"Merlin, he was talking about finding me a surrogate! For my hypothetical future children in my impending gay marriage," Arthur hissed. “And if he thinks I’m single, then he’ll start talking about my future children with Cenred or Valiant and I won’t survive that, Merlin! I won’t! You have to help me, this is a matter of life and death.”

Merlin was laughing madly by this point. “Are you fucking mental?! I can’t go anywhere near your father if he’s going to be plotting my fake future children. No way! Not on any planet in any alternate universe is that ever going to happen.”

"Are you truly willing to risk my life like this, Merlin? What if Morgause inherits the throne, what then? With Morgana by her side they'll probably overthrow Parliament and reinstate the full monarchy."

"Morgause isn't even second in line!" Merlin snapped back at him.

"Well once I'm struck off I'm sure she'll take the opportunity to make arrangements. And my father probably won't even be opposed! Most of my cousins are utter idiots."

"I don't care! Go find someone else! I'm sure one of your kiss-arse rah lackeys would love to be your royal husband, fake or not. They won’t even care that they don’t like cock if it means they can marry into the royal family!"

But I don't want to pretend with anyone else. Arthur quickly shoved that thought down as not helpful or relevant or anything but best ignored, because it didn’t bear thinking about. It was simple really: Merlin was his best mate (even if he’d never said that aloud in so many words) and was clearly the only person suitable for the responsibility.

"My father would never believe that! And I need someone I can trust," he added softly. Arthur flopped down onto his desk chair, all the air and bluster whooshing out of him as he rubbed at his eyes tiredly.

Merlin sighed. "No, Arthur, and I'm not going to change my answer. I just— I can’t. I’m sorry."

 

***

 

Arthur pouted at Merlin over the top of his pint. He loathed begging, but he was willing to try anything to make Merlin change his mind.

Merlin glared at him from where he had just sat down and cut in with a sharp preemptive, "No, Arthur. The answer is no."

"But, Merlin," Arthur whined (a bit, and it was completely justified, so it hardly counted as whining anyway), "You can't desert me in my greatest time of need."

Merlin put his finger in the air and cocked his head as if he were actually considering Arthur's proposal and then dropped his hand theatrically onto the table between them with a great plonk and said, "No," again, the uncooperative bastard.

And, really, what kind of rubbish friend was he. It wasn't like this was the first time Arthur had badgered him into some mad scheme or another; he should be used to it by now and just give into the inevitable, it was a prerequisite for being Arthur's friend. "Please, Merlin," Arthur grumbled against his better judgement and his extreme dislike for having to politely ask his berk of a best mate for things. It was all so unnecessary, if Merlin would just see reason…

Jaw open, Merlin stared at him for a few seconds and then looked around the table at their assorted friends. "Did I just hear that correctly? Can you all stand as witnesses to this most momentous occasion? I believe, although surely I must be wrong, but I believe Arthur just used the word please. If he hadn't been muttering into his pint I'd almost think he was being polite."

"Oi! I'm always polite. I'm the most perfectly polite person you could possibly know! My father had all my tutors and nannies make sure of that." And he was, mostly. Usually. But Merlin was a backwards country muppet whose clothes never fit properly and who constantly put his foot in his mouth, so he really had no room to complain about Arthur's impeccable upbringing.

Everyone groaned and rolled their eyes, rather vehemently in fact, as they muttered "bollocks" or some such nonsense, and Arthur scowled at each one of them in the eye.

At least Lance smiled cautiously back at him, all innocent-like, as if he would never accuse Arthur of being anything less than perfect. Arthur pointed his glass at him. "See, Lance agrees with me."

Morgana leaned forward over the table, her vicious red nails like miniature daggers around her disgustingly blue concoction of a drink. "But Lance is an actually polite and completely decent human being, unlike you, so of course he's not going to say anything, even though no one in their right mind could disagree with the fact that please is an appallingly underused word in your vocabulary."

Leon nodded. "Sorry, mate, but she's right," he said, sedately pulling on his own pint.

"Traitor," Arthur muttered mutinously, but without much heat. It wasn't as if he hadn't known this would happen once Leon started shagging his sister, as horrific as that was to contemplate.

Gwaine was just smirking wickedly from where he was gracelessly sprawled against the black leather booth they were in (Morgana's choice, of course, some strange little ultra-modern bar with waitresses covered in piercings and black eyeliner, but some friend of a friend owned it and was willing to close out the back room whenever Morgana wanted a "gathering" and privacy out on the town). That smirk was never good. Ever, in the history of the million and one times that Arthur had seen that smirk since they had dormed together that first year at Eton — and fuck if he hadn't seen that smirk practically every single day then.

Then Gwaine winked at him, the bastard. "I think you're all missing the relevant point here. Arthur is desperate enough to beg Merlin to do something. He even said please. So tell us, Princess, what straits have you gotten yourself into?"

Sod it all.

Merlin glared at Gwaine. “Don’t encourage him. Don’t even ask. There is absolutely nothing to talk about, so let’s just all move on now to more interesting things. For instance, Arthur is a horrible, selfish, entitled arse: please discuss,” he said, with an opening handwave at the end.

Morgana laughed. “Oh, no, no, no, I don't think so. I just know this has something to do with whatever’s got everyone in daddy’s office in a tizzy and I need details. My god, Arthur, what have you even done?” (Arthur whipped his head around at the daddy, but they were thankfully alone. Honestly, his half-sister should know so much better since the last thing they all wanted, especially her in the honour of the man she still considered to be her "real" father, was to put paid to the constant rumours about her true heritage to the bloody scowling girls that ran this establishment.)

“I hate you all,” Merlin said as he pushed out of the booth with a glower. “You’re all horrible, terrible people. Especially you, Arthur” — Arthur nearly went cross-eyed as a jabbing finger almost took his eye out — “and I refuse to take any part in this or hear about it or anything, so I’m going to go find Gwen and sit out at the proper bar with the normal folk and you wankers can hide back here.”

And with that Merlin stomped off, leaving them with two accusatory fingers in his wake.

Arthur winced. Fucking hell, he needed new friends. Preferably ones that wouldn't scare off his best hope of avoiding an early marriage.

Of course Elena and Mithian had to bustle in right at that moment for good measure — nothing like more people to pile on the misery.

"Budge up, love, and tell Dr Elena all about what you've done now. Merlin's in a right strop and you look like you've been through the ringer," she said, entirely too cheerily for someone who was supposed to be lending an understanding ear.

Mithian piled in next to Elena, petting at Elena's wild hair like always and nodding along. They were both wearing two of the most hideous holiday jumpers he had ever seen, red monstrosities covered in elves and holly and a great big Christmas tree in Mithian's case. He would never understand how two of the most intelligent, competent women he knew (and, all right, yes, attractive, he knew they were more than attractive and had more than once considered the possibilities himself, but all he could ever see were both of their fathers' angry faces floating in the background; not that knowing both men had ever stopped Gwaine from perking up around them and making horrible jokes about being more than enough man for two women) could both get so much glee out of wearing the tackiest clothing imaginable. He loved them both dearly, but there were simply some things beyond his understanding.

Looking around at all their expectant faces, Arthur just groaned and put his head in his hands. Honestly, fuck everything.

*

Later they’d somehow made their way to some place with dancing and a VIP area (which Merlin would no doubt bitch about to Arthur later — not all of us were born with more money than god, you twat) where Morgana could lounge and overlook the proceedings, Gwen perched close by whilst the two of them whispered conspiratorially about one thing or another. Probably about what an idiot Arthur was and how he was going to end up engaged to some balding, 50-year-old foreign prince if someone didn’t intervene in Uther’s machinations.

Drink might make him a tad melodramatic Arthur thought to himself morosely.

Mithian patted his hand. “Your father isn’t going to marry you off to some balding old man with a saggy bum, Arthur. He’s not evil, just old-fashioned and uncomprehending of basic human emotion.”

Glaring across the room at where Merlin was flirting shamelessly — shamelessly! — with Percy, Arthur grumbled, “Well, he wouldn’t have to if Merlin would just cooperate. Some best mate he is, over there, flirting with Percy, probably thinking about climbing him like a tree, leaving me to be married off to god knows who.”

Arthur had climbed Percy like a tree once, in uni, and if he wasn’t petty he wouldn’t begrudge Merlin the opportunity — in Elyan’s own words: that was a ride everyone should hop on at least once, if they could. And Percy was a great bloke, so who knew, maybe it would be a match made in heaven for the both of them. Maybe Merlin had just been waiting all these years for the right gentle giant to come along.

But he was drunk enough to admit that he was most definitely that petty — amongst other things.

Elena snorted and took away his pint. “I think you’ve had enough to drink, darling.”

“Christ, Arthur, would you stop making cow eyes at Merlin?” said Gwaine, like the bloody useful wanker that he was.

Arthur pouted. “‘M not making cow eyes. I’m glaring.”

“And I’m the pope. You’re making cow eyes, you’re always making cow eyes, so why don’t you grow some bollocks and actually do something about it for once, instead of going on and on about how you need Merlin to be your fake boyfriend.”

“Merlin’s my best mate and a bleeding traitor. I’m glaring, not my fault you can’t tell the difference. And even if I were — which I’m not for the record — but even if I were, it’s not like Merlin’s the least bit interested. He won’t even pretend to be in a relationship with me! And he’s had a string of boyfriends for as long as I’ve known him and not once has he dated anyone even vaguely like me.”

When Arthur had first met Merlin, they'd both been in the department offices of their graduate programme in Sustainable Urban Design and Arthur had bumped into Merlin and assumed that he was some fresh-faced uni first year, and he might've made some rather unnecessary remarks to which Merlin had replied with some absolutely scandalous declarations about the monarchy — and Arthur in particular. (Arthur's remarks might've had more to do with the fact that Merlin had very long legs and very clingy skinny jeans that really shouldn't have been physically possible to put on and his brain simply hadn't been up to the task of analysing why messy-haired lanky men in ugly orange jumpers and nearly-chewed-through old converses inspired a rather antagonistic reaction in him. He still chose not to analyse that thought too closely, actually.)

The smug look on Merlin's face once Professor Aglain had bustled in and grinned at the both of them, so happy that his two newest advisees were already getting to know each other, and Arthur had realised his mistake and promptly snapped his mouth shut had added insult to injury more than anything and they'd both glared daggers at each other behind their advisor's back throughout the whole introductory meeting.

When they'd left the building Merlin had huddled into his entirely inadequate jacket and scowled dubiously at the sky, muttering about how fast the temperature had to drop on the one day he didn't bring his layers, and Arthur had taken one look at his pale, skinny neck (and the way his hair curled around his ears and against the nape) and sighed and shoved his scarf at him before he could reconsider. It'd been one of his best scarves too, warm and thick and impossibly soft and a very nice shade of dark blue, but it'd definitely been worth the gobsmacked expression on Merlin's face as he cautiously wound it around his neck and rolled his eyes back in pleasure when he snuggled into it.

Merlin still had the scarf, actually, and Arthur swore it seemed like he wore it more often when he thought Arthur wouldn't be around, but that was probably ridiculous.

Regardless, Merlin had gone through an endless parade of boyfriends the entire time he’d been in Arthur’s acquaintance — Mordred, Daegal, fucking Edwin, the creep — and he always made sure to wax poetic about every single sodding one of them.

Arthur harrumphed.

Gwaine groaned. "Mate, I love you like a brother, but you’re a fucking idiot."

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see both Mithian and Elena nodding. “Arthur. Arthur, love,” Mithian said, “Did it ever occur to you that Merlin might be using his constant string of frequently terrible relationships as a buffer, whilst at the same time you’ve practically stopped dating altogether?”

“I’ve dated plenty!” Arthur protested.

“Well, yes, you daft thing, we all know you’ve never had any trouble in that regard. But you haven’t dated anyone seriously or had a real relationship in years, you know? You’d rather hang out with Merlin than meet anyone, so maybe that’s a sign,” Elena said patiently.

Arthur paused, considered. Gwen was the last serious relationship he'd had, really, and that had been in uni. And the relative seriousness of it was probably debatable since it had ended mutually and amicably all around and Arthur found it hilarious the way Gwen and Lance now danced around each other, completely cow-eyed and oblivious. If Merlin were his ex and he— But, no, Arthur cut that thought off viciously, none of this necessarily meant anything and Merlin actually was his best mate.

His best mate who’d always happily prattled on about the loads and loads of boyfriends he’d had. Arthur scowled. “No, you’re reading into things all wrong. No way.”

Gwaine snorted. “Oh yeah, well how about this then?” he said, moving up behind Arthur and grabbing his hips and generally manhandling him until Merlin glanced over, a sudden frown pulling at his lips, and turned away abruptly. “Yeah,” Gwaine breathed into his ear, plastered along his back and grinding into him a bit whilst Arthur shivered, “That is definitely the look of a man who isn’t jealous or gagging for it at all.”

“Ge’ your paws off me, arsehole,” Arthur mumbled, irritated, and pushed at his hands. “God, you bloody leech, you don’t even like men.”

“And you would know, wouldn’t you, Princess?” Gwaine grinned and smacked Arthur’s arse before moving away, as Elena and Mithian giggled. Arthur glowered. “We can always go for a repeat, if you like. I might not be able to reciprocate, but I bet your mouth has gotten a lot better over the years, and you do have very pretty hair, so shiny and soft,” Gwaine cooed and Arthur slapped at him when he tried to pet his head.

“Urghhh, I hate you. All of you. You’re no help at all.”

Although he didn’t know why he was surprised, this was what he got for deciding it would be a great idea to experiment with his bored, horny roommate at the age of 15, even though Gwaine was a completely impossible wanker and would never let him forget it — or the fact that Arthur wasn’t “half-bad actually” but rather lacking in the tits department, which was kind of a deal breaker he’d decided afterwards.

Mithian shooed Gwaine away and looked at him seriously. “I know you don’t believe us, Arthur, but I highly doubt it’s a coincidence that your father just immediately assumed you were dating Merlin. He didn’t just conjure that out of thin air, I can assure you.”

Arthur rubbed his eyes. More fucking alcohol, that was what he needed.

*

Arthur stumbled into his room and flopped onto his bed, wriggling out of his jeans and shirt and throwing them haphazardly on the floor. Christ, what had they set the heat to tonight?

He palmed himself through his pants, horny, but his laptop, and therefore porn, was across the room and entirely too far, and wanking seemed like rather a lot of effort at the moment. He squinted at his phone instead.

Ur my best m8 u knp. i trustt u :(

Lovely, even through the muzzy fog that encompassed him whilst he painstakingly concentrated on finding the right buttons to press, he was a maudlin drunk. Who wouldn’t want to pretend to be hitched to him?

Arthur was nearly asleep, clutching his mobile to his chest morosely, when his alert jolted him back to the land of the living.

I’m sorry I can’t pretend that :(

D u find me tha hideius?

A few minutes later:

you’re my best mte you eejit, of course I like your stupid face, but I’m not going to be your fake boyfriend just to get your da off your back. it won’t end well

As sleep came in to claim him, Arthur was still staring at his screen like he was trying to decipher bleeding hieroglyphs, his mind a whirring cacophony of how his friends were full of shite and Merlin wasn’t gagging for anything and best mates was all it was ever going to be.

 

***

 

Arthur stabbed at his meat and tried not to fantasise about taking his fork and knife to the man next to him. He smiled as he thought about the crunch that the tines would make through all those small bones and sinew in Valiant’s hand and sent a sharp grin full of teeth at the man in question. Tines through your hand, you cunting bag of dicks.

To say that Arthur despised Valiant would be an understatement of epic proportions, but of course the shitwank was all camaraderie and chummy grins around Arthur’s father, who just thought Valiant was an absolutely wonderful example of nobility. Arthur thought that Valiant always struck him as someone who'd rather punch his date in the face and knock him out before shagging than anything approaching a decent human being.

Considering Arthur was the one who’d been trapped in the same school with him for five years, Arthur had to be a rather more reliable judge of character in this case, not that his father would hear a single word of “blasphemy” about dear Valiant.

Chewing, Arthur imagined where he’d stick the knife. Morgana tutted at him from where she was sat at his other side, like she knew the exact daydreams going through Arthur’s mind.

She leaned over and hissed, “As much as I’d like to stab him in the thigh myself, it might be advisable if you looked a little less like you were planning his untimely death.”

“Untimely? I think it’s more than about time, personally,” he said, but tried to cut his meat with a little less vigour anyway.

“So, Arthur, I must say I was surprised to receive your personal invitation. It’s been a long time since our Eton days.” Valiant looked as incredibly smarmy and self-absorbed as always.

Personal invitation my royal arse, Arthur thought darkly. His father had been most displeased with Arthur’s continued excuses for Merlin’s absence at all their various galas and benefit dinners or his need to go home to Wales for Christmas — despite Arthur laying on the poor single mother who only wanted her son home for Christmas story as thickly as possible.

Morgana had actually taken pity on him for once and gotten her sister to block Cenred from coming anywhere within speaking range. But apparently tonight, the night before Christmas Eve, Uther had finally had enough and made arrangements of his own.

(“Arthur, if the relationship isn’t serious enough for your boyfriend to come to any of our dinners, then you had certainly better keep your options open and continue looking for a more suitable husband.”)

Arthur flashed his teeth at Valiant once more for good measure. “It has been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“I’m glad you’ve finally tossed that stupid twink who was always clinging on to you to the kerb like he deserved and are looking for proper company again.”

Arthur counted to ten. He was going to murder Valiant before the night was over and enjoy every single second of it.

Morgana whispered, “I take it back, make sure to hit an artery.”

*

As everyone began to make their way to the dance floor once the musicians started up, Arthur grabbed his father and smiled politely at the glittering crowd before pulling him into a nearby sitting room.

“Valiant, Father? Really? He’s beyond odious.” Arthur crossed his arms; he refused to be cowed by his father this time, he really, truly did.

Uther waved him off and poured himself a measure of scotch. “The Earl of Strafford has a great sense of humour and is a very astute businessman, which you would know if you’d only give him a chance.”

“I abhor him, purely on the basis of him being an utterly deplorable human being. I'm the one who had to play rugby with him for years after all.”

Uther tsked. "I know you had a bit of a schoolboy rivalry, but I thought it was well past time the two of you put that in the past."

"Schoolboy rivalry is not the phrase I would use to describe my dislike of someone who spent the better part of five years shoving younger boys’ faces in the toilets."

"Boys will be boys, especially at a school like that."

Arthur tried not to scream in frustration. Where was Morgana when he needed her to go on one of her scathing toxic masculinity rants at their father.

“I do not need you to set me up with anyone, especially not with men like Valiant.”

Uther sighed. “Yes, well, if Valiant isn’t to your taste, we have plenty more candidates, don’t worry.”

“I just said not to set me up with anyone!” Arthur snapped.

“Until I see you married into a stable, healthy relationship, it is my duty as your father and king to make sure you have every opportunity to find a partner, for both the good of the country and yourself,” Uther said as he sipped his whisky serenely.

“But Merlin—”

“Isn’t here and therefore doesn’t count. You must keep your options open.” Uther glowered.

The vein in his temple began to throb and Arthur wondered if his father could see it pulsing; it certainly felt like it. “I’m only 25, I don’t think it’s time to call in the reserves just yet.”

“A quarter of a century!” — Thanks for making me feel old, Dad, Arthur rolled his eyes mentally — “I was married at 22 you know. Anyway, it simply won’t do to wait any longer to start seriously looking. And Prince Philippe, a cousin of the Prince of Monaco, has decided to spend Christmas in London and has graciously accepted our invitation to dinner tomorrow night.”

Arthur had a very violent vision of throwing the crystal decanter at the wall and destroying the pink velvet settee, but he gritted his teeth and concentrated on not breathing like he was the Hulk incarnate. “The Prince Philippe who is over a decade older than me? That Prince Philippe?”

“Oh, you make it sound so scandalous. My people inform me he’s rather dashing and well-loved.”

“Then why isn’t he already married?”

Uther made a placating gesture. “He’s only distantly in line for the throne, so it hardly matters in his case.”

“Father, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. You are essentially setting me up on a blind date on a holiday you’re supposed to spend with family, not complete strangers!” Arthur watched the decanter hit the wall in slow motion, spraying shards all over the pink fabric.

Uther put his glass down, finished with his malt. “Really, Arthur, it’s our annual Christmas Eve dinner. We always host a large group, so I highly doubt his addition will make much of a difference. And we have been away from the party long enough, people must’ve noticed our absence. Come along now,” he said in a clear dismissal as he swept towards the door.

“Father!” Arthur shouted at his back, but the door had already shut behind him.

His father actually was going to try to marry him off to an older foreign prince with a saggy bum — on Christmas no less. This was the last straw.

*

Arthur frowned down at the small Smythson holdall he’d pulled out and back at his ensuite dressing room. This was going to take some doing.

“Decided to make a break for it?” Arthur jumped at the sound of Morgana’s amused voice and glared over his shoulder at where she’d made herself completely at home on the edge of his bed without his permission. She still had on her long, silver gown — designed especially for her by Vera Wang, apparently — although she’d ditched her heels, horrible monstrosities that made her tower over other women, by the door.

“Yes, well, didn’t you hear? I get to sit next to Prince Philippe tomorrow, how I’m so looking forward to it.” Arthur pulled out a few jumpers, considering.

Morgana laughed and wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t he a bit old for you?”

“Not according to our father,” Arthur grumbled.

“Running away to Wales I presume then?”

Arthur scratched his head as he looked at his jumpers. “Precisely.”

“Put the grey one on already, it fits your chest well and brings out your eyes.”

“And why would I care about that?” Arthur glared, but reached down anyway and tugged it on over his blue henley (which he had not picked out because he thought it hugged his biceps nicely, but because it was well-worn and comfortable).

“Because you’re going to see Merrrrrlin,” Morgana sing-songed and seemed entirely too pleased with herself.

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Whatever.” It wasn’t worth arguing with her. Instead he paused in front of the mirror and smoothed his jumper down over his jeans and pushed at his hair.

Morgana strolled over, humming under her breath, and pursed her lips at him and dusted some imaginary lint off his shoulder. “There you go.”

“Christ, like I’m trying to impress Merlin, that’s ridiculous,” Arthur said and batted at her offending hands.

“Of course not,” she said, much too pleasantly, and then grabbed him by the chin with her claws and looked him appreciatively up and down with raised eyebrows. “Well, I’d shag you.”

Morgana!” Arthur spluttered and shoved her away. “For fuck’s sake.”

“Awww, but you’re so cute when you blush like a scandalised maiden.”

Arthur glowered and started throwing random shirts in his bag. “I’m not blushing.”

“Whatever you say, dear. Now stop that,” she said and yanked the holdall from him as she quickly pulled a few jumpers out of his dresser and poked around. “Take these, they’re much better. And where’s that pair of dark-wash jeans — there you go. Oh, and definitely these trousers for Christmas dinner, they show off your arse perfectly. What would you even do without me?”

“Retain my sanity, most likely,” Arthur said and walked away when she stuck her tongue out at him, leaving her to her excited prattling and planning. She was right about those trousers though, he thought smugly.

Opening up his speed dial, he found Gwaine’s number and took a deep breath before calling.

“Well hello there, Princess, how’s the matchmaking going?” Gwaine greeted him cheerfully.

“You’re a terrible friend, you know that? You’re getting entirely too much pleasure out of my suffering.”

“Merlin hasn’t caved in yet I take it? How is Cenred these days?”

Arthur groaned. “Fuck you, you tosser. What’s that noise anyway? What’re you doing?”

“Oh, just some porn. I was having a nice wank, actually, before you interrupted, so if we could wrap this call up quickly that’d be lovely.”

Arthur flopped onto his bed and threw his arm over his eyes. “I really, really hate you sometimes. Christ. Can’t you put it away for two minutes?”

“Just tell me what you need, Princess. I’ve got this multitasking thing down pat, don’t you worry.”

That’s what I’m worried about. Anyway, you filthy pervert, I need to borrow your car for a few days.”

“Running off to spend Christmas with Merlin? That’s adorable,” Gwaine cooed.

Why the fuck did everyone automatically assume he was going to stay with Merlin? Not that that wasn’t his exact plan. But still. He had loads of people who’d love to have him for Christmas. A small Welsh village just sounded like the perfect place to hide, that was all.

He decided not to think about any of it too closely.

“I had to endure a three hour dinner with Valiant tonight. I’m going to go round the bend if I don’t get out of here.”

“Without your minions or the press following you, yes, yes, I understand. But Mary is my baby, and I don’t know if I trust your royal paws with her.”

"Mate, your car is a piece of shite."

"Oi!"

"And I'm not judging! Your father's a bastard and you've cut him off for good reason. I'm proud of you. But the fact remains that your car is crap and will be decidedly more inconspicuous than anything else I can get a hold of."

“Mary is a classy lady, I’ll have you know. She doesn’t deserve this slander.”

“You know, I could just ring Leon up and he would lend me his car, no questions asked.”

“Yeah, but then you’d have to drive a shiny red Porsche into a Welsh village.”

Arthur snorted. “He does have a thing for cars, doesn’t he, the flash bastard.”

“Cars and poetry, our dear Leon is a strange one.”

“So will you meet me or not?”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get your knickers in a twist. I’ll see you in thirty.” And with that, Gwaine rung off to do god only knew what before meeting Arthur.

At the end of the day though Gwaine might talk a load of bollocks, he was one of the most dependable friends Arthur had ever had.

Morgana came up and shoved the holdall on his chest. “Here you go, Prince Charming, got your bag all packed for you so you can go off and win Merlin’s hand. Although I should probably be insulted that you’re going to abandon your own sister on Christmas.”

Arthur grimaced. “I’m sorry to leave you to the wolves by yourself like this. I know we don’t exactly have the most personal family Christmases in the world.”

And wasn’t that an understatement.

Sandringham had been Ygraine’s favourite and Uther refused to go absolutely anywhere near the estate anymore. And somewhere along the way he’d decided to fill the empty halls of Buckingham Palace with as many guests as possible, hosting lavish Christmases that were more public spectacle than family affair.

Arthur hated it.

“Oh, I’ll be dragging Leon around everywhere, don’t worry about me. And my dress for tomorrow is so gorgeous your sudden bout of flu will only be a minor footnote in the papers, I’m sure,” she said with a wink, before continuing, “Now let’s get you out of here. I seem to have lost an absolutely priceless earring and it’s sure to cause a fuss outside. Just go out your window and around to the east wall, there’s a small gap in the cameras there right between the white rose bush and the small angel fountain, so that’s where I’d hop over if I were you. You can thank me later for being the best sister in the world, especially once I convince our father not to have you drawn and quartered.”

Arthur blinked at her. “Just how many times did you sneak out of the palace as a kid?”

But Morgana only threw her head back and laughed. “Wouldn’t you like to know? Now go give Merlin a snog under the mistletoe for me! And a shag, while you’re at it, for everyone else’s sanity if nothing else.”

Arthur rolled off the bed and started pushing her towards the door. “Get out, you harlot!”

With a quick kiss on the cheek and a swish of skirts, Morgana made her way to the door. “Happy Christmas, Arthur.”

Arthur gave her a grin as she opened the door. “Happy Christmas to you too.”

Taking one last glance around his room, at the writing desk with his sketches and plans tacked up above it and his giant bed with the soft, red bedding and the hardwood floors he’d had re-stained to a nice golden finish and the giant, intricately detailed rug he’d picked out himself in Istanbul, he nodded to himself and opened the window. His father was going to be absolutely livid. Hopefully Morgana would be able to placate him a bit, prevent him from finding out for as long as possible.

Arthur had better places to be.

*

Gwaine’s car really was absolute shite and the CD player didn’t even work, so Arthur was stuck listening to the radio for the entirety of the three hours it took him to get to Ealdor, a tiny Welsh village in the mountains near the border with England.

But he made it there, finally, around four in the morning when he was debating the relative risks of the international news putting him to sleep whilst driving or how many times he could actually stand to listen to Ed Sheeran and One Direction and everyone else sing Do They Know It’s Christmas? yet again — the answer was not very many, but at least his gritted teeth at the absolute arrogance of the song kept him awake enough to avoid hitting that one sheep that sneaked up on him in the road.

As he parked the car around the back of the cottage, he reflected that Morgana would be so delighted to know that her constant shoving of political and social articles down his throat had made him unable to even blithely listen to dumb Christmas pop songs on the radio.

Once the car was turned off it was impossibly dark, the small cottage hidden behind a hill from the main road and nowhere near a city, but the stars shined in that way he only ever found when he travelled far into the countryside. His breath fogged the still night air as the light dusting of snow crunched under his feet and he rubbed his hands together, contemplating the best way to actually get inside.

He could call — he should’ve called before he’d left for that matter, given them both some sort of warning (and he ignored the nervous flutter in his belly that Merlin’s mum would be miffed at him barging in on their Christmas like this, despite the fact that the one time he’d visited briefly on his way to Cardiff, and in her numerous visits to the city, she’d always said he’d be welcomed with open arms whenever he needed to get away).

Arthur grinned when he considered the gravel path up to the house. He could call, but this would be so much more fun.

Pocketing a few choice rocks, he found what he remembered — hoped — was the correct window and let them fly.

Ping.

Ping, ping.

A pause, and then a larger one. Ping!

And then the window was shoved open as Merlin stuck his head out, angry words on the tip of his tongue. “What in the—” Merlin blinked. “Arthur?” he whispered incredulously.

“It’s cold out, let me in!” Arthur shout-whispered back.

“But— What— It’s four in the morning! You’re in Wales at four in the morning on Christmas Eve! What the fuck.”

Arthur rolled his eyes and bounced in place a little. “Just let me in,” he whined.

Merlin opened and closed his mouth a few times then abruptly shut the window and Arthur went around to the front where Merlin was waiting with the door open, still blinking in consternation.

“If your eyebrows get any closer together, you’ll develop a unibrow,” Arthur greeted him amiably.

“No, but really, what the fuck, Arthur. What the fuck.”

“And Happy Christmas to you too.” Arthur slid his jacket and mittens off, the house warm and cosy inside, cluttered with pictures and decorations and garlands everywhere, but in a homey almost haphazard way, not like it was designed out of a catalogue. Like a proper house should be on Christmas. He could even hear a fire crackling down the hall in the living room and the entrance and stairs were lit only with fairy lights. Arthur smiled.

“Exactly! It’s Christmas. Why are you here? Who just shows up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve?” Merlin crossed his arms over his chest, his pyjamas and hair completely sleep-rumpled whilst his pillow had left a crease down his left cheek. Arthur blinked at the thin band of pale skin where his white t-shirt had ridden up and swallowed and then grinned when he looked down and saw Merlin’s toes clad in fuzzy pink dragon socks.

“Since you’d abandoned me, my father had taken it upon himself to make sure my Christmas would be full of just wonderful men for me to get to know, so why the fuck do you think I’m here. I slipped out and borrowed Gwaine’s car and ran away as quickly as possible.”

“You can’t just—”

"Your Highness!" Hunith gaped down at them from the stairs and looked as if she were trying to figure out how to curtsy in her nightgown in between steps.

"Call me Arthur, please. I'm the one sneaking into your house in the middle of the night so I hardly think we need to stand on formality." Arthur smiled up at her cautiously, where she seemed to be in shock. “So sorry to just show up unexpectedly like this, I only—” Arthur blushed and waved his hand vaguely, hoping that could somehow encompass the magnitude of what he was trying to escape, without him having to get into the embarrassing details.

Hunith looked between the two of them and then her eyes widened. “Oh. Oh. Of course! How romantic, surprising Merlin for Christmas!” She positively beamed down at them. “I’d always thought— Well. It’ll be wonderful to have you join us, dear.”

Merlin choked and spluttered, waving his arms. “Oh! No, Mum! It’s not— We’re not— It’s not anything like that!”

But Hunith only laughed and put her hands over her eyes. “I haven’t seen anything, I promise!” she said and peeked between her fingers. “I completely understand. The paparazzi these days, ruthless bastards, the lot of them. If you’re trying to keep it private as long as you can, I don’t blame you and I shan’t say a thing.”

Mum!” Merlin yelped, face so red he looked like he might keel over from lack of oxygen at any moment.

Arthur slung his arm over Merlin’s shoulder and flashed Hunith his widest grin. “That would be lovely, Ms Emrys. Thank you.”

Merlin stared back and forth between them both, mouth hanging open. “But,” he protested.

“It’s Hunith, dear,” she said and held her hands to her chest like she thought they were the cutest thing she’d ever seen. “Now you won’t hear another word out of me about it all, but the guest room is full of clutter, so you two boys just make yourselves right at home upstairs. Merlin’s room has a wonderful fire going and I absolutely refuse to have you freeze to death downstairs. And I won’t see a thing, I swear.” She touched the side of her nose, and continued, “You know these old houses, have to keep each other warm on nights like tonight. Now go get Arthur settled in, Merlin! Don’t keep him out in the hall, I raised you better than that. Goodnight both of you! I’m going back to bed, but we’ll all have a wonderful lie in in the morning and then I’ll do a full breakfast.”

Hunith practically floated back up the stairs, still muttering to herself about how sweet and romantic it all was, and Merlin looked shell-shocked and rather like a miserable, bedraggled cat, with his shoulders hunched and hackles raised. Arthur beamed.

It was glorious.

*

Merlin sighed at him and rubbed his face, rucking his hair up into an even more unruly mess. “This is how it’s always going to be with you, isn’t it? Just barging in whenever and wherever, making yourself at home in my life,” Merlin said and swept his hand at where Arthur was poking through the holdall he’d dropped next to Merlin’s dresser.

Merlin’s eyes were dark in the firelight flickering over them and his face had this pinched expression to it that sapped all the bravado out of Arthur and made his shoulders slump. “I can take the guest room, I don’t mind. I just couldn’t— I had to get away from it all. But I can leave in the morning if you’d prefer. This was a stupid idea,” Arthur said quietly, frowning at the rug at the foot of the bed.

Merlin groaned. “No, you idiot, I don’t want you to leave. I don’t— You’re my friend, yeah? I’d feel horrible kicking you out on Christmas. Probably end up with only coal for presents. Actually, if you left now I’m certain I’d only end up with coal for presents. My mum would never forgive me and take everything back.” He quirked a wry smile as Arthur glanced up at him.

“You really don’t mind then?” Arthur perked up.

“God, you’re like a hopeful, excited golden retriever. Idiot. Of course I don’t mind. Just shocked and perplexed mostly. Why’d you come here, of all the places you could go?” Merlin stood there watching him, expression unreadable.

Arthur licked his lips. “You’re the most fun to torture, obviously.”

There were more, more reasons clamouring inside his chest, but they all got stuck in his throat, his tongue too loose and slow to articulate the things he couldn’t find words for.

You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You. You are. It scares me sometimes, when I look at you and my chest hurts and my skin feels like it doesn’t fit anymore.

Merlin groaned and grabbed a pillow off the bed and flung it at him. “I should make you sleep downstairs for that, you know. My mum really wasn’t having you on about that by the way, the heating’s all buggered in the guest room. It’d serve you right if you froze to death overnight. But then my mum might get arrested for treason, so I guess you’re in luck.”

Arthur stuck his tongue out at him. “I can explain to your mum in the morning, if you’d like. About… well, everything.” Arthur felt suddenly, inexplicably embarrassed and glanced at Merlin out of the corner of his eye, wrong-footed and uncertain about what Merlin truly thought about any of it. For all Merlin was a constantly blathering open book, there were some things that even Arthur couldn’t tell, things that he held impossibly close to his chest.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll talk to her.” Merlin sighed and flopped onto the bed, snuggling under the covers with a contented little moan like a purring cat. “She won’t believe either of us at this point anyway. It’ll take forever, but she’ll get over it eventually. We should really just take her entire romance collection out to the bonfire tomorrow and burn them all for putting these ideas into her head. She’s 100 percent convinced we’re living in one of those novels now.”

Arthur paused midway into pulling his shirt off. “Bonfire?”

“Welcome to Christmas in Ealdor, Arthur.” Merlin grinned up at him, only his face peeping out from underneath the well-worn blankets, and then seemed to notice Arthur was changing and flipped over onto his other side. “Now let’s try and get some sleep,” he said and fussed unnecessarily with his pillow.

Arthur slipped quickly into his fleece pyjama bottoms and t-shirt and then paused, looking at his phone, before turning it off completely and chucking it into the bottom of his bag. For once in his life, he was going on holiday from everything and everyone for a few days and his father would just have to accept the fact that the country could more than survive without its prince for one Christmas. It might be selfish, but frankly Arthur was able to choose so few things for himself — and had to fight tooth and nail for the ones he did pick — and all he wanted was to have this one holiday and spend it with Merlin like a normal person, which he hadn’t even realised he’d been yearning for until he got here.

Arthur climbed into the bed cautiously, Merlin’s back a stiff line next to him.

It wasn't even that this was all that different for them — they'd passed out next to each other loads of times and Arthur was never afraid to throw his arm around Merlin and ruffle his hair or make himself at home in Merlin's flat.

But this was different and intimate and real in a way it hadn't been before and Arthur wasn't exactly sure what to make of it.

He drifted off slowly, almost despite himself, his thoughts running in circles.

 

***

 

Dimly, Arthur registered a woman’s voice in the background — “Boys, going to make breakfast now! Oh!” — and giggling and a swiftly shut door, but Arthur was very warm and very comfortable and saw no reason to let such things disturb him.

But then there was a deep rumble behind him that reverberated through Arthur’s back and soft puffs of breath on his neck as a much too familiar voice mumbled, “Mum?” and Arthur’s brain lurched into consciousness kicking and screaming against the intrusion, but too shocked to do much else. Merlin’s long body was plastered down his back, his arm thrown over Arthur’s chest and knees jammed into the crook of Arthur’s, and Arthur could feel the slight scratch of hair where both their shirts had ridden up and the fuzz on Merlin’s belly was rubbing into the dip at the base of Arthur’s spine.

And Merlin’s cock. That was there too, half-awake and eager in the morning, and tucked snugly into the curve of Arthur’s arse, a plump, pleasant intrusion that Arthur only barely stopped himself from arching back against like a cat. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck.

Merlin humped forward slightly, snuggling in and borrowing and oh god— Arthur whined at the friction even through their clothes, the pressure and shape growing more insistent against his arse, and wriggled a bit, helplessly, and just like that Merlin went completely rigid behind him with a vehement, muttered, “Shit.”

Arthur determinedly kept his eyes shut and concentrated on his breathing as Merlin slowly disentangled himself, inch by excruciating inch, and practically ran from the room, cursing to himself, “Bloody buggering fuck.” Arthur rolled over onto his front and screamed into his pillow, turned on and frustrated and still bone-dead tired after driving across the country in the middle of the night.

He was finally drifting back off to his own rambling over analysis of Merlin’s reaction — interested cock? check. cursing and fleeing from the scene of the crime? also check. meaning? fuck if he knew. — when he heard the door open and the soft pad of feet back towards the bed and then an impatient shake at his shoulder.

“Wha’ time is it?” Arthur grumbled into the pillow.

“Half ten. Come on, brekkie’s ready.”

Arthur flopped onto his back and rubbed at his face, groaning. And then he smelled the greasy scent of meat and heaven and his mouth actually started watering. “Wha’s da?” he moaned.

“Oh god, you’re drooling into the pillow. That’s my pillow, you pillock! Here, here, wake up you bloody tosser.” And Arthur suddenly found himself half-heaved up and with a steaming cuppa shoved in his hand.

“Nnnnn,” he sighed into the mug, already feeling more alert. Milk and sugar, exactly the way he liked it, which Merlin always made fun of him for (“Christ, Arthur, how have you not turned into one giant lump of sugar, your sweet tooth”) but always got right anyway, so really, he was just a dirty, little enabler. Arthur smiled up at him. “Thanks,” he said, pleased.

Merlin huffed. “Will you cooperate now? I happen to know there’s a whole heap of bacon and sausage and everything else waiting for us downstairs.”

Bacon.

“Yes, bacon, now come on.”

Arthur trailed blearily after Merlin, grinning at the way Merlin’s fuzzy dragon feet skidded on the hardwood stairs and his pyjama bottoms were slung low on his hips, over his tight little arse, which seemed very grippable at the moment, like it was just the right size for both of his palms.

His friends were horrible people to encourage his subconscious in this line of thought, and he desperately needed more caffeine before he blurted out something utterly embarrassing in front of Merlin’s mother — and got himself summarily rejected on Christmas no less.

Hunith smiled widely at them when they padded into the kitchen, Arthur sipping his tea and drooling at the absolutely massive fry-up she was serving onto plates. Eggs, bacon, at least three different types of sausage that he could see, tomato, toast, beans, bubble and squeak, and it all looked amazing. He wanted to bathe himself in it and his stomach gave a huge growl and Hunith laughed.

“Good morning, Arthur! I hope you slept well,” she said as he wandered towards the stove and the kettle, hoping to brew a second cup to eat with breakfast.

An ancient, cranky old cat with unseeing eyes and thinning fur growled at him from its bed next to the stove and Arthur jumped back straight into Merlin, who grabbed him by the hips before dropping his hands like they were on fire.

Merlin coughed. “Don’t mind, Kilgharrah. He’s just grumpy in his old age.”

The cat blinked at them a few times, then, seemingly content with whatever was going through his little cat brain, curled his head back down into the bedding.

“Strange thing,” Arthur muttered.

When Arthur tried to sit down at the table, the cat started yowling again, growling ferociously in Arthur’s general direction. “Erm.”

“What the fuck, Kil?” Merlin turned towards Arthur. “I don’t think he wants you to sit there.”

“What?” Arthur asked incredulously.

“I don’t know. He gets these weird things in his head sometimes, just humour him.”

“He’s a cat, Merlin, a cat,” Arthur said, but started scooting his chair away from Kilgharrah anyway, whose growls lessened, but would start up again as soon as Arthur stopped moving. “I swear to god,” he muttered and shoved his chair right up next to Merlin’s, as far away from the cat as possible.

Kilgharrah meowed at them and went back to sleep and Arthur rolled his eyes. Only Merlin would have the weirdest cat in the whole of Wales.

Then, of course, Hunith came up to the table with the most glorious plates laden with food to see both of them scrunched up together at one end, bumping shoulders, and she nearly swooned.

Merlin groaned. “Goddamn it, Kil. You happy now, you little shit?” he turned around to hiss at the cat under his breath.

Kilgharrah only purred.

Over breakfast Hunith explained how she’d put the turkey in soon and they’d spend the afternoon cooking and have an early dinner, before heading into town for the annual Christmas Eve festivities.

Arthur blinked at the two of them. “Let me get this straight,” he said between giant mouthfuls of perfectly greasy, delicious meat and eggs and everything that was good in the world. “Every year you have a giant fry-up and then spend the rest of the day cooking for another massive meal before heading into town where there will be even more food? And tomorrow will be the same?”

Hunith blushed. “Well, I know it’s probably nothing like you’re used to—”

“No, no, no! It sounds amazing. Perfect even. I was just wondering if I’d entered heaven somehow without realising it.”

And it was true. Although Arthur had had world-class cooks on hand at all times day and night his entire life, he hadn’t ever had this: a large home-cooked meal from someone who loved you, laboured over all day in a small, sunny, yellow kitchen, where everything was well-cared for, but not the newest or up-to-date, and the table had chips in it from years and years of use. And whilst Arthur certainly had the opportunity to order whatever he wanted for breakfast, his father’s pursed lips and disgruntled expression at anything so unhealthy as a fry-up, even on a holiday — “Arthur, we can’t set an example if we don’t stay healthy and active” — always put a damper on that sort of thing anyway. King Uther maintained a strict regimen.

Merlin snorted and gave him a mock-pat on the knee. “Welcome to Ealdor.”

*

Arthur was fairly certain he’d entered the twilight zone, or some kind of second-level of being in nirvana. He’d spent the entire day in the kitchen with Merlin and Hunith, listening to them blast Christmas music and banter and laugh and food, always more food, a constant stream of peeling and dicing and measuring and baking, with repeated stops for snacks, until they’d sat down to a feast large enough for ten men, not just the three of them, and Arthur had stared, godsmacked, until Merlin had whispered to him that they ate the leftovers tomorrow, so his mum could relax on Christmas Day and go around to donate the extra to anyone in town who was sick or needed any kind of help that year. Hunith did not like to see anyone go hungry on Christmas.

The whole process was kind of alien and wonderful to him, even if the vegetable peeler was clearly a vengeful spirit in disguise and he’d cut himself no less than eight times in the process. But Hunith had insisted that he help, it was part of tradition after all, and it was fun, despite the fact that Merlin had nearly fallen down laughing at his plaster covered hands and even Hunith had giggled a bit at his complete ineptitude in the kitchen.

It was a small price to pay, he supposed.

*

At one point, Hunith sent Merlin off to fetch more eggs, shooing him out the door to the Williams’ down the road, and Hunith grinned at Arthur crookedly. “Their hens lay the best eggs.”

Arthur smiled shyly, not having the first sodding clue about hens or egg laying or anything of the sort. Horses he could talk. Hounds. But farming was completely beyond the scope of his experience.

Hunith laughed and set him back to dicing (slowly and excruciatingly, such as his skills were) and hummed to herself to the carol playing softly on the radio.

After a moment, Arthur paused. “Thank you for taking me in like this, by the way. I've never had a normal Christmas, quiet, just family. It’s… nice.” Arthur bit his lip and tried to concentrate on his task.

“Of course, dear, you’re always welcome in this house.” Hunith smiled at him.

“It’s… I’ve been told Christmas was never the same after my mum. It’s as if my father is still trying to fill the gap she left behind with duty and people and everything else,” Arthur said quietly and he wasn’t even truly sure why, just that Hunith had a way about her that made him comfortable.

Hunith was quiet for a moment. “I know it’s probably not my place, I mean, what do I know, I’m a veterinary assistant in a small village who grew up on a sheep farm, but the loss of someone like that— Well, your father has done his best, despite the circumstances and the pressures. He must be so proud of the way you’ve come out.”

Arthur smiled weakly. “I hope so.”

Hunith turned towards him, a soft, fond smile on her lips that reminded him so much of Merlin in that moment. “Oh, love, he is, I can assure you. He might not express it well, but he has to be, of that I’m certain. You're a good man and you truly want to make a difference, make people's lives better, and you will. The way Merlin talks about you, the ideas you two come up with, I can already tell that you'll make a great king one day, be someone that people look up to and admire. He couldn’t have gotten a better son.”

Arthur swallowed hard and ducked his head, throat tight with the unaccustomed praise. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Hunith patted his hand. “It’s nothing but the truth. I’m just happy to see the two of you together, as you should be. Never heard Merlin kick up such a fuss about anyone before he met you. I could see it from the very beginning, how you two look at each other when you think the other isn’t looking. And the way you worked together in your graduate programme? Your designs were so lovely.”

“We do work well together,” Arthur said, laughing to himself. For a certain definition of working well together, anyway. They'd debated (or, depending on which of their friends were asked, bickered like an old married couple or given cats and dogs a run for their money with the sounds of their growling) every single aspect of their design; and yet, after it all, their ideas had combined to make something actually rather brilliant and their advisor had been over the moon.

Arthur had never said it aloud, but what he really wanted was for the two of them to open their own firm, using their skills to help cities around the country plan better, more sustainable, developments. They were a great team when they weren't threatening to throttle each other and, if Arthur were completely honest, he couldn't ever see himself working that closely with anyone else.

But for now he was following Merlin to this architecture firm that was winning all sorts of green awards and he left his plans to simmer in the back of his mind.

“That you do.”

Arthur peeked at her out of the corner of his eye. “He talks about me?”

Hunith put her spoon down and giggled. “Oh god, yes, always ‘Arthur this’ and ‘Arthur that’ and ‘Today we did this’! And that scarf, the one you gave him, I knew he couldn’t have bought something that nice for himself, I thought he was going to accidentally hang himself in his sleep one day, the way he never takes the bloody thing off! Always snuggling into it, the daft boy, and he looked so sad when he had to wash it that first time. It was the cutest thing.”

And for a moment Arthur let himself grin back, glowing and heart stuttering, and he let himself hope, just maybe, just a bit.

*

Later, Arthur was in the bathroom with Merlin, perched on the edge of the bathtub whilst Merlin searched the cabinets for more plasters. Arthur eyed the curve of his spine appreciatively and cocked his head to the side with a small smirk.

"So you haven't told her yet?"

"It's like telling a four year old that Santa isn't real and kicking a puppy at the same time. So, no, I haven't been able to do it yet,” Merlin grumbled and straightened, turning to Arthur. “Now give me your hand, you great big useless child.”

Merlin yanked at his hand and muttered to himself irritably, but there was a blush high on his cheeks and Arthur’s belly fluttered at the contact in the small space, just catching a hint of the scent of Merlin’s hair where his head was bowed over Arthur’s hand.

*

After dinner, once the table was cleared and food neatly packed away, Hunith clapped her hands together and grinned at them. “Now before we go into town, I have something to give you both!”

Merlin groaned. “No, Mum, please, not this year. Please,” he whined, colour suffusing his face.

Arthur glanced cautiously between Hunith’s big smile and Merlin’s glower, intrigued, but also very afraid of the glint in Hunith’s eye when she’d said she had something for them both.

“Now, Merlin, it’s tradition. Every year,” she said and swept out of the room towards the Christmas tree.

“Your yearly chance to humiliate me, you mean,” Merlin grumbled mutinously, trudging after her, Arthur in his wake.

Two shiny red packages in hand, she blinked at them both where they stood in the entryway. And looked up, and back down, and made no move to relinquish the gift-wrapped bundles from her chest.

“Well?” Merlin asked.

She looked up over their heads again pointedly and then back down, again, smiling widely.

Arthur glanced up at the ceiling and heard Merlin’s strangled hiccup beside him as he stared. “Mum,” Merlin squeaked.

It was an innocuous little bundle hanging from the ceiling, really. Innocent and small. Nothing more than twigs and a few berries. And yet Arthur’s mouth went dry whilst his heart startled into overdrive, pumping wildly as if his blood was no longer sure of which direction it was supposed to run and tried to go everywhere all at once.

Christ. Fucking mistletoe, of all bloody things. Arthur’s hands clenched into fists at his side, nails biting sharply into his palms as he squeezed, and Arthur looked back down into Merlin’s huge blue eyes where he’d frozen to a complete standstill next to Arthur like some sort of lost baby fawn. But Merlin was panting slightly, blush darkly staining his cheeks, and he had really, really long eyelashes, Arthur noted absently, and a quick pink tongue where it darted out to swipe his bottom lip. Arthur had always thought they were lovely lips, actually.

Arthur carefully lifted his hand and stroked his thumb softly across Merlin’s cheek, until he was cupping the side of his neck, his fingers buried in Merlin’s hair, and Merlin made a small noise in the back of his throat, eyes darting all over Arthur’s face as his lips parted, and Arthur had to kiss him in that instant. Even if it was only the mistletoe and Merlin brushed it off later, he couldn’t deny the way his nerves thrummed where they touched. And, he thought, maybe Merlin felt it too, the warm puff of his indrawn gasp on Arthur’s lips as Arthur leaned in and pressed their lips together, savouring every little whimper as Merlin’s hands clutched at his chest and his back arched under the onslaught and Arthur licked slowly into his mouth, dizzy and breathless with pent-up energy.

With a jerk, they both snapped back to reality and moved apart as Hunith started clapping madly by the tree. Arthur blushed furiously and looked everywhere but at either of them. Dear god.

Merlin giggled nervously and shook his head. “Mistletoe. Right.”

And in a daze Arthur found himself in possession of a shiny red package full of lord knew what and with strict orders to get ready to go into town and stumbled after Merlin on shaky legs.

He couldn’t stop his small smile from growing as he watched Merlin practically walk into the door to his room when he failed to turn the handle properly. Maybe maybe maybe, his blood seemed to whisper to him in time to the pulse in his veins.

*

After much awkward dance where they both blushed too much to even look at each other properly, Arthur found himself staring at his reflection in consternation.

Merlin looked over and cackled.

“Like you look much better in that— that thing!” Arthur pouted.

“I can’t believe she found one that could fit you! I thought I’d be the only one and have to listen to you mock me all night. I wonder who she knitted yours for.”

Arthur turned to look at Merlin with disbelieving eyes. “She made these?”

Merlin nodded solemnly. “Oh, yes. She makes them for everyone, every year. She and her friends. They use all local sheep’s wool and they dye it themselves.”

Arthur looked back down at himself. “This is the most heinous shade of green I’ve ever seen. And the tree is lopsided. And your Santa looks like the devil!”

Chuckling, Merlin shrugged. “I think they do it on purpose. Try to outdo each other in who can come up with the ugliest design.”

“Mithian and Elena would be in heaven. We’ll have to commission her to make the most hideous jumpers she can think of next year and give it to them as a surprise.”

Merlin smiled hesitantly. “Yeah. Next year.”

Hunith knocked on the door. “Hi, boys, don’t you just look wonderful.” She grinned. “I was thinking, I know you were planning on wrapping Arthur up so that no one will recognise him, and I already called all the girls and told them how excited I was that you finally brought your boyfriend, James, home, so people will be expecting someone else. But then I remembered I had this from the charity play we did last year,” she said and brandished a brown wig a them. “No one will ever know it’s you!”

“Quite,” Arthur said, eyeing the ugly thing distastefully, and swallowed. It looked kind of like a mangled rat, if rat’s had long scraggly hair.

“Yes, Arthur, it’s perfect!” Merlin cooed, an absolutely wicked gleam in his eyes that promised blackmail and payback for everything ever, which in consideration of their friendship was rather a lot.

And that was how Arthur, the Prince of Wales, found himself trudging down the hill into town after Hunith and Merlin in a wig with a giant hat pulled down nearly over his eyes, strange brown tendrils peeking out, and a huge scarf wrapped all around him, covering most of his mouth, and feeling a lot like he was dressed for the Arctic, but mostly like an idiot.

An idiot in an orange hat and a green scarf and a puffy, blue coat.

Merlin fell into step beside him. “I dunno, Arthur, the brunet look is growing on me.”

“Cheeky bugger,” Arthur growled back. “Orange and green and blue, really, Merlin? Really?”

“It’s good for the soul, Arthur. Slumming it like the rest of us sometimes.”

“The quality of the clothing has nothing to do with whether or not someone has basic matching skills.”

Merlin giggled.

“You’re a horrible gay man,” Arthur grumbled, but Merlin only threw his arm around Arthur’s shoulders, unperturbed.

“Come on, James, it’s time for you to be introduced to the annual Christmas Eve bonfire. God only knows what my mother has been telling everyone about us.”

*

The bonfire was absolutely massive, sparks reaching high into the sky, and more people than Arthur would have ever guessed lived in Ealdor were there, singing Christmas carols whilst the children ran around in shrieking, giggling gaggles, playing tag and generally causing a ruckus.

People had set up tables full of snacks and mulled cider, which Merlin unceremoniously shoved into Arthur’s hands as he hurried through the introductions, but no matter how much he tried to avoid it, every single person they ran into had to stop Merlin and demand to meet this “new boyfriend that Hunith has been telling everyone about”.

At a table, where Merlin promised that his Aunt Alice made the world’s best mince pies, Arthur had to stop and stare. And drool, definitely that, as the golden, flakey crust sent steam into the cold night air, from where she had just bustled them to the table from the inn down the road.

“So good,” he moaned, closing his eyes in bliss, and Merlin laughed and tucked into his own.

“Well aren’t you two just precious,” an older woman with grey hair and a friendly smile said.

“Was just telling him that you make the best mince pie this side of Cardiff,” Merlin said and kissed her cheek. “And Uncle Gaius!” Merlin greeted another older gentleman, who raised a stern eyebrow at them and appraised them both.

“This must be the new boyfriend,” he said.

His wife chimed in, “Oh, you’ve done well there, Merlin, look at this one, much better than the last one you brought home. I just knew there was something off about him.”

Merlin pouted and Arthur blushed, again, for the millionth time that day, which was really starting to be an issue, as he peeked at Merlin’s embarrassed, wonderfully pink-cheeked face.

Then Alice was pinching Arthur on the cheek, saying, “I’d give him a snog myself, if I were in your shoes, Merlin.”

Merlin quickly pushed Arthur away, and he could do nothing but gape in mind-numbing distress as Merlin pulled them both over to where Will was sitting back aways from everyone, the one person that Arthur had actually met before. “Fucking Christ,” Merlin muttered.

“Yeah, your mum hasn’t shut up to anyone within earshot, mate. You’re both fucked this whole night. Everyone and their gran is going to want to pinch your cheeks.” Will snickered and then got a good look at Arthur’s face and promptly burst out laughing, huge guffaws that wracked his body, the twat. “Oh my god, it’s him. Of course it bloody is. And he’s in your mum’s wig, this is the best Christmas present ever, thank you, Merlin.”

Arthur clenched his fists around the cider, mourning wistfully that he hadn’t snagged another pie before they’d scurried away and quietly reminding himself that murdering Will, no matter how much he deserved it, would not be worth the scandal.

But he seriously considered it anyway.

“Shut it, Will. My mum’s got it in her head that we’re living out some kind of Mills & Boon romance. Arthur just needed to get out of the city.”

"Well are you at least getting a good shag out of it?"

Merlin choked and said in a high-pitched wail, "Why would you want me to shag him, you hate the monarchy, you should be opposed to all of this."

"I figure you should at least get something out of it, and then, one year soon, when you're watching this tosser here go down the aisle with some princess somewhere on telly, at least you'll be able to smirk at all your mates about how you once gave him the dicking of his life."

"I'm right here, you know." Arthur scowled at the bonfire, where another round of carols had started up.

"Oh, I know, believe me."

Self-satisfied arsehole, Arthur grumbled to himself.

*

They’d been sprawled out on one of the less crowded sides of the bonfire for a while, soaking the atmosphere in and rolling their eyes as every single person in town came by to introduce themselves (and, at least on Arthur’s part, ignoring the way Will spent the entire time gleefully taking the piss out of him), when Hunith came and plopped down on the log next to them.

“I don’t want to alarm you two, but a few men just came into the village and I think one of them has a professional looking camera.”

What?” Arthur whispered. Jesus bloody fucking Christ, were the paparazzi made up of blood hounds?

Merlin swore up a storm under his breath and his mum only patted his knee consolingly. “How’d they even know you were here?! I hadn’t even told Will you’d come.”

Arthur rubbed at his face tiredly. “My father has told his aides about, well, about us,” he said and flushed, scratching at the back of his neck. “Someone must have leaked something to the press. I know Morgana said that I was officially going to come down with the flu, but those vultures will come after any vague sort of lead. Even into a small village in Wales.”

Across the fire, he could see them now, camera in hand, as they were chatting with a few of the locals and someone waved vaguely in their direction and Hunith stood up abruptly.

There was an almost dangerous edge to her voice as she said, “Well, I’d leave this to me, boys. You’d both best be making your way back to the house. Take him the back way home, through the fields, Merlin. I think it’s time I go introduce myself.” And with that she strode off, leaving Arthur staring godsmacked in her wake.

“And if that don’t work, I have a handy crowbar in the boot of my truck,” Will said savagely and took a sip of his cider. Arthur stared at him. “What? I might not like you, your royal twatness, but Merlin here is one of our own and there’ll be hell to pay before I let one of those fuckwits spread slander about him.”

*

Merlin shoved Arthur back through someone’s yard and jumped over a fence, and Arthur got his foot stuck in it in the dark and tumbled down after him, landing in something particularly wet and foul.

Merlin,” he growled, “What the fuck are you dragging me through?”

Merlin peeked down at him in the muck innocently. “Er.” But before he could finish Arthur heard a telltale noise that even he could recognise.

“Merlin,” he whispered through gritted teeth, “Please tell me that you have not decided to take a shortcut through a pig sty.”

“No?” he said hopefully.

Merlin!

The giant pig continued to oink and roll in the mud across from them.

*

They eventually made it behind the tavern, crouching as Merlin assured him it was just a straight walk through the fields, once he’d checked the area was clear.

"Arthur! Arthur, look," Merlin whispered, leaning down to coo at something.

"Merlin," Arthur hissed back, "we don't have time for this."

Merlin picked something up and Arthur peered over his shoulder. The something was tiny and dirty and completely pathetic looking — and Arthur already knew he was doomed. "It's a lost kitten, Arthur. Look at it, it's so cold," Merlin said, clearly distressed, and scrubbed his hands over the dirty fur, whose colour Arthur couldn't even determine underneath the mud and god knew what else in the dim light.

The kitten mewled pathetically and curled into his arms, whilst Merlin whispered to it about where its mother was and Arthur decided that he hated everything as Merlin turned his big eyes on him and continued, "We have to take it home, Arthur. It's all alone in the snow on Christmas Eve, we can't leave it here."

"I highly doubt that the cat cares about Christmas, Merlin," he said, but batted at Merlin's hands when he tried to wrap the kitten up in his coat. "Give it here, as if your skinny arse has any warmth to spare."

As he took the dirty thing in his palms and tucked it underneath his coat so that just its nose peeped out, Merlin beamed.

Hate hate hate.

"You're getting my coat cleaned," Arthur snapped, but he rubbed at the kitten's tiny head and hoped its blood circulation was okay, and was pleased by the contented rumbling he could feel through his jumper.

*

Merlin burst in through the back door, yelling, “Mum! Mum, please tell me you’re back already! You got to walk home the normal way and all—” as Arthur slipped in behind him, still rubbing the kitten’s tiny head, and Hunith came in around the corner, panicked.

“What on earth, Merlin! What happened?”

Merlin pointed furiously at Arthur. “We found a kitten, Mum, behind the tavern, and it’s so weak and freezing, we need your help.”

Frowning and beckoning them to follow her into the kitchen, she threw a heap of towels into the airing cupboard and pulled out what looked like her work bag and set it on the table. “Let’s see what you’ve got there, Arthur,” she murmured as Arthur slowly pulled the cat out of his coat and handed her over. “Oh, look at you, wretched thing. You are absolutely filthy.”

The kitten blinked up at them with large, blue eyes and meowed petulantly at the loss of its cosy nest. Hunith hummed and put it down on the table as well, poking and prodding and cooing at the thing, until she gave a firm nod and smiled at them both. “Well, dears, her vitals sound all right, although she definitely needs to be taken in to Dr Jones come Monday, but some food and a warm bath and a safe place to sleep and she should be right as rain.”

Merlin heaved a huge sigh, the tension seemingly draining out of him. “She?”

As she looked up under her eyelashes, Hunith grinned slyly. “Congratulations! It’s a girl.”

Arthur wondered if there was a convenient cliff somewhere nearby for him to topple off of, but seeing the incredibly pained, red face Merlin was sporting, he felt much more charitable about the world.

“Now, why don’t you two go run a bath in the sink, not too warm mind, we don’t want her to catch a cold, and I’ll make sure she gets fed.”

*

Arthur eyed the sink suspiciously, glancing back and forth between the cat in Merlin's arms and the water. It was a tiny bath, really, for a horribly small, underfed animal, and, god knew, the kitten needed to get the muck off and into a warm bed for the night.

But it was a bath and a feline creature and although Arthur had never had a pet in his life, even he knew that putting those two things together was a bad idea.

Merlin scoffed. "Are you going to help me or just stand there like the useless posh git you are?"

Rolling his eyes, Arthur checked that the water in the sink was a good temperature and nodded his approval. "Well, let's get this over with then. You're holding her though — if the little beast is going to scratch anyone, it's going to be you."

"What, have to protect your delicate, fragile fingers, Arthur?"

Arthur held his hands out. "It's not my fault you poor peasants out here with the sheep don't understand the joys of proper manicures," he said, turning his nose up at the end and earning a snort of exasperation from Merlin.

"Right, well then. It's kitty bath time," Merlin said dubiously and slowly lowered the creature into the lukewarm water. "C'mon, kitty, the water's nice and warm for you, you'll feel so much better afterwards..." The kitty definitely seemed to find rather a lot to disagree with, however, and immediately started a fit, howling and hissing, as Merlin tried to hold her down in the water. "No, no! Bath good! Good bath! No scratching! Kitty!"

Arthur only just stopped himself from doubling over laughing whilst the water went absolutely everywhere, nearly soaking Merlin more than the cat — there couldn't possibly be that much water in the sink.

"Arthur!" Merlin hissed. "You're supposed to be helping wash her, you arse. Now get scrubbing."

“You know, someday I am going to be the king,” he muttered, but cautiously stepped forward anyway and pushed the old flannel Hunith had given him into the water. He couldn't help but giggle — manfully — as he sloughed off the mud and the kitten was reduced to the most pathetic, howling moans of dissatisfaction he had ever heard — especially from a creature so tiny and with such a high, whiney voice.

"It sounds like we're torturing her and performing some sort of Frankenstein-esque experiments on her poor, defenseless body," Arthur laughed. But at least she had stopped struggling, defeated in her torture to creating the world's most screeching racket instead.

Merlin was trying to shake water out of his eyes and hair without letting go of her. How had the cat managed to even get water up there?

Merlin admonished the animal, bending down to frown into her eyes, "Calmed down now, have we?"

"Little terror, isn't she? Just as uncooperative as her master." Arthur grinned smugly.

Merlin glared at him pointedly and then looked back at the cat. "We're going to have to work on your people differentiation skills. Arthur, the hideously inbred and dumb blond next to me, is the one you meant your claws for, I know, so make sure to aim for him in the future. He wouldn't have even noticed you to bring you back."

Watching Merlin natter on at the kitten, who was slowly revealing herself to be as white as the fresh-fallen snow outside (bloody hell, how much dirt had matted into her fur?), Arthur bit back the small and much too affectionate smile he could feel blooming as his chest did that warm, stuttering thing again.

Finally, after all the commotion and even a few drops of blood, courtesy of Merlin and tiny, sharp kitten claws, she was purring away happily, wrapped in a hot towel and cuddled into Merlin’s arms. And that picture was— Yeah. Yeah.

Arthur looked away and huffed, “Well, let’s get the newest Princess of the Realm tucked away somewhere to rest off her ordeal.”

“If I didn’t know you so well, I’d think you were jealous, Arthur. But knowing you, I’m just going to assume that the more grumpy and stroppy you are, the more the kitten must be growing on you.”

“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, Merlin,” Arthur grumbled and stomped back off towards the bedroom to check that the fire was laid properly.

*

“No, don’t leave her there, Merlin! It’s too close to the fire, she’ll burn up.” Arthur scowled and moved the pile of blankets back a bit and wrapped her up in them.

Merlin laughed. “Arthur, you’re fussing, oh my god, you’re worse than a mother hen,” he said, smacking at Arthur’s hands where he was trying to arrange the blankets more optimally.

Merlin clearly didn’t know the first thing about optimisation; he was a disgrace to their design programme and Arthur would make sure to bring it up with Professor Aglain the next time he saw him, another one of many complaints that Arthur had been compiling since they’d graduated: Professor, I fail to see how you could graduate Merlin with top marks when he can’t grasp the simple basics of blanket fort design and he never creates an adequate compost collection system in his city centre plans, and I know he looks rather like a cute, innocent startled animal when he turns his big eyes on you, but you should know better than to let that affect your judgement. Since it has certainly never affected mine, clearly.

Arthur glared at Merlin. “I’m not fussing, I’m just doing it properly since you apparently cannot.”

Merlin only laughed harder, the bastard, his eyes watering as he doubled over in his giggle fit. “A mother hen, Arthur. You are the perfect picture of it, I swear.”

Arthur finished with the blankets, satisfied, and said, “Well, I call first shower. You can just wait here for your turn.”

Whistling to himself, he grinned when he heard Merlin’s indignant squawk behind him as he left the room.

*

When Arthur came back, towel wrapped around his waist, Merlin seemed rather fascinated with everything but Arthur’s face, his gaze flickering around the room and back to Arthur’s chest level and away again, before he finally just huffed and announced, “Her name is Aithusa,” and scampered into the bathroom.

“What, did she announce that to you herself?” Arthur called to his back. “Aithusa.” He snorted to himself. “What kind of name is that anyway?” He peered down at the kitten all snuggled in her pile by the fire and she blinked up at him, purring.

Past experience told him there was no point in arguing these things with Merlin. If Merlin had decided the damned cat’s name was Aithusa, then nothing was ever going to change his mind; he was weirdly particular about some things like that, especially names. No matter how many times he’d told Merlin he couldn’t name Arthur’s favourite chair Hilda the Wildebeest (or Hildabeast), it hadn’t helped and now he couldn’t even think of the chair any other way.

Arthur could hear the water turn on from across the hall. After he dressed, he collapsed onto the bed and looked down at the scrawny ball of fur that had wandered over and crawled onto the bed and into his lap, scratching under her chin. "We're going to have to fatten you up, aren't we? You better not be like your saviour. No matter how much food I force on him it never seems to stick and we can't have that, now can we, you pathetic little thing."

When Merlin came back Arthur was disinterestedly reading a book and not looking at Aithusa where she'd snuggled down into his fleece pyjamas and was purring in his lap.

Merlin just looked at him in bemusement and collapsed on the other side of the bed. "All this kitten rescuing and running from paparazzi is exhausting."

There was a knock on the door and Hunith poked her head in, smiling at the two of them unbearably fondly, and said, “I mulled some wine while you boys cleaned up if you’d like to come down. I’m sorry you couldn’t stay at the festivities in town longer and I thought you might enjoy something nice before you went to sleep since it’s early yet.”

Merlin grinned sleepily up at her, his eyes all crinkled and shiny in the firelight, and Arthur’s heart stuttered for a second and he swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry at the sight Merlin made, all cuddled on his side in his silly pink t-shirt and well-worn plaid pyjama bottoms, with his face peeking up from the pillow. “That’d be great, Mum, thanks,” Merlin said with a yawn, stretching his back out and extending all his limbs like he was one of Aithusa’s lost siblings. Arthur just stared sort of dumbly at the way Merlin’s spine arched and his toes wiggled, which was shockingly adorable and a really strange thing for him to fixate on.

Mad Welsh sheep farmers and their weird little towns were officially making him barmy, that must be the reason for his collapsing mental state.

“How’s that sound, Arthur?” Hunith asked.

Arthur shrugged at her helplessly, having lost the plot completely. “That’d be lovely, thank you, Hunith.”

Mulled wine. Yes. Right.

*

Arthur felt almost unbearably warm and content scrunched up against Merlin on the love seat in the living room, Hunith having handed them huge glasses (goblets? goblets seemed a more than appropriate title for the size of them really) of spice-laden wine that left him flushed and muzzy around the edges and laughed at Arthur's over-eager response to her mention of the last of the chocolate biscuit dough she could put in the oven.

As the smell of the biscuits baking in the kitchen and the wine and the fresh pine of the Christmas tree permeated everything, Arthur sort of melted into the soft couch behind him, knots he hadn't realised he'd had unwinding for the first time in god knew how long.

It was nice, in a homey way that Arthur wasn't used to at all and left a bit of a bittersweet ache under his ribs for what could've been, in another life. But if this was where he got to end up then he supposed it wasn't a half-bad route that had taken him here, and he turned his head and smiled up at Merlin dopily, rubbing his cheek into the fabric behind him. "Your mum's amazing. Mulled wine and chocolate biscuits? I think I've entered heaven."

Merlin giggled, more than a bit pink-cheeked himself. "Like you don't have minions you can order around at any time day or night to provide you with all your heart's desires."

"'S not the same, not at all."

Merlin shook his head fondly. "Incorrigible, you are. You're going to be stealing my mum next and I won't have that, I want you to know. She's half in love with you already."

Arthur preened. "Everyone loves me. I'm the loveable...est."

"God, your ego is big enough for the whole kingdom," Merlin said, but he sounded far too happy for Arthur to pay any attention to his words and Arthur let Merlin's voice settle comfortably inside him, all snuggly and warm.  "You better watch out, by the way, this couch eats people. If you're not careful, you'll fall asleep on it, lured by its many charms, and wake up trapped in the otherworld. Or wherever it is that people who're eaten by couches disappear to," Merlin continued, with a mock-grave shake of his head.

"Can't fall asleep, there're biscuits coming, I can smell them."

When Hunith bustled back into the room, with gooey biscuits and refills of their wine, they put on the telly and turned off the lamps, lulling themselves with It's a Wonderful Life and the sparkling tree, all decked out in fairy lights and garlands.

Arthur couldn't really think of a better way to spend Christmas Eve and shifted closer to Merlin under the blanket Hunith had thrown over them and allowed himself to study Merlin's profile and lips and soft-looking hair and let himself yearn for the first time in a long time for this feeling, whatever it was, that made his breath catch whenever Merlin did something ridiculous, or beautiful, or even when he made Arthur's blood simmer with his constant arguing about bloody everything.

Arthur would cherish it all, he realised, if he were allowed to and he bit his lip and tried to focus on the movie and not his chaotic thoughts or the way Merlin's toes were curled against his calf and his head had slipped onto Arthur’s shoulder like it was nothing at all.

As the credits rolled, Hunith changed the channel to some other movie and kissed the tops of their heads as she walked by to go upstairs to bed. There was such affection in her eyes, the way she smiled at them both, that Arthur had to blink his own a few times to clear them as he gruffly told Merlin, "I really am going to steal your mum though."

Merlin grinned up at him, his eyes complete slits by this point and his hair mussed and cheek creased from where he'd been pressed up against Arthur's shoulder. "I knew it."

Arthur shifted subtly closer until they were snuggled up together down their whole sides and turned back to the movie, some other classic he could never remember the name of, not that it mattered when he wasn't absorbing a single word of it — not when Merlin's warm body was there against his and he could smell Merlin's clean skin with a faint hint of soap and mulling spices and Merlin was practically purring in contentment, the soft hum sending vibrations up Arthur's arm.

Aithusa had followed them down the stairs earlier, the soft patter of kitten feet on hardwood behind them, and she was now curled up on a pillow next to the tree by the fire and Arthur clenched his fists against the thought that he wanted this every year, every Christmas: a quiet home full of warmth and laughter and ridiculous Emrys’ and their strays.

He wondered if they’d adopt him too and figured they probably already had.

*

As the movie ended, Arthur tried to nudge Merlin up, to go to bed, but Merlin was all giggly and pliant from the wine and he nuzzled into Arthur’s shoulder and peeked up at him through his eyelashes and Arthur licked his lips and swallowed dryly, watching as Merlin’s breath hitched and his eyes traced Arthur’s every movement.

“Merlin?” he whispered, blood thudding thickly through his veins as the moment stretched out between them, the room warming around them, and it seemed to Arthur that he was standing on the edge of something new and terrifying, but that he’d never wanted anything more. That maybe this had been coming all along, as inevitable as breathing, they just had to jump.

“Yeah?”

“I—” And then Arthur surged forward and kissed him, Merlin’s mouth soft and sweet with wine on his, tearing little desperate gasps from Merlin’s lips as he clutched frantically at Arthur’s arms.

This. This was everything and Arthur groaned helplessly at Merlin’s tongue hot and slick against his own and gripped Merlin’s back tightly.

And just as suddenly Arthur found himself pushed back as Merlin scrambled to the opposite end of the couch, panting and shaking and wide-eyed, and then he was gone, up the stairs, leaving Arthur staring after him.

Arthur felt all the air leave him like he’d been kicked by a mule. He’d been so sure this time; he’d been certain that Merlin was looking back at him in the same way for once and he gasped at the gut-tearing pain that ripped through him. How could he have gotten it so wrong?

And without conscious thought, only terrible, painful desperation, Arthur tore after him.

He couldn’t finally let himself want, let himself believe, to have Merlin run away.

He couldn’t.

*

Arthur found Merlin in his bedroom, curled up in a ball with his head on his knees.

"Merlin, Merlin, I'm sorry. I know you don't fancy me like that and I shouldn't've— I let myself hope for a second there that maybe you did. Between the mistletoe and everything, I just— I'm sorry, I'm such an idiot." Arthur’s voice trembled, harsh and soft with emotion.

Merlin was laughing bitterly into his hands. "Don't play with me like that Arthur. Just don't."

"Play with you?!"

“I can’t, Arthur.”

“You can’t what?” Arthur said, high-pitched and scraped out of him.

Merlin unfolded himself, eyes red-rimmed, and waved at him. "You're… You're you and you wormed your way into my life and now I can't imagine living in a world where we don't talk every day, even though I spend half the time wanting to throttle your arrogant arse, and I—” Merlin's voice broke. "I can't be another notch on your belt, Arthur. Another date you play with for a while and then move on from as soon as you're bored, like you always do. Even now you're running away screaming from even the thought of marrying someone, being serious about someone. And, yeah, I’m convenient and here and it’s Christmas, but I just can't, Arthur, I can't."

Merlin’s eyes were huge and more than a little desperate as his chest heaved and he kept clenching his hands at his side. He looked like he was ready to run or punch Arthur, possibly both at the same time and Arthur really hoped he didn’t, because he would probably fall on his face if he tried.

The urge to tackle Merlin to the bed rose hysterically inside his chest — all he wanted was to pin this gorgeous, impossible, unbelievably dense man down and not let him up again until he saw sense.

God, even with his hair rucked up like the backend of a hedge and his face a blotchy mess of belligerent colour, Arthur had never wanted anyone more. He was so, so fucked.

"How thick are you? You think I spend all my time with you, pestering you every day, for no real reason at all? Yes, you are my best mate, but it’s not because I was never interested in anything more, but because I’ve taken whatever I can get since you’ve insisted on parading an endless string of boyfriends who couldn’t be more different from me in front of my face since day one. You think this is just about getting in your pants? Are you blind? Every single person we know complains about how I’ve been following you around like a lost puppy since I met you. So, no, this is not about you being another notch on my belt, because I already love you, you idiot, and I have for a long time. And I want to fuss over you, because you're rubbish at taking care of yourself and you forget to eat or bring a coat or a million other things that make me just want to wrap you up safely somewhere. And I’ll probably end up sounding like a bloody fishwife and Morgana will mock me mercilessly and I won’t even care because you’ll be doing the exact same thing. How can anyone else stand a chance when I spend half my time thinking and talking about you?” Arthur was practically shouting by the end, desperate and unhinged in a way he’d never been before, but he had to get this through Merlin’s thick skull. All of it.

Merlin was staring up at him, jaw working up and down. “Oh my god. You're serious.”

"Of course I'm fucking serious! Why do you think I willingly spend so much of my time arguing with you?!"

And then Merlin was scrambling desperately off the bed, jumping on top of Arthur and wrapping his legs around his waist whilst peppering kisses all over his face. “You idiot, why didn’t you ever say— I had no idea you were ever interested in me like that at all!”

Arthur growled and tumbled him back down onto the bed. “You, Merlin Emrys, have no right to be calling me an idiot,” he said, tugging at Merlin’s shirt and nipping at his jaw. “All this time, Mordred this and Edwin that, driving me bloody mental with your stupid face and big eyes and lips and always going on and on about how you had such wonderful boyfriends. You stupid, stupid man.”

Merlin arched against him, gasping. “But you never said anything! I thought you were hopelessly out of my league and I was trying to—” Merlin shuddered as Arthur palmed his belly and traced the trail of hair there “—to distract myself. Find anyone who might be able to take my mind off you.”

Arthur finished divesting Merlin of his shirt and went to work on his pyjama bottoms, licking and biting at his neck whilst Merlin wriggled his hips and whimpered. “Bloody. Stupid. Man. I’ve been in love with you for years!” he grunted with a sharp bite at the curve of Merlin’s shoulder.

Merlin looked down at him then, grin splitting his face as his eyes crinkled, and he said softly, “I love you too.”

If possible, Arthur’s chest swelled with even more affection for the fucking stubborn man underneath him. He couldn’t even imagine what soppy idiocy was written across his face as he hurriedly yanked off his own clothes and Merlin giggled and shivered, all pink and still slightly tipsy and long and lean and everything Arthur had ever wanted.

“More naked. Less talk. Now,” he said, swooping back down onto Merlin, determined and unbelievably happy.

Of course, just when Arthur was getting lovingly acquainted with Merlin’s navel and hip bones and had designs on making his way farther south, where Merlin’s cock was jutting proudly and needing a much more thorough exploration from Arthur, Arthur realised two things: he’d left the door open a crack and there was something at his feet that was most definitely not Merlin, and he broke out in hysterical laughter. "Merlin, Merlin, your damned animal is licking my toes, oh my god. It’s licking my toes!” he gasped.

Merlin pushed himself up and stared down at Arthur’s feet and yelled, “Aithusa! Get off the bed,” as Arthur kicked helplessly and she jumped out of the way.

And then ran up his back and sat on him.

Arthur flopped over and pushed at her, but she was apparently determined that she wanted attention now. “I’m going to throw you back out in the snow, you horrid beast, get off!”

Merlin sat up and tried to grab her, but she just ran to the other side of the bed, crouching down like she was ready to pounce, and Merlin growled, “Come here, you, it is time for you to go outside.”

When Merlin lunged, she jumped off the bed and Merlin's flaccid prick bobbed between his thighs as he ran around after Aithusa yelling and Arthur couldn't help but laugh until tears welled up in his eyes and he had to put his head in his hands. "I love you, you ridiculous man, but if we never have sex because some stray you brought home refuses to leave us alone, I will never forgive you."

And really, it should be illegal to feel this unbelievably fond of a man running around a room, bare-arsed, after a kitten, especially when said running around was preventing shagging from happening, but Arthur did and couldn’t stop himself from beaming as he realised, it was just fine, just like this. There was no rush.

They had all the time in the world.

*

Merlin finally slammed the door shut and shivered from where he was huddled. "'S Cold."

Arthur rolled his eyes fondly and heaved himself up, sliding his hands around Merlin's waist. "Christ, your skin is frigid. How many times have I told you to fatten up," he said, pinching at Merlin's middle.

Merlin merely made a small, distressed noise and buried his nose in Arthur's neck. "'S not my fault you're the one with all the warm blubber in this relationship."

"Blubber," Arthur grumbled and pinched harder. "I'm fighting fit! I should leave you to warm up all by yourself for that."

"You won't. You love my skinny arse — and I love your nice big round one, so really, it works out well for the both of us."

Laughing, Arthur murmured into his ear, "How about we get your wee bum into a nice warm shower then, hmmm?"

"Mmm, sounds nice," Merlin said with a dreamy sigh. “We already had showers tonight though.”

“Doesn’t matter. Best way to warm up. And nothing like getting clean before getting really, thoroughly dirty.” Arthur waggled his eyebrows and Merlin grinned.

“Well. When you put it like that.”

*

Arthur watched the water slide over Merlin’s skin, water-soft and slick, and couldn’t stop himself from tracing the path it made down Merlin’s spine, and he rasped into Merlin’s ear, “Brace yourself,” and followed down the curve of Merlin’s back with his tongue, until he was on his knees and Merlin was shivering and propping himself against the wall with his arms.

He couldn’t stop touching Merlin, now that he was here, finally here, and all Arthur’s to touch. And there was so much pale skin in front of Arthur and downy hair on those impossibly long legs that had always driven Arthur mad with lust. But now he could touch them, stroke them, and he did, groaning, and slid his hands all the way up until he was cupping Merlin’s arse, which fit just as perfectly in his hands as he’d always imagined it would, small and round and wonderful. Arthur bit at him, sucking possessive kisses onto his arse as Merlin shook and whimpered above him.

Arthur,” Merlin groaned like it was torn out of him.

“Mine,” Arthur growled and grasped Merlin’s cheeks tightly in his hands and pushed until he could thumb at the tight, furled hole there and set his mouth to it, tongue and spit and fingers, Merlin banging on the wall above him.

“Fuck, Arthur. Fuck.

Arthur reached around and pulled at Merlin’s cock in time with the thrusts of his tongue, moaning as Merlin couldn’t seem to decide whether to shove backwards or forwards and writhed helplessly in Arthur’s embrace and then finally came on a high-pitched whine, come painting the walls and arse fluttering around Arthur’s tongue.

Arthur fell back, tugging at his prick, whilst he watched Merlin pant helplessly on shaky, newborn legs. Then he turned and practically fell on Arthur, jamming them awkwardly into the bath, knees and elbows and limbs Arthur couldn’t even identify poking out everywhere, but it didn’t matter, none of it mattered, not the way his back was twisted up nor the knee in his rib, because Merlin was there and pushing Arthur’s hand out of the way and swallowing him down like he would die if he didn’t and Arthur’s head fell back as he hissed and jerked up into Merlin’s warm, perfect, perfect mouth.

He was so, so close and as he wriggled his hand down over Merlin’s arse and fingered the puffy, swollen rim there and Merlin moaned around his cock and squirmed helplessly, he closed his eyes and came deep in Merlin’s throat, flashes of every single other dirty act they had left to try behind his eyes.

*

Arthur sighed into the warm curve of Merlin’s neck, snuggling down, and then heard a soft thump and sighed.

"We're going to wake up with a cat between us, aren't we?"

Merlin giggled and wriggled his bum back into Arthur until he was comfortable in Arthur’s arms. “Maybe, yeah.”

“You’re lucky I love you.” Arthur harrumphed. “God knows what kind of zoo I’m going to end up with with you around.”

Merlin peeped at Arthur innocently over his shoulder. “I love you too?”

“You’d better.” Arthur paused hesitantly, thinking about the paparazzi skulking outside even now. “You know, later, this is going to go public and the few paps we saw today will be nothing compared to the swarm we’ll get then?”

Merlin hummed thoughtfully. “Yeah. Figure it’ll be worth it though, after that performance you put on in the shower. I’m going to need more than a few repeats,” he said, smirking into his pillow.

"So you don't mind all of that if you're getting a good shag out of it then? It's just about the shagging."

"Have you seen your arse? And your thighs, mmm, can't forget them. And your chest and your unfairly pretty, strong-jawed face. And well everything really, but don't let it go to your head. It has everything to do with your body and the shagging and nothing to do with your personality, obviously."

"I feel objectified."

"Good, you should. You are a prime specimen ripe for objectification. Just making sure you know your place in this relationship."

Arthur groaned and nosed at Merlin’s hair. “As long as you let me objectify you right back. It’s only about your legs, you know, and how long I’ve been imagining them thrown over my shoulders or wrapped around my waist.”

Merlin laughed happily. “We’ll definitely have to try that then. Glad we’re on the same page.” After a pause, he turned and gave Arthur a quick peck on the nose, looking into his eyes seriously. “And I know all about that, Arthur, I know. We have plenty of time to prepare and you aren’t getting rid of me now,” he said, and squeezed Arthur’s hand where their fingers were tangled together.

“Oh, good,” Arthur whispered, swallowing.

“Happy Christmas, Arthur.”

“Happy Christmas,” he said and fell asleep with as much of Merlin wrapped in his arms as he could get.

 

***

 

The next morning dawned warm and comfortable where they were snuggled together under the blankets — with a fluffy kitten tail right in Arthur’s face.

Arthur stretched slowly, enjoying the way all the kinks in his back stretched out completely and a deep well of contentment had taken up residence in his chest. He groaned as he rolled out of the bed and slipped his pants on, pulling at Merlin’s leg, where he flopped over uncooperatively.

“Come on, Merlin, I smell bacon!” he said and made his way over to his things, rifling through his clothes for something to wear, and then peeked over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow at the way Merlin was watching him intently. “What?”

"I finally get to ogle you openly and sexualise your body the way it deserves. Let me enjoy my moment here."

Arthur snorted. “Is that so?”

"Years, Arthur. Years of not staring at your gorgeous arse."

"And whose fault is that?"

"Yours," Merlin chirped.

Arthur groaned and rolled his eyes. "Just promise never to call my arse juicy or bootylicious."

Merlin cocked his head and frowned thoughtfully. "Oh, I don't know, Cenred might be on to something there," he said as he stood and made his way over. "Actually, I think when I looked up the definition of bootylicious the other day there was a picture of your arse." He gave Arthur's bum a good smack and groped lecherously at him, beaming up at Arthur over Arthur's shoulder when he tried to shake Merlin off and turn around to face him. "Beyoncé would be jealous."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Merlin," Arthur grumbled, his face turning red.

"Hmmm, I think I'm going to have to inspect this more thoroughly though. Daily even, until, you know, I can come to a properly educated verdict about who has the most bootylicious arse. It's an important scientific study."

"And you're more than willing to sacrifice yourself, I see." Arthur had given up trying to turn around and stared up at the ceiling and tried not to whimper as Merlin's hands slipped underneath his pants and he slid his thumbs down the sensitive skin of his crack, long fingers grabbing at handfuls of his arse.

Merlin hummed happily. "Well someone has to. For king and country and all that rot."

"I will deign to allow you to study my arse, every day if need be, under one condition: you never mention my father and my arse at the same time again."

With another smack, Merlin said, "Oi, cheeky. Test subjects should be seen and not heard, so you'd best be quiet."

And who was Arthur to argue when his pants were suddenly down and around his ankles and Merlin's fingers were becoming very familiar with his arse indeed.

*

Arthur groaned at the newspaper headline over the breakfast table, his cup of tea not nearly enough caffeine for him to handle this. But there it was, in big bold letters:

Prince on the Lam in Wales?

And there was even a blurry picture underneath of the two of them scampering off from the bonfire the night before, not that anyone would actually be able to identify them. He scanned the article and rolled his eyes at the speculation and gossip. He’d been right though, whoever had gotten the lead to follow him to Merlin’s village claimed “inside sources” at Buckingham Palace.

Cunting bastards, the lot of them.

Hunith caught sight of the paper and tsked, taking it away. “Don’t pay attention to any of that, dear. I talked to the constable last night, said they were bothering people and up to no good, and he promised to make sure that there would be no trespassers anywhere in the village today. They take one step out of line and they’ll find themselves in jail,” she said firmly.

Arthur smiled up at her. “Thanks.”

“Oh, it’s nothing, love. Happy Christmas.”

As they sat down to another giant breakfast and Hunith talked merrily about present opening and more carols and what they'd have for supper (and, Christ, how could they possibly stand to talk about eating more, they hadn't even finished this meal yet), there was a knock on the front door.

They all looked at each other warily and Hunith stood up and smoothed down her jumper and said, “I’ll get it.”

Arthur and Merlin hid around the corner and peeked in, although absolutely nothing could have prepared Arthur for the sight that greeted them when Hunith opened the door.

Hunith gasped, wide-eyed. King Uther was there, wool coat and cashmere scarf and leather gloves and all, saying, “I’ve been informed my son is here,” and sweeping into the house cautiously.

Arthur watched in shock as Morgana and Leon and a couple bodyguards trailed in after him, looking posh and important and desperately out of place.

*

Arthur stared at Leon dazedly as Hunith fluttered about and his father introduced himself politely. Merlin was still standing there with his jaw open.

"Leon?" he asked, not really sure about what. Mostly everything, actually.

"Well I wasn't very well going to miss this. And Morgana insisted I come over today. Since your father has decided you're as good as married, now he's breathing down her neck as well. Onto his next life project I suppose." But Leon looked more than happy to follow his sister around and bask in the royal madness that was their lives.

"He needs a better hobby."

Although Arthur couldn't really complain about the outcome, not when he had no idea if he'd have ever ended up here otherwise.

Morgana laughed and kissed both him and Merlin on the cheek. “Sorry, brother dear, I held him off for as long as I could, but he insisted that he would go get you himself if he had to. Christmas is for family.”

“Our father said that?”

“I was as shocked as you were. He was… surprisingly distressed that you’d run off.”

*

Uther hugged him gruffly and then held him at arm's length, studying him with narrowed eyes.

“Whilst I certainly appreciate the romantic gesture, slipping your guard to come to Wales? People own rifles out here, what if they decided to start a revolt with your head you've so kindly offered on a silver platter.”

Hunith pulled out one herself from seemingly nowhere. "I grew up on a sheep farm you know. They'd have to get through me first," she said with a fierce glint in her eye and a smile full of promise.

"Right. Well, then." And for once Uther actually sounded wrong-footed. "Be that as it may, you will never, ever do something this stupid again, do you understand? I don’t care how love-addled your brain is!”

Arthur cringed and nodded, chastised. “I’m sorry, Father. It won’t happen again.”

And then Uther turned on Merlin. “And you! If you are going to be with my son in any sort of capacity, then you will damn well come to dinner when asked and not cause a security catastrophe by making my bloody fool of a son chase after you.”

Merlin shook and nodded so hard that Arthur worried his neck would crack. “Yes, Your Majesty, absolutely. Yes.”

*

Later, Arthur curled up on the couch with Merlin and tried to ignore his growing horror at the way Hunith and Uther were bent over together and talking about Christmas and family and throwing pointed, knowing glances at him and Merlin and just generally plotting in a way that made Arthur supremely uncomfortable.

Merlin whimpered. “What are they doing? What could they possibly be planning?”

Morgana cackled evilly from the chaise across from them. “Oh you two are as good as married now. Look at the both of them, thick as thieves. Are you ready to be a queen, Merlin? I bet he's telling her about all the potential surrogates he's been researching.”

Leon coughed and tried not to laugh as Merlin choked and spluttered.

*

Arthur was definitely certain he’d entered a parallel universe when they sat down to a meal all together, his family as out of place as he’d ever seen them. But his father was pleasant and laughing and complimenting the food that Hunith had insisted on (“I can’t let you go back to London without a proper meal!”) and generally looking more at ease than Arthur could have ever imagined.

“So how exactly does a king sneak out of Buckingham Palace on Christmas Day and run off to Wales without anyone knowing, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Christ, was Hunith batting her eyelashes?

Merlin looked absolutely horrified and Arthur slipped an arm around his waist and tucked him into Arthur’s body so he couldn’t see the bewildering spectacle before them.

“Well, I had the staff tell our guests that we’d come down with the same terrible flu as my son and offer our condolences.” Uther smiled warmly.

Morgana leaned over and whispered, "I'd hide the mistletoe from them if I were you, Merlin," and Merlin paled.

Arthur did not want to know what the Boxing Day headlines were going to be tomorrow.

 

***