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And A Pukeko In A Ponga Tree

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It always stuns Arthur how different the weather is, just a half an hour up the coast. He and his father live in Karori, and while they have a nice house on the sunny side of the valley, rather than in the damp and mould-ridden pit that's the west side, it's often cold and it rains here more than anywhere else in the whole of Wellington, or so it seems, sometimes.

But they have a beach house, a bach, up the coast in Raumati South, where there are barely any markings on the roads and the tree lupins make Arthur's life a misery without some seriously heavy antihistamines, and they migrate up there every summer after Arthur's exams are done. His favourite bit of every beginning of summer is packing away his black and yellow tie, horrible school jersey and grey trousers, and getting some bloody boardies on.

Their house on the coast is a fairly modest thing, set back from the beach on a bit of land that's mostly dunes and ice plants and marram grass, and Arthur talks his father into letting him swathe the place in fairy lights the second they get there, so that it looks festive (and so that he gets to climb on the roof).

They spend the holidays around the house, occasionally ambling down to the shops. Arthur plays a lot of PlayStation, though he'd rather be back playing beach cricket with his mates in Oriental Bay. In fact, he'd rather be playing beach anything, anywhere, but he doesn't really know anyone down here, and Father stays mostly in his office.

They always stay in on Christmas day, and eat way too much steak, cooked stripy and bloody on the barbie, washed down with first lemonade, and then shandy, and then beer (Speights - if you're a fifth-generation Dunedin, old money, Otago Uni scarfie, like Arthur's father is, you drink Speights, even if you live in Wellington and make your money on the stock exchange) as Arthur got older. Then in the evening they always walk along the beach a bit, enjoying the late sunshine and the warmth. By the end of summer Arthur's feet are always blistered on the bottom from hot sand, and his bags are full of seashells and bits of black wood in interesting shapes.

Things change, in the summer after Arthur's sixth form exams. The owners of the bach next door subdivided their property over winter and built a littler house on the front end, the streetfront end. That in and of itself wouldn't make that much difference, but a woman and her son have moved in there, and the son is Arthur's age.

'Hello.' Someone tall is peering over the fence. Arthur, who's been sunbathing (read; lying in the garden reading the chem text for next year, with as little clothing and as much sunblock on as possible, attempting to catch some kind of breeze because the house is stuffy and awful inside), gets up for a closer look.

'Hi,' he says. It's a guy his age on the other side of the fence, wearing a t-shirt that drapes on him like he's a coathanger. Dark hair, blue eyes, big grin, and a blush grazing his hairline - he has to yank his eyes back up to Arthur's face as Arthur saunters closer.

'Merlin,' the guy says, dangling his long arm over the fence to shake hands.

'Arthur,' Arthur replies. There's a moment, and then Arthur decides, what the hell. 'D'you play rugby?' he asks.

One week later, Arthur has ground Merlin into the soft dune sand several hundred times, Merlin has scored three tries, and they have had fifteen arguments about whether it's even possible to 'play rugby' with two people and isn't this just a kick-around (Arthur says if he gets past you and gets ball to turf (well, sand), then it's a try and therefore it's rugby), and Arthur has been to tea at Merlin's place twice.

Merlin's mum is called Hunith. She carries out shouting conversations with Arthur from the kitchen while Merlin is changing his grass-streaked shirt and Arthur wanders around their tiny living room, looking at the photos of Merlin in his Kapiti College uniform, the hideous maroon jumper too wide at the shoulders but too short on the sleeves, even back in third form. They eat sausages and salad and have ice cream for pudding, and afterwards, Merlin and Arthur go back out into Arthur's garden and toss a cricket ball until the cicadas have fallen silent and the sun's starting to trickle down through the pink-orange clouds over the island, and then they just sit, knees knocking together.

Their topics of conversation are normal boy topics of conversation. Arthur, who has been in single-sex education most of his life, is intrigued by co-ed Kapiti and the possibilities inherent in a school that has mixed PE classes. Merlin, on the other hand, is rather blase about girls, and downright dirty-minded on the subject of the showers after a rugby match, and they have another argument, in that whole 'you're so gay,' 'no, you're so gay' way.

Merlin has kissed two girls at school, once behind the wharenui at the marae, and once for a dare.

Arthur has kissed no girls at all, but he doesn't tell Merlin that. Instead he tells him about the girls at East's, and mooning them on the first week of term with his mates, and chucking water bottles and stuff, and hints that he knows more than Merlin does about getting up to things round behind the back of buildings.

He knows enough about the showers after a rugby match to know Merlin's sly little comments are wrong - arse-slapping and towel-flicking are no-go, but there's a lot you can gather from a flicker of eye-contact at the right time, even without looking anywhere else.

On Christmas Eve, at breakfast time, Arthur's father is called back to town for an emergency, something banal and stupid to do with the office, and he leaves Arthur at the bach with strict instructions to keep reading his chem text, to get to bed at a sensible hour, and that he'll be back hopefully before morning.

Arthur's first kiss happens that night, and it tastes of Speights, smells of beach, with a lick of sunscreen smeared at the corner of Merlin's mouth, at one minute past midnight on Christmas Day.

It happens because Arthur nicked a few bottles out of the fridge and dragged Merlin out after tea to sit looking out to sea, and drinking the beer together. Merlin's mum is pretty lax about stuff, she's cool. She just tells Merlin, with a faint smile on her face, that the earlier he goes to bed, the faster Father Christmas will come. Merlin rolls his eyes and blushes crimson and says, 'aww, Mum-' and she laughs and pushes him out the ranch slider to join Arthur. 'Have fun, boys,' she says. 'Don't get into trouble!'

They don't. They sit like good little kids under the pohutukawa tree on Arthur's property, and they drink their beers. Merlin makes a face at the first sip, which makes Arthur goad him into drinking more, and necking his own first bottle.

He cracks the second as he says, 'C'mon, you wuss, it's just beer. God, you're such a girl,' for effect.

'Least I know what a girl looks like, you homo,' Merlin retorts, chucking back another swig and shuddering.

'Yeah well, takes one to know one.'

' … Maybe it does.'

'You what?'

'We've got showers too,' Merlin says cryptically, and, aiming over Arthur, carelessly throws away the half-full bottle, spilling beer over the ratty plants. It falls in droplets, a beaded, amber necklace on the sky for a second, and splashes Arthur.

'Christ, now look what you've done.'

'Whoops.'

'Gonna have to wash this before Father comes home.' But Arthur knows he can't dump a beer-stinking shirt in the washing basket without making everything else stink, so he has a better idea. 'C'mon,' he says, grabbing Merlin's thin wrist.

'What?'

'C'mon,' Arthur repeats, and drags Merlin through the dunes down to the waterline.

The sea always sounds louder in the night, and it's always colder in the summer when the air's so much warmer around it - Arthur strips off his shirt, briskly, in the warm air, and dunks it furiously under the breaking waves. The water's freezing around his ankles, but it washes the beer out of the shirt, so that's okay.

He turns, and Merlin's staring.

'You 'kay?'

Merlin swallows. 'Fine,' he says.

Arthur takes this opportunity, while he sits there like a spotlit possum, to wring out his shirt over Merlin's head.

That appears to wake Merlin up. 'Christ, that's cold!'

He makes a grab for Arthur and revenge, but Arthur slips out of his hands easily, crowing 'Midnight rugby! Shirt for the ball, c'mon. We can make a goal out of sticks.'

'Nah,' Merlin says, shaking his head and backing away.

'C'mon, Emrys, what's the matter?'

'I don't even like rugby,' Merlin says, made brash by half a Speights. 'I only did it cos, how else was I gonna get my hands on you?'

'Sure-sure,' Arthur says, and tackles him into the warm sand.

Merlin hits the ground with an oof, and Arthur looks down at him with triumph. And then, very slowly, but very deliberately, Merlin brings both his hands up to frame Arthur's face, and leans in, and kisses him.

How long it lasts, Arthur doesn't know, lost in the taste of Merlin's mouth, trying to make sense of it and realising maybe he doesn't want to and that maybe boys can get up to a lot of trouble out on their own on hot summer nights, and then there's a BEEP-BEEP, BEEP-BEEP noise from Merlin's pocket.

The other boy wriggles his hand between them to get at it - Arthur's eyes cross momentarily - and then he pulls out his cellphone.

'One minute past midnight,' he says, and plants another lazy kiss on Arthur's mouth. 'Merry Christmas.'