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The Trick

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“You complete and utter cow.” 

His sister smirked as Arthur turned towards her, a disbelieving expression on his face. They were standing outside a festively decorated Starbucks on Victoria Street, which was full of people enjoying their steaming drinks of hazelnut coffee or hot chocolate. But what Arthur was focused on was the skinny, dark-haired man sitting in the far corner on his own, obviously waiting for someone to sit in the empty chair opposite him. Arthur stole another glance at him. The man had a steaming paper cup in one hand, and occasionally took sips of his drink as he tapped away on his phone with the other. He seemed completely oblivious to their presence.

“Morgs, I thought you said we were going out for coffee!” hissed Arthur.

“We are,” said his sister. Then she grinned. “Or rather, you’re going to get a coffee, and then you’re going to sit down with him and have a nice chat while I do some Christmas shopping.” She tried to catch the man’s eye through the glass, but Arthur anticipated it and grabbed her roughly by the arm, dragging her out of his eyesight until they stood against the wall adjoining the coffee shop and the store beside it.

“You tricked[1] me,” he said, feeling his cheeks grow hot in a way that had nothing to do with the surrounding cold. “I can’t believe you set me up on a blind date!” 

She tilted her head, as if pretending to ponder the meaning of his response. “But why not, brother dear?” She gazed at him imploringly, which only made him narrow his eyes in a don’t-you-dare-try-that-with-me look. She sighed. “Arthur,” she said gently, placing a perfectly manicured hand on his shoulder, “try and see this from my point of view. After you told me your secret, I went to all the trouble of asking Gwen if she had any friends I could introduce to you, and she suggested her flatmate! You must understand I have your best interests in mind. And anyway, Gwen thinks it’s a brilliant pl – ”

“Morgs, I refuse to be paired off with the first gay guy I meet!” Arthur said with venom in his tone, so loudly that several passersby turned to stare.

Morgana rolled her eyes. “Oh my days,” she moaned theatrically, “now he’s being ungrateful, after all the work I put into finding him a boyfriend.”

“Say that any louder, Morgana Pendragon, and I swear I will punch you in the face,” said Arthur, his eyes darting around. Thankfully, this time no one on the street was paying attention, and the ones who had stopped previously had meandered on.

“Brother dear, I think you misunderstand the term ‘coming out of the closet’. From what I’ve heard, it means that you openly admit your sexuality. Besides, it’s not like Daddy’s going to be ambling down Victoria Street at this time of day, so don’t make a scene.”

“Don’t talk to me about Father. And it’s not like we aren’t making one already.”

Morgana ignored him. “Look, just give it a try. If you don’t like him, I’ll find someone else.”

“I’m not a princess in need of a suitor,” Arthur muttered. “I’m perfectly capable of finding a partner on my own.”

“Well, you had me fooled,” said Morgana dryly. Arthur glared at her. “Go on,” she said, pushing him in the direction of the Starbucks and smirking again when he stumbled. “You’re already late, so make an entrance if you can help it.”

“But what am I going to say to him?” Arthur said, feeling desperately nervous and self-conscious all at once. “I don’t even know his name!”

“You can start with that, then,” said Morgana, already turning to walk in the opposite direction. “Have fun!” she called without looking back.

Arthur simply stood there for a moment, wondering if he could leg it without being discovered. After all, the man hadn’t seen either of them yet; if he kicked up a fuss about it later to his and Morgana’s mutual friend, Arthur could just make up an excuse and call it off.

With this in mind, Arthur began walking purposefully down the street, intending to pass by the Starbucks completely. But then he saw the man in his peripheral vision again. He had pocketed his phone now, and was staring at the ceiling, tapping his foot.

Arthur felt a pang as he realised he couldn’t just walk on and leave him there; he admitted to himself that he could be a right arse at times, but he couldn’t just stand someone up like that, even if they had never met. 

He swore under his breath as his conscience got the better of him. He closed his eyes and decided to make his way to the entrance. The glass door opened with a tinkle, and Arthur sauntered in. Not wanting to stall, he ignored the smiling barista at the counter and weaved his way across the room, manoeuvring around tables where people sat and chatted in chairs or comfy couches. As soon as he reached the table in the corner where the man sat, he cleared his throat and stuck his hands in his pockets, then realised that the gesture probably wasn’t doing the man’s first impression of him favours, and took them out again. “Hi,” he said, trying for a smile.

The man looked up. A pair of impossibly blue eyes focused on him, their colour abruptly reminding Arthur of the sea and the sky, the irises a few shades lighter than his own. When he still hadn’t replied a few seconds later, Arthur thought that he had somehow managed to greet the wrong person. There were two Starbucks on Victoria Street, after all; perhaps the person he was supposed to meet was inside the other one.

But just as Arthur was about to back off and apologise, the man smiled back. “Hi. I assume you’re Morgana’s brother?” he said.

“Yeah,” Arthur replied. He stuck out a hand. “And you must be Gwen’s friend. I’m Arthur. Arthur Pendragon.”

The man stared at his hand for a split second, then stood up and took it. “Well, you’re awfully posh,” he said with a laugh, shaking Arthur’s hand. His touch emanated heat from having been indoors for so long, which contrasted with Arthur’s embarrassingly icy fingers. “Call me Merlin.”

Arthur sat down in the empty chair opposite Merlin, and Merlin copied the action. “Sorry for making you wait,” Arthur began, gesturing at the empty paper cup that was now abandoned on the edge of the table. He noted with amusement that the barista had somehow managed to misspell Merlin’s name, and had scribbled ‘Mervin’ instead.

“It’s no issue,” said Merlin, waving a hand. “Knowing Morgana, you don’t seem the type to stand someone up on a date.”

Arthur was unable to stifle his grin; Merlin obviously didn’t know his sister very well. “So is this what it is? A date?” he teased. 

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Well, let’s take a look at the situation here. Two complete strangers – ” he pointed first at Arthur, then at himself “ – get set up by their best friend and sister, respectively, to meet up alone in a coffee shop, with the intention of having them develop a romantic interest for each other.” He leaned back on his chair and surveyed the room, his gaze landing on every table, before looking back at Arthur and shrugging nonchalantly. “I’d say this is a date.” 

Arthur had to grudgingly admit that Merlin’s logic was sound, though he wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of pointing it out. “Why did you agree to this, anyway?” he asked, both out of curiosity and a reason to change the subject.

“Well…” Merlin suddenly looked slightly uncomfortable. His eyes darted away from Arthur’s, and when they met again it was with an apologetic look. He leaned forward. “I might as well tell you. To be honest, I really didn’t want to come. I’ve only recently gotten out of a relationship with this other guy, which ended pretty badly. He’s in America now.” Merlin winced a little, as if the memory pained him, but continued. “I moped for ages. Gwen got really worried about me, and fussed over me even more than my mother normally would, which is saying something. But a few weeks later, she heard from your sister that you’d recently come out, and Gwen really wanted me to give it a try, so…the rest is history.”

Arthur didn’t feel it was appropriate to pry into Merlin’s past, however intrigued he was. He bit back the questions he wanted to ask before they could come spilling out, and said instead, “Well, that’s one thing we have in common already. I didn’t want to come either.”

Merlin laughed. The sound of it was delightfully melodious, and Arthur found he couldn’t suppress a smile of his own. “Then why are we still here? We might as well leave.”

Arthur hadn’t even managed to think of a reply to that when Merlin stood up, obviously intending to make his way out. Without thinking, Arthur grabbed his wrist before Merlin could so much as take a step. “No!”

Merlin stopped and looked sharply downward at his hand, shock and surprise written all over his face. Arthur instantly let go as things were beginning to border on awkward, releasing Merlin’s wrist as if it were a hot iron. “Please don’t leave. If you do, Morgana’s just going to set me up on another horrible blind date.”

Merlin’s eyes narrowed. “Is that really what you think of me?” he said. “Well, I won’t waste your time, then. You just gave me even more reason to go.” And without another word, he was out the door.

“Merlin, that’s not what I meant! Wait!” Arthur sprinted after him, not caring this time how many people looked round.

Merlin’s skinny frame meant that he could run surprisingly quickly, but Arthur’s muscle meant he also had a considerable advantage. However, it was not until they had reached the House of Fraser further down Victoria Street that he finally caught up to him again. He ran ahead and turned sharply, so that Merlin collided into him. Arthur barely staggered under the impact.

“OUCH! You prat!” Merlin cried, shoving at Arthur’s shoulders until they were at arm’s length. The chilly December air meant his breath came in quick puffs, tiny little clouds that lingered briefly, before spiralling away with the wind and vanishing into mid-air.

“Idiot,” countered Arthur. He was still breathing heavily. “Just give me a second and hear me out, all right?”

Merlin tried to duck out of his way, but Arthur was faster; he gripped the elbow of Merlin’s green plaid shirt and stopped him from escaping. “Just because we make a horrible match doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends,” he said.

“At this point, I’m not even sure we can be that,” Merlin spat.

Arthur groaned and ran a hand through his hair, pushing a bit of blonde fringe out of his eye. He took a deep breath. “I didn’t mean what I said just now. I’m sorry.”

Merlin looked slightly thrown off by Arthur’s words. “Wow, I didn’t know posh types like you understood the concept of apologising.”

Arthur snorted. “When you get to know me a little better, you’ll find I’m full of surprises.” He let go of Merlin, satisfied that he wasn’t going to run away this time. “Despite the atrocious first impressions we’ve made of each other, I think we can at least try to get along. If we give up on this and go back to our own lives, it won’t improve anything.” Merlin cocked his head, prompting the rest of Arthur’s explanation to come out in a rush. “See, your friend’s going to fret like a mother hen over you, and knowing my sister, she’s probably going to try and pair me off with the next gay guy she can get her hands on until kingdom come. Personally, I don’t think you’re that bad of an option – ”

“Oh, thanks –

“Shut up, Merlin. My point is that I have a plan.” He leaned in closer, and said his next words very slowly, enunciating every syllable. “We can make this mutually beneficial for each other…if we pretend to be in a relationship.”

Just then, Big Ben chimed the quarter-hour, an unresolved melody that rang through the city. Merlin appeared momentarily stunned. For a few seconds, he looked like a fish out of water with his mouth agape, but then he said, “So what you’re saying is…”

“We pretend to date for a set amount of time, long enough to make it believable and to fool people into thinking we’re actually together. This way, both Gwen and Morgs will stop pestering either of us, and when that’s happened, then we break up and go back to normal. By then, it’ll be established that our loved ones have poor taste in our interests, and that we would be better off finding people to date on our own.” 

Merlin was silent for a long time, looking doubtful and a little something else Arthur couldn’t identify. Then a grin slowly crept onto his face. “That is a bloody brilliant trick[2].”

“Thanks,” said Arthur, feeling rather chuffed in spite of himself.

 

*

 

On the cab ride home two hours later, Arthur had a smile on his face as he recalled the events of the afternoon he had spent with Merlin. Shortly after their agreement, they had walked back to Starbucks (where they were met with pleased smiles from the other people there, who probably thought they had made up after a lover’s tiff) and gotten down to business. They would ‘date’ for a month, through Christmas and New Year’s, and ‘break up’ on the seventh of January, after which they would go their separate ways and continue on with their lives as if nothing had happened.

It seemed like a fool proof plan to Arthur, looking at it from all sides. Unbeknownst to Morgana, he had had a "nice chat" with Merlin, albeit a completely platonic one. Though they were from different backgrounds and as different from each other as people could get, they somehow shared the same strange sense of humour. What Arthur found particularly memorable about the meeting was Merlin's heated defence of the third Harry Potter film, which he claimed was "an excellent adaptation if you ignore the original material completely".

“Back so early?” said a voice, as soon as he entered his flat at a quarter to four.

Arthur jumped violently, before he whipped around and spotted Morgana lounging on the sofa, her hair fanned out over the seat. “Christ, Morgs, give a grown man some warning next time, will you?”

Morgana merely laughed as Arthur shrugged off his coat. “It’s not like you two would be stumbling in here snogging the life out of each other after the first date. Unlike me and Leon, of course. That’s a trait you and I don’t share.” She winked, her bright green eyes twinkling.

Arthur shuddered at the image of his sister and her boyfriend getting up to things in their flat as he unwrapped his scarf from around his neck. “I really didn’t need that.”

“Whatever.” Morgana sat up and swung her legs off the armrest into a sitting position. “So how did it go?” she inquired, patting the space next to her and indicating that Arthur should sit.

Arthur pulled off his mittens, flung them on the coffee table, and sank into the seat beside her. The springs beneath him squeaked a little as he shifted. “It went well,” he lied.

“Oooh. Care to elaborate?”

Arthur hesitated, feeling as if he were answering a test question. “Uh, sure. We talked. About…stuff.”

Morgana quirked an eyebrow. “Stuff,” she said slowly.

“Yeah,” said Arthur, feeling uneasy from the scrutiny but trying not to show it. “You know, trying to find things we have in common, and all that.”

“That’s wonderful! I’m sure you had loads to talk about then,” Morgana said, and Arthur gave an internal sigh of relief that he had passed her inspection for now. Then she asked, “Did you get his number?”

Arthur’s expression must have betrayed his answer, because Morgana rolled her eyes and drawled, “I knew it.” She took out her phone from her back pocket. “You should thank the heavens for having an intelligent and conscientious sister like me. I managed to get his number off Gwen.” A series of beeps issued from her phone, which she then handed to Arthur. He took one look at the screen. Calling: Merlin Emrys.

“Wait, you’re calling him?!”

“So what? It’s good manners to do so after the first date.”

Arthur gritted his teeth and pressed the phone to his ear. The tone rang out four times before Merlin picked up. “Hello, who’s this?”

Arthur could tell it was Merlin, but not a side of him he had seen before; he thought that this one sounded a little annoyed. He looked helplessly at Morgana, who inclined her head, urging him silently to speak. “It’s Arthur,” he said finally into the receiver. “Hi. Um, I’m using my sister’s phone. Is this a bad time?”

“Oh, hi," said Merlin, with a little more cheer in his voice. "Not at all. I'm just trying to get around this program. Basically, Gwen thought it would be funny to use the SelfControl app and block all my social networks on my laptop for twenty-four hours, so I can't go on Twitter or Facebook until noon tomorrow unless I find a way to program a code and get around the temporary firewall."

Arthur was at a loss for what to say at first, as none of what Merlin said had made any sense to him. He fished for a reply that didn’t sound too ignorant. "You didn't strike me as an IT person."

"Oh, no, I just dabble," said Merlin. "I used to write codes for apps over the summer and launch them to see if I could get extra pocket money. They were all really lame word games though, and the people who did play them kept sending me complaints that they were buggy as heck, so nothing got really popular." There was a pause. "I'm boring you, aren't I," he said bluntly.

"No," replied Arthur, far too quickly.

There was another pause, during which Arthur could almost hear Merlin's eyebrow raise over the phone. Apparently Merlin decided it was no use to ask further, because he smoothly changed the subject. "Well, Gwen gave me your number as well, just so you know. She's in her room now, marathoning Doctor Who. We’re flatmates."

"She seems like an interesting person to live with," said Arthur.

"Yeah, she's all right," said Merlin. Then, “Wait, if you’re using your sister’s phone, does that mean she’s there with you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur warily. Did Merlin want to talk to Morgs? But then, why would he?

“Oh. You’d better put on an act then.”

“What?”

“You do want your sister to believe how much you like me, right? Go on, say something sweet to me.”

Arthur could practically hear Merlin grinning, but knew that he was right. “Um. You were, er, really fun to talk to,” he said, hoping he sounded convincing enough to Morgana’s ears. "I'm sorry I forgot to get your number, but I was so wrapped up in our conversation that it...slipped my mind."

“That’s good. Now laugh like I’ve just told you something funny.”

Arthur complied, and was pleased to find that his chuckles didn’t sound very false at all. “I’m so glad I met you,” he said, in answer to their pretend conversation. Then he had an idea. “I’d really like to see you again. That is, if you want to as well.”

“That’s fine with me,” said Merlin. “Hey, I was actually thinking of going ice-skating the other day, but Gwen twisted her ankle during hockey practice. I was going to wait until it healed, but it looks like it’s going to take a week, and I don’t really want to wait that long. But we could go together; you get free hot chocolate and everything.”

“Ice-skating?” Arthur said, brow furrowing. “But I don’t know how – ”

“I’ll teach you,” said Merlin promptly. “Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll buy the tickets and text you the plans, yeah? Bye.”

BEEP.

Arthur stared blankly at the phone in his hands. Had he really just agreed to go on another date with Merlin? Things were moving far too quickly by his standards.

“Well done, Arthur,” said Morgana, entering the room from the corridor where she had doubtless been listening in to the conversation. Arthur hadn’t even heard her leave in the first place. She ruffled his hair in that patronising way she always did when she wanted to annoy him. “Ice-skating, huh? You’re going to have so much fun. Make sure you don’t get your fingers sliced off when you fall on the ice.”

“I’ll manage just fine, Morgana,” said Arthur, batting her hands away. “He says he’ll teach me.”

“Oh, how sweet of him!” she gushed.

Just then, her phone began to vibrate in Arthur’s hand. He looked down at it just as the first verse to “All I Want For Christmas Is You” began to play. “You’re listening to Christmas songs? It isn’t even mid-December yet!”

Morgana snatched the phone from his hands, ignoring his judgmental gaze. “Oh, it’s Leon!” she exclaimed, pressing the answer button. She turned away from him. “Hey darling… You’ll never guess what happened today! I managed to set up my baby brother on a fantastic blind date…”

 

*

 

Merlin:     bought the tix. u free 2 go on 13th?

 

Arthur’s phone went off with a ding and he looked up distractedly from his essay. He typed:

 

Arthur:     Sure

 

He was about to hit ‘Send’ when it hit him that he probably had to put on an act whatever means he used to contact Merlin. He chewed his lip, thinking. It was highly unlikely that his sister would berate him for not being sweet enough via text, but one couldn’t be too careful. Besides, she was always borrowing his phone and often scrolled through his messages when she did. He supposed it couldn’t hurt.

 

Arthur:     Sure

Arthur:     But that’s ages away :(

 

There, that sounded more like the pining, slightly in love Arthur he was trying to establish. It was a few seconds before his phone went off again. It seemed Merlin had caught on.

 

Merlin:     aw, i no...but im confident ull be able to w8 til then

Arthur:     You sure you can’t do anytime earlier?

Merlin:     fraid not, soz

Arthur:     OK.

Merlin:     c u in 5 days then :) don’t miss me 2 much ;)

Arthur:     Ha, I’ll try. Night!

Merlin:     nite zzz

 

Arthur chucked his phone aside and sighed loudly. Perhaps it was just the essay messing with his head, but suddenly, it seemed as if the thirteenth couldn’t come quickly enough.

 

*

 

Five days eventually passed, and Arthur received another text from Merlin that morning saying that they were to meet at seven. They’d conversed a few times over the past few days, sometimes on the phone, but most often via text. It was much easier to think of ways to sound like a ridiculously cute couple when you were given the opportunity to draft what to say before sending it, instead of being put on the spot without being given a second chance. Besides, every time they called each other, either Morgana or Gwen was always listening at the door.

Half an hour before he was due to take a cab and meet Merlin, Arthur found himself stuck in the age-old cliché of not knowing what to wear. He opened all his drawers and sifted through his clothing, making faces at the Christmas jumpers his Aunt Nimueh had sent him over the years and an absolutely tasteless polo shirt his father had given him for his sixteenth birthday a few months back. Fortunately, though, he also found his striped sock that had been missing for a week, which he quickly reunited with its match.

At long last, he gave up and called Morgana for help. After tolerating much giggling from her end, she agreed to come over to his flat and choose something for him.

She arrived with ten minutes to go. “Wear something bright,” she said as soon as he opened the door. “A jumper, perhaps? It’s going to be cold at the ice rink, after all.”

“I don’t think I have any jumpers other than the ones Aunt Nimueh gave me. Besides, you could have told me that while we were on the phone,” Arthur retorted.

“I enjoy watching you worry over something so trivial, brother dear, surely you’d know that by now. Come on, then.” She led the way to Arthur’s room, where she rummaged through his clothes. “Ugh, I would’ve thrown that scarf away ages ago, why do you still have it? Let’s see…aha!” She snatched something from the drawer and stood up, triumphantly clutching a crimson knitted jumper that Arthur had miraculously managed to miss. Said jumper was promptly thrust into Arthur’s arms. “Just get something warm to wear underneath that, a pair of jeans, and you’re done. Oh, but don’t forget to wear gloves. And a scarf, but not the one I mentioned earlier.”

With five minutes to go, Arthur was so agitated he probably would not have noticed if Morgana had handed him one of her frilly blouses. “Thanks. Now get out, I need to change.”

“Appreciative as always,” she trilled as she made her way out.

Arthur changed at lightning speed, flattening his hair in the bathroom for good measure, as it had a tendency to rise with static electricity until it surrounded his head like a fuzzy, unattractive halo. Everything else went smoothly after that; the cab arrived on time, there were no particularly obstructive traffic jams, and he even managed to get to South Kensington before Merlin did.

When he finally saw Merlin, he was running towards him with two sheets of paper clutched tightly in his hand. “Sorry I’m late,” he gasped, “I had to go back because I forgot the tickets, and then the Circle line decided to be a bitch, and…wow. Now I feel even worse, because you’ve made me feel massively underdressed.”

“What are you talking about? We’re both wearing jumpers!” said Arthur incredulously. “And you don’t look half bad,” he added, eyeing Merlin’s scarf and earmuffs.

Merlin fiddled with a string that was slowly unravelling from the edge of his dark blue jumper, which had white and grey snowflakes adorned on the front and the sleeves. “That may be, but you’re wearing one from some posh store, and this is just something my mum knitted me.” 

“I only wish my mother could do that for me,” Arthur said without thinking. Then he opened and closed his mouth like a fish, much like Merlin had during their first meeting. He didn’t know where the sudden burst of honesty had come from, but there was something about Merlin that made him trustworthy. Perhaps it was the eyes, Arthur mused. Merlin had nice eyes.

“Oh, is she too busy with work and all that?” asked Merlin, still uncomprehending.

“No.” Arthur thought he might as well spit it out. Besides, it was better that Merlin knew now rather than have him ask awkward questions some other time when either Morgana or Gwen was within earshot. “She died in childbirth.”

Merlin’s expression morphed into one of pity. If it had been anyone else, Arthur would have felt even worse, but this time was different, probably because he could tell that Merlin’s compassion was genuine. “Oh no, that’s awful,” he said with feeling. “I don’t know what to say." 

“It’s all right,” Arthur said, shrugging. “I’ve gotten used to it.”

“Your birthday parties must be pretty awkward,” Merlin commented.

“I’ve never had one,” Arthur said, and Merlin’s eyes widened. “I wear black on my birthday to remember her. But I can’t recall a thing. Father never speaks of her anyway.”

Merlin stepped closer and placed a comforting hand on his arm. Arthur looked down in surprise. “I understand. Well, not completely, but…my dad left Mum when I was three, and we haven’t seen him since. Mum hardly mentions him these days.” He smiled a little. “All I know is that he was apparently an avid explorer.”

Arthur felt a stab of envy. Knowing that Merlin had grown up with one parent just like he had lessened the blow slightly, but he knew that having just a father was nowhere near the same as having just a mother, especially when said father was almost never home. Not that the relationship between them grew any closer when he was home. Arthur had lost track of the number of times he had received nods while Morgana wrangled smiles, and how his ideas and contributions were always shut down, while his sister was allowed to have the last word in an argument and emerge victorious. No, there was no love lost between him and Uther Pendragon.

Arthur envied Morgana’s looks sometimes. Not because she was beautiful (though she was that as well, and besides, Arthur knew for a fact that he wasn’t ugly), but because of the fact that she took after their father. He often thought that if he didn’t look so much like his mum, Uther would probably have been a little more lenient with him throughout his childhood. He understood to a degree of his father’s paranoia that he would lose the one thing linking him to his wife (for Morgana did not resemble her at all), but he often wished Uther were a little less overprotective.

Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t notice when Merlin did something completely unexpected; he stepped right into Arthur’s space and threw his skinny arms around him, squeezing tightly. 

The hug wasn’t strong enough to completely knock the wind out of Arthur’s lungs; nevertheless, he was quite unprepared for this sudden display of affection, and swayed on his feet as he tried to keep his balance. “W-what are you doing?” he stammered, caught off guard.

“Being a friend,” said Merlin, still latched onto him.

Arthur wasn’t used to people hugging him – he certainly didn’t get them very often from his father, if at all – so he awkwardly patted Merlin on the back before deciding to settle his hand between the shoulder blades.

Merlin snorted, and Arthur felt a light puff of air against his neck that made him flinch. “You’re a truly awful hugger.”

“Yeah, well, one can’t be good at everything,” Arthur said gruffly, and Merlin laughed in reply, sending more gusts of air peppering his nape; this time, Arthur had to hold back a shiver.

Once Arthur thought it appropriate, he extricated himself from the hug. “On a lighter note, I remember you promising that you’d teach me how to skate.”

Merlin’s face lit up like a child’s on Christmas Day, which matched the large Christmas tree behind him in the centre of the rink with baubles and tinsel strewn haphazardly all over it. Arthur felt momentarily breathless. “So I did!” he said with glee. “Come on!” And, grabbing Arthur’s hand, he dragged him towards the entrance.

The process of finding the right size of ice skates and putting them on turned out to be a rather fiddly matter. Merlin had his fitted and on his feet in no time, but Arthur had some trouble pushing down the levers on his skates, which wouldn’t stop popping up again every time they clicked into place. When Merlin came over to help, Arthur said a tad standoffishly, “It’s alright, I can do this myself.”

“Rubbish. You haven’t loosened the straps enough. Here, let me help.” And before Arthur could protest, Merlin had knelt and begun to work at the skates. Arthur watched his nimble fingers tug and pull at the straps, pressing down on a catch that allowed it to spring free. He slid it into the buckle and snapped it shut, then repeated the action with the rest. 

Without warning, unbidden thoughts began to rise to the surface of Arthur’s mind, and he flushed at the sight of Merlin on his knees in front of him. He tried to will away his reddening cheeks, but just then, Merlin looked up and saw his face.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“It’s…cold, that’s all,” said Arthur.

His slight hesitation made Merlin raise an eyebrow, but then his expression cleared. “Oh,” he said slowly, and grinned.

Arthur looked away, mentally cursing. “Shut up, Merlin.”

“What? I didn’t say anything,” said Merlin, immediately feigning innocence.

Arthur ignored him and tried to get up instead, but balancing on two lethally sharp blades proved difficult for him. His legs wobbled and he keeled over. “Argh!”

Thankfully, Merlin managed to catch him in time, though not without laughing hysterically at him. “It takes a while to get used to,” he said, offering his arm for Arthur to grasp. “Gwen once told me it’s like wearing super-high stilettos. Thank God we’re not girls, I don’t know how I would have survived.” He jerked his head in the direction of the door. “Come on, let’s get you on the ice.”

Arthur tottered about on his skates as they made their way to the rink, gripping both Merlin’s arm and the railing so tightly he was astounded Merlin didn’t cry out in pain. Merlin stepped onto the ice first, holding his hands out for Arthur to take. After a moment’s hesitation, he let himself be guided forward, so nervous that his toes clenched inside his skates, making them feel a little too tight. He let out a gasp as his feet touched the ice and slid on the smooth surface. Merlin steadied him, a look of utmost concentration on his face, his lips pursed as he focused on their feet. He turned to look behind him and, seeing no one blocking their way, began to move slowly backwards. “Come on, don’t be scared,” he teased.

“I’m – not – scared,” Arthur bit out, though his whole body was shaking. He teetered to the side, and his scarf unravelled until one end reached all the way down to his knee. He looked downwards, annoyed, wanting very much to adjust it, but not daring to risk letting go of Merlin and falling over. Merlin saw his internal struggle and laughed, letting go of one hand and reaching up to wrap it around his neck again. 

“Just follow me,” he said. “The trick[3] is to put one foot in front of the other, flat on the ground, and let the ice do the rest.”

Arthur did his best to comply, and they slowly made their way to the centre of the rink. The other skaters stared at the odd-looking couple as they passed, and one small girl pointed and laughed at the comical sight of Arthur hobbling across the ice. Another couple circled them in loops, effortlessly gliding about on the ice and doing twirls and skips like it was the most natural thing in the world. “Show-offs,” Arthur muttered to himself, though his mortification was lessened with the consolation that he at least had Merlin to guide him. 

Then, without warning, Merlin let go of him and skated off with his hands folded behind his back.

“HEY!”

Merlin did a graceful turn and watched him gape helplessly back. “You can do it, Arthur!” he called. As if to mock him, Merlin began orbiting him just like the other skaters had, laughing with glee as Arthur struggled in vain to move forwards.

He couldn’t move an inch. Arthur let out a yell of frustration and tried to lift his foot. 

“AAARGH!”

Arms flailing, Arthur lost his balance and fell over on his front. There was a collective “ohhh” from the other skaters on the ice, as well as a couple of titters. Arthur ignored them and got up on his elbows. Merlin was still watching from a distance, biting his lip where a smile had begun to form. Arthur glared at him, but could do nothing except resort to a highly self-degrading baby crawl in his direction. He had never felt more embarrassed in his life.

Halfway through his journey, Merlin took pity on him and skated forwards again. He pulled Arthur up with surprising strength. “Get up, you useless lump,” he said, chuckling.

“I’m freezing,” Arthur complained. “My jeans are soaked.

“Stop whining,” said Merlin, rolling his eyes in a fashion that reminded Arthur unnervingly of Morgana.

“How are you so good at skating, anyway?” asked Arthur, having to raise his voice a little over the noise of more people entering the rink. 

“I used to figure skate,” Merlin called back. “Watch me!” He left Arthur standing on the edge of the rink and leaped into the air, spinning as he landed. However, he wobbled slightly towards the end, and had to throw his arms out to regain his balance. “Oops! I used to be better at these tricks[4],” he said. “I think I’ve lost my touch.”

“My father would never have let me take up ice-skating,” said Arthur conversationally. His father had always been quite particular about the sports Arthur was allowed to play, telling him that sports like football and ice hockey were ‘far more masculine’.

“My mother lets me do what I like,” said Merlin, and Arthur had to struggle to hear him, as parts of his words were lost to the wind. “All she wants is for me to, and I quote, ‘follow my passions and chase my dreams’.”

“That’s…nice,” Arthur said. Once again, he had the acute realisation of just how different he and Merlin were. How different would he have been, if his father had given him free rein over his decisions? Would he perhaps be less scared about telling him he was gay?

“Let me take you for a spin,” Merlin said suddenly, skating back towards him. 

“Excuse me?”

But before he knew it, Merlin had taken him by the hand again, a mischievous smile playing across his face.

“No, no, no, this is a bad idea,” said Arthur, as he was taken away from the comfort and safety that was the railing. Then, as Merlin began to skate, pulling him along, he panicked. “Merlin, we’re going too fast! HELP!”

Merlin only laughed and picked up speed, tightening his grip on Arthur’s hand as they hurtled forwards. The other skaters and the glittering fairy lights around the ice rink whipped past them in a blur. Arthur didn’t have to make any effort, as Merlin was doing all the work, but he counted at least six terrifying spins around the rink before Merlin finally let go of him. Breathing hard, Arthur half-collapsed against the railing once more.

“You all right?” asked Merlin, grinning unashamedly.

“Yeah,” Arthur said. “We are not doing that again,” he added.

“It’s just as well, I think our time’s up,” said Merlin casually.

Arthur looked around, and sure enough, a few people were already leaving the rink. “Thank Christ.”

“Oh come on, it wasn’t that bad.”

Arthur considered this for a moment. “No, it wasn’t actually,” he agreed. “I had fun.”

“Good.” Merlin’s smile was blinding. “Want some hot chocolate?”

 

*

 

Over the next two weeks, Arthur spoke to Merlin almost every day. It didn’t seem so much of a chore anymore, as their conversations always came easy and full of banter. They went to see a film together, about which they discussed afterwards over dinner. Arthur had previously only gone to the cinema with his mates, who cared more about how hot the actresses were than the finer details, and twice with a girl, Sophia, whom he had never liked, and whom made him so nervous during the film with her hand on his thigh that he could barely remember any of it afterwards. With Merlin, Arthur found he could talk freely about his opinion on what the film actually entailed, and was both surprised and pleased to find a person he could talk to about cinematography and visual effects, which other people had always found strange when he tried discussing it with them.

They had also gone bowling at a club that Arthur’s father always took him to, and it was nice to see Merlin be absolutely useless at something for a change. Unlike Arthur, though, he was a fast learner, and by the end of the session he had not only managed to become a passable bowler, but had also scored two consecutive strikes.

They talked about other things too, of course. Arthur learnt a lot about Merlin: his love for all things of the fantasy genre, his addiction to Twitter, the fact that he had believed in Santa Claus until the age of fourteen, and that when he was bored he had a habit of mentally sorting everyone in the room into the four Hogwarts houses. He himself divulged the time he broke his left arm in sixth form and thus ruined his dream to be on England’s rowing team, his fear of being betrayed by those he loved, his irrational fear of Barney the Purple Dinosaur, and that he once ate a whole goldfish for a dare.

It was during one of these meet-ups that Arthur’s phone rang one day. Too absorbed in his conversation with Merlin, he immediately hit ‘decline’, but barely thirty seconds passed when it started ringing again. He took out his phone and saw the words flashing on the screen. Incoming call: Morgana Pendragon.

Merlin leaned over the table to see. “What’s your sister calling us for?” he asked, tilting his head.

“No idea,” said Arthur, but answered it anyway. “Hello?" 

“Greetings, brother dear,” came his sister’s voice on the phone, slightly crackly from static. “So sorry to interrupt you on your date.” 

“Cut to the chase, Morgs,” said Arthur tiredly.

“Ooh, touchy, touchy,” said his sister, giggling. “It’s just that Gwen called to ask if we would be interested in going over to hers and Merlin’s for Christmas dinner. Daddy’s on his business trip anyway, so I thought it was really kind of her.”

“Why would Father be on a business trip during Christmas?”

“I haven’t a clue, but you’re not complaining, are you?” his sister replied.

Arthur had to admit she had a point. “Does Father know about this, though?”

“No, of course he doesn’t,” said Morgana, sounding mildly offended by the notion, “but it’s not like he’d object to us spending time with friends over Christmas.”

Arthur thought that his father would object very much if he knew that his son was having Christmas dinner with his supposed boyfriend, but didn’t mention it. “Okay, then,” he agreed.

“I knew you’d say that. Brilliant. Ta-ta!” She hung up.

 

*

 

“Merry Christmas!” said Merlin and Gwen together as they opened the door to their flat on Christmas Day. Morgana almost instantly threw herself into Gwen’s arms, and the two girls laughed as the latter almost collapsed. Merlin and Arthur stood there at first, slightly embarrassed, but then Merlin said, “Merry Christmas, you utter prat,” and hugged him too.

Arthur hugged him back, laughing. “Same to you…idiot.”

“Poshpants,” countered Merlin, and Arthur raised an eyebrow, sensing a challenge.

“Dunderhead.”

Merlin narrowed his eyes. “Undercooked chicken nugget.”

Arthur hadn’t expected that; he struggled for a creative response. “Ignorant…cheeseball?”

They stared at each other for a moment, and then burst out laughing.

“Oh, you already have pet names for each other, how sweet!” exclaimed Gwen.

“No, that’s just how we normally – ” Arthur began, but winced as Merlin deliberately stepped on his foot. “I mean, yes.”

“Well, you guys come in and make yourselves comfortable,” said Gwen with a warm smile. “I’ll just bring the food out.” She turned, her dark curls bouncing, and headed into the kitchen.

“I’ll help,” said Morgana, and not so subtly winked at Merlin and Arthur before disappearing as well.

Arthur turned to Merlin as soon as they left. “Is it just me, or does this seem like another ploy to bring us closer together?”

Merlin shrugged. “Maybe in Morgana’s case, but Gwen’s like that to everyone. She’s just affectionate that way.”

They sat down opposite each other at the table, and Gwen chose in that moment to enter the room again, her arms laden with roast turkey. “I was going to bring the soup out, but it still needs a bit of time,” she explained. “Merlin, do go in and check on it in a few minutes, will you?”

Merlin put his thumb and index finger together in an ‘OK’ sign by way of response, and Arthur looked at him in surprise. “Wait, you two cooked this meal together?”

“Of course we did!” Gwen laughed. “Why, did you think I’d whipped this up all by myself?”

“No, but – ”

“I’ll have you know I’m a pretty decent cook,” said Merlin.

“Better than me, some might think,” nodded Gwen, seating herself beside Arthur.

“You boys are most definitely the perfect match,” said Morgana, and the three of them turned to her as she brought the stew in. “Arthur can’t cook to save his life.”

“I most certainly can!” said Arthur hotly.

“Yes, if you count boiling Japanese instant noodles as cooking,” said Morgana sardonically. Merlin and Gwen roared with laughter.

Arthur couldn’t remember ever feeling so relaxed. Christmas dinner at the Pendragon home had always been awkward and tense, as they usually ate at some fancy restaurant on those days. Boxing Day was never eventful, either; Arthur predictably got a new suit from his father every year, or else some other tasteless item he ended up chucking at the back of his wardrobe. It was Morgana his father always spoiled, Morgana who was showered with gifts she actually appreciated, Morgana who was the apple of their father’s eye. But here, the conversation was light, cheerful and, after Gwen opened a bottle of wine, frequently punctuated with raucous laughter. He and Merlin were questioned about the development of their relationship once or twice, but they managed to pass them off with vague answers. However, Arthur noticed that Merlin got increasingly fidgety as the meal went on, though that might have been down to the alcohol, which, incidentally, gave him a very pretty blush.

Once they had finished the (slightly burnt) pudding, Merlin offered to do the washing up.

“You should go with him,” suggested Morgana, nudging Arthur under the table with her foot.

“Sure,” he replied, getting up to join Merlin. But on his way to the kitchen, Arthur got a prickling feeling on the back of his neck that told him he and Merlin were being watched. He turned around and saw that Gwen and Morgana were indeed watching them with looks of anticipation on their faces. He frowned. Surely they would be going to the sofa to watch TV by now?

He was about to open his mouth to suggest that the girls do just that, when he found himself colliding into Merlin’s back.

“Oof! What the – ”

“Oh, I should have known,” said Merlin, looking up.

A sprig of mistletoe hung over the doorway they were standing under, the tiny, white berries glowing faintly under the light from the kitchen. Arthur felt his mouth go dry and a feeling of dread weigh deep in his stomach as Morgana and Gwen whooped and high-fived each other, giggling profusely. 

Up until now, both Merlin and Arthur had managed to forget that they were supposed to be in a relationship. Sure, they may have texted each other sweet nothings and had emoticon wars on Facebook, but that had been for the benefit of Morgana and Gwen. An action so intimate as kissing under the mistletoe would shatter the illusion that they could keep things platonic for a whole month.

Arthur stared nervously at Merlin, not knowing what to say or do. He tried to gauge Merlin’s reaction or state of mind, but every time their eyes met, one of them would look away again. This went back and forth for some time, and when they finally managed to maintain eye contact for more than a second, Merlin gave him a shy smile before staring at his feet once more. 

How had he managed to get himself into this situation? Looking back, Arthur really hadn’t thought things through; if he and Merlin had been a little more affectionate with each other just now, Morgana and Gwen wouldn’t have felt so obliged to push them into being so.

The awkwardness was excruciating now. Why was he making such a fuss out of this? It was just a kiss, after all. There was nothing to it. He’d kissed Sophia, and other girls he hadn’t had feelings for, so why should Merlin be any different?

Because you do have feelings for him, said a nasty voice in his head. And you’ve been denying it to yourself all this time.

This realisation did not help to quell Arthur’s nerves at all. Morgana and Gwen had started up a chant of, “Do it! Do it! Do it!” by now, and he was sure that both he and Merlin were feeling the increasing urge to stop stalling for too long and get this over with. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult. But the room suddenly seemed too warm; had he drunk too much wine? But surely if he had, he would be a little less edgy about this, what with the effects alcohol usually induced – impaired judgement, rash decisions, increased promiscuity –

He was completely unprepared for the sensation of Merlin’s lips sealed over his own, and gasped into his mouth. It was a quick kiss, gentle and chaste, but it didn’t stop an inexplicable shiver from zinging all the way down Arthur’s spine.

Before he knew it, the kiss was over, and he blinked stupidly as Merlin said loudly, “There, we’ve kissed. Satisfied?” in the direction of the girls, who were grinning like mad.

“Best kiss you’ve had so far?” Morgana asked Arthur, seeing the slightly stunned expression on his face.

Arthur wanted to reply, but couldn’t seem to get the words out. After a few moments, he saw Gwen’s eyes grow as large as the curls in her hair as she understood the deeper meaning of his reaction. She gave a loud, high-pitched squeal. “Oh my God, Morgs, I think we just witnessed their first kiss!”

Morgana gave an even louder screech, and the two girls high-fived each other again.

“So what?” said Arthur, thinking quickly. “I wanted to take my time with Merlin. Is that so wrong?”

The girls gave a collective “awww” at this, and Arthur looked over at Merlin with a grin, only to find that he was looking away. Was there a blush on his face too, or was that just a trick[5] of the light?

“Um,” said Merlin, still avoiding Arthur’s gaze, “I’m just going to do the dishes now...”

“Screw the dishes, it’s Christmas!” said Morgana.

“Exactly,” said Gwen. “We could always do them later. Besides, we’ve got presents for you! I know it’s not Boxing Day yet,” she added hastily, “but we might as well open them now, while we’re all together.”

“We have presents too,” chorused Arthur and Morgana.

Merlin looked surprised. “You brought me a gift?”

“Of course I did,” said Arthur. “What do you take me for?”

Merlin didn’t reply, but even he couldn’t hide the smile gracing his lips. Arthur stared at them, still unable to believe that they had touched his only moments before. “Come on, then,” he said, and, after a moment’s hesitation, took Merlin by the hand. Merlin looked up in astonishment, his blue eyes widening, but didn’t shrink away. Arthur was immediately relieved, glad that Merlin wasn’t going to keep up the silent treatment for the rest of the evening.

“You first,” Gwen was already saying, handing a package to Morgana. The wrapping crackled loudly; whatever was inside was very soft. Morgana tore it open. It was an emerald green hand-knitted bobble hat, and it was clear that the colour had been chosen with the intention of matching Morgana’s eyes. “Ohmigosh, thank you!” She shoved it on her head. Her eyes twinkled as she beamed at them all; together with the hat, the effect was dazzling.

“I knew you would like it,” said Gwen, smiling at her. She turned to Arthur and gave him a package that was just as floppy. “I didn’t know what to get you, but Merlin told me after your first meeting that you came off as quite posh to him, so…”

Arthur ripped away the paper to find hand-knitted tie with alternating red and blue stripes, interspersed with lurid yellow polka dots. “This is brilliant, Gwen!” he said, grinning so widely his cheeks hurt. “Father’s going to have a fit if I wear this to one of his business parties.”

“Do tell me how it goes!” joked Gwen, before handing another, much smaller package to Merlin. “I didn’t knit you anything, since you already have a billion of those, but I thought of you when I saw this in a shop the other day.”

Merlin opened the present. It was a minute blue owl ornament, small enough to balance on his thumb. “Oh, he’s absolutely adorable,” he said, his eyes softening. “I’m going to name him Aristotle.”

The gift giving became a little messy after that. It wasn’t long before sheets of multi-coloured wrapping paper and ribbon were littering the floor of the living room. Morgana had gotten a book titled Dress to Depress: How To Look So Good Your Friends (and Enemies) Feel Bad from Arthur, which everyone agreed was the perfect gift, and the entire discography of Marina and the Diamonds from Merlin. The latter made her burst into a loud rendition of “How To Be a Heartbreaker”, which Merlin joined in on at first, until he got to the line “Rule number two / Don’t get too attached to / Something you could lose…” and fell silent, looking at Arthur.

Arthur got a rainbow mug with “OUT AND PROUD” written in large capital letters on the rim from Morgana, which made him simultaneously laugh and wince, and a stress ball from Merlin that gave a satisfying squelchy noise when squeezed. “I’m not trying to imply that you’re stressed all the time,” explained Merlin hurriedly, when Arthur gave him a questioning look, “it’s just that I thought the face on the ball looked a bit like you.”

Arthur turned the ball over in his hands and found that it did indeed have a face; it was covered in wrinkles and the expression was one of pure irritation.

Morgana and Gwen leaned over to see. “It looks like the Face of Boe from Doctor Who,” Gwen commented, causing the four of them to burst into peals of laughter.

Gwen got a pair of purple bauble-shaped earrings from Merlin, which tinkled faintly when jostled. She like, Morgana, proceeded to wear her gift immediately. Arthur had gotten her a bottle of perfume that smelt like vanilla biscuits. “I didn’t know what to get you either,” he said as he sheepishly handed the box to her.

“Oh, I love perfume!” Gwen opened the box, held the bottle to her nose and inhaled deeply with her eyes closed. An expression of utmost bliss appeared on her face, and she sighed happily. “If you weren’t already with Merlin, I’d be so in love with you right now,” she confessed with feeling. Arthur blushed in response.

Arthur’s hadn’t known what to get Merlin, but had thankfully thought of the perfect gift at three o’ clock in the morning the day before.

“Wow,” breathed Merlin, unwrapping a framed portrait of himself. “Arthur, I had no idea you could draw!”

Arthur had drawn a pencil sketch of Merlin sitting by a window and staring out into the street with a wistful smile on his face. He had taken a candid of him the last time they had seen each other while Merlin wasn’t looking, and had used the photo as the basis for his drawing. He shrugged. “Told you I was full of surprises.”

“You’re really good at it, though,” said Merlin, still marvelling at the picture.

Arthur felt a little hot all of a sudden. “It’s nothing…I should have coloured it in, made it look a little more realistic. And I got your ears wrong, so it doesn’t look that much like – ”

“But it does look like me!” Merlin exclaimed, turning the picture around for the girls to see. “Don’t you agree?”

“Gosh, Arthur,” said Gwen, staring. “You’ve got a real gift there.”

“Thank you,” said Arthur, feeling himself go even redder than he already was, a feat he had previously thought impossible. Then he added quickly, “Of course, if Merlin hadn’t been such a lovely subject to draw, it wouldn’t have looked so nice.”

Morgana and Gwen looked at each other and shared a triumphant look, then continued with the gifts.

Merlin opened his last gift from Morgana and groaned when he saw what it was: a large box of neon-coloured condoms. “I’m so touched, Morgana. Really.” Arthur couldn’t help but snort at that, and was about to add his opinion when he was interrupted by a scream from Gwen.

Morgs, you naughty, naughty girl!”

“What did you get?” said Merlin and Arthur at the same time, scurrying over to look, but Gwen had hidden the gift behind her back, her face as red as a tomato.

Morgana cackled loudly. “I got her gift from the same place I got yours, Merlin.”

Merlin darted behind Gwen and grabbed the box from her before she could protest. He took one look at it and positively howled with laughter. “Oh, this is priceless,” he whooped.

“What is it?” asked Arthur, curious.

Gwen snatched the box back, and said in a small voice, “She got me a vibrator…”

 

*

 

“So, got any resolutions for New Year’s?” asked Merlin later on, as they huddled around the television drinking hot chocolate. No one was really paying attention to what was on, but it provided some comforting background noise that eased their sporadic drunken silences.

Gwen giggled tipsily. “I always make it my goal to lose weight every year, but it never works.”

“You don’t look fat to me,” said Arthur.

“Oh, you’re sweet,” said Gwen, giggling again. “But I have high standards for myself when it comes to per-per-personal appearance.” She yawned widely.

“I’ve got a good one for you, brother dear,” said Morgana. She, like Arthur, was slightly less drunk than everyone else; the ability to hold one’s drink ran in the family.

“Do tell,” Arthur said.

Morgana said nothing, but eyed the rainbow mug that she had given him when he put it to his lips. “Make it your goal to be what it says on your mug.”

“‘Out and proud’?” Merlin said, reading off the rim. Then he turned to Arthur. “You never told me you hadn’t come out yet.”

“That’s because I have, for the most part,” said Arthur. “Just…not to my father.”

“But why?” asked Gwen with a look of concern. “Is he homophobic?”

“I’m not sure whether he is, actually,” said Arthur. “But knowing what I do about him, I would guess so.” He looked down into his mug, watching a lone marshmallow drift across the surface. “He wouldn’t take it well, either way,” he said, almost too quiet for everyone else to hear.

“You’ll never know if you don’t try,” said Merlin. “I mean, there’s no pressure, obviously, but I’m with Morgs on this; the sooner it’s done, the better.”

“Well, Daddy comes back on the thirty-first, so you can tell him then,” said Morgana. “I was thinking of spending New Year’s with Leon anyway, so I’ll say hello to him on my way out.”

“That’s as good a time as any,” agreed Gwen. “What do you say, Arthur?”

 

*

 

“How was your trip, Daddy?” Morgana asked as Uther entered the house. Arthur and Morgana had showed up only a few minutes earlier, anticipating his arrival.

“It went well,” said their father. “I successfully managed to secure ties with two new companies, so things will be looking up in the future.”

“That’s great news, Father,” said Arthur.

“Yes, yes,” said Uther dismissively. “Help me with my bags, will you? They’re not going to carry themselves, and my back isn’t what it used to be.”

Arthur shut his mouth and helped carry the suitcases into the living room.

“Daddy, you know I’d love to chat a little more about what you did on your trip, but I’m afraid I’ll be going out tonight,” said Morgana, helping Uther with his coat. “I’ll be watching the New Years’ fireworks with Leon, you see. I’ve heard they’re going to be fantastic this year, and I really don’t want to miss it.” She batted her eyelashes, giving him the best doe eyes Arthur had seen yet. “Could I please go?”

Despite his obvious exhaustion, Uther smiled at her. “Of course you can, Morgana. I hope you enjoy yourself. And say hello to Leon for me.”

“Thank you, Daddy!” She kissed him on the cheek, and went out the door. She turned back to add, “I’ll won’t be back until after midnight, so don’t wait up for me. Get a good night’s rest.”

Uther waved and turned away to pick up his briefcase. Morgana took the opportunity to give Arthur a thumbs-up behind their father’s back, mouthing “good luck”. Arthur only gave her a weak smile in response.

He hadn’t really planned on what exactly to say to his father, as Uther Pendragon was as unpredictable as the weather. Depending on his mood, the conversation could end very differently. It wasn’t that Arthur hadn’t thought to come out to his father before, but it wasn’t information that you could just spring on people when, say, you were in the middle of a meal, or lounging in front of the television. There had been instances when he had been alone with his father, and the words had been on the tip of his tongue; however, the window of opportunity had been snatched away from him every time, either by a new distraction like another person entering the room, or his father changing the subject to something completely irrelevant.

Merlin had called Arthur the previous night to give him a few last-minute tips, as well as told him the story of how he himself had come out to his mother, but it had helped little. Even now, he wasn’t sure how he was going to break it to Uther.

“So, Arthur, what did you and Morgana do over Christmas? Did you spend time with friends?” asked his father, as they moved to the study room.

“Nothing much,” Arthur lied, remembering what Morgana had told him. “We just got some takeaway for dinner. It wasn’t very eventful.”

“Really,” said Uther, regarding him with a serious gaze. “Then, why did I find that you’d spent so much money the day before that? Were you buying Christmas gifts, perhaps?”

Arthur opened his mouth soundlessly; he had forgotten that his father knew his credit card information. Morgana had probably forgotten because Uther didn’t know hers; for some reason, his father had always distrusted Arthur with matters regarding money, despite the fact that they were quite well off. He hesitated. “Um…I…”

“You’re even more dishonest than before, Arthur,” said Uther, shaking his head. “I have to say I’m quite disappointed. I don’t know what to do with you sometimes.” He watched him critically as Arthur wheeled the last suitcase into the room. “Is there anything else you haven’t told me about?”

Arthur’s heart felt like it had leaped from his chest and lodged in his throat. He struggled to speak for a few seconds. “There is something…” he said finally.

“Well,” said Uther, seating himself at his desk. “Out with it, then.”

This was it.

“It’s…something I’ve wanted to tell you for some time now…”

All the saliva in Arthur’s mouth seemed to have dried up, making it difficult to form words. He began to stammer, a trick[6] he thought he had gotten rid of years ago. “F-father, I-I’m – ”

“Come on, boy,” Uther interrupted sharply. “I haven’t got all day.”

Arthur closed his mouth and took a deep breath. “I…I’m…” He faltered when Uther leaned forward a little, but knew it was too late to turn back. “I’m…gay, Father.”

There was a long, agonising silence. Arthur watched with increasing trepidation as multiple emotions flashed across his father’s face.

“This must be a joke,” Uther finally said. His voice was quiet, but Arthur wasn’t fooled; he could see his father slowly going whiter in the face.

“It’s not,” he said helplessly, feeling his chest constrict and his heart beat faster.

“No,” said his father immediately. His jaw had tightened, making his chin jut out dangerously. Arthur could feel his hands beginning to sweat. “It’s just a phase, Arthur. You’ll grow out of it once you see sense.”

“I’ve known for a long time,” said Arthur, his voice cracking. “And I’m sure. It’s what I am, and I won’t hide it anymore.” He jumped violently when his father slapped a hand on the desk with a bang, sending several piles of papers cascading off the shelves and scattering on the floor. He continued desperately, “I wanted to tell you, but the time never seemed right – ”

“I WILL NOT HAVE A HOMOSEXUAL IN THIS HOUSE!” Uther shouted.

Arthur backed up against the doorway as his father stood up and took a menacing step towards him, his face murderous. He held his hands up, both in an attempt to placate his father as well as to defend himself if he should strike. “Father, please, just – ”

“Get out,” said Uther. His face had gone from white to red, and a large vein was pulsating in his left temple. “Get out, before I throw you out of the house.”

Arthur’s heart plummeted from where it had been in his throat to the bottom of his stomach, and he felt his knees weaken. He knew that his father would react badly, but he hadn’t expected this.

“I-I’m your son,” he whispered, knowing that this reminder was his last resort.

His father merely looked at him, hatred and disgust written in every line on his face. “You are no son of mine.”

Arthur’s body went cold. Instead of protesting further, he stared into his father’s cold, expressionless face, determined not to have another shred of his dignity torn away. “Okay,” he said, and distantly, he observed that his voice did not sound like his own.

He turned around and left the room, making his steps slow and measured as he walked down the stairs to the front door, opened it, and stepped out. He thought for a moment to look back, but decided he wouldn’t take the risk. He let the door close, and felt the cold from outside seep in through his skin and settle into his bones as it clicked shut. Don’t look back, he thought numbly, don’t look back…

He broke into a run as soon as he reached the street, without a single clue where he was going to go. Right now, all he wanted to do was to put as much space between himself and his father as possible. Arthur knew he couldn’t outrun his troubles, but he was too numb to care.

He ran through the streets, past red traffic lights and faintly glowing lampposts, past the homeless old man who always sat outside the bookshop, begging for food and money from passers-by, past the gazes of people still out at this time, wondering why a person was running in just a T-shirt and jeans.

He ran on even when the first snow of December began to fall, ran on when people stopped to gaze at the sky and laugh, ran on as the flakes landed on his nose and eyelashes, ran on when his hair soaked itself through with melted snow and froze on his scalp. He could not think. He could not feel. He could not…

Then, as he turned a corner, his feet suddenly skidded on a patch of icy slush, giving him no time to react before he was sprawled face-first on the ground. Arthur let out a gasp of pain as the wind was knocked right out of his chest. He tried to get up, but the agony was too much. All he could do was lie there on the cold, hard, unyielding cement while he waited for the stinging to fade.

It was only then that the tears began to fall. They burned his freezing cheeks as they dripped from his eyelashes and his chin, making tiny little pockmarks in the snow. Arthur cried silently, as he had always done throughout his childhood, stifling his hiccups and sobs so that no one would hear him, so that no one could see his moment of childish weakness…

He opened his eyes moments later to find a small, thin object lying to his left. Somehow, he had forgotten that his phone was in his pocket, and guessed that it had clattered to the ground when he fell. Though his jeans and the front of his shirt had soaked through with freezing water, he got to his knees and picked it up, wincing at the soreness in his shoulders. To his relief, the screen was only slightly scratched, and the phone was otherwise intact.

His first thought was to call Morgana, but then he remembered that she was with Leon. Her phone was usually off when she was with him, and besides, if she really was watching the fireworks, she wouldn’t be able to hear her ringtone over the noise anyway. Arthur thumbed the ‘recent calls’ button (he had to try several times, for his hands were so cold by now that his screen couldn’t sense the touch), and his heart gave a jolt as he saw the name of the last person he had called. Yesterday at 21:51: Merlin Emrys.

Without hesitation, he pressed ‘redial’ and waited for the tone. “Please pick up, please pick up, please pick up,” he repeated over and over like a mantra, hoping that Merlin wasn’t out watching the fireworks too. He couldn’t feel his fingers anymore.

Merlin answered after the second ring. “Arthur?”

“Merlin,” Arthur breathed, not caring how thick his voice sounded. “Oh, th-thank God you’re here.”

“No problem,” answered Merlin. Then, “Wait, what’s that crackling noise?”

“N-nothing,” said Arthur, but he was beginning to shiver violently. “J-j-just my t-t-t-teeth.”

“What?!” Merlin sounded frightened. “Where the hell are you, Arthur?”

Arthur looked around, noticing his surroundings for the first time since he left his father’s house. “Eat-t-t-ton S-s-square,” he said, fighting to get the words out; by now he was struggling to hold the phone to his ear, his hands were shaking so badly. “I was r-running – ”

He was interrupted by a litany of the most colourful swearing he had heard in his entire life. Arthur would have laughed if he weren’t so cold.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” said Merlin, his words coming faster. “Get up, and, I don’t know, jump around or something, just don’t stand there and freeze to death. I’m going to be there in five minutes, all right? Don’t go anywhere, but whatever you do, don’t fall asleep. Can you do that for me, Arthur?”

Arthur had lost the ability to form words; his teeth felt like they had been glued together.

“…I’m just going to have to trust that you will. Don’t you die on me, okay?” Merlin gave a high, nervous laugh that sounded tinny and false over the phone. “Okay? Okay.”

The line went dead.

Arthur tried to get to his feet, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate, so he sat up instead, forcing himself to sing a barely coherent version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” through his chattering teeth until help arrived.

Distantly, he heard the sound of an engine turning off, and saw two figures running towards him. “Oh my God, we only got to him just in time,” said Gwen, falling to her knees. “Quick, the blanket, before he gets hypothermia, and get him in the cab.” Arthur was immediately wrapped in a bundle of warmth, but his mind was already beginning to go fuzzy.

“Arthur. Arthur!” said Merlin, sounding panicked. He let out another long string of profanity when Arthur didn’t respond immediately. “Can you speak? Say something!”

Arthur looked straight into Merlin’s piercing blue eyes, but only managed to say, “Tell Morgs,” before the world around him dissolved into a hazy, swirling mist of white, blissful nothingness.

 

*

 

It was too hot. Arthur couldn’t breathe from the stifling warmth surrounding him. He rolled to his left…and was met with a face full of sofa.

Wait. What?

He sat up and blinked as the room around him swam into focus. Arthur immediately recognized Merlin and Gwen’s small but cosy living room, which was dimly lit at this hour. He made a moue of distaste at the colour of the warm fleece blanket he was wrapped in: fuchsia, with dark purple flowers embroidered along the edges. Then he noticed something else: Merlin was fast asleep with his head in his arms, lying with his top half on the sofa by Arthur’s feet and his legs on the floor. He must have stayed with him all this time.

Merlin seemed to sense that someone was watching him, because he made an endearing little groan and woke up. His eyes opened and looked around blearily, until they focused on Arthur and widened. “Arthur! You’re awake!”

In spite of himself, Arthur couldn’t help but snort. “Happy New Year, Merlin.”

Merlin let out a sharp exhale that sounded like a laugh, then lunged forward and gave Arthur a thorough bear hug. “You utter prat, you could’ve died,” he said into his shoulder, his voice muffled.

“Unfortunately for you, I don’t die so easily,” joked Arthur, squeezing back. “However, I do have a question: how am I not in hospital?”

“Ah, that was all down to Gwen,” said Merlin, sitting back on his heels. “She’s a nurse in training.”

Arthur’s eyes widened, impressed. “Wow. She never said.”

Merlin shrugged. “She’s always been pretty humble about her achievements.”

“Remind me to thank her for saving my life,” said Arthur gratefully. “And you too, of course,” he added hastily, “because if you hadn’t been there when I called, I probably would have ended up in a bad place.”

“It was my pleasure,” said Merlin, beaming at him. Then his expression turned serious. “Don’t you ever scare me like that again.”

“I won’t,” Arthur promised.

Merlin seemed to hesitate for a moment, then asked, “So, what happened?”

Arthur was about to ask what Merlin meant, when the day’s events came crashing down upon him. He reeled, feeling slightly sick as he remembered his father’s last words to him. You are no son of mine.

No, he thought furiously. No, don’t think about it, don’t think, don’t feel, don’t…

“Stop it!” Merlin cried, making him snap out of his thoughts. “Don’t…don’t do that, that…thing where you try to hide what you’re thinking, and look like you’ve been forced to eat a lemon or something equally awful! Christ, Arthur, you’re a functioning human being.”

Arthur stared at him blankly.

“You’re allowed to have emotions, so stop trying to conceal them like some robot. You don’t have to hide from me; I’m not going to judge you. It’s all right if you don’t want to tell me, but at least be true to yourself.”

Arthur couldn’t bring himself to meet Merlin’s wide, pleading eyes, so he decided to look down into his lap. “Father disowned me,” he said, his tone impassive, and Merlin let out a gasp. “He told me to get out, but I needed some space anyway, after his reaction. I don’t…I don’t know what to do.” His voice cracked.

“Oh, Arthur,” said Merlin, placing a hand on his knee.

It was then that Arthur noticed the state of Merlin’s fingers; the nails had been bitten down as far as they could go, and his right pinkie looked like it had been grossly mutilated. “Jesus, your nails,” he said.

Merlin looked down at them. “Oh, that,” he said sheepishly. “I bite my nails when I’m nervous, and, well, you gave me quite a fright just now, so I was biting them in the ca – ” He stopped short when Arthur took both his hands between his own. This time, it was Arthur’s touch that emanated heat, which contrasted with Merlin’s icy fingers.

Arthur’s voice was soft. “You’re cold.”

Merlin looked at him, and their eyes met, blue on blue. “I was worried about you,” he whispered back.

A feeling of warmth that had nothing to do with the blanket he was wrapped in welled up in Arthur’s chest – was it gratitude, or affection, perhaps? Their faces were barely inches apart now; Merlin’s face was so close, Arthur could count each individual hair on his eyelashes.

The silence dragged on as they stared at each other, unable to look away.

The quiet was broken when Merlin’s lips parted with a faint click. Arthur’s eyes were drawn to the sight as if pulled by a magnet, watching Merlin’s tongue drag itself across his bottom lip, leaving a glowing sheen.

He couldn’t help himself anymore.

Arthur leaned in and kissed Merlin full on the mouth, licking across the trail his tongue had just left and making him gasp. The angle was awkward, but Arthur didn’t care one whit; he tried to communicate with actions what he could not with words, pouring every ounce of the pent-up emotion he had felt over the past few weeks he had known Merlin into the press of his lips, the caress of his thumb when he reached up to stroke Merlin’s face, the sounds he made as they breathed the same air, shared the same space.

And Merlin kissed back with just as much fire, just as much passion, and Arthur lost himself in his touch, finally able to identify the warm feeling he had experienced earlier: the feeling of coming home.

Then, all of a sudden, Merlin was tearing himself away from him. He toppled backwards onto the carpeted floor. “No,” he said, his breathing coming hard and fast. “Arthur, I – I can’t.”

Arthur was dumbfounded. “What? Why?”

“I don’t want to explain,” said Merlin, looking away with an unreadable expression. “Just forget it.”

“Ex – excuse me?” Arthur spluttered. “What was all that you said to me earlier then, all those things you said about not hiding my emotions and being true to myself? Aren’t you being a bit of a hypocrite?” He threw the blanket aside, ignoring the instantaneous rush of cold air on his body, and knelt on the carpet so he was at the same eye level as Merlin. He reached up to touch his arm. “Merlin, tell me what’s wro – ”

“Don’t you fucking touch me!”

Arthur recoiled as if he had been slapped, but Merlin’s vehement reaction gave him all the more reason to try again. He reached for Merlin once more, trying to pull him in his direction –

“STOP IT! Leave me alone!”

Merlin tried to shove Arthur away, but Arthur had always been the stronger one out of the two; it didn’t take much effort to wind an arm around Merlin’s middle and hold him in place as he kicked and struggled on the floor. “Let me go!” he yelled.

“I won’t,” said Arthur stubbornly. “Not until you tell me why you’re shrinking away when you so obviously feel what I feel.”

Their position meant that Merlin was turned away from him, so Arthur couldn’t see his face, but when Merlin’s entire body started to shake and emit wracked sobs, Arthur realised that he was crying.

“Hey,” he said, stroking Merlin’s dark hair and trying not to think too much about how nice it felt. “Hey, hey.” When Merlin continued to sob, he echoed his previous words. “You don’t have to hide from me, Merlin; I’m not going to judge you. You can tell me.”

Merlin gave a little hiccup, which Arthur would have thought impossibly endearing under any other circumstances. “W-we had an arrangement,” he said thickly. “Y-you – hic – suggested it, so I did my best to c-comply. But I don’t w-want to – hic – get hurt again.”

Arthur frowned. Again? “What on earth do you mean?” He ran through his head the things he knew about Merlin over the almost-month they had spent together.

And one fact floated to the surface of his thoughts, something Merlin had mentioned during their first meeting…I’ve only recently gotten out of a relationship with this other guy, which ended pretty badly. He’s in America now.

Oh. Oh.

“That bloke you said was in America,” said Arthur slowly. Merlin’s head snapped up. “That’s who you’re talking about, isn’t it?”

Merlin froze, and Arthur knew he had hit his mark. “Shut up.”

But Arthur pressed on. “I’m right, aren’t I?” When Merlin didn’t say anything, he added, “What did he do?”

“I said SHUT UP!” With an almighty twist of his body, Merlin broke free of Arthur’s clutches and sprinted into what must be his bedroom, disappearing behind the door and slamming it shut.

Arthur ran after him, but stopped short when he heard the lock turn.

Arthur wanted very badly to hit something, but restrained himself and put his ear to the door. He heard muffled sobs, and the urge to take his anger out on random objects disappeared as his heart twisted at the sound.

“Merlin,” he said softly. “Please, let me in.”

There was a sniff. “No,” came Merlin’s voice through the door. “I came in here to – hic – avoid you, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Arthur closed his eyes. “Merlin, I’m sorry for bringing it up, all right? If I had known it would cause you this much pain, I wouldn’t have mentioned it.”

His apologies were futile. Merlin only cried harder, which made him feel even worse. Arthur waited until the sobs were reduced to sniffles before he spoke again. “Do you miss him?”

It took a long time for Merlin to reply. “I did, before I met you,” he said. “I – hic – I’m an idiot.”

“No, you’re not,” said Arthur, wishing that he could get through the door. “But why are you crying?”

“Because I’m scared,” said Merlin in a small voice. “Scared that this will go wrong, like it did with him. I don’t want to start this, and have you leaving me behind without telling me, like he did for America…” He started crying again.

Arthur had the overwhelming urge to hold Merlin, but could only listen to the door, trying to fight back his own tears.

“I thought that, if we had an arrangement,” Merlin continued, “then I’d have more control over things. Control over who left, and when…but now it’s happening all over again, and I can’t do anything to stop it.”

Perhaps it was better than Merlin couldn’t see him, because Arthur felt it was easier to tell the truth when he wasn’t looking directly into his eyes. Suddenly, he appreciated the division between them that was Merlin’s bedroom door.

He took a deep breath. “Merlin, there’s a difference between your past relationship and ours.”

“How so?” asked Merlin. He had stopped crying now, but Arthur could still hear the occasional sniffle.

“I have no intention of leaving, Merlin, because I actually have feelings for you.”

Arthur heard a muffled gasp from the other side of the door, and somehow, this gave him the courage to continue. “I like you, and…and I think I could really like you if you only just gave me a chance.”

He closed his eyes. You can do this, Arthur. “Before I met you, I was so, so alone. My father’s always had high expectations of me, because ever since Mum died, he’s always pushed me to be as perfect as possible, all because she apparently was. I lived my life in fear that I’d make the slightest mistake, because I didn’t want to be seen as anything less than perfect in his eyes. Do you understand how difficult it was? Being scared all the time, never being able to let down your guard, knowing that if you made the tiniest misstep, no one would reach out to help you?”

Merlin had fallen silent, and Arthur could tell he was hanging on to every word.

“But then I met you, and suddenly it was like this whole new dimension had opened up to me. I realised that before, there had been this emptiness somewhere inside, like a hole that needed to be filled. And the only person that could fill that hole was you. Because I’ve never been able to be myself with anyone except you, Merlin, and it’s not just because of the gay thing. I genuinely feel that you’re the only one who understands me, and when I’m around you everything else just seems to melt away.”

Arthur took another fortifying breath, feeling more reckless by the minute. After all, what did he have to lose? When the sun rose over London on the morning of the seventh of January, Merlin was going to walk out of his life forever. Suddenly, he wanted to do everything in his power to prevent that from happening. “And it’s not just that…

“I like everything about you. Not just physically, though I think your eyes are the bluest I’ve ever seen, and sometimes I just get the urge to touch your hair when it gets fluffy in the cold, but I also like the way you fiddle with your clothes when you’re nervous, or the way your cheeks only dimple on the left side when you smile, or the way you think of creative insults at the most unexpected moments, and I want to know more about your passions, your fears, your dreams…and to be quite honest with you, your smile is the only one I want to see out of the seven billion smiles in this godforsaken world, and I can’t bear the thought of never seeing you again, so please, Merlin, just…give us a try.”

For a long moment, Merlin was so quiet Arthur thought that he had gone to bed and fallen asleep in his room. But then he said, “That thing you said about holes needing to be filled…was that supposed to be suggestive?”

Arthur hadn’t expected that. A surprised laugh escaped him, and he pressed his forehead to the door, imagining that Merlin was doing the same. “Will you please open up now? I need to see you.”

There was a slight pause, and then Arthur felt the door come away, and there stood Merlin in the doorway with a small smile on his face. Merlin’s eyes were red and puffy, and his cheeks covered in tear streaks, but to Arthur, he looked exactly the same as he always did. “This good enough for you?” he asked.

They stared at each other for a long moment.

“Would it be massively inappropriate, and not to mention dangerous,” Arthur said slowly, “if we just forgot about the arrangement we made, and snogged the living daylights out of each other?”

The edge of Merlin’s lip curled upwards. “In my expert opinion? Very dangerous, I would say.”

They did anyway.

 

*

 

Arthur:     I just had an idea – want to meet at Starbucks this afternoon? You know which one ;)

Arthur:     It’s just for old time’s sake.

Arthur:     I mean, only if you want to, obviously.

Arthur:     ...Merlin?

Merlin:     soz, was reminiscing. c u there :)

Arthur:     Okay.

Arthur:     I love you.

Merlin:     DAMMIT

Arthur:     What?

Merlin:     DID YOU JUST SAY I LOVE YOU TO ME FOR THE FIRST TIME VIA TEXT

Arthur:     No, surely I’ve told you that before.

Arthur:     On second thoughts...

Arthur:     Shit. I think I haven’t.

Arthur:     Oops.

Merlin:     I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU

Arthur:     Sorry...

Arthur:     You forgot to say something back though.

Merlin:     prat

Arthur:     Idiot.

Merlin:     luv u 2 <3

 

THE END

 

[1]trick (verb): to cunningly deceive or outwit

[2] trick (noun): a cunning or skillful act or scheme intended to deceive or outwit someone

[3]trick (noun): a clever or particular way of doing something

[4]trick (noun): a skillful act performed for entertainment or amusement

[5]trick (noun): an illusion

[6]trick (noun): a peculiar or characteristic habit or mannerism