There were five rings around the knot in the overhead wood beam and Arthur wasn’t here yet.
Merlin shifted his shoulders. The leather of the sofa creaked under the thick blankets, discordant in the warm stillness of the living room. Above him, the shifting glow of the fire got lost and swallowed into the darkness of the rafters, the tall ceiling of the ski lodge. Snow fell outside. It was hard to see from where he was with the glare of the fire hot against his cheek and the reflection of the lit Christmas tree over the windows, but it was—steadily since dinner with no sign of stopping.
A light came on in the kitchen and Merlin peered above the top of the sofa, across the open space of the lodge to the other pocket of light besides his own.
“Sorry,” Freya whispered when she saw him. “Did I wake you up?” Her socked feet made a faint gliding sound over the wood floor.
Merlin shook his head. “I wasn’t sleeping.”
She looked at him for a moment, took a sip of her water, hair long and messy, pajamas too big. “Are you waiting for Arthur? You know he said he didn’t know if he would come tonight or tomorrow.”
“No,” Merlin said, dropping back on his covers. “Just waiting for Santa.”
“Santa won’t come if you’re awake.” She smiled down at him and pushed on his forehead with the tip of one finger. “Go to sleep, moron.”
He mock-grumbled and turned on his side, buried his face in the blankets and listened to her laughter, the retreat of her footsteps, and the muted click of the switch.
There were twenty-three stones around the mouth of the fireplace and Arthur wasn’t here yet.
Merlin must have dozed off because when he opened his eyes the flames in the grate were ember-low. He wondered what had woken him up when the beams of a car’s headlights flashed through the room, followed by the crunching sound of tires on snow, and the silence following a cut engine.
He got up quick, bare feet sticking to the floor as he ran to the door—left unlocked just in case—opened it and stuck his head out, toes curling in the cold draft coming in.
“Arthur?” he said, not daring to raise his voice in the quiet dark, the pitch-black mass of the trees through the snow, still falling in that eerie way of movement without sound.
“Yeah,” Arthur’s voice came back as he attempted to close the car door without making any noise.
Merlin stomped his feet and curled his shoulders until Arthur appeared on the lodge’s covered porch, all wrapped in his coat, bags in his arms.
“Hurry, it’s cold,” Merlin said, unable not to smile at Arthur grinning at him, half-hidden in his scarf.
Merlin closed the door behind him and took his bags, putting them down out of the way, his hands then fluttering around Arthur, wanting to help him out of his coat, take his hat, his gloves, saying, “Give me—Are you—?” all whispered and low. He took a step forward and stepped into snow left by Arthur’s boots, grimaced at Arthur’s low laugh.
“Bloody hell, Merlin. Give a bloke some space.”
“Sorry,” Merlin whispered. He wiped his foot on the small carpet then walked to the sofa, pushed closer to the fire so that if he sat on its edge and stretched his long legs out, he could toast his toes.
It didn’t take long for Arthur to drop beside him with a long sigh, tilting his head back.
“Tired?” Merlin asked.
Arthur hummed. “Long drive. Roads were awful.” As if to confirm his words, a great gust of wind blew around the lodge, whistled through the cracks. “Did I wake you up?” Arthur picked at the blankets under him.
“You didn’t.” Merlin settled beside him so his shoulder was flushed against Arthur’s, feeling cool still but heating up quick with the heat, both the fire’s and his body’s. “Your room is the third on the left if you want to sleep. You look knackered.”
Arthur glanced at the dark hallway. “Why aren’t you sleeping there instead of here?”
“It’s yours. Wanted you to have it in case.”
“I wouldn’t have minded kicking you out, you know.” Arthur nudged him with his elbow, and Merlin couldn’t help listing into him a little, head heavy, wanting to rest on Arthur’s shoulder. Instead, he got up and put a couple of logs in the fireplace.
“This is nice,” he said. “I’ve got a fire and a Christmas tree, and besides—” He shook his head.
Arthur stood, came to lean on the mantel, fingertips dangling down to graze the top of the poker, and when Merlin looked from the fire to his face, Arthur was grinning. “Were you worried about me, Merlin?” he said, lower than before, conspiratorially, mockingly batting his eyelashes.
Merlin laughed. “Fuck off.”
The wind shook across the lodge, whisked snow into storm, and Arthur’s face was half in shadow, the glittering lights of the tree hitting his blond hair. The fire crackled.
“You’re right,” Arthur said. “This is quite cozy.” He had the softest smile Merlin had ever seen on anyone, eyes wide and shining even in the dimness and Merlin knew this was a testament to their friendship, to how much Arthur trusted him, to let himself be seen like that. Like Merlin could touch all his tender places and dig to the center of him, press on all his bruises. Arthur knew Merlin never would.
“I’m waiting for Santa,” Merlin said, nodding toward the tree so Arthur would see the little table and the milk and cookies on it. “So far he’s a no show.”
“Are those Sefa’s cookies?” Arthur was already by the table, like the big glutton he was. Merlin felt himself go tender at his giddy look, the way his eyes batted closed in delight as he chewed on one of Sefa’s Special Santa Not For You Merlin cookies.
Merlin hit his hand reaching for another one. “Are you Santa? Not for you.”
Arthur mocked pouted—though both of them knew very well Sefa made them for Arthur—then brightened. “Speaking of. Help me with this.” He grabbed one of the big bags by the door and brought it back to the tree.
It was a perfect tree.
Arthur had it delivered to the lodge only a few days ago. It looked good during the day—pine green vibrant against the wood of the lodge, cheery ornaments sparkling with sunlight coming in through the windows. But it was nothing compared to now, in the dark of night, lit up from the inside in reds and golds and blues and greens. A beacon, maybe, steadfast and reassuring and a little bit magic with how it covered them, loomed above both of them as they kneeled and unpacked Arthur’s bag to lay the clumsily wrapped gifts at its foot, like offerings.
Merlin felt silly, the dizzy feeling inside of him—shiny and excited and childish—bubbling out of him in laughter. His knee bumped against Arthur’s, their hands crossed and brushed, quiet and furtive.
“There,” Arthur said, sitting on his haunches, eyes scanning the rumpled, colourful, shimmering mass of paper held together with golden bows. “I think that’s all. Ho ho ho.”
But Merlin was watching him, the line of his cheekbone and the way he bit his lip, careful when he reached out to adjust a card on a gift. Something churned inside Merlin, right in the pit of him, uncoiling like a spool, pulsing warm.
There were thirty-six gifts under the tree and Arthur was here.
I missed you was what sat on Merlin’s tongue. I was worried.
He watched his distorted face in the round gold ornament in front of him—sparkles from the lights bouncing off it, right on the edge where Merlin’s ear ended—and beside him Arthur, watching him.
Merlin turned his head and they were so close like this, limned in shadows and fairy lights, the glitter of Christmas, the fire at their backs.
“Merry Christmas,” Arthur whispered, reaching out for Merlin’s elbow to hold himself steady, close enough for Merlin to see the tree reflected in his eyes.
“You too,” Merlin said, just as low. Arthur’s fingers were warm, even through Merlin’s worn cotton shirt, thumb gently brushing the inside of his elbow.
“Okay.” Arthur stood and glanced around while Merlin stared up at him. He cleared his throat and rubbed his palms on his thighs. He said, “I have something for you,” reaching out to help Merlin up.
“Ooooh, do I get my present before everyone?”
“Yup. Go sit down.”
Merlin flattened the covers on the sofa, and made grabby hands at Arthur when he came back, box in hand.
“Is it embarrassing?” he said. “Is that why you’re giving it to me right now?”
“Possibly for me. Depending.”
Merlin stopped, fingers tangled in the ribbon. “A mystery. I’m intrigued. Maybe I should wait until tomorrow, in front of everyone.”
Arthur knocked his knee on Merlin’s thigh. “Shut up. We both know you can’t resist opening it now and—” He paused. “It’s better now. It’s better if you—yeah.”
Merlin took a deep breath, air getting stuck on the way out in the tight space of his chest—something about Arthur’s look, the way he stared too intently at the fire, then at his hands loosely clasped between his legs.
Merlin slowed down, careful with the knot and the corners, suddenly wanting to not rip the paper, nor break the box. It felt important somehow. Worthy of preservation.
“Jesus,” Arthur muttered. “Fucking get on with it.”
Inside the box, nested in thin silk paper: a brown teddy bear holding a silk red heart, the words ‘I love you beary much’ embroidered across it.
Merlin blinked. “What?”
It was just a joke. Or it became a joke after the first time anyway. Somewhere along the line in between classes and vacations in their somewhat chaotic dating lives. Something to say—
“What?” he heard himself repeat. A log slipped and fell in the fireplace, embers sparking out. Arthur leaned forward and grabbed the poker, used it to poke at the logs. The back of his neck was dark red in the muted shadows, the line of his nose and edge of his cheek glowing. Merlin buried a hand in the box, around the bear and squeezed the soft fur.
It’d been Arthur and Sophia’s one year anniversary and it had coincided with Valentine’s Day. Merlin had thought it a good idea, said the bears were cute and funny in an ironically cheesy way. Arthur had agreed. Sophia had thought it lacked forethought and commitment. In hindsight, she hadn’t been wrong.
“I still think it’s cute,” Merlin had said, drunk on Arthur’s floor.
“You keep it then,” Arthur had replied, leaning over the edge of his bed and rubbing the bear hard on Merlin’s face, laughing like an idiot.
But now it was December not February, and it was all a long time ago.
Arthur sat beside Merlin, rolled his head to the side on the sofa to look at him with a soft smile. “You’ll get there.”
“Sod off, I’m just—”
It was just a joke. Merlin, what should I give Lucy? A teddy bear. Arthur, what should I give William? A teddy bear. Didn’t matter the season, it was ‘I love you beary much’ for all occasions even if they never ended up buying any, not after that first time. Just a joke. For the first jitters, the long anxiety of not knowing, worried about how to please the other person. The lazy solution. Except.
“Take your time,” Arthur said with a laugh. But his hand hesitated over Merlin’s knee just for a second, so brief no one would have noticed except Merlin was watching, saw Arthur’s fingers curl slightly, almost shy about it, pat his knee then push himself up.
Merlin’s heart hammered in his chest, throbbed in his throat. The teddy bear stared at him, judgement in its eyes. Because it was the lazy solution. But it was December, not February, and—
“Arthur!” Merlin said in a harsh, urgent whisper as loud as he dared. He twisted around quick, found Arthur just by the hallway, bag in his hand, going to bed. “Arthur”. Merlin tried to climb over the sofa, legs twisted in the covers which slid against the leather, flattening him, chin knocking on the back of the sofa. “Fuck, shit, dammit.”
He untangled himself and tried again, heat sparking over and under his skin, too hot in his pajamas. He stood on the sofa, got one knee on the back prepared to jumped over it when he was stopped by Arthur’s hand.
“You’re fucking hopeless,” Arthur said, upturned face and wide eyes and fondness all across it all.
“Shut the fuck up and kiss me.” Merlin knew he was smiling because his teeth collided with Arthur’s when their mouths met and it was terrible and amazing—a clacky slide that made Arthur wince. Merlin couldn’t stop smiling, and couldn’t kiss Arthur properly because his knee kept slipping on the leather.
“You should come to bed with me,” Arthur said, sliding his mouth over Merlin’s chin, down his neck, soft soft soft lips in a long drag. Merlin jerked and clung to Arthur’s shoulder.
“Yes.” He pushed the covers away, balling them up and dropping them on the floor. He grabbed Arthur’s hand and made for the hallway, the bedroom.
“Wait,” Arthur said. He went to the tree and grabbed the two cookies left on the plate and the glass of milk. “Okay, we can go now.”
Merlin laughed and pushed Arthur gently against the wall of the hallway, into the shadows where neither the lights from the tree nor from the fire could reach them, where his jaw was just a line of deep blue, rough under Merlin’s mouth.
“I missed you,” he said, because it was true even if he just saw Arthur four days ago. “And I was worried.”
There was a glass of water and a bunch of tissues on the bedside table and—Merlin patted the bed behind him—Arthur wasn’t here.
Laughter and thick pastry smells came from behind the closed door and it was Christmas morning. Merlin got up, naked skin breaking out in goosebumps once outside the comfortable cocoon of the blankets and into the cooler air of the room. He put on his pajamas and pushed open the curtains.
It had stopped snowing. The world was thickly white and sunshine-bright. Snow hung heavy on the pines, ice sparkled on the naked branches of the trees. It was an immaculate landscape, except for—
“Uh.” Merlin turned around and left the bedroom. “There’s a giant snow-dick outside,” he said turning the corner into the open space of the kitchen-dining area.
“Merry Christmas!” everyone yelled. Morgana was sitting at the already full-with-food table drinking coffee, Arthur beside her piling his plate high with pancakes and sausages. Sefa stood at the stove flipping more pancakes, then putting them in the oven to keep warm, Freya sitting on the counter beside her. They all looked ridiculous in their Christmas sleepwear, but then again, so did Merlin.
“That’s on me and Elena, mate,” Gwaine as he closed the door of the refrigerator, his felt deer antlers jiggling.
“We were bored,” Elena added, head popping up from behind the counter. There was a loud clanging of pots. “Go it!” She put the salvaged colander in the sink.
Merlin sat beside Arthur and was immediately served a glass of orange juice and three pancakes. “Where are Leon and Percival?”
“Outside, playing lumberjacks,” Morgana said, adorable with her hair messy and piled high on her head, dressed in red and green plaid pajamas.
“Someone should tell them to come in,” Elena said.
“Yes, food’s ready.”
“Do we have raspberry jam?”
“Where’s the butter?”
“Gwaine, get out of my way and go get the boys.”
“Do we have enough, do you think?”
“Sefa, I think we could survive the apocalypse on this.”
“For fuck’s sake, Gwaine, stop hogging the jam!”
“Ah, here they are! Get your coats off and come eat!”
Merlin smiled into his glass of juice and peered sideways at Arthur, too busy shoving a sausage in his mouth to comment on anything. He caught Merlin’s look and smiled around his mouthful, hooked his ankle around Merlin’s under the table.
Bright white daylight flooded in. A brisk smell of snow and pine wafted in when Percival and Leon came in, the air now sweet and sharp all at once, tinged with voices and laughter Merlin adored. And still lingering in the small space between him and Arthur was the memory of his skin under Merlin’s hands, of his mouth against his, of their muffled moans.
“Let’s eat!” Percival said, pulling out a chair and sitting down.
“Then we open the gifts, right?” Elena said as she reached across the table to swat away Leon’s hand and grab the syrup first.
“Already got mine,” Merlin said.
“Was it Arthur’s dick?” Gwaine asked, and the whole table laughed.
“The whole package actually.”
“Huge package,” Arthur said, mouth still full, hands coming apart like he was showing them how big a fish he had caught. “Huge.”
Morgana groaned. Gwaine fistbumped Arthur. Freya patted Merlin’s shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Elena said. “We love you both beary much.”
“This is such a beary great surprise.”
“Beary beary happy for you both.”
“What a beary interesting development.”
“Such a beary cute couple.”
Arthur was red, tips of his ears flushed and dark and Merlin wanted to reach out and touch them. He wanted to touch Arthur all the time, so he slip his hand under Arthur’s shirt instead, right along the silky skin of his side, left his fingers there.
Freya leaned toward him while everyone was laughing. “You left it on the sofa,” she said.
“Well,” Morgana said, loudly. “Now we know the damn thing works.”
“Yes. On Merlin.”
“Well, he did come up with the idea in the first place, no?”
Merlin let them talk. He put his chin on Arthur’s shoulder, lips by his ear. “I’ll show you again how great it worked on me,” he said. “Again and again and again.”
It was easy, when Arthur turned his head, to catch his smile, right there at the corner, amongst jeers and whistles and the blinding winter light.