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December 4th

Arthur lives for Tuesday and Friday lunchtimes. Mondays and Thursdays, he uses the time to make a stop at the gym and eats something healthy at his desk later. Wednesdays, he arranges some sort of business lunch. Tuesdays and Fridays, however, he takes a walk through the city, finds a quick meal, and goes to Dragon Books. It’s become a haven, of sorts, over the past year since he took over his father’s company, and generally just walking through the door is enough to relax him.

This particular Tuesday, he’s not even sure he’ll get that moment of peace, as he’s been pacing outside on the pavement on the phone for the past fifteen minutes and his sister still shows no signs of shutting up. “Are you sure you don’t mind?” Morgana says for the third time.

“It’s fine, Morgana. It isn’t as if we’ve ever been religious, and Morgause is your sister too.” He makes a face at that, because he’s being a good brother but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. He has no right to feel betrayed, he reminds himself, and thinks of something polite to say. “Besides, Zurich at Christmas must be lovely, you ought to take advantage of the opportunity.”

She skips offering to bring him along, because they all know how terribly that would work out. Instead, she gets to the meat of the issue. “It’s your first Christmas without Uther, though.”

“And yours. We’ll both have some new traditions,” his most likely involving a frozen dinner and a movie marathon, “and we’ll do lunch and exchange presents when you get back to town. You’ll be here for the New Year, won’t you?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss Leon’s party for the world.”

“There, then, that’s a tradition for us. Stop feeling guilty about Zurich, would you? I’ve got to go, it’s my lunch break and I haven’t yet managed to eat lunch.”

Morgana laughs across the line. “Oh right, it’s Tuesday, I ought to have called tomorrow instead. Do let me know if you … find any good books, and we’ll talk soon.” She hangs up before Arthur can respond, because she has a pathological need to have the last word.

Arthur sighs and debates between going inside or finding himself lunch, because now he only has time for one of the two. In the end, he decides that the protein bars he keeps in his desk for emergencies will have to do and that he’ll have a good dinner to make up for it. At the moment, forgetting about being alone for Christmas is more important than food, so he pushes the door open.

Dragon Books is a cozy shop, bookshelves somewhat haphazardly placed with a great many comfy chairs dotted between them and a back wall painted entirely to be a chalkboard where people scrawl quotes from their favorite books or recommend others. Generally, Arthur browses through whatever new books they’ve got in (after a year he knows their collection quite well) and then goes to the wall to see what’s new.

This time, though, he nearly trips on a box the second he walks through the door and looks down to find it filled with various holiday decorations. “Hello, sorry about the mess,” someone calls from the back of the shop, and Arthur peers around, tuning in to the fact that the shop’s speakers are playing someone crooning “White Christmas.” There are fairy lights strung up across the windows and the top of every wall, not yet plugged in, and all three employees of the shop that he’s seen in his time as a regular seem to be hard at work.

“No problem at all, though you may want to get this box out from in front of your door,” he says, giving a smile to the girl who works the desk sometimes. She’s standing on a ladder with a popcorn-and-cranberry garland and just ducks her head with a shy smile in answer.

The owner, whose name cannot possibly be Merlin even if that’s what Arthur’s heard his friends call him sometimes, pokes his head out from behind a bookcase and grins fit to split his face when he sees Arthur. “Oh good, it’s just you. Mind shoving the box to the side, mate? Sorry about that, as you can see it’s a bit of a mess in here.”

Arthur splutters. “Just me?”

“You’re in twice a week,” says the owner with a shrug, and disappears around a corner again. The song changes abruptly and he starts whistling along with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

That, Arthur supposes, is a fair point. If he knows at least little details about the people who work in the shop (like the stupidly handsome one being married, and the owner having a fondness for terrible pop music), it’s only reasonable that they recognize him in return. With a shrug, he lifts the box out of the way and puts it safely on an unoccupied chair before wandering back to the far wall.

The board, as it is at the beginning of every month, is erased, only a few quotes and recommendations scattered across it in the pink and light green chalk that are the only colors remaining. Someone has scrawled Marley was dead: to begin with across the top of the board in alternating colors, the handwriting familiar enough after months that Arthur thinks it must be someone who works there, most likely the owner.

Arthur thinks for a second, grins, and picks up his own piece of chalk to scrawl a quote: DO I DETECT A NOTE OF UNSEASONAL GRUMPINESS? NO SUGAR PIGGYWIGGY FOR YOU, ALBERT.

“Pratchett’s my favorite,” someone says from a few feet away, and Arthur does a very poor job of hiding the fact that he jumped. When he turns around, it’s the shop’s owner, who seems to have acquired a boa made of tinsel in the two minutes since Arthur last saw him and who is beaming in a way that makes him look mildly unhinged. “Good on you for having it memorized. And sorry for sneaking up on you. I just wanted to thank you for moving that box, I promise I don’t usually press-gang customers into helping me, but we’re a bit short-handed since Lance’s wife usually helps and she’s out of town and … sorry.”

It takes a second for Arthur to realize that the apology is for rambling on, because he’s still catching up on the flood of friendly chatter. Everyone in the shop enjoys chatting to customers, and since Arthur’s a regular they’re especially nice to him, but he hasn’t had quite this level of interaction inflicted on him before. “Not a problem at all, really. Though perhaps next time you might set your boxes down somewhere customers won’t trip on them.”

“Right, yeah.” They both stand staring at the chalkboard for a few moments, Arthur clenching his hands to keep from fidgeting. “You’re in a lot,” the shopkeeper finally announces.

“Every Tuesday and Friday.” That somehow managed to come across as both boring and pathetic. Arthur rolls his eyes at himself and dredges up some semblance of manners, which he must have left at the shop door, or perhaps on the phone with Morgana. “I’m Arthur. It’s a lovely shop.”

“Thanks. I’ve done a lot with it since my uncle retired.” He beams and sticks his hand out. “I’m Merlin. It’s good to finally get the chance to introduce myself, you’re probably our most regular regular outside of Lance’s wife, and Gwen is lovely but she barely counts, since she just comes to give him a snog and occasionally raid our new releases. Oh, and my flatmate, but mostly he leans about the place and says that he’s luring in business.”

Arthur shakes his hand, somewhat bemused at the flood of chatter, and picks something to comment on. “Lance is the other man who works here?”

“Yes, and Freya’s the other one.” Merlin scrutinizes Arthur for a second before looking down and producing a candy cane from his pocket. “Here, have this, you look as if you could use a bit of Christmas cheer.”

Much as Arthur doesn’t want to share his business with a stranger, he can’t help his wince at the thought of Christmas in his father’s massive mausoleum of a house that the estate agent has encouraged him not to sell until the New Year, probably without a tree because it’s silly to get one for just himself, probably without presents because he and Morgana will exchange them later. It’s a bleak prospect to say the least. His family may be dysfunctional, but at least they’ve always spent Christmas with him. “I suppose I could,” he says when a little wrinkle appears between Merlin’s brows. “Thanks for this, I don’t have time for a proper lunch.” That makes him fumble his phone out of his pocket to look at the time. “Fuck, I haven’t the time for anything at all, actually, bloody Morgana. I’ve got to run.”

Merlin’s smile reappears, if dimmer, and he keeps looking at Arthur like he’s expecting something. “Bye, then, and good to meet you again. I’ll … see you Friday, I guess.” His face brightens again. “Unless you’re secretly James Bond and by introducing yourself you’ve blown your cover and you’re about to move to Singapore.”

Arthur laughs, feeling inexplicably as if he’s been let off the hook, and heads for the door. “That’s it. You’ll never see me again, though now the safe house in Singapore is right out.”

“Merlin,” the girl calls from the front of the shop, “I’ve tried plugging the lights in and one must be out, would you come … do your thing?”

“Sure, Freya,” he calls back, and smiles at Arthur, twisting his hands together. “I’m a bit of a wizard with making electronics work. Shouldn’t you go?”

“Shit,” says Arthur, and barely gives a wave before heading out of the shop. He walks briskly back to the office, candy cane tucked in his pocket, and gets in five minutes before he has to be back to business, just enough time to grab a wrap from the sandwich stand outside his building and run up to his desk.

*

December 5th

Arthur’s Wednesday lunch meeting is, thank God, with Elena instead of anyone else. She’s been one of his best friends since they were both in nappies, for one thing, and for another, she doesn’t expect to be wined and dined at the fanciest places. He meets her outside of a seedy-looking diner that she promises has the best fish and chips he will ever taste and gives her a hug. They chat about nothing at all until they’ve ordered, and then sit back in the booth. “You look tired,” Elena says, brow knit. “You’re always so busy now that you’re heading up the company.”

“It comes with the territory, I’m afraid.” He nudges her under the table with his foot. “You look a bit blue as well. Care to tell me what’s wrong?”

Elena shrugs with such an expansive hand gesture that she nearly knocks over the salt shaker. “Ugh. Dad’s got some terribly-timed business trip that starts on the twentieth and he couldn’t book a flight back until the twenty-seventh, and I could spend Christmas with my Nan and six billion cousins, but I don’t really want to.”

“Morgana’s going to Zurich to visit Morgause.” He only has a second of glum commiseration before the idea occurs to him. “Elena, why don’t you just come to my house? Come over Christmas Eve, I’ve got a million guest rooms, we can have dinner, spend Christmas together, do a tree maybe. It’s ridiculous having us both on our own, and plenty of people spend Christmas with friends.” It might not be the same as family, but anything is better than being on his own.

Her face lights up with one of her brightest smiles. “Arthur, that’s brilliant, would you? I’m a dreadful cook, so I wouldn’t be able to help in the kitchen, but I could decorate. Do you mind if I bring a few ornaments for the tree? There’s a couple from my childhood that it doesn’t feel like Christmas without.”

Now he’ll have to get a tree, because he’s never been able to say no to Elena, but he doesn’t really mind. Now that he’s had the idea, everything feels lighter, and he’s got less of an urge to scowl at the radio in the diner for playing Christmas music. “Bring whatever ornaments you like, and I’ll get a few of my mum’s out of the attic. I’m not a great cook either, but maybe somewhere will deliver curry on the holiday. At the very least we can have spaghetti, even I can boil pasta if you don’t mind sauce from a jar.”

Elena grabs his hand across the table. “You’re a star, Arthur, December was looking so bleak and you’re cheering me right up.”

“The same to you, I wasn’t relishing the thought of spending Christmas alone.” The waitress arrives with their meals, and Arthur leans back. “Now, shouldn’t we actually talk business, so I can put this lunch on the company’s expense account? I would love to see their faces in accounting when they get the receipt from this place.”

*

December 7th

Arthur’s so glad it’s Friday that he ducks out for lunch ten minutes early and takes the time to sit down and eat a sandwich and drink a cup of coffee at a deli between his office and Dragon Books. When that’s done, he walks slowly to the shop, enjoying the crispness in the air that means winter is on its way and pulling his coat tighter around him.

Dragon Books is warm and decorated within an inch of its life, the overhead lights not even turned on in favor of the fairy lights everywhere and scatters of candy canes on all the tables. “You didn’t run off to Singapore after all,” Merlin says from where he seems to be putting together a display of children’s books. “I don’t know whether to be glad you’re here or disappointed that you’re not James Bond.”

Arthur grins at him. “If I were a spy, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”

“Or you’d have to kill me, yes.” Freya is behind the desk, and Arthur starts when she smothers a giggle. Merlin doesn’t, just rolls his eyes and goes back to reorganizing things in his display. “Shut up, Freya. Anyway, Arthur, looking for anything in particular today?”

“No, I don’t think so, though I ought to do some of my Christmas shopping here at some point. I’ve got a guest for Christmas that I didn’t have before, so I should find her something.”

Merlin raises his eyebrows. “Girlfriend?”

“Old friend. Both of us were going to be alone for the holidays so we headed it off at the pass.”

Merlin’s look is half pity and half something else, and it makes Arthur flinch. Visibly, if the way Merlin backs off is any indication. “Well, if we don’t have whatever book you want to give her, you should know that we’ll order books for you special.”

“Thank you.” They stand there in incredibly awkward silence until Arthur clears his throat. “Well, I’ll let you get back to work, and I’ll let you know if there’s anything I would like to order for Christmas.”

“Right, yeah.” Merlin ducks behind a bookshelf and pops out by the register, where he has a low-voiced conversation with Freya that ends in her laughing at him and ruffling his hair.

Arthur, after a second, shakes himself and goes to the back of the shop and the chalkboard. Someone (his money is on Merlin, though it could be one of the other shop employees—the handwriting looks vaguely familiar, at least) has written The truth is out there, but lies are in your head under his last quote, and he grins and moves on to the other threads on the board, since he hasn’t got a good answer to that one.

Someone with neat curlicue cursive has written Favorite winter reads? towards the top, and there are a few recommendations going down, everything from Dickens to Christie to Middlemarch, though Arthur’s at a loss as to why anyone would inflict that upon themselves more than once. On a whim, he chooses Ballet Shoes, mostly because he remembers his father reading it to Morgana the Christmas after she came to live with them and he’s read it a few times since.

“Pratchett to Streatfeild?” asks Freya from behind the counter. He turns around, one eyebrow raised, and she ducks her head. “Just a wide range of things, is all.”

“Streatfeild is my sister’s fault,” he explains, even though he knows it sounds like an excuse. “Pratchett I found on my own, though. I like reading lots of different things.”

She gestures around the shop. “I can certainly understand that. By the way, we got a new shipment in the other day. If you’re looking for reading material and not just the chalkboard, you should have a look around. Merlin or I can help you find anything you want.”

“Or order it, I’ve just been informed,” he says dryly, and she makes a point of looking over what must be an inventory sheet. “Thank you for letting me know, though, I could use something to read over the weekend.”

She doesn’t seem to have a response to that, and Merlin doesn’t pop out from behind any more shelves, so Arthur pokes around the shop and ends up with three mysteries and a biography of Marilyn Monroe, which he won’t be able to finish over the weekend but is too interesting to pass up.

“You do have eclectic taste,” Merlin observes as he bags Arthur’s purchases, Freya having mysteriously disappeared the second Arthur headed towards the register.

“My sister is an academic, I had to keep up with her somehow. Though she despairs of my taste.”

Merlin’s politely interested expression is ruined by his obvious desire to laugh. “She only likes great literature, or something?”

Arthur laughs and watches Merlin’s face ease up into a smile. “No, she just objects to the mysteries, she specializes in erotica.” To his delight, that makes Merlin’s ears go red. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to my office. I’ll see you Tuesday?”

“I suppose you will,” says Merlin, and waves him out.

*

December 10th

Mithian is the most competent person Arthur has ever met. He is constantly and endlessly grateful that she contracts her law services to his company and not anyone else’s, because aside from being good company (and a friend from university) she has beaten countless legal troubles into submission without batting an eyelash. This particular Monday, he’s looking forward to their meeting as a bastion of sanity in the madness that has been his day (he’s not sure how the new accounting intern managed to shred a year’s worth of files unchecked. He’s not sure he wants to know), so when she comes into his office with circles under her eyes and her jaw set he has to wince. “Are you okay?”

“Mostly fine.” She sighs and rubs her temples. “Sorry, I’m just all thrown off today. I love my father, but he’s a terrible Scrooge, and I like the holidays, so we had a row yesterday that ended in me saying that I’ll go see him on Boxing Day and we’ll pretend that we’re exchanging presents out of sheer coincidence, but it leaves me rather on my own for the day itself. I suppose there are worse things.”

Arthur winces, recognizing his own tone from last week. “I’m sorry, that’s shit. If it’s any consolation, Morgana has abandoned me for Zurich for the holiday, and it’s just me and … that’s an idea, actually.” She raises an inquiring eyebrow. “You know Elena, right? I’ve introduced you, at the very least.”

“Yes, we go out occasionally. What about her?”

“She was going to be on her own for Christmas too, and I figured I’ve got that obscenely large house so she should come stay with me. Why don’t you come as well? Christmas Eve through the day itself, bring whatever presents to open or give that you like, not that I’m fishing, and we’ll muddle through together. Dinner might be a disappointment, but we’ll keep each other company, at least.” Missing their families together seems at least slightly less sad than missing them on their own.

“I’m sure. I can’t help much with dinner, I’m afraid, I’m a good cook but only for one or two people at once. If I’ve ever got a family it’s going to be disastrous. However, I’m great at baked goods—if you want a pie or some biscuits or something, I’m your woman.”

“That would be amazing, and whatever you’d like to make would be lovely. I remember you making brownies whenever we had a massive study session, so I already know whatever it is will be delicious.”

“Flattery, Mr. Penn, will get you everywhere.” Mithian’s face crinkles into a grin. “If you’re picking up strays, I feel as though I ought to make extra food, though. First Elena, now me …”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “I seriously doubt that too many people are going to have sudden last-minute disasters that require them to find alternate Christmas plans, though if you make extra at least we’ll have leftovers.” He thinks back to his conversation with Elena. “If you like, bring a few ornaments for the tree with you. Elena’s got a few with sentimental value, and I’m getting a few out of storage. You should have a few reminders of your family as well.”

She rests her hand on his for a moment. “I will, thank you. Now, I suppose we ought to get round to business, since that’s what you’re paying me for. Everything about the contracts is pretty standard, but there’s one or two points I want to bring to your attention.”

“Right,” says Arthur, and gets to work.

*

December 11th

Santa’s a robot! proclaims the chalkboard at Dragon Books.

Arthur ponders that for a moment, takes a piece of green chalk, and writes I don’t think Doctor Who counts as a book underneath. It’s cold and stubbornly rainy out on the street, and warm and deserted in the shop. Merlin’s the only one working, or at least Arthur thinks so, since he’s humming along with some music in the back room and not talking to anyone except for the “Hi, Arthur!” he called out when the bell rang (Arthur ignores the fact that apparently he’s so predictable Merlin doesn’t even need to look to know it’s him).

Before he can look at any of the other threads going on (there’s one towards one edge on good books to give as holiday gifts that he wants to check in on), Merlin pops his head out of the back room and nods at where Arthur is writing. “My flatmate did that one. I told him television quotes don’t count even if they are topical, but he told me that his love for Donna Noble is true and pure and I could shove it. Also, hi. Sorry, Lance’s wife is back in town and he has the day off to … I don’t really want to know, to be honest, and Freya’s recovering from some twenty-four hour plague, so it’s just me today and I’m a bit frazzled.”

“Sorry to hear it. And I can’t blame your flatmate for liking Donna, though Martha was my favorite. I’m looking forward to meeting the new one, though.”

“I liked the Ponds, I’m still bitter about that,” says Merlin, staring contemplatively at the chalkboard. “And I hope you and Gwaine never get the opportunity to talk about it, he can get rather passionate about Donna.”

Arthur shrugs. “Who doesn’t? There are worse things to get passionate about.” There’s the sound of a clatter from the back room, and he starts. “Is everything okay? I thought you were on your own back there.”

Merlin goes bright pink. “Sorry, yeah, I think I just left some books in a precarious position.”

“Would you like some help?” Arthur asks before he quite knows what he’s doing. “I haven’t got anything better to do at the moment, and if you’re swamped I’m more than willing to assist you.”

After a second where he looks torn, Merlin grins and nudges Arthur companionably with his shoulder. “I should have known you’d have some sort of white-knight complex. I’ll bet you’re the sort to slay dragons and sweep girls off their feet.”

“Not so much the girls,” Arthur says, just as he would to Morgana when she’s particularly exasperating, and belatedly realizes that he just came out to a shop owner who is just barely past the point of acquaintance and working towards friend at this point. Possibly more, sometime, if he’s lucky, but he’s not counting his chickens yet.

“Oh.” Merlin’s sidelong look and quiet smile are enough to make Arthur’s face heat up. “Well, okay. Anyway, things should be fine in the back room. The wonderful thing about books is that they’re resilient.”

“Let me know if you need help. As you mentioned, I do come in here twice a week, I’m sure I barely count as a customer any longer.”

Merlin’s mouth quirks. “Well, since you buy things from us, you are by definition a customer, but I know what you mean.” He clears his throat. “I’ve thought for months now that it’s stupid we don’t know each other when you—”

The shop bell rings, and they turn in tandem as a man swaggers in, all shaggy dark hair and rakish grin. Arthur does his best to keep his hackles from going up, though it’s something of a losing battle when Merlin stops mid-sentence and abandons Arthur at the chalkboard with only a quick apologetic glance. “I brought you lunch, since you’re tied to the shop,” the man explains, holding up a bag and hugging Merlin around the shoulders, and Arthur is struck with the sudden certainty that the man is Merlin’s boyfriend, which he has absolutely no right to be annoyed about but somehow is. “Who’s your friend?” the newcomer asks, nodding to the back wall, and Merlin squirms.

Arthur has the awful sense that he’s about to be accused of being the other woman and steps in before that can happen. “I’m Arthur, just a regular customer. We were talking about a few things on the board back here.”

“He took exception to your Doctor Who quote, since it’s not from a book,” Merlin explains. That, it seems, makes the newcomer Merlin’s flatmate with a deep love for Donna Noble, and therefore less likely to be Merlin’s boyfriend. Which is absolutely none of Arthur’s business anyway, because he is barely Merlin’s acquaintance, let alone anything else. Damn it. “Gwaine, this is Arthur, Arthur, my flatmate Gwaine, don’t get him started on Donna.”

To Arthur’s surprise, Gwaine breaks out into a wicked grin. “A regular customer, are you? I’m betting that makes you the Tuesday-Friday bloke.”

Merlin closes his eyes in apparent mortification even as Arthur feels unaccountably warmed at the fact that someone at the shop has talked about him enough to make a stranger recognize him from so little. Before he can ask, though, or even decide if he wants to, there’s another crash from the back room, a good deal louder than the one from earlier, and Merlin lunges in what looks like abject relief. “Whoops, unsteady books back there, they must have knocked a shelf over, got to go take care of that.”

“Cheater!” Gwaine calls after him for no reason Arthur can discern, but Merlin just disappears into the back room, slamming the door after him. With a chuckle, Gwaine puts the bag of carry-out on the register desk and turns back to Arthur. “It was good to meet you. They’ve mentioned you, especially now that you’ve stopped being mysterious and started talking to them.” He looks Arthur up and down. “I suppose you’ll do,” he says, and wanders out of the shop.

Arthur waits a few minutes, even adding to a few different conversations on the chalkboard, but Merlin doesn’t seem inclined to come out of the back room and nobody else comes in, so he slinks out of the store fifteen minutes earlier than he normally would and calls Elena on the way back to the office to complain. “Sounds like he fancies you,” she says when she’s finished giggling at him. “And like you fancy him, which isn’t fair, you ought to have told me before.”

“I do not fancy him,” Arthur says, refusing to splutter, and ignores the way her laughter only gets louder.

“He sounds sweet, perhaps I ought to stop in sometime.” She pauses. “Or maybe meet his flatmate, he sounds like quite the character.”

Arthur groans. “I am preemptively banishing you from that establishment, nothing about this can be good for my sanity or my health.”

“Come on, Arthur, take a chance, have a bit of Christmas spirit! Faint heart never won fair shopkeeper.”

There is no rational response to that, so Arthur does the childish thing and hangs up on her.

*

December 13th

Leon calls at six. “I’m going to the pub, and you’re coming with me.”

“Do you have any particular incentive for me?” Arthur inquires, capping his pen on the latest set of end-of-year reports he’s checking over and starting to stuff everything into his briefcase. It’s rare Leon puts up the pub beacon, rare enough that he’s not going to put up more than a token protest. “Bribes, explanations, threats?”

“First round’s on me,” said Leon, sounding so glum that Arthur can’t bring himself to tease any more. “Can you come?”

“Sure, I could use an evening off work. Usual place? I can be there in fifteen.”

Leon gives a relieved sigh. “That would be great. Thanks, Arthur.”

Arthur packs up as quickly as he can, inevitably putting all his papers in disarray as he does, and gets out of the office. The skies are clearing, but it’s still warm for December and, the forecasts say, unlikely to be a white Christmas. Fitting enough, he supposes, since nothing else about the season is going quite as expected. With that thought in mind, he half-jogs through the city streets to ward the cold off and gets to the pub five minutes earlier than expected.

It’s a quiet pub, aimed for customers somewhat older than Arthur and Leon, who keep to themselves and occasionally play a game of darts on the dilapidated board in the corner. Elena’s father is actually the one who introduced him to it, and now it’s rare for a month to go by where Arthur doesn’t spend at least a night or two drinking with Leon or Morgana or other friends, and they’ve adopted the place as their own. Tonight, Leon is waiting for him, obviously moping with a pint in front of him and another one that gets set down in front of Arthur the second he sits down.

“Care to tell me what the trouble is?” Arthur asks, before getting struck with a sense of déjà vu. “Are you about to tell me that you’re alone for Christmas and terribly sad about it?”

Leon stares at him. “How the fuck did you guess that?”

“What on Earth is it about this year?” Arthur wonders, and then does his best to explain. “Morgana’s abandoning me for fucking Morgause in Zurich of all the places, so I thought I was going to be on my own for Christmas. Then Ellie told me her dad’s stuck out of the country for the holiday and I ended up inviting her to my father’s house, and then Mithian—do you know her? I forget—had an argument with her father, who apparently hates the holidays, and now she’s coming as well. What’s your story? I thought you were going to Canada because your parents wanted to visit your sister.”

Leon groans and takes a swig of his pint. “I was, but then I checked my passport this afternoon and realized it went out of date in August, and I can’t get it renewed this late and I can’t ask my parents to stay when my sister is pregnant, so I’m stuck in London.”

Before Leon can so much as look hopefully in Arthur’s direction (because he never would, Leon’s got a proud streak and is much too nice to foist himself on anyone anyway), Arthur forges on. “You can come to mine, then, make it an even four. It’s not family, but it’s better than nothing, and we’re all going to have a few special ornaments that make Christmas for us on the tree, so we’ll at least have that. Mithian’s baking desserts, though we haven’t got dinner figured out yet, and we’ll cobble everything else together as we can.”

“It sounds pretty amazing, actually. Your dad’s old house is big enough to house an army, you could take in three times as many for Christmas and barely put a dent in the place.”

“At the rate I seem to be taking in strays, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up that way. It’ll be one last proper party for the old house, at least. Father never liked entertaining much, but I hate for all that space to go to waste, even if I’m selling it in the new year.”

Leon toasts him. “We’ll see the place off in style, then. I’ll bring a few ornaments, there’s a couple I’ll have to wheedle out of my mum but she won’t want to take them across the Atlantic anyway.” He pauses and fidgets. “Have you already got a tree in mind? Only there’s a place my parents always use, and they’ve got great tall trees that will fit in that huge living room at your place. I’ve got a car and everything, I could do the tree.”

Arthur sighs in relief. “Would you? I haven’t even had time to think about it yet, and I’ve got no clue where one finds a proper one, we always had awful fake ones and if we’re going to have some semblance of a proper Christmas I didn’t really want that. Like I’ve told the others, bring whatever gifts from your family you have, if you aren’t doing them before or after, and don’t feel obligated to give gifts to anyone you don’t know. Looks like the party is starting Christmas Eve, and everyone can stay the night, and Christmas night if they like, and people will disperse on Boxing Day.”

“Of all the people I ever thought would be hosting holiday parties, it wouldn’t be you,” says Leon, and smiles when Arthur frowns, stung. “In a good way, Arthur. Who knows, maybe Morgana going out of town for Christmas is just what you need. You’ve not had an easy time of it, this past year, perhaps this will be a change.”

“I suppose. It seems wrong doing the holiday without family around, but I like you lot well enough.” He casts around for a less loaded subject when Leon just looks at him. “At least this will be an opportunity for me to watch the Doctor Who Christmas episode with friends around; it’s bound to be an interesting one.” That thought inevitably leads him back to Merlin and his flatmate and the odd moment before he left the shop the other day, but he ruthlessly tamps down the urge to dwell on it. Leon doesn’t need to know about his … whatever it is he’s got going on with Merlin. If there is anything going on with Merlin.

Leon, after a quick, suspicious look, allows the subject to change and doesn’t bring up Christmas again until they say goodnight. “Thanks again for inviting me, Arthur. It’s no good being lonely on Christmas, and we’ll muddle through.”

“It’s not for some huge noble cause,” Arthur mumbles, uncomfortable, and lets Leon hug him goodbye before he tucks his hands in his pockets and goes.

*

December 14th

Morgana, when Arthur tells her what has become of his Christmas plans, laughs for a good three minutes. “Shut up,” he says when she shows no signs of stopping. “You’re going to be with family, and I had to do something.”

She sobers. “I think it’ll be good for you. They’re all lovely, and I must say I feel less guilty about leaving you now I know you have company. I was afraid you would end up shutting yourself in that fucking mansion with a Pot Noodle and a Die Hard marathon.”

Arthur, attempting to eat a wrap, walk to Dragon Books, and talk to his sister at the same time, grunts and has to swallow before he can talk, scrambling for something light-hearted and misleading to say. Morgana is always uncomfortably close to the mark about these things. “You should feel horribly guilty, and sad besides, we’re going to have a wonderful time without you. A proper picture book Christmas.” Really, he fully expects the whole affair to be the sort of awkward that can only be mitigated with copious amounts of eggnog, but he can be forgiven for stretching the truth a bit.

“And meanwhile I’ll be enjoying intellectual society in Switzerland and possibly a spa day on Christmas Eve, yes, I can see how I ought to feel sad.” Her voice is softer when she speaks again. “I really am glad for you, Arthur. I know how much you like those three, and does it matter so much that it’s not family? With friends that good it’s close enough.”

Not really, but he doesn’t have the heart to say that to her, and it isn’t as though he doesn’t love his friends. “Morgause and I will just have to work out some sort of complex holiday custody arrangement of you in future. It would be easier if she would move back to London. Rome, Moscow, Cairo, now Zurich … where next?” He reaches the door of the shop but stays out on the pavement again. Bookshops may not be libraries, but it still feels wrong to wander about while on the phone.

“She thinks possibly Singapore.” Arthur can’t help laughing. Morgana’s tone sharpens. “Just what is so funny about wanting to travel, Arthur? Or about Singapore in particular?”

“No, nothing wrong with traveling, sorry.” He gets his voice under control. “Though I will object if she tries to steal you for Christmas in Singapore. She can come visit you in that case, as far as I’m concerned.” Even if that means he’s got to spend next Christmas with Morgause, heaven help them all. “It’s just a … friend of mine mentioned Singapore in an odd context recently, and I thought it was funny it had come up twice.”

Morgana knows him far too well. “A friend, is it? If you’re being coy, then it’s certainly a friend that I want to meet. Do you care to tell me any more, or shall I start guessing? It’s a Friday, and lunchtime, I can’t help but wonder …”

“It was Elena,” he lies blatantly. She knows it’s a lie, but like a cat, she prefers toying with her prey before she pounces, so he might get a stay of execution so they can have the conversation when he isn’t standing outside Merlin’s shop. Not that they need to have a conversation. God, he’s not even fooling himself anymore.

“Of course it was.” She sounds more pitying than anything else, and is interrupted by a flurry of noise on the other end of the line. “Fuck, I’ve got a student, why do the silly creatures insist upon talking to me when I’m on the phone?”

“Perhaps because you’ve got office hours,” he says, but she’s already hung up. With a sigh that even he has to admit is more fond than long-suffering, Arthur pushes the shop door open and is immediately hit with a wave of warm, cinnamon-scented air as the bells chime. Arthur smiles around as he shuts the door. “It smells like Christmas in here.”

Freya, putting up a display of calendars for the new year, waves at him and rolls her eyes. “Merlin is tired and he …” She pauses and visibly rethinks what she was going to say. “He’s been drinking cinnamon lattes,” she says firmly. “All day.”

“The scent’s lingered. Glad to see you’re well, by the way, Merlin said you were ill.”

“Oh, thanks, yes. And he’s in the back. Merlin is.” She looks back as if expecting Merlin to magically appear, and frowns when he doesn’t. “Merlin, you have a customer!”

Merlin, in a stunning display of grace, stumbles out of the back room, steps in a box, nearly falls over, catches himself on a smaller shelf, nearly tips that over, and then finally steadies himself with a yawn and pink cheeks. “Sorry, hi. Arthur! Wow, it’s already lunchtime.”

Arthur raises his eyebrows. “You look knackered, why aren’t you at home? You handled the shop on your own on Tuesday, Freya could do it today.”

Freya snorts softly. “Try telling him that. He’s particular about his days off.”

“Stop it, you two, there ought to be a rule about ganging up on me in my own shop.” Merlin makes a face. “No, Gwaine decided it would be a brilliant idea to keep me up half the night drinking and interrogating me about things that are none of his business, and I didn’t want to call out at the last minute, so here we are. I’ll probably go out early, but Fridays are sometimes busy days for us.”

“No wonder you were drinking lattes this morning,” says Arthur, trying to be subtle about helping Merlin to somewhere a little steadier to lean.

Merlin blinks at him. “Lattes?” Freya clears her throat loudly, and he jumps. “Right, lattes! Why were you and Freya talking about my coffee habits?”

“I was remarking on the air smelling like cinnamon when I came in,” says Arthur, with as much patience as he can muster. “So she said it was from your drinks.”

“Of course, the smell, wow, sorry.” Merlin peers around as if expecting the scent to become visible. “Do you like it? Maybe I should buy an air freshener for the season. Some themed ones, even, do peppermint next.”

Arthur shrugs. “Seems rather late for that, and you’d undoubtedly make your customers hungry, but then you might sell more cookbooks, so I don’t know.” Merlin doesn’t seem to have a response to that besides somewhat concussed-looking staring, so Arthur just nods and makes his way to the blackboard. Someone, under his and Gwaine’s conversation, has drawn an excellent rendition of the robot Santas from the relevant Christmas special. “Who drew that?” he inquires, more to Freya than to Merlin.

Freya smiles. “Gwen, Lance’s wife. She’s a graphic designer, and if you ever see a good picture on the board chances are she drew it.” She points behind the register, where there’s a picture of a dragon reading a book, a blown-up print Arthur had always vaguely assumed was from a children’s book of some sort. “She drew that for Merlin when he took over the shop.”

“She’s very good, then. If I ever want art for my office, I know who to contact. I might do, actually, after the holidays.” He grins. “The stodgy old businessmen would love that, I’m sure, it’s worth it for that alone.”

There’s no reason for “approving” to be the first word that comes to mind for Freya’s smile, but it’s all he can think of. “I’ll tell her you think so, she might even force one on you free of charge. Gwen’s apt to do things like that.”

“Nonsense, I can more than afford it.” Since Gwen’s picture trumps anything he might have said in answer to that thread (Gwaine’s response to his last one is Donna Noble says your argument is invalid in gorgeous calligraphy that seems completely at odds with his personality but which is undoubtedly his handwriting), Arthur moves on to a different one, where due to the Hogfather quote Merlin seems to be engaged in a spirited Pratchett vs. Adams battle. He puts in his two cents for Pratchett, notes down a title or two from the continuing thread on books to give as gifts, and attempts to eavesdrop on Merlin and Freya’s whispered conversation in the front of the shop. It doesn’t do him any good, but it does fill the time until he has to get back to the office.

“Leaving so soon?” Freya asks when he walks towards the door, no books with him since he’s still working his way through the Monroe biography.

“My sister took up far too much of my lunch break teasing me about my Christmas plans, since apparently I’m taking in everyone of my acquaintance who hasn’t got anywhere else to go this year, so now I’ve got to get back. I’ll be here again on Tuesday, though, I’ve got some gifts to buy and I really ought to get to work on that.”

“Gwen and Lance do that with us, for Christmas,” says Merlin, seeming a bit more awake, or at least awake enough to give Arthur a sheepish smile when he walks past the register, where Merlin is slumped on a chair. “Or did last year and plan to this year, anyway. Those two and Gwen’s brother and Freya and Gwaine and me. I think it’s great that you’re doing it too. I don’t like the thought of you—well, anyone—being alone for the holidays.”

Arthur smiles. “It may not be family, but at least it’s something. Get some sleep, would you, Merlin? And I’ll see you on Tuesday.”

“Might as well be family, after a certain point” said Merlin, and then “See you Tuesday” before Arthur can come up with a response to that. In the end, he just waves to Merlin and Freya and heads out of the shop.

*

December 16th

Sunday, after a jog in the freezing cold park, Arthur finds Elena and her ex-boyfriend, Percival having brunch. Theirs is the most amiable breakup Arthur has ever observed, so it isn’t the least bit odd to run into them having omelets at one of his favorite breakfast shops, chatting away. What is odd, however, is the guilty look Elena gives Arthur when he sits down at their table after signaling for a coffee. “Okay, out with it, what horrible stories have you been telling about me?” he asks, more in jest than in seriousness. Elena only tells horrible stories about people by accident, when she doesn’t realize quite how embarrassing things were for the people concerned.

Elena stumbles over her words, wide-eyed, to assure him she’s not maligning his character. “It’s not a horrible story at all, just … about Christmas.”

Arthur has a horrible sinking feeling that Elena and Percival have made their own plans and he’s losing part of his Christmas guest list before telling himself sternly that if Elena feels more like it’s Christmas with Percival around he’s got no right to be upset. “What about Christmas?”

“Would you mind awfully if there was another guest?”

Given the way Arthur’s life has been going over the course of December, he can’t even say that he’s surprised, though the relief that he isn’t losing Elena’s company comes as a bit of a shock. “I invited Leon the other night and I’ve still got plenty of guest rooms.” He turns to Percival. “Has Elena been giving you the details?”

Percival ducks his head. “Thanks, and yeah, she has, but you don’t need to feel obligated or—”

“Oh, shut up,” says Arthur as amiably as he can, taking a grateful gulp of his coffee when the waitress brings it to him. “You’re more than welcome, at this point the more guests the merrier. Leon’s taking care of the tree, Elena’s bringing ornaments—well, we all are, you should too, Mithian’s doing desserts, I’m probably making dinner if nobody minds boring food for Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner …”

“I could cook breakfast,” Percival offers. “On Christmas day. I make amazing pancakes.”

“There, see? It’s destiny, now you have to come, I have to taste these pancakes of yours.”

“They’re delicious,” Elena informs him with a hopeful smile. “You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“I’ve got enough bedrooms and spare couches to house more. Any particular reason you’re coming, Percival, or ought I stay out of your business?”

Percival shrugs and looks down at his plate. “Haven’t really got any family,” he says, and Arthur immediately feels like a heel even though he knows that wasn’t Percival’s intention. He knew it already, but for some reason hadn’t connected it with why he might be alone on Christmas. He can’t imagine what it’s like to not have even the stiff, sometimes-stilted Christmases that he and Morgana and his father always had—even a bickering family is better than none. It’s what the holiday’s about, after all. “I usually do some sort of volunteer work on the day, a soup kitchen or something, but maybe I’ll do it on Boxing Day instead. It seems like your gathering will be wonderful. As long as you’re sure you don’t mind.”

Sometimes Percival is a disgustingly good person. “I don’t mind in the least, as long as you don’t feel guilty for missing your volunteer shift. Though I imagine they’re just as grateful to have help on Boxing Day.”

He smiles. “It can’t hurt to miss a year for friends. I think the nuns will be relieved I’ve got something like family, after all these years, anyway.” Of course it’s nuns. Percival has got to be a robot, there’s no other explanation.

Elena squeezes Arthur’s arm so tight he’s half-afraid it might bruise. “You’re a star, Arthur. This is going to be an amazing Christmas.”

“I certainly hope so,” he grumbles, but he knows he’s doing a poor job of hiding his smile.

*

December 18th

“So, I feel like I should apologize for last Friday.” Arthur looks up from the shelf he’s currently perusing to smile at Merlin, who’s twisting his hands together, cheeks pink. Lance, at the register, is looking on in almost paternal pride. “I really shouldn’t have stayed in the shop when I was that much of a mess, Freya sent me home at two when I dropped a box of books on my foot.”

Arthur stifles his smile. “You don’t need to apologize, everyone has off days. It was rather hilarious, actually.” He sniffs the air, which smells of mulled wine today. “I see you decided on the air fresheners after all.”

Merlin’s smile goes a little forced. “Yes, I absolutely did. Anyway, I vaguely recall, through my sleep-deprived haze, you saying that you were going to shop for gifts today. For your academic sister who studies porn and your house full of unexpected strays, I’m guessing. Anyone else?”

He winces, but there’s no judgment in Merlin’s tone. “No, that’s all. Some of the strays will probably even object that I’m giving them gifts.” Percival especially. “They’ll have to live with it, though. Oh, and I suppose I should send something to my evil sister’s evil sister as well, so something for her.” He knows he doesn’t imagine Lance’s quickly-smothered laugh.

Merlin just grins, the last of the awkwardness falling away. “That sounds like a story.”

“It isn’t really, not that much of one, at least.” Or it is, but it’s hard to tell without maligning his father, which Morgana and Morgause are pleased to do at every opportunity but he would rather not. “Morgana’s my half sister, and Morgause is her half sister, and we’re both quite jealous of Morgana’s attention and thus will never get along,” he compromises on saying.

“I don’t envy you the holidays,” Merlin says.

“We split custody of her.” Arthur spends a moment considering a biography of some horse jockey for Elena before deciding it’s the exact sort of thing she’s likely to own already and moving on. “Morgause getting her for Christmas this year is what prompted me to start collecting friends to stay for the holiday instead.”

“That’s not all bad, then. How many have you got coming?”

“Four, now. Five, including me. We gained another over the weekend, it seems like every time I come in here I’ve found yet another person who needs a place to stay for Christmas. What a sorry bunch we are.”

“Just taking the opportunity not to be alone, I’d say. The magic of the holidays, and all.” Merlin gives a sweeping look around at his shop. “Do you want help finding books for your friends?”

“If only for expediency’s sake.”

“Okay, then. Tell me all about them, and I’ll help you pick a few things out.”

Arthur does, saying more about his friends than he would have expected and somehow, along the way, gaining more information about Merlin’s friends than he ever thought to have, how Gwen’s brother is in medical training and Gwaine has a fondness for horror novels that invariably give him nightmares. By the end of the conversation, Arthur’s overstayed his lunch hour so badly that he’s going to be twenty minutes late to the office, and he has a stack of book in his arms—from a beautiful collection of Rumi for Morgana to Georgette Heyer for Mithian to a copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends for Percival, who’s always dealing with children for work and looking for new things to read them. “Fuck, I’ve really got to go,” he says in the aftermath of laughing at one of Merlin’s stories about Gwaine and a one-night stand from hell. “Any second now my personal assistant is going to call me in tears. George really has no idea of what to do when things go the least bit off-schedule.”

“By all means, we can’t have poor George having a nervous breakdown. Do you want these wrapped?”

“Morgana always knows when I have things store-wrapped and mocks me for it, so I may as well wrap the others as well. Thanks, though.” Merlin rings him out and Arthur rummages through his wallet for his card. “I’ll be in on Friday, and then … well, I suppose the next Tuesday’s Christmas, so I won’t see you then. That will be odd, but I hope in advance that you have a good holiday.”

“It really will be weird, not seeing you.” Merlin gives him an intense look, one Arthur has no idea what to do with, not at one in the afternoon on a Tuesday when he’s got a paper sack of books and a counter in between him and the person who’s looking at him like that. “But I’ll see you Friday, so I won’t wish you happy holidays quite yet, yeah?”

Arthur nods, perhaps a little too vigorously. “Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for all your help, and I’m going to head off now.”

He flees with no dignity whatsoever and ignores George ringing him twelve times as he takes the long way round back to his office to clear his head.

*

December 20th

“So,” Mithian says when Arthur picks up his phone on Thursday evening, “I’m not making Christmas pudding because I’ve met absolutely no one who likes it, nor am I making fruitcake for similar reasons, but I am doing three sorts of pie, snickerdoodles, and a massive chocolate cake. Also I might have accidentally invited my cousin and her long-term boyfriend to Christmas.”

Arthur can’t help laughing. “Good job, mentioning the bribe first.”

“I am a lawyer, after all. Call it a plea bargain. Do you mind horribly? You know everyone else coming. Isolde and Tristan are lovely, just a bit … prickly.”

Since he already knows he can’t say no, Arthur chooses not to ask what precisely she means by prickly. “What are they on their own for, then? Everyone else off on a sudden trip to Aruba? Not enough guest rooms at his parents’ house?”

“Periodically Isolde gets into a fight with her parents and they tell her she’s not allowed to darken their door again until she ends it with Tristan. This one’s just ill-timed. Anyway, do you mind awfully? Tristan’s a great cook, I’m sure we could talk him into taking care of dinner.”

Arthur sighs. “You don’t need to convince me, Mith, I’m not an ogre. They’re your family, I’m not going to stand in the way of that, so bring them along. Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, whatever gifts they want to open, whatever ornaments they want on the tree. I have more than enough spare rooms.”

She pauses, in that way that means she’s deliberating over something. “If we’re overwhelming you with guests, you can tell us, you know? It’s one thing to not be lonely on Christmas, it’s another to be overrun. Should we pull back a bit?”

“I’m not overrun, I promise. I’m hardly doing anything, with everyone else cooking and decorating and getting the tree, and …” He tries to marshal his thoughts into some sort of order. Mithian never asks a question that she doesn’t want answered honestly. “This wasn’t exactly what our childhoods were like, Morgana’s and mine. I’d like to give it a shot while I’ve still got my father’s massive house, and if it’s with friends and not family, well … it doesn’t need to be a storybook holiday.”

Her voice is soft when she answers. “For what it’s worth, I think it’s going to be a lovely time. Let me know if you collect any more guests before Monday, would you? I’ll cook some extra dessert.”

“You’re an angel,” he says, and hangs up to make a note to air out another one of the guest rooms. He’s running somewhat low on them, but he can’t think of anyone else he knows who would need a place to be for Christmas, so he doesn’t worry too much about it.

*

December 21st

It’s snowing—well, Arthur chooses to pretend that it’s snowing. It’s more that it’s raining with the occasional appearance of something that could charitably be called a snowflake only because it’s too cold to be proper rain. It’s the closest thing he’s going to get to a white Christmas, and it’s his last day of work before a week and a half without, so he does his best to enjoy it even as he cringes every time an icy drop hits him.

By the time he gets to Dragon Books, his jaw is clenched against chattering even though he’s wearing a hat and scarf with his coat, and he’s never been so relieved to see the familiar shopfront. He walks in, and it’s just as warm as always, the Nutcracker playing over the speakers and the air smelling of cocoa and cinnamon. It’s all a huge relief, and a break from remembering that Morgana’s on a flight to Zurich, leaving him blue and a bit lonely against all reason, until he looks over at the register to find Merlin, Lance, and a woman with curly hair and her arms around Lance (which probably makes her Gwen) all slumped in near-identical positions of dejection.

“Are you all right?” he asks when Merlin looks up and gives him a wan smile. “You look like you’ve had some bad news.”

Merlin’s shrug is probably meant to dismiss Arthur’s worry but doesn’t stop him looking like a kicked puppy. “Issues with the holiday, is all.”

Arthur has to quell a smile, because it seems he’s heard more variations on those words over the past month than most people do in a lifetime. “What sort of issues? Anything I can help with?”

“Gwen and I are the only ones with a place big enough to host Christmas and not have people sleeping on the floor,” says Lance when Merlin doesn’t answer quickly enough. “Unfortunately, our heater exploded this morning, so the house is freezing and the basement is flooding on top of it. Our landlord’s out of town, so we’re figuring out alternate plans.”

“Gwaine’s and my flat is probably the next biggest, and we can manage it, it’ll just be a bit cramped,” says Merlin in a glum tone that paints a pretty clear picture of what “a bit cramped” will be like. “It isn’t made to hold six people.”

Six people, and Gwen and Lance would be sharing a room. Arthur would still be a guest room or two short, if he offered, but he’s sure he could find a few people willing to share. He’s an idiot for even thinking of it, of course, but somehow it seems like the logical conclusion to everything that’s happened over the last several weeks. Of course it involves Merlin. There’s been something going on between them all year, but the Christmas season seems to have accelerated it to a point where it’s only a matter of waiting. This might just be the push they need, and if it’s odd to have Merlin’s friends along too, well, his house is already full of friends and strangers. A few more can’t hurt. “I am about to make you a very awkward offer,” he warns.

Merlin’s head snaps up, probably as he remembers their conversations about Arthur’s strays. “You really, really don’t have to.”

“I’ve got … four extra rooms, I think. It might be three, a few people will have to double up. And a house full of friends and acquaintances and relatives of friends, so it isn’t as if you’ll be imposing. As long as some of you are decent cooks, apparently we’ve only got one out of my group.”

Gwen’s smile is warm and huge, and Arthur feels instantly a bit more at ease with things, with Merlin still looking poleaxed and Lance’s brows drawn together in thought. “Lance and I both cook, Elyan’s great, and Freya and Merlin aren’t bad. Gwaine should never go anywhere near a kitchen, but … are you really offering? You hardly know any of us.”

“It seems rather like destiny, you have to admit.” That, to Arthur’s surprise, is Lance. “It would help us out of a tight spot, but ...”

“You really, honestly wouldn’t be imposing.” Morgana’s voice in the back of his mind stops him before he says something unforgivably stuffy about having plenty of money to pay for a few extra guests for Christmas, and he scrambles for something else. “And if you cook, you’re probably freeloading less than most of my friends. Look, I know you barely know me, I’m just a customer, but you can have my card, talk it over, call me before Monday to let me know. Everyone’s coming over Christmas Eve, staying till Boxing Day unless they’ve got other commitments. Bring a few ornaments for our tree, help out with the cooking, haul over whatever gifts you want to open, it’s not anything formal. Just a bunch of friends trying not to be sad sacks on the holiday.”

Merlin, who’s been staring in apparent disbelief, finally seems to shake it off, at least enough to take a step or two forward. “You’re not just a customer, you’re a regular. You’re—but that doesn’t mean you have to …”

“I’m not going to regret asking you,” says Arthur with some asperity. “I don’t know any of you well enough for you to annoy me yet, if you’re axe murderers I’ve at least got some friends around to help me fend you off, and while I’m not the king of Christmas spirit, I would feel awful leaving you in the lurch when I can do something to help.” He fumbles in his wallet for a card and offers it first to Merlin and then to Gwen when Merlin just stands there with his hands twisted together.

Gwen takes it. “Thank you, so much, really. Whether we say yes or not.” She narrows her eyes at Merlin and then grins at Arthur when she notices him noticing.

There’s silence, after that, because Arthur can only assure them that they’re welcome and he’s not put out so many times before it becomes ridiculous. None of the others seem to be filling in the conversational gap: Merlin’s still alternating between meeting his eyes like he’s trying to see through his skull and looking anywhere else, and Gwen and Lance are beaming at each other in an alarmingly conspiratorial manner. Most days, once the chatter was done he would go to the blackboard and see what’s written, but it seems odd to do it with his offer on the table.

Before he has to make the decision to leave or carry on with the conversation, Merlin turns abruptly away and the shop phone rings. “Merlin,” Gwen hisses, only to be ignored as Merlin grabs for the phone and heads for the back room.

“That went well,” Arthur says to no one in particular over the sound of Merlin’s hearty greeting trailing off as the door to the back room shuts. “Am I right in assuming that he’ll be back there until I leave?”

“Probably.” Lance makes a sympathetic face. “We’ll talk about it, though, really. And let you know today, most likely.”

“That would be much appreciated, thank you. I’ll have to call my friend Mithian, she’s making the desserts. Enough for an army already, of course, but she likes to be prepared.”

Gwen smiles. “I think I like her already. And you. Merlin—they’ve been talking about you for months, you know, it’s good to put a face to the description.” She winks when he’s unable to quite hide how bolstered he feels about her slip of the tongue.

“The same to you, I assure you. I’ll leave you two be.” He’ll have to find somewhere else to spend the remainder of his lunch break, since he already rushed a quick meal and has finished most of his shopping, except for meal ingredients, which he’ll most likely pick up on Sunday.

In the end, he stops at a chocolate shop and ends up buying six boxes of chocolates that he tells himself are just in case even if they’re clearly for Merlin and his friends. As if to reward him for his optimism, Arthur’s mobile goes off as he leaves the store, showing an unknown number. He juggles his bags and answers. “So, I’m sorry about that in the shop, earlier,” says Merlin, and Arthur grins, ducking under an awning as the sleet gets a little heavier. “You took me by surprise.”

“Anyone normal would be flummoxed by a near-stranger inviting them for Christmas,” Arthur points out.

“You aren’t a near stranger, and I’m not normal.” Merlin’s sounding more like himself by the word. “We made quick calls to Freya and Gwaine and Elyan, and all of them seem up for it if you still are.”

“Definitely. Anything I ought to know?”

Merlin hums in thought. “Lance is a vegetarian, but not a militant one, so as long as there’s side dishes without gravy on them he’ll be fine.” Arthur makes a note. “Freya celebrates Christmas as a secular thing but she’s actually Jewish, so something kosher would also be good, but if my group’s doing a lot of the cooking that shouldn’t be an issue. You mentioned something about ornaments and presents?”

Arthur explains in more detail, assures him that dietary restrictions won’t be a problem (especially since Mithian has informed him that Isolde is also a vegetarian), and lists off his address before he gets back to his office. “I’ll see you … not Tuesday, I suppose,” he says at last, a bit surprised at himself. “Monday late afternoon to evening, whenever you happen to close the shop.”

“We’ll give you a call.” For the first time, it occurs to Arthur how odd it feels to be hearing Merlin’s voice out of context, across a phone line instead of in person. Before he can dwell on it, though, Merlin speaks again. “I’ve … shit, sorry, bunch of businessmen like yourself just came swarming in on a search for Christmas presents, and I’m not lying to get out of this, we’re about to be in a rush. So, thank you.” Merlin’s voice drops low and warm. “And I’ll see you soon.”

“See you soon,” Arthur promises, and listens to the click on the line as Merlin hangs up.

He’s quite sure he terrifies George showing up at his desk ten minutes early with a grin on his face and a huge bag of chocolates in his hand, but he doesn’t care in the least.

*

December 24th

Arthur’s always been an early riser, which stands him in good stead on Christmas Eve, when he gets up at seven to set his father’s house up for guests. He’s already bought food enough for everyone (and possibly more) based off the lists of ingredients Gwen and Mithian have been intermittently texting him, so it’s everything else that needs doing. He changes more sheets than he’s done in his life while airing out all the guest rooms, drags his father’s tree stand and paltry selection of decorations out of the attic, as well as the box of ornaments that Arthur remembers from their few proper Christmases. At one point, he panics and wonders if it’s one of the years where Hanukkah overlaps with Christmas and if he ought to go out and buy a menorah for Freya (as it turns out, he’s missed it, which he feels both relieved and somehow guilty over). He even wraps all his gifts in plain paper with ribbons that get hopelessly tangled.

By noon, Arthur is filthy, exhausted, starving, and sure that if the party’s a disaster it won’t be for lack of preparation on his part, and he’s just about to step into the shower when Leon arrives with the tree. It’s a monster, twice Arthur’s height and, once they’ve spent half an hour wrestling it into the tree stand and shaved off the top, just barely short enough to fit in Arthur’s father’s massive sitting room. When that’s done, Leon produces sandwiches from his bag and they eat the whole lot of them just in time for Elena to arrive with a car boot full of decorations and greenery.

“If any of that is mistletoe,” Arthur says when he opens the door, “I am kicking you out.”

Elena grins at him unrepentantly. “But Mithian told me that one of the latest guests is your new boyfriend! Don’t you want an excuse?”

“Boyfriend?” says Leon from behind Arthur, somewhere between worried and entertained. “Do you have anything to tell us, Arthur?”

“I need better friends,” Arthur mutters. “The two of you decorate on your own, I’m going to shower before anyone I have to impress turns up.”

Leon rolls his eyes. “You don’t have to impress us, Arthur.”

“He means his boyfriend.” Elena is either very bad at whispering or making sure that Arthur hears her, but either way he decides not to become further embroiled in that conversation and flees for his room, where he takes a shower and dresses himself as quickly as he can in jeans and a red jumper, his acknowledgment of the holiday.

Even though he can’t have taken more than twenty minutes, it feels like the house has filled up in his absence. Elena, Leon, and Percival are all strewing decorations willy-nilly wherever they can (and Arthur suspects he’s going to be finding greenery for weeks, the estate agent may cry), Percival wearing a ridiculous Santa hat. Mithian and a strange man who must be Tristan are in the kitchen unloading what appears to be a million desserts, and the blonde woman who is probably Isolde is poking about Arthur’s coffee table, which is covered in magazines and books he hasn’t yet got round to putting away. “Good God, and this is only half of us. Hello, everyone.”

That brings on a flurry of greetings and introductions (Arthur is struck with the sudden and unshakeable suspicion that Tristan and Isolde hate him, but there’s not a great deal he can do about it, so he leaves it be), and he’s swept right back up into decorating his home and playing host as well as he’s able. The next time the doorbell rings he sends Elena for it, since he’s halfway up a ladder, and a minute later Gwen and the man who must be her brother come in. She dimples up at Arthur from the ground. “Everyone else is still at the shop, even Gwaine’s been pressed into helping for the Christmas Eve rush, but we thought we’d come over early, help in the kitchen.”

“I’m Elyan,” says the man, hefting a small box. “Where should we put our ornaments?”

Elena answers that one. “Oh, wherever, we should probably all decorate the tree together, maybe after dinner? Do you know when the rest of them will be out of work?”

“Merlin says he’s closing the shop at four come hell or high water so he doesn’t end up staying till nine for one more panicked husband looking for Fifty Shades of Grey.” Gwen hands a plastic container of something to Isolde and unwinds her scarf. “Freya has the more realistic estimate of them getting here around six or six thirty. Is that too late for you?”

“Not at all,” Mithian calls from the kitchen, and without any more fuss, Gwen and Elyan are adopted.

Elena, Elyan, Percival, and Leon all have their heads together within a minute talking about football and work and God knows what else, and Gwen and Isolde seem to adore one another immediately, wandering in and out of the kitchen where Mithian and Tristan are doing most of the prep work for dinner. Arthur floats between the groups with a smile on his face, a bit shocked at how easily everyone seems to fit together, and tries not to look at the time too frequently.

The rest of the group turns up at three minutes of six (Freya’s estimate apparently having been closer to correct), exhausted and smiling and a bit awkward. Gwaine saves the day by immediately hitting on everyone in the room in turn, swinging Gwen under the mistletoe before her husband can do it, and asking where the beer is. After that, nothing else could possibly compare, so it’s relatively easy to absorb Freya, Lance, and Merlin into the group as they all bustle to get dinner ready.

Merlin hangs back, smiling around at the crowd as it grows friendlier, until Arthur sidles his way around Leon and Lance gesticulating wildly about something cricket-related (they are the only two people Arthur has ever met who care in the least about cricket) to stand with him. “Overwhelmed?” he inquires. “It must have been busy at the shop today.”

“Enjoying,” Merlin corrects. “And yes, it was, but this is the good sort of busy, no worries. You look a bit harried, though, perhaps your day’s been worse than mine.”

“Not bad at all, just feeling a bit frazzled.” Arthur shrugs. “It’s good to see the house filled up. It never was, except for a few cocktail parties when I was a child. I’m hoping a big family moves in, this place deserves some of that.”

Merlin raises his eyebrows. “You’re selling it?”

It’s odd, realizing how comparatively little he and Merlin know about each other. “It was my father’s. I kept it for a while, but it seems stupid to have a house this large when it’s just me. I don’t have much sentimental attachment to it, anyway. A flat will do fine for me, and I have a nice one lined up.”

For a second, he thinks Merlin’s about to say something pitying, or ask the wrong question, or something. He still doesn’t know how to talk about his father to anyone but Morgana. Instead, Merlin’s silence melts into a grin. “Thank God, I was starting to think you were one of those awful posh people who thinks this is a normal sort of place to live, and I didn’t quite know what to do about that.”

“No worries there, my sister keeps me humble.”

Isolde interrupts them, hands on her hips. “If neither of you is doing anything right now, you ought to help set the table for dinner, it’s nearly done.”

Arthur briefly considers reminding her that he’s the host of the party and allowed to chat with his guests as much as he pleases, but in the end he decides that discretion is the better part of valor and allows himself to be herded into the dining room. He doesn’t have a set of china large enough for everyone, but nearly everyone gets his mother’s wedding china and the rest of the gaps are filled in where necessary. Percival comes to help, and he and Merlin get to talking about children’s books, so when the table is set Arthur gives them a smile and wanders off to talk to someone else.

Dinner is an ever-shifting series of conversations, flowing easier than Arthur could have dreamed. Elena and Gwaine, much to Arthur’s alarm, spend most of the meal flirting with each other and giggling. Arthur ends up two places over from Merlin, but they talk across Elyan and Leon half the time anyway, catching up on all the inconsequential things they never talked about in the bookshop. By the end, he’s quite sure they’re getting indulgent looks from everyone else at the table, but he doesn’t much care if he’s being obvious. If there’s ever a time to take a chance, it’s Christmas.

When they finish eating, Arthur ends up with Elena, Leon, Gwaine and Freya in the kitchen doing the dishes, though more suds probably end up on Elena and Gwaine (who see fit to start a soap fight) than on the dishes themselves. Everyone else, from what he can tell, has migrated to the room with the tree, where they’re stringing popcorn and cranberries, which Gwen and Lance brought over to help decorate, so when the dishes are finished they all meet in there to trim the tree.

Gwen and Lance severely underestimated the size of the tree, so everyone ends up laughing and trying to stretch the garlands over as many branches as they can. Merlin digs out an extra box of fairy lights they didn’t use in the shop to fill in the gaps (to suspicious looks from his friends, for reasons Arthur cannot possibly fathom, as the lights are helpful rather than suspicious as far as he’s concerned), Elena scrounges some tinsel, and between all their stopgap measures, they manage to get that part of the decorating done. That leaves their ornaments, and everyone starts taking out the little boxes they brought with them, showing things around.

Arthur’s got a delicate glass snowflake that was his grandfather’s before it was his father’s and a pair of ornaments that he and Morgana made their first year at school, which have never been on a tree but rested in his father’s desk drawer until his death, as well as a few of his mother’s old ones. Everyone else has an odd assortment of objects on strings, from Lance’s tin soldier to Leon’s crocheted reindeer to Tristan and Isolde’s small collection of exotic birds to Gwaine’s inexplicable contribution of a pickle (which he makes them all look away to place), and by the time they’ve finished getting everything up where they want it (Percival lifting Freya so she can place her ceramic ballerina exactly where she wants her), everyone’s laughing and ready for the eggnog that Gwen put together at some point.

“We need a tree topper,” Elena observes when they’re all drinking and enjoying the fruits of their labor. “A star or an angel or something. I guess I thought you’d be providing since you were hosting, Arthur.”

“We didn’t have anything we used more than a year or two in a row for that,” Arthur says apologetically. “Father was picky, so the trees always had to look perfect. Did any of you bring anything that might work?”

There are dismayed headshakes all over the room, and enough people are starting to droop that Arthur’s beginning to think he’ll have to run out to the shops and find something when Merlin speaks up. “We’ll just have to make something. Have you got anything handy, Arthur?”

Arthur wracks his brains and finally comes up with an idea. “My sister went through a jewelry-making phase, wire and beads and things. It’s probably still in her old closet, since she doesn’t do that anymore. Hold on a minute, I’ll go look.”

Morgana’s old room is mostly converted into a guest room, but there are still a few touches of hers around, mostly in the closet, where she’s got boxes of things from her school years she hasn’t bothered to move to her flat yet. Luckily, after five minutes of searching, Arthur pulls out the box of jewelry-making supplies that Morgana used when she was sixteen (he still has a bracelet tucked into one of his drawers, not even she knows that) and jogs back downstairs to his guests, who seem to have poured themselves a new round of eggnog in his absence.

“I poured you some, sit,” says Mithian, and Elena takes the box of supplies out of his hands and starts going through it, Merlin, Percival, and Freya all hanging over her shoulder.

Arthur sits back with his drink and enjoys, since his crafting expertise consists of gluing things onto other things and, when required, using a hammer or screwdriver. Meanwhile, Elena starts twisting wire together into a rather lopsided star and the others go through looking for the best beads to string onto it. Merlin digs through the box once Elena finishes and comes out, inexplicably, with a cardboard cone that they can use to put the star on the tree when they finish. “What on earth does that have to do with jewelry-making?” Arthur wonders.

“No idea, but it’s a good find,” says Freya, rolling her eyes at Merlin and tossing a little bead at his head. “He’s always lucky that way.”

It takes twenty minutes, a heated argument between Leon and Tristan on the subject of hooking it up to lights, and a great many ugly beads for the star to be finished. Percival takes the box of beads around and makes everyone choose one (Arthur picks a red one that he thinks is from the set Morgana used to make his bracelet), and those get threaded on the star as well. By the end, it looks very little like a star and more like a crèche project, bent out of shape and not matching in the least, but somehow everyone is beaming at it, proud, as Merlin uses a bit of extra wire to fit the star onto the cone.

When the star is declared finished, Merlin delivers it into Arthur’s hands. “You’re the host, you hang the tree-topper. It’s the rules.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Of course it’s the rules.” He looks down at the star. “Good God, that’s unsightly.”

“And yet you’re smiling,” Mithian calls from her seat, where she’s at least a mug and a half of eggnog ahead of everyone else and holding it admirably. “Go on, put it up.”

He has no wish to be a poor sport, and he’s warm with company and eggnog and what he would call Christmas spirit if it wouldn’t make everyone laugh at him, so he makes a great show out of climbing the ladder and finding just the right angle at the top of the tree to set the star. It brushes against the ceiling and wobbles, but doesn’t fall, and everyone cheers as he climbs back down again.

Arthur spends most of the rest of the evening playing host to what feels like the biggest and most motley slumber party he’s ever heard of. He shows everyone to all the guest rooms he has—and his, to be fair, since he’s already ninety-five percent moved out of it and it looks nearly as anonymous as any of the others—and gets everyone squared away with Elena and Mithian and Merlin and Gwaine offering to share rooms so Arthur doesn’t have to give his up. He collects the gifts everyone’s got stowed in their bags and puts them under the tree (after Percival bestows the Santa hat on him and Leon takes about a million pictures while nearly crying with laughter, because no one has ever said that Leon’s sense of humour makes any sense at all). There’s a massive, sprawling poker game with candy canes for stakes and Freya, much to Arthur’s surprise, cleans the rest of them out. Gwaine and Elena “accidentally” get caught under the mistletoe no less than three times.

By eleven, Arthur is exhausted, and there’s more than a few other people yawning, so he feels justified in clapping his hands like a schoolteacher and saying “Off to bed, everyone, Father Christmas can’t come if you don’t go to sleep.”

Everyone laughs at him, but they take the hint, and Arthur picks up the mugs scattered across his living room and takes them to the kitchen to be washed. It shouldn’t surprise him when Merlin turns up a minute later, but it does. “Need help with those?”

“No, I’m fine, it’ll take all of five minutes. Get some sleep.”

Merlin squeezes his shoulder. “You, too. I’ll see you in the morning. And thanks, it’s been a really great Christmas Eve, my mum will be happy to hear about it.”

It’s not really any of Arthur’s business to ask why Merlin isn’t with his mum, so he just smiles. To his surprise, it has been a really great Christmas Eve, everyone fitting together in a way he wouldn’t have expected, warm and affectionate and often bickering just as much as he and Morgana did. It’s not like having his family, but maybe it’s like having a family. “I’m glad. Happy Christmas, Merlin.”

“Happy Christmas.”

*

December 25th

Arthur’s mobile goes at seven in the morning and he gives serious thought to throwing it across the room before he squints and sees Morgana’s name on the display. “What?”

“Just thought I’d be the first to wish my brother a happy Christmas. How’s your house full of guests?”

“You aren’t the first, and quite well. I hope you don’t mind that we ransacked your room for supplies to make a tree topper.”

There’s a pause long enough that he wonders if the call has been dropped. “I don’t know what part of that sentence makes the least sense,” she says at last, “but I think I’m going to start with asking if there’s someone in bed with you. Is there?”

“No, there is not, I simply exchanged words with someone before I went to bed last night.”

“Oh, someone, is it?” Morgana laughs and spends a few minutes teasing him, and Arthur keeps his voice down because Gwen and Lance are sleeping next door and he wouldn’t put it past them to tell Merlin if he lets anything slip. He asks how Morgause is, and how she’s enjoying Zurich, and lets her chatter on brightly for a few minutes.

“I miss you,” he says before he can stop himself over her enthusing over the spa she and Morgause went to for Christmas Eve. “I was worried it wouldn’t feel like Christmas without you.”

Morgana sighs. “I was too, really. But I’m glad I’m doing something new, and from the sound of it you are too. Besides, it isn’t as if Leon and Elena aren’t the closest thing to family you can get without blood. And there’s always next year for us, isn’t there?”

“I suppose so. I’ll let you get to your day, sorry to mope at you.”

“Shut up, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of moping from you. Now, go see what Father Christmas left you. If you were a very good boy, perhaps there’ll be a shopkeeper trussed up in a red bow under the tree.”

“Whoops, must go,” he says, and hangs up on her for once.

Before Arthur can sink himself into melancholy there’s a noise in the hallway, and he goes to investigate. It turns out to be Percival, of course, on his way downstairs to make Christmas breakfast, so Arthur lets himself be swept up in being a host again, helping Percival with pancake mix and watching him flip them in the air as he makes enough to feed an army. Everyone wanders downstairs over the next hour or so to clutch at their coffee mugs and wish each other a merry Christmas, Merlin giving Arthur a friendly nudge with his shoulder as he passes by, Tristan and Isolde pink-cheeked and smug (which he isn’t going to mention). Much to Arthur’s pleasure, any awkwardness from Christmas Eve has dissipated almost entirely, the two groups melding easily into one as they pass around the syrup and honey for their pancakes.

“Presents,” Gwen declares when they’re all groaning with the amount of food they’ve consumed and giving each other sidelong looks to see who’s going to do the dishes.

Like a group of five-year-olds, they all jump up from the table, all thought of dishes forgotten, and scramble for the tree, gravitating towards the places they ended up sitting the night before. “Arthur, you’re the host, you get to play Father Christmas,” Elena says in a tone that brooks no argument.

Mithian, with great glee, produces a camera and watches Arthur expectantly until he finds Percival’s hat and puts it on again before passing out the huge amount of presents underneath the tree, a mess of ones from family and friends and each other—a surprising amount of people have picked up at least little tokens for everyone at the party, and to Arthur’s embarrassment he’s got a present from nearly everyone. At least he was smart enough to get presents for all of them as well.

Five minutes later, Arthur’s living room is a blast zone of wrapping paper and ribbon. Everyone, for some reason, seems to think it the height of hilarity to drape all their ribbons around Leon’s neck, so he’s a rainbow of color still blinking blearily in his pajamas. Freya, much like a cat, seems more interested in her ribbons and bows and boxes than in the presents inside. Gwen and Mithian both carefully dissect their wrapping paper and lay it to the side without a single rip before they open their gifts.

Arthur doesn’t make a fuss over opening his, since against all odds his pile is one of the largest. There’s a gift certificate for coffee, several books (including a book of recipes for quick packed lunches from Merlin, who gives him an impish smile when he raises his eyebrows), a little framed picture of a dragon drawn by Gwen (who must have been told that he admires her work), and a pile of other things ranging from impersonal from those he doesn’t know well to quite lovely from his friends. Gwaine has inexplicably given him a pair of sunglasses with bright pink frames and a packet of sparkly unicorn stickers, but he’s coming to understand that that’s just what Gwaine is like.

Afterwards, everyone has to explain their gifts and show them off and generally coo over each other’s, so it’s well over an hour until the present opening can be declared finished. Most of Merlin’s contingent volunteers to clean up the wrapping and most of Arthur’s to do the dishes, though the groups cross over more than they did on Christmas Eve. They all get the chores done in short order and then split off into smaller groups to chat, or in the case of a few, start a poker rematch.

Arthur plants himself on an out-of-the-way sofa and grins around at everyone, wonders if this is what it would be like to have a large family, and not just a father, a sister, and a childless uncle with a habit of disappearing. Christmas may be for family, but with a houseful of lunatics and a Santa hat that has once again found its way to his head he’s beginning to think that’s exactly what he’s got.

Merlin, like the thought was some sort of signal, wanders over from a low-voiced conversation with Lance. He’s wearing some sort of cap that Arthur thinks is from Freya, along with pajamas improbably printed with reindeer. Arthur can’t help grinning. “Enjoying the party?”

“It’s lovely,” Merlin assures him, a little too earnest for the question, and then ruins the moment with a yawn. “Sorry, Elena and Gwaine were texting like teenagers all night so I didn’t get much chance to enjoy your ridiculously comfortable guest bed. How much bedding have you got in this house?”

“A lot. Most of it will be thrown out or sold quite soon, so if you want to steal the duvet or the mattress or something feel free.” He waves his hand about. “What I want to keep is already marked and getting moved to my new flat late next week, there’ll be an auction for everything else.”

Merlin looks around at the furniture in the living room, expression unreadable. “Well, good luck with that. Where’s the flat? Are you going to start cheating on my shop with other bookstores?”

“The location of my flat is irrelevant to that,” Arthur assures him. “I go see you on my lunch break, and you’re quite close to my office.”

“Good to know.” His smile is sleepy, and Arthur predicts the way he slumps a few seconds before he does it. “Don’t mind if I crash, do you?”

“Not in the least.”

Like that’s some sort of signal, Merlin relaxes entirely, body going loose and eyes closing. It only takes a few minutes for his mouth to fall open and his breathing to even out, and Arthur grins, tugging around a lumpy afghan (one of the possessions he intends to keep, as his mother made it while she was pregnant with him, even if it’s horrendously ugly) to lay over him. Merlin smiles and turns towards him in his sleep.

Within twenty minutes, Merlin is keeled over in Arthur’s lap while Arthur reads one of the books from the side table even though he’s read it before. Freya wanders over a while later, right as the plot starts getting exciting. “You know,” she says casually as Arthur marks his place in the book, “Merlin is always pretty irregular about the roster, who’s working when. Says it’s only fair. The thing is, though, that he hasn’t taken a Tuesday or Friday off in seven months.”

“And?”

Arthur is a terrible liar, always has been, but Freya doesn’t bother calling him on it. She just pats Merlin’s head and presses a mug of mulled wine on Arthur even though it’s still before noon. “Just something to think about, is all.”

And Arthur does think about it, for the rest of the day. Merlin sleeps another half hour before stretching and falling off the sofa and, mortified, apologizing to Arthur until Arthur tells him to shut up. Christmas day remains quiet, people ducking out on occasion to call friends or family not present and wish them a happy holiday, Gwen and Elyan leaving for two hours in the afternoon with their jaws set in identical ways that make Arthur and his friends refrain from asking too many questions. They eat heinous amounts of food, drink more mulled wine than is reasonable, and watch the Doctor Who special in a mob, sprawled all over the furniture and the floor shouting about the new companion with Merlin pressed to Arthur’s side again. Halfway through, Merlin rests his hand on top of Arthur’s and Arthur turns his over to thread their fingers together.

Mithian’s the first to excuse herself to bed, announcing that she’s got to get up early to drive out to the country and see her father, but nobody lasts too late beyond her. Arthur, though he feels as a good host he ought to be the last one to bed, heaves himself up the stairs while Merlin, Gwaine, Elena, and Tristan are still debating the merits of various Doctor Who companions, squeezing Merlin’s hand before he goes. He gives Morgana a call since she’s practically nocturnal and she shouts cheerfully at him from what sounds like the bathroom of a club (God knows why she’s at a club on Christmas) and promises she’ll be back in town on the thirtieth and that if he doesn’t introduce her to Merlin soon she’s going to take matters into her own hands.

There’s a knock on the door when Arthur’s halfway dressed for bed, and he calls for whoever it is to come in while he’s still getting his shirt on because chances are it’s Leon, who won’t care. Instead, when he turns around, it’s Merlin, looking mildly traumatized and clutching a pillow. “So, I have been sent away, as Gwaine and Elena apparently plan to shag themselves into Boxing Day, and I considered going to crash with Mithian, but she seems the sort to be terrifying when woken in the middle of the night, so I thought … if you wouldn’t mind?”

Arthur swallows. “Not at all. The bed’s more than big enough. Do you need to brush your teeth or anything? I was about ready to get into bed.”

“No, no, I’m good.” He pulls a book out from behind the pillow, an old paperback with the cover nearly off. “I brought a book in case you weren’t quite ready to sleep.”

“Excellent, I always read before bed.”

After that, it’s serene and domestic in a baffling sort of way. Arthur’s never had a Christmas like this in his life, but this is what trips him up, Merlin curled up on his side of the bed rereading Good Omens for what must be the fiftieth time if the book’s condition is any indicator while Arthur settles in and picks up his own nighttime read (he’s skimming through The Christmas Carol in a great show of cliché). They read for twenty minutes before the yawning overcomes them and they put their bookmarks in and flip off the light.

“When you first said it was just going to be you and Elena for Christmas, I almost invited you to spend it with us,” Merlin says into the darkness.

Arthur props himself up on his elbows and turns towards Merlin’s voice, surprised. “We’d barely talked, then.”

“Still.” He can almost hear Merlin’s shrug. “No one ought to be lonely on Christmas, family or not. And then you ended up rescuing us, after that. Just funny how it worked out, is all.” He pauses. “I’d like to take you on a date.”

It takes Arthur a moment to catch up with the change of subject. “You’d what?”

There’s a smile in Merlin’s voice when he answers. “I decided at the beginning of this month that I would get to know you better and if things went well I’d ask you out, but I thought they would. And they did, but then the Christmas thing threw a wrench in my plans.”

Arthur grins, glad Merlin can’t see him because he’s sure he looks a bit silly. “I’d love a date. Maybe this Friday?”

“Friday.” There’s a pause, broken by Merlin’s fingers on his arm, feeling out where he is on the bed, and then there’s a body pressed up against his, leaning over him. Arthur blinks into the dark. “Is it okay if I kiss you?”

“Yes, absolutely.” The second word is cut off by Merlin’s mouth against his, and Arthur slings an arm around Merlin’s neck to keep him there. Merlin makes a sharp little noise into the kiss and breaks it for a moment to pant into Arthur’s shoulder. There’s a blink of light, maybe headlights reflecting through the blinds, just enough to see Merlin’s lips curve, and somewhere in the room, something crashes to the ground. Arthur ignores whatever it is and prods Merlin until they’re on their sides and Merlin isn’t looming over him anymore. “I obviously did the sleeping arrangements wrong last night,” he says when they break apart for a moment, and then kisses the laughter out of Merlin’s mouth.

*

December 26th

“Stop grinning at me,” Arthur tells Elena over breakfast. “You didn’t spend the night alone either.”

“Yes,” she says with an all-too-expressive waggle of her eyebrows, “but I’m not the one with the love bite on my neck.”

There isn’t much he can say to that.

*

December 28th

“I can’t believe you waited until I went out of the country to get a boyfriend,” says Morgana, laughing down the phone line.

“It’s your own fault, and he isn’t my boyfriend.” Yet. “You miss exciting things when you swan off to Zurich. Have you recovered from your regrettable Christmas one night stand yet?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she lies. “And you know if I’d stayed in London, we would have spent Christmas alone in that mausoleum of a house and it would have taken months for you and Merlin to get your act together. And considering you can’t stop talking about how lovely Merlin is and how wonderful his friends are and isn’t Gwaine so funny, and did I hear about that conversation you had with Mithian, I don’t think you have too many regrets.”

“Shut up, I do no such thing.” Arthur looks through the shop window, since he’s pacing outside again, trying to get rid of Morgana before he picks Merlin up at work for their first date. He’s a bit early, so he’s not terribly worried, but London is cold and the weather seems to finally be turning to proper winter, the occasional snowflake drifting down. “And it would not have taken us months, Merlin says he was planning on asking me out soon.” It’s not much of a defense and he knows it, but it makes Morgana laugh.

“Good for him, then, I like him already. And the rest of them.” Arthur immediately decides that for the good of mankind Morgana and Gwaine should never be introduced. He’s not worried Morgana would seduce him away from Elena, but the two of them together would be terrifying nonetheless. “We’ll have to arrange a dinner. Maybe after New Year’s?”

“This time you host. Christmas was lovely, but I’m still cleaning up.” Mostly so the estate agent won’t cry when she comes by. He keeps finding cups in unlikely rooms and pieces of ribbon and greenery strung on every possible surface.

“Deal.” Someone starts talking on the other end of the line. “Shit, Arthur, I’ve got to go, sorry. I’ll call you when I get back to town, okay? Bye!”

It’s Morgana all over, keeping him on the phone when he’s trying to get away and then abruptly deciding it’s time to end the conversation, but Arthur doesn’t mind, just pushes the shop door open and grins at Lance behind the counter. The shop smells faintly of chocolate, and most of the decorations are down, but not the fairy lights. “I was starting to wonder if I ought to go out there and tell you to come in,” Lance says. “Everything fine?”

“Yes, I was just on the phone, that’s all.” He looks around. “Where’s Merlin?”

“Here,” Merlin calls, and comes stumbling out of the back room, cheeks pink. “Sorry, hi. Wow, it will never not be weird seeing you in jeans. Do you mind holding on a minute? I’ve got to make a quick call about inventory.”

Arthur grins at him. “No problem, I’ll just give the blackboard a look. And I’m not working today, thus the jeans.”

Merlin nods and disappears again, and Arthur rolls his eyes in Lance’s direction (getting a smile and a shrug in return) before walking to the back of the shop. Most of the discussion from December has been erased, preparing for whatever January’s theme will be, but Lance has written May that be truly said of us, and all of us! where Marley was dead: to begin with was at the beginning of the month.

Arthur picks up a piece of chalk and can’t help grinning as he adds his own contribution to the aftermath of Christmas on the board. And his heart grew three sizes that day.

“Ready to go?” Merlin asks from behind him, smiling and wearing a scarf and the earmuffs that Gwen gave him for Christmas.

“Ready,” says Arthur, and takes his hand to lead him out of the shop. “Let’s go get some lunch, and see where the day takes us from there.”