In retrospect Merlin should have seen this coming, should have realised what he was getting into all those years ago in primary school when Arthur Pendragon - tiny blond cherub on the outside, the world's least tactful human being within - had hit him over the head with a plastic sword and calmly pronounced him dead.
The death sentence was promptly repealed by his half-sister Morgana, who counter-announced she was bringing his victim back to life with her sorceress powers. This was her favourite trick when playing with her brother because it never failed to infuriate him. Merlin, taking her at her word, had brightly confessed he was a sorcerer too and proved it by turning Arthur's favourite toy into a real sword.
This is why Merlin's mother had been so reluctant to send him to school. Merlin tends to act on impulse, and 'act' usually means 'use magic'.
Not only had he outed himself to a pair of complete strangers, it turned out they were the children of Uther Pendragon, the man who owned half the country one way or another and was at the time waging a savage legal battle against his dead wife's sorceress obstetrician. As five-year-olds, they were all too young to understand the consequences of the Pendragon vs Lake court case, but Merlin knew he was not supposed to show people what he could do. Morgana wasn't supposed to use the word 'sorceress' except as an insult. Arthur was not supposed to associate with magic users. In fact, he knew the protocol for precisely this situation: run and tell a teacher, call his father, get himself and his sister taken out of the school while Uther arranged for Merlin to be expelled.
What Arthur actually did was frown at Merlin for about a minute before deciding out loud that he probably wasn't evil, which Merlin cheerfully took for a declaration of friendship. He followed the Pendragons around for the rest of the day like an adopted puppy. At lunchtime he was introduced to Morgana's best friend Gwen Smith, who shared her crisps and put a dandelion flower in Merlin's hair and was obviously who he was going to marry when he grew up. This being about seven years before Merlin figured out he would not be marrying a girl at all, not even Gwen, and that his very ill-advised crush would be focused on a different friend entirely.
Anyway, it was evident right from that first day that there are two inevitabilities when it comes to life with the Pendragons: a) that they disagree on almost everything, and b) always expect to get their own way. This leads to complicated three-way feuds, like that time seventeen-year-old Morgana ran away from home to live in a sharehouse of pro-revolution sorcerers or when eighteen-year-old Arthur tried to reconnect with his mother's side of the family and got conned out a family heirloom by his appalling uncle Agravaine. Or like now, Uther having acquired a girlfriend who has clearly been longing for a pantomime role as Wicked Stepmother and is playing every card in the cliché deck, including 'Your Kids Hate Me, They Must Go'.
"Did she say that?" Gwen says skeptically. "Really?"
"She did," Morgana insists. "You know she only wants Uther for his money - " (Morgana consented to come home after a very ugly break-up with her pro-revolution girlfriend Enmyria, but has not called Uther 'Dad' since) " - and we're in the way, so she wants us gone. Doesn't she, Arthur?"
Arthur makes a non-committal noise. He's gone quiet and miserable the way he only does when he is on bad terms with his father. Having met Uther on several occasions, none of them pleasant, Merlin can't see why Arthur feels so bad about criticising him or the horrible Catrina, but while Merlin loves teasing Arthur he hates seeing him genuinely upset. He sits on the arm of Arthur's chair - being a hopeless prat, he's taken the last one - and pushes a mug of hot chocolate into his hand.
"She'll be gone by the New Year," he says bracingly. "Uther won't put up with someone who has more opinions than him for long."
Arthur frowns but drinks the chocolate and doesn't argue, which means he agrees.
Gwen - whose flat they have all invaded because she is the organised one who put up Christmas decorations and made gingerbread - pulls her socked feet up on the sofa and puts an arm around Morgana's shoulders. "Families are always a mess at this time of year," she says. Her brother Elyan let her know a few weeks ago that he would be spending their first Christmas without their father in Fiji, rather than coming to see her. It's hardly unexpected, but still stings. "It's not your fault."
"Of course it's not my fault," Morgana snaps. She leans into the hug anyway. Pendragons (Merlin needs to stop classifying them as a species, and he will, as soon as they start acting like actual humans) are bad at accepting sympathy. It's more complicated with these two, anyway. Morgana had a teenage crush on Gwen - well, everyone did - and while she no longer automatically hates her best friend's boyfriends, she remains a little possessive of her attention. Merlin understands that. He wishes he didn't.
"And even if she is gone by New Year's," Morgana continues, "we can't go to Uther's for Christmas until we apologise to Catrina, which I will not do to save my life. Besides, I think I'll choke if I have to listen to her drone on about the state of the nation and how we need to be brave and take a stand. By which she means slash funding to everything she doesn't like, starting with sorcery support services. It's no wonder Uther likes her so much."
"She makes him happy," Arthur says, tiredly. He's slumped sideways in the chair; his shoulder is a warm pressure against Merlin's side.
"More fool him!" Morgana flares. Gwen rubs her back soothingly.
"You can stay here over the holidays, if you like," she offers. Arthur, who never grew out of tactlessness, glances doubtfully around the tiny apartment, which is just about big enough for Gwen and her dressmaker's dummy. The Christmas tree is on the coffee table, as there was no available floor space.
"We'd be packed a bit tight," Gwen admits, "but we'd manage. Merlin, you're welcome to stay too."
"Thanks, Gwen." Merlin smiles at her across the room. "I've promised my mum, though, I'm leaving for Ealdor on Friday - "
"How are you getting there?" Arthur asks suspiciously. Merlin rolls his eyes.
"Trains are not mythical beasts, Arthur, they take you places, it's fine."
"Don't be stupid, Merlin, obviously I can drive you, I have nothing better to do."
"It's three hours driving to get there, that would be daft - "
"No dafter than you lugging your body weight in luggage through half a dozen train stations, and the weather's awful - "
Merlin wishes Gwen wouldn't beam at them when they argue like this, as if they are doing something adorable. Morgana is worse. She smirks.
Then she sits up with a frightening light in her eyes that Merlin knows from experience means she has had what she thinks is a very good idea. Merlin rarely agrees with Morgana's Very Good Ideas.
"Arthur is absolutely right," she says, for the first time ever. It shocks Arthur silent; he turns to stare. "He should drive you. We've never seen Ealdor, have we?"
"Uh," Merlin says. "What?"
"It's probably scenically beautiful at this time of the year, being in the countryside," Morgana continues, "isn't it? And your mother could probably use help? Chopping wood and so on. Shovelling snow."
"Oh." Merlin sees where she's headed now. "Morgana - "
"It's about time we saw her again, it's been ages," she concludes triumphantly. "Don't worry about food, we can bring a hamper. Decorations too, if she would like them, why don't you ask? Arthur has a stupidly big car, we can strap a tree on the roof rack - "
"What," says Arthur, who sees it now too. "We are not spending Christmas in Ealdor, Morgana."
He gestures wildly and looks at Merlin. Which is where it all goes wrong. Because that's when Merlin starts picturing Arthur in the old farm house, meeting Hunith for the first time in about eight years. They moved to Ealdor after things got bad in the city, when the Pendragon vs. Lake sentence got passed down and there were riots every other week. Merlin had half-lived in his laptop after that, trading daily emails until he was old enough to come back for university. He wonders if being around Arthur would have hit him this hard without those intervening years of separation - if he'd seen Arthur through the messy transmutation from child to adult, would he have become inured to the end result?
Probably not. And Arthur actually looks like an adult at twenty, while Merlin is still all awkward limbs and ears and a smile too big for his face. In Camelot, always surrounded by pretty, flirtatious people and with Uther a dour spectre never far away, Arthur is unattainable. In Ealdor…just him, just them. Maybe.
Which is how Merlin ends up inviting everybody home for Christmas.
It doesn't take him long to regret it.
"Make it stop!" Arthur is saying aggrievedly from the driver's seat, swatting at Morgana as she hooks up her phone to the car speakers and 'have a holly jolly Christmas' comes blaring out. "Gwen, make her stop!"
"How about 'Jingle Bells'?" Gwen suggests.
"Boring." Morgana tinkers some more. At the opening notes of 'Last Christmas' Arthur actually lets out a sort of howl.
"I can't cover my ears, I am driving, someone stop her."
Merlin leans back and looks out the window. Morgana's phone suddenly switches playlists and a traditional version of 'Silent Night' starts playing at a low volume. Morgana twists around to glower - "no using magic on my tech, Emrys!" - but Arthur throws him a grin.
Merlin has never understood Arthur's attitude where magic is concerned. His mother was killed by the misuse of it, his father hates it, his sister is an activist for it and his best friend was born with it - Arthur's loyalties pull him in a painful number of directions, so mostly he avoids having opinions on the subject at all. What opinions he does have are a tangle of contradictions. He gets uncomfortable with big displays of magic but appreciates little pranks; he approves strict laws governing sorcery but argues passionately against his father's ideas and has more than once physically intervened to help a sorcerer on the street. He won't let Merlin heal him when his excess of chivalry gets him injured but hardly notices Merlin's own casual use of magic for finding lost keys or copying notes without a printer.
"You can't pretend sorcerers are like other people," he said once, when Morgana pressed him about it. "The same rules can't apply. Magic is dangerous."
"Anything is dangerous!" she said furiously. "Cars are dangerous - fists are dangerous - "
"I can't set a house on fire with a punch. A sorcerer can do it with a word. You can’t act like those things are equivalent."
"You can't just assume because people have power they'll misuse it!"
"You can't assume they won't. Some do, and look how well we handle that. The whole system needs to be overhauled."
Merlin doesn't try to join in those conversations. He knows they are both right and wrong, just like the law, that someone will have to fix things but no one in power is interested in doing that. If he trusts anyone to find a way, he trusts Arthur. Someday, maybe, when Arthur has finished his degree in law and Merlin has finished his in magical history, they'll meet somewhere and figure out the middle road.
It's all a long way off. Merlin cannot yet manage national politics; as Arthur is quick to point out, he can't yet manage a map.
"It's not my fault your GPS is rubbish," he mutters.
"My GPS is not rubbish, your hamlet is basically Brigadoon." Arthur is in the passenger seat now, having reluctantly handed over the wheel to Morgana so he could eat lunch. He keeps giving her unwanted advice and she keeps telling him to shut up. Gwen, accustomed to Pendragon mood swings, is peacefully napping on Merlin's shoulder. "Anyway, you've been here before, you should recognise something."
"I don't know. Landmarks." Arthur squints doubtfully through the fog of rain outside. "Is any of this familiar?"
"We only drove down the once, when we moved," Merlin protests. "There were lots of trees…"
"Thank you, Merlin, that narrows it down beautifully."
Merlin pushes the map in his face. "You look, then."
To his immense annoyance, this works. Arthur is good with maps. Within an hour they have reached an area that really is familiar and after that it's not far to Ealdor. The village looks very small now, though Merlin has not been away that long. The driveway into Hunith's farm has turned to sludge in the winter weather, splattering the car with mud as it pulls to a halt outside the house. Morgana won't so much as open her door until Arthur fetches her Wellingtons and raincoat from the boot. By then Hunith has come to the door and Merlin has skidded through the quagmire to greet her with a hug. She seems small now too, but always strong. She takes his face between her hands for one of those searching looks she is prone to giving him - apparently satisfied with what she sees, she kisses his cheek and turns to greet her guests.
"Hello, Mrs Emrys. I'm sorry for descending on you like this - " Arthur says in his most formal tones, as if he's shown up unannounced at Buckingham Palace.
"Nonsense, I'm glad to see you. Let me help with your bags - "
"No need," Arthur and Gwen chorus. Morgana picks her way through the mud to give Hunith a hug ("I can't believe how long it's been, how are you? You haven't changed at all! Let's go in, I want to see all Merlin's embarrassing adolescence photos") and the rest of them set about emptying the jam-packed boot. On top of the luggage are piled the promised hamper, several bags full of presents, two Tupperware boxes of Gwen's gingerbread for Hunith, and a little red box that Merlin opens to check the contents are not fragile. Inside is a cluster of mistletoe tied with ribbon.
"Um," he says. "Arthur? What's this?"
Arthur stops swearing at Morgana's suitcases long enough to turn around and stare at the greenery in Merlin's hand. "It looks like mistletoe. Why do we have mistletoe?"
"I don't know!" Merlin is instantly defensive. "It's not mine."
"I didn't say it was." Arthur steps back, like it might bite. "It's not mine either."
They look at the mistletoe. Cautiously, like he's handling a biohazard, Merlin tucks it back into the box and replaces the lid. "Shall we…just leave it there?"
"Yeah. Probably Morgana's idea of a prank."
There is a short, awkward silence in which they look at the box and then, almost accidentally, at each other. Arthur's cheeks are flushed from the cold and exertion; his lips are a darker shade of pink, slightly parted, as though he was about to say something else but lost track of the words. His breath puffs out like dragon smoke. Merlin wonders what Arthur would do, if he kissed him right now. Though he knows Arthur is bi, he's never seen him date another man - doesn't know what type he goes for, if he has a type, how he likes to be touched, or kissed…
Arthur abruptly remembers he's carrying half his own body weight in Morgana's clothes and heads for the house; Merlin lugs out the hamper and follows.
Hunith has not decorated. She always does that with Merlin, it's a family tradition, and Merlin suddenly feels guilty for bringing in three semi-strangers to her house to participate in a ritual that has always belonged just to the two of them. They made most of their decorations - paper kings Merlin painted, felt birds and pine cones strung on ribbons, a little wooden dragon Merlin's dad carved the year before he left for good.
Gwen offers a string of silver paper chains; the Pendragons brought a box of glowing glass baubles that look like they were designed by Faberge. Hunith smiles, thanks them, and doesn't seem to care that none of it really fits together. She puts on an Ella Fitzgerald record and takes photograph after photograph while everyone else bickers about how the tree should look. Morgana wears a boa of tinsel. Merlin and Gwen sneak sequins into Arthur's hair when he's not looking. It's chaos but it's fun.
"Dad always gets in professionals," Arthur remarks at one point, taking a woven raffia star out of Merlin's hands and stepping back to evaluate the perfect positioning. "We haven't decorated for ourselves since…I think I was four?"
"He used to hire a professional Santa Claus too," Morgana adds, rolling her eyes. "He'd come in late on Christmas Eve, all the lights would have to go off and we watched from the bannisters while he put out presents under the tree."
"He stopped coming the year Morgana ambushed him and demanded to see his ID," Arthur says pointedly. "She quizzed him on the names of his reindeer. It was very embarrassing."
Morgana snickers and moves the raffia star.
When the tree is finally decorated Morgana goes outside to make a phone call and Arthur and Gwen go to unpack, politely leaving Hunith and Merlin alone in the kitchen. She makes tea. Hunith is a terrible cook but her tea is the best in the world.
"Gaius will be arriving tomorrow. He's bringing Alice - do you remember Alice? They're seeing each other again. I don't know if it's romantic or they're just friends, but I'm glad she's back. I always liked her." Hunith gives Merlin a thoughtful look, then says, "I always liked Arthur, as well. I felt so terrible for separating you two."
"It's not your fault, Mum. Anyway, we stayed friends."
"You painted all those kings because you wanted one that looked like him." Hunith grins. "Did you ever tell him you thought King Arthur was a Wise Man?"
Merlin buries his face in his hands. "Don't tell him that. Please."
"He's grown up well. They all have. I'm happy you brought them, Merlin, really."
He can tell that his mother is angling for the question she really wants to ask (so are you dating yet) and heads her off by asking about their neighbours instead. Hunith is the local GP and knows absolutely everyone, so it's a good distraction.
Dinner is something of a battle. Hunith insists on making the meal herself; Gwen is equally insistent that she help and guilts the others into backing her up, though Merlin would not touch anything Arthur tried to cook for fear of his life and doubts Morgana has ever so much as boiled an egg.
Compromise is reached with Gwen peeling carrots and Hunith slicing onions, the pair of them chatting liked old friends. Arthur and Morgana slink gratefully out of the kitchen into the sitting room; Morgana curls on the sofa to surf Tumblr on her phone while Arthur brings out a travel chess-set and announces he will teach Merlin how to play in exactly the same tone he used so long ago to pronounce Merlin dead beneath the plastic sword.
But the rug in front of the fire is warm and comfortable, and there are chocolate raisins from the hamper to share, and Arthur's intense concentration as he considers every move makes it delightfully easy to tease him. An hour later he has beaten Merlin four times in a row and Merlin has eaten most of the chocolate raisins. They are both satisfied with this arrangement.
"Like kittens chasing their tails," Morgana murmurs at one point.
Arthur glares at her. Merlin blinks. "Kittens?"
"Ridiculous but very, very cute."
"Shut up, Morgana," Arthur snaps.
"Watch out, Hunith thinks you have nice manners, you don't want to disappoint her. You've only just made a good impression!"
Arthur throws a cushion at her. With great dignity, Morgana departs to check on dinner, though not before throwing the cushion right back.
"Did she mean us?" Merlin asks, uncertainly.
"Pay attention to your knights before they all get slaughtered, Merlin, this is war."
The next morning is sunny, or at least not so cloudy it looks like imminent rain. Merlin rolls out of bed and lands on top of Arthur, who was sleeping with the peace of an angel in his top-of-the-range sleeping bag but responds to the accidental attack with immediate violence, rolling Merlin off him and pinning him to the floor.
"Wow," Merlin manages, breathless. "You're a ninja now."
Arthur blinks at him, startled awake. His eyes are shockingly blue. "Merlin?" He lifts his hands, realises he's straddling Merlin while still in the sleeping bag and rolls awkwardly off. "Is that how you wake up all your houseguests?"
"Only the prats." Merlin nudges him. "Come on, get up, you're awake now."
"I am not."
"Do you sleep-pounce on all your hosts?"
"Only the idiots."
Merlin lures him out with promises of hot chocolate and toast, and later convinces Gwen to accompany them on a walk around the village, though Morgana takes one look at the acres of mud and decides to stay indoors and bond with Hunith instead. She was on her phone again when Merlin came downstairs, talking to someone called Vivian, and she went quiet when she saw him there. The only Vivian Merlin knows is the gorgeous, grouchy blonde Arthur claims to be just friends with. Merlin desperately hopes Morgana is not match-making again. She is much too good at it.
Sloshing down the road into the village, he stops worrying about it in favour of pointing out the sights for his friends. There is the pub. And Mr Simmons' oak tree, which is supposed to be over three hundred years old and is scarred with generation after generation of initials. Merlin turns automatically towards his friend Will's house before remembering that no, he won't be there now, he went up north to study politics and find creative new ways to insult people.
One day Merlin will figure out why he likes abrasive people so much.
"Let's look at the lake," he suggests.
Later, as they trudge back towards the house, Arthur loudly claims that he should have seen this coming ever since Merlin tripped over his own feet on that first day of school and that it is all Merlin's fault he is now soaked through, while Merlin counters that he didn't actually push Arthur in the lake, he tripped and Arthur had bad balance, and Arthur is wearing his coat so he shouldn't complain.
"Thank you, Merlin, the one arm your coat covers is nice and warm."
"It's not my fault you're twice my size."
"Are you calling me fat?"
"Do you need my coat too, Arthur?" Gwen interrupts kindly, and Arthur has to stop and gallantly refuse the offer, whereas he yanked Merlin's right out of his hands.
They are still arguing when they get back to the farm and of course Arthur stalks off at once to get changed, so it's not until Merlin goes to make tea and Morgana makes a few pointed, smirky remarks that he realises there is mistletoe pinned over the door.
"Why did you bring it along anyway, the only one who'll be using it is my great-uncle Gaius and I really don't need to see that."
"Don't look at me," Morgana sniffs, "I saw you'd left it in the boot and assumed you lost your nerve."
"It's not mine. Or Arthur's." Merlin frowned. "Gwen?"
"No," Gwen says, amused, over the rim of her teacup. "In case you've forgotten, Leon is in Camelot celebrating with his family, so I hardly need it."
Merlin sneaks a look at Morgana to check she's okay. She mostly looks smug.
"So you've talked it over with Arthur, then?" she asks innocently.
"He thought it was a prank of yours. Does it matter? Forget about the mistletoe."
"I don't think I can, now," Gwen remarks. "This is like Cluedo. Was it Arthur with the festive greenery, was it Merlin, was it Morgana…"
"I have no idea what you're talking about but it was probably Morgana," Arthur says, coming in to claim his share of the tea.
That's what sets her off. Morgana may or may not have packed the mistletoe but she is now its puppeteer, making it appear unexpectedly all over the house then lurking to catch people underneath it. Gwen good-naturedly kisses Arthur on the cheek and Hunith laughs, kissing Merlin on the forehead. When Merlin and Arthur end up underneath it at the same time - caught in the entrance to the room they're sharing, for pity's sake - Morgana whips out her phone for a picture and Merlin is too embarrassed to use the opportunity wisely. Arthur just mutters something darkly and seizes Merlin's hand, brushing his lips briefly over the knuckles before slamming their door in Morgana's face. It doesn't block out her gleeful cackles.
"She's enjoying this too much," Merlin offers weakly, trying not to think about how warm and soft Arthur's lips had felt against his hand and how much better they would feel touching other places, his neck for instance, or his mouth.
Arthur glances at him quickly, then away. "You could kick her out. It's your place."
"My mother's, and she likes Morgana."
With a tired sort of shrug Arthur drops onto Merlin's bed and leans against the wall. Merlin sits too, looking around at his old room and wincing at a pair of soft toy dragons he forgot to hide.
"I missed you," Arthur says abruptly, sounding kind of fed up about it.
"When you moved here. It wasn't the same without you." The words come slowly, grudgingly - Arthur does so hate having to spell out his emotions for people - but apparently it's important he says this now because he keeps talking. "I know my father made it difficult. For you and your mum. It's good of you to let us come here."
"You're not your father." Merlin hesitates, then adds quietly, "I missed you too."
"Why is it so easy with you?" Arthur's tone is puzzled and fond and mildly accusatory all at the same time. "I thought it would be strange, being back together, but it's…you're still so…you."
"I got taller," is the only answer Merlin can produce for that.
Arthur grins, reaching over to muss Merlin's hair. After, they go downstairs to help with lunch and end up eating leftover gingerbread because Hunith and Arthur are a kitchen combination from hell, and all the while Merlin can't get Arthur's smile out of his head.
You're still so…you. Maybe. Maybe there's a chance.
Merlin's great-uncle Gaius arrives in time for dinner, accompanied by the sweet-faced old lady who used to give Merlin jellybeans when he went for a doctor's check-up, and who - upon spotting the mistletoe dangling above the front door - promptly pulls Gaius into a bodice-ripper cover kiss. Gwen coos a bit. Arthur looks almost as traumatised as Merlin feels. Morgana is absent, probably plotting.
Conversation over dinner is a little strained. Alice has strong and vocal opinions about Uther Pendragon and his campaign against sorcery, and can't quite refrain from airing them. Morgana pushes away her plate in order to lean across the table, talking eagerly about law reform; Arthur leaves the table early. There's nowhere for him to go and Merlin isn't sure he wants company, but follows him into the kitchen just in case.
"Don't you want to talk to Gaius?" Arthur asks without turning around, busying himself filling a glass at the sink. "You haven't seen him in a while, right? And it's not like you disagree with Alice. I know you hate my father's policies."
I hate having to reach through him to get to you. "I don't want to fight."
"Well, everyone else does." Arthur puts down the glass with more force than is really required. "Everyone wants something done right now, and who cares if someone gets hurt, as long as that someone isn't on their side of the fence? Like, there is literally no way for this to happen peacefully with the leaders we have on both sides. There's too much at stake. And you know the second you use a phrase like that someone is going to bring up witch burnings - "
"Because it matters," Merlin says tightly. "Because people are scared."
"We're all scared!" Arthur is glaring at him and the words are a punch to the gut; Merlin doesn't know what shows on his face but as he's backing away, Arthur's anger melts into contrition and he catches Merlin's hand. "No, Merlin, I didn't mean it like that."
"Do you get scared of me?" Merlin demanded, tugging to free his hand. Stubbornly, Arthur won't let go. "Do you think I'm going to take your memories while you sleep or, I don't know, turn you into a bloody frog, or - "
"I trust you, Merlin. You know I do. It’s the hard-liners that scare me, on both sides." He takes a deep breath. “My father scares me, sometimes. You don’t.”
Merlin slowly relaxes. He feels shaky and tired, the way he always feels after fighting with Arthur, but it's good to hear the words said out loud. He can't quite take Arthur's trust for granted. "Alice didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable."
"I think she did," Arthur says dryly, "but Morgana is having a ball, so I'm probably outvoted. I'll just go to bed."
"Oh," Merlin says, disappointed. He was hoping for another evening like the first one, easy and warm. "I could come up too, if you want - "
Arthur gives an odd sort of laugh, turning his eyes towards the ceiling. "Sometimes, Merlin," he begins, but he doesn't finish the sentence, just leans forward enough to press his lips against Merlin's temple. He's out the door before Merlin recovers enough to respond to that, or to look up for the inevitable mistletoe.
The thing is, there is no mistletoe in the kitchen at all.
Merlin doesn't sleep well that night and he knows Arthur doesn't either. He can't stop thinking about the kiss, and remembering that both times Arthur's mouth has touched him it's been Arthur who made the gesture first - so is it Merlin's turn, or is he reading too much into it? He thumps his head against the pillow and watches his alarm clock tick over into the early hours of Christmas Eve.
Gaius and Alice are staying in the house over Christmas and have taken over the preparation of breakfast, which means perfectly cooked pancakes with four obscure jam flavours to choose from. They all pull pre-emptive crackers. A plastic frog ends up in Arthur's cup; he looks at Merlin properly for the first time since the kiss in the kitchen, raising his eyebrows, and Merlin can't resist crowning him with a red paper hat and immense pomposity. Arthur makes a face at him, but wears the crown for hours afterwards. Hunith insists on reading out all the dreadful jokes and Morgana finds this unexpectedly hilarious; they find out later she was live-tweeting the entire thing and Vivian was tweeting back with increasingly outrageous punchlines.
The rest of the day is given over to eating nice things and playing board games. Gaius demolishes them all at Trivial Pursuit and Merlin renews his annual resolution to one day win that game, or at least lose with more dignity. Gwen excuses herself in the afternoon to Skype with Leon, having secured herself a respectable victory at Charades, but Arthur approaches everything with typical Pendragon competitiveness. When they end up playing Cluedo, he and Morgana keep accusing each other of murder irrespective of actual evidence and Merlin can't stop laughing.
"Where are the pickled onions?" Gwen asks, around midday. "I've looked in the hamper and I know we haven't eaten them, does anyone remember seeing them?"
"Probably still in the boot," Merlin suggests, and goes out to get them. Morgana follows him for no apparent reason.
"You and Arthur are having a lot of fun," she remarks, and oh, that's the reason right there, this is an ambush. "Something seems different between you two - "
"We're all having fun! Christmas is fun. You're having fun, yeah? Fun is great," Merlin babbles, realising that with each reiteration of the word 'fun' he's digging himself a deeper hole but equally unable to stop himself. "It's so good you could all fun. I mean, come. Oops, here's the car."
He flings open the boot with profound relief and bends over to poke around for the errant jar. It has rolled into an awkward corner, and when he pulls it out he sees something else has fallen in there too. The envelope is beautiful creamy paper with Morgana scrawled across the front in a looping, unfamiliar hand. Merlin blinks at it for a moment then hands it over. Morgana inhales a sort of gulp and tears it open at once. A card tips out into her palm. Merlin watches with increasing curiosity as she reads it, blushes, reads it again and finally fumbles out her phone. Morgana, fumbling.
"Go away, Merlin," she snaps. "This is a private conversation."
Merlin considers making a comment about glass houses and stones but doesn't actually want to be hit with one of her very sharp shoes so just holds up placating hands and starts walking back to the house. Behind him, he hears Morgana say wonderingly into her phone, "It was for me? But I thought you were just stopping by to see Arthur off - really? Oh. Vivian – oh. Me too."
And then she's racing past Merlin to the house, muttering something about getting hold of that damn mistletoe. It doesn't look like Merlin needs to worry about her match-making after all.
Merlin doesn't actually say anything to Arthur until that night, because the house is full of people who are overly invested in both their love lives as it is and he wants to do this privately, to make sure there haven't been any mixed signals. But he hints as heavily as he can, sitting close to Arthur on the floor when they all settle in to watch bad holiday movies and eat popcorn, and lets the sides of their hands press together on the carpet. Arthur glances down, glances quickly at Merlin and doesn't say anything either, but his hand pushes more firmly against Merlin's and a wash of warmth bubbles up inside Merlin's chest. He sits through a parade of booming Santas and animated reindeer and irritating child actors (Morgana tweets a steady stream of sarcastic commentary to Vivian with the mistletoe tucked into her hair like a festive fascinator) until it's a plausible time for bed, then paces in his room waiting for Arthur to follow.
It takes all of two minutes. Arthur shuts the door with a decisive snap and says, a good deal less decidedly, "Merlin? Are we…doing this?"
Merlin thinks about years of homesickness, and only grasping when he got back to Camelot that it hadn't been the city he'd yearned for at all. "By 'this' I hope you mean kissing," is all he gets out before Arthur gets hold of his face and the rest of the sentence gets crushed between their mouths. Arthur tastes like salt. The kiss is an urgent exploration and Arthur's hands are in Merlin's hair, and Merlin's arms have wrapped around Arthur's waist, and next thing they know Arthur has stumbled backwards onto the bed and Merlin is sprawled on top of him.
"Door," Arthur manages, mouthing at Merlin's jaw. Merlin throws a pointed look at the door, which obediently locks itself. Arthur gets his mouth away from Merlin's skin long enough to admit, "I kind of love it when you do that," which means it's vitally important that Merlin kisses him some more. His fingers and his magic join forces to get Arthur's clothes off, and Arthur laughs.
Around one in the morning on Christmas Day, Merlin stirs. He's naked under the blankets, stretched across Arthur's bare chest, and he'll have to wash the sheets early so Morgana doesn't smirk knowingly at him - or worse, so his mother doesn't pat his cheek and ask if he has enough condoms.
Those are very distant worries. Merlin is warm and sleepy in the very best kind of way, and thinks he might just stay here for a century or two. "Who needs mistletoe," he mumbles contentedly into Arthur's chest, and falls back to sleep with the drowsy rumble of Arthur's agreement in his ear.