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Tulips Are Better; Dragons Are Best

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Prologue

Three years ago

Merlin crossed his arms and hunched his shoulders. Perhaps he shouldn't have stepped out here for his break. It wasn't yet raining, but it was a close thing. The sky sagged with storm clouds and a hard wind howled, turning even his clothes against him. Slap-slap, slap-slap went his coat and scarf.

He balled up the napkins - festive reds and greens with decidedly unfestive words scrawled on top - and shoved them deep in his pocket. He didn't want to think about them, about what was written on them.

He'd meant to put down his New Year's resolutions. But last night at their flat, William went on a rant about how it was all a psychological hoax and who the bloody hell actually stuck to their resolutions anyway? Merlin loved his best friend, but sometimes he wondered just how they turned out so differently after practically growing up together. Merlin was the kind who made resolutions and stuck to them too.

"Do it then!" Will had challenged him. "Make your list and we'll see next year, shall we?"

Perhaps Will jinxed him, but over his break earlier Merlin found himself making an entirely different sort of list, a list of the pros and cons of dating Arthur. It went something like this:

Pros:
- makes me happy when we're together just us
- believes in me as I do him
- the sex/kisses/everything
- even just holding hands or talking

Cons:
- prat
- can't hold his hand in public
- can't tell mum or Will
- his best mates think I'm his personal barista
- prat
- might never get to hold his hand in public

That last cemented his decision to leave, a decision he had been putting off as long as he could. Merlin slumped against the café wall and shivered. And tried again not to think.

~~

He picked a fight after Christmas, coasting on liquor courage and flaming with liquor truth. And that worked for a day. That worked until Arthur dialled him at midnight, voice an absolute wreck. "I need you, Merlin. I miss you."

Merlin missed him too (like an arm would its hand).

Days slipped by, and Merlin tried to ignore all the things on the pros list. But gods, he fell perfectly into Arthur like he was made for him, and what was Merlin supposed to do?

Make his New Year's resolutions apparently.

Merlin was doing this. He was sticking to the plan today. He was. He was leaving.

It didn't matter that Arthur was freshly showered, his hair still a little damp, his lips a moist red. It didn't matter that the prat looked like a Greek God rising out of the water, steam like wings behind him.

It mattered not a bit that Arthur grabbed the red tie Merlin gave him for his birthday, the one with golden threads weaved through its bodice and asked, "How's this?" Nope. So what if Arthur thumbed the silky thing to the hollow of his throat and cocked his head with such boyish charm? So bloody what?

"Fine." Merlin shrugged, even though it all looked better than fine (it looked perfect). Over the layers of grown-up wear - crisp white dress shirt and pressed black slacks, dark grey waistcoat and velvety socks - the tie added a perfect splash of colour.

It all worked. And of course it did. It was Arthur. From his hair to his skin to his carriage he looked golden, every bit 'The Prince' the tabloids had dubbed him.

Once upon a time Merlin might have grinned, might have knee-walked across the bed and taken over with hands warm over Arthur's neck. Once upon a time he would have pulled him down for a kiss, one that started slow and burned thorough, one that popped buttons and not just for show.

Once upon a time, but not today.

Today was for leaving. Merlin swept a foot under the bed, groping for his duffle bag. Ouch. There it was. Found it.

"What was that?" Arthur's hands slowed.

"Nothing."

"Only you can manage to make 'nothing' sound so loud, Merlin." Arthur smiled as he tugged the end of the tie neatly through the loop. Usually Merlin found the flex of Arthur's fingers distracting, found the way Arthur said his name endearing (with an extra curl of the tongue like it was special, like he was special).

But he wasn't falling for that today, no. Today Merlin was reciting the list of cons in his head. He was holding fast to his resolve. The answer, after all, to why can't I be your date? wasn't come with my sister; we'll spend the night together. The answer to who is this? wasn't why, Merlin's my favourite barista, of course.

"Not all of us can keep so quiet, you know. It's quite the accomplishment that nobody knows the most eligible bachelor this side of the pond is actually taken. Has been for a year."

"Merlin," Arthur huffed, "must we do this now? I'm already late-"

"-to your pretend date. I know."

"Merlin. It's only a stupid company party. I'd rather be home with you," Arthur said even as he reached for his mobile and his keys.

"Would you really?" Merlin couldn't help the flicker of hope. If Arthur meant it... "Then stay."

Stay and I'd stay.

Arthur sighed. "You know I have to go. It's the biggest event of the year. I can't just let everyone down."

Right. Of course. What was he thinking?

"All right then," Merlin dragged his overnight bag out from under the bed, "Neither of us stays."

Arthur's eyes rounded with confusion, then surprise, then edged with hurt as he took in the bag, the bag now on Merlin's shoulder.

Merlin looked away. Puppy eyes would not work on him today. "Go on then. You're already late for your grand party."

Right on cue, Arthur's mobile chirped. "Don't be an idiot, Merlin." Arthur strode to the bedroom door and paused there in profile. "I'll see you later."

No, you won't. But for once Merlin said nothing. He patted his jean pockets for the letter, the dear Arthur. As his fingers clutched paper, the front door slammed.

Arthur hadn't even kissed him goodbye.