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'tis the damn season

Chapter Text

We could call it even
You could call me "babe" for the weekend
'Tis the damn season, write this down
I'm stayin' at my parents' house
And the road not taken looks real good now
And it always leads to you and my hometown

~*~*~*~

Arthur rubs a hand over his eyes. His breath fogs up the car window as he exhales, the flat, snow-dusted fields beyond speeding by. His phone dings, again, in his hand and he fumbles to turn it onto silent. He’s not in the mood for responding to anyone, not after everything that had transpired on the flight, aside from the obligatory “landed safe” in the group chat that he’d sent two hours ago.

“Middle Worthy, right?”

“Yeah,” Arthur replies, clearing his throat, startled from his reverie. His eyes are heavy as he pulls them away from the familiar countryside that’s making his chest ache. Arthur had told the driver to head west on the M3 and then the A303 but had been particularly vague with his directions otherwise. He hadn’t wanted to give his post code for the driver to put into his sat nav; he doesn’t know how trustworthy this taxi company is.

The driver peeks in his rear-view mirror again. Arthur’s got a beanie pulled low on his head, but had dropped the sunglasses once he’d boarded the plane in LA to avoid looking like a prick once he’d arrived this side of the pond. It did mean, however, that the driver had been sending furtive glances his way every now and then.

“You know, I’m sure I recognise you from somewhere...” he tries again, as if Arthur hadn’t ignored him the first three times during this journey.

“I do male porn, maybe it’s from there?” Arthur mutters, putting an end to that conversation. It always works. The driver splutters indignantly before going silent, fuming.

Truth is, male porn would’ve been a lot more exciting than reality.

Arthur asks to be dropped off at the war memorial in the middle of the village. It’s blanketed in poppies crocheted by the WI, the wreaths from the local military units and scouting organisations propped against its base in a hangover from November. It’s an odd contrast to the garlands of holly and ivy adorning the streetlights surrounding it. He only has one suitcase, and lets the cabby set it down on the pavement by his side.

He gives more of a tip than necessary with pound notes fresh from the cash point at Heathrow, too used to the American way of doing things. Crinkled dollars hide at the back of his wallet.

The village church sits to his left on a slight rise; in the summer it’s normally hidden behind huge yew and oak trees, but Arthur hasn’t been here in the summer for years. Instead, the oak trees are bare now and Arthur can see the Norman church through their empty branches, the stained glass windows unlit.

He looks away, a sudden memory too painful for now, too heavy for December. He pulls up the handle of his suitcase and begins walking, dragging it along on its wheels behind him.

He passes the village shop, the bakery, the pub, all decked out for Christmas. He supposes that this is it, the quintessential English village. It perhaps has less thatched cottages than most of his American friends presumed it would have. The corner shop is run by a lovely Indian family – or, it was, last time he was here – and the fish and chip shop is staffed by no one who speaks English as a first language, but that’s how quintessential Britain looks and should look. His new friends wouldn’t understand.

He wonders if he’ll forget things like that, too, one day. Too much time in tinsel town.

The curtains of a cottage on his left twitch as he continues up the road towards the edge of the village. Apothecary Cottage was where Gaius lived, with roses growing in the front garden and ivy threatening the integrity of the plaster. Arthur isn’t quick enough to see who’s at the curtains, just catching movement in the corner of his eye, but he wouldn’t put it past the old man.

He swallows, thinking of Merlin, wondering if he’s come here for Christmas, too, or if he’s staying with Hunith this year. The thought makes his stomach drop, and as he passes the last of the houses in the village itself, he pulls his beanie off his head.

After a few more minutes, Arthur is crunching up the gravel of the house he grew up in, the only one without a single Christmas decoration in the front garden. It’s probably one of the largest in the village, with eight bedrooms and a paddock out back, overlooking the gently rolling hills beyond. Sometimes he wonders if it deserves the title of De Bois Hall; not the reference to his late mother, of course, but a hall? It isn’t even as big as the mansions in LA, certainly not Gwaine’s. The long driveway is imposing, though, Arthur will concede that much.

Especially with his father stood at the end of it on the front steps of the house, arms folded.

“Why didn’t you get dropped off here?” are the first words out of his Uther’s mouth when he reaches the door. He still cuts an imposing figure, despite the fact that he’s nearly seventy now, lips pressed into a thin line and eyes passing judgement.

It helps Arthur feel seventeen again, like the last ten years hasn’t happened, when he sees the disappointment there.

Hello, Father, how are you? is the response that Arthur wants to give, but doesn’t. He’s been away for a long time, but he never forgot how to deal with Uther.

“You never know who’s going to sell you out to the papers nowadays.” Arthur certainly hadn’t expected his last girlfriend Sophia to do it, waking up to find his Twitter feed full of intimate details about their troubled sex life. But his father doesn’t need to know this.

Uther sneers. “You sound American.”

Arthur doesn’t; he’s clung onto that much of his Britishness, at least. “I’m sorry,” he says as he was brought up to around Uther. He’s glad he took his hat off, at least, Uther might’ve had a fit.

It’s not his fault that Uther can’t stand Christmas, but then again, maybe it is.

Uther steps aside and lets him into the house. Arthur slowly climbs the grand staircase to his childhood bedroom which Uther has never bothered to redecorate. There are fresh sheets on the bed and towels in the bathroom, thanks to the maid that Uther clings onto, but band posters and football shirts still adorn the dark green walls.

“Supper will be at six,” Sefa, the maid, says quietly from the doorway. He recognises her from his brief FaceTime calls with his father, where she has been serving him his traditional glass of whiskey by the fire in the lounge or helping him with this “bloody technology”. She looks young, and kind of sad. Arthur wonders what he looks like to her, whether she grew up watching his films. “Welcome home.”

Arthur nods. “I’m going to take a nap, I think. Please ask my father to not disturb me.”

Sefa smiles quickly. “Of course,” she says, because they both know Uther will come nowhere near this end of the house of his own volition.

Ygraine’s studio sits next door to Arthur’s room, untouched for twenty-seven years.

Chapter Text

If I wanted to know who you were hanging with
While I was gone, I would've asked you
It's the kind of cold, fogs up windshield glass
But I felt it when I passed you
There's an ache in you, put there by the ache in me
But if it's all the same to you
It's the same to me

~*~*~*~

By half past seven, Arthur is desperate for a drink.

His nap and shower had helped him feel more human, which he had certainly needed before facing down his father from the opposite end of the dinner table. Uther had poked around like a curious surgeon attending a wound.

I wouldn’t have taken on that script for Redoubt, you know. That Matthew character was an idiot.

Why didn’t you bring Sophia back with you for Christmas?

Have you thought about losing a bit of weight? It might help you get cast for better roles.

Arthur had pulled on his coat and wound a scarf around his neck, an old striped one that he’d worn constantly as a teenager before he went chasing his dream halfway around the world.

He isn’t sure if it’s a dream anymore, now.

The road is dark, and the overcast skies never cleared, so Arthur finds his way along the country lane by the light of passing cars and his own muscle memory. Ten years, and he still remembers so clearly this village, his figurative hometown. There was the post office, where he and Leon had driven Geoffrey mad most days after school by buying penny sweets and chocolate bars with individual 1p pieces, even when they were spending nearly five quid. The telephone box just outside, in its traditional red, where Gwen used to ring her boyfriend Lance so her mother didn’t catch her idling on the phone at home.

Arthur smiles, breath fogging around his face. Christmas lights twinkle in the windows of the homes he passes now. Someone has quite an elaborate nativity scene set up in their front garden. He remembers walking down here as a child with Uncle Gaius, who would show him all of the lights and make up elaborate stories for each set.

Before he realises it, Arthur’s walking past the road leading to the primary school that they had all attended. Arthur, Leon, Gwen, Percy, Elyan, even though he was a couple of years below them, Freya... and Merlin.

Arthur doesn’t give himself time to think about Merlin, because he’s pushing open the door of the pub, The Lady of the Lake, and stepping into the cosy warmth inside.

“Ah, look who it is! Golden boy!”

God, how he hates that nickname.

The pub is just how he remembered it, when the old gang used to sit at one of the large tables in the back. Freya’s parents were the landlords, and while they never used to serve them underage for fear of losing their licence, they didn’t notice if a crate of their weakest cider went missing from the stockroom every now and then.

He unwinds his scarf quickly, the sudden change in temperature and clamour around him overwhelming. His father’s friends are here, smiling and cheering at him, turning from their spot at the bar.

“Agravaine. Aredian.” Arthur nods at them both.

The pub suddenly falls quiet, save for the quiet crooning of Michael Bublé in the background. It’s a Saturday night and many of the tables are full, friends and family catching up before Christmas. Arthur’s never been one for theatre or dramatics, despite the job. He stands stock still in the doorway, clutching his scarf in his hands.

“We didn’t know you were coming home for Christmas,” Agravaine says with a laugh. Aredian smirks into his pint. “Uther never told us.”

“I’m not surprised,” Arthur says quietly. He recognises Freya’s mother behind the bar, a little greyer than last time he saw her, and sends her a pleading look.

“Arthur, love, welcome home,” she says with a smile. Feet unfrozen, he steps forward finally towards the polished wood. “My, you’ve grown.”

“It’s been a while.”

“It’s got to be about ten years, hasn’t it?” she asks, tilting her head to the side. “What would you like? It’s on the house, of course. Freya would kill me if she knew you’d paid for one, now that you’re finally old enough that I can serve you.”

“Thanks.” Arthur smiles for what feels like the first time all day. “Pint of Aspall’s, if you have it.”

Freya’s mother rolls her eyes as she takes a glass from below the bar. “You lot and your cider. Some things never change,” she murmurs, smiling.

“Where’s Freya? Is she still in Middle Worthy?” Arthur asks, shrugging off his coat. He’d changed into a burgundy crew knit jumper after his nap and subsequent shower, and it’s novel; he’d been in t-shirts and shorts until his flight yesterday. It makes him feel warm, both figuratively and literally.

“Ah, no,” is the reply. “She’s moved to Winchester with her... new boyfriend. They’re doing their own Christmas this year.” Freya’s mother twists the words around in her mouth, and Arthur doesn’t want to pry; he’s already been on the receiving end of such treatment today. “Don’t all you young’uns keep up with each other on Facebook or TikTok or whatever the craze is nowadays?”

Arthur chuckles. “I’m a bit too old for TikTok. And I don’t have Facebook, apart from a fan page.”

“Yes, of course, what with being famous and all,” she jokes. She sets the pint down on the bar with a thud, some of the amber liquid spilling down the side. “There’s a table around the corner, if you want to get away from this lot,” she says, rolling her eyes towards Agravaine, Aredian, and their group of friends, who are loudly quoting one of Arthur’s most well-known films, Absolution, and poorly at that.

“Thank you,” doesn’t seem quite sufficient but it’s all Arthur can muster as he makes his way around into the next room, sinking into a booth that smells faintly of cigarette smoke. Back in the day, an elderly lady used to sit here chain-smoking and knitting scarf after gaudy scarf, while the gang giggled on from their own table further down the way.

Smoking is banned in pubs, now, and the old lady had probably died while Arthur had been pursuing his acting career in Hollywood. Arthur can’t shift the feeling that he’s missed out on so much, that he should be able to split himself infinitely to experience everything at once, and anything less is a failure to himself and others.

Running his hand through his hair and exhaling, he pulls out his phone and checks his WhatsApp notifications to distract himself. The group chat, 90210 (Gwaine’s idea, not his) has 156 unread messages. Arthur scrolls through them all at a rapid pace: the main gist of them was that Elena had been papped leaving Gwaine’s mansion yesterday, which had added fuel to the inferno which was the rumours about the two of them dating.

What the press doesn’t know is that Gwaine had drunk half of his liquor cabinet the night before and jumped into his pool fully clothed, and Elena had sped across town to sort him out. Gwaine had left half a dozen rambling voice notes on the group chat, which Arthur had listened to, tears in his eyes as he logged into the in-flight WiFi halfway across the Atlantic. Helpless.

Mithian had responded in the only way she knew how, by sending endless memes making light of the existential crisis of being perpetually adored but feeling terribly lonely. It was crass and vulgar but in the sweetest way, which was Gwaine all over. Elena had posted a selfie of her and Gwaine the next morning, both smiling at least, and Morgana had weighed in on the whole thing by threatening to move in with Gwaine for moral support, despite being on a runway campaign in Paris for the next few months.

When Gwaine had countered her offer with a quite interesting definition of moral support, Arthur knew that the worst was over, for now.

Such was his strange little group of friends, thrown together by the plague they all suffered called celebrity, and kept together by the weight of the secrets they shared.

Arthur wasn’t the only one in their circle to have been publicly humiliated when Sophia had gone to the press; Morgana had been outed before she’d discussed it with her family, and Elena’s past recreational drug use was put under the spotlight. The group had briefly been renamed 90210: Fuck Sophia by a well-meaning Mithian until Arthur pointed out that it wasn’t really helping him forget her, when it had been changed back.

Arthur
Good to see you’re alright, Gwaine. I just had supper with Uther.

Gwaine
Supper?! Was it served by a butler, with tea, and a small urchin in the corner saying “cor blimey guv’nor!”

Arthur
God forbid you get cast in a role requiring a British accent, I will never help you.

But like I said, glad to see you’re feeling better.

Elena
Ouch. How did it go? x

Arthur
About as well as you’d expect. He asked about Sophia, told me to lose weight, and said that Redoubt was a mistake.

Mithian
Disappointed, but not surprised

Arthur
Mith, do you actually keep a folder with all of these images downloaded or something?

Mithian
it’s a really slow day on set today, val keeps forgetting his lines so we have done dozens of takes lolol

Elena
Oh bb. I’m about to go into a table read but let’s FaceTime for your birthday tomorrow xx

 

Arthur blinks at his phone, before swiping down from the top of the screen. Saturday 20 December. He had, indeed, forgotten about his own birthday.

Arthur had been born on the shortest day of the year nearly 28 years ago. It was the darkest day of the year in more ways than one.

 

Arthur
Thanks, El, but I don’t really do birthdays.

Gwaine
Everyone does birthdays, bro! Or were your folks the kind that rolled yours into Christmas, because they’re so close and your mom didn’t want to buy two sets of presents???

 

Arthur winces, putting his phone down on the table to take a long drink from his cider. He trusts this circle of friends more than pretty much anyone else in his life, but there is still so much they didn’t know about him. Luckily, Morgana, who does know the fully story, comes to the rescue in a way that only Morgana can pull off.

 

Morgana
Just get shit-faced. It’s the best way to cope with getting older. And you are, you know, old.

Arthur
Thank you, dearest cousin, for your endless wisdom.

Elena
Timing, Morgana??? Have you been reading this convo at all????

Mithian
What can I say except yikes

Gwaine
El there’s a difference between getting pissed and being a drama queen about it like I was. And we know Artie is too emotionally constipated to be a drama queen about it

Arthur
Well, this has been jolly but I’m going to leave you to it.

Mithian
omg he actually wrote jolly 😍

Morgana
We all saw Endlessly Yours, Arthur. We know that you’re very good at pretending you have emotions. Or at least the Academy thinks so anyway.

Elena
Morgana don’t you have anything better to be doing other than being rude?

Morgana
Yes. Morgause. She’s in the bath right now. Then I’ll be doing something better 😉

Arthur
Jesus Christ.

Elena
TMI!!!!!

Gwaine
No details?! C’mon Morgs

Mithian
Restraining Order

Arthur
Definitely not hanging around for details. Speak soon.

 

Arthur mutes the chat that will inevitably continue at 100mph for the next few hours and closes WhatsApp, drinking from his cider again to try and bleach his mind. He realises he’s drunk half of it quite quickly and feels pleasantly buzzed already. It’s a welcome surprise.

He opens Twitter next.

 

Arthur @arthurpendragon
Back in the UK for Christmas. Looking forward to @gwaine’s famous NYE party and my first day on the set of The Night We Met in January. Happy Holidays.
8:04 pm · 20 Dec 2020 · Twitter for iPhone

 

He’s never been a natural at social media and doesn’t have much of a knack for storytelling; he leaves that to the screenwriters. He sends the tweet before he can wince at how American ‘happy holidays’ sounds. Maybe his father was right. He usually was, at least according to Uther.

Instantly, the notifications tally starts rising. Arthur swears under his breath, knowing that he also needs to put something on Instagram to keep his manager happy, but lost in the foreign, impersonal praise his notifications are giving him. Professions of love, well-wishers from across the globe, languages he doesn’t even recognise from millions of followers, all for him. He fires off a few replies, the token amount acceptable, as he finishes off his cider and pushes the empty glass towards the end of the booth.

He’s so absorbed in his phone that he doesn’t notice someone approach his table.

“Sorry, but I’m not in the mood for autographs,” rolls off his tongue before he can check himself. Lost in the vanity that Twitter offers, he’d forgotten that he was in a pub in rural Hampshire, rather than sat in a sidewalk café on Sunset Boulevard.

“Who the fuck do you think you-- Arthur?”

As the stranger had started his warranted insult, Arthur had looked up.

Tired.

Arthur has just locked eyes with Merlin Emrys, his childhood sweetheart, and the first thing that comes into his head is tired. Merlin’s bright blue eyes, no different to how they were when he last saw them ten years ago – although, filled with less tears – are underlined with dark smudges.

“Merlin,” Arthur croaks, lips suddenly dry. He’s one pint in but it’s not enough for this conversation. Ten years wasn’t enough.

“I was gonna ask if you wanted another,” Merlin says, weakly gesturing to Arthur’s empty pint glass.

Arthur takes stock of the man stood in front of him. Merlin’s in a blue checked shirt, over which he’s wearing a black apron with The Lady of the Lake embroidered on the front. He’s as tall as he was as a teenager but somehow less lanky, filling into the shape of a man rather than a boy. His features have sharpened, giving him a jaw line and cheekbones that Arthur would’ve never expected to see. He looks... he looks better than Arthur would’ve expected, save for the fatigue.

Merlin’s eyes are still the same as ever, like they can see right through Arthur. Arthur wilts under his gaze.

“I think I’ll need one,” is all he can muster. The corner of Merlin’s mouth twitches up into a smile.

“Okay,” he says, nodding to himself before disappearing around the corner towards the bar.

Arthur takes a deep breath. There was always a possibility that Merlin was going to be here for Christmas. It’s not the reason he’d been avoiding Middle Worthy for ten years – his father hardly made it an enticing prospect at the most wonderful time of the year – but he hadn’t been looking forward to their reunion, no matter when it happened.

And here it is, when Arthur is unprepared, jet-lagged, and feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable.

Excellent timing, as always, universe, Arthur thinks. His whole life has been poor timing, from the very moment he was born.

“You look knackered.”

Merlin slips into the booth opposite him with grace, despite his long limbs. He sets a pint of Aspall’s down in front of Arthur, before he sips at his own pint of Guinness. Arthur didn’t have Merlin down as a Guinness man, but he bites that remark down before he says it; he doesn’t know what kind of man Merlin is at all.

“I was going to say the same about you, actually,” Arthur says instead.

“It’s been a rough couple of months,” Merlin says, licking at the foam on his top lip. He puts his glass down again. “Why are you so knackered, then?”

Arthur notes that avoidance for later, tucks it into the back of his mind. “Er,” he says intelligently. “You know. Rough, very public break up and a demanding schedule.”

Merlin smiles sadly. He fiddles with the strap of his watch, a practical plastic thing. “I read about that.” When Arthur’s eyebrows raise slowly, he continues. “Not that I follow the gossip closely or anything, but I mean, it made the front page of some of the papers here. You couldn’t ignore it.”

“Have you been trying to ignore me?” Arthur asks, tongue loosened by the alcohol. It’s as if he wants to cause his own suffering, masochist he is. He knows where this will lead and embraces it.

The look Merlin gives him is dark, and expected. “You broke my heart, you bastard,” Merlin snaps, but ten years have dulled the insult from a sharp point to a blunt ache. “I begged you to stay just a little bit longer. You were...” Merlin glances out of the booth into the pub before lowing his voice. “You were my first everything, and then you just fucking announced you were going to Hollywood and that was that. No convincing you otherwise. You never even sent me your bloody address.”

Arthur winces, nodding imperceptibly to himself. His first months in LA had been a whirlwind of meetings and auditions, a wide-eyed 18-year-old shedding all traces of his countryside upbringing when presented with things such as fast cars, illicit alcohol, and pretty women.

Merlin waves his hand towards Arthur. “And then, I got a boyfriend, Cenred, and I found that I didn’t care anymore.”

Merlin’s words are a punch to Arthur’s gut, and the pain must be clear on Arthur’s face. At no point in the last decade had Arthur ever considered that Merlin would’ve gotten himself a boyfriend, fallen in love, and moved on with his life. The conceited prick he was had expected Merlin to be languishing alone, waiting here like some kind of housewife waiting for her husband to return from the war.

“If I wanted to know who you’d... been with while I was gone, I would've asked you,” Arthur retorts sharply, trying to chase away the images in his head of Merlin writhing under another man’s touch.

He’d never forgotten what Merlin had looked like under his own.

Merlin, to his surprise, laughs. It’s almost guffawing and he throws his whole body into it, as he always has. “It’s been ten years Arthur. How many dozens of women have you slept with? Don’t answer that,” Merlin says quickly, holding up a palm to Arthur in warning.

“Six,” Arthur answers anyway.

“Six dozen?”

Arthur hates that he can’t read Merlin’s expressions anymore. “No. Just six women. That’s it. And, uh, a couple of men, but, you know what Hollywood’s like. Have to be quiet with that.”

“I don’t,” Merlin says lowly. “But I can imagine.”

They pause to take a drink, Arthur peering over the top of his glass at Merlin, who it turns out is doing the exact same. Their eyes meet for a moment before Arthur looks away.

“So, are you still with Cenred, then?”

Merlin smiles, and it melts Arthur’s heart a little, the way his eyes crinkle and the coy look on his face. “Why do you want to know? You just told me you didn’t want to know.”

Arthur feels himself blushing and blames it on the alcohol. “I’m just making polite conversation.”

“Of course,” Merlin says. “Well, it turned out that Cenred was a prick, so I dumped him. Then I was dating Mordred, but he cheated on me.”

“I’m sorry.”

Merlin sighs. “He cheated with Freya. They live in Winchester now. I think she’s expecting, but I haven’t wanted to keep in touch. You can probably guess why.”

Before he even thinks about it, Arthur places a hand on Merlin’s forearm. “I’m sorry, Merlin. That’s awful.” Merlin stares at it for a moment before Arthur slowly withdraws it back behind his own lines, the table a battlefield in stalemate, peace talks ongoing. “Why are you working here at her parents’ pub, then?”

“Oh, I don’t work here, I volunteer,” Merlin says, face splitting into a grin. It takes Arthur off guard and he barks out a laugh. “It’s Freya who betrayed me, not her parents, and the pub barely turns over enough to take on another member of bar staff at Christmastime.”

“Freya’s mum gave me a free pint!” Arthur admonishes.

Merlin laughs. “Yeah, sounds about right. They’ve missed you. The whole village misses their golden boy,” Merlin says, long fingers curling into air quotes.

“I hate that nickname,” Arthur mutters, and Merlin laughs.

“Get used to hearing it, sunshine, because now they know you’re back, everyone’s going to want to see you. Gwen, Leon, Percy, even Uncle Gaius will want to.”

“Do you still live in the village? How’s Hunith?”

Arthur wishes he can take the words back as soon as they’re out of his mouth. Storm clouds roll across the sun that was Merlin’s smile and his mouth drops suddenly into a frown, hands curling into fists on the tabletop before he releases them again.

“She passed away last month,” Merlin mumbles.

Arthur gapes. He tries to think of a consolation, some wise words, perhaps something one of his infinitely wiser characters once said, able to deal with emotions and feelings so much better than Arthur ever could. There’s nothing though, nothing he can say right now that will make any difference.

Merlin looks up from wringing his hands together to look at Arthur. “Breast cancer. It’d...” he takes a deep breath and then sighs. “It had been a long time coming, she’d been terminal for a year or so. We were able to spend a lot of time together, towards the end, which made it easier when she did eventually go.” He glances up at Arthur again. “My publisher gave me more time to finish my manuscript, which is kind of them, but the house is so empty now that I’ve enjoyed coming here to help out.”

“You’re a writer?” Arthur may be emotionally inept, but he knows an exit of a conversation when he sees one. “I mean, I’ve never seen your name on any books in Barnes & Noble or in the press or anything. I might have fucked up, but I never forgot your name.”

The smile Merlin smiles is a sad one. “I’m honoured,” he says. “But I write under a pen name. I didn’t want fame to interfere with my normal life.” Like it did with yours.

“You made a wise choice, Merlin.”

The smile becomes more genuine. “I guessed as much. But this series has done quite well so far. A couple of bestsellers.” At Arthur’s unasked question, he goes on. “I started with mysteries and some poetry, but I’ve branched into contemporary fiction, which is what got popular. The trials and tribulations of life, etc. Mum inspired me there.” He falls silent, the diversion tactics not as successful as Arthur had hoped.

“I’m sorry. If I’d known about your mother...” Arthur manages eventually.

“There’s a lot of things that could’ve happened differently over the last few years, if we’d known,” Merlin says, and Arthur closes his mouth. “A lot of things. No point in what ifs. That way lies madness.”

Dumbfounded, Arthur nods. He runs a hand through his hair before taking a long drink from his pint, the silence settling around them like ancient dust particles disturbed from a long slumber.

“Why have you come home?”

Merlin’s question takes Arthur by surprise. There’s a little bit of the spark back in Merlin’s eyes now, but his mouth gives away no clues as to why he wants to know. “Father wanted me to come home. I also thought a decade was long enough to stay away.”

“You could say that again,” Merlin mutters, or perhaps Arthur imagines it; he’s had two pints by this point, and he never usually drinks cider because it’s always made him drunker than spirits. “But your father hates Christmas.”

“I’m fully aware.”

Merlin’s eyes bore into his own. “And it’s your birthday tomorrow.”

Arthur chokes out a sad laugh. “You remembered?” he asks because he doesn’t quite believe it.

“Of course I did,” Merlin says softly. “It was the day of the year that my best friend was always the most upset. The other kids never knew why you hated getting presents, or having a party, or even people wishing you a happy birthday.”

Arthur sits back in his seat, from where he’d been leaning forward on his forearms. Merlin takes a sip from his own pint, nearly finished now, and Arthur watches his Adam’s apple bob in his throat as he swallows, long fingers wrapped around the glass. Merlin probably knows more about him than most of his friends in Hollywood, and they hadn’t spoken to each other in ten years. A wave of nostalgia and yearning washes over Arthur so suddenly that he has to take a deep, shaking breath to ease the tightness in his chest.

He distracts himself, as he always has done, by slipping into character.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Merlin listens raptly to Arthur’s shaking timbre, deeper than usual as he recites the final stanza of the poem that’s been lingering at the fringes of his consciousness since last week. That was when he made the decision to return home from Christmas, burnt out and exhausted by stardom and scornful ex-girlfriends.

“Robert Frost,” Merlin says in a thick voice. “The Road Not Taken.”

“I know you said no what ifs,” Arthur says, holding up a hand when Merlin tries to speak. “I know. But... I...”

What ifs can’t change the past, what’s been and gone,” Merlin says in a rush. “That’s what I meant. There’s no point wasting away thinking about what could have been done differently. You have to keep moving forward and make the most of the moment.”

“Merlin--”

“Just be quiet. Please,” Merlin says with his fingers to his temples, elbows on the table, and the request is so sudden that Arthur complies. “You broke my heart. I can’t forget how much that hurt,” Merlin says, and Arthur tries not to wince, to shy away from the damage he caused. “But... how long are you home for?”

Home. Arthur blinks. “Erm, a couple of weeks?”

“Sorry, boys,” Freya’s mother calls from the front of the pub. “But I’ve got to lock up.”

“Fuck,” Merlin mutters under his breath. He looks at his watch as Arthur checks his own; a few hours have passed.

“Great timing,” Arthur laughs, and for once it’s not his fault. Merlin shoots him a look that’s a cross between annoyance and mirth, before he slides out of the booth.

“We better go. It’s not fair to make them wait on us,” Merlin says as Arthur stands up too.

“Agreed.”

They collect their glasses and take them back to the bar via a quick visit to the gents, saying their goodbyes as they leave, met with frigid air outside. Arthur shrugs into his coat, wrapping his scarf around his neck as Merlin pulls on a set of woollen gloves.

“So...”

Arthur and Merlin stand at nearly the same height now; Merlin always used to be taller than him until Arthur had had a late growth spurt. The Christmas lights mounted on the front of the pub cast ethereal greens and blues over Merlin’s face.

“We could go back to mine, if you like,” Arthur murmurs, looking into Merlin’s eyes.

Merlin looks away. “Not now,” he says, looking at the rejection on Arthur’s face. “Not yet. Let’s pretend for a bit, yeah?”

Arthur laughs despite himself. “Pretending to be other people is what I do for a living, Merlin.”

“Me too, to some extent,” Merlin says. “Let’s pretend that... that we’re both single...”

“We are,” Arthur says, stepping forward. Merlin steps back, and Arthur freezes. “I’m sorry.”

“Stop—stop saying bloody sorry all the time, alright?” Merlin says. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. It’s gone. Done. What I want you to do is take me out for a drink or something.”

Oh. “Well, we just had a drink.”

“Your first one was free and the second one I bought. Doesn’t count, and I don’t think you’re a cheap date, so you get another chance,” Merlin admonishes, but he’s smiling again, which is an inch that Arthur didn’t have before.

Arthur thinks about what he used to love about Merlin, Merlin here in Middle Worthy at Christmas time. “Are you busy tomorrow?” he asks. “There’s a walk I used to love, that goes up and over the hill behind the school, and you could see that little barn in the middle of the wheat fields. Is it still there?”

Arthur doesn’t need to say that he needs a distraction from his birthday tomorrow, because Merlin knows. He feels the weight of the meaning and relief of that deep in his bones.

“Yeah, it’s still there.” Merlin’s eyes are soft with an emotion Arthur can’t name. “And no, I’m not busy tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Arthur breathes, trying to reign in the grin threatening to spill across his face. It clearly doesn’t work, because Merlin rolls his eyes and laughs quietly. “Shall I pick you up? Are you still in Ealdor View?” Arthur thinks of how Merlin’s childhood home must feel now without the smell of his mother’s cooking permeating everything, and wonders if Merlin could still bear to be there. He wouldn’t blame him if he couldn’t.

“Yeah, I am.” The reflective tone answers Arthur’s question to some extent. “10 o’clock?”

Arthur nods, and Merlin smiles. “Alright,” Arthur says. “See you then.”

Merlin lingers for a moment. “See you tomorrow, golden boy,” he grins, releasing the last of the tension between them. Arthur groans and Merlin laughs wickedly as he turns and walks away towards his house. Arthur watches his retreating figure for a beat too long before turning in the opposite direction.

Twenty minutes later, having crept into De Bois Hall with a rarely used key, Arthur lies in his childhood bed and dreams of Merlin once more, like he used to a decade ago.

Chapter Text

The holidays linger like bad perfume
You can run, but only so far
I escaped it too, remember how you watched me leave
But if it's okay with you, it's okay with me

~*~*~*~

Arthur wakes suddenly the next morning, panicking in unfamiliar surroundings; the bed is too small, the covers too heavy. After a moment, he realises where he is, and takes deep breaths to calm his thundering heart.

Weak sunlight bleeds through the crack in his curtains, which never used to close properly and still don’t. Arthur pushes the bedcovers off his body and walks to the window, opening the curtains fully to look over the paddock and hills beyond. It’s well after sunrise, but the sun has barely risen in the sky, which is the palest of blues and cloudless. Arthur squints against the brightness as movement catches his eye.

His father stands at the stable door below, Kilgarrah’s dark head poking through the open hatch. Uther puts his hand on Kilgarrah’s nose and rests it there for a long time. Arthur turns away from the scene, leaving his father to it.

If their paths don’t cross today, it will be a small mercy to them both.

Arthur strips and showers methodically, replaying his conversation with Merlin from last night. He hadn’t expected to see Merlin at all, but he felt better for it. Lighter. As if...

He shakes his head at the thought under the showerhead, spraying water across the tiles. It’s not as if he’s never been gone. That’s a stupid thought and he can never make up for his absence; the way he left Merlin was inexcusable.

All he can try to do now is make amends.

“Good morning, Sefa,” Arthur says cordially as he creeps through his own house into the dining room. Uther hadn’t been visible in the paddock when he’d checked after getting dressed, but perhaps he’d gone out for a ride. Arthur admits to itself that it’s wishful thinking.

“Good morning, Arthur,” Sefa says from where she’s clearing the table. “I made you breakfast, it’s in the warming drawer in the Aga.”

“Thank you,” Arthur says, staying where he is for a few moments as he watches her pile the plates and cutlery back onto a tray. The house is quiet; the only other noise is the grandfather clock at the end of the room. “You know what day it is today, don’t you?”

Sefa’s hands still, and she bows her head in reverence. She certainly isn’t old enough to have known Ygraine, either. “Yes, I do.”

“I plan on keeping out of his way today,” Arthur says. “But try not to let him get too drunk tonight.”

He leaves Sefa to it then, heading into the kitchen to pull a plate of bacon and eggs from the stove’s warming drawer. At the kitchen table he eats quickly, conscious of both the time and his unwelcome presence in the house on this darkest of days. The sun paints the kitchen in a warm golden glow, at odds with the date and the heaviness in Arthur’s heart.

He finds his old wellington boots in his bedroom, and they still fit (after Arthur’s checked for spiders hiding in the bottom of them, of course). He picks up the coat, and the scarf he wore last night – had Gwen given it to him, years ago? – before he leaves De Bois Hall in the direction of the village.

The roads are quiet and Arthur can hear the church bells ringing in the village for the Sunday morning service, the last before Christmas. He passes Apothecary Cottage again, where the curtains are open and not moving this time. He ducks into the alley next the bakery which leads to Ealdor View, relieved to be out of the chilly breeze for a few moments.

Merlin’s house looks no different to how it did ten years ago, except that their push bikes aren’t abandoned in the front garden, and the thatch is newer, a sandy brown instead of the black it used to be. Butterflies have replaced the breakfast in Arthur’s stomach as he walks up to the front door and lifts the heavy knocker, ten minutes too early.

“Hang on!” comes from the other side of the door. After a few seconds, Merlin opens it, cheeks flushed red and hair still wet. His eyes are bright, and there’s a smile on his face.

It cheers Arthur up immeasurably, chasing away the lingering blues.

“Look who it is,” Merlin jokes, and it isn’t lost on Arthur. “Give me a few minutes. I overslept.”

“Some things never change,” Arthur quips, and Merlin looks offended as he ushers him inside, shutting the heavy front door.

“Make yourself at home,” Merlin says before bounding up the creaking stairs on the far side of the lounge.

Arthur is overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia even greater than the one he had in the pub last night. He can see him and Merlin everywhere – in the kitchen, helping Hunith to make scones, at the dining table, playing board games which ended in arguments resolved days later, on the sofa, talking about books and girls and boys and anything else that came to mind.

Some things have changed, though. There’s more bookshelves than before, which is already saying something, and it makes the already cramped cottage even smaller, but more cosy. The exposed beams aren’t quite low enough that Arthur has to duck consistently as he crosses the room, but he has to consider them more than he did when he was a boy. Some of the books are ones that he remembers he and Merlin reading together – A Game of Thrones, To Kill A Mockingbird (which they studied at school; Merlin loved it, Arthur didn’t), and Romeo & Juliet, which had started Arthur on his sorry path to Hollywood in the first place.

One shelf in particular catches Arthur’s eye, as it’s full of pristine copies of hardback books, seemingly never read, all by the same author. His breath gets caught in his throat as he reads the titles, all by the author B. H. Ambrosius:

Death Comes Calling

In The Mist

Warm Blooded Killer

For Lost Lovers: A Poetry Collection

Poems for Twenty-Somethings

And then a series of books with matching spines:

Ourselves, Once

Ourselves, Apart

Ourselves, Between

Pulling Ourselves, Between off the shelf, Arthur is surprised to see a minimalist design on the cover. It must be the contemporary fiction that Merlin had been talking about, from the impression the cover gives him. Two male figures face each other from opposite sides of the cover; the whole thing reminds him of a book he read recently, guiltily, about a British prince and the son of the President.

“Worked out my pen name, then?”

Arthur jumps out of his skin. “Fucking hell,” he gasps as Merlin starts laughing. Arthur spins around to see Merlin leaning against the bannister at the bottom of the stairs, arms folded across his chest, looking particularly smug. “Well, I... suppose I have.” Arthur gestures at the book in his hands before putting it gently back in its place on the shelf. “Turns out I had heard of this series, but I haven’t read any of them.”

“I’m not sure they’ll be your cup of tea,” Merlin says, eyes falling to the shelf. “The mysteries, maybe. The Ourselves series is quite emotional, not really your thing.”

Merlin can’t meet his eyes as he says the last part. Arthur steps towards Merlin and finds himself relieved when, this time, Merlin doesn’t back away.

“I owe you an apology,” Arthur starts, and when Merlin opens his mouth to argue back, Arthur keeps talking. “I know you said you didn’t want me to say sorry again, and I’m not going to.” He sighs. “Maybe, instead of an apology, it’s an explanation. Humour me, at least.”

Arthur begs with his eyes the words he cannot yet say. After a couple of moments, Merlin nods. “Let’s walk and talk, then. Before it gets dark again.”

“It’s ten o’clock, Merlin,” Arthur laughs to brighten the mood, and they step out of the dark living room into the weak sunshine once more. “I like your coat. It suits you.”

Merlin looks down at his pea coat and smiles. “Thanks,” he says as he wraps a red scarf around his neck. He looks at Arthur. “I seem to remember Gwen bought you that scarf.”

Arthur grins before he realises what he’s doing. “Good. I had remembered correctly, then,” he says in way of an explanation.

They walk past the village shop and war memorial before starting a slow climb out of the village. The pavement is narrow with cars parked all along the road, so Arthur ends up walking behind Merlin at times. Merlin says hello to everyone they encounter, often greeting someone by name, and stops to pet every dog that crosses their path.

Arthur thinks it’s a bit magical, really, the look on Merlin’s face when he’s talking to one particularly happy cocker spaniel and its owner, Alice. It was wearing reindeer antlers, which is why Merlin had crossed the street to pet it in the first place, and was lapping up the attention it was receiving.

“Her name is Daisy,” Alice says. “Go on, Arthur, give her some love. She doesn’t bite.”

Arthur kneels down to look Daisy straight in the eye. “I never had pets, growing up,” Arthur says to Alice and Merlin, looming above him. He hopes it explains his hesitance, but as soon as he slides his hand over her soft copper fur, he falls in love. “Hello, darling girl,” he croons, and Daisy’s tail starts wagging even harder than before.

“If only she knew she was being petted by a Hollywood film star,” Alice sighs dramatically. Arthur looks up to find her chuckling at her own joke, and Merlin smirking. “I better get going. Gaius and I need to practice for when the bowls season starts again.”

“In four months,” Merlin deadpans. Arthur stands up, knees aching.

“You didn’t see the Bickleton team last year, Merlin. They’re very good,” Alice admonishes, before she looks at Arthur once more. “It’s good to see you home, Arthur. You’ve grown a lot since I last saw you.”

“Alice used to work down the doctors’ with Gaius, before they both retired,” Merlin adds.

Arthur nods. “It’s been a bit overwhelming,” he admits. “Everyone seems to remember me. No one forgot.”

Alice puts her hands on her hips. “How could we forget our golden boy?” she teases, but the nickname doesn’t sting; she says it like an endearment. “Like I said, I better get going. Nice to see you both,” she says. “C’mon, Daisy, let’s go see Gaius.”

“Did you really think people would’ve forgotten about you?” Merlin says in a quiet voice. His eyebrows are lightly knitted together, corners of his mouth turned down in a frown.

“Come on,” Arthur says gently, not wanting to say yes to the hurt on Merlin’s face.

It’d been ten years, after all.

They turn off the road onto a dirt track leading behind some houses, the primary school to their left. Long lost footballs are wedged between the hedge and the wire fence that marks its boundary. “Remember that summer we were obsessed with frisbee?” Arthur asks. They’re able to walk side by side on this track, and he glances at Merlin to see his smile blossom at the random memory.

“Yes,” Merlin says, starting to laugh. “And Percy must’ve launched about a thousand onto the roof.”

“Gwen’s dad was so annoyed. Every time he came out grumbling,” Arthur laughs. “Is he still the headmaster?”

Merlin nods. “Yep. He’ll only retire from there once they force him to.”

“We had some great teachers, growing up,” Arthur says fondly. “Tom, the music teacher who wrote the school song--”

“Mister Daniels?”

“Yes!” Arthur says. “And, of course, Hunith. She’s the reason I wanted to become an actor.”

Arthur takes another two paces before he realises that Merlin has stopped in his tracks. The path has entered a tunnel of sorts under two lines of trees and hedge, their limbs bare, their leaves now carpeting the track beneath them. “What?” Merlin says. The wind nearly carries away his words.

Arthur turns back and walks towards Merlin. “The way she taught English was incredible. She brought those characters to life, and when we studied Romeo and Juliet – I knew all I wanted to do was to breathe life into them the way she did. She... she was an incredible woman, and I’m sad that I never got to tell her in person how much she changed my life.”

Merlin rubs tears from his eyes with the heels of his hands. It couldn’t have been more than six weeks since Hunith had died, and the wound was still raw. He starts walking again, and Arthur joins him. “She’d watched all of your films. I think she hated you for a bit, after you left,” Merlin says with a sad laugh. “She held more of a grudge against you than I did, but then she saw your films – she always loved Endlessly Yours, she always said that it never looked like you were acting in that, because you did it so well.”

Arthur presses his lips together, taking a deep breath. “That...” he starts lowly, not trusting his voice. “That means more to me than any award ever could, Merlin.” Another deep breath. “I grew up not knowing how to feel emotion. Hell, you’ve met Uther, you know that the only emotions he feels are rage and anger. I had to learn how to be soft, loving, kind from watching others, and nowadays from becoming others,” Arthur explains.

He’d been thinking of how to word this for too many years, but he never thought he’d ever have to explain it to Merlin. When he tried to explain it to Sophia, she had told him that these were just excuses for his lack of emotional intelligence.

“Growing up without a mother... I...” Arthur sighs. “If I’m being honest, I was jealous of you and Hunith. The way she cared about you, and about me, by extension? Sometimes it felt like too much. Last night, I was remembering how Gaius used to tell me stories about the displays of Christmas lights around the village. Now I realise he was trying to put some kind of Christmas spirit in me, to get me away from my father’s foul mood around this time of year.”

They emerge from the tunnel of trees into the open once more, ploughed fields either side of the path. The low sun is nearly blinding, but warms their faces. “He used to do that with me too. Between him and Mum, I think that’s why I became a writer.”

Arthur laughs. His nose is running, either from the cold or from the sudden emotional onslaught, and he uses a tissue in his pocket to wipe at it. “That was always going to happen, what with the adventures you made up for us when we were really little. Knights and castles and dragons...” A thought suddenly strikes him. “Did you go to uni to do creative writing, in the end? I know you’d been looking at it when I... left.”

“I did,” Merlin says. “It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.” He’s smiling, and when their eyes meet it grows wider.

“I’m pleased,” Arthur says. They round the corner of a small copse, and the little black barn that Arthur remembered is visible in the fields on the opposite side of the low valley. It stirs something in Arthur, this view, this countryside he used to call home for so long, and maybe still does. “Can we stop here a second?”

“Of course.”

Merlin stands with his hands in his pockets, and this time when the silence falls around them, it’s comfortable and contemplative. Arthur soaks in the view, reminiscing.

“Why did you go?”

The question is a perfect mirror to the one Merlin asked him last night in the pub, which already feels like so long ago. Arthur turns to study Merlin’s face in profile, Merlin’s eyes scanning the horizon in the distance. “I don’t mean, like, ever. You were always going to leave Middle Worthy.” He looks at Arthur. “I would’ve, had I had Uther for a father. I don’t blame you for that.” Merlin looks away again, and Arthur blinks at him, trying to keep up. “Why did you leave so young? You were barely eighteen. It was so sudden, and... so unfair.”

The wobble in Merlin’s voice at those last words makes Arthur grind his teeth together. Here comes that famous Pendragon anger, except it’s entirely inwardly directed, that self-loathing he’s fought against for most of his life. It makes up for the lack of Merlin’s rage now; he’d been angry last night when they’d first confronted the elephant in the room, but now, he is just sad.

“I want to explain,” Arthur says. “It might seem like excuses, but at least then you’ll know, and you can judge me on the full picture.” He closes his eyes, runs a hand through his hair, tousled by the wind. “A lot of things happened at once. Uther had... Uther has always been homophobic. I’m not sure if Aredian or Agravaine had seen us,” he says, gesturing between himself and Merlin, “or had been speaking to him, but the amount of anti-gay comments seemed to triple overnight. It’s like he didn’t want to acknowledge that his own son was doing it, was... he wanted me to stop, but he wouldn’t tell me to directly. Stupid backwards man,” Arthur spits, fury bleeding into his words.

A gentle hand on his arm calms him. He looks to Merlin instead of staring fixedly at the barn, and Merlin’s eyes are kind. “We were so different, me and you,” Arthur says, frowning. “You were so, so happy and kind and loving, and I felt... I felt trapped. Claustrophobic. I wasn’t thinking straight. I’d applied for a few programmes anywhere, just to get away, and... then, out of the blue one in LA popped up. Morgana’s parents had intervened, you see, rigged the process a little, so I had to make a quick decision. I should’ve told you.”

With his last words, it feels as if someone has taken a brick off his chest, allowing him to breathe for once and his heart to beat properly. Merlin nods slowly, chewing on his bottom lip. “You should’ve told me.”

“I didn’t think it through, and I wasn’t happy after a while, in LA. The endless pretending – for the cameras, for the fans, the press, even my friends - they don’t know why I hate my birthday, how my mother...” The hand on Arthur’s arm tightens, a brace. “But I was stuck in a contract, and I couldn’t come home a failure. Could you even imagine...?”

They both think of Uther, and Arthur bows his head.

“I need to make something clear,” Merlin says suddenly, steel in his voice. “I never yearned for you. I missed you for a while, of course, and there was pain for a few months.” The hand on Arthur’s arm slides down to his wrist, frigid fingers linking together. “I haven’t been sat here waiting for you to come back, waiting for you to one day explain all of this. I never thought you would, I never expected it. I moved forward,” Merlin says. He grips Arthur’s fingers, and reads what must be the look of confusion on Arthur’s face. “That’s what Mum always used to say to me. Keep moving forward.” Merlin huffs a laugh, and it clouds between them, suddenly close now. “Mum would kill me if she saw me turn you away once you’d come back, all because you’d hurt me once a long time ago.”

Merlin looks away to the barn again, far away and permanent. “You’ve lived with enough hurt in your life, and with Mum gone... I think I have now, too,” he says, and the breeze barely carries the words to Arthur’s ears, they’re spoken so softly. Merlin turns his head back to Arthur and smiles, so close now. “We could call it even, for just a little while,” he murmurs, as if it’s a private joke.

It’s the tipping point for Arthur.

“I’d really like to kiss you now, Merlin,” Arthur utters, because it’s all he can think of: Merlin’s mouth, which has given him so much kindness and love his entire life, not least in this last hour. Merlin glances down coyly, then looks back up at Arthur through his eyelashes, smiling, and it’s all the encouragement Arthur needs.  

It’s not the first time they’ve kissed; Arthur can still remember the drunken summer evening in down the football pitch when Gwen and Freya, squealing, had goaded them into it for the first time. Arthur has kissed many men and women over the years, a vast majority of them in scenes of films, but nothing has ever felt more like coming home than touching his lips against Merlin’s now.

He can feel Merlin smiling as their mouths meet, Merlin’s cheek warm against his nose, and Merlin’s nose terribly cold against his skin. He untwines their hands so he can rest his on Merlin’s hips over his coat, eyes closed and breathing in the scent of Merlin. “I’ve missed you,” Arthur mutters, and it’s true, so true that he has to screw his eyes shut for a moment against the force of it. “It took coming home to realise how much I missed you.”

Merlin’s cold hands cup Arthur’s face, breaking them apart for a moment. Blue eyes search his own intensely. “I’m not making any promises,” Merlin says, studying his reaction. Arthur’s stomach drops. “I don’t want you to make me any promises, either. But you’re mine, for now. ‘Tis the damn season.”

Arthur laughs despite himself. “You really do say the dorkiest things,” he says, kissing Merlin once more. Merlin’s hands still press into his face as he whines in protest, and Arthur laughs into his mouth.

“If you’re just mine for the holidays,” Arthur starts, and God if the word mine doesn’t make him stand up straighter. “Then we should probably not kiss too much in public. I don’t want to share you with the rest of the world right now.”

Arthur belatedly realises how cruel his words could sound, but is relieved to find that Merlin doesn’t take them that way, knowing him better than that, despite everything. As if on cue, a man walking three excitable Labradors appears at the bottom of the field, and Arthur and Merlin step away from each other.

“Watch out, this bit is treacherous,” Merlin says, pointing at the particularly muddy path ahead. “I’ve never understood why it’s always so boggy at the top of the hill rather than at the bottom.”

Arthur makes a curious sound in agreement. As he tries to skirt around one large puddle, Merlin shoves at his side, pushing him into it. He lands in it with a splash, although thankfully still on his feet with his wellingtons keeping him dry. As Arthur drags his foot back to kick the muddy water at Merlin, the latter yields, wheezing. “No, no, no!” Merlin cackles, and Arthur’s laughter is the most genuine he’d produced in months.

The man with the Labradors passes them, giving them a curious look. “Mornin’.”

“Good morning,” Merlin practically sings back. His cheeks are rosy and his grin is nearly splitting his face in two. “You’re a prat,” he says to Arthur once the dog-walker is out of earshot, but the grin remains on his face.

“Are you sure you’re still happy that I’m home?” Arthur asks. Perhaps it’s a bit too bold, but if he’s honest, he can’t quite believe the events of the last twenty-four hours have even transpired.

“Fuck off,” Merlin scoffs, reaching out for Arthur’s hand and pulling him out of the puddle. They make it down the hill mostly in one piece; at one point Merlin slips, and Arthur’s hand is in the small of Merlin’s back to steady him so quickly, he wonders if it should be there forever more.

“As far as birthday gifts go, those kisses weren’t a bad one,” Arthur says once they emerge on the farmer’s gravel track at the bottom of the hill. Arthur’s little barn stands off to their left, striking against the flat horizon.

“Well,” Merlin starts. “Knowing what you were like before you left, you probably haven’t celebrated it for the last ten years, so I’ve hardly got much competition.”

“Hmmm. I suppose you haven’t,” Arthur answers, giving Merlin’s hand a squeeze. Their feet fall into step with each other unconsciously.

They reach a fork in the road. The left hand track takes them towards De Bois Hall; the right hand tracks takes them towards Middle Worthy and Merlin’s house. They don’t even have to stop; Merlin pulls Arthur back towards the village. “Did you know that Gaius had Uther round his house last year, on your birthday?”

Arthur looks at Merlin. “I did not.”

Merlin hums. “The year before, Freya’s mum had had to kick him out of the pub. He’d gotten so drunk that he was aggressive towards her and even Aredian and Agravaine.”

“Figures,” Arthur mutters. “He’s a Pendragon at all.”

Merlin shoots him a curious look at that. “Anyway. Uncle Gaius had him around last year. Me and Mum decided to steer clear, but apparently they had a couple of drinks and actually talked about Ygraine.”

“Now that is interesting,” Arthur says, without a trace of sarcasm. “Everything I learnt about Ygraine as a child was from what people in the village told me.” They reach the main road, and turn down the path back towards the high street. “Leon’s nan, your mother, Gaius... Uther never even breathed her name to me. I didn’t think he liked talking about her.”

“Well. I’m led to believe Uther was still blind drunk by the end of the evening, but at least he wasn’t hitting anyone,” Merlin says, shrugging his shoulders.

“I’m not my father,” Arthur feels the sudden need to say.

“I know you aren’t, you dolt,” Merlin replies, and if it isn’t the most honest thing anyone’s ever said to him. It wraps around his heart and settles in his chest, a balm for the ache of the last few years there.

There’s so much Arthur wants to tell Merlin. He’s done a lot of explaining today and Merlin has taken it all in his stride. He wants to tell him about Sophia and her betrayal, and his eclectic group of Hollywood friends, and how he’s not even sure if he wants to keep acting anymore. But, he’s also not made any promises to Merlin, doesn’t want to burden this fragile truce between them with more of his problems.

“I was thinking we could head into Winchester for the afternoon,” Merlin says conversationally, as if he hadn’t had it planned all along. Merlin always was meticulous with his planning. “I need to pick up some last-minute presents. I can lend you some shoes, too, so you’re not in your wellies.”

“I’d like that a lot,” Arthur says. They untangle their hands as they enter the village, but their shoulders brush with nearly every step. “I think I need to buy some presents of my own.”

“Oh right?” Merlin asks lightly. “Who for?”

“Stop that,” Arthur says when he notices Merlin smiling innocently at him. “One for you, of course. I hadn’t necessarily come home prepared.”

Merlin laughs. “You might need a few more than that. Gaius and Alice – they’re definitely together, by the way, they’re not fooling anyone - Gwen and Lance, Leon...” Arthur panics. “What? You weren’t going to spend Christmas Day in that big, lonely house with Uther, were you?”

Arthur sniffs. “What else was I meant to do?”

“Oh, Arthur. No one should be spending their Christmas like that,” Merlin says, looking as if someone has just scorned a puppy in front of him. They pass Apothecary Cottage, and Gaius is standing at the window, watching them. Merlin gives him a big wave. “Christmas is all about family and joy. You can’t spend it alone. Uther can even come, if he wants.”

“I can imagine he’d pass,” Arthur says with a grimace, before he sighs. “Merlin you’ve... you’re doing too much for me, I--”

“If you say you don’t deserve it, I will kick you in the balls, right here in the middle of the village,” Merlin warns. “And that would be a shame, firstly because Mrs Smith is watching, and she thinks I’m lovely, and secondly, I plan on reacquainting myself with them at some point.”

Arthur somehow manages to look embarrassed and affronted, and Merlin laughs, a light thing. “Good. Now that’s settled, let’s go to Winchester.”

“Let’s.”

Chapter Text

Time flies, messy as the mud on your truck tires
Now I'm missing your smile, hear me out
We could just ride around
And the road not taken looks real good now
And it always leads to you and my hometown

~*~*~*~

Throughout his acting career, Arthur has walked in many men’s shoes, but literally wearing Merlin’s least beaten-up pair of Converse is a curious experience. Merlin locks the front door of Ealdor View again, their wellies abandoned inside.

“I’m thinking we get parked, grab some lunch – there’s normally a stall doing these incredible pretzels at this time of year,” Merlin babbles as they walk around to the back of the cottage. “Then we can go present shopping, and then we can stop at Waitrose on the way home for the big shop.”

“Merlin, is this yours?” Arthur asks, entirely distracted by the vehicle in front of him on the driveway.

“Land Rover Defender D90 in Keswick Green,” Merlin says, beaming, resting a hand on its angular bonnet. “It’s not actually as new as it looks, and we rebuilt most of the engine--”

“We?” Arthur asks.

“Me and Gaius. He bought it pretty much as I was finishing uni, and he taught me a lot about how to maintain it, repair it, especially when he started to get too old to get on the creeper.”

Arthur feels entirely out of his depth once again. It’s a feeling he’s starting to associate with being near Merlin. “Creeper?”

“You know, the little skateboard thing that everyone emerges on from underneath cars in the films,” Merlin says, before he laughs and grins. “Don’t suppose you have played any mechanics, have you.”

“Haven’t yet had the pleasure,” Arthur says, walking around to the passenger side as Merlin climbs in. Arthur heaves himself up into the seat, fastening his seatbelt. “I didn’t have you down for a petrol head.”

Merlin smiles. “When I have writers’ block, it’s usually because Alastair and Felix are giving me trouble and won’t let me resolve their problems.” Merlin starts the Land Rover and it roars to life as Arthur makes a note to ask about those two names later, although he has his suspicions. “So I step out into the garage and work on the car, whose problems are a lot easier to diagnose and fix. It helped to get me out of the cottage, especially towards the end when Mum was home so much.”

Carefully, Merlin pulls out of the driveway and into the road, following the signs out of the village towards Winchester. The engine is loud but its monotony is almost comforting, settling the buzzing in Arthur’s veins that hadn’t stilled all day.

“Any other surprises you’ve got tucked up your sleeve, Merlin?” Arthur asks. Half of him is sure that he can’t take any more of this, the ripping apart and restitching of the tapestry he used to know as Merlin. The other half wants to be surprised, thrilled even, by the man at his side for a long time.

Though, he imagines the latter would happen regardless.

“Gwen and Lance have kids? Not sure if you knew that one,” Merlin says, glancing towards him as he pulls onto the main road and accelerates. He crunches the gearbox as he shifts gears. “Oops, she’s not taking to that new clutch well,” he mutters to himself.

“I definitely wouldn’t have expected it already, but at the same time, I can hardly say I’m surprised,” Arthur admits. “They were besotted with each other before we even started sixth form. How old are they?” Arthur asks, hoping Merlin realises he’s asking about the children, and not their friends.

“Four, and about eight months. Becca and Lily. They’re adorable,” Merlin says, smiling to himself.

“I bet, if they’re anything like their parents,” Arthur says softly.

“I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to pull all of this off,” Merlin says, gesturing by removing one hand from the wheel and waving it in the air.

“What?”

“This Christmas. Last year it was just me and Mum. Alice came over and did all of the cooking, so that Mum could rest. This year... this year I guess I’ve invited half the village round to make sure I don’t feel lonely.” Merlin’s final words are muttered, eyes staring ahead at the road.

“Well,” Arthur says, clearing his throat after a moment. “You should know that I make incredible shortbread, so you don’t have to worry on the biscuit front, at least.”

Merlin grins. “I thought you’d have chefs and staff to do all of that for you, Mister Millionaire?”

Arthur sighs, although he can’t bring himself to be annoyed at Merlin; he can hardly deny it. “Americans simply cannot make British food. You should see how they make tea. It’s criminal.” Merlin’s resulting snort lifts Arthur’s mood. “Who are you expecting around for Christmas, anyway?”

Lifting his fingers off the steering wheel one by one, he counts. “The DuLac family, so that’s four. Leon – he’s happily single, still; I think he’s half in love with Morgana from that one time she visited, but don’t bring that up near him – Alice and Gaius. And you. I think that’s it. Percy will have gone up North for the week, and Elyan lives in Germany now. And, well, you know about Freya.”

“So that makes...” Arthur counts again. “Nine for Christmas dinner?”

“Yep,” Merlin says. “Call me an idiot now if you want, for asking so many people over, but I wanted to... I...”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less of you,” Arthur says, and the pride that swells in his chest so suddenly with those words nearly consumes him. It’s warm and loving, and entirely dangerous given the tentative thing that is growing between him and Merlin. “Really, I mean it.”

“Thanks,” Merlin says, before he has to brake quite sharply to join the end of a long queue of traffic. “Why the hell are we queueing here?”

“Tractor?” Arthur asks. You can take a boy from the country, but you can never take the country from the boy; Arthur specifically remembers how a tractor cost him two minors in his driving test and resents the bloody things to this day.

“Ahhh, no, that’ll be it,” Merlin says, pointing through Arthur’s window to a sign near a track junction. Winchester Winter Wonderland, 21st December, 2 miles ahead.

“Bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?” Arthur says, and Merlin laughs. “Reckon it’s at the showground?”

“Ugh, yes,” Merlin says, resting his forehead against the top of the steering wheel briefly. “Which means this is going to take forever.” Suddenly, he sits up straight. “Want to take a shortcut?”

Arthur frowns. “This is the main road, there aren’t--”

Merlin snaps his indicator on and pulls hard to the left, barely missing the car in front of him as he accelerates down the farmer’s track, turning right again to skirt along the edge of a muddy field parallel to the road. “Merlin!”

“Oh, these are all Percy’s fields, he won’t mind,” Merlin says casually as they bump up and down, jolted by the ruts made by huge tractor wheels. “Besides, we’ve raced around here a couple of times. He’s got this suped-up Toyota Hilux monstrosity,” he dismisses, and Arthur continues to look at him like he’s gone mad, clutching the hand holds around him. “Puddle!”

The puddle in question might as well be a small lake, its yellowish water spraying up over the windscreen as they crash through it. As the noise of the water recedes, Arthur opens his eyes from where he’d screwed them shut and looks at Merlin, who’s laughing maniacally.

“You’re bloody mad,” Arthur says, but he can’t keep the fondness out of his voice.

Arthur’s sure they’re attracting attention from the cars queueing off to their right, but when he looks at Merlin’s determined face, and considers the speed at which he twitches the steering wheel or changes gears, Arthur finds it hard to care.

He wants to get to know this new Merlin, the one who repairs old Land Rovers and races them around farmers’ fields, the one that writes best-selling novels, the one that takes an empty house and fills it with people to make it a home. Arthur wants to get to know him in more than the biblical sense, and it makes Arthur choke. Surely, that way lies madness, just as Merlin had said about what ifs yesterday.

Already, it feels like lifetimes ago.

Merlin slows down as they pass the showground entrance to the right, on the other side of the road. “Yeah, look, they’re all going in there,” he says as he pulls up at the next entrance to the field, turning back onto the main road to continue their journey. Arthur watches in the wing mirror as large chunks of mud drop from the vehicle onto the tarmac behind them. “Have fun?”

Arthur looks to Merlin’s huge smile. “A little bit of warning next time would be brilliant, thank you,” Arthur says, fighting his own smile with great difficulty. The fields bleed into housing estates as they close in on the city.

“What, you don’t do your own stunts?” Merlin chirps.

“I’ll have you know, Merlin, that I did my own stunts for Redoubt – or at least, the ones my manager would let me do – and I broke my arm for the trouble, so there.”

Merlin sniggers as the suburbs begin to give way to shops and businesses. “It’s not changed much,” Merlin says as Arthur stares out of the window at the buildings scrolling by, trying to recognise old haunts and familiar shop fronts.

“It’s changed enough,” Arthur says quietly.

After a few minutes, Merlin pulls into a multi-storey car park and parks the Land Rover, telling Arthur to wait as he goes to pay for the parking. He returns triumphant a few moments later. “Turns out it’s free parking because of Christmas. Who knew?”

Arthur wraps his scarf around his neck as he gets out, raising his eyebrows at Merlin’s excitement over parking fees, of all things. “You are something else.”

“So Mum used to tell me,” Merlin says with a soft smile. “Oh, put this on.” Merlin throws him a knitted Santa hat. “Camouflage. People in the village know who you are... well, people here will know who you are too, but they’ll stop you and bug you in the way that people in Middle Worthy don’t.”

Arthur looks at the raggedy thing in his hands, before smiling at Merlin and putting it on his head. “How do I look?” He spreads his arms to the side.

“Like a twat,” Merlin laughs, “but not like Arthur Pendragon.”

“Good enough for me.”

Merlin leads them out of the parking garage to the top of the high street. “That place does excellent dim sum,” he says, pointing to a restaurant decorated mostly in shades of orange.

“We could get some for dinner, if you like?” Arthur asks. “I haven’t had good dim sum in ages.”

“I’d like that.”

Winchester high street is full of two- and three- storey buildings, mostly made out of Victorian brick but some with Tudor-style frontage, all with Christmas decorations strung along them. True to Merlin’s word, a pretzel cart is set up outside a phone shop, and Merlin begins bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“You’ve got to try the cheese and ham one, Arthur. It’s my favourite,” Merlin says, a hand going to the crook of Arthur’s elbow before he even realises what he’s done. Arthur smiles at it and the feeling of warmth that pools in his stomach at the same time.

“Two cheese and ham pretzels, please,” Arthur says to the woman at the cart, digging past the dollars in his wallet to pay for the both of them; he should’ve put them back in his case once he’d arrived yesterday but hadn’t gotten round to it, distracted. Merlin’s grip tightens on his arm, before he reaches for his pretzel. Thank you is mumbled around a mouthful of dough.

The cheese is nearly too hot but Arthur finds himself unable to care, too hungry to fully consider the cost of burning the roof of his mouth. Luckily, it doesn’t. They walk down the street, shoulders brushing, to the Buttercross Monument where a brass quartet is playing Christmas carols.

“This one is my favourite,” Merlin sighs as they start playing O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Time slows for Arthur. He takes it all in: Merlin, warm at his side, smiling as he eats and bobs his head to the music; the warm notes of the instruments wrapping around them both; the calm in the middle of a busy day of Christmas shopping, Arthur having as yet remained anonymous.

He wonders if it could be always like this, if Merlin would gently lay his head on his shoulder, here, before he promptly banishes that thought.

“Tell me,” Arthur says as he finishes eating his pretzel, scrunching the paper bag up and putting it in his pocket. “What kind of presents would everyone want?”

Merlin laughs, eyes crinkling. “I was only joking, you know. You don’t need to get them specific presents. Bottles of wine always go down well.”

“I feel like I need to make up for a few missed Christmases is all,” Arthur mutters, and Merlin nudges him. “What?”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “They’re not expecting anything. They don’t even know you’re going to be there.”

Arthur raises his eyebrows, glancing around them before looking into Merlin’s eyes again. “You haven’t told them?”

“Of course I haven’t. You being here was my little secret,” Merlin says, the hint of a blush high on his cheekbones. “But Gwen and Lance still live in the village, so they might’ve heard by now. She hasn’t called to ask after you, in any case, so I wouldn’t worry.” Sensing that isn’t a good enough answer, Merlin sighs. “Give me your phone.”

Arthur uses his thumb to unlock his phone, and then hands it to Merlin, who goes to his notes app and starts typing furiously. “Gwen likes white wine – Pinot Grigio will do her fine. Get Lance a case of any craft beer and he’ll be happy. The girls will take any age-appropriate toys – not like that,” Merlin groans when Arthur snorts. “Idiot. Just check the labels at the toy shop. Leon is actually quite a big fan of yours, so if you’re feeling particularly conceited, buy him one of your DVDs and sign it. Or get him some brandy, your choice. Alice will have a bottle of Merlot and Gaius likes single malt whiskey. Glenfiddich is his favourite. There.”

Merlin hands back the phone, with all of his ramblings noted down in list form. Angry red squiggles form under half of the words. “So, basically, booze,” Arthur says as he scans the list. He can practically hear Merlin roll his eyes again. “You haven’t put yourself down on here.”

“Surprise me,” Merlin sing songs, batting his eyelashes before his face darkens. “But if you get me a DVD that you’ve signed, I won’t be happy.” He snatches back Arthur’s phone, opening up his contacts. “Huh. My old number is still in here.”

“I’m terrible at keeping my contacts list whittled down,” Arthur admits. “You never know you you’ll bump in to just after you’ve deleted their number.”

Merlin looks at him with a knowing smile on his face. “Quite. Anyway, here’s my new number. I’ll be about half an hour. Call me when you’re done.”

Arthur nods. “I’ll get all the booze at Waitrose if that’s alright; it’ll save lugging it back to the car.”

“See you in a bit,” Merlin calls over his shoulder. The brass band is now playing Fairytale of New York, and a woman has stopped her shopping spree to start singing along with the music. Arthur smiles, reaching into his pocket to pull out some change and leave it in their collection tin, before walking in the opposite direction to Merlin to enter the nearest toy shop.

As Arthur had predicted, it’s chaos. Children run amok up and down the aisles, chasing each other with toy dinosaurs and Nerf guns and God knows what else. Arthur hasn’t had much experience with children in the last few years; Gwaine’s son, who he tended to see every couple of weeks and who Arthur saw even less often, seemed to have new toys upon every visit. The last had been a child-sized Tesla that he could be driven around in.

It didn’t seem like the right kind of thing to buy Gwen and Lance’s children.

He settles on a plush toy unicorn for Becca, and a set of musical stacking blocks for Lily. Arthur gets gift receipts for both, in case they’re not quite right, and emerges from the clamour and warmth with one large carrier bag and twenty minutes to find Merlin’s present.

He naturally gravitates towards the bookshop, half expecting to bump into Merlin inside. He’s missed British bookshops and the quaint idyll they represent. Arthur browses the smaller tables, seeing if anything sticks out as particularly Merlin, but nothing does. As he starts to look through the alphabetised fiction section, his eye is caught by some familiar looking spines.

Arthur pulls Ourselves, Once off the shelf to see that the same two figures he found in Merlin’s cottage are still on the cover, but in slightly different poses and surrounded by different props. He flips it over.

B. H. Ambrosius’ stunning debut novel and Sunday Times Bestseller: Ourselves, Once.

It all happens on his eighteenth birthday.

Felix Morgan had always known he was a little bit different. When he sets fire to the village hall with previously unknown magical powers, he’s hardly surprised, but is deeply curious. Where the magic has come from, or why exactly Felix has been trusted with it, is one of many mysteries he must now solve.

Posh boy Alastair Everleigh arrives in the village when his father, a wealthy professor, purchases a nearby manor. As soon as he hears about the boy with magical powers, he’s intrigued. With a dark past and unclear motives, his and Felix’s first meeting should have been doomed from the start.

Instead, it’s the start of a romance like no other...

Arthur raises his eyebrows, turning the book back over. He realises that one of the characters is blond, and the other has black hair. Their facial features are missing to match the rest of the minimalist cover, but deep down Arthur knows what they would both look like.

Merlin was clever to change some of the details, of course, and the addition of magic is yet another thing Arthur can add to his list. Ways Merlin Continues to Surprise Me.

It’s getting pretty long.

Arthur doesn’t want to know what the synopses look like for Ourselves, Apart and Ourselves, Between, but he can probably guess based on their titles. He puts the book back on the shelf.

As he passes the poetry shelves, prominent at the end of one aisle, a bright white book catches his eye. For Lost Lovers: A Poetry Collection, Merlin’s first poetry book. Arthur flicks open the front cover of the thin volume, finding that it was published in 2012, about eight years ago. Had Merlin mentioned when he had split with Cenred? Or were the poems about Arthur?

Arthur thumbs through the pages. The first stanza of one poem in particular catches his eye:

An adored disaster:
I didn't want
to love you.

and then, at the bottom of the page:

Please,
fill the gaps between my fingers.
They belong to your heart.

Arthur snaps the book shut, but doesn’t put it back on the shelf. He feels too hot, and he pulls off the stupid Santa hat without thinking, afraid of overheating from shame or pride or some other deadly cocktail of emotions. Gwaine was right when he said that Arthur was emotionally constipated, sure, but no one had prepared him for the moment when all of those feelings would suddenly be unleashed like a torrent in his veins.

A few people glance at him as he fumbles his way through the shop towards the tills, desperate to leave this shop behind. He bumps into a table as he tries to avoid a woman with a pram, instead knocking a pile of books to the floor. Arthur scrambles to pick them up, before realising that his and Morgause’s faces stare out of the cover. It’s the re-release of Endlessly Yours following its adaptation into a film, and also is Leon’s present conveniently sorted.

Maybe if Merlin believes in magic enough to write a series of books about it, then Arthur should too, even if it is for simple coincidences like this.

He takes the two books to the counter, the poetry book and the thicker novel, and the lady working there does a double take between the book and the customer in front of her. “You’re not...?” she asks.

“Let’s pretend I’m not,” Arthur says, before flashing her his (quite literally) award winning smile. She turns red and finishes the transaction quickly, allowing Arthur to escape outside into the thankfully cooler air.

Belatedly, he realises that he didn’t buy Merlin a thing.

“There you are.”

Merlin has acquired several carrier bags of goods, and doesn’t look nearly as frazzled as Arthur feels. “I literally just text you. Are you alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I--" Arthur starts, but then he stops and squints over Merlin’s shoulder. “Is that Freya?”

Merlin whips his head around and steps back, almost behind Arthur. “What are the chances?” he mutters, his tone denying any attempt at an answer.

At first glance, Freya doesn’t look that different from their school days; the same pale skin, long dark hair, plaited over one shoulder as she always used to. The main difference is the very pregnant belly she is cradling, as she walks beside a dark headed man who looks, from this distance, like a carbon copy of Merlin. Arthur frowns; he assumes this must be the infamous Mordred.

“I’d heard she was pregnant, but not that pregnant,” Merlin mutters over his shoulder. “Oh fuck, they’re looking this way.”

“That might be my fault,” Arthur admits. There are more people doing double takes as they look at him now, especially from the direction of the book shop, a small crowd forming. “Should I put the hat back on?”

Merlin glances at him as if he’s stupid, before Freya’s voice is calling out. “Merlin?”

“Fuck,” Merlin mutters again. “This isn’t going to be awkward at all.”

“I’ll handle it,” Arthur says. “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s acting.”

Merlin is too tense to laugh as Arthur steps forward. “Freya!” he calls cheerfully. “How are you?”

Freya and Mordred stop a few feet away from them. Mordred’s face is screwed up into a frown, glancing between Merlin and Arthur. “Arthur? I... oh my goodness, it’s been years?! I didn’t realise you were home.”

“Yeah, well,” Arthur laughs. “It was meant to be a surprise for Merlin, after the year he’s had.” He lets sadness and anger colour his words, deepening his voice. Freya’s features fall; she must know about Hunith’s death too, but she also must recognise her own role in Merlin’s suffering.

Mordred steps forward, a raised finger pointing at Arthur. “What the hell are you doing with Merlin?”

“Excuse me?” Arthur asks, laughing. “Care to elaborate?”

“You’re Arthur bloody Pendragon, aren’t you?” Mordred spits. This is a far cry from the usual kinds of encounters Arthur has with fans. “You’re the one who broke his heart and fucked off to America, leaving him here in bits.”

He doesn’t think it’s any of your business, Mordred,” Merlin interjects. Arthur wonders where this sudden rage has come from, boiling away in the man he had lauded as the kindest he knew just this morning. “Not after how you broke my heart too.”

Freya blanches and pulls a face. Arthur can hardly blame her; the back of his neck prickles as he realises just how many people are watching this altercation. “Well, it was nice seeing you Freya,” he says brightly, before Mordred steps forward into Merlin’s personal space.

“I always knew you were going to sell yourself out to Hollywood,” he says quickly. “Trying to get those bloody books made into films. I didn’t realise you’d do it by actually sleeping your way there.”

Arthur has learned, over the years, to not throw a punch whenever someone insults him; the first time he had done it, his manager had lectured him for three hours and threatened to ensure he was never called to audition again.

Merlin, however, has clearly never had such an influence on his life. It’s only Arthur’s quick reactions that stop Merlin from slugging Mordred like he rightfully deserves, carrier bags hastily dropped onto the floor, spilling their contents on the paving stones. “Easy, easy,” Arthur soothes into Merlin’s ear, gripping his forearms from behind and pulling him back into his body. “Ignore him, babe.”

It rolls off Arthur’s tongue like it’s belonged there this whole time. Merlin stops struggling against Arthur, turning to him with a mixture of hurt and anger on his face. “He’s not worth your time,” Arthur says, cupping Merlin’s face with one hand. He barely registers the gasping around him, the flash or two of cameras.

“We are leaving,” Freya hisses to Mordred, and Arthur glances at them to see her dragging him away by his sleeve. Mordred spits at the floor at their feet before he turns, to the disgusted grumbling of their audience.

“You okay?” Arthur says, still cupping Merlin’s face. He searches his big blue eyes, brimming with tears.

“Yeah,” Merlin says, before biting his bottom lip. “Arthur... there’s a lot of people watching us.”

“Let them watch,” Arthur murmurs, not wanting to break this tiny bubble that wraps around them, holding all the pieces of them together. “They’ve seen enough already to jump to their conclusions, regardless of what happens now.”

“Are they jumping to the same one I’ve jumped to?” Merlin says with the finesse of an author, and Arthur wonders if he’s ever written that down. His pupils flicker side to side, looking into Arthur’s eyes, trying to find his answer. “You called me babe.”

“I did,” Arthur smiles, unsure he trusts his voice with anything else. With one thumb, he brushes Merlin’s cheekbone before he drops his hand altogether. “Shall we go home?”

Home. He’d said it before he’d even realised, the domesticity a sorely needed comfort.

Merlin nods. “We can do Waitrose tomorrow.”

Arthur bends to pick up the carrier bags they had dropped, taking in their surroundings. Nearly a hundred people have stopped in a large circle in the middle of the high street, with him and Merlin in the centre. Sighing, he straightens up again, putting all of the carrier bags in one hand so he can hold Merlin’s with the other.

“Arthur?”

Arthur squeezes Merlin’s hand in response as they begin to walk up the high street. Someone wolf whistles loudly, which is followed by a bit of laughter, before a few people even clap. Merlin blushes and Arthur finds the whole thing absolutely mortifying, save for the fact that Merlin is now gripping his hand tightly as they take a shortcut to their right and disappear from view.

They walk in silence until, turned around in the darkening afternoon, they arrive back at the Land Rover before Arthur had expected them to. “We didn’t get the dumplings,” Merlin realises belatedly.

Arthur appraises him in the harsh fluorescent lighting of the parking garage. Merlin looks no less tired than he did last night when Arthur first saw him. Since then, they’ve both been through some kind of emotional wringer, with Arthur exposing all of his hurt that morning on their walk, and Merlin meeting an ex-boyfriend that Arthur had never met before, and now hated more than any other man.

“I’ll get you your dumplings,” are the kindest words that Arthur can offer. Merlin looks up from the concrete floor and curls one corner of his mouth up in a smile. “If I have to move heaven and earth to get them to deliver to Middle Worthy, I will, for you.”

Merlin allows himself to laugh. “I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Arthur opens the back door and puts the carrier bags in the footwell, before shutting it again and facing Merlin once more. It’s quiet in the garage, and the slam of the door echoes. “Well, it looks like Mordred set the bar extremely low in terms of being a good lover. I promise you I have nicer words still to come.” He steps closer to Merlin, whose eyes flutter shut.

“I said no promises,” Merlin breathes. Arthur feels it against his lips, warm and inviting.

“I promise... that I’ll get you some dumplings.” Arthur kisses Merlin’s lips quickly before he pulls away, Merlin opening his eyes and shoving at him weakly with one arm.

“Prat,” Merlin says, laughing now, as he walks around the Land Rover. “Get in, before I leave you here.”

Arthur Pendragon knows he’s doomed, right there and then, when Merlin saying the word leave makes his stomach drop to the floor.

Chapter Text

Sleep in half the day, just for old times' sake
I won't ask you to wait, if you don't ask me to stay

~*~*~*~

Arthur wonders if, ten years from now, he’ll still believe that the never-ending days between his birthday and Christmas Day this year were the best he’s ever had.

Because they’re certainly the most he’s felt himself since he moved to Hollywood.

“I hope I didn’t ruin your birthday with that stunt,” Merlin says later, once they are sat on Merlin’s sofa with several boxes of dim sum between them.

Arthur pauses, chopsticks midway to his mouth with a prawn dumpling pinched between them. “Today was the best birthday I’ve ever had. No doubt about it.”

Merlin cocks his head to the side like a lost puppy. “Really?”

“Really,” Arthur says, putting the dumpling back into its box for a moment. “So good that I might even start celebrating them again.”

Merlin smiles to himself, something perhaps Arthur isn’t meant to witness, and searches through the boxes for the vegetarian dumplings he’s taken a liking to.

A few hours later, after Merlin had found Absolution on Netflix and put Arthur through the torture of having to watch one of his own films after the premiere (which simply isn’t done), Arthur stands up to leave. “I should probably check on my father, make sure he hasn’t drowned himself.”

Merlin pulls a face at that but stands up too, stretching his arms above his head. His jumper rides up as he does so, and Arthur’s eyes are drawn to the sliver of skin the motion reveals. He’s been caught staring, he knows, when Merlin meets his eyes again.

“Sounds like a good idea,” Merlin says quietly. He steps forward as Arthur is pulling on his coat and grips the lapels of it, pulling Arthur close. “Stop by the pub tomorrow morning? I’ll be there from eleven.”

“What if I have better things to do?” Arthur smiles.

Merlin presses their foreheads together. “You better forget them, because you’re mine until Christmas.”

Mine. The word tugs at Arthur, makes him capture Merlin’s lips in a kiss. He never really felt like he belonged with Sophia, the whole thing somewhat a relationship of convenience. He would trade those three years for just three seconds here under Merlin’s spell, and it would all be worth it.

“Go,” Merlin says, breaking the kiss, “before I make you stay.”

Arthur laughs, stepping back and collecting the carrier bag containing Merlin’s book of poetry. Leon’s gift he will leave here with the presents for the girls, as he’s absolutely certain there is no wrapping paper in his father’s house and he knows Merlin has enough for the whole village. “See you tomorrow, Merlin,” Arthur says.

Merlin sees him out of the door, a fond look on his face, as Arthur steps into the darkness.

Arthur whistles all the way back to De Bois Hall.

*

“What’s this?”

Uther sits at the head of the dining table with a newspaper in his hand, opened to about page 11 or so. It’s not the Financial Times, Arthur can see that much from here, so it means it must be the Daily Mail or The Sun or something like that, which immediately concerns Arthur.

He’s never featured in the Financial Times, but he knows the other papers are rather keen on writing about him.

Uther’s eyes are piercing from across the room. Arthur had found him last night in the sitting room with a glass of brandy in his hand, staring into the fire. Arthur’s hand on his shoulder had frightened him, but there’d been a curious look in his eyes when he’d turned his head. This cold affront from Uther was far less terrifying to Arthur, because it was a return to normality.

Uther holds the paper up, turning it so Arthur can see a picture of himself cupping Merlin’s cheek, one that someone in yesterday’s crowd must have taken. It’s actually quite a nice photo. The headline reads Arthur Is Gay?. Not particularly inventive, but also not messing around. Arthur frowns.

“This is that Merlin boy, isn’t it,” Uther says, without the inflection the question warrants. It’s a statement of fact.

“Yes, Father.”

“Hmph.” Uther turns the paper back so he can look at it himself. “And how long has this spectacle been going on?”

The best route with Uther always has been honesty, no matter how much it stings. “I met him again on Saturday. I hadn’t seen him in ten years.” The more information Arthur volunteers, sometimes, the better.

“And you’re already looking at him like this?” Uther asks, shaking the paper, “or is this just a good bit of acting, for once?” Arthur winces at for once, forgetting to school his face, and Uther drops the paper back onto the table. It clatters against the spoon on his saucer, the sound ringing out in the large room.

“Don’t tell me you’re actually in love with that boy,” Uther barks. “This is why you broke up with Sophia, isn’t it? Because you like men.”

“Father, no, I--”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Uther seethes, despite his endless questions. “You come here, to my home, and bring this... this attention to yourself...”

“I’ll stay somewhere else.”

Arthur knows that there’s a couple of houses listed on Airbnb in the village; he’d planned on staying in one until his father, just two weeks ago, had invited him to stay at De Bois Hall.

Looking back, Arthur realises that Uther must’ve not seen the news about him and Sophia breaking up when he made that offer. Perhaps he’d thought that a grandchild could still be on the cards; a souvenir of Ygraine that wasn’t Arthur, and all the dark memories he evokes.

“You know I hate this time of year,” Uther utters, and that’s a dismissal if Arthur has ever heard one. Arthur’s chair scrapes against the flagstones as he stands.

“You should give Sefa Christmas Day off at least, even if you don’t celebrate it.”

Uther raises an eyebrow at him, snapping the open paper again with a dramatic rustle of pages. Arthur had meant to invite him to Christmas at Merlin’s, but they were too far gone for that now.

Arthur disappears upstairs to his childhood bedroom. He fishes his mobile out of his pocket and calls Merlin, who answers on the third ring. “Hey.”

“Merlin.” Arthur says his name in greeting, grounding himself with the feel of it in his mouth. “Do you have the number for Mrs Smith’s B&B?”

A rustling at the end of the line, perhaps Merlin is just getting up. “What?”

“I, er... I think I’ve outstayed my welcome with my father. He saw today’s papers, and, er, well... there’s a picture of me in there. Us.”

“Right, right,” Merlin says. He breathes down the line for a moment, processing. “Why do you want Mrs Smith’s number?”

Arthur sighs. “So I can book a room and stay at her B&B, obviously.”

Obviously,” Merlin parrots, with more sarcasm. “I thought you were going to ask to stay with me.”

“Oh.” It hadn’t even occurred to Arthur. “Isn’t that a bit... much? I didn’t want to impose, and you’ve already done so much for me.”

“Arthur, I swear to God...”

“Fine, fine, Christ,” Arthur says, but he’s smiling. “Thank you.”

“I need to leave at quarter to eleven, so if you’re able to get here before then, I can get you set up if you like,” Merlin says. “I was planning on having Leon stay, but he’s not now, so the spare room’s all made up.”

Arthur likes the fact that there’s no assumption there for him to jump straight into Merlin’s bed, but it’s hard to read Merlin’s tone of voice over the phone; maybe Merlin never wants him to. “I haven’t unpacked much here, so I’ll drop by soon. Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Merlin says warmly. “See you soon.”

It takes Arthur less than quarter of an hour to throw all of his belongings back into his suitcase, Merlin’s volume of poetry nestled on the top. He keeps the scarf he’d relieved from the wardrobe, the one Gwen had given him all those years ago, and makes sure he picks up his wellingtons from the front porch as he leaves.

As he crunches down the driveway towards the road, he doesn’t look back.

*

“What are you reading?”

Arthur snaps his Kindle’s case shut as Merlin appears at his booth, the one that used to belong to the knitting lady but now seemingly belongs to the pair of them.

“Are you actually wiping down the tables, or is this just a pretence to come talk to me?”

Merlin’s resulting laughter is all the answer Arthur needs. “They can spare me out front for a few minutes.” He gestures to Arthur’s Kindle with the hand holding the rag. “You going to tell me?”

“It’s a PDF of the script for The Night We Met,” he lies. “We start filming in a few weeks and I haven’t quite got all my lines yet.”

“Can I see?”

“Ah, you know,” Arthur says, scratching the back of his neck. “If I showed you, I’d have to kill you, that kind of thing. Contractual agreement.”

Merlin’s not buying it. “Of course,” he says with an infuriating smirk. He wipes Arthur’s table anyway, before he disappears around into the clamour at the front of the pub again.

Arthur opens his Kindle once more, the cover of Ourselves, Once flashing up briefly before it returns him to the text. If he remains undisturbed, he should be able to finish this one today, and he’s just gotten to the part where Alastair and Felix finally share their first kiss.

He can’t deny that Merlin is a bloody good writer, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer where he got his inspiration from; Alastair and Felix’s first kiss takes place when they’re drunk down the football pitch one summer evening, their friends egging them on.

It’s a familiar story to Arthur.

*

That afternoon, once the lunch rush subsides and Merlin is ushered away by Freya’s parents, they decide to brave Waitrose together for the last ‘big shop’ before Christmas.

“Here’s the list,” Merlin says, waving an immaculately handwritten list in front of Arthur as they walk through the heaving car park. “It’s in aisle order, too.”

“You’ve always been such a planning nerd,” Arthur says, and suddenly words like always don’t scare him like he used to. He’s not afraid of referring to, or rather not mentioning, the ten-year void in their shared history, because Merlin is still Merlin even after all these years. “I bet you have a million half-finished journals around the house.”

Merlin has the gall to look offended. “Remember, I’m a writer as well, so that was always a curse I was going to be afflicted with.”

Arthur is wearing his own beanie hat today and resolves to keep it on for the whole shopping trip. He’d tried out the sunglasses too, but when Merlin had burst out laughing at him he’d hastily taken them off, blushing furiously. “Hopefully everyone will be so wrapped up in their shopping they won’t be looking around,” he’d muttered.

Arthur has his own, smaller list, in the Notes app of his phone where Merlin had written down everyone’s alcohol preferences for gifts. As they wander the aisles, Arthur purposefully winds up Merlin by adding things that aren’t on his list, like pigs-in-blankets flavoured crisps, chocolate truffles, and a singing reindeer toy. Merlin threatens to push Arthur into one of the freezers and leave him there, and Arthur responds by adding enough baking ingredients to feed the five thousand.

“You’re going to make me fat,” Merlin whines as Arthur adds half a kilo of chocolate chips to the trolley, humming a Christmas song to himself.

“Good. You’re too skinny,” Arthur says, flashing an annoyed Merlin one of his best grins before continuing down the aisle, perfectly happy.

Merlin can only glare at his back for a second before he forgives Arthur, anyway.

When they’ve finished bagging everything up at the tills, Arthur pulls out his American Express. “Arthur, I can get this,” Merlin says, digging out his own wallet. “I’ve had an advance for the next book, I’m not--”

“Please, Merlin,” Arthur says, looking into Merlin’s eyes. “Let me. I don’t get to contribute to a Christmas very often, and you’ve done so much for me.”

“Thank you,” Merlin says with a sigh, smiling.

“Plus, the booze alone is nearly half of the total,” Arthur adds. Merlin puts his wallet away and helps Arthur load the bags into the trolley, the whole thing clinking obscenely as all the bottles knock together. “You better drive sensibly on the way back,” Arthur warns.

Merlin puts a hand to his chest. “Please! I’m the best driver I know. And a good influence on younger generations.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Arthur says, manoeuvring the trolley over a speed bump in the car park. “Light of my life and all that,” he mutters half-seriously, knowing he’s well and truly caught when Merlin squeezes his hand on the trolley handle.

*

The days stretch on comfortably. Arthur marvels at the hubbub of Middle Worthy in the days before Christmas. Merlin drags him carol singing with nearly a hundred other people, slightly buzzed on the mulled wine each house seems to be giving them. Arthur bathes in the warmth of it all, feeling a little like one of Merlin’s Christmas tree decorations that swing gently, slightly dazed and surrounded by soft glow lights. Between Merlin’s voluntary shifts at the pub and his attempts to get “at least some” writing done, in his words, they’d not had time for anything more than chaste kisses and a lingering, comfortable sense of domesticity.

Arthur is struggling to bring himself to care, he finds. There’s something so relaxed about the whole affair; he almost feels guilty for not putting any effort it, but that’s because this thing is effortless. It feels more natural, more like coming home than any of his previous relationships have.

Relationships.

He swallows his tea too quickly, spluttering slightly.

“You okay?” comes from Merlin’s desk, where he’s hammering away at his keyboard, swept up in one of his moments of inspiration.

“Fine,” Arthur says, banging on his chest. “I need to make a call, if that’s alright.”

“Of course it is,” Merlin says over his shoulder, barely looking away from the screen. His desk is covered in post-it notes, and an elaborate timeline spans the two walls his writing corner is made up from. Arthur hasn’t pried too far into that corner, not wanting to somehow corrupt Merlin’s next book with his incessant questions.

He also doesn’t want to give away that he’s secretly been reading Merlin’s books.

Arthur gets up from the sofa, taking his tea with him. Relationships, he thinks as he climbs the stairs. Is that what this is?

The spare bedroom is painted magnolia, with the exposed beams continuing up into the second floor. The dormer windows mean that the bed is tucked under an eave, and Arthur has to watch his head. He sets his tea down on the nightstand and pulls his iPad from his suitcase. Arthur types in Merlin’s WiFi password – Aithusa, also the name of his childhood pet, should Arthur feel like committing identity theft – and opens up FaceTime, checking the clock. 20:34. He’s sure Morgana won’t have gone to bed by now in Paris, not on 23rd December.

She picks up on the first ring. “Well, this is a surprise.” They haven’t spoken since their WhatsApp conversation the other night, and Morgana knows Arthur well enough to not wish him a happy birthday.

“You don’t have to look like the cat that got the cream, you know,” Arthur says, shuffling back on the bed to sit against the wall, making sure he’s in frame. “It doesn’t suit you.”

Morgana grins. Even without make-up, she looks beautiful; Arthur can hardly blame Leon for his lingering, misplaced crush. “There’s little that doesn’t suit me, Arthur,” she says as if they’re scoring points, as they always have. “Morgause is here, too.”

“Good. Hopefully she can give me better advice than you can.” Arthur wonders if it’s the last ten years spent in Morgana’s company that has made him this blunt, or if that was his father’s doing as a boy. He doesn’t linger on it.

Morgause kisses Morgana’s cheek as she comes into view, sitting down on the cream sofa next to her. Both women are wearing Christmas themed, long-sleeved pyjamas. It’s slightly sickening. “Hi, Arthur,” Morgause says. Her French accent has always twisted his name in a way that makes him smile, the hard t making the traditional name sound exotic for once.

“He needs advice,” Morgana says, arching her dark eyebrows at Morgause, lips twitching into a smirk. “I know,” she says when Morgause pulls a similar face in return.

“You’ll never guess what I found the other day, Morgause,” Arthur says to distract them both, pulling the film re-release of Endlessly Yours out of its carrier bag and waving it at the camera. “Remember this shoot?”

“It was so cold,” Morgause giggles, mostly to Morgana. “They had us wrapped in these huge coats between shots, and the wind was so loud we could hardly hear a thing,” she laughs, her hand on Morgana’s arm. Morgana sets her phone down against something on a coffee table, presumably, so it’s propped up and aimed at the pair of them. They truly are curled around each other, totally in love.

Endlessly Yours is probably Arthur’s favourite film he’s made. He had played a fighter pilot downed in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War, and Morgause had played a French widow, who had nursed him back to health in secret. Of course, their characters had fallen in love in the process. It had been filmed mostly in Brittany in summer, where they escaped the worst of the Atlantic weather, until the promotional shoots required them to return in the winter when it was decidedly bleaker.

“But, if it wasn’t for those promotion shoots...” Arthur intones, smirking. Morgause sighs happily, looking to Morgana. They’d met after Arthur had brought his cousin over to France that winter four years ago; she’d always wanted to visit Mont St Michel, which was well within day-trip range, and Morgause had offered to be their tour guide. “Did you know?” Arthur asks, and Morgana turns back to her phone. “From that first day?”

“Is this your way of asking for advice?” Morgana teases, and Morgause pouts at her, before turning towards Arthur with a genuine smile spreading across her face.

“Have you met somebody?” Morgause asks. Morgana’s attention snaps back to Arthur again.

“What? In Middle Worthy?” Morgana says, picking up the phone to scrutinise Arthur’s facial expressions. “Are you blushing?!”

Arthur grabs his headphones from the nightstand, putting them in his ears and connecting them to his iPad. He really doesn’t want Merlin to overhear either side of this conversation. “No, of course I’m not blushing,” Arthur mutters as his cheeks turn red. “But yes. Maybe.” He sighs. “I don’t know.”

“Well?” Morgana drawls. “Who is she?”

“He,” Arthur says, and flicking his eyes towards the closed bedroom door once more, he breathes in deeply. “It’s Merlin.”

Both Morgause and Arthur study Morgana’s reaction, as she goes from initial recognition of the name, to confusion, to some kind of hope. “I thought... didn’t you grow up with Merlin?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t he the boy you were in love with when you turned up in Hollywood?”

“Yes.” It’s sadder, this time. It’s true, but there’s nothing that can be changed about it now, as Merlin would say. Still, it finally being out in the open is a relief of sorts.

Morgause frowns. “Has he been in love with you all this time?”

Morgana coos softly at her. “You are such a hopeless romantic.” They lock eyes and lean towards each other, noses brushing, giggling.

“Ugh, no,” Arthur says, before remembering the conversation. “And no. Long story short, he was pissed off at me, had a couple of boyfriends, and is now single. I am also conveniently single, have apologised quite profusely to him for the stupid way I handled things ten years ago, and I think I fancy the bloody fool.”

Arthur shuts his mouth then, the ladies’ cute affections having riled him into rambling, which Morgana would always capitalise on. Morgana puts the phone dangerously close to her face again, so that Arthur can barely see her hair, tied into a ponytail. “You what.”

Point of no return, Arthur. “I... you heard what I said.”

“Fancy?” Morgause whispers from off-screen.

Il est amoureux de Merlin,” Morgana explains softly, before glaring at Arthur. “So what, he was meant to be a leg-over at Christmas time and you’ve just--”

“No, Morgana, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick,” Arthur says, running a hand through his hair. He pauses to think while Morgana gives another translation; it seems that being home has brought out the British slang in Arthur, and Morgause isn’t used to this version of him. That makes two of them, then.

“I don’t think I have, Arthur. You obviously like him, seeing as you’ve bothered to call us for advice. I will point out now that you never did this for that harpy Sophia. Does he know that you like him?” Morgana says, cutting as always.

“Well, no, I don’t--”

“Does he like you in return?” Morgause asks, taking the phone and moving it away from Morgana’s frowning face. Morgause smiles kindly, her blonde hair swept up in a bun on top of her head. “I would say, take a chance. It seems like you’ve been given a second one, after you maybe didn’t use the first as you should’ve.”

“You’ve got nothing to lose, Arthur,” Morgana says, leaning her head on Morgause’s shoulder so she can appear on the screen. “Stop being a coward.”

Morgana’s admonishment is at odds with the matching pyjamas and look of adoration on her girlfriend’s face. Arthur groans, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall, just below one dark beam.

“Where are you, exactly?”

Arthur’s eyes are closed. “Merlin’s. Father saw a photo of me in the papers where I was cupping Merlin’s cheek, and he doesn’t really approve.”

Morgana’s shriek in his ears makes Arthur’s eyes fly open, and he nearly drops his iPad. “A photo in the papers?! The bloody press knows about you and Merlin... the whole bloody world knows, and Merlin doesn’t?”

“Well--”

“And you’re staying in his house? Arthur, you son of a--”

“In his spare bedroom, Morgana!” Arthur nearly shouts, suddenly remembering that said spare bedroom’s walls are quite thin. “You did hear the bit where I mentioned that Father is a raging homophobe, right?”

“It seems simple to me, Arthur,” Morgause smiles, holding the phone again, the calm to Morgana’s tempest. Morgana has picked up her wine glass and is drinking deeply from it. “Tell him how you truly feel. Not just how you feel for Christmas.”

Arthur sighs. He looks at his tea, realising too late that it’s cold. “It could never work in the long-term, though. He would hate Hollywood. I don’t think he’d be happy there.”

Morgana snorts so hard she nearly spills her wine. “None of us are happy in Hollywood, Arthur. That’s the whole point.”

Arthur mulls that thought over as the conversation turns to Gwaine, who has been spending the last few days with Elena, and had received a visit from his son, so was generally in better spirits. Arthur’s still thinking about it as Morgana fills him in on how her campaign in Paris is nearly finished, and Morgause goes to the kitchen to refill their wine glasses. “I’ll be back in LA by Easter, and Mademoiselle will be still here because of her new TV series for Canal,” Morgana says with a sigh. “I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.”

“Morgause?” Arthur frowns.

“No, you arse. All of it, you know? Celebrity, Hollywood, modelling. I could retire and... I don’t know, run an interior design business or something, or just become Morgause’s arm candy,” Morgana says, not looking at the screen now, face falling. “At least I’d get to spend more time with the woman I love.”

Arthur’s throat is suddenly dry. “Yeah.” He considers drinking his frigid tea and decides against it.

They talk for a few more minutes, before Arthur promises to give them a quick call on Christmas Day, citing some TV special or the other that Merlin wants him to watch. The lame excuse earns him more teasing, but it means that he doesn’t have to fight the jealousy rearing its head each time Morgana and Morgause even look at each other.

Arthur carries his cold tea downstairs and tips it down the sink. Merlin is still sat at his desk, head rapidly twitching between a journal propped against the wall and his computer screen. It feels like the most natural thing in the world for Arthur to walk over to him, floorboards creaking, and massage his shoulders gently.

Merlin groans, melting into the touch. “Sorry. Been so inspired these last couple of days, and needed to just...” Merlin spreads his hands wide as Arthur digs his thumbs into his shoulder blades. “Dump it all into a Word doc and hope for the best.”

“Your editor has to earn their keep somehow,” Arthur offers. Merlin saves and closes a few documents, including several Pinterest boards and dubious Google searches.

“Why are you looking up the Irish word for murder?” Arthur says, not pausing in his ministrations as he peers over Merlin’s shoulder.

Merlin laughs. “I’m coming up with words for Felix’s spells. They’re generally based on Gaelic languages, then I tweak them a bit. Latin got overdone with Harry Potter, you see.”

Arthur tries not to consider this a spoiler – Felix hasn’t yet had to kill anyone with his magic in Ourselves, Once or Ourselves, Apart – but Merlin has no idea that Arthur’s even reading his books. Arthur can’t wait to tell him, to discuss his theories and favourite quotes with him.

Merlin tips his head back to look at Arthur, but Arthur’s distracted by the long line of Merlin’s neck, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Hi,” Merlin breathes.

“Hello,” Arthur says, as softly as he can. “Are you done for the evening?”

A smile blossoms across Merlin’s face, upside-down. “Why?”

“Because I can’t stop thinking about you.”

It’s not quite what Arthur had wanted to say, doesn’t quite convey the weight he feels in his chest, but it’s enough for now, if Merlin’s quiet “oh” is anything to go by.

Merlin stands from his chair, immediately putting his hands on Arthur’s hips and pressing their lips together. “That’s funny,” Merlin says between feather-light kisses, “it’s like you’ve read my mind.”

Arthur deepens the kiss, eliciting a noise of surprise from Merlin that goes straight to his cock. Merlin is warm against him, hands sliding under Arthur’s jumper to touch his bare skin. “Merlin,” Arthur moans. It’s been so long since he’s kissed another man like this, and this is so good that he wonders why he ever stopped.

Merlin breaks away to tug at Arthur’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go to bed.”

And Arthur can only follow, the urgency and need threatening to consume him.

Chapter Text

And the heart I know I'm breakin' is my own
To leave the warmest bed I've ever known
We could call it even
Even though I'm leaving
And I'll be yours for the weekend
'Tis the damn season

~*~*~*~

Arthur wakes to the sound of a pen rolling across paper. He checks the clock at Merlin’s bedside; it’s nearly 10am on Christmas Eve. “Merlin?”

“Shhh, stay there,” Merlin hushes from above him. Arthur stays still, before he realises that Merlin isn’t drawing him, he’s writing. He sits up in bed, his skin seeking contact with Merlin’s. “Just let me think,” Merlin mutters more to himself than to Arthur.

Arthur wants to ask if Merlin is writing down the sordid details from last night, but he holds his tongue and cherishes the moment. Merlin’s face is so expressive as he writes: he furrows his brow as he crosses something out, tapping the end of his pen against his bottom lip as he looks up to the ceiling, searching for a word. He writes it down before glancing at Arthur, sleepy blue eyes full of mirth. “Stop looking at me. You’re distracting.”

Arthur slides a warm hand up Merlin’s thigh, leaning closer. “Me? Distracting? No,” he drawls, closing in to kiss Merlin’s cheek.

“You prat,” Merlin says with a sigh. He throws the notebook off the bed along with the pen, allowing a laughing Arthur to pin him down to the bed once more.

Afterwards, Merlin holds Arthur tight, and Arthur realises that Merlin is the only person who has ever held him like this. He breathes in deeply, the scent of Merlin’s fabric conditioner on the bedsheets and the sweat on his skin.

“I won’t ask you to wait,” Arthur murmurs, lips pressed to Merlin’s neck. “If you don’t ask me to stay.”

Merlin’s only response is his hand running through Arthur’s golden hair, and it’s enough, for now.

*

They spend the afternoon baking and drinking wine.

He’s not sure if it’s the wine talking, but Arthur could die here, the smell of shortbread filling the cottage and Merlin singing along to each song on his eclectic Spotify playlist. It’s filled with everything from the classic I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday to Lady Gaga’s White Christmas to My Chemical Romance’s questionable cover of All I Want For Christmas Is You. “Look,” Merlin says, giving Arthur a dark glare after his most recent critique. “You get what the Spotify gods give you.”

“Merlin, there’s...” and Arthur can’t help but start laughing. “There’s no such thing as Spotify gods.”

“Yes there are,” Merlin says, bringing his phone up to Arthur’s face, too close. Arthur guides his hand away, gently. “They’re the people who make Felistair playlists.”

Arthur squints at the screen. “Felis--oh.”

Merlin scrolls with his thumb. There are dozens if not hundreds of playlists, many with bits of cover art featuring a blond man and a man with darker hair. “They’re incredible,” Merlin breathes into Arthur’s ear, his hand on his shoulder. He smells like mulled wine and cookie dough. “Some of the songs are predictable... Can’t Help Falling In Love, that kind of thing. But some of them are just... exquisite.”

You’re incredible,” Arthur whispers, turning to kiss Merlin. Merlin drops his phone onto the kitchen counter, allowing himself to be pressed back against the worktop. “Look at all these people appreciating your art,” Arthur mouths into Merlin’s neck before he moves upwards again, and Merlin whines, low in his throat.

“Cookies... in the oven,” Merlin gasps against Arthur’s smiling mouth, before Arthur pulls Merlin closer by his apron and deepens the kiss.

“They need a few minutes,” Arthur says without looking towards the oven.

“No, they don’t,” Merlin laughs, finally pushing Arthur away. A wave of heat emerges from the oven as he opens it, pulling out the chocolate chip cookies. “You weren’t lying,” he says as he shoves them back in.

Arthur hugs him from behind. He can’t remember the last time he was with someone that he wanted to touch all the time. Maybe it was Merlin, all those years ago. “Told you I was a good cook.”

Once they’re cooked, Merlin and Arthur wait barely enough time for the cookies to cool before taking one each and nibbling at them gently. Arthur watches the way Merlin’s long fingers pick his apart, the warm chocolate chips stretching as they break apart, trying to cling to each other. “Is Alastair me?”

Merlin’s attention snaps to Arthur’s. “I thought you said you hadn’t read the books,” he says too quickly.

Arthur bites into his cookie, shrugging one shoulder and chewing slowly. Merlin remains frozen on the other side of the kitchen. “I might have,” he says, before swallowing, “just finished reading Ourselves, Apart.”

The smile that grows across Merlin’s face is a wonderful thing, transforming from worry and fear to delight and comprehension in a few long seconds. “You read them,” he says in a rush, shoving the last of his cookie in his mouth.

“I still need to read Ourselves, Between, but--”

The rest of Arthur’s words are stolen from his lips by Merlin, who peppers his face with kisses and covers his arse with cookie crumbs as he envelops him in a hug, which Arthur knows says more than Merlin could with his words.

*

They sober up a little before midnight Mass, belatedly realising that they are perhaps the only attendees to have done so. It’s so cold in the church that Arthur can see his own breath in front of his face, which gives him an excuse to stand close to Merlin in one of the pews near the back.

Merlin has a wonderful singing voice, a rich baritone which warms him from head to toe. They get to sing Merlin’s favourite – O Little Town of Bethlehem – as Arthur had learnt in Winchester on his birthday, along with several other carols.

All the while, Arthur glances at one of the stained-glass windows in the nave of the church, near the altar. A blonde woman holds a swaddled baby, and while there isn’t a halo around her head, tiny doves fly next to her. He spent the Sunday mornings of his childhood staring up at that window.

When the service ends, they linger. “That’s your mother, isn’t it?” Merlin asks. He’d never been made to attend church like Arthur had, and so Arthur nods.

“I’ve seen this window more than I’ve ever seen photos of her,” Arthur says. “My whole life has been defined by... has had a shadow cast over it by a woman I never had the chance to meet.”

Merlin holds his hand, fingers cold against his own. “Mum used to adore her paintings, she was really talented,” he says. “They were quite good friends, actually, but I never thought to ask Mum more about Ygraine.”

It’s the first time Merlin’s said Arthur’s mother’s name aloud; Arthur hardly even says it to himself.

“There’s a lot that could have been done differently,” Arthur says, but he leaves it there. They both know it’s too late for regret now, how useless it is. Keep moving forward.

“Come on,” Merlin says, nudging Arthur out of the pew. “I want to put this on Mum’s grave.” Merlin gestures to the Christingle in his free hand, the little orange with its ribbon and sweets and candle.

Arthur knows where his own mother’s grave is in the church yard, and isn’t too surprised to find it close to Hunith’s. Merlin, ever prepared, has brought a torch to help them see in the darkness, and a lighter to light the candle with. “There,” he says, the flame flickering gently against the marble of Hunith’s grave. “Merry Christmas, Mum.”

There are so many flowers still heaped over Hunith’s grave, fresh in the ground. Arthur makes his way to Ygraine’s, made of a softer stone which has gone a little green from neglect. Merlin trails behind, lighting Arthur’s way with the torch. “Can I borrow your lighter?” Arthur says as he pauses at Ygraine’s grave, weeds obscuring the lower lines of engraved text.

Arthur leaves his Christingle lit in the shadow of his mother’s grave, flickering against an epitaph in which he is not mentioned. When Merlin takes his hand again, the darkness doesn’t feel quite so oppressive.

*

Christmas Day passes in a blur, for several reasons: a lack of sleep and then an early start that morning, the fact that Merlin insists it’s Emrys tradition to start the day with at least one glass of champagne, and two small children who take a shining to Arthur as soon as they burst through the door.

The DuLacs are the first of the guests to arrive, a chorus of Merry Christmas ringing around the cottage. Gwen greets him like the long-lost friend he is, practically jumping for joy when she recognises the scarf strewn over the coat hook, and giving a soft smile when she sees Arthur reach for Merlin’s hand more than once throughout the day. Lance is more reserved, but as soon as they start talking about the Boxing Day football matches tomorrow, he and Arthur don’t stop, much to Gwen and Merlin’s chagrin. Becca recognises Arthur from a Christmas themed film he’d made years ago when he’d played a prince – the infamous golden boy – and spends half the morning demanding that he calls her ‘princess’ and bow in greeting. Of course, Arthur obeys.

The other half of the morning, Arthur spends staring at Merlin, who holds the bundle of blankets that is little Lily. It ignites a yearning in Arthur that he never knew he was capable of, watching Merlin pull silly faces at the baby. Arthur shakes his head to clear the images threatening to form in his mind. It’s been only days, for God’s sake; his world has been turned upside down.

Leon arrives next, a bag of gifts in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. He steps in the door opened by Merlin, to stop and stare at Arthur. “You... I...” he turns to Merlin. “You bastard. Why didn’t you say he was home?!”

“Surprise?” Merlin squeaks, before Leon wraps him in a one-armed hug.

“It’s good to see you again Arthur, although I’ll admit it’s a bit weird,” Leon says, and his laugh breaks the tension. Arthur hugs him, guiding him in the direction of the noise and clamour where Becca is playing with the first of her gifts.

Just before lunch, and after some presents have been opened (although Arthur refuses to give Merlin his until they’re alone again later on), Gaius and Alice arrive, arms full of more presents and various desserts.

Arthur delights in how full the cottage feels, especially as all of them crowd around the table before lunch, Lily in her car seat at Lance’s feet and Becca sat on two cushions in a chair. Merlin is pulling off the host thing perfectly, bouncing between refilling drinks, checking the saucepans bubbling on the stove, and catching up with his loved ones with ease.

“Gaius, can you come carve please?” Merlin calls from the kitchen, before popping his head around the door to look at Arthur. “Sorry, Arthur. It’s tradition.”

“You’ll have time enough to make your own traditions, son,” Gaius says to Arthur, or perhaps Merlin, or maybe both of them as he shuffles into the kitchen. Merlin raises his eyebrows at Arthur, grinning, before he disappears again.

Arthur is relieved to finally sit down to lunch half an hour later. The food is delicious, cobbled together by various guests adding a little this, a bit of that, and generations of knowhow to each dish.

The sense of family that fills Merlin’s home is almost enough to bring him to tears.

They watch the Queen’s Christmas message at 3pm sharp, Gaius refusing to sit down through the whole thing, and Arthur aching for a Britain that he knows isn’t his home anymore.

The afternoon bleeds easily into the evening, especially when Merlin starts serving Baileys hot chocolates, and it seems almost too soon when the DuLacs announce that they’re leaving. “Arthur, you must come round ours before you go back to LA,” Gwen says, a hand on his arm. “There’s so much to catch up on.”

“I know,” Arthur says, covering her hand with his. “I will. There’s still a week before I go back.”

Gwen beams, kissing him and then Merlin on the cheek as they go, Becca sleeping in Lance’s arms, exhausted, and Lily gurgling in the car seat that Gwen carries.

“You’re more than welcome at mine for New Year’s Eve,” Leon says as he leaves afterwards, more than a little merry and with a plate of leftovers in one hand. Merlin offers to walk him to his house, a couple of streets away, but Leon waves him off.

Arthur smiles. “I’m meant to be at Gwaine’s for New Year’s, but I’ll let you know if my plans change.”

Leon laughs. “Oh right, yeah. Gwaine as in Gwaine Knight, Hollywood heartthrob who holds those famous New Year’s Eve parties? And you just... said his name, just like that.” Leon’s still laughing, starstruck, as Merlin guides him to the door with a I told you so look on his face.

Gaius and Alice are the last to leave, Alice having insisted on doing the washing up and leaving the kitchen spotless. “Thank you,” Merlin says to them as they stand at the door. Arthur hovers in the lounge, feeling like an intruder. “I was so... this year was always going to be...”

“I know, love,” Alice says, pulling Merlin down into a hug. “She would be so proud of you, you know. This is a Christmas we’ll remember for years.”

Merlin’s eyes brim with tears, and there’s a lump forming in Arthur’s throat as Alice passes Merlin to Gaius, who claps his back as he hugs him. “Really bloody proud,” he mutters, before he releases Merlin and turns to Arthur. “Don’t you break his heart again,” Gaius says gruffly.

Arthur opens his mouth to defend himself but finds too late that there’s no words at the tip of his tongue. “Gaius,” Merlin says softly, pulling the attention away from Arthur’s stage fright. He hadn’t even considered it like that, as it simply wasn’t conceivable that he would put Merlin through that pain again.

He was more scared that Merlin would break his own heart, thawing now, vulnerable once more.

Silence descends on the cottage as Merlin shuts the door behind Gaius and Alice, leaning on it heavily. “Phew,” Merlin says with a sigh. “I’m exhausted.”

“Cup of tea?” Arthur suggests, and Merlin nods. “Go sit down. I still have a present for you.”

The corners of Merlin’s mouth twitch up into a smile as Arthur walks through to the kitchen, weariness suddenly catching up on him. He fills the kettle and boils it, surprising himself with how he remembers exactly where the mugs, tea bags, and sugar are all kept (Merlin is far too old to be taking sugar in his tea, Arthur thinks, but it’s something that a married couple would bicker over; it’s not his right). Humming to himself, he puts a splash of milk into each mug along with the tea bags and Merlin’s sugar, before adding the hot water and straining the tea bags.

It all helps him forget the nerves in his stomach at what he’s about to do.

Arthur takes the cups of tea into the lounge and sets them down on the coffee table, which is still covered in bits of wrapping paper, a half-eaten tub of Celebrations, and several wine glasses. As Arthur sits down, Merlin scoots closer and rests his head on his shoulder. “Thank you for today.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Arthur says, turning his head to look at Merlin’s soft hair. “This was all you.”

“Thank you for being here,” Merlin says. He nuzzles into Arthur’s shoulder briefly before sitting up to drink his tea. “You remembered the sugar,” he says, flicking a gaze to Arthur, hands curled around his mug. It has reindeer antlers.

Arthur reaches around the side of the sofa for Merlin’s present, which he’d had to sneak away and wrap yesterday during a quiet moment. How Merlin hasn’t found it out before now is some sort of miracle. “Merry Christmas, Merlin.”

Merlin puts his mug of tea down to take the present. “How did you know I like books?” Merlin teases, and Arthur shoves at his thigh with his own knee. Merlin peels the paper off, and then stops. “Oh, haha Arthur, very funny,” he deadpans, holding up a copy of his first poetry collection as the rest of the paper falls away. “You know I already have one of these, right?”

“Just open it, please,” is all Arthur can manage past the ache in his chest.

Merlin looks at him again before opening the front cover. “To Merlin,” he reads. He clears his throat. “Maybe it’s uncouth to quote another poet in a book of poetry--” Merlin laughs softly at this, the hand not holding the book hovering somewhere near his throat “--but I want to preface all of this with something that I just can’t get out of my mind...”

Arthur has written out, in his softest pencil, the first stanza of Frost’s The Road Not Taken, underlining the word that spoke to him the most: the apology.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Underneath, because Arthur knows better than most that all things are up for interpretation, he has taken the final line out of context to simply write: and that has made all the difference.

“Arthur,” Merlin whispers, before he turns one page, and then another, and another, eyes widening. “Arthur.”

“Please take your time to read it all,” Arthur says. Each page of Merlin’s poetry is now saturated with pencil marks. Sometimes it is a simple comment on Arthur’s enjoyment of a stanza, or a memory of them as teenagers. One poem about Icarus’ fated flight is accompanied by a story of Arthur and his own father. Arthur has done this for years, taking a pencil to film scripts to find their deeper meaning, but he’s never quite turned himself inside out like this, and for someone else to see, too.

Somewhere buried in his musings are the words ‘I love you’. He wonders how long it will take Merlin to find them.

“This is...” Merlin says, gently closing the book and holding it to his chest. He blinks rapidly, trying to clear the tears from his eyes. “I... what I’ve got you isn’t nearly this much,” Merlin says, trying for a laugh.

“It doesn’t matter. I promise. You’ve done enough already,” Arthur says, cupping Merlin’s face. “I...”

Arthur’s head snaps up at the sound of his phone ringing. He’d set it to Do Not Disturb, meaning that whoever was now getting through had already tried calling twice. “I should see who that is,” he says, kissing Merlin’s damp cheek and grabbing his phone from the coffee table, that damn scene from Love Actually replaying in his mind.

No Caller ID.

“Hello?”

“Arthur, it’s Odin. Can you talk?”

Arthur nearly drops his phone. “Sorry, one moment,” he says, pressing the phone into his shoulder. “It’s the director of my next film,” he whispers to Merlin. “I have no idea why he’s calling on Christmas Day.”

“Put him on speaker,” Merlin says softly. Arthur puts him on loudspeaker and puts his phone down on the table. Merlin takes Arthur’s hand, almost cradling it.

“Arthur, firstly, happy Christmas, I should’ve started with that.” Odin’s accent is from the deep South and is weirdly comforting. “I hope I haven’t disturbed anything, I know it’s late there, but this is important.”

“Go ahead,” Arthur says. He squeezes Merlin’s fingers in return.

“Long story short, the roads we needed closed for the car chase and big reveal near the end of the film have been closed this week, instead of in three weeks’ time,” Odin says. It sounds like he’s outside, Arthur wonders if it’s still too warm there in LA. “I know, I know, whoever fucked up the dates is getting fired. Regardless, we’ll need you on set tomorrow morning.”

Arthur splutters. “I’m in England, Odin. I can’t just--”

“I can stretch to Saturday morning, but that’s the most I can do. We need to get this filmed and you’ve seen the schedule already. We’re due in Tokyo by March; we have to be wrapped here first.”

Arthur looks to Merlin, whose expression is unreadable. Their hands have come apart as Arthur has run his own through his hair. “This is unbelievable. It’s Christmas. I can’t--”

“Arthur,” Odin warns, and Arthur immediately shuts up. “I like you. You’re a good kid. You did great stuff in that war film you did. Do I need to remind you that you’ve signed a contract for this film?” The honey-warm voice gains an edge. “We haven’t started filming yet; you know how easy it is here for me to find another twenty-something actor with a clear schedule for a few months? Too easy, that’s what.” A brief silence. “Call me once you know what flight you’re on, and I’ll send one of the guys to pick you up.”

The dial tone beeps before Arthur’s phone falls silent. He puts his elbows on his knees, holding his head in his hands, trying to breathe even though he feels like he’s drowning.

“You’ll have to go,” Merlin says, resting a hand between Arthur’s shoulder blades. The weight is comforting.

“I hate it there, Merlin,” Arthur says, unable to meet Merlin’s eyes. “It’s all... I wrote it in your book, but I... it’s too much now. No one is happy there. Even Morgana is thinking of giving it up.”

Merlin hums quietly to itself. “There’s no shame in giving up, sometimes.”

“I can’t drop out this late in the process, despite what Odin says.” Arthur sits up and Merlin’s hand falls from his back. “I’d never be cast again, Hollywood or otherwise.”

Finally, Arthur turns and meets Merlin’s eyes. They’re wide, concerned. Arthur sighs. “I have to go, but I really, really don’t want to go this soon.”

“Yesterday morning,” Merlin starts slowly. “You said that you wouldn’t ask me to wait, if I didn’t ask you to stay.”

Arthur closes his eyes, tips his head back to lay on the back of the sofa. “I did,” he says to the ceiling. His neck is bare, waiting for Merlin to aim for the proverbial jugular. He braces himself.

“I’m asking you to stay,” Merlin says. “Even though I know you won’t.” The flash of adrenaline that shoots through Arthur’s veins is sickening, and his stomach plummets at Merlin’s final words.

Arthur opens his eyes, rolling his head to the side to look at Merlin, to drink in the sight of him like it’s ten years ago, all over again, and he’s about to leave for the first time, not the second. “I’m asking you to wait,” Arthur pleads, sitting up. “Just a little while, and this will be the last time we say goodbye, I promise, because then I’m all yours, if you’ll have me,” Arthur says, so quietly that the words barely carry to Merlin. “Please.”

He suspects Merlin has heard him, though, when he leans forward and kisses him gently. “It is never too late to be who you might have been,” Merlin whispers against his mouth.

Arthur presses their foreheads together, one hand steady on the back of Merlin’s neck, grounding himself. “Is that one of yours?”

Merlin laughs. “God, no. It’s George Eliot.” He presses another kiss to Arthur’s lips. “You might have been my boyfriend once, my lover, maybe. You might not have. But it’s never too late.”

Arthur laughs a sigh of relief. “I...” He tries to find the words. “This is shit, and really, really poor timing, especially on Christmas, but, I...” He meets Merlin’s eyes again, shaking his head. “I better book some flights, before Odin goes and casts Gwaine, of all people.”

Merlin smiles. “I think I’d like to meet your friends. You’ve met all of mine, now, anyway.”

Arthur stands to search the wreckage of Christmas Day for his iPad, digging his wallet out of his coat pocket at the same time. Merlin brings his feet up onto the sofa, physically curling around his cup of tea.

They sit in silence as Arthur navigates the British Airways website, fighting against the user interface and an unhelpful chat bot to bring his flight forward to tomorrow morning. “Don’t forget your tea,” Merlin mutters at one point, and it might as well have been a declaration of love.

Flights changed, a taxi booked for the crack of dawn, and Odin informed, Arthur pulls Merlin into his lap. “On second thoughts,” Merlin says a little while later, as Arthur curls around him on the sofa. “Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that you’ll be gone for a while. I can refine your Christmas present a little.”

Arthur had had a nagging suspicion that it was going to be something written, so this revelation just makes him smirk. “Oh really?”

“Well, you’ve now got a, what, ten, eleven-hour flight tomorrow?” Merlin asks as Arthur strokes up and down his side. “So you can finish reading Ourselves, Between. Then, my present will make more sense.”

Arthur laughs, kissing the shell of Merlin’s ear. “Don’t tell me you’ve written fanfiction for your own story, Merlin. It doesn’t work like that,” he murmurs, and Merlin flushes.

“You should have read some of the fanfiction for Absolution. Half the world seemed to think your character should’ve ended up with the guy who was making all your weapons.”

It’s Arthur’s turn to blush, now, and Merlin declares it a victory, moving their bodies again so he’s straddling Arthur’s hips.

“Would you rather,” Merlin drawls, and his tone goes straight to Arthur’s groin, “be hungover, or exhausted on your flight tomorrow?” There’s a dangerous gleam in Merlin’s eye.

Arthur considers this for a moment. “Definitely not hungover, that’s for certain,” he says, before he realises exactly what the game is. “Ahh, I see what you’re up to,” he murmurs in return.

Merlin rolls his hips with a “who, me?” look of innocence on his face; Arthur basks in it. “I don’t want you forgetting what’s waiting for you here in Middle Worthy while you’re gone,” Merlin says, but the humour doesn’t quite carry, his tone slightly flat.

Arthur puts his hands on Merlin’s hips, thumbs digging under Merlin’s Christmas jumper to touch his heated skin. “Well, FaceTime and WhatsApp have been invented in the last ten years, so I can hardly pull a fast one on you-- ow.”

Merlin mock glares from behind the cushion he’s just batted Arthur with. “That’s not the point,” Merlin says, and Arthur puts his hands up to defend himself from further attack.

“You know you can come visit if you want, right?” Arthur says quickly. “We relocate to Tokyo in March for a few weeks, so you can visit me in LA or in Japan, it’s up to you.”

Merlin softens, letting the cushion drop to the floor. “You wouldn’t mind?” he asks, voice small.

“Morgana would actually kill me if she thought I hadn’t asked you,” Arthur says, pulling Merlin down to lay on his chest, warm and solid. He locks Merlin in the cage of his arms. “She told me to stop being a coward when it came to things like feelings and the like.”

Merlin hums, and it reverberates through his own chest. “I think I’d like to meet her. She sounds quite sensible.”

“You seem to be implying that I’m not,” Arthur frowns.

“Well,” Merlin drawls, kissing the tip of Arthur’s nose. “You seem to be spending a lot of our final hours together talking, when we could be doing far more interesting things...”

This time, Arthur Pendragon takes the hint.

Chapter Text

So I'll go back to L.A. and the so-called friends
Who'll write books about me if I ever make it
And wonder about the only soul
Who can tell which smiles I'm fakin'
And the heart I know I'm breakin' is my own
To leave the warmest bed I've ever known
We could call it even
Even though I'm leaving
And I'll be yours for the weekend
'Tis the damn season

~*~*~*~

Writer’s block.

It’s a curse that Merlin is unfamiliar with, having rarely been afflicted with it in the past decade, and not for weeks at a time like he is now. The snow returned to Middle Worthy in early January and has been lingering since. Unable to take his frustration out on his Land Rover, either by throwing her around a muddy field or ripping out her insides to delicately replace them again, he festers.

Making a strong cup of coffee, Merlin stares out of the kitchen window at a family walking a small dog along the road, the children ecstatic at the deep snow and the dog nearly lost in it. For Merlin, the white stuff feels like a trap, leaving him locked in his cottage with his unfinished manuscript and lingering deadline. The world outside has been reduced to grayscale by the snow, with only the red post box in colour like some darkly festive version of Schindler’s List.

He sighs, taking his mug back to his desk and sitting down again, the chair creaking beneath him. He’s spent days here re-reading the entire draft of Ourselves, Together, which he would never normally do, because he’d normally finish writing before going back to the beginning once more.

Everything seems different with this book. Expecting the words to dry up, he’d been surprised when he’d managed to painfully write a few scenes since his mum’s death. Merlin had even embellished some of the more romantic moments in the story after Arthur had arrived, suddenly but not inexplicably inspired.

Now, he glares at the blinking cursor at the top of the blank page, taunting him. Merlin is the planner; the writer’s grotto of timelines and character profiles plastered on the walls around him are testament to this. Now, the words have run out, and Merlin is lost.

It’s too early to call Arthur in LA, and Merlin’s not entirely sure he should. Arthur had been endlessly patient with Merlin’s fretting about the book, despite his own difficulties with his co-stars and boorish director Odin, and their fledgling... well, whatever this was. Arthur had even called Merlin at 8am on New Year’s Day, drunkenly singing Auld Lang Syne down the phone as Merlin was waking up with his own hangover.

Merlin, for once, had enjoyed the photographs in the gossip magazines in the days afterwards, seeing Arthur look happy with the Hollywood friends that he’d been talking about so much. Or at least, Merlin had been enjoying it until one online article showed a close-up of Arthur’s face, and Merlin could tell that it wasn’t a true smile; it wasn’t touching his eyes, and his usual dimple was missing. Was Arthur sad to be back in LA? Or was he sad about being away from Merlin?

Merlin sighs again, recognising this familiar spiral of thoughts. He tabs out of the document and to Spotify, to switch to a classical playlist that he enjoys writing to. With Waltz of the Flowers playing, he goes to Tumblr to distract himself, where the #felistair tag has been soothing his ego for the three long weeks since both Arthur and his ability to write had left him.

Even just a month ago, if someone had told Merlin that Arthur Pendragon would one day be his muse, he would’ve scoffed at them. Now, as he scrolls through the beautiful art that fans of the books have created, sipping his coffee, he realises that Arthur has been his muse all along.

There’s a sketch of Alastair in profile, writing into a small book, and it looks so like Arthur that Merlin instinctively leans forward and squints at it. Down to the line of his nose, it’s an uncanny resemblance. In the accompanying picture, side by side, Felix is reading the very same book with a huge smile on his face, the tips of his ears red. Merlin feels a surge of pride as he realises that so many hours of work must’ve gone into this masterpiece. There’s a quote posted underneath the two sketches:

“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”Pride and Prejudice // Ourselves, Apart

Merlin feels humbled that his own book has been paraphrased with a Jane Austen quote; the thought of Alastair writing it to Felix is dizzying. Ourselves, Between had picked up the pieces of Alastair’s and Felix’s broken trust, following a spell gone wrong in Ourselves, Apart. That spell – not Felix’s finest moment – had seen them split up with Alastair trapped in the Neverealm, temporarily unable to return to the real world. In this time, they had spent the separation silently questioning their love for each other, which is how the Austen quote was relevant.

Merlin wants to hug his laptop, and settles instead for cradling his coffee in his hands and staring fondly at Arthur and Merlin – er, Alastair and Felix.

He nearly drops his coffee as he connects the dots, images flashing through his mind: had he written the separation plot subconsciously about Arthur leaving for LA for the first time?

If so, the implications were staggering. He’d dreamt up that plot nearly eight years ago.

Reminding himself to breathe, Merlin puts down his coffee and checks the tags of the post; in true Tumblr form, this user had added their own comments with a series of hashtags:

#imagine alastair writing poetry for felix when he was in the neverealm   #like there was a book that would reflect everything he wrote in the real world   #and felix’s magic called to it   #and he found it   #omfg   #and felix would just sit there GRINNING   #reading those words and realising   #just how much he misses alastair   #and how much alastair loves him   #this is my headcanon   #you can’t take it from me

Merlin sits up, electrified. He pushes aside the papers strewn across his desk, much more messy than it usually was due to the writer’s block, to find Arthur’s gifted copy of For Lost Lovers: A Poetry Collection. Tucked inside it was an old post-it note with Hunith’s handwriting on it (I love you, my Merlin bird), which had become Merlin’s favourite bookmark. He hadn’t finished reading all of Arthur’s notes, simply because there were so many of them and they were so crowded onto each page that Merlin was taking time to savour them, to catalogue them slowly.

Guided by some unknown force, or perhaps a little bit of Felix’s magic, Merlin finds his way to a poem titled Unintended towards the end of the book. This page seems to be emptier than the others; Arthur has written a few comments about the opening stanza and the irregular pattern. Merlin remembers writing this initially in the months after Arthur had left for America, although its published version was much more refined than the rough first draft had ever been.

The final stanza reads:

Please,
fill the gaps between my fingers.
They belong to your heart.

And just below this, in flowing script, Arthur has carefully written:

I think I am falling in love with you all over again

Merlin stands so suddenly that his chair tips backwards and clatters to the floor. “Arthur,” he says numbly. “When the fuck did you expect me to find this?” Merlin reads the line again and bathes himself in it. “You bloody fool,” he says, but it’s soft.

The cottage is silent except for the first few notes of Claire de lune playing from his computer. Merlin takes a shaking breath in, fighting against the tears forming in his eyes at the music, Arthur’s words, the overwhelming feeling of yearning threatening to spill out of him.

He realises his hands are trembling as he reaches for his phone, thrown in a desk drawer as he always does when he writes to limit distractions. He scrolls through his contacts list past Arthur’s name to find a number he’d been given a few weeks ago.

“Just in case you need anything while I’m gone,” Arthur had said as he’d left early on Boxing Day morning, leaving Merlin shivering on his front step in the dark, hoping to God that Arthur would come back this time.

“Hello?” a female voice asks at the other end of the line.

“Hi, Morgana? It’s, uh, it’s Merlin. I think I need your help.”

*

“You should never have come back to LA.”

Arthur looks over his shoulder at those words. Vivian spits what looks like blood onto the concrete between them as forcibly as she can, although her arms are tied behind her back. “Are you forgetting yourself?” Arthur asks coldly, voice low. The gun in his crimson-painted hand is heavy.

“I’d rather die than tell you anything,” she growls.

Reflexively, Arthur snaps his arm upwards to point the gun at the middle of Vivian’s forehead. There’s a wild fury in his eyes, face smudged with ash and sweat from the day’s events. His lips are pressed into a thin line, as if he’s about to snarl.

“Cut!”

Arthur drops his arm and groans, walking over to the director’s chair as the lights go up. The set is flooded with stagehands, several of them helping Vivian out of her flimsy restraints. “What now?” he asks Odin, trying to keep the petulant whine out of his voice and just about managing.

“You look too angry,” Odin says, pointing to his monitor.

“James is about to kill her!” Arthur exclaims, scrutinising his own furious expression on the screen. “I’m quite sure he would look angry.”

“We need a bit more of a...” Odin pauses, gesturing with one hand. “Mournful vibe. Otherwise, the redemption arc just won’t play out right. The audience won’t buy into it if you’re enjoying the killing too much now.”

“Mournful, right,” Arthur nods to himself. The previous takes had demanded violence, anger, salvation, and now mournfulness. He walks away from Odin and takes a deep breath to centre himself; Odin is known as one of the more difficult directors to work with in Hollywood, and Arthur is beginning to understand why.

“Everybody, let’s take a break. We’ll try again in twenty,” Odin calls across the set in his booming voice. Arthur gives the gun in his hand to a prop assistant before a runner appears at his elbow.

“Your cousin is here to see you, Mister Pendragon. She’s in your trailer,” she says breathlessly before sprinting off again.

Arthur stops dead in his tracks. Morgana isn’t meant to be back in LA for several weeks. Had something gone wrong with Morgause in Paris?

Unrooting himself, Arthur leaves the warehouse the stage is in and emerges into the warm Hollywood sunshine, a far cry from the British snow that Merlin had been complaining about a few days ago during their latest phone call. As he rounds the building to where the trailers are crowded into the corner of the lot, he sees Morgana standing in a casual jumpsuit and canvas shoes, still managing to look the supermodel despite being off duty.

“Morgs?” Arthur says as he reaches her. She looks him up and down; his ripped t-shirt, the fake blood on his hands, the dirt on his face.

“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” she says, taking her sunglasses off and putting the end of one arm in her mouth as she thinks. “Maybe it’s better doing this later, when you don’t look like you’ve just crawled out of hell.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur asks. “Why are you here? Is something wrong?”

Morgana grins, and it does nothing to calm Arthur’s nerves. “The very opposite. Hopefully, it’s a pleasant surprise.”

“Can you please just tell me what’s--”

The door to Arthur’s trailer opens, and Merlin steps out. “Oh, wow. You really do look rough.”

Arthur’s jaw drops open and he lets out a surprised laugh. He looks between Morgana and Merlin, both of them smiling. “What are you doing here?”

“I needed to tell you something,” Merlin says, walking down the trailer steps so he’s level with Arthur on the asphalt.

“I’ll leave you two to it,” Morgana says gently. “Call me if you need me. Ciao!” she calls, waving over her shoulder and looking extremely smug as she leaves.

Arthur glances at her for a second before his eyes return to Merlin, trying to take it all in, record this moment for eternity in his mind. Merlin looks good here, with sunglasses hooked over the neck of his t-shirt, dragging it down enough to drive Arthur a little bit mad. “When...” he tries, but it’s not quite right. “Why...?”

Merlin takes Arthur’s hands in his own, and some of the fake blood transfers off onto Merlin’s pale skin. “I realised something yesterday. I realised that... well, I’ve always known that Alastair and Felix were based on us, when we were young,” Merlin says, looking down between them for a moment before he can meet Arthur’s eyes again. “But I realised that when I wrote about their separation into the different realms, and the longing and hoping that they’d reunite... I think I was writing about you without realising it, for all of those years. Something in my subconscious...”

Arthur’s lips move but he’s unable to form words. Merlin giggles to himself, like it’s a secret finally shared, like he can’t quite believe it either. It’s almost too good to be true, Arthur thinks, and he wonders if he’s dreaming.

“And as soon as I realised that...” Merlin continues rapidly. “I was looking at this bit of artwork someone drew, where Alastair and Felix are sharing a poetry book between worlds. So I picked up your book, the one you gave me, because it just felt right and found what you wrote to me. You know which bit. And, I...”

“I mean it,” Arthur says, swallowing thickly. Merlin’s hands in his remind him that he’s here and real. “If that’s what you came here to check. Except, well, I don’t even think it now. I know I’m falling in love with you all over again.”

Arthur watches Merlin’s smile grow into a full-blown grin. “I wasn’t coming here to check, you dolt. I came here to tell you that I feel the same. And maybe... maybe I did love you a little bit for all those years.”

Arthur cups Merlin’s face and kisses him, trying to pour all of the words he cannot say into the gesture. He doesn’t care who sees him communicating with Merlin like this, giving him everything he has and then more. He wants the whole world to know how happy this man makes him, how he feels whole for the first time in a decade when he’s touching Merlin.

“Oh god, I’m sorry,” Arthur says as they break away, eyes darting all over Merlin’s face as he realises what he’s done.

“Didn’t I tell you to stop apologising before Christmas?” Merlin teases, hands now on Arthur’s hips.

“No, I mean...” Arthur steps back so Merlin can see his red hands between their faces. “You look like some kind of murder victim.”

Bemused, Merlin pulls his phone out of his pocket and opens the camera before he bursts out laughing at the fake blood all over his cheeks. “Well, that’s one way to tell everyone we’re together,” he says through fits of giggles. “Come here. We might as well take a photo to commemorate the occasion. We didn’t get round to taking any at Christmas.”

Arthur stands behind Merlin, simply thrilled to be back in his presence after nearly a month of separation. He touches his temple against Merlin’s, looking to the screen of Merlin’s phone to find his ash-covered grin next to Merlin’s bloody cheeks. Merlin takes the picture and then pulls the phone closer, smiling at it.

“You look happy,” Merlin says, turning to meet Arthur’s eyes. “You didn’t look this happy in any of the photos from New Year’s. I didn’t know how to bring it up over the phone.”

“Mithian’s ex-boyfriend had turned up,” Arthur says with a sigh. “She’d had a blazing row with him, just after midnight, and of course that’s when the paparazzi got their long lenses out and aimed at the balconies,” he says with a roll of his eyes. “Come on, I’ve got some make up wipes inside,” Arthur says, leading Merlin back into his trailer.

Merlin takes one of the offered wipes from the vanity just inside the trailer, rubbing at his face. “You said that she’s the quiet one. Seems a bit out of character,” he says with a frown.

He remembered. Arthur smiles despite himself. “Hell hath no fury like a woman divorced for an eighteen-year-old, or however the saying goes.”

“Fuck,” Merlin breathes, and Arthur nods in the pause that follows. “Can I meet your friends while I’m here?” The request is quiet, almost shy.

“Are you kidding?” Arthur asks, glee creeping unbidden into his voice. “Of course. I know you’ve had the pleasure of meeting Morgana already – hang on, how did you meet?”

“You gave me her number, remember?” Merlin says. “I called her in a bit of a flap, and she dropped everything to, and I quote, ‘make you realise how much of an idiot you are’.” Merlin shrugs but he’s smiling.

Arthur can’t help but laugh. “For once, her interference in my personal life is more than welcome,” he murmurs, and Merlin’s cheeks colour a little, this time with his own blood. “You’ve got to meet Gwaine and Mithian. Elena especially. Turns out she’s the biggest fan of Felix Morgan this side of the pond, once I’d told her I’d read your books.”

“Sounds like we’ll get along just fine,” Merlin says with a grin. “Seeing as I’m his biggest fan on the other side of the pond.”

Arthur pulls a face. “Merlin, you can’t be your own creation’s biggest fan. That’s cheating.”

“Well, you’re your own biggest fan,” Merlin scoffs, which earns a surprised snort of laughter from Arthur before he can respond with how that doesn’t even make sense.

There’s a knock at the trailer door. “Mister Pendragon, Odin-- ah, sorry,” the runner says, opening the door and then averting her eyes from the two men in conversation. “I didn’t--”

“I’m needed back on set,” Arthur murmurs to Merlin. “Do you want to stay here? Or I can get you a cab back to my place, if you’d prefer?”

“Can I come watch?” Merlin asks, and Arthur swears to God that his heart swells in his chest.

“I don’t see why not,” Arthur says, simultaneously over the moon yet desperately nervous. “Bear in mind that James is about to kill somebody though, so, it’s not me at my most attractive.”

Merlin shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve always been attracted to serial killers,” he says in a blasé tone, leaving the trailer and saying hello to the runner hovering by the door.

Arthur shakes his head minutely, admonishing Merlin in his head before following him outside.

Perhaps it’s a feeling that’s been growing for a few weeks, or maybe it was Merlin’s request to watch him work, but it all seems to fall into place as they walk back across the lot, shoulders brushing because Arthur’s hands are still caked in fake blood.

It’s that comfortable feeling of belonging, of knowing that he’ll follow Merlin anywhere in the world, and it would be an honour to do so.

Arthur thinks about the road not taken. Maybe, after everything, both roads would have always led back to Merlin.

*

One year later

24 December 2021, The Guardian

The Unlikely Pairing of Arthur Pendragon and B.H. Ambrosius

For the first time since his shock decision to quit Hollywood earlier this year, Arthur Pendragon will be gracing our television screens this evening in the BBC’s Christmas pantomime, Cinderella, playing Prince Charming. It’s a reunion for him and Morgause Dupont, playing Cinderella, after they first starred together in Endlessly Yours in 2015; her aptly timed French television debut, La Valise, premieres in the UK on New Year’s Day on ITV1.

It’s likely that Pendragon will continue his quest to become a regular fixture in living rooms across the UK. Following the blockbuster success of The Night We Met, in which he played James, a bodyguard turned serial killer, he’s left the silver screen for good to join the TV adaptation of B.H. Ambrosius’ bestselling Ourselves novels. While the full cast list hasn’t yet been revealed, fan theories have remained divided: some argue that he could play Alastair Everleigh, the love interest to Felix Morgan; others, considering him too old to play an 18-year-old, instead reckon that he could play his estranged father, Professor Everleigh.

The TV adaptation is a huge step in the right direction for LGBT creators and characters alike. Although B.H. Ambrosius keeps his true identity a closely guarded secret, he has admitted that he is a gay man. “It’s fantastic that Sky One have picked up Ourselves, Once for a first season,” he told Empire last week. “Seeing two young gay men given a prime-time slot to fall in love is something I never dreamed of happening.”

It seems that Arthur Pendragon may have a vested interest in Ourselves; not only has he been added to the cast, he is also producing several episodes alongside B.H. Ambrosius. Perhaps this is following paparazzi photographs in the summer where Pendragon was spotted with childhood sweetheart Merlin Emrys, having come out as bisexual in the spring. It’s rumoured that they reignited their love after a ten-year separation, during which Pendragon suffered from a rather humiliating split from fellow thespian Sophia Sharpe. Will he be drawing on experience from his own same-sex relationship in his work with Ourselves?

Pendragon declined to comment, naturally; he’s kept his budding relationship under tight wraps this year and it’s likely to stay that way in future. However, there’s hope for Alastair Everleigh and Felix Morgan yet; the newly released Ourselves, Together puts to an end the painful separation in different magical realms seen in the previous books, with a dramatic reunion and a new, powerful foe to face one final time.

Some keen-eyed fans have noticed the correlation between the reunion of Alastair and Felix, and Pendragon’s reconciliation with Merlin Emrys. Confronted about it on Twitter, for once Pendragon did respond, in that typical form of wit we’ve come to expect from Britain’s most beloved golden boy:

“I clearly modelled my own relationship around an unreleased book,” he quipped to his followers yesterday lunchtime. “I’m happy, and that’s all that matters. Believe in whatever magic makes you happy. ‘Tis the damn season.”

 

Cinderella airs at 9pm tonight on BBC 1.
Ourselves is expected to premiere next autumn on Sky One.
Ourselves, Together, the final instalment in the Ourselves series by B.H. Ambrosius, is out now at all major booksellers.