Summary: It's the evening before December 1st and Merlin has so much to look forward to: Christmas time, the big holiday turn over, and his first Christmas with Arthur. Unfortunately, bringing out the Christmas decorations puts a (literal) kink in Merlin's holiday cheer.
Warnings: Modern AU
Word Count: 2,754
Author's Notes: Dear stay_magical, I hope you enjoy this story! I had a great time writing it. Merry Christmas and best wishes for a great holiday season!
Thank you to the mods for all of their work and my beta for the late night reads. Happy holidays!
Disclaimer:Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
Merlin hummed along to the piped in music as he carried a box of decorations out from around the counter.
It was just after eight o'clock on November 30th which meant it was time for the big holiday turn over to start. The Pendragon department store spared no expense when it came to preparing for Christmas. The store was still open for another hour but the customers had all gone home for the most part, leaving the employees free to begin decorating. December 1st fell on a Friday this year, a prime shopping day, which was why store management had sent out an internal memo reiterating how important it was for every department to be trimmed from floor to ceiling when the doors opened on Friday morning.
Merlin looked forward to the holiday turn over every year. He loved Christmas and taking time out of his day to decorate his department was one of his favorite tasks.
Pendragon Royal Confections was located at the top of the escalators on the fourth floor of the store. Large glass display cases and one public-facing work bench made up the heart of the department Merlin had worked in for the last three years. He never imagined himself as a salesman, much less a confectioner, but the job turned out to be creative, challenging, and rewarding in more ways than one.
Merlin smiled as he set down the box of decorations. He was looking forward to Christmas more than usual this year. It would be a first for him: his first Christmas with significant romantic partner.
He tried to push aside the potentially soppy thoughts but the smile on his face remained as he took a quick walk around the display cases. Sales had been good today, the first hint of the holiday shopping rush to come; many of the rows of handcrafted chocolates and sweets were dotted by empty shelf space. Merlin took a small notepad from his pocket and made note of the understocked varieties so they could be replenished first thing in the morning.
Then he began to plan out his decorations.
There were a few standards they put up every year - lights on the overhead sign, colored garland around the display cases - but Merlin also wanted to try something new. He was hoping to showcase evergreen trees and poinsettias this year in order to compliment the new designs on the holiday gift boxes. It would be easy enough to set up displays of trees and poinsettias around the department but it would be more eye-catching to incorporate them in the display cases themselves.
Merlin dared to entertain the thought of edible trees and poinsettias.
He bent down to grab a faux miniature tree out of the box of decorations to see how the proportions would look.
Then he failed to get up.
It wasn't the worst pain Merlin had ever experienced.
In his opinion, the worst pain he'd ever experienced was still when his hand had been smashed by a falling loading bay door. That pain had been sharp and loud and Merlin could still feel memories of the pain just by thinking about it.
The pain in his back, on the other hand, was tight and wide and more debilitating than he expected.
He was still trying to figure out exactly what happened when Gwen rushed out from around the counter.
"Merlin!" she cried as she dropped to the ground beside him. "What happened? Are you okay?"
Merlin was in an awkward position with his legs folded half under him and his weigh resting on his elbows. He let himself fall forward onto his forearms and tried to right himself on his knees.
A groan interrupted Merlin's train of thought as he naively tried to push himself up. Pain caused his muscles to tense in a strange and uncomfortable way and the shock of it all caused Merlin to fall on his side. He continued to fall, rolling onto his back in search of relief.
"Nope," he said with a heavy breath. He took a moment to check that he wasn't actively in pain any more. "No, I don't think I'm okay."
"What's wrong?" Gwen asked, her expression screaming concern.
"I think it's my back," Merlin said, making a futile attempt to feel his lower back. Even shifting his weight from side to side took effort. "I think I hurt my back. I can barely move without it hurting. I... I'm not sure I could get up."
Gwen put her hand on Merlin's arm. "Then don't. It might be best if you lie still for a while."
Merlin gestured at the store floor, waving his arm out like he was making a snow angel. The store was fairly empty but it was still open. It probably wasn't best for Merlin to be seen lying on the ground, in uniform, in front of the cakes and tarts display in full view of the bedding department.
Gwen understood his concern. "I can go get help," she said, grasping Merlin's hand.
"Yes, please," he agreed, nodding from the floor. "Try Gwaine. I think he's on the overnight shift stocking in housewares."
"I'll find him." Gwen offered Merlin a comforting smile but she didn't move. "I'll try to be as quick as possible."
"Thank you. I'll be here."
Merlin shrugged, knowing there wasn't anything else he could do. Gwen seemed reluctant to leave him but eventually she squeezed Merlin's hand and rushed off in the direction of housewares.
When Gwen was out of sight, Merlin laid back, letting his body settle into the least uncomfortable position it could find. That turned out to be flat on his back, as flat as possible so as much of his back as possible came in contact with the cold tile floor, with his legs bowed out and his head looking straight up. He could see the ceiling and the overhead lights from where he lay but little to nothing else. He could hear the in-store music continuing to progress through the list of Christmas standards.
He could smell Arthur approaching from an unknown direction.
Arthur Pendragon wore a normal amount of a very distinct and very expensive cologne that Merlin had become well acquainted with over the last three years, particularly in the last six months. He would recognize it anywhere, especially in a situation where he wished he couldn't.
Merlin shut his eyes tight in hopes that if he was very still, Arthur wouldn't notice him.
"Merlin! What are you doing?"
Merlin cracked an eye open as Arthur approached, his shoes making an uneven clacking sound as he grew closer. Arthur looked so much taller from Merlin's current vantage point and the image only became more distorted as Arthur came to stand by his head. Arthur looked intimidating from this skewed angle, an effect that was entirely offset by the wry smile forming on his lips.
Arthur looked down at him. "Are you literally lying about on the job?"
"I can explain."
Arthur shook his head. "I expected this to happen but I never thought you'd be bold enough to-"
"Arthur, I've hurt my back."
The smile fell from Arthur's face as Arthur fell to his knees beside Merlin.
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked, his lighthearted attitude entirely gone. "When did this happen? How bad is it?"
"It just happened," Merlin sighed. He tilted his head back to see if Gwen was coming. "I was decorating the display case and all of a sudden I fell over in pain."
Arthur touched a hand to Merlin's arm. Merlin looked down past his feet to see if anyone was in the bedding department.
"What were you doing?" Arthur asked.
Merlin looked back at him. "I told you. I was decorating."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Yes, I know that, but were you lifting? Did you use the proper posture? Did you turn while bending?"
Merlin made a big show of rolling his eyes, not wanting to admit to Arthur that everything started with him grabbing a faux miniature tree.
"Does any of that really matter?"
Arthur opened his mouth and then seem to give it a second thought. "No, I suppose it doesn't." His hand moved down to grasp Merlin's hand, their fingers falling naturally into an interlocking pattern. "We should get you to a doctor."
"No one is open now."
"We can take you to hospital."
"I'm not going to the hospital," Merlin protested.
A frown settled on Arthur's brow. "Merlin, it sounds like you've had a serious injury."
Merlin countered with his own frown. "Arthur, I am not going to the hospital."
"Fine," Arthur said, sounding anything but fine. His hand in Merlin's remained gentle and grounding. "But we should at least get you home so you can rest until we get you to a doctor tomorrow."
"Fine," Merlin agreed.
Arthur nodded with a sense of finality. "Good. Now, do you need help getting up?"
Merlin sighed, remembering his previous attempt. "I'm afraid I do."
They briefly discussed what would be the best and least painful way to get Merlin on his feet. Going straight up was definitely out of the question so Merlin rolled onto his side. From there, Arthur helped as he pushed up on one arm, trying to move his body without engaging any of his back muscles. It was nearly impossible but the very slow and careful pace they moved at helped minimize the amount of pain Merlin felt.
Thankfully, Gwen returned with Gwaine just as Merlin was trying to transition from sitting to standing. Gwaine and Arthur each held a hand under one of Merlin's arms, doing most of the work to lift Merlin to an upright position.
Merlin let out a hard breath. "I think I'm okay for now."
Gwaine peered around Merlin to look at Arthur. "You're not sending him back to work, are you, Princess?"
"Of course not," Arthur said, glaring at Gwaine for both the insinuation and the nickname. "Merlin's sustained an injury. He needs to go home and rest and I'm going to see to it that he does."
Gwaine cocked an intrigued brow, his gaze shifting from Arthur to Merlin.
"Here are your things, Merlin," Gwen said, giving Merlin an excuse to look away from Gwaine. She handed Merlin his coat and keys. "Your phone is in the left pocket."
"Thank you, Gwen." Merlin leaned towards her to give her a hug. "I'm sorry to leave you here by yourself."
"I'll be fine," she said with a smile. "The decorations won't take long and Freya will be here in the morning. Take care of yourself. You need to rest."
"He will," Arthur said with far too much assurance. "I'll see to it."
Gwen paused in a similar manner, her eyes more subtle as she glanced from Merlin to Arthur.
"I really appreciate your help," Merlin said a little too loudly. "I'll be in touch! Arthur, could you help me to the bus stop?"
Arthur scoffed, also a little too loudly. "You're in no shape to take the bus, Merlin. We'll take my car."
"Fine," Merlin said, wanting to leave before they aroused any more suspicion.
"Good. See how much easier things are when you listen to me?"
Merlin laid down in his bed an hour and a half later despite living only twenty minutes away from the store by bus.
He wasn't in pain but he wasn't exactly comfortable either.
Per Arthur's (and his personal trainer's) instructions, Merlin was lying on his back with his knees slightly bent by the pillow positioned under his legs. His arms lay by his sides in a way that felt too formal but stretching them out in other directions had not been advised. Merlin was the type who much preferred to sleep on his side, curled up with a pillow, but this was supposedly best for his back right now.
Merlin tried to find a compromise, letting his legs bow out as they had at the store.
"I've called to make an appointment for you to see a doctor tomorrow," Arthur said, walking into the bedroom with a tray, sounding like he was already in the middle of a conversation. "Eric said you could rest for a few days and see how you feel but I think it's best to see the doctor just to be safe. The appointment is at ten and I've already called Morgana to tell her that I won't be at the store tomorrow."
"Why not?" Merlin asked, turning his head as Arthur approached the bed.
Arthur stopped short. "Because I'll be here with you."
"Arthur, you really don't have to do that," Merlin said for the hundredth time in the last hour and a half. "I'm home now, I'm in bed. I'll be fine."
"What if you need something you can't reach?" Arthur questioned. He continued his line of questioning before Merlin could answer. "What if you slip and fall in the shower? What if Aithusa knocks something over? No," he said, shaking his head, "I'm going to stay here with you."
"For how long?"
"Until I know that you can safely take care of yourself again."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "So you've invited yourself over for an unspecified amount of time?"
Arthur put the tray down on the bedside table. "It's for your own good, Merlin."
Arthur's sentence was weighed down by so much sarcasm that he couldn't contain his smile. Merlin found the inability to control one's expression contagious; he smiled as Arthur offered him a glass of water with a straw bent just so that he wouldn't have to lift his head. Arthur nodded as Merlin drank, settling in next to him, gently running his fingers through Merlin's hair.
Merlin glanced up at him. "Arthur?"
"I really appreciate everything that you've done for me today..."
Arthur's hand stopped moving. "I can already hear the 'but.' Go on, Merlin."
"But did you have to say those things in front of Gwen and Gwaine?"
"Merlin will get lots of rest," Merlin said, puffing his chest out and doing his best Arthur impression. "I'll see to it."
Arthur moved the glass out of the way so he could give Merlin a light shove. It was playful but cautious.
"I don't sound like that," Arthur grumbled.
"I thought the resemblance was uncanny," Merlin grinned.
The corner of Arthur's smile gave him away as he rolled his eyes. His hand came back to Merlin's hair.
"What was wrong with what I said?"
Merlin's gaze faltered. "It... made it sound like we're together."
"We are together," Arthur said, sounding only slightly confused. "You said you told both of them. I thought they knew."
Merlin shrugged. "They do know."
"Then what did I do wrong?"
"You didn't do anything wrong."
"Then what are we talking about?"
"It's just..." Merlin sighed. He played with the edge of the duvet as he tried to collect his thoughts. "Gwen and Gwaine... they know about us, and I'm happy they know but I'm still not ready for everyone at the store to know. Not yet, now right now. And you saying those things while we're at work, even to Gwen and Gwaine, it just feels too risky. Does that make sense?"
Merlin held his breath waiting for Arthur to respond.
"Not entirely," he said, his smile softening an answer Merlin didn't expect. "But I do think I see your point. I'm sorry if I crossed a line today."
"It's okay," Merlin said, offering his own smile. He reached out, encouraging Arthur to move closer to him. "You more than made up for it with everything else you did today."
Arthur carded his hand through Merlin's hair. "I really am going to see to it that you rest. Injuring your back can be the start of repeated injury if you don't take care of it correctly."
"I know. I was listening to Eric's instructions."
Arthur looked skeptical. "Were you? Because it looked like you were sleeping."
Merlin turned his face into Arthur's side. "I hurt my back today. I need rest."
"That you do, Merlin. Now go to sleep."
Arthur turned off the bedside light and moved down under the duvet. He turned towards Merlin, curling up to Merlin's overly stiff form.
"I can't sleep like this," Merlin said in the dark."
"You can and you will," Arthur said, punctuating his sentence with a kiss.
And it turned out he could - as long as Arthur was there beside him.