Summary: Arthur comes home to the tiny town of Ealdor for the holidays, with every intention of telling Merlin how he feels. Things don't exactly go according to plan, but maybe that's because he didn't have a plan to begin with.
Word Count: 4,039
Author's Notes: Happy Holidays, friend! First of all let me tell you how much fun I had writing this--so thank you for the great prompt! It made me pretty glad to be doing another gift, in all honesty. But yeah, I really hope you like this. I tried to include as many of your likes as I could, so I really hope it turned out okay. Enjoy! Quick thanks to rottencreampuff for the wonderful beta <3
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.
The soft crunch of snow and gravel underneath the car tires does little for Arthur's nerves, only signaling further that he's here, in Ealdor, the wayward, tiny, everyone knows everyone town that isn't on any map because it's so small.
His radio drums a quiet tune of a Christmas carol he doesn't know, but it definitely sounds familiar. Where he's heard it, he doesn't remember, but he assumes that it's thanks to Morgana.
Or maybe it was Merlin, he thinks, quelling the warm burst of affection he feels at the thought.
Arthur grips the steering wheel a little tighter, sucking in a breath. God, the heat in the car is suffocating him. He turns the heating unit off, and rolls down the window just a fraction, the cold December air whooshing in and with it, bringing relief to him.
He doesn't know what he's doing here. He doesn't know why he thought it was a good idea to come to Ealdor, or why he thought that Christmas was a good time to come and see the idiot he so hopelessly loved, instead of being at home in his flat, wallowing in his own self-pity.
Truth be told, Arthur hadn't been back to Ealdor in ten years, since he was seventeen. It's his home, the little place where he grew up. Or, rather, it was until his Father whisked him away to some big city where, as a teenager, he both adored and loathed it.
But mostly, he loathed it. For in the city, there was no best friend, no warm smiles every morning before school, no splitting bagels and sharing cups of coffee (because that's what best friends did, wasn't it?). There was no going over to each other's houses whenever they felt like it, there was no sharing of a mother (because he didn't have one), and mostly, mostly, mostly, there was no Merlin.
If he was asked, Arthur couldn't tell say when he first fell in love with Merlin. But he did know that the day his Father announced the move was the day he realized that he never wanted to leave Merlin. He had quite honestly been devastated by it, as was Merlin. He had implored his father to let him stay, that Hunith wouldn't mind taking care of him, that he was just about done with high school, why couldn't he stay? But even being the son of the mighty Pendragon gave him little say in the matter, and before he knew it his bags were packed and he was gone, just like that, in a snap of his fingers.
It had been too painful to try and keep in contact since then. Truth be told, he hasn't even told Merlin he would be here. He doesn't even know if Merlin is here. He could be with his significant other for the holidays. He might not even be with Hunith (but Arthur can't see why he wouldn't be.)
So in the end, Arthur swallows his nerves and finds the familiar, cozy house standing tall and proud as it ever was. It holds the everlasting warmth, Christmas lights illuminating the interior as well as the exterior. He parks the car in the snow covered driveway, resting inside of the car for but a moment. He rolls the window up and rests his head on the steering wheel, trying to talk himself into going inside.
After a beat of being extremely convincing, he opens the door. He lets out a sigh, and locks his car up, pocketing the keys. Imbuing himself with the courage he knows he possesses, he trudges through the snow cautiously to the door, letting gloved fingers trace the familiar etchings on the wood, the dragon symbol they'd carved together as boys, before he knocks his old tune; three knocks, with an extra tap.
Arthur smiles fondly at the memory. That was his and Merlin's way of letting the other know who was at the door. It had been their secret code for years when they played game, or sneaked over to one another's house in the dead of night. He shifts from one foot to the other, waiting for an answer, and he's about to knock again when the door opens, revealing the kind face of Hunith. Her eyes widen in surprise, but a smile blooms on her face.
“Arthur,” she breathes, quietly, and he wants to laugh at the affection in her tone, the way she says his name as if he's her own son. “My boy, what a delight it is to see you.”
“And you,” Arthur replies, enveloping her in a hug. She kisses his cheek, and he does the same in return. “You're well, I hope?”
“Indeed,” Hunith says to him, ushering him inside of the house. He steps inside, shaking off the chill of the outdoors. “I trust you are, too?”
“About as well as one could expect,” he grins, and she laughs, shaking her head. Then, tentative, he asks, “Is Merlin--?”
Just then, the sound of pots clattering to the floor echoes from the kitchen. Arthur pauses, and Hunith gives him a knowing look, before Merlin emerges from the doorway, wearing an apron and covered in flour, practically yelling, “Mum, where did you put--?”
He looks up and his words stop dead in his throat, eyes locking with Arthur's. They're the same, startling shade of blue he remembers, vivid and so full of life that every time, it always takes his breath away. Merlin closes his mouth, bringing his hand up to try and wipe some of the flour off of his face (it doesn't work).
Merlin visibly swallows, and whispers, so lowly Arthur almost doesn't hear him. “Arthur?”
Arthur offers another, tentative smile, and nods. He clears his throat. “It's good to see you, Em. You got taller.”
Which, in all honesty, is the last thing he noticed about him. Merlin has clearly grown into himself all these years. He's taller, yes, but the awkwardness of his limbs has filled out, and instead of gangly, Arthur instead chooses the word lean, because that's what he appears as, now. Under the guise of scrawny physique, Arthur can clearly tell the boy (man, he reminds himself. Merlin's more of a man, now. We both are,) has put on some muscle. His hair's just a bit longer than Arthur remembers, curling just slightly over his ears, mussed up from the work in the kitchen he's probably doing.
Merlin laughs, though it sounds somewhere crossed between a choke and a hysteria giggle. Arthur can't help but notice how tears seem to well up in his eyes as he crosses the distance between them, practically bounding across the floor before he throws his arms around him.
Arthur feels like the air in his lungs has left him, but he envelopes him in a hug just the same. Merlin buries his face in the crook of his neck, grasping the fabric of his coat tightly between his fingers. “God, I missed you. It's so good to see you, Art.”
His voice cracks slightly on the nickname, but Arthur just holds him closer, relishing in the feeling of having Merlin in his arms, of knowing that he's really here, that he's really seeing his best friend again, that he's not dreaming. He doesn't think he's ever wanted to kiss him more than he's ever wanted to right now, but he holds himself back.
Merlin pulls away and wipes at the corner of his eye, before slapping him hard on the arm. Arthur yelps, rubbing at the spot. He scowls, “What was that for?”
“For ditching me ten years ago and not even bothering to send me a card!” Merlin huffs, his brows knitting together in anger. “Fuck, Arthur, would it have killed you to write to me? Give me a call? Say that you were okay? I spent the last ten years thinking I did something wrong, wondering if you hated me.”
“No, it's not like that,” Arthur sighs. “It's not like that, Em. Really. It's just, I couldn't think about you and know that I couldn't see you--”
“We could've made it work,” Merlin says quietly, meeting his gaze. He holds it, for a brief second, before breaking it. Merlin's shoulders slump. “I missed you. So much. You have no idea. Did our friendship really mean so little? So little that you wouldn't fight for it?”
“Merlin--” Arthur begins again, but Hunith interrupts, clearly sensing the long, circular debate this conversation was going to take.
She exchanges a look between them, before saying, “This is neither the time nor the place for this conversation. It's Christmas, so we'd best get ready for it, shall we? What were you asking me about, dear?”
Merlin sets his lips into a thin line, before turning to her. “I wanted to know where the cupcake pan was. I can't find it in there.”
Hunith pats him gently on the shoulder and steers him back towards the kitchen. “Then let's go find it, shall we?”
She looks back at Arthur with a softened expression. “You just make yourself at home, Arthur. Guest room's open for you, as it always has been.”
Arthur feels warmth bloom in his stomach at the thought. It never failed that whenever he'd gotten into fights with his Father, he'd always come to Merlin's house, and the guest room would be waiting for him. When he was younger, he thought of it as his room, typically. To know that, after all this time, it could still be considered his, makes him smile, even if it's little to smile about.
He walks up the stairs and into the tiny room, the familiar smell of the linens and home filling him with an odd sensation of satisfaction. As if feeding the inner child within him, the child who missed this room more than his own father, he falls backwards onto the bed, letting the creaking fill his ears, feel the bounce of the springs below his back.
Despite himself, Arthur chuckles, the sound rich in his throat. He really does feel like a kid again, and it feels good.
He stands up and shucks off his coat, draping it over the corner of the bed. Taking off his shoes, he sets them at the foot of the bed, before laying back down again. The bed is smaller than he remembers, but this is, of course, because he's grown. But nonetheless, it isn't too small for him, and even if it was, Arthur doesn't think he'd care.
Arthur lays there for a while longer, until another loud crash from the kitchen spurs him into rousing from his spot. Trotting back down the stairs, he sweeps into the kitchen, looking around at the array of experiments.
“Fuck!” Merlin swears, and Arthur watches him with mild amusement as he sticks his finger into his mouth, clearly evidence that he's burnt it.
Hunith just shakes her head, smiling lightly at her son's antics. She looks over and smiles at him, raising her brow in a way that says, Merlin's a wonder, isn't he?
Merlin takes this moment to look up too, and for a second his eyes light up, before it fades. He looks away, and Arthur can't help but feel the twist of a knife in his chest.
“Anything I can do to help?” Arthur asks, just because he doesn't want to wallow in his ridiculous feelings of 'Merlin is angry at me'. (Why wouldn't he be?)
“Nothing in particular, dear,” Hunith tells him. “We're just about done here in the kitchen. Merlin just wanted to try something, and, well,” she gestures to the mess on the floor, which must've been what Merlin dropped and how he burned himself. “We see how that turned out. So, we're just going to clean up and settle in. You can wait in the living room.”
Resigning himself to this, Arthur nods and leaves the kitchen (most certainly not in a hurry), before settling onto the couch in the living room. The decor is nearly the same as it always was, familiar, pale peaching paint lining the walls, and the rumble of the fireplace crackling low in the room, like background noise. The rickety lamp is still in the corner, and the coffee table is still the same, worn shade of brown, numerous carvings on the wooden legs from his and Merlin's childhood escapades.
He leans back and sighs, the influx of memories weighing heavy on his bones. He closes his eyes, listening to the same, household melodies of his childhood for what seems like an eternity. Mind drifting in and out of consciousness, he realizes with startling clarity just how much he's missed all of this.
It isn't long, however, until Hunith gently shakes him by the shoulder that he realizes he actually dozed off. He opens his eyes and jumps up, and Hunith laughs softly at the way he blushes, just slightly, mumbling a soft apology.
“Come now, no need for that,” she tells him plainly, gesturing to the kitchen. “Let's eat, shall we? Merlin's finally done ruining my kitchen.”
She says it with an exasperated eye-roll, but her smile tells him there's no heat behind it. Arthur laughs quietly, despite himself, knowing that Hunith doesn't have any ill feelings for Merlin for a second. She loves Merlin with all her heart, her precious son and joy.
It's moments like these where he wishes he had his own mother, growing up. But then he remembers Hunith's been the mother he's always needed, and he regrets the thought instantly.
But nevertheless, they walk back into the dining room, where Merlin is setting three placements instead of two, causing Arthur to have the little bit of hope that Merlin won't be too angry at him. After all, he didn't purposely forget a plate for him.
Once he's done, Merlin takes a seat, gesturing for the others to sit, as well. Because Arthur feels inclined to, he pulls out Hunith's chair, and she laughs, quietly, before taking a seat. He takes his own seat a moment later, directly across from Merlin.
Merlin stares at him, his face betraying none of his emotions for once. After a quiet prayer amongst them, they begin to eat the wide spread of food on the table, too much for simply Merlin and Hunith, Arthur thinks.
“So,” Hunith says, breaking the awkward tension between them. “Arthur. It's so lovely to see you again, after all this time. Are you back in town for long?”
Arthur opens his mouth to answer, but stops short when he sees Merlin idly poking his food around his place. It's a nervous habit of his, where he'll not eat when he feels apprehensive or something. Arthur can't help but feel the low, burning sting of regret in his stomach.
He clears his throat. “Er, yes. Well, no. I mean, it's...I wanted to come and visit, you see. And I figured that the holidays would be as good a time as any, really. I do hope I'm not imposing on anything.”
“Of course not, dear! We're always happy to have you, aren't we, Merlin?”
Merlin huffs out a small noise, meeting his eyes for once. He offers a smile, but it's tentative and a little forced, it seems. Arthur breaks the gaze for him, pained at how Merlin now has to force smiles for him.
“Well, it's good to be home, at the very least,” Arthur says, resigned. “I've forgotten how much I love this little town.”
The conversation continues like that, back and forth, mostly Hunith and Arthur talking with Merlin occasionally quipping a response back. He never spoke directly to Arthur, but there were never any scathing remarks, so Arthur counted that as a small victory.
When dinner is done, Arthur immediately offers to clean up. “I'm the one who came unannounced, after all,” he reasons.
But Hunith shakes her head, shooing her out of the kitchen. “No, no, my boy. Go on and spend some time with Merlin. I'm sure you two are dying to catch up,” she gives him a stern look, one leaving no room for argument.
Finally, he sighs, and goes out into the living room, where he finds Merlin sitting cross-legged in front of the fireplace, staring into it. From where he's standing, Merlin's eyes look gold from the fire light.
Tentative, he goes over, and sits next to him on the patterned rug. The orange glow warms his skin, but Merlin moves over and farther away, just a bit. Arthur feels guilty instantly, thinking that Merlin doesn't even want him near him, but Merlin surprises him by patting the spot.
“It's warmer if you sit directly in front of it,” he tells him quietly, and Arthur nods, before shifting into the now vacant space.
Merlin doesn't talk to him after that, though after a temporary pause, he unfolds his legs and instead curls them to his chest, resting his chin on his knees. Arthur just sits cross-legged as Merlin was before him, stiff and feeling slightly awkward about the whole thing. He watches Merlin from the corner of his eye, but he doesn't seem to notice.
“I spent the last ten years of my life wondering if I did something wrong,” Merlin mumbles, after a moment, repeating his earlier words. He's still gazing into the fire. “I wondered every day if you hated me. If I did something to scare you away. If you had just been playing me this entire time. If I was a joke to you.”
“Merlin--” Arthur starts, but Merlin just sighs, weariness evident in his voice.
“I just...don't understand it,” he says, shaking his head. “I can't understand why it would be so hard. I can't understand it, no matter how long I've had to think about it. I can't understand you, for thinking that not writing to me, not calling me, not contacting me at all for the last ten years would give me some sense of peace.”
Arthur drops his eyes, tracing the patterns on the rug with his fingers. “I couldn't go through with writing you all the time, every day, knowing that I couldn't see you. Knowing that I couldn't be with you. It was selfish and cowardly, but God, Em, I didn't want to leave you. I swear it.”
“It was selfish and cowardly,” Merlin hisses bitterly, turning to look at him. His gaze burns into Arthur's head, so he turns to meet the fierce look. “Didn't you think about me once? Didn't you think of how I would feel? Do you think it was any easier for me to see you go? But you writing me—calling me—it would've been something. It would've been something, and you couldn't even do that.”
“I know,” Arthur feels a wave of tiredness take him over, as if all the fight in him has just left. “I know, Merlin.”
“No, I don't think you do,” Merlin grimaces, narrowing his gaze. “I don't think you understand what the hell that did to me. You were my best friend, Arthur. I thought I could count on you when I couldn't count on anyone else. I always thought you'd be there for me, and you weren't. You weren't ever there when I needed you to be. And all because you couldn't handle a little bit of distance between us--”
“That's not it!” Arthur shouts, his voice rising suddenly. “That's not--”
Merlin shoots to his feet, suddenly furious. “Then what is it! What is it, Arthur? Tell me! Tell me why you let me think like this, for all these years! Tell me why you couldn't talk to me, why you couldn't even send me a postcard, telling me you didn't want to talk anymore. Why couldn't you give me a little bit of closure, just a tiny bit of something that would make me stop hoping every fucking year I'd get a call from you! And then suddenly you are here, and I don't know what the hell to do! You can't just show up after ten years and tell me you're sorry—it doesn't work like that! So tell me what you want, Arthur, tell me what the hell it is that scared you so much you had to stop--”
“I stopped talking to you because I'm in love with you!” Arthur blurts out, on his feet in seconds, face flushing. Realizing what he's just said, he softens, and repeats, “I'm in love with you. I've always...I've always been in love with you.”
He breathes, and then slowly reaches out, taking Merlin's hand in a loose grip, in case Merlin wants to pull away. But Merlin is silent, staring at him in a mixture of bewilderment and confusion.
“I couldn't...I couldn't write to you every day, couldn't call you, couldn't send you anything every day, knowing that...knowing that I wouldn't be with you. Knowing that I wouldn't hear your laugh, and see your smile. God, Merlin. God, Merlin. It was too fucking painful. It was too painful day after day, knowing that we wouldn't be together like we always were. I'm sorry, I'm sorry I put you through all of that, but it hurt me too, okay? Buggering fuck, Merlin, it wasn't just you suffering--”
Arthur's words are cut off Merlin pressing their lips together, Merlin's hand moving to yank Arthur by the collar forward. With one hand fisted in the fabric of his shirt, the other hand snakes around his neck, pulling him closer.
It takes him a grand total of five seconds (Arthur counted) to realize that Merlin is kissing him. Then his brain processes it; Merlin is kissing him. So what else can Arthur do but kiss back? Responding favorably, he wraps his arms around Merlin's waist, tugging him closer until their bodies are fitting together, slotting into place as if they're meant to be together.
Slowly, pulling away, Merlin breathes, loosening his hold on Arthur's shirt in favor of cupping his face with both hands. Arthur just tightens his grip on his hips, trying to convey all of the love and confusion and apprehension he's ever felt for him.
“Prat,” Merlin whispers finally, breaking out into a beautifully bright grin. “If you had told me that ages ago, we could've been doing this much sooner, sod the distance.”
“I...I thought I was...” Arthur curses how hesitant he seems. He's a Pendragon, for God's sake, he doesn't get nervous--
“You thought you were alone?” Merlin rolls his eyes dramatically. “Arthur, I've been in love with you since I was thirteen. It's always been you. No one else.”
“No one, after all this time?” Arthur can't believe it. Merlin's always been at his best with other people. The thought of him being single all this time is hard for Arthur to wrap his mind around.
Merlin just shrugs, dropping his hands from his face. He peels Arthur's fingers one by one from his waist to lace their fingers together. “No one was ever you.”
He says it in such earnest, that Arthur can't not believe him. He chuckles softly, half relieved, half overwhelmed with it. Seeking his lips once more, he kisses him again, and again, relishing in the fact that he can.
“I came here to tell you I love you,” Arthur whispers, a little breathless. “And now I don't ever want to leave you again.”
“Then don't,” Merlin says firmly, as if it's honestly that easy. “We'll make it work. We'll make this...us, we'll make it work.”
It's such a heartfelt promise that Arthur believes him. Merlin puts his head on Arthur's shoulder, resting it there, as if it belongs there.
“I'm still mad at you,” he says, after a beat. “Don't think that I'm not just because you know I love you now.”
“I'll make it up to you,” Arthur replies, pressing another kiss to his head. “You have my word.”
Merlin hums, and putting his arms around him again, Arthur holds him close. With the crackling of the fire still a gentle melody in the room, he sways to its tune, content with feeling whole again.