Summary: When he learns why Merlin keeps volunteering to play Santa for charity, Arthur reveals his true, generous self— and his heart.
Word Count: 3.5K
Author's Notes: Dear Amarie_authiel, this fic gives you Arthur/Merlin Christmas-time fluff, romance and humour, mixed with a little wistfulness and bonus reincarnation. Wishing you and the entire community continued happy holidays!
A sincere thank you goes to my knowledgeable beta, gwylliondream.
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.
Someone Old, Something New
Arthur turned around with a frown as someone opened his office door without knocking first.
Santa Claus stepped into the room. Long white hair and beard, bright red outfit and a big belly, black boots.
“Oh, not again!” Arthur exclaimed, just as Santa said, “Arthur, I'm....”
They both paused, studying each other for a moment.
“Well?” Arthur said, voice gruff.
“I volunteered as Santa for the company kindergarten's Holidays celebration. I told you ages ago, and you approved my absence.”
Eyes were turning their way, people in the office landscape outside the glass walls watching the two of them with interest. Some were grinning. Arthur signalled for Santa to close the door.
“How many times are you planning to volunteer as Santa this December, exactly? This is getting ridiculous, Merlin. You're my PA, not some North Pole elf— though you do fit that part on those rare occasions lately when you dress as yourself. I need you here. The Essetir bid is in its final stages.”
Merlin's strangely realistic old-man face looked neither apologetic nor embarrassed. If anything, he radiated defiance. “You don't really want to deprive your own employees' children of a little holiday cheer, do you? And anyway, all the other Santa jobs I've volunteered for have been in the evening or late afternoon, I've hardly missed any work hours. Considering the amount of overtime I've put in this year, I think it's only fair that—”
“Yes, yes, blah blah,” Arthur cut him off, impatient. “I haven't got time for this. Who will do the QA on the bid if you're not here?”
“I've arranged for Gwaine to take over for me today.”
“Gwaine!” The man was ridiculously handsome, and notoriously disrespectful, almost as bad as Merlin himself.
“Gwaine isn't able to handle this,” Arthur blurted, annoyed.
“You know he'll manage well enough, Arthur. Don't be such a mean old Grinch,” Merlin responded, sounding increasingly grouchy himself.
Looking up, Arthur saw Gwaine approaching the office, taking up position just outside and looking in. Flipping his luxurious hair out of his eyes, Gwaine studied the two of them with impertinent curiosity, probably aware that he was likely to be the current bone of contention between them.
“I have to go,” Merlin said, hiking the bulk of his drooping belly up, and turning to leave. “Good luck finishing the bid. You'll be fine.”
Arthur spluttered, but Merlin paid him no further mind, and opened the door. Gwaine grinned at him before turning in Arthur's direction. “What's the matter, princess? Did Santa just refuse you any special treats for Christmas?”
“Don't call me that!” Arthur roared. Of course, it was his miserable luck that Morgana had to come hurrying by right then, her high heels clicking loudly against the polished floor.
“Your shouting sounds neither royal nor dignified, Arthur,” she smirked, not missing a step. “I wish you would behave in a more professional manner. But I won't dispute your princess title, as long as no-one forgets that I am the queen.”
“Leader of the witch coven, more likely,” Arthur grumbled, his face glum as he watched Morgana disappearing into one of the meeting rooms, and Santa Merlin hurriedly taking himself towards the elevator.
Gwaine meanwhile was already leaning across Arthur's desk, tapping the keyboard briefly and looking at the two screens. “This is the price attachment, yeah?”
“Yes, it is,” Arthur said, missing his Merlin already. Gwaine might be better looking than any Santa's helper had the right to be, but he wasn't the one Arthur wanted by his side in the office – and out of it.
He felt awful for being envious of a group of starry-eyed children waiting to meet Santa, but there it was. Sometimes he had a strange feeling that Merlin had been by his side his whole life, and that was exactly where he belonged. Arthur always wanted Merlin near.
“Ho-ho bloody ho,” he muttered morosely, and turned his mind to the details of the bid documents.
Arthur did not particularly look forward to Christmas. The formal dinner at his father's mansion always was a tense affair for everyone involved, although the presence of Morgana's husband Leon and their little daughter Vivien had softened the mood of the Pendragon family gatherings.
Still, Arthur thought the good thing about Christmas being right around the corner was that Merlin would soon be back to his usual self. His bright smile and his big ears and all his charming and contradictory behaviour would be completely at Arthur's disposal, while the Santa costume and the geriatric mask would be languishing in a closet somewhere, not to be seen again for another year.
The whole staff at Pendragon Ltd. showed his PA a lot of attention, Arthur had noticed. Everyone talked about how great Merlin was, volunteering his Santa services left and right for children in need. He'd even worked his way through the children's wards at Camelot's hospitals! Gwen Smith, Morgana's PA, went all starry-eyed with admiration as soon as Merlin dressed up in his stupid Santa outfit. She was engaged to a man fighting Ebola for Doctors Without Borders, and really should be more blasé about humanitarian acts of goodness, in Arthur's opinion.
No-one sent Arthur that kind of approving glance, even though he sponsored a number of charities with quite substantial amounts. Amounts that he had to earn, which meant he unfortunately had no time for volunteer work himself. But then, people in need of assistance would probably much rather see a cheerful Merlin showing up anyway, Arthur reasoned.
Christmas Eve was just a few days away, and Santa Merlin was once more on his way out of the office door. It was late in the day, and an unseasonable rain-storm was doing its best to flood the City of Camelot and to crush any lingering dreams filled with snow, jingle bells, and red-nosed reindeer. The heavy clouds made the winter darkness even murkier, and the sky outside Arthur's office window was pitch black.
“Merlin, wait,” Arthur heard himself calling, to his own surprise. “Where is it you're going, exactly? Have you seen the weather? Let me drive you there!”
Merlin's wrinkled face registered surprise. He removed his red Santa cap for a moment and scratched his white-haired head. “Do you really mean that? That would be brilliant! I'm going across town to the Ealdor Estates Community Centre. They're having a children's party.”
“Of course I mean it,” Arthur said, rising from behind his pristine desk to go get his coat. “You'd drown out there, or possibly just drift away with that obscene fake tummy of yours serving as life buoy. Let me be your knight in shining armour, just this once.”
Merlin rewarded him with one of those glorious, bright smiles that not even the old-man make-up and the scraggly white beard could diminish.
Arthur dropped Merlin off at their destination, not without some difficulties in getting Merlin's huge Santa bulk out of the car and into the pouring rain. He watched for a moment as Merlin joined the eager children and their parents hurrying through the downpour towards the welcoming lights of the Community Centre.
There was no indication that the rain would let up. Arthur wondered how Merlin meant to get home when the party was over. Was the dollophead planning to catch a bus?
Impulsively, Arthur parked the car round the back, and pulled out his iPhone. He would get a bit of work done, and pick Merlin up again once his Santa duties were at an end. After all, it made perfect business sense for him to see Merlin home safely. Arthur needed his PA. In this weather Merlin probably would catch a horrible cold. If left to fend for himself, he'd likely be unable to come to work. He might suffer, and possibly even die!
Arthur was soon lost in terse e-mails and a bit of last-minute online gift shopping while the relentless rain continued drumming on the roof and windscreen of his car. Straining his eyes to read the text on the small screen in his hand, Arthur completely lost his sense of time and didn't realize the party was over until people started running past and banging car doors in their rush to enter the vehicles surrounding his.
He needed to drive to the front to pick Merlin up, but there was quite a jam getting everyone's cars out of the parking lot in the darkness.
When Arthur rounded the corner at last, the Centre was closed, and there was no Merlin in sight.
Cursing himself for a fool, Arthur drove down the road, looking for his lost Santa along the way.
And there he finally was, by the bus stop. Arthur saw a tall shape, red outfit dangling heavily around his lean frame, a big burlap sack on his back. With his hat drooping, his long hair and beard soaking wet, and without the usual big belly, Merlin looked a rather miserable Santa.
With a grin of relief, Arthur stopped the car and opened the passenger side door. “Get in, get in!”
All that rain-drenched and grumpy Santa make-up couldn't hide the surprise and joy on Merlin's face. He stuffed his voluminous sack in the back of the car, muttering “It's my belly,” and then got in next to Arthur.
“Oh, oh, oww!” Merlin moaned, settling into the seat. “This awful weather makes all my joints ache!”
Arthur glanced at him, shaking his head. “You're dripping wet. You'll ruin that leather seat.”
“Said the man who actually waited for me to save me from the rain,” Merlin noted, sending Arthur another one of his blinding smiles.
There was an odd fluttering sensation inside Arthur, and his heart made an involuntary somersault. He frowned, feeling exposed. Taking cover behind businesslike efficiency, he tapped the GPS screen.
“What's your address?” he asked. He had a hard time deciding whether he was relieved or disappointed when it turned out Merlin actually lived in the Ealdor area, just a short drive away.
In the darkness and rain, with the regular flashes of bright light from the steady stream of approaching cars, it was as if they were in a small and intimate world of their own. A humid world.
“You can remove the beard and prosthetic mask now,” Arthur said. “Aren't you itching? What sort of glue do you use?”
“Uhm... I bought it in a costume shop. I need to wait till I get home,” Merlin said. At least he started pulling off his black leather gloves.
“Do you dress up as Santa at your own Christmas party as well?” Arthur asked, trying to keep the holiday-themed conversation going. “Where do you celebrate Christmas, exactly? Are there any children in your family?”
“No, there aren't,” Merlin answered. “I only have my mum, you know. We're a very small family. And this year, she's spending the holidays in Madeira with her Horticultural Society and Wildlife Preservation Group."
“What a mouthful of a name!” Arthur said, distracted. It took him a moment to interpret what Merlin was really saying. “So... come Christmas, you'll be alone, Merlin?”
“Yes,” Merlin admitted and looked down, his scraggly beard continuing to drip copiously into his lap. Arthur threw him a glance, and found his PA Santa a rather sad and forlorn sight. He bit his lip.
“I will be alone, but that's entirely fine. I've enjoyed more than my share of happy children and Christmas celebrations anyway,” Merlin added, his voice sincere. “I love how excited the little ones get when Santa appears. They're never spiteful or cynical. They're just honestly delighted. It feels great, contributing to the cheer and the good times. I will never tire of playing Santa and seeing those happy faces.”
Arthur nodded, glancing at the dashboard screen to ensure he was on the right course. Making his mind up swiftly, he turned in the opposite direction and drove on towards the city centre. He wanted some more time alone with Merlin.
Merlin, meanwhile, was looking down, his thoughts still turned inwards. He didn't notice Arthur's sneaky manoeuvre.
“I understand. And being alone on Christmas certainly isn't the end of the world,” Arthur conceded, returning to the topic at hand. “Why, in the old days, when it was just father, Morgana and me, more than once I'd have paid good money to make the two of them disappear. Still... it's not right. I don't want you to be lonely.”
Merlin sat looking out of the window on his side of the car. “It's OK, Arthur. Don't make more of it than I do myself. I'm very far from lonely.”
Arthur was thinking frantically. “I'd like to invite you to join us for the Pendragon family Christmas dinner,” he eventually said, feeling inspired. “I know both Morgana and Leon would enjoy that, and if father minds – well, I'll just tell him we're dating. Heh. Now that should give him something to think about.”
“Don't joke about pretend dating, Arthur,” Merlin said, suddenly annoyed. “Your father wouldn't believe it. For one thing, you dating me would be strictly against company policy. And you're not interested in me like that anyway, are you?”
Arthur opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out.
The lorry in front of them suddenly braked and tried to make a U-turn despite the oncoming traffic. Arthur had to focus on his driving as he managed to swerve out of the way at the last moment. “Whew! That was too close for comfort!”
“I take relationships seriously,” Merlin continued, once the near-collision had been avoided. “I would never go around just pretending to be in love.”
“Fair enough. Neither would I, actually.”
They were approaching the busier parts of town. Traffic had slowed down to a veritable crawl, and now it came to a complete standstill. There was a sea of red brake lights and the sound of sirens up ahead.
“There must have been an accident,” Arthur said. “I'm not surprised, with all the pre-holidays stress and this dreadful weather.”
Merlin finally realized that they weren't anywhere near his flat. ”Arthur, you clotpole! Are you driving to the office on autopilot?”
“Oh. I must be. I'm sorry,” Arthur replied, happy that Merlin provided him with such a good explanation for the unnecessary detour.
Merlin sighed. “Now we'll be stuck here for hours!”
“Didn't they feed their Santa at the Centre? Are you hungry?”
“No, I'm good, but—”
“Don't tell me you'd rather be somewhere else, Merlin? Fogging up my car with your wet rags, in the middle of a traffic jam as a rainstorm rages outside— evening entertainment doesn't get any better than this!”
“Ugh,” Merlin groaned. “I just want to get home, relax, and have a cup of tea.”
“And get out of all that pesky Santa make-up?”
Merlin grimaced. “Yes, that too.”
They sat for a while in silence. The wipers swept back and forth, back and forth, the rain kept coming, and the traffic was not moving.
“Seriously,” Arthur said at length. “Do come to ours for Christmas. Everyone would be happy to see you, and I....”
“I'd be very happy too, Merlin. I like having you around. Haven't you noticed?”
“So that's what you try to communicate when you yell and snark and roll your eyes? You could have fooled me.”
“I can't. I can't! Not unless you're OK with me showing up to your party like this, that is.”
“What, you'd want to show up as Santa?”
“No, Arthur. As an old, old man.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Merlin turned to look Arthur fully in the eyes. “Think, Arthur. Call on your memories. Search your subconscious. Deep down, aren't you aware that you've met me before? This me, the old me, a long time ago?”
“A long time ago? Merlin, you make me worried. What exactly did they serve you at that Community Center? Are you high?”
Merlin sighed. “Look into my eyes, Arthur.”
Arthur looked. He was being pulled in, drawn back in time. Rooms were opening in his mind, space after space filling with castles and forests, knights and bright swords, a beautiful queen at his side – Gwen! He saw Merlin and Morgana, and... and....
“Dragoon the Great!” Arthur exclaimed, his expression registering part awe, part surprise, part horror.
“Yes,” Merlin said. “Do you recall what I once told you, at the very end?”
Arthur fumbled to find the words. “You told me that... that the powerful old sorcerer... and my Merlin... were one and the same, didn't you?” His mind was reeling. He held on to the steering wheel for dear life. Images of that long-ago time, their long-ago lives, were flashing before his eyes. A whole new world had emerged inside Arthur's head.
“Yes,” Merlin said quietly. “At that time, it took strong magic for me to become Dragoon. But after living these many years, waiting and hoping for your return, I am truly old. You might say the joke's on me. Now it takes magic for me to stay young. But I need to be the real me for a certain number of days every year. My magic demands it. It needs rest.”
“So... that Santa thing you do...?”
“It's perfect, don't you see? I can be Dragoon, and make children happy. Everyone just sees Santa, and all is well. And that's why I must stay alone over Christmas, Arthur. I have to remain this old creaky man for the rest of the holidays, or my magic will punish me.”
“I think I must be hallucinating all of this,” Arthur groaned. “Maybe exhaust fumes are clouding our minds? It can't be real.”
“It is real, and you know it. I see in your eyes that you remember.”
Arthur rubbed his forehead. He was developing a headache. “This will take some time getting used to.”
“I know it will. But Arthur...” Merlin leaned in, his rheumy old eyes crinkling, his big smile brightening the darkness of the car's interior. “When we are back at the office over New Year's, there will be no more secrets. Won't that be better?”
Arthur slumped back in the seat, gesturing weakly. “I suppose so.”
There was movement up ahead. The road blockage seemed to be clearing. They'd soon be able to continue the drive.
Arthur made up his mind. It was now or never. “No more secrets, you say? I agree. But there is one final secret between us, and it's time we had the truth out.”
He reached over, taking Merlin's wrinkled hands in his own, and pulling him close so they were almost nose to nose. He looked at the white beard, the wrinkled face, the liver spots and loose folds of skin, and he knew in his heart that what he was going to say had never been more true than now.
“I love you, Merlin.”
“Look into my eyes, Merlin,” Arthur murmured in a strange echo of Merlin himself. “You know it's true. I didn't want to admit it to myself, but I fell in love as soon as you became my PA. And now I realize that I was only picking up where I left you all those years ago. Merlin, I've loved you for centuries.”
“Arthur!” Merlin's lips trembled.
“Your hands are shaking,” Arthur observed, squeezing Merlin's fingers.
“Arthur, I've waited so long... so very long.”
“Shhhhh,” Arthur whispered, closing the remaining small gap between the two of them. Their lips met.
A car horn blared angrily. Startled, they jumped apart.
“It's obviously time to get a move on,” Merlin said, his eyes shimmering with joy. “You know where to go.”
“Yes,” Arthur smiled, pushing down on the accelerator. “I do. And I have a feeling it won't be the last time I take you home.”
“Only a short week, Arthur. Then I'll be young again! Young, fit and flexible.”
“I will count the days and the hours!" Arthur said, grinning in anticipation. "We'll find a way to make this work, Merlin. Company policy be damned, we've been apart long enough. But even while we wait out your days as Dragoon, you'll still remain my one, my only....”
“My personal secret Santa!”
Merlin rolled his eyes and giggled all the way back home.