Title: The First Noel
Summary: Arthur's father and Arthur's husband have never really got on. But it's Christmas, and Christmas is a time for families—no matter how contrary they may be.
Word Count: ~2,500
Author's Notes: Thanks to cd_mods for not only managing this whole exchange, but working with me after some minor technological mishaps so that I could participate!
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 thing was, Arthur's father and Arthur's husband had never really got on. It wasn't even entirely Uther’s fault for being judgmental and unyielding, though he could be both of those things. No, it all started because Merlin was absolute bollocks at first impressions. In fact, he'd been such a clueless, mouthy fresher when he—literally—ran into Arthur in the first week of his second year at university that their eventual nuptials were nothing short of a minor miracle.
If their initial meeting, which had fostered a year and a half of glares and snide remarks before they finally got over themselves and started shagging ridiculously often, was unfortunate, then the first contact between Merlin Emrys and Uther Pendragon could rightly be classified as a disaster. It had taken place in Arthur's final year, post- (well, mid-, really) one of the aforementioned shags, when Uther had dropped by unannounced and Merlin, thinking Arthur's neighbor was once again preparing a homophobic rant disguised as a complaint about the noise, had answered the door completely nude and declared, “Yes, Val, I’m still wildly enthusiastic about sodomy,” before registering that it wasn't Valiant at the door. It had taken another moment before he'd recognized their guest from Arthur's family photos.
“Apparently,” Uther had replied coldly. Uther, to whom Arthur had not yet come out. Uther, whom Arthur had always described as strict and traditional and conservative. Uther, who had stared at Merlin like he was the most worthless sort of refuse until he'd scurried off to find Arthur and then spent the next two days hiding in the flat’s only bathroom. Arthur brought him cereal and toasted cheese sandwiches, because Arthur was an amazing boyfriend.
In all, not the most auspicious start to the familial relationship they had come to share, and thus the reason Merlin was in the worst type of his manic moods, frantic and defensive and fatalistic. He'd spent three days cleaning and decorating their new house and muttered the entire time about Uther's unreasonable standards.
“Ring him and cancel!” he demanded for the ninth time, after the second attempt at pudding came out just as burnt as the first, and the goose was dry on one side and undercooked on the other in a way that no one but Merlin could manage, and Morgana had called to say her flight from the Continent had been grounded for six hours due to mechanical issues.
“No, Merlin, we're not cancelling Christmas dinner,” Arthur sighed, also for the ninth time. He came up behind Merlin and gently pulled him away from the smoking baking tray. Merlin turned in his arms, burying his flushed face against Arthur's shoulder, and let out a long, strangled noise of frustration.
“Tell me again why I thought this was a good idea?” he asked Arthur's shirt.
“Because you wanted to show off how disgustingly happy and domestic we are, instead of ‘suffering through another interminable thing’ with all my ‘stuffy, self-important relatives,’” Arthur reminded him. “My father will be here in twenty minutes, and we'll all sit down and eat the lovely meal you made for us. Then the survivors, if there are any, can fight over opening the crackers.”
Merlin huffed in offense and gave his husband a halfhearted punch in the arm. “You're a prat,” he complained, but Arthur could hear the laughter hiding in his sullen tone.
“Absolutely,” Arthur agreed with warm, smug affection. “But you knew that before our first date, so you must be an idiot.”
Merlin snorted, raising his face to peck Arthur on the lips with a cheeky smirk. “Says you. I snagged a bloke with money and looks, while you got the world's worst trophy husband, all big ears and terrible cooking. Who's the real idiot here, hm?”
“Mmm, the ears are a thing, but I like them.” He nipped at the shell of one of them, whispering, “I particularly like how red they get when I—”
A sharp rap at the door broke the moment, followed a moment later by the bell chiming like an afterthought. Merlin tensed and Arthur soothed him with a kiss, then sent him back to the stove while ignoring his protests that they weren't legally obligated to answer the door for sixteen more minutes.
“Father,” he greeted.
Uther looked younger than he had just two days before, removed temporarily from the stress and responsibilities of work. His dark red cashmere sweater was undoubtedly just as expensive as any of his stiff button downs, but gentled his usual intimidating demeanor into a slightly less menacing version of stern. “Arthur.”
“Please, come in. Did Morgana reach you?”
Humming vaguely in assent, Uther passed the threshold and grimaced as soon as the acrid smoke lingering in the air assaulted his senses. The extra years were instantly back on his face. “I see the boy is again navigating the line between feeding us and poisoning us,” he said disdainfully and quite loudly enough for his voice to carry into the kitchen. “Any idea which side he's planning to fall on this time?”
“Father!” Arthur snapped. He felt a bit guilty for having said much the same thing himself, despite the difference in intent.
“It's fine, Arthur,” Merlin said as he balanced four heavily piled plates past them from the kitchen to the dining room. He wore the same forced smile he always did in Uther's presence—when he wasn't scowling, anyway. “Your father's just concerned because I married you for your money, and I've played the naive, loving spouse long enough now that no one will suspect me when you die young and leave me all your assets. Entirely unrelated, you should eat lots of Brussels sprouts. Uther, you like those too, right?”
Merlin was gone before he could see Arthur's scowl, so Arthur turned it on his father instead. “Is one day of civility—bloody Christmas!—really so much to ask?”
Uther scowled right back, an expression Arthur knew well from childhood lectures and board meetings. “You may be blind to the boy's faults, Arthur—”
“Merlin. His name is Merlin, and I'm well aware that he's the most ridiculous, daft pillock I've ever met, but he's also kind and clever and he loves me. If you can't love him for that, can't you at least be happy for me?”
Arthur rarely yelled, and his interruption didn't quite reach that level, but it was the angriest he'd been with his father since Uther had tried refusing to speak to Merlin at his own wedding to Arthur five years previously. When he finally had acknowledged Merlin, it had been to correct the use of ‘wedding’ to ‘civil partnership ceremony’ and further scoff at the word ‘husband,’ at which point Morgana had slapped him and Arthur had refused to speak to him for a month; it had made the first two weeks back at work after his honeymoon excruciatingly awkward.
Perhaps Uther recalled the same event, because he looked not the slightest bit contrite but allowed a terse, “Very well,” before striding past his son to the dining room.
They all sat stiffly, Arthur at the head of the table, Merlin to his right, and Uther to his left. Arthur had barely begun to carve the goose, aiming for the portions closest to properly cooked, when Merlin's mobile let out a shrieking trill that made him flinch and slice halfway through the mostly raw breast. Uther glared at the offensive noise, then glared harder as Merlin squirmed the phone from his pocket. He was about to protest when Merlin had the audacity to put the phone to his ear, but Merlin flapped a hand at him so dismissively that Uther was stunned into silence.
“Freya, hello! How—” The grin Merlin had answered with vanished as he demanded, “What? No, she's not due for two more months!”
In the silence as Merlin listened, Arthur heard a male voice on the other end of the line speaking rapidly but calmly, though he couldn't make out the words.
“Yeah,” Merlin said, standing on visibly shaky legs and looking at Arthur with a lost expression, “yeah, we're on the way.”
Arthur, having already discarded his utensils, took the darkened phone from Merlin's unresisting hand and asked, “Is Freya all right?”
“She's started labor,” Merlin answered, still sounding small and scared. “Preterm. She's at the hospital, told them to call us. We need to—Arthur, it's too early!” he interrupted himself, breath hitching.
“We'll go, come on. It'll be okay. Father—” Arthur turned to Uther, whose face hovered between thunderous rage and confusion. “I'm sorry to rush off, but we need to...”
Arthur trailed off in his struggle to produce an excuse, and went with the truth: “Our son is being born.”
After a moment of astonished staring, Uther's jaw set with determination and he, too, stood up from the table. “I'll drive you,” he said, low and dangerous, “so you may concentrate on telling me just what the hell you mean by that.”
As they didn't have time for an argument, and Arthur internally suspected neither he nor Merlin were in a fit state of mind to drive safely, they agreed.
“We were going to tell you tonight, you and Morgana,” was the first thing Arthur said after long minutes of silence in the car. Merlin was on the phone in the back seat, oscillating between pleas and threats towards some poor nurse in an attempt to get updates that Arthur had warned him wouldn't be forthcoming until they arrived in person.
Uther didn't react, so he continued. “We wanted to wait for the assessment to be finalized, in case something went wrong, and that only happened last week. We're adopting a child. A baby. He's not due until the end of February, but, well, you heard.”
Uther processed the information slowly, then asked, “Who are the parents?”
Arthur knew the question he was really asking—would there be any issues with custody down the line—so he answered both. “The mother, Freya, she's young. Barely fifteen. She wants to have some contact with him, birthday parties and Christmas letters and the like, perhaps an honorary title of ‘Auntie.’ We like the idea.
“The father will not be involved.” Uther’s lifted towards his receding hairline, so Arthur emphasized, “Ever.” His father knew him well enough to let it go at that.
By the time they reached the hospital and located Freya, most of the excitement was over. The top half of her bed was inclined and she lay collapsed against it, matted with sweat and looking simultaneously years older and heartbreakingly young. She was listening to a doctor at her bedside, who stopped and looked up when the three men arrived. No one else was in the room, and Arthur could feel the moment Merlin started to panic.
“It's okay,” Freya told them. Her voice was hoarse, but she was smiling. “He's okay.”
The doctor elaborated, after permission from Freya. (“He's their son,” she said, and Arthur’s heart seemed to stop beating.) “There are concerns, as with any preterm birth, but he's remarkably well-developed for thirty-two weeks. He's in the neonatal ICU now, but stable—he just needs support as he finishes that growth that would normally take place in utero.”
“Can we see him?” Merlin's voice wobbled with badly restrained tears, and Arthur knew his wouldn't be any better.
“Of course,” the doctor assured them. “I'll take you up there now, actually, and then I'll need your assistance with the birth certificate. Freya indicated that she wanted you to name him.”
“He's yours,” she said again at their surprise. “My social worker said that you could try to change it when you go to court for the adoption, but that sometimes judges won't allow it. It didn't feel right, taking that chance.”
Merlin clutched Arthur's hand as the doctor led them through corridors and an elevator, Uther silent and thoughtful behind. The NICU was sectioned off by large panels of windows, and the doctor stopped in front of the glass.
“Only one of you is allowed in at a time, I'm afraid. It's a safety and contamination issue. But this is him, here.”
Through the window, they looked down onto the small cot barely a meter away. The infant was small, fragile, with an assortment of small tubes and leads connecting him to the machines and monitors arranged around the distressingly coffin-like plastic incubator sheltering him.
But he was awake, eyes wide and blue, with his tiny hands closing and opening around nothing as he sought out a comforting touch.
Both of Merlin’s own hands pressed against the glass in longing, and the heartbreak etched over his face shook Arthur from his daze.
He said softly, “Merlin, go. It's all right, I'll be right here, and then I'll go in after you, and he'll know we both love him so much.”
“He's perfect,” Merlin whispered. He whirled around to Arthur, panic replacing everything else. “We need to name him! Arthur, he needs a perfect name and we haven't even talked about it!”
Arthur had thought about it, though. Before, when it had all been theoretical and they had so much more time, and then later, trailing through the hallways with Freya's request weighing on him and none of his previous ideas sitting well. “Noel,” he offered. “It's Christmas.”
“Noel Pendragon.” Merlin relaxed, glancing back at their frail but perfect son, and nodded.
The doctor smiled and made a note, then gently guided Merlin inside. Arthur and his father could only follow with their eyes as Merlin scrubbed his hands and donned a thin gown and gloves, then gently lifted the baby from his warm but impersonal habitat.
As they stood side by side at the window, watching Merlin cradle and coo at the tiny bundle in his arms, Arthur heard his father make an odd, throaty noise. He turned slightly, righteousness rising in him as he readied himself to defend his husband against some baseless accusation regarding his fitness as a parent, but paused when he saw Uther's tender expression and the faint sheen sparkling across his eyes in the sterile lighting. He waited.
“Your mother only got to hold you for ten minutes before—” Uther's voice cracked, but Arthur knew what he was trying to say: before her child was ripped from her arms in a panic, before she was rushed to surgery, before the unnoticed postpartum hemorrhage bled away her life. When Uther spoke again, it was a watery whisper: “That's exactly the way she looked at you.”
He finally broke his gaze, turning his face towards Arthur and reaching out. His hand faltered as it neared Arthur's cheek, dropped to grasp his shoulder instead, and Arthur could feel it trembling slightly. “You're going to be so happy,” Uther promised.
They both looked back at the scene in the NICU. As though sensing it, Merlin chose that moment to glance up at last and angle little Noel so they could see his red face, delicate features scrunched up in contented sleep. Arthur lifted his own hand to cover his father's, still resting on his shoulder. “Yeah, we are,” he said. The beaming smile his husband graced them with may have been the most beautiful thing Arthur had ever seen.