Merlin felt a pair of strong arms wrap around his waist and he smiled placidly, leaning back into Arthur's warm and gentle embrace.
The pair had decided to throw their friend group's annual Christmas dinner at their place, with Arthur insisting that his mother would come back to haunt him if he didn't uphold the code of a good host and send out hand-written invitations to each one of their friends. Of course, everyone agreed, and they sent back their RSVPs, albeit some jokingly like Gwaine. "Sir Gwaine and Sir Percival have agreed upon the decision to grace the stately home of Arthur Pendragon and Merlin Emrys with their esteemed presence", read the hand-written card the pair received in the mail.
And that night, with the fluttering tune of an instrumental carol sounding through their 5-story Chester Square townhouse, that they'd bought together, and an enveloping warmth in the air, the pair couldn't be happier.
Being the busy bunch that they were, sometimes it was hard for them to all get together. Sometimes throughout the year four or five of them would be able to align their schedules to meet up and be together, but it was never the whole lot of them, who'd been friends for years now. They always made time to get together for Christmas though, so everyone was there.
The first ones to arrive were, of course, and without a doubt, Morgana and Leon. Always such a gracious host, she was a dutiful guest as well, and was always early to any event, usually to offer any sort of help. Leon always came too, they'd been married now for eleven years and he knew better than to try and dissuade his wife from leaving too early for the event de jour.
"Brother darling, thank God you decided to grow out the beard", Morgana smiled when Arthur opened the door for them, one of her hands instantly reaching up to pet at his golden-blond beard appreciatively, "It makes you look so much more handsome. Not that it's a difficult task, any improvement is a large advancement".
The blond man grinned, used to his sister's particular brand of prickled compliments after three decades and a half. He opened his arms for a hug and even though she let out an unladylike huff at it she embraced him, warmly leaning into the hug and pressing a kiss to his hair, taking full advantage of her love of sky-high stilettos that put her close to his height.
Despite all their bickering and the occasional explosive argument, the Pendragon siblings were very close. The two children of multibillionaire banker and financier Uther Pendragon, who was barely a father in anything but title, they'd relied on one another since they were little kids. It had always been just the two of them.
Arthur's earliest memory of a Christmas was one from one he was four years old. The Pendragon estate in Surrey was grand, the picture-perfect image of a grand English blueblooded family's countryside retreat, and even though the mammoth home was decked out in full Christmas regalia, he had been crying in his bedroom. He was holed up in his bedroom, crying and hugging his plush horse Lamrey, after the governess had told them that their father wouldn't be arriving for Christmas.
Morgana had come to his room and pried him out of bed, even though her eyes too looked red and slightly puffy. The pair, in pajamas, had eaten cookies all through the night and watched animated Disney movies on the t.v. in one of the rooms. She had cheered him up and when they'd gone to bed she'd been the one who had tucked him in, murmuring a "Merry Christmas, Artichoke", before ruffling at his hair and rushing out of the room as he flung a pillow at her retreating figure.
"Merry Christmas to you too", he murmured with a sarcastic drawl, pressing a kiss to her cheek.
She chuckled lightly, "Glad to be here, Artichoke".
Out of everyone, Morgana was the one that Arthur and Merlin got to see the most. They had been frightened (though Arthur would deny it) when Morgana announced that The Pendragon Foundation would be opening new headquarters in New York, to coincide with the child advocacy and welfare non-profit's work with UNICEF and UNESCO. Since graduating top of her class from Oxford with a degree in Business Management and International Relations, Morgana had held different positions at The Pendragon Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the family business that had laid dormant under Uther's leadership. The official partnership with the U.N. came after years and years of hard work by Morgana, now the Director of the organization, but Arthur and Merlin had actually been quite nervous that she was going to leave to New York to the sleek tower she'd commissioned to a Belgian architect that had apprenticed under Peter Zumthor.
"No", she had said to Arthur one day when he'd come over to lunch at her place, as she used her fork and knife in that expert way that their etiquette coach had taught them when they were little to dig into her grilled red mullet served with roasted pine nuts and a yummy fig sauce, "I'm staying in London. There's too much going on for me to upend everything and move, and I already assigned Ellie Garlot to lead the NYC offices".
He hadn't realized he had let out a deep such of relief until he looked up and saw her wife smirk and the twinkle in her eyes. "Don't worry, Arthur. I'm not going anywhere", she had joked, but he could feel the warmth under the biting humor of her tone, and he scoffed, giving her an eye roll that he knew she would interpret correctly. She already knew his little signs and mannerisms just as she knew herself.
She had remained in London and was the one that they spent the most time with. Even though she would take work trips to parts of Central America or maybe a region in Africa, she did make an effort to make time for them whenever she could. Sure, she liked to appear as a cold-hearted and stone-faced bitch to the rest of the world, and she would deny it if you asked, but she loved her brother greatly, and if you asked him he would say that she loved Merlin exponentially more.
Leon, sunny-haired and bright smiling as always, greeted Arthur with the same warmth as always. Bringing the other close, they gave one another a bone-crushing bear hug, tight and crushing, warm and brotherly.
That's basically what they were by now, brothers. Leon had been Arthur's best friend since forever, since they'd met while at Perse, and they'd been together at Eton too. The pair had been friends for more than twenty years and were close as could be, brothers in all but blood relation.
"Man, it's great to see you!", Leon cried out happily, his smile growing as the two parted from the bone-splintering hug that had become their thing.
Since their days at Eton together Leon had gone on to become a star football player. Playing with Manchester United, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich and the English National Team, he was one of modern-day football's most lauded figures, with four Ballon d'Or and five times Best FIFA Men's Player (three times runner-up) and his transfer back from Bayern Munich to Manchester broke records at £300 million. Captain of the English National Team, Leon won with them two FIFA World Cups and was considered by many, sports journalists and his peers alike, one of the best strikers in the history of football.
Naturally, he was quite busy as well. So even though they were basically brothers, the two didn't get to see each other as much as they would have liked to. Arthur treasured every chance he got to spend time with his best mate of years, and so he gave Leon a hearty clap on the back as he led him inside.
While Arthur led Leon to get some drinks, Morgana went straight to the kitchen, where she knew she would find Merlin. True to her assumption, when she entered the cavernous space that was the kitchen she saw Merlin, with an apron over a gorgeously soft cashmere sweater, the sleeves rolled up as he moved around the place.
If you took Merlin in just appearance wise, you probably wouldn't guess that he was one of the world's most renowned culinary talents. With long limbs, an unruly head of dark hair that magically never stayed as it was combed or styled and a slight aura of frazzled anxiety, Merlin didn't really look the part of the person who was conjured in your mind when you thought of "Catey Award-winning chef with three Michelin stars".
But he was that. He'd had an immense love for cooking ever since he was a little boy, growing up in a hillside village town named Ealdor, and he always loved helping his mother prepare meals. When he'd gotten older, he made use of their backyard garden of vegetables and herbs to prepare dishes for his hard-working mother, so when she arrived from dual shifts after leaving home at daybreak she wouldn't have to cook. He still had lovely memories of those days of yesteryear, when his mother would arrive and he'd made something nice for dinner. She would smile warmly at him and they would sit at the table together, with a wide-smiling Merlin and a tired but happy Hunith, and dig in.
When he was approaching the age of applying to schools, he fearfully told his mother that he wanted to go to culinary school. He'd raised funds, from his jobs during the summer and the past year when he worked at a supermarket during the evenings and at a retail store in a nearby shopping center during the weekends. She had smiled at him, hugging him close and told him that if that was what he wanted, she would support him with everything she could.
So, he'd gone to London to study at the Wace Institute of Culinary Arts, the sister-school to the famed de Troye Académie de Gastronomie in Paris. He lived in a closet-sized flat, but he worked hard and soon he was well-regarded by all his instructors. When he finished three years later, one of his instructors recommended him to famed restaurateur Merdyn Whilt.
Whilt, who had achieved three Michelin stars for his newest restaurant "The Embreius of the Woods", brought fresh-faced and gangly-limbed Merlin to work in his restaurant after the glowing recommendation from his old-time friend. He saw something in the dark-haired boy who was a commis under his rôtisseur, and he paid close attention to the large-eyed young man as the months went on by.
One day, when his rôtisseur had a family emergency and had to take a train to Leeds on short notice, Merdyn, struck with an idea, had the sous chef tell Merlin when he arrived via bike that he was going to fill in the position. After his heart thumping nervously in his chest and a near panic episode in the bathroom, Merlin made his way out into the kitchen, brow sweaty but ready.
Three hours later, when a commis chef approached him and told him that the sous wanted to speak to him, he felt his heart plummet into his stomach. Bloody hell, God, no, no, he'd fucked it up, hadn't he?, he had thought to himself. He was sweating intensely as he approached the sous, who was talking to one of the primly dressed waiters.
"Hey", the sous greeted him, with her slight accented Portuguese lilt, "One of the patrons wanted to particularly thank you. They said the griddled lamb chops with roasted rosemary, honey roasted caramelized Brussels sprouts and garlic baby potatoes were unlike anything they've ever had".
Merlin's eyes had widened impossibly as he accepted the towelette that the sous handed him to clean his face up, and he was led out of the kitchen by the waiter who took him to one of the tables in a side alcove where an older couple was waiting. The two women smiled widely when they saw him, and they greeted him warmly, giving him a glowing review of their meal, saying that they hadn't had such a great dinner in their lives in decades.
When Whilt opened a new restaurant in Connaught Village a year and a half later, he offered Merlin the position of rôtisseur at the new locale. He'd gladly accepted the position, and he worked as the rôtisseur for two years at the second "Embreius in the Woods" before promoted to the position of the saucier. He was at that station for a year and a half before once again being promoted, this time to sous chef.
It had been two years later when he was transferred back to the original Embreius, this time as the chef de cuisine, that he had met Arthur.
Merlin had gone on to become what the papers and food reviews called "London's most elusive culinary wunderkind", mainly after his restructuring and major changes done to the menu that had it go from the fifth place position on The World's 50 Best Restaurants to second place. Multiple London papers wanted to profile the "young ingenue taken under Whilt's wing who had breathed new life into his restaurants", but Merlin had always declined, or given clean and simple answers and quotes instead of full-length interviews they wanted.
They didn't meet at the restaurant though. It was an early Wednesday morning, and Merlin was regrettably up much too early. After having done some cleaning around his flat (a spacious loft space that he could now afford) and a long phone call to his mother in Ealdor, he had decided to go visit a nearby bakery, a hidden treasure tucked into a side street, that he adored.
So, dressed casually in some jeans and a band tee (Camelot, one of his favorite bands of all time), slipping on a leather jacket and a burgundy-colored scarf around his neck, he made his way out of his building and into the busy streets of London. He was making his mental list of what he was going to buy as he walked, probably some baguettes and maybe some sweetbread too, for when he got home late from the restaurant and wanted something to ease his inner sugar demon. Making his way to the bakery, he was suddenly jarred from his mental list when he was roughly bumped into, barely realizing that he'd collided with someone when he was knocked down to the ground.
"Fucking hell!", cried out a blond man who was staring at his prim white shirt, now with a large brown stain and a discarded to-go cup of coffee on the ground by his leather shoes. Merlin blinked in confusion, standing up as the man began his tirade against him, "Can't you see where you're going? My fucking bloody God! This shirt is Ede & Ravenscroft, you idiot!"
Meanwhile, Merlin stared at the man who was shocking off his ruined blazer, grumbling and growling out a series of insults and curses. The man's blue eyes were steely and ablaze, angry and he was fuming, continuing a tirade against Merlin as he wanted about how the fuck was he going to go to his meeting like this and how was Merlin such an idiot?
The encounter was gone from his head by nightfall though, when he was at the restaurant, shaking his head in disapproval at a commis chef that was arriving an hour and a half late. He'd make sure to give the girl a chat later, letting out a sigh and returning to the fish he was making: pan-seared scallops with hand-pulled noodles in a lemon and white wine sauce served with caramelized honey-sweetened Brussels sprouts. It was a special dish they had added to the menu some months back, and Merlin was making it for table seven.
He'd gotten used to being called out into the dining area, led by one of the waiters, to a table where the patrons wanted to give him special thanks. Not being pompous in any way, Merlin had just mastered the art of not appearing like a frazzled and red-cheeked mess like he felt he usually was. So, when one of the waiters came in and told him that table seven wanted to give him their special thanks, he nodded, getting a bit cleaned up and then exiting the kitchen, going to one of the side alcoves where the table was located.
That's when Merlin saw Morgana, even though at that moment he didn't know they'd become incredible friends, wearing a midi-length black velvet Rochas dress. The waiter greeted her, presenting Merlin, who gave her outstretched hand a shake and smiled at her.
"Thank you for coming out Mr. Emrys", she said, with that particular lilt to her voice, airy and gentle yet firm and strong, "My brother went to the bathroom, but he was blown away by your meal, you're a phenomenal culinary talent. Oh-here he comes!"
Merlin had turned slightly and that's when he saw him, the blond man from that morning. Dressed to the nines, with a brilliantly cut suit that accentuated the triangular shape of his torso, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, and blond hair brushed away from a handsome face. Years later, Merlin would tell Arthur that he hadn't ever found someone to be as handsome as then when his blue eyes had seen him walking en route to the table.
How they'd gotten together was still something neither of them could really pinpoint, but they had. Now, seven years later, the pair liked to joke about that morning when they'd stumbled into one another: when Merlin had scraped his hands and Arthur had spilled his coffee onto himself.
"Merls, babe", Morgana smiled widely at him when he turned around, noticing her presence, "Merry Christmas, darling"
He smiled at her too, opening his arms for a hug, "Morgs, so glad you guys could make it", he murmured into her ear when they hugged, tightly and warm.
She pulled away with a small kiss to the cheek, "I take it Arthur wasn't much help in preparing the Christmas dinner?"
Merlin laughed softly. Since his time at the Embreius he had embarked on his own venture, founding "The Willow" six years ago, a Michelin starred restaurant named the best dining spot in London by many reviewers and publications. And though he was called the "grown-up wunderkind of London's food scene", his significant other couldn't make his way around their kitchen.
Their kitchen that he treated like a worshiper would a temple. It was a space that could that make any gourmand orgasm just at the sight of it: a gorgeous vision of white Calacatta marble and stainless steel state-of-the-art appliances. Rotating racks of spices, herbs and exotic ingredients, three refrigerators operating and containing a diverse array of things: fine meats and seafood, ripe and fresh veggies and fruits, and delicious leftovers from a previous week of Merlin's cooking at home.
"You know Arthur is still barely learning to use the stove", Merlin joked as he gave Morgana a small shove, rolling his eyes playfully at his sister-in-law.
"What blasphemous insult are you saying now?", Arthur interrupted as he entered the room and shaking his head, Leon coming in tow, laughing gently as he made his way to Merlin, handing him a glass of chardonnay.
Morgana smiled to Leon as he handed her an identical glass, "We're just talking about how Merlin is divorcing you again".
Laughing, Leon shook his head, "My God, that damn article. They'll print any nonsense, won't they?"
Merlin nodded. Since starting his relationship with Arthur and being introduced to his circle of friends he had to deal with the reality of now being a very public figure. It was still weird when his name was printed in a headline, particularly a nonsensical and stupid one like the one they'd all laughed at last week that cried out "BILLION DOLLAR DIVORCE: Restaurateur Merlin Emrys leaving multibillionaire husband of six years Arthur Pendragon".
He'd been sent the article by Elena first, who was on tour and from the cute selfie she sent him during their text exchange, was enjoying a morning in bed, early hour sunlight making her butterscotch blonde hair glow like gold. "Hope you get the collection of Brancusi in the settlement", she had texted him with the article, accompanied by a series of laughing-while-crying emoji.
She made a joke about it when she arrived, with Mithy and their two girls in tow. They were the second ones to arrive, finding the hosts with Morgana and Leon in the sunken formal living room where they soon joined them.
"Hope you get the bird statues", Elena grinned as she shucked off her heavy winter coat. She'd always been the first to chill up, would say that her blood ran cold and that she was like an elderly granny, always cold and wanting to grab the nearest thing to use as a blanket. She motioned to the line of Brancusi birds set up along one wall when Merlin greeted them at the door, earning a loud laugh from him.
It was still rattling sometimes when he thought about how he was close friends with Grammy-award winning pop goddess Elena (known simply by the mononym Elena). She'd been a childhood playmate of Morgana and Arthur, her family of the same school of pedigreed and age-old British dynasties, and had remained close to them throughout the years. Even now, as one of the music industry's most successful artists, unabashedly a pop diva whose concert tours brought in hundreds of millions and whose albums sold millions in days, she was unassuming and easygoing. A joie de vie personality if their ever was one, she looked stunning in her sequined dress, standing tall in her uniform stilettos, hugging Merlin tight.
Mithian, who cut a striking figure in her figure-trimming wide-legged jumpsuit with a deep v-neckline, was born into one of those dynastic families too, and she'd grown up with them. Nowadays one of the most esteemed modern artists alive, with her massive painting titled "glass" breaking records at the Christie's auction last year, selling for 220 million, the largest amount for a female artist. She'd been commissioned to do Harrod's Christmas tree that year and had unveiled an art installation in the newly opened Millenium Museum of Modern Art that had attracted immense attention, with people loving the direction she was taking the Revisionist Clearism movement in.
The brunette woman had entered behind her wife, leading in eight-year-old Pixie and carrying six months old little Laetice. "Merls, hey!", she greeted brightly, smiling warmly when he cooed at the adorable and chubby-cheeked Laetice in her arms.
He made a point to also greet Pixie, who was every bit her mothers' daughter with Elena's head of champagne blonde hair but Mithy's quiet personality. The girl was engrossed in a thick book but smiled warmly to him and she joined her parents and her "uncles and aunts" in the living room.
Arthur had always said that Merlin would make a great parent. "You have the heart for it", he would always say, and the blond man always felt warmth flood his heart (which he did have, despite anything Morgana would say) whenever he saw his husband interacting with kids. Merlin's face would literally glow, light up.
He was a great uncle too, the funny and lovable uncle that his friend's kids all loved. Pixie was particularly close to him, and he saw a lot of his quiet and reserved self in the little girl. She was always up for helping him out in the kitchen as well and had proved herself to be quite the right-hand companion in the kitchen.
So, when they'd become parents, helped by Mithian who had carried their baby, the pair were undoubtedly happy. They had named their little girl, who had her fathers' bright blue eyes and hair a chocolate brown color, Gaia after Merlin's uncle who had passed some months prior. Her second name was Ygraine, like Arthur's mother.
The others arrived in quick succession. First, Hunith, Merlin's beloved mother, arrived, bringing with her little Gaia and Ygraine, and accompanied by Lance and Gwen. It had been Hunith's idea to take her four-year-old granddaughter to a nearby ice rink and she had invited eight-year-old Ygraine, Morgana and Leon's little girl, to tag along. The two cousins had been ecstatic to go to the rink with Grandma Hunith, and the woman had called up Gwen and Lance as well, offering to take their seven-year-old Elaine too. The pair had agreed to tag along with Hunith because even though the girls were well-behaved they knew it was a hassle to wrangle in kids having a blast while skating.
"The girls had a blast, didn't you, babies?", Hunith announced as she shrugged off her coat, earning a loud chorus of "yes grandma!" and "it was so fun!" from the girls.
Apart from their parents, the person who loved the girls the most would probably be Hunith. The friend group had all been glad to take her on as a surrogate mother, mainly since a lot of them didn't have mothers of their own around anymore, quite sadly. And Hunith was a "supermom", as the ring on her keychain said (a gift from Mithian some years back), with a big heart of gold and an endless supply of warm love. When the friends started having kids, it was Hunith who was quick to offer to help out in any way that she could with the kids and she was soon known as "Grandma Hunith" to all the children.
"The girls wore you out, didn't they?", asked Leon, chuckling lightly as he handed Gwen a glass of red wine.
She took a slow sip and shrugged. "The skating wore them out, so I guess it's alright", she mused, leaning into her husband's firm frame when he stood behind her.
He had been the one who was forced to strap himself into some skates and trail behind the girls as they gleefully skated. They made it look so easy but he'd had an awful time trying to keep up, falling and slipping, cautiously gripping onto the side as he followed them along.
"How was it, Lance babe?", asked Elena, arching a brow, handing him a glass of whiskey.
He shook his head, "Hellish", he replied, chuckling softly as he received a soft smack to the arm from his wife.
Gwaine and Percy arrived minutes after the other group. Boisterous and loud, the pair were warmly welcomed as they entered, hulking Percival and lithe Gwaine quickly making themselves at home. The two had been together "since primary school" Arthur liked to joke, but it'd been officially ten years. They didn't have children of their own but were glad to fill the part of the dangerously fun uncles who were quick to play with the kids and crouch on their haunches to be near their heights as they played their role in an elaborate session of fantastical make-believe.
Hence why, only some ten minutes after having arrived, Gwaine had tied his hair back in a makeshift Greek chignon, some strands of his commercial-worthy hair slipping out, as he acted out the part of the "evil dragon" to Elaine and Ygraine's warrior princesses in the playroom. Pixie sat on a nearby bean-bag chair with little Gaia, the two clapping and cheering, giggling as they watched the scene unfold. Hunith stood nearby, overlooking the scene and barely able to stifle her laughter at the over-dramatic characterization that Gwaine was putting on.
Roaring out dramatically and the girls yelping out at the make-believe fire breathing, you probably wouldn't assume that he was a supermodel: one of the highest paid models in the world, actually.
"And the princesses have slain the evil fire-breathing dragon!", Pixie shouted out, narrating as Lenny and Yggy (as everyone referred to them as) play-stabbed Gwaine with their plastic swords. They were both going through a "warrior princess" phase that Gwaine was quite happy to play along with, whether it be he had to be a dragon or an evil warlock or whatever adversary they called for.
Meanwhile, Percival, Gwen, and Merlin were assembled in the kitchen. Despite what his appearance might make you think, standing 6'3 and being a die-hard Crossfit lover, Percival was one of the world's most esteemed pastry chefs. Owning MG64 Bakery in Mayfair, after having apprenticed at the Royal Café (where he later returned to be the executive pastry chef at) and with Pascal Caffet in Paris, his richly flavored sweets and confections made the establishment one of the most highly adored and esteemed eateries in London. British Vogue called it a "modern day Charlie and the Chocolate factory meets your grandmother's yummy baked treats from your childhood" and a "must" for anyone in the city, while other publications called it one of the best bakeries in the world, heralding him as a culinary genius.
So, Percy was sure to supply the pastries and desserts for the evening. Merlin and Gwen had gone to help him bring up the array platters and dishes with sweet-smelling treats, and were now in the process of unveiling what delicious sweets were waiting in the dishes.
"Fuck you, Percy, you know I can't help myself with your gingerbread", gasped Gwen, cheeks coloring slightly at her own swearing as she gazed at the platter stacked full with gingerbread cookies, cut into an assortment of shapes. Little elves, humans and wreaths, trees and reindeer, stars and bows.
Merlin chuckled at what Gwen said, but he understood her sentiment. She was a dancer, a principal ballerina with The Royal Ballet and tended to watch her figure, and he knew how Percy's creations were sinfully sweet to the point you could finish the whole platter by yourself and not even realize it.
When he took the aluminum foil cover off a ceramic fish and found it to be hiding multiple little muffins, he gasped out. "Percival if you tell me these are the cranberry and macadamia nut muffins that you never make then I'm going to scream", Merlin declared as his blue eyes took in the golden brown muffins, with the telltale red berries visible.
The man in question gave a faux-apologetic shrug of his shoulders, "I knew you would appreciate them, and they're just a gift for being such a gracious host".
Merlin playfully glared daggers at the taller man, shaking his head, "I'm going to get you for this, Grail, you just wait", he warned ominously as he took a bite of his first muffin of many that he knew he was going to end up munching down throughout the night.
It was near nine thirty when the final ones arrived.
A loud knock rang throughout the home and it was Elena who had gone to open the door, letting out a loud squeal of joy when she saw who it was.
Will and Freya led the group, with six-year-old Birdie and four-year-old Ealdor coming along too, Mordred and his long-time boyfriend Daegal entering behind the others.
Will and Freya had been Merlin's childhood friends, and they'd known one another since before they could even walk. The trio had grown up together in Ealdor, been with one another since the start and they were still incredibly close. When Merlin had started dating Arthur he was really happy that his two closest friends in the world got along with his boyfriend and his new crew of friends, and the group had become a tightly knit family by now.
The two were actors, quite widely acclaimed and celebrated too.
Freya had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art as a new passion when her dreams of being a competitive gymnast crashed and burned after a career-ending ankle injury. She had a steady series of small and supporting appearances in U.K. t.v. and films, but her big break came when she was cast in an independent psychological crime drama titled "The Stonehenge Girls", following her as a young woman obsessed with a recent news story that girls have gone missing after taking trips to Stonehenge. Her grueling performance in the film catapulted her to mainstream attention, getting nominated and winning a British Independent Film Award for Best Actress and a BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role, scoring nominations for both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
Her career continued in ascent, with her winning a Tony Award for the revival of Chicago where she played Roxy, earning a Grammy nomination alongside the rest of the cast for the soundtrack album. She received numerous more Academy nominations, for her role as a young Marie Stopes in "Married Love" (best supporting actress), as Kitty Fisher in the period costume comedy "Kitty" (Best actress, winning a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical-Comedy) and as Mary Pickford in the film adaptation of the revival of "Biograph Girl" (for which she won an Olivier on stage and received a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars). Then, it all culminated in her starring role in the remake of "The Apartment" alongside Andrew Garfield, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress
Her success continued, with an Emmy win for her starring role in the biopic drama "Tapestry", about the life of songwriter and singer Carole King leading up to the release of her album Tapestry. She later starred in a Disney Princess movie, voicing the protagonist Titania in the blockbuster hit "The Fairy Princess", which went on to become one of the highest-earning films of the year and a global sensation.
Unlike his wife, Will never had any intentions of being an actor. He had studied mechanical engineering at Cambridge on a scholarship and then enrolled at the RAF College Cranwell, completing training as an officer cadet and receiving pilot training, undergoing helicopter pilot training and joining the RAF Search and Rescue Force. He left the Royal Air Force four years later and it was then, trying to sort out his life and figure everything out, that he took a chance and decided to give acting a shot under the advice of Freya and Merlin.
He took some classes and appeared in small theater and t.v. roles before receiving mass attention for his breakout role when he was cast in "Journey's End", the British film adaptation of the R.C. Sheriff play, in which he played Captain Stanhope, earning widespread critical praise. Following his work in the film, Will was cast as Bobby Moore in the BBC sports drama miniseries "4-2", for which he received additional acclaim, earning a Golden Globe nomination, an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Limited Series and won a BAFTA for Best Actor.
He appeared as a supporting character in a new Mission Impossible film, starred in a miniseries about the younger years of Robert F. Kennedy (earning a SAG, Golden Globe, and another Emmy) and he lent his voice to the child protagonist in a Pixar movie about a dog rescue shelter. His film roles showed immense versatility and range, going from the serial killer Michael Swango in crime thriller "Mercy" to voicing Tails in the sequel to the Sega Sonic film adaptation, appearing in a small role in the jukebox musical "L-O-V-E" made with the music of Nat King Cole and starring in the film "Roxette", the film biopic covering the Swedish band with Stockholm-based new Hollywood darling Vivian Olafsson, earning yet another Golden Globe. His performance as Sting in the musical biopic covering The Police "Hundred Billion Bottles" cemented his position as a bankable and critical Hollywood star, earning every award he could for the role, culminating in a win for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
The news that the couple, who had married before Will went off to the RAF College and had been lovingly together ever since then, was going to join the MCU was met with widespread fan enthusiasm. Their roles in the film franchise were kept hidden for a while until it was finally announced that Will Richardson was going to be Brian Braddock a.k.a. Captain Britain in the while Freya Tabseich was their new Sue Storm a.k.a. The Invisible Woman and joining their Fantastic 4 project. The internet and media were a frenzy with the news that Hollywood's beloved power couple was joining one of the largest film franchises.
Even though they were major celebrities, you wouldn't tell by how easygoing and down-to-earth the pair were, casual and just the same as they'd always been. Unassuming and grounded, the three beat friends frequently appeared in the media together, usually photographed whenever they were out together.
They were loving parents too, with two children, their girl Birdie, and their boy Ealdor, and had integrated themselves wonderfully into the friend group since joining some six years back. Little Birdie was just like Freya was at her age, energetic and bright, always offering sage words that were beyond her age and with a sweet laugh. She too wanted to be a gymnast when she grew up. The parents liked to joke that Ealdor, named for the town they grew up in, was like a pint-sized Merlin: sweet and kind, clumsy and endearingly dorky.
"Elena!", Will smiled, enveloping the tall blonde woman in a hug, "Great to see you, how's the tour been?"
"Tiring, as always", she replied, shrugging and laughing softly, "But it's been the best, even if Mithy wants to shoot me whenever the kids get a bit tough and I'm not around to help out".
"You're going to pay for it, Gawant!", the group heard a voice cry from inside the house and they laughed at Mithian's cry out to her wife.
"Auntie Ellie!", cried Birdie, who instantly hugged one of the blonde's legs, her brother also crying out and latching onto her other leg, "We really missed you!"
Elena chuckled and ruffled at their hair, both of them having the same richly dark colored hair as their mum. She grinned at them too, "And I missed you two as well! Why don't you guys go and say hi to everyone and then go play with Pixie and the girls? They're going to be really excited to see you!"
"Yes!", the two shouted out in unison, with Birdie grabbing her brother's hand and leading him to greet their uncles and aunts before going to play.
"And my God, Mordy!", Elena beamed when she saw Mordred, using that nickname that he liked to pretend he hated even though he didn't at all.
True to that, he let out a scoff, "Call me Mordy one more time and I'll leave this party, Elena".
"Don't be grouchy", she teased, smiling widely at him, and positively glowing when she turned to smile at Daegal, his boyfriend of two years. "Daegal babe, how are you? God, it's great to have you here!"
The slim man with a head of unruly dark hair, the edge of his full sleeve tattoo revealed slightly as he slipped off his winter coat, smiled at Elena. "Couldn't miss Christmas with you lot, could I? Not that you would've let that happen, you would've probably a a search team for me", he joked.
Daegal, the frontman, lead vocalist and lead songwriter for the uber-successful rock band Camelot, was the newest addition to the group. As Mordred's boyfriend he had been welcomed instantly by the friend group who, even though he found to be quite overwhelming at the start, he had grown to appreciate and love in the year and a half since he had been introduced to them.
Mordred hadn't ever been one for romance, so the group had known well, even back then when he had introduced Daegal to them at Mithian's birthday, that the relationship was going to last. They all could read the expression on Mordred's face when he looked at Daegal, see the soft turn to his smile when he brushed a stray strand of dark hair away from the other man's forehead or how he stood productively by him, looming tall and how Daegal seemed to melt back comfortably in his presence and warmth.
"You know it, Dae", the blonde grinned, "And you two are so cute, you know that?", Elena said to the pair, tilting her head at them as she led the couple to get some drinks, the glow from a nearby lamp setting the sequins in her dress ablaze with light.
"Thanks, Elena", Daegal replied softly, giving Mordred a light shove when the latter made a loud groaning sound at the compliment.
She shrugged, "I'm stating facts, Mordy", she rebutted when she turned to look at them. They were a striking pair, both undeniably handsome, looking like they just stepped out of a men's lifestyle magazine in their perfectly tailored Thom Browne suits. They're going to look incredibly handsome on their wedding day, she thought.
Though she swore to keep it a secret after he had realized she had discovered him, she knew that Mordred was in posession of the perfect ring to propose to Daegal. Sure, he liked to appear like a stone-cold heartless wraith but everyone knew that Mordred was secretly and deep down a softie, a romantic and sap at heart.
Elena still remembered the day, she was doing some shows in Paris and it was a Thursday morning that she had off. So, she was casually milling about the city, just taking a stroll through the Place Vendôme when she saw him: Mordred, dressed primly in a goose-grey colored uniform of a greatcoat and tailored slacks, was leaving a nondescript salon. To any onlooker, it would appear that it was just a devilishly handsome man leaving a random salon, but not to Elena who realized it was Mordred leaving the salon of Joel Arthur Rosenthal, one of the world's most esteemed jewelers.
She slyly quickened her pace, thanking the heavens she had chosen to wear sensible flats instead of her signature stilettos, and slid right beside him, "Hey Mordred!", she had greeted in a chipper tone.
He had known then that he had been caught. He made her swear to not tell anyone, which she hadn't and had confided in her the reason for his visit to Joel. "I want it to perfect because he's perfect to me", he had said over a cup of coffee and some pastries at a discreet cafe, and at refrained from squealing at his lovey-dovey face and how red colored at his cheeks when he spoke about his boyfriend of two years.
With everyone present, the dinner began. Everyone took a seat at the long and ornately carved wooden table in the formal dining room, all joined together as they dug into the feast set up. Delicious and aromatic roast duck, turkey, and lamb, with enough side dishes to feed an army, an abundance of scrumptious and flavorful food cooked by the host with the most, Merlin, who blushed at the compliments from everyone as they dug in.
Elena's startled expression when the speakers, placed in strategic spots around the room to maximize the acoustics, started playing one of her songs she had recorded for her Christmas album, was perfect. Everyone laughed and joined in singing along to the music as Elena groaned out, covering her face with her hands.
Dinner extended even after they had finished the food on their plates. Their conversations were endless, with one topic leading to another and then to yet another, with bottles of wine keeping them warm, cheery Christmas classic notes floating through the air.
The kids had all gone to the media room to watch the animated Grinch movie, Hunith, Gwaine and Mithy going with them, while the rest of the group retreated to the sunken living room, carrying their glasses with them, finding room on the array of couches and armchairs around the round coffee table. Most every surface in the room was covered with some sort of platter or dish with Percy's desserts and even though they'd proclaimed they were full, they instantly started gobbling up all the treats.
Gwen, who was on her umpteenth gingerbread cookie, playfully glared daggers at Percy who laughed, covering his face with his hands as if trying to hide.
About an hour and a half later, when Daegal saw a gorgeous Steinway piano in one of the other sitting rooms when he'd gone to the bathroom, the group had convened in the other room. With his long fingers dancing across the keys, his gravelly crooning voice mixing with Elena's airy one as they sang a Christmas carol, the friends started dancing.
Will spun Freya around, her white polka-dotted dress moving beautifully with her body as she moved gracefully, shoulder-length shag-cut hair swaying as she laughed. Gwen and Lance were slow-dancing, forehead to forehead as they swayed slowly along to the piano and their friend's gentle singing.
That's when Merlin felt Arthur's arms wrap around his body, bringing them close together. He was warm, Arthur always ran pretty warmly and Merlin always found it a great quality when it was the dead of winter and they'd snuggle up together.
"Best Christmas ever", Arthur murmured quietly into his ear as he pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek, lips grazing along his porcelain skin ever-so-softly and chuckling lightly, his fingers drawing patterns along the cashmere of Merlin's sweater.
Merlin smiled lazily. He felt tired but not too much, just leisurely taking it all in. Daegal and Elena were singing "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and Mordred was beaming as he spun Hunith, who'd come to tell them that most of the kids had gone to sleep, Mithy and Gwaine crashing and curled up with them too, around, dancing together.
They didn't get to see each other as often as he would have liked. Merlin had always seen himself as slightly clingy, needy, and even though everyone would say he wasn't, he always felt a petulant and childish ache when he couldn't see his friends. They weren't even his friends, with how long they'd known one another and how close they'd all become they were really more of a family by now. A close-knit and loving family.
Peacefully leaning against Arthur's warm chest and holding his glass of red wine, he felt so happy that they were all together.
Setting down his glass of Chinon on a nearby table, he turned around, smiling radiantly at his husband and Arthur returned the smile. Clasping the blond man's hands in his, he led him over to where their friends were all dancing, his hips already beginning to sway.
"Merry Christmas", Merlin murmured to his husband and they kissed as they started to dance together to the music.