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This Is Where We Sing

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Arthur Pendragon, Prince of Wales, steps out of the back of his sleek chauffeured Bentley and walks up to the door of his supremely irritating cousin, Gwaine Greene, whom he is picking up for their weekly squash session.

Gwaine is always running late, and Arthur’s already annoyed, wondering how long he’ll have to wait for him to answer.  

After several rounds of banging, the door finally swings open into the large foyer of Gwaine’s Georgian townhouse.

Rather than Gwaine standing there, though, it’s an unfamiliar, tall reed of a man, wearing nothing but a towel that he’s clutching around his hips. His thick black hair stands in wet tufts on his head and curls in at his neck. A few drops of water stream in rivulets down his neck and chest, which is dusted with dark hair that concentrates itself into an inviting line down to his navel, then spreads again until it disappears beneath the edge of the towel.

The man stares at Arthur for a moment, neither of them saying a word. Then a quirk of a smile pulls at his plush, pillowy lips; probably, Arthur figures, because he’s finally recognised the prince.

The man’s body doesn’t turn, and his eyes don’t leave Arthur’s as he bellows, “Gwaine!!” in a gruffer, deeper voice than Arthur would have expected. The intensity of it, with their gazes locked, sends a shot of arousal through Arthur, and something low in his stomach tightens.

They continue to stand there, just looking at each other, waiting for Gwaine to respond. The man’s eyes are a deep, inviting blue in which Arthur could get lost, but his gaze is also unabashedly penetrating. Arthur feels suddenly like the naked one, and his hackles rise in response. “I see Gwaine’s done entirely away with staff protocols,” he says with practiced ridicule.

The man flinches at the comment, or the acid in it. “Excuse me?”

“This,” Arthur says, waving his hand over the man’s body. “It’s a far cry from business casual, you must admit.”

The man is frowning now, possibly scowling, and definitely offended. “What?”

Gwaine is still nowhere to be seen, presumably because he’s just getting out of the shower himself after a night with this raven-haired temptation of a door-opener.

The thought makes jealousy, irrational and ridiculous, surge in Arthur’s chest.

He shoves past the man, trying to ignore the dampness of his shoulder where it brushes against Arthur’s.

Once they’re in the living room, he asks coldly, “Where is Gwaine?”   

“Where do you think?”

Shower-bloke apparently has no problem being surly with royalty, if he has indeed recognised the prince. He’s not intimidated by him at all, which irritatingly only heightens Arthur’s attraction.

Now that he’s at more of a distance, Arthur notices the man’s rather striking cheekbones that give him an unusual, almost unfair beauty. Even the scowl he’s wearing looks good on him, and Arthur decides he hates this man.  

He rakes his eyes over him, going for unimpressed. “I’d rather not think about it at all.”

Shower-bloke huffs, then storms off in long strides, his shoulder blades and back glistening obscenely. “Gwaine!” he yells again, running up the stairs—and Arthur tries very hard not to think about what’s bouncing under that towel—“Some royal dickhead is here for you! Cheers for making me get the door!”

The last bit trails off as he gets somewhere beyond Arthur’s hearing—probably into Gwaine’s bedroom.

Arthur contemplates fleeing to the car, but that would look like defeat. He’d rather stand here in case the man comes back and makes any more cheeky comments.   

Before long, Gwaine comes down the stairs, taking them two at a time, dressed in hideously mismatched gym clothes.

“How on earth do you pull when you dress so abominably?”

Gwaine runs a hand through a long wave of damp hair. “As if you don’t know. You ready?”

Arthur casts his gaze up the stairs. “You quite done with your house boy?”  

Gwaine pauses. “Merlin said you were being a dick. I guess I should thank you. He thinks I exaggerate when I talk about your moods.” He turns to get his gym bag and jacket.

“When you talk about me to your random hookups? Lovely.”

Gwaine looks back at him. “Not random, not a hookup, and not for you to insult.”

He starts walking towards the door and adds with a sigh, “Let’s just go, Arthur.”

***

That day, their squash sets are more hostile than usual. Arthur seems determined to hit the ball hard enough to knock Gwaine out cold, should he miss the volley. Gwaine is too good for him, though, and no real damage is done, which Arthur knows is probably a good thing.

Dripping with sweat, Gwaine catches the ball to pause the game and catch his breath. “Mate,” he pants out. “You ever think you might be a little high-strung?’

Arthur keeps his eyes on the ball, impatient for Gwaine to put it in play again. “It’s called being competitive. If you can’t keep up, that’s not my fault.”   

Gwaine bounces the ball a few times. “Why do you let yourself get so pent up like this? Why don’t you go out once in a while, unwind, find someone to shag, even? Might make you less of a frustrated prick.”

“I am not frustrated.”

“Please, you were so worked up this morning after just one look at Merlin. You might ask yourself why you were such a cunt to him.”

“Me? He was insulting!”

“And you weren’t?”

“And why would I even be interested in him? For one thing, he’s slept with you.” Arthur pauses. “Right?”

Gwaine smiles. “So you are interested.”

Arthur groans. “Serve the ball, Gwaine.”

Gwaine gets into position, the ball poised in front of his racquet. “Have it your way, but you know I’m right. And in case you’re interested—which we both know you are—Merlin and I are just friends. I’ve got my eye on someone else.”

“What kind of friend?” What kind of friend opens your door in a towel on a Sunday morning? is what he wants to ask.

“A fit one.”

Arthur rolls his eyes and points at the ball with the command, “Serve!”  

***

That evening at dinner, Morgana keeps eyeing her brother.

“What?” he finally bites out, stabbing a tomato in his salad.

She raises an eyebrow. “Something wrong? Other than your usual issues?”  

Arthur grimaces.

“Morgana—” Uther chides.

“I know, I know,” she dismisses with a weak wave of her fork. “Poor Prince Arthur, so much stress being the most privileged prig on the planet.”

“Morgana,” he warns again. “As heir to the throne, your brother does have a lot of pressure on him.”

She rolls her eyes. “Not nearly as much as you both seem to think.”

“You underestimate the dignity of the crown.” He turns to his son. “Though you have seemed moodier than usual.”

“Oh, my god,” Arthur says, rubbing his hands over his face.

“Arthur,” the king says more seriously. “The people would enjoy seeing a happier prince, especially during the holidays. To be honest, so would I.”

“Who says I’m not happy?”

“Everyone,” Morgana mutters into her wine glass.

***

When dinner ends and Arthur and Morgana leave the table together to wander the long corridors, she’s kinder. “Seriously, Arthur. You’re stricter with yourself than even Uther would have you be.”

He cocks his head at her. “As if there’s such a thing.”

“There is. He wants you to be happy, just not in a way that causes some PR nightmare.”  

“Like the kind you create?”

She laughs. “Oh, he loves my boldness. You could use a little of that yourself. Instead, you mope around as if the end of uni was the end of your life.”

“I do not.”

But he knows he does.

Perhaps he has been overly cautious, not wanting to disappoint his father. He’s still 23 and single, and he misses the kind of social easiness he’d had at St. Andrews, where the bubble of protection had been wide enough for him to have fun within it. He misses going out and being stupid with friends, and generally enjoying himself without someone with a clipboard standing off to the side at the royal ready.

Gwaine is right, too. He misses flirting and—god, sex—and the possibility of actually having a boyfriend. If he’s been particularly frustrated today after one very brief encounter with a half-naked man, maybe it is time he do something about it.  

***

The next day, he phones Gwaine.

“Hey Arthur. What’s up?”

“So, I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

“About Merlin? Of course you have!”

“No, not Merlin. Just . . . going out for a drink or something.”

“A drink,” Gwaine says slowly. “And what’s brought on this change of heart? If it is in fact  your heart that’s looking to—”

“Gwaine!” Arthur interrupts and takes a breath. “Can you just for once not make this a thing?”

“Alright, Arthur. Why don’t you come over Thursday night? I know just the place to take you to,” he says, and Arthur can almost hear the smirk he’s wearing.  

***

As he’s getting ready Thursday evening, he finds he’s buzzing with anticipation. He spends an inordinate amount of time getting ready. There is a pile of shirts in varying shades of blue lying over his wardrobe, and his valet George is scrambling to hang them up as fast as Arthur can toss them aside.

“If I may, sire?” George finally interrupts. “I’d go with the light blue button-down.”

Arthur nods, any advice being welcome at this point, and he reaches for the shirt.

“It’s very dignified,” George adds with a high nod of his chin.

Arthur stills. “On second thought,” he says and grabs a deep blue v-neck jumper instead. George frowns at it, which Arthur takes as a good sign.

***

The bar Gwaine takes him to is completely different from what Arthur had expected. He really wouldn’t have been shocked by anything from a leather bar to a squat house, but this place looks absolutely normal. The entrance is discreet, which he appreciates, and the bar is glowing with a sort of yellowy warmth, with wood tables and rafters, lighting at a decent level, and music not overwhelmingly loud or obnoxious.

“Gwaine,” he says, standing in the doorway. “You surprise me.”

“I’m glad you like it. We come here a lot.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” He asks, fearing he’s just spotted Lady Vivian Archer in the crowd.

Gwaine gives Arthur’s shoulder a friendly shove. “Well, I’m not the only one who enjoys a night out at The Rising Sun.”

As they step down into the bar, none other than Morgana emerges.

“Gwaine! You got Rapunzel out of her tower! Well done,” she cheers, and the two of them start joking about what a challenge it’s been. They pull Arthur towards a slew of people they know and get swallowed up in hellos while Arthur stays on the fringe, trying to seem at ease.

“Arthur!” He’s gripped in a hug by Elena Godrich, an old family friend he’s always quite liked. She’s boisterous and disarming, and he’s glad it’s her instead of the prickly Vivian who greets him first. “I’m so glad you’ve finally come out! You’re going to have a great night, I promise. Viv is here, and Morgana, obviously, and we’ll introduce you to our other friends.”

“I take it you come here a lot.”

“Oh, all the time! It’s the best kept secret in London.”

Arthur nods and pastes a smile on his face—an amiable one, he hopes—and decides he really, really does need that drink.

He walks towards the bar and feels soothed by the pleasantly warm lighting of the pub. The place has a good vibe, and he leans an elbow on the bar.

He spots one of the bartenders—a pretty woman with curly hair and a beautiful smile. He can tell she’ll be nice and maybe a touch flirty, which he always likes.

As he gazes at her from afar, waiting for her to notice him, he hears someone else—someone much closer—say, “Well, well, well. If it isn’t Prince Pillock. What can I get you?”

Arthur turns and sees cheekbones, raven hair, pale skin and a devastating curl of a smile.

It’s shower-bloke. Merlin. He’s going to kill Gwaine.

“You!” he gapes, caught entirely off guard.

Merlin arches an eyebrow. “Me? Sorry, not on the menu.”

Arthur takes a breath, looking away as he exhales. “Does Gwaine not pay you enough? You have to work here, too?”

Merlin’s eyes rove over Arthur’s face and chest, and Arthur tenses under such blatant study, worrying he chose the wrong top after all.

He stops that line of thought in its tracks. He can’t let this man rile him up when he’s supposed to be here unwinding.

“Look, maybe I should just wait for the other bartender.”

“Who, Gwen? Don’t be silly; she’ll be busy chatting with Gwaine for a good ten minutes. I’m perfectly capable of pulling a pint for you.”

“Yes, we’ve established how good you are at pulling, though we all know Gwaine is pretty low-hanging fruit.”

He knows the insult isn’t fair, since Gwaine told him they weren’t shagging, but he’s keyed up under Merlin’s gaze and can’t keep himself from needling the man, almost instinctively.

The longer they’re face to face, though, the more Arthur is drawn into Merlin’s deep blue eyes, which study him now with more interest than offence.

It makes Arthur’s pulse pick up, and he breaks eye contact, unnerved by the intensity of his attraction. He wonders if things could go differently. Why does every word he says to the man have to be such a knife blade?

“Look,” he says. “Why don’t we start over? I’m Arthur.” He holds out his hand and nods to show he means it.

Merlin’s eyebrows pinch together. “Merlin,” Merlin says, shaking Arthur’s hand suspiciously.

“I’m sorry about all the . . . ” He waves his free hand, indicating his various offenses.  

Merlin’s eyebrows raise. “The insults? The rudeness? The condescen—”

“Yes, yes. All of that. I’m sorry. Can we just forget it?”

“Just . . . forget it . . .”

“Yes.”

Merlin considers this, his expression going from puzzled to pleasant. “Of course,” he agrees, and a grin spread across his face so quickly it’s almost imbecilic. Arthur has to fight the urge to tell him so, since he’s just resolved to be nice. “Don’t give it another thought.”

Arthur lets out a breath, relieved.

“So, what can I get you? On the house,” Merlin says.

Arthur thinks about it, glancing around the bar to see what other people are drinking.

“The special?” Merlin suggests.

“What’s the special?”

“Festive twist on an old-fashioned.”

“Why, yes. That sounds perfect.”

Merlin nods and steps away to make Arthur his drink.

Arthur turns to look around the bar. He spots Gwaine, who nods a smile and grabs a very tall man next to him, leading him over to Arthur.  

“Arthur, I’d like you to meet Percival. He’s the bouncer here. I thought I’d introduce you so he’d know who you are if you ever come back without me.”

“So he’d know who I am? Are you honestly suggesting—”

The tall man smiles, holding out his hand. “Hi, I’m Percival. It’s nice to meet you.” The handshake is friendly, and Arthur wishes he hadn’t taken Gwaine’s bait. “I better be getting back to the door though. Don’t cause too much trouble, Gwaine,” he winks before stepping away, and Gwaine watches him go, looking almost smitten.

“I take it that’s who you’ve got your eye on?” Arthur asks. “Looks like the feeling might be mutual.”

Gwaine looks down at his drink and stirs it. “You think? I might try my luck at my Christmas party.”

“Gwaine, are you blushing? I think that might be a first,” Arthur grins.

“You’d blush, too, if you knew what I’m thinking about.”

Arthur laughs. “Please don’t fill me in. I haven’t even had a drink yet.”

“You will soon, though. I see Merlin’s fixing you something.” Gwaine nods at the man, who’s inexplicably running a blender. “Good for you—wasting no time there.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “He’s the bartender, Gwaine. I’ve ordered a drink, not the towel service, unlike some people.”

“The towel service,” Gwaine smirks. “He really made some impression.”  

Arthur is about to protest when Gwaine’s eyes widen, looking over Arthur’s shoulder.

“Here you go,” Merlin says behind them.

He hands Arthur what must be, judging by the size and bulbous shape of the glass, an actual vase, filled with swirls of green and red frozen something , and piled with a mountain of dessert toppings.

Gwaine laughs. “Oh, god, Arthur! What on earth are you drinking?”

Arthur holds up the drink in shock. “This is not—!”

“He asked for the special,” Merlin shrugs. “Strawberry-lime daiquiri.”

“You said—”

“So you’re in a tropical mood! That’s great!” Gwaine cheers as Vivian joins them. “Though I prefer a more understated drink myself. Surprising, I know.” Gwaine clinks his glass—which Arthur is sure is filled with the aforementioned old-fashioned—with Arthur’s, then Vivian’s, and takes a sip. “Ahhh,” he sighs with exaggerated satisfaction. “Nice and smooth. My compliments to you and Gwen, Merlin.”

Merlin grins. “Cheers, mate.”  

Vivian eyes the drink with amused haughtiness. “Arthur, we all know you have a sweet tooth, but whipped cream? Honestly.”

He exhales deeply, his cheeks growing warm with frustration. He shakes his head and turns back to Merlin, who is still smiling—prettily, even, the bastard—enjoying his little triumph.

“Oh, it’s like that, is it?” Arthur asks, challenging, and Merlin’s grin widens. Arthur slides the daiquiri across the counter at him with some force, spares a quick glare at Gwaine, and walks away.

“You forgot your drink!” Vivian calls after him, laughing.

He makes his way to Gwen’s side of the bar, and when she comes over, she’s already finishing up the more appropriate special for him. He sighs in relief and takes out his wallet, but she shoos it away. “Don’t worry about it. Your night seems off to a bumpy start.”

“You could say that.”

“I’m Gwen,” she says, and holds out her hand.

“Arthur. Thanks for the drink, and for making it something decent.”

“Merlin usually has a very good reason for taking the piss out of someone, though. It’s likely I’d be on his side.”

“I’m sure. I’m just hoping you’ll make me less humiliating drinks.”

“I probably will. I’m sure you don’t get out much to talk with actual people.”

He rolls his eyes. “Oh, god,” he says. “You, too?”  

“What I mean is—” she says, holding a hand up, as if to stop him from taking her comment the wrong way.

“No, no, it’s fine. It has been awhile since I’ve been in a place like this.”

“A bar, you mean?” she says with a soft smile.

He tilts his head, hoping his embarrassment doesn’t show. “No, not a bar, Gwen,” although, yes, a bar. “Just . . . ” His gaze darts to Merlin, who’s still laughing about something with Gwaine and Vivian.

Merlin catches him looking, and Arthur quickly looks away. The man is an impudent arse, and he doesn’t deserve to know he’s caught Arthur’s attention.

Arthur wishes he hadn’t caught it at all.  

When he looks back at Gwen, her lips are pressed together, cheeks pink, stifling a laugh.

He shakes his head, knowing he’s been caught. “Thanks for this,” he says, raising his glass and honestly grateful, for the drink as well as the sympathy.   

He walks over to Morgana, who thankfully introduces him to someone new, a man whose friendly smile promises a welcome turn to the evening. His name is Elyan, and Arthur quickly learns he’s Gwen’s brother.

Arthur spends an enjoyable hour or so chatting with him. He’s handsome as hell, an Arsenal fan, and a charming conversationalist. They talk about Elyan’s work as a nurse, Arthur’s medic training with the RAF, and funny stories of childhood injuries.   

He feels much better than he did before, when he’d let himself get riled up by Gwaine’s naked doorman, who just happens to look good in a towel. Lots of people look good in towels. Elyan would, for instance, though the thought doesn’t make Arthur’s blood pump quite as hot as it did at the sight of Merlin, dripping wet.   

As fate would have it, Merlin walks over to them just then, a tumbler in his hand and a casual smile on his face.  

“Speak of the devil,” Arthur drawls.

Merlin perks up. “You were talking about me?” he asks, a bit of teasing in his voice.  

Elyan shifts his gaze between them. “No, actually.”

“No,” Arthur quickly covers, “but I was about to tell Elyan here what a wonderful bartender his sister is, and that it’s a shame she has to work with such rubbish.”

Elyan moves towards Gwaine, who’s been in and out of their conversation. “I take it they’ve met,” he says.  

“And then some,” Gwaine replies.

“Gwaine!” Arthur chides.

“I see what you mean,” Elyan agrees. “I’ll leave you to it then, Arthur. Seems like you might have a fence or two to mend here.” Elyan draws Gwaine into a separate conversation, leaving the two of them on their own.

Merlin eyes Arthur, and he looks, if Arthur’s not mistaken, less brash than before, maybe even a little contrite. “So, how was your drink?” he asks with a sheepish grin.

“They’ve all been excellent, apart from the first, which I am not counting.”

“That first one wasn’t easy to make, you know. I went to a lot of trouble.”

“Forgive me for not brimming with gratitude.”

Merlin leans closer to him. “I forgive you,” he says with  a coy, sort of private smile.

Arthur notices how close they’re standing, how Merlin’s lips are quirked at him in something almost like invitation. “That’s rather generous of you,” he says. “Especially considering you owe me the apology.”

Merlin’s grin broadens, easing some of the tension in Arthur’s muscles. “You want me to apologise for going out of my way to make you something special?”

“It would be nice, but I’m hardly holding my breath.”

“Wise, since you should apologise first. Genuinely, I mean,” Merlin adds, and he takes a sip from his glass—whisky, Arthur guesses.     

“Do you always drink on the job?” he asks. “Explains all the lip you give the customers.”

“That’s mostly for you, the lip,” Merlin says, his grin going lopsided. “Also, my shift’s done. I’m only part-time here; I’m also working on my doctorate.”

“Oh,” Arthur says, glad of a decent conversation topic. “In what?”

“Homosexuality in medieval literature.”

“And was there any?”

“I should hope so. Be a pretty short thesis otherwise,” Merlin laughs, his face bright with enthusiasm.

“And I’m guessing you have rather a lot to say.”

“I do.”  

They both sip from their glasses, looking at each other and away again, and Arthur is sure the slight tension is the good kind.  

“Maybe I should reread some of that medieval lit, since I’ve obviously forgotten the good parts. You recommend anything?”

Merlin’s eyes widen, his lips parting, but it takes him a moment to answer. “Yeah—of course. Will you be back next week?”

The question takes Arthur by surprise. He hadn’t been planning on making a habit of this, but if Merlin’s hoping he’ll be back, if he’s thinking of lending Arthur something to read—

Merlin takes in Arthur’s changing expression. Then he says, all confidence, “What am I saying? Of course you’re coming back.”

The audacity is confusing, and sends Arthur off balance yet again. He shakes his head. “And why is that?” he asks defensively.

Merlin shrugs. “Just seems like you could use more than one night out,” he says, his glass at his lips. “Am I wrong?” He takes a sip, and Arthur watches the dip of  his Adam’s apple as he swallows.

“Perhaps it’s just that my life is a bit more stressful than yours,” he says, sterner than he meant.  

Merlin sputters. “Welcome back, Prince Pillock! I was getting worried, what with you being so nice.”   

“I’m very nice.”

“I’m not sure ‘very’ means what you think it does.” He flashes Arthur a final grin, flirty or hopeful or teasing or—well, it could be anything for all Arthur can tell. “See you next week, Arthur.”

He doesn’t wait for Arthur to respond, just steps away and says quick goodbyes to Gwaine and a few other people before heading to the back of the bar.

Arthur watches him the whole time, noting the span of his shoulders, his long legs and gait, how he goes behind the bar to rinse the glass instead of leaving it for someone else to clean. He heads into a back room and doesn’t reemerge.

Arthur’s startled by Gwaine’s hand on his shoulder. “I see you’ve got it pretty bad for him. Hard not to, really.”

Arthur sighs. “Only if you like cheeky.”  

“Everyone likes cheeky,” Gwaine says, and Arthur can’t really argue with that. “C’mon. I’ll introduce you to Lance. He takes over after Merlin’s shift. I should warn you though—he’s Gwen’s boyfriend, so try not to fall for him, too.”

“Let’s hope he’s not in a towel, then. Seems to be a weak spot.”   

***

For the next few days, Arthur debates going to go back to the bar the following Thursday. It makes no sense, but whatever he’s got going on with Merlin has him feeling more alive—or more accurately, more like a schoolboy with an unfortunate crush—than he has in ages, and he sort of can’t wait to see him again.    

Sunday morning, he’s more eager than usual to pick Gwaine up for the gym. He rolls his shoulders back, flexes his hand before making a fist, then knocks.

He’s been trying to think of comments he might make—something a little teasing or flirty to set Merlin just a bit off balance. He’d been so relaxed, confident, handing him that tropical fiasco and teasing him about how he’ll obviously be back. It had been spectacularly unnerving, but also intensely appealing.

When the door opens, it’s Gwaine behind it, and Arthur’s smile falters as he looks over Gwaine’s shoulder.

“Expecting someone else? This is my house, you know. And why were you smiling?”

“I’m just in a good mood this morning, is that a problem?”

“Yes, actually,” Gwaine says, stepping aside for Arthur to come in.   

“I just had a good breakfast is all.” He casts a glance up the staircase, but there is no sign of anyone else home.

“He’s not here, mate,” Gwaine says. “He just stays over sometimes when his shift goes late.”

Arthur feels his cheeks go red. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says through a smirk. “Anyway, you ready?”  

“Always,” Gwaine says, grabbing his bag.

***

They have a much better time that week than the previous one. Arthur actually laughs at the misplays they make, and their teasing is entirely good natured for the first time in a while.

“I like squash a lot better when you’re not trying to take my head off,” Gwaine says when Arthur drops him off. “Try to have a good breakfast next week, too. I’ll see you Thursday, right?”

Arthur hesitates. “Erm . . . ”

Gwaine grins, broad and annoying. “Don’t even pretend, Arthur. Meet me here at nine. And wear red this time. It suits you.”

He closes the car door before Arthur can really register that Gwaine has actually given him a compliment, or advice, or maybe even both.

On the plus side, it seems that the decision has been made for him and he will indeed be going back to Merlin’s bar. Gwaine even makes it seem natural, not a concession but inevitable.

***

Thursday, he hurries Morgana along as she’s getting ready.

“What’s gotten into you?” she complains. “I couldn’t get you to come out for months, and all of a sudden you’re the ringleader? I’ll have to keep an eye on you tonight.”

“Why? I’m not up to anything,” Arthur says, checking his hair in the mirror again.  

When they get inside the bar, they’re greeted by a new warmth to the pub, with strings of coloured lights giving a festive glow to the place. Arthur loves the feel of Christmas (when he can find it, the palace being short of actual spirit) and he’s glad he’s come, regardless of what happens with Merlin.

As he walks further into the bar, his eyes instinctively track towards Gwen and Merlin, and he notices that the real festivity is to be found on their heads in the form of reindeer antlers.  

He heads straight for Merlin, who is frowning as he puts ice in a glass and fills it with a shot of vodka, plus soda from the fountain gun.

Arthur doesn’t suppress any of his amusement as he greets him. “Well, hello, Rudolph.”  

Merlin looks up at him, head cocked, scowl fixed in place. “Ha, ha. I’m sure this just makes your day.”

Arthur shrugs, still grinning. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a highlight.”

“Yeah, well fantastic. Can you believe we have to wear these things? It’s ridiculous.”

“Why do you have to?”

Merlin sighs. “My uncle is making us.” At Arthur’s incredulous look, he adds, “He’s the owner.”

Arthur barks out a laugh, hearty and genuine. “Your uncle! I should’ve known. Only a family member could do something so cruel.”

Merlin isn’t laughing, though. “You’re not making me feel better.”  

Arthur can’t stop sniggering. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s not all bad, though. I mean, Gwen looks rather adorable, actually.”   

“Yeah, Gwen,” Merlin says, throwing his arm in her direction. “Of course she does. And she’s raking in the tips for it, let me tell you.”

“Oh yeah? And how are you doing?”

“How do you think I’m doing?” Merlin bites out, pointing at the massive felt antlers on his head.

Arthur’s still beaming at the sight of this quite endearingly angry Merlin. “Well, I don’t know, you might get pity tips,” he says. “Especially since that headband makes your ears stick out a bit.”

Merlin’s scowl deepens as he glares at Arthur. In an enormously saccharine tone, he says, “Wait—how rude of me! What can I get for you, Arthur?”

“Oh, no. I’ve learned my lesson. I only get drinks from the lovely Guinevere.”

“Gwen!” Merlin calls out, and she looks over from where she’s pulling a series of pints. “This tosser is requesting your services.”

Several people nearby turn to see who “this tosser” is who’s pissed off one of the bartenders, but Arthur shrugs as if he doesn’t know what Merlin’s talking about. Percival, who’s taken notice, smirks and turns back to the door, while Merlin and Gwen swap places, exchanging a few words on the way.    

“Your royal highness,” she greets him. “I take it you’ll be having another daiquiri?”

“Gwen,” Arthur says, flashing what he hopes to be a particularly charming smile. “You must know I was only joking.”

“Yes. Jokes about people’s looks are very funny.”

“Oh, come on! Last week he called me ‘Prince Pillock.’”

Gwen blinks at him. “And?”

“And! And mocked my interest in— ”

Gwen stands there, waiting for the rest of the sentence.

“—his studies,” he settles on, and her lips quirk in response. “Look,” he starts again. “It doesn’t matter. You know as well as I do that he’s going to get me back for that comment—that playful comment—before the hour is even up.”

She considers him. “Maybe, and I may be willing to get you a real drink in the hope that that happens, but if Merlin doesn’t—”

“I know. If he doesn’t you can give me that slushee abomination in a flower pot. Hell, I may even drink it.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” she laughs.

He turns around to find Morgana walking towards him.

“How is it that you don’t have a drink yet? I’m already on my second, and you’ve even talked to both bartenders.”

“A better question might be why I come to the only bar in London that won’t serve their own prince.”

Morgana chuckles around the stem of a cherry she’s just popped in her mouth. “That is a very good question, Arthur. Maybe because you like that they don’t.”

Gwen taps him on the arm and hands him the old-fashioned, which he’s been craving, and he and Morgana join their group of friends.

He’s introduced to Mithian, on whom, Arthur learns, Elyan has a rather enormous crush. Arthur finds that he doesn’t mind at all. He likes Mithian, even though she supports Liverpool, and they have a good chat about the upcoming match against Tottenham.  

Elyan gets their third round, and when Arthur takes his first sip of the drink Elyan’s handed him, Vivian stares at him and starts giggling.  

“What?” he says. “What could you possibly be laughing at? This is a perfectly respectable drink.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she chirps, but leans over and whispers something to Elena, who shoots a glance not at Arthur, but at his glass.

“Elyan, what did you give me?” Arthur asks, suspicious.

“Nothing—an old-fashioned, same as before. Is it not good?”

It’s fantastic, but there must be something wrong with it. “Who made it?”

“Erm . . . ”

“It was Merlin, wasn’t it? What did he do, spit in it or something?”  

“No! I watched him make it. He used top-shelf stuff even, nothing weird at all.”

“Hm.” Arthur’s still suspicious, especially with Vivian and Elena tittering. No one else is laughing, though, and Elyan has vouched for Merlin, so there isn’t much to do but drink it.  

Before taking another sip, though, he casts a look at Merlin, who actually smiles at him. Arthur’s breath stutters at the silent exchange, especially since Merlin looks really good, even with the funny antlers.

Top-shelf , Arthur thinks, and a smile. Maybe Merlin likes him, too, and won’t retaliate for the ears comment.

He raises his glass to him, then takes his next sip. Merlin blushes and turns away, just as Morgana bursts out laughing.

“What is it?” he demands. “Is there something wrong with me that only women can see?”

“Oh no, I see it now, too, mate,” Gwaine smirks.

“What?”

No one has to answer, though, because Morgana is pointing at his glass. He lifts it up and discovers a label on the bottom that reads, in block letters, “PRAT.”

“See, it was a height thing, not a gender thing,” Vivian says.  

“How reassuring.” Arthur stares at Merlin as he peels the label off the bottom of his glass.

Merlin is not looking at him, though his cheeks are turning a deep red. It makes a beautiful contrast to the black, closely fitting button-down shirt he’s wearing, with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and he looks so good Arthur doesn’t even care that he’s laughing at his expense.

That’s how far gone he is on the man, which should be troubling, but he likes the way Merlin is always buzzing under his skin somewhere. He craves it, even, now that he’s felt it, and it would take a lot more than a sticker on the bottom of a glass to change that.

About another hour passes before Arthur sees Merlin tear off his antlers and throw them into the back room of the bar. His anger sends a shiver up Arthur’s spine, and he has a flash of what it’d be like to get Merlin’s blood up in a different way, in a way that would involve taking off more than antlers in the back room.  

He walks over to Gwaine. “Is Merlin staying around, now that his shift’s done?”

“He was planning to, but he might not after the night he’s had.”

“Oh.” Arthur knows Merlin’s mood must have more to do with the headgear than anything he’s said, but he can’t let the last thing he said to him be a crack about his ears.  

God, he was rubbish at flirting, or friendly banter, or even being generally nice when it came to Merlin.

“Maybe I’ll go . . . ” he says, but Gwaine isn’t paying attention to him anymore.

He walks towards the back room and peers in, hoping Merlin hasn’t left yet through some side door. There are boxes of spirits and cases of beer along two of the walls, plus a desk strewn with papers and a phone, and a corner with jackets and bags hanging on hooks.

Merlin is there, aggressively rubbing his hands through his hair, probably to get the crease from the antlers out of it.

Arthur knocks gently on the doorframe, and Merlin turns around, lips parted, eyes wide, clearly caught off guard. He doesn’t say anything, just looks at Arthur.

“Erm,” Arthur begins, feeling awkward in the relative quiet of the room, the noise of the bar just audible. “I just wanted to apologise for the comment I made about your ears. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Merlin shakes his hands through his hair again. “Yeah, well you shouldn’t say a lot of things that you do. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Merlin, please. It was just a bit of teasing. I didn’t mean to actually upset you.”

“Why not?” Merlin asks, facing him again, like he really wants to know, and Arthur stiffens.

“What?”

“Why the sudden concern with whether or not you upset me?”

His eyes are fixing Arthur with that uncanny gaze of his, and Arthur almost shivers at the closeness, the tension.

He swallows, throat dry as he notices the light playing on Merlin’s cheekbones, the glimpse of a clavicle where his shirt is undone. “I’d rather you weren’t mad at me,” he admits, voice low.

Merlin looks surprised by the answer.  

“Plus,” Arthur adds, stepping closer, bolder, “I quite like the way you look, actually.”

He sees Merlin’s throat work through a swallow of his own.

Arthur looks at Merlin’s lips, full and soft, and wonders how it would feel to press his own to them.  

“Arthur,” Merlin rasps out, interrupting Arthur’s ogling, catching his gaze with those impossibly deep blue eyes.

“Yes?” Arthur asks, just tipsy enough not to overthink this, not to move a muscle, to trust his desire and the moment.

But Merlin steps back, and clears his throat, running a hand through his hair again. “I brought you something,” he says.  

Arthur watches Merlin rummage in his rucksack for something before he walks back over to Arthur.

“Here,” he says, touching a book to Arthur’s arm. “I thought I might lend you this—the medieval lit you asked about last week—if you weren’t a complete tosser for the third time in a row, I mean. You almost didn’t get it,” he smiles, looking down at the book, his dark lashes fanned across pale skin, and Arthur can’t tear his eyes away.

“Good thing my apology came in the nick of time, then,” he says quietly. He takes the book from Merlin.

“Such as it was,” Merlin smirks.

“Such as it was, yes. You know,” Arthur says, adjusting his tone and his stance. “I think we can stop pretending that you’ve been entirely innocent here.”

Merlin’s cheeks redden and he looks up at Arthur again through those damn lashes. “Not entirely innocent, no,” he chuckles. “I can’t help it, though. You’re very tempting to taunt.”

Hope steals Arthur’s breath, and he answers, “Likewise.”  

He looks down to see what Merlin’s brought for him.

“‘Sir Gareth of Orkney,’” he reads. “I remember this tale,” he adds with some wonder.  

“You do?”

“I mean, I couldn’t pass a quiz on it or anything, but—”

“Reread it,” Merlin urges. “At the end I included part of my chapter on it. I thought maybe—I don’t know—you might want to read a little of, you know, what I’m arguing.” His hand starts rubbing at the back of his neck as he looks from the book to Arthur again, and Arthur’s heart stutters at the sight of this nervous Merlin, one who cares about what Arthur thinks.

“I hope you’re more articulate in writing than you were just then,” he teases, bumping his arm against Merlin’s as he flips through the pages.

“Shut up,” Merlin laughs, still blushing.

Arthur steadies his gaze at Merlin. “I do—want to read it, I mean. Thank you.”   

Merlin’s lips part, his eyes on Arthur’s lips, and Arthur can’t resist trying for a kiss. He leans the short distance between them, and Merlin doesn’t step back this time. He doesn’t lean in, either, though, so Arthur reluctantly brushes his lips past Merlin’s mouth and places a kiss, soft and all too brief, on his cheek.

It’s chaste, as kisses go, but it’s more intimate a moment than Arthur has shared with anyone in a long time, and his breath trembles as he pulls back to look at Merlin’s face again.

Merlin opens his eyes and lets out a breath. “Erm, my pleasure,” he says. His voice is so low, his body so close, Arthur wants desperately to dive in, to take Merlin’s face in his hands, swipe his tongue along Merlin’s lips and into his mouth—snog him senseless, really—but as much as Merlin’s standing here looking ready for a kiss, he hadn’t kissed back.   

Merlin swallows and steps back, creating some distance between them. He’s hesitating for a reason Arthur doesn’t quite understand.

“So,” he finally says, “Is that how princes always say thanks?”

Arthur blinks at the unexpected question, its incongruity with the moment. “What?”

“I mean, I don’t know what I’m saying. Just—do you want a drink? I could use one.”  

Arthur looks away, swallowing his disappointment that this moment is over and focusing on the memory of Merlin’s skin on his lips, the feel of the book in his hand.

“If Gwen’s making it,” he says.

Merlin nods quickly and hurries out. He goes straight behind the bar and shoves a glass into the ice bin. “What’ll you have?” he asks, but Arthur just watches him, his head still stuck somewhere in the backroom.  

“Erm, I’ll just have what you’re having.”

“Whisky it is,” Merlin says. “Rocks?”

Arthur gives a nod, unsure of where they stand, what he should do now, so he just follows Merlin’s lead as he heads out from behind the bar and walks towards Gwaine and their other friends.

Gwaine greets Merlin with a wide smile, his arms wrapping around him in an easy, enthusiastic hug. It has none of the electricity of Arthur’s brief kiss, but much more contact, and Arthur’s whole body stings with jealousy.

Morgana steps over to Arthur without him noticing. “Where’ve you been? The library?” She nudges the book in his hand.  

“What?” Arthur had forgotten she was even here. Forgotten everybody, more or less.

Merlin turns around at the sound of Morgana’s voice, greeting her with a smile.  

“Merlin,” Morgana says. “I see you’re done with your penance? Too bad, really. I thought the antlers were cute.”

“Penance for what?” Arthur asks.

“They were supposed to wear something festive tonight,” Morgana says.

Arthur quirks a look at Merlin. “So you wore black?”  

Morgana sighs. “Really, Merlin. I know I always say how fit this top makes you look, but tonight was not the night for it.”   

“It’s all that was clean,” he says, rubbing a hand to the back of his neck. “And if I’d known the antlers would be my punishment, I’d have worn a bloody Santa suit.” He takes a rather large gulp of his whisky, wincing at the burn.

“Not sure that’ve been better,” Arthur laughs.

“So why did Gwen have to wear them?” Gwaine asks. “She’s in a glittery red tank top. That’s festive, not to mention really sexy.”

“Yeah, sexy and adorable. That’s pretty much Gwen’s specialty,” Merlin says. “But she wore the stupid antlers because she felt bad for me.”

“You let Gwen wear pity antlers? Oh, Merlin,” Morgana laughs.

“She wore them in solidarity, not pity!” Merlin defends, but they all laugh at that, including, eventually, Merlin. “Anyway, can we please change the subject? Gwaine, you getting anywhere with Percy yet?”

The conversation drifts easily enough onto topics involving other people, and Arthur doesn’t say much. He notices the tension in Merlin’s shoulders ease as he unwinds with their friends.

He looks around, appreciating the beauty of the Christmas lights, the warmth of the whisky, its sweetness on his lips, Merlin’s smile when he casts a gaze at him, shy and beautiful, and wonders what on earth Merlin thinks of him.     

***

“So tell me more about him, Gwaine,” Arthur says, sprawled on Gwaine’s settee like he’s at a therapist’s office.

“Ask him yourself,” Gwaine says. “You’ve already kissed him. You have his dissertation. The two of you were making eyes at each other the whole night after whatever you did in that back room.”

All that was true, but Merlin had clearly wanted to cut things off after the kiss on the cheek, and Arthur let him be more or less for the rest of the night. “I can’t Gwaine. He didn’t even kiss me back. Plus, what do I say? ‘Tell me everything about you! I can’t stop thinking about you and I need to know more than how brilliant you are at queer theory and how hot you look tending bar, and how you can spar like a bloody fencer, but also blush like a maiden and look so—'”

“My god, alright!” Gwaine cuts in, throwing a pillow at him. “He’s from Ealdor, he was raised by his mum, but she passed a few years ago. He has no other family except his uncle who owns the bar—”

“—and has a rather twisted sense of humor.”

“Yes, and he’s got a year left to finish his thesis, and he’d like to teach when he’s done, and have you thought about how odd it will be that you know all this about him when he hasn’t told you any of it?”

“Well, no, but he knows everything about me. My whole life has been documented down to the knickers I wore to Morgana’s third birthday party.” He throws the pillow into the air and catches it a few times.

“That doesn’t make his life public fodder.”

“Fodder, Gwaine?”

“Alright, alright. Why don’t you just text him or call him?”

“He didn’t give me his number,” Arthur pouts. “Not even in the book he gave me.”

Gwaine snorts at his suffering. “I guess you’ll just have to wait until you see him again,” he smirks, taking a sip of his beer as he lies sideways in an oversized armchair.

“And when will that be? Christmas is this week, so no bar night Thursday.”

“No, but he’ll be at my party.”

Arthur sits up. “He will? Why didn’t you tell me? That’s in two days!”

“You better get primping then,” Gwaine laughs.  

“You, too,” Arthur retaliates. “You can’t hope to win Percival with that mangy hair.”

Gwaine shrugs. “He seems to like mangy.”

Arthur raises an eyebrow. “I suppose we should be grateful someone does.” 

***

Gwaine’s house is decorated for Christmas, which it hadn’t been just two days before. There’s a tree in his living room, full and tall and rather tastefully decorated, so Arthur knows Gwaine didn’t have much of a hand in it. There are fairy lights on the mantle and around the windows, and little bits of greenery with holly berries here and there.

It’s quite beautiful, Arthur thinks, and he feels Christmas spirit swelling in him again. Gwaine’s party is usually his favourite event of the season, where they can all actually have fun—him, Morgana, Gwaine, Elena, even Vivian—anyone who will be stuffed into royal finery for the rest of the holidays, made to stand prettily in ostentatious ballrooms.

Arthur had arrived early, as per custom, to help Gwaine set up and to have their ceremonial first drink. They’re both dressed fetchingly, if Arthur does say so—more flattering than formal, but still sort of classically Christmasy.

When they’re all ready and the guests are due to arrive, Gwaine pours them both some of the most expensive brandy he has on hand. He raises his glass. “To Arthur’s coming out!” he says.

Arthur, ready to cheer, lowers his glass. “Gwaine, I came out years ago. There was a whole thing. Press interviews, my father—”

“No, no. I mean coming out into the world, like a debut.”

“You’re ridiculous, Gwaine. I’m not toasting that.”

“Alright. To us both getting laid tonight!”

“I’m not toasting that either!”

Gwaine sighs, and there’s a knock at the door. Before he can open it though, Morgana bursts in, followed by a whole string of people who quickly mill about, getting themselves drinks and sharing warm greetings.

Gwaine pulls Arthur in close, an arm around his neck. “Seriously. To having you back again,” he says.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “I’ll toast that, but only to shut you up.”

Gwaine laughs and clinks glasses with Arthur’s, and they both drink fairly deeply.

“Happy Christmas.”

“You, too, Arthur.”

They greet everyone who’s arriving, and Arthur can’t help but notice that Merlin is nowhere to be seen yet.  

Morgana announces she’s playing DJ as usual, and everyone groans but without much feeling. They all know they’ll secretly enjoy her forcing Christmas music on them and her various games.

Arthur is sitting on the settee chatting with Elena about her latest dressage competition when there’s a knock at the door and Merlin is let in, snow flecked in his hair and on his shoulders. His cheeks are red, and he has a scarf wound high around his neck.

Arthur wants to jump up, help him with his coat, generally dote on him—the brandy warming his veins and Bing Crosby’s crooning about chestnuts amplifying his ridiculous impulses. He manages to make himself stay seated, though.

“Merlin!” Gwaine calls out. “Give us your coat! Get comfortable—you must be freezing! It wasn’t supposed to snow tonight, though the flakes look good on you,” he says, wiping one off the tip of his nose, and Merlin laughs.

“Thanks, Gwaine. It’s not too bad.” He takes off his coat and scarf, handing them to Gwaine. Before hanging them up, though, Gwaine walks him into the middle of the room and yells, “Everyone! Merlin here has very generously agreed to bartend for the first part of the night and make you lousy sods some decent drinks. When and how you get thrown out is at his discretion,” he winks.

“I’m happy to do it, Gwaine,” Merlin says, “but the first sign of antlers and I’m out of here, and I’m taking the whisky with me.” He’s smiling broadly, and Arthur’s glad he can already laugh about the other night.  

Merlin is wearing a deep red jumper that fits him just snugly enough to be incredibly sexy without looking like it was intentional. It’s the kind of look Arthur was going for himself, but Merlin has done a better job of pulling it off.

“While we have your attention,” Morgana adds. “Please give me any song requests or dedications you have. Without them, as many of you know, you’ll be hearing ‘Santa Baby’ basically on repeat.”

“Before I’m so drunk that I only submit embarrassing things,” Elena says, “I better put some decent requests in,” and heads towards Morgana.

Arthur knows there will be a nice variety, despite Morgana’s threats. He likes the dedications as much as anyone, and he wonders if he should do one for Merlin, and if so, what.

Merlin is setting up Gwaine’s mini-bar, and Arthur watches him smile easily with everyone who comes over to chat.

Arthur figures it’s hard to go wrong with anything in Gwaine’s well-stocked cabinet, but Merlin has a gift, and he’s able to mix something a little different for everyone, somehow knowing just what they’d like.   

When there is nearly no one left for Merlin to serve, Arthur finally gets up his nerve. He falters for just a moment but still manages a smile, hoping he doesn’t seem overly eager as he walks over.

“Hi Arthur,” Merlin says, toying with an empty glass.

“Merlin. How are you?”

“Slinging drinks, as usual,” he answers, grinning. “What would you like?” He meets Arthur’s gaze, and his eyes are warm, glistening with the reflection of the colored lights.

“I’d like . . .” Arthur starts, not really thinking about the drink. “I read your chapter on ‘Gareth,’” he blurts out.

Merlin stands up straighter, probably thrown by the change in topic. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Thanks again for sharing it with me.”

Merlin squints, head tilted. “But what did you think?”

He sounds so earnest, Arthur can’t bring himself to tease him. “I loved it. I thought it was insightful, and compelling, and really witty, actually.”

Merlin sighs, relieved. “You sound surprised. You don’t find me witty?”

Arthur smirks. “I might do, but I didn’t know anyone could make literary criticism of the Middle Ages so interesting.”

“Oh,” Merlin says. “Well, thanks.”

Arthur has a lot more he could say about it, and even has minor points to debate—he made marginal comments in pencil all over the book—but he doesn’t want to do that here, with cheesy music playing and everyone making merry.

“Will you make me a drink?” he asks.

“You sure you trust me?”

“No, but I’m getting used to the risk.”

Merlin chuckles. “Fair enough. I’ll make it good.”

“I’m not sure we have the same definition of good, but alright.” He watches Merlin mix him up something, pouring swiftly from a few different bottles, shaking and pouring the mix over some ice, then garnishing it with a cherry.

“Try it,” he says, handing it to Arthur with so much confidence it’s almost cocky.

Arthur takes a sip and winces. “Oh, god, it’s awful! What’s in it?”

Merlin’s smile drops like lead. “You’re kidding.”

“Yes,” he says, smirking. “It’s delicious.”

“Ugh, I thought maybe we were done with the taunting.”

“I’m not sure we’ll ever be done with that, Merlin.” Arthur takes another sip of the drink. “I mean, your ears alone—”

“—not to mention your nose”

Arthur feigns a scoff. “I have a very dignified nose.”

“‘Dignified,’ is that what they call it?” Merlin laughs, sounding happy and unguarded. Arthur wants him to sound like that all the time.  

He turns and studies Merlin. “You know, you’re probably rather too much for me to deal with, but I find it hard to mind.”

“Likewise,” Merlin says. His smile’s turned softer, and Arthur is taken back to the moment they shared in the backroom of the bar.   

“I need more song dedications!” Morgana shouts, and the dreaded first notes of “Santa Baby” start up.

Arthur and Merlin look at each other, mischief gleaming in their eyes, and Arthur feels like a child, brimming with excitement at the game they’re about to play. “Do your worst!” he says to Merlin, and they both rush off to grab strips of paper from Morgana.

She eyes them both as they sit down, their eyebrows pinching as they think hard about how best to prank each other with song dedications. Arthur watches Merlin nibble on his plush lower lip, notices again his long, expressive lashes as he looks up at the ceiling, trying to come up with god knows what musical joke at Arthur’s expense.

The length of his neck looks inviting, almost obscene, his lips parted in thought, and it reminds Arthur immediately of some of his recent wank fantasies, of making Merlin arch his neck just like that, coming and moaning Arthur’s name.

Christmas songs are about the last thing on his mind, but he’s got to come up with something, especially after he sees Merlin scribble something down with a cheeky grin and toss it in Morgana’s Santa hat.  

He decides the best thing to do is dedicate a song to himself “from Merlin.” When he picks the tune, he worries it might be too harsh a joke, but he goes with it anyway. Maybe he is a bit of an arse.

Merlin looks at him askance when he sees Arthur toss the paper in the hat, but they both get up and step away from Morgana and her DJing high.

“I guess we’ll just have to see how that turns out,” Merlin says, taking a swig of his drink, which looks identical to what he’d made Arthur.

“I look forward to it,” Arthur smirks, raising his glass and drinking, too.  

As the party goes on, it only gets more lively, music blaring and Morgana swinging Elena around in what is probably supposed to be a dance. Elyan and Mithian are enrapt in each other’s conversation, and everyone else is involved in larger circles of laughter, dancing, and general merriment.

There’s a loud knock on the door, and Gwaine runs his hands through his hair before answering it. It’s Gwen who’s arrived with Lance and Percival. Gwaine is making the greeting uncharacteristically awkward somehow, and Arthur sympathises completely.   

Merlin steps up beside him and whispers, “Maybe this will finally happen.”  

His breath is warm on Arthur’s neck, and Arthur closes his eyes, thinking yes, please let this happen.

“Gwaine’s fancied Percival since he started coming to the bar,” Merlin continues, “but he never does anything about it.”

Arthur tries to shake off thoughts of Merlin, aware of how far he’s been letting his imagination run all night. He’s been at various stages of arousal pretty much since meeting him, but tonight is proving to be a real test of his will, especially with Merlin pressing himself up to him, whispering about sex happening. “Right, Gwaine and Percival,” he says. “You know, when I first saw you here, I thought . . .”

“You thought I was Gwaine’s houseboy,” Merlin chuckles. They’re standing with their shoulders touching, their bodies angled towards each other.

“You answered his door naked.”

“I wasn’t naked,” Merlin says, bowing his head a little, a faint bloom of red on his neck. “The important bits were covered.” He looks at Arthur through those lashes, so heatedly Arthur’s trousers feel tighter.   

“The important bits,” he echoes, looking from Merlin’s darkened eyes to his mouth, leaning in ever so slightly.

Merlin seems like he might not be breathing, and Arthur gears himself up to try for a soft peck when they’re interrupted yet again by Morgana the Merry DJ. “Everyone!” she shouts. “It’s time to play ‘Sing or Drink!’”

Merlin pulls back. “What the hell is that?” he asks, looking horrified.

“Pretty much what it sounds like. You better like one or the other.”  

“First up— ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’! If I don’t hear you sing at least one verse, you have to drink something I make!”

“Dear god,” Merlin says. “I’ve seen her make drinks. It’s not pretty.”

“I’ve drunk her drinks, during this very game in fact,” Arthur says. “And I can tell you it wasn’t pretty at all.”

“I imagine you’re always pretty,” Merlin says softly, just as everyone else is belting out the first verse of the song, just to get it out of the way.

Arthur tries to process Merlin’s comment in his own lust-addled mind. “You puzzle me, Merlin,” he says, almost to himself.

“I don’t mean to.”  

Arthur nods towards the hallway and heads to the kitchen, and Merlin follows.

When he gets there, he sets his glass down on the counter and turns to find Merlin so close on his heels, he’s nearly pressed up against him.

Merlin reaches past Arthur to put his glass down, too, and then lets his hand slip the few inches to a rest on Arthur’s hip, the touch making Arthur’s breath catch.

Merlin’s eyes are focused on Arthur, flicking back and forth between his eyes and lips, and Arthur can hardly move for want of it, but he’s not going to push it again.  

“I’d really like to kiss you,” Merlin whispers. “To hell with you being . . . well, you.”  

Merlin leans in, presses his whole body along Arthur’s, and Arthur moans at the sureness of it, the possession, the friction of Merlin’s reassuring erection against his own. The kiss is firm, knowing what it wants, and Arthur’s grateful to be leaning on something because his knees might've given out.

He slides his hands around Merlin’s waist and tilts his head, opening the kiss to swipe his tongue against Merlin’s lips, into his mouth.

After not nearly long enough, he forces himself to break the kiss, pressing his forehead against Merlin’s.“What do you mean me being me?”

Merlin nibbles at Arthur’s lips, insistent. “Shh. Let’s just do this, if you want this, I mean.”   

Arthur huffs a laugh. “If I want this? Are you sure you’re on course for a doctorate?” He leans in to renew the kiss, and Merlin hums into it, his full weight pressing Arthur into the counter, the wet slide of their tongues, tinged with whisky and want.

He runs a hand through Merlin’s hair, fisting it as he’s wanted to for weeks, his other hand pressed to Merlin’s lower back, just above the tempting rise of his arse.  

“God,” Merlin says, catching a breathe. “This is crazy.”

“No, it isn’t.”

Merlin pulls back, his eyes fixing Arthur’s, dark and intent. “It is, Arthur. I’m just some bloke from a bar. You’re the bloody prince of England.”

Arthur’s chest tightens. “Only Wales, technically.”

“Whatever.”

“Merlin—”

“But I don’t care right now.”

His hands are on Merlin’s hips again, thumbs circling his hipbones. “I don’t understand. I mean, not entirely. You have no problem teasing me, flirting, calling me names. You seem completely unintimidated by titles.”

“Half the customers at the pub are lord or lady something-or-other. And flirting is half the job.”

“Don’t make me feel too special.”

“I just mean that that part, I don’t know, that was easy. Plus, what were the odds a sodding prince was going to actually chat me up?”

“High, Merlin. The odds were high. You’ve had me tripping over myself since I met you, and I’m never like that. I should’ve realised—” He feels so vulnerable, so much less hopeful than he had been when Merlin first kissed him.   

Merlin’s lips quirk in a way Arthur can’t read. “Arthur, please, can we just—” His fingers trail down Arthur’s cheek, along his jaw and around to the nape of his neck with such focus it sends a new shiver of want down Arthur’s spine.   

He decides they can finish this discussion when at least some of their blood isn't in their cocks. He licks hungrily into Merlin’s mouth, and there is nothing tentative about it, just the breathy tangle of tongues, their hands firmly roving as they rut against each other.  

Arthur dives in to suck a kiss at Merlin’s neck.

“Fuck,” Merlin sighs, tilting his head to give Arthur better access. He wraps a leg around Arthur’s calf, increasing the friction between them.

“You two!” Morgana startles them, gaping from the kitchen doorway. “I thought you were just hiding to avoid the game!”

She stands there staring at them, even though they’re obviously in the middle of something.  

“Erm, we are,” Merlin says, managing a surprisingly calm tone. “Just give us a minute.”

She laughs. “Arthur probably needs less than that, it’s been so long,” she says, then walks out.  

“Well, that’ll make two of us,” Merlin smiles, and nips another kiss at Arthur’s lips. “To the loo?” he suggests, sounding not a little desperate now that Morgana’s gone.

“Classy.”  

“But close.” Merlin gestures with his chin to the door just off the side of the kitchen.

Arthur grabs his hand, leading him in there.

Once the door is closed behind them, he pushes Merlin against it. Their kisses go urgent, as if they might get caught in here, too.

Arthur doesn’t mind the haste, though, because Morgana wasn’t wrong.

He tackles Merlin’s belt and zippers, hoping he was serious when he said he wasn’t too far behind. He gets his hand in Merlin’s trousers and presses the heel of his palm against his shaft.

“Shit,” Merlin groans, pressing his hips into it.

Arthur looks around the bathroom. “Merlin, this was an ingenious suggestion.”   

There is actual lotion on the counter, and Arthur pulls away to grab it. He squirts a copious amount into his hand as Merlin grasps at him to come back.

When Arthur is about to shove his hand back into Merlin’s pants, Merlin stops him. He hurriedly opens Arthur’s trousers, then swipes half the lotion out of his palm.

The thought alone of Merlin’s slick grip on his cock makes it twitch eagerly, hard as it is, and he nearly whimpers.

Merlin slides his hand into Arthur’s pants, and Arthur presses his forehead to Merlin’s, squeezing his eyes shut against just how good the tight, wet strokes feel.

His hips hitch into Merlin’s fist, and he tries to think of anything to stave off his orgasm, but all he can think is Merlin and fuck and yes in a rhythm that matches the pumping of Merlin’s strokes.   

Merlin nudges Arthur’s arm, reminding him to reciprocate, and Arthur is glad of the excuse to pull back and break the momentum. He wraps his fingers around Merlin’s cock, sucking in a breath at how hot and hard it is in his hand.

Merlin moans at the first wet pump, his head knocking back against the wall, mouth going slack. Arthur works him till he’s squirming, breathing out Arthur’s name, his eyes squeezed shut.

Arthur presses his body closer, and Merlin takes him in hand again. They both move with it then, the slick sounds of their fucking making every muscle in Arthur’s body taut as a bow, and Merlin’s, too, judging by the strained tendons in his neck.  

Arthur spills first, his breath pushed from his lungs with the force of his climax. He pants into Merlin’s neck through the pulses of it, blissed out but keeping up the rhythm of his fist for Merlin, able to add a twist of his wrist with his body slacker now.    

Merlin whimpers as he approaches his own peak, filthy and shameless. “Oh, fuck,” he rasps out, and knocks his head against the wall again as he comes, hot and messy in Arthur’s hand.

Arthur watches him through the whole thing, taking in every bat of his lashes, every dip of his Adam’s apple, in case he never gets to see Merlin like this again.

When they’ve calmed a little, Arthur starts registering the muffled sounds of the party, and he looks at Merlin again.  

He looks wrecked, absolutely debauched—hair a tugged-on mess, lips parted and swollen, cheeks burned from Arthur’s stubble, his spent cock hanging out of his pants, come in his hand.

He looks hotter than anything in Arthur’s recent (or even distant) memory, but definitely not fit for a Christmas party.

Merlin gapes at him. “We can’t go out there like this.”

Arthur turns to the mirror and realises he looks even more just-fucked than Merlin.

“Okay, we’re in a bathroom, though,” he rationalises. “With grooming products and a sink. This is hardly hopeless.”

“Good point,” Merlin says, rushing to the sink.

He turns the knobs and starts washing his hands, but Arthur shoves him out of the way with his hips. “Who says you get to hog it all?” They struggle against each other, laughing like idiots, until they’ve gotten more water on the floor than anywhere else.

They run their hands through their hair, adjust their clothes, and nod at each other.

“We’re the picture of dignity,” Merlin says to their reflections.

Arthur's chest swells with affection, and he hopes the extent of it isn’t written on his face. “Though the loo is a bit worse for the wear.”

He’s rewarded with an amused snort from Merlin, and then they step out into the kitchen.  

With her almost frightening sense of timing, Morgana starts calling for them.   

“I’m guessing we’re in for a nightmare of a concoction,” Arthur laments. “Something tropical with whipped topping.”

“Not possible. I told you those take serious skill.”

He’s right—it’s not that—but they do have to do shots of the worst thing in Gwaine’s cabinet, which turns out to be Jägermeister—and why Gwaine has that, Arthur doesn’t even want to know—and perform what’s meant to be a rather humiliating rendition of “Santa Baby.”

Merlin embraces it with such gusto, though, beaming through the whole thing, that it ends up being kind of wonderful.   

He has a great voice, which Arthur should’ve expected, and he can ham it up rather adorably, too. He urges Arthur to do the same.

Arthur wouldn’t deny Merlin the Crown jewels at this point, so he joins in, singing a complex harmony that makes Merlin break character to laugh at his ridiculous peacocking.  

They take an elaborate bow when the song ends, and Gwaine lets out a long wolf whistle. “You two could take that on the road!” Elena cheers, and Morgana proclaims the duet an annual tradition.

Arthur thinks he’ll gladly suffer through it every year if it means that Merlin will be here with him.  

He tries to tamp down his feelings, realising that he and Merlin still need to talk about what this is.

***

Trays of food are laid out on long tables, several gifts exchanged, and the drinking and dancing continue as the night goes on.

By the time Morgana gets around to the dedications, everyone is sated enough to pay attention, lounging on sofas and chairs, each other, or the floor.

Most of the dedications are sweet—Morgana plays ”O Christmas Tree” from Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas album for Elena, who has a soft spot for anything resembling that meek little tree; Lance rather predictably dedicates Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” to Gwen, which even she rolls her eyes at but seems pleased with nonetheless; and Percival, to everyone’s delight, dedicates Darlene Love’s “It’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” to Gwaine, because he knows it’s Gwaine’s favourite, and because, as he says, “his hair was made for this,” and Gwaine belts out the tune as if he’s at the O2 arena.   

“And now,” Morgana drawls, “we have our sappiest dedication.” Arthur has a feeling it’s the one he put in the hat—the one he made out “To Arthur, from Merlin”—and he hopes Merlin takes the joke well. “This goes out from Merlin to Arthur. Anyone who needs a bucket,” she adds, “please get it now.”

Merlin, splayed in the chair next to Arthur’s, drunkenly titters at that.

The twangy notes of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” start to play, and Merlin bursts out laughing, more heartily than Arthur would have expected, and he sighs with relief.

Merlin smiles at him. “Well played,” he says, raising his glass.

Arthur grins in return and uses the lightness of the moment to lean over and ruffle Merlin’s hair.

“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you,” Merlin croons. “I’ll be so bluuuue, thinking about you.”  

Arthur basks in the lazy sway of Merlin’s shoulders as he sings, but then he remembers Gwaine telling him that Merlin’s mother passed a few years ago, and he’s suddenly worried. Of course he buggered up this bout of teasing, too.  

When the song ends, Merlin is wearing a sort of faraway smile, and Arthur feels a pang of regret. Merlin looks sweetly nostalgic, though, rather than bereft. He leans over and says, “Thank you, Arthur,” as if he means it, and Arthur hopes it really is alright.  

Elena gives a little “whoop” when the song ends. “Was that the last one?”

“There’s one more,” Morgana says. “This one is also dedicated to Arthur, but is strangely from him as well. Only Arthur could be so selfless,” she adds, to general sniggering.

Arthur looks at Merlin, wondering what he wrote on this slip of paper, but Merlin gives nothing away, hiding his expression behind his glass.

“Contrary to popular belief,” Morgana reads, “my favourite song is not from Handel’s Messiah, which I’ve claimed on numerous public occasions, but rather, ‘Christmas Song,’ sung by a family of chipmunks.”

Peals of laughter follow the announcement.  

“How utterly atrocious,” Vivian crows. “It’s like the whipped cream of Christmas tunes!”

Merlin barks out a laugh at that, then looks at Arthur. “Sorry,” he grins, not meaning it at all. Arthur just looks at him dumbfounded, though.

As the song starts, and John calls Simon, Theodore, and Alvin to order, Arthur feels actual tears gathering behind his eyes. He’s had far too much brandy and whisky and who knows what else to play this cool.

Morgana is looking at him with equally glassy eyes, and he gets up and walks over to her, offering his hand for a dance.

She looks up in shock and laughs, but is also delighted, and she takes his hand. Her shoes have long since been ditched somewhere, and she feels small in Arthur’s arms, precious and beloved.

They begin waltzing to the song, and it’s almost painfully sweet, as this actually is Arthur’s favourite Christmas tune, and Morgana’s as well, though they’d never admitted it to anyone.

As children, they’d had to sneak off to the kitchens to listen to it, since Uther had banned it as juvenile, corrupting nonsense, cementing their devotion to it for eternity.

No one can stay serious during the song, much less resist joining in on the chorus:

Me, I want a hoooo-la hoooop!

We can hardly stand the wait, please Christmas don’t be late.

Their waltz gets exaggerated and clumsy, and soon other people are dragged up to share in it, Arthur and Morgana holding each other close and laughing.

Once the song ends to gleeful applause, Arthur turns to Merlin and pulls him up out of his chair. He takes his hand to lead him into the next room, and Morgana announces some final songs for the night.

Arthur takes him in his arms for a hug, whispering “thank you” into his neck.

Merlin looks at him, still smiling but a bit confused. He gingerly pushes Arthur back, the look in his eyes tentative. “I take it that dedication wasn’t as insulting as I had hoped?”  

Arthur snorts, his hands clasped at Merlin’s waist. “Not exactly, no. I’m sorry if ‘Blue Christmas’ was too . . .”

“Too what?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur says. “Blue?”

“You’re an idiot,” Merlin laughs lightly, and it sounds like he might mean something else, something better.

“Come home with me,” Arthur says, holding Merlin’s gaze, firm.

“Home with you?” Merlin gapes. “You don’t even have a home, you have a palace!”   

“I also have a flat, but I have to be at the palace early tomorrow for Christmas Eve, so it would be easier if you would come there with me.”

Merlin shakes his head. “No, no way.”

“Why not? I understand if you have somewhere else to be.”

“I don’t, but—”

“—but what?”

“—but it’s a palace!”

“Yes, I think we’ve established that. What if I told you there’s a private entrance, and you wouldn’t have to see anyone you didn’t want to?”

“Do you not want me to see anyone?”

Arthur smiles. “Quite the opposite. I’d actually like to take you to a ball tomorrow night, but I was hoping to ease you into that idea.”

“To a ball? You have really, really lost it. Everyone knows you never bring dates to anything. You can’t just show up with me out of nowhere—it’d be madness!”

“It’d be noticed, but not madness. Not unless you really only wanted this to be a one-off and—”

“—Arthur, no. Despite all of your—”  he gestures with both hands, more comically than meaningfully “—I don’t want a one-off. Or even a two-off. But a ball? What would I even wear?”

“If that’s your only objection,” he says, sensing a victory.   

“Tell you what. Why don’t I come home with you, and we’ll decide everything else in the morning, unless your father has me drawn and quartered by then.”

Arthur cocks his head. “Don’t be ridiculous. Drawing and quartering went out early in the nineteenth century.”  

“No wonder you never have dates,” Merlin snorts. “You’re really not selling this well.”

“Is that a yes?”

“I suppose it has to be, since I’ll be doomed to a life of wanking with plumeria-scented lotion if I say no.”

Arthur’s heart does a little flip, and he presses a kiss to Merlin’s temple before calling for the car.

***

Merlin is overwhelmed by the size and ostentation of literally everything at the palace, but he also has no problem making fun of it all.

He also enjoyed shocking the hell out of George when they’d come in, which Arthur thinks bodes very well, and Merlin seems fairly comfortable once they’re settled in Arthur’s rooms.

It’s late, and he’s exhausted from the party, but when Merlin gets into bed next to him, teeth brushed and clothes discarded, Arthur can’t think about sleep.  

Merlin seems to feel the same, as he climbs right into Arthur’s arms, sucking kisses at his neck.

Soon, he’s working his way down Arthur’s body to his cock, and he brings him off within a matter of minutes.

Afterwards, Arthur is too tired to be creative, but as he mouths his way down Merlin’s chest and torso, he does manage to elaborate on some rather obscene plans for the morning. And what he lacks in originality—taking Merlin’s cock into his mouth—he tries to make up for in technique.

His efforts seem to satisfy Merlin, who groans loud through his finish, hands fisted in the sheets.

“Wait’ll I tell the media how well you give head,” he pants.

Arthur crawls up from between Merlin’s legs and promptly hits him with a pillow, then collapses against him, sweaty and ready for sleep. “For that I think they'd bring back the drawing and quartering,” he mumbles into Merlin’s shoulder.

Merlin chuckles, his fingers lazily running through Arthur’s hair. “Better keep it to myself then.”

Arthur hums his agreement, and they sleep.

***

They wake early, early enough for Happy-Christmas-Eve kisses that start slow and languid, then deepen into something richer.

“I’m so glad you came home with me,” Arthur says. “I know it’s not the friendliest of settings.”

“No,” Merlin smiles as Arthur rubs a thumb over his lip. “No, it isn’t, but if it’s really where you live sometimes . . .”

He gives an endearing little shrug, and Arthur hopes it means that Merlin wants all of this as much as he does.

“Is it,” Merlin starts again, his fingers playing in the golden hair dusting Arthur’s chest. “Is it normal for you to bring someone back here?”

“No,” Arthur says with a crooked smile. “I’ve never done it before.”

“Never?”

“Well, my boyfriend at university used to stay sometimes, but he’d been coming here for royal events all his life.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh,” Arthur says, rolling on top of Merlin and shutting him up with a open-mouthed kiss.    

Before they can thoroughly exhaust themselves again, though, Arthur rings for George. Merlin can’t stop giggling at the preposterousness of a pre-coital call to the valet.  

When George brings them a huge tray of tea, scones, and fruit, though, Merlin’s eyes widen at the sight. “I take it back. It’s not preposterous at all,” he says, digging in.

“I told you,” Arthur says, the sheet barely covering his lap. “There are perks to this if you’ll just give it a chance.”

Merlin hums around a sip of perfectly made tea. “I have to say, I am warming to the idea.”

“Good,” Arthur says, polishing off his scone. “Now hurry up and finish that tea. I have plans that’ll make you a lot more than warm.”  

Merlin sniggers, then makes a show of dunking another bit of scone into his cup, then eating it slowly, savouring the bite. “Mmm.”  

Arthur flops onto his back. He finds that he suddenly hates tea, not to mention scones, and of course he’s always hated George.

***

Despite the grandeur of the banquet hall, the shock on everyone’s faces when he arrives on Arthur’s arm, and trying to get Geoffrey to announce them as “Prince Pillock and his Royal Hostage,” Merlin seems to be dealing rather well with everything.

“You’re handling this ball far better than I would have expected,” Arthur says, sipping his champagne.

Merlin shrugs. “Well, your father hasn’t sentenced me to a horrible death yet, so things aren’t going too badly.”

“Your standards are worryingly low.”

“Let me know when I have reason to raise them.”

Arthur casts his gaze across the room towards Uther, who actually nods at him, a hint of a smile on his face. “Maybe raise them now,” he says curiously.  

“Why?”  

“Surprising as it may seem, I think my father’s glad you’re here.”

“Why?” he asks again, more seriously.

Arthur quirks a smile at him. “Because I’m glad you’re here.”  

“Oh,” Merlin says. He looks around the room and takes a sip from his flute. Then he says, “Me, too. You have really nice towels.”    

Arthur laughs, louder than he probably should, and he realises that all the tension he’d been feeling just a few weeks before is entirely gone.    

He’s still smiling when the orchestra strikes up a very dramatic version of the hula hoop song, and Merlin turns and winks at him.

Arthur gapes, then laughs again, shaking his head with fondness.  

He wonders if there’s any chance Merlin knows how to waltz, and if not, whether he’ll have time to teach him before next Christmas.