“Arthur, hurry up, we need to leave soon!” Merlin was shouting for his fiancé when he entered their bedroom and realised his other half was nowhere to be seen, which meant he was still in the bathroom getting ready.
“I just need another minute.” Arthur's reply came from behind the closed door. “And stop worrying, everything will be fine tonight.”
“I'm not worrying,” Merlin told him back as he looked at himself in the mirror. He wasn't quite sure if he was lying to Arthur or just to himself. He quickly checked if his suit sat perfectly or was at least halfway decent. He wasn't necessarily a suit wearing kind of guy, but it looked fine to him.
“You are. I know you are biting your lips right now.”
Merlin let go of his lip immediately. He hadn't even realised he was doing that. Shaking his head, he once more realised that Arthur knew him too well.
“It's just a Christmas party with my family, so you have nothing to worry about. I had dinner with your mom last weekend and I didn't worry,” Arthur continued and Merlin could hear some cupboards being opened and closed in the room next door.
“That's cause my mom loves you!” Merlin replied and once more glided his fingers through his hair. Maybe he should have cut it after all. It was getting a bit long, but he had been really busy at work these last few weeks.
It's just a Christmas dinner, he told himself and took a deep breath. He’d had more than twenty years of experience with those.
As a child Merlin had always loved Christmas. They didn't have much growing up, but still his mother always made sure to decorate their tiny flat and get a big tree, often ugly on one side but fine on the other, so the trees were fairly cheap. Christmas had been filled with delicious food and music and interesting scents and presents. Merlin had never cared about not getting more presents, all he had cared about was the way his mom had always managed to pull off those magical Christmas evenings.
Right now Merlin wished this Christmas would be like the ones he had during his childhood instead of what was ahead of him. He was going to spend Christmas with Arthur's family for the very first time.
It was easier to think of them as Arthur's family than the Royal Family. Thinking of them as the Royal Family still freaked him out, despite having known Arthur as a prince since the first day they had met.
He had been freaking out just the same way on the first day of University all those years ago. Of course, he had heard the rumours of the Royal Prince attending the same University as the one Merlin had worked his ass off to get a scholarship for, but never in a million years had he expected the prince to decide on student housing just like all the other students had.
One minute Merlin had been standing in his room, missing the tiny village of Ealdor where he had grown up, the next he was sharing the room with a real life prince. A prince who, despite being snobby, sometimes arrogant, and a big prat, had become Merlin’s best friend within a few weeks.
It had taken them a bit longer to realise what they were feeling for each other was more than friendship. Arthur's family had not been amused by this turn of events. Not only was Merlin a man, but also a commoner and both of those things made him not necessarily someone the Royal Family embraced with open arms. But now that they were engaged, Arthur's family seemed to come around, hence them inviting Merlin to celebrate Christmas with them for the very first time.
“Wow, you look amazing,” Arthur's voice suddenly appeared behind him. Merlin smiled, knowing Arthur would see his reflection in the mirror.
“Thank you, you don't look so bad either.”
That, of course, was an understatement; Arthur looked fantastic and prince-like with his golden hair— perfectly styled so it would look neat, but effortless— and his blue eyes, which were filled with love. He had put on one of his designer suits— Merlin didn't know the brand name and didn't care to ask for it— he only knew it hugged his strong body perfectly, showing off his wide shoulders.
Arthur walked closer to Merlin, hugging him from behind. Merlin closed his eyes and drew strength from Arthur's closeness. It was just a family dinner, he told himself once more. He would survive it.
Twenty minutes in, Merlin wasn't so sure he would indeed survive the evening. Morgana, Arthur's sister, was great to have around as usual but King Uther still wasn't someone Merlin wanted to spend too much time with and the feeling seemed to be pretty mutual. The king hadn't liked Merlin back when he was still just his son's roommate and friend and most certainly wasn't happy about their engagement now. Lady Catrina, Uther’s wife, only seemed to be pleased by it because of some misguided ideas about gaining more power with Arthur potentially not taking over the throne.
“So how is the bookshop you work at?” Catrina asked while they were all still seated in the living room. The way Uther's face darkened when he heard his wife use the word “work” wasn't lost on Merlin. The same way it wasn't lost on him that Catrina probably had other motives than polite conversation to ask her question.
“You mean the bookshop he owns?” Arthur chipped in, sounding almost smug as he corrected his stepmother. Merlin lay his hand on Arthur's knee, a reminder not to start any arguments, a reminder for the both of them. Arthur relaxed slightly under the touch and moved his own hand on top of Merlin’s so they could both draw strength from the touch.
“It's doing great,” Merlin answered, grateful for Arthur's protectiveness, but not willing to risk a fight breaking out within the family because of him.
“We actually had more customers this Christmas season than the last few years and we are going to host another book event just after New Year’s. We will have a few local authors attending and telling people about their own books and recommendations for the new year.”
Merlin took a sip from the cup of tea some servants had brought in earlier and turned towards his fiancé so he could catch Arthur's gaze over the rim of the cup, his fiancé’s eyes were shining with amusement and pride.
“You have to tell me when it is,” Morgana sounded delighted. “So that I can swing by. Maybe bring a few friends along. Not that you need help getting new customers. I remember the last one was pretty packed.”
“It was, but new customers can never hurt. I can text you the details once we are home,” Merlin beamed at his future sister-in-law. At least one person in this family appreciated his hard work. Well two, but Arthur didn't really count right now.
“Dinner will be served in a few minutes,” a servant walked into the room and announced, saving Merlin from talking more about his job. Usually he loved talking about Albion Books— being able to open up the shop had been a dream come true— but he hated to sound like he was trying to prove his worth by talking about the shop. Yes, he wasn't what the King had wanted for his son, but Merlin knew he was more than worthy of being with Arthur and, despite being a prince, his fiancé wasn't perfect either.
“I bet you they will serve fish again, we always have fish for Christmas,” Morgana said and put her arm through Merlin’s to steer him towards the large dining room, dislodging a confused looking Arthur as he walked behind them. Merlin knew that the Royal Family knew he was a vegetarian, but didn't really expect them to cater to his diet, so he wasn't necessarily surprised when after the soup the servant brought in plates with fish.
“Father, you do know Merlin won't eat that,” Arthur said accusingly as the plates were placed in front of them.
“But you said he won't eat any meat so we specifically told the cook to prepare fish,” Catrina answered instead, as if they only served fish for Merlin’s sake and not because of a long tradition of serving it on Christmas evening.
“I said Merlin is a vegetarian, that includes not eating fish.”
“It's okay, Arthur. I can eat the vegetables. And the salad,” Merlin pointed out, knowing complaining wouldn’t change anything. Besides, he really didn't want the cook to have to cook something else just for him.
“See, he can eat the vegetables. Those should be filling enough for someone as skinny as Merlin,” Uther said. The king’s voice didn't necessarily make the word skinny sound like a compliment.
Arthur clearly wanted to argue, but stopped when Merlin once more took ahold of Arthur's hand, signalling to him it was okay and that they should just eat. Uther looked displeased at the contact, but started eating his fish.
Merlin let go of Arthur's hand and they started eating as well. The silence that filled the room was only broken by the noises of cutlery touching plates and it felt deafening to Merlin, who was used to talking to people even while eating.
“So, what do you two plan to do for New Year's Eve?” Morgana finally started to make conversation again.
“Nothing much, we are probably just going to watch some movies and order takeaway,” Merlin said. Arthur had insisted on not doing anything special for the night and it hadn't taken much convincing for Merlin to be willing. “What about you?”
“Oh, I will meet up with Gwen and some other friends,” Morgana said. She didn't say it, but that probably meant partying a bit harder than her brother did.
“And what about you?” Merlin took all the courage he had to direct the question towards the king and Catrina.
“We are hosting a charity event at the palace,” Catrina said and for a second it looked as if Uther was actually envious of Arthur and Merlin’s quiet plans. “You should have told us you had no plans, so we could have invited you. The prince coming to the event would have been a lovely gesture.”
There was no way Merlin would spend another evening with them that soon in the future. “Thank you, but with the book event right at the beginning of the new year, I will be busy with last minute organising and Arthur thankfully agreed to help me.”
Merlin was done eating his side dish and put the cutlery down on the plate just like Arthur had taught him back at University. The conversation shifted towards Morgana and her plans for future charity events. Merlin was pretty sure she only held them to outshine Catrina and who was he to judge her for that?
Dessert was served shortly afterwards, a delicious chocolate cake that Merlin needed to talk about with the cook. Maybe he could get his hands on the recipe, somehow. After dessert the family walked back to the living room. This time the doors were open to reveal a room filled with the biggest tree Merlin had ever seen. He could only imagine how hard it must have been to get the gigantic tree inside the castle.
Arthur immediately bee-lined for an expensive, but uncomfortable looking sofa, dragging Merlin along. Sitting down, his suspicion was confirmed and Merlin longed for the old and worn, but incredible soft couch they had in their own living room.
There were lots of presents underneath the tree and Merlin quickly wondered what kind of presents rich people extended. He knew he and Arthur always went for heartfelt presents, often cheap, but special to them. Despite growing up with all the money in the world, Arthur preferred the little things Merlin always got for him, claiming their love made them priceless.
A servant walked towards the tree and started handing out the gifts. Merlin remembered Arthur crawling on the floor just this morning to have a peak at what was underneath their own tree and couldn't help but pity his fiancé for not being able to do the same in his own family home.
The servant brought most of the packages to Catrina, a lot of the gifts seemed to be jewellery for her. Arthur got keys for some kind of yacht he would probably never use, seeing as they rarely travelled due to Merlin being busy with the bookshop. Maybe the kKing won't realise when they sold it.
“This is from me,” Morgana said when suddenly two packages were presented in front of Merlin. Surprised, he unwrapped the first one and found a gift card for a rather fancy looking spa inside. “You know, in case you ever need some time away from Arthur.”
The other one turned out to be a book Merlin had never heard of. “A friend of mine wrote this. Maybe if it's any good you can recommend it at your shop.”
“Thank you, Morgana,” he said, hoping whatever Arthur had gotten for his sister in both their names was equally nice. Turns out it was, Merlin didn't know the artist, but even he could tell that whoever drew the portraits Morgana unwrapped was talented.
Slowly, the unwrapping ended and it seemed like all of them were ready to call it a night. Uther and Catrina probably had some more royal business to attend and both Arthur and Morgana seemed to be eager not to get dragged into any of that.
Rather stiffly, Uther told his children goodbye and the siblings left at the same time, both getting in their own cars after hugging each other goodbye much more warmly than they had been with their father and stepmother.
“Thank you for coming with me,” Arthur said as they drove away from the castle’s driveway and towards their tiny, unassuming flat that nobody would ever expect a prince to live in.
“You don't have to thank me, I'm glad I could come with you.” Merlin wasn't lying, he was glad he could spend the evening with Arthur even if it meant spending it with his family as well.
“But I do feel like I have to apologise for not getting you properly fed tonight. I should have known about the fish.”
“It's okay, Arthur, the cake was really delicious.”
“Did you get the recipe?” Arthur asked and Merlin smiled at the question. He hadn't told Arthur about wanting the recipe.
“Yes, the cook was really lovely.”
“Yeah, Greta is the best. She used to make all those delicious cakes for me for my birthdays and often let me sneak in the kitchen to watch her cook. I always found it rather soothing.”
Merlin, of course, knew about that. He also knew Arthur still found it soothing to watch someone— Merlin— cook or to cook himself. Still, he listened intently.
“You know she made some vegetable casserole yesterday? She gave me the leftovers. So what do you say, some second dinner and a movie tonight?”
Merlin smiled and excitedly told Arthur yes. Reaching for Arthur’s left hand on the hand brake, he couldn't wait to get home and spend the rest of the night with Arthur as well as the rest of his life, even if it meant dealing with the Royal Family more often in their future.