“Hey, Mum? Would it be alright if I brought someone home for Christmas?”
Hunith made a surprised noise into the phone, her eyebrows crinkling together as she considered her son’s nervous tone, still so evident even though they were more than a hundred miles apart. She knew Merlin was taking well to university and was making all kinds of friends, but she wouldn’t have guessed that romance was already at the forefront of his mind.
“Of course,” Hunith said, putting on her bravest face, though she found she wasn’t as opposed to the idea as she would have thought. Merlin was growing up; he hadn’t been her baby boy for many years now, so it was inevitable that he’d find a girl he wanted her to meet. “What’s her name, sweetheart? How long have you been seeing her?”
“What?” Merlin asked, voice crackling over the line, but he let out a short laugh a moment later. “No, Mum, it’s not a girl. It’s my roommate. You remember Arthur, right?”
Hunith let out a deep breath and held in a laugh of her own.
Arthur had been at the forefront of Merlin’s mind from the moment he arrived at Oxford. The first two months’ worth of Merlin’s phone calls home had been full to the brim with complaints about Arthur – he was arrogant, rude, classist, never cleaned, always noisy, expected everyone to fall at his feet because he was rich and had powerful parents, thought he was God’ gift to earth –
And Merlin hated him. He had made this point very clear from the start.
But sometime around October, his phone calls started to change.
Oh, Arthur was still an overwhelming part of Merlin’s university experience – but instead of a slew of nasty comments about him, Merlin’s words started to change. Arthur and I did this last week, Arthur and I are going here, Arthur and I were talking, Arthur and I, Arthur and I, Arthur and I.
“You’ve had quite the turnaround about Arthur, haven’t you?” Hunith asked her son, amused with this new development and a little relieved that her only baby wasn’t bringing home a girl quite yet.
Merlin sighed into the phone, and Hunith could practically see him giving her a tetchy look. “He doesn’t have a good relationship with his dad, alright? And staying in the dormitories for the holidays would be a nightmare, so I told him that he could come home with me.”
“Well, it will be nice to put a face to the name,” Hunith said pleasantly, warmth blossoming in her chest. Merlin would do anything for anybody, she already knew that, but it was such a blessing to see her son’s kind heart in action. “Are you still catching the train on the twenty-first?”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Emyrs.”
“Please, please, call me Hunith,” Hunith smiled graciously at the boy in her living room. Arthur was a handsome boy, blond-haired and blue-eyed, but he had a nervous air about him as he glanced about the small apartment. He did look out of place there, what with his posh accent, expensive clothing, and what looked like manicured fingernails. “You’ve had a long drive; you must be starving. Can I get you anything to eat? Some tea, maybe?”
“Tea would be nice,” Arthur gave her a strained smile. “Thank you for having me for Christmas.”
“Oh, it’s my pleasure,” Hunith told him, resisting the urge to reach out and give him a tight hug, tell him that this was a good place where he would be treated kindly, that he didn’t have to look so terrified of her.
“I see you’re already charming my mother,” Merlin’s head appeared at the top of the staircase; he had been tasked with carrying their bags. “Don’t worry, Mum – I already gave him a chat about politeness. It’s one of his issues.”
“You’re the one who has issues –” Arthur made a face at Merlin, but quickly schooled his features into a look of utmost respect as he caught Hunith’s eye. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.”
“You’re always rude,” Merlin reached the foot of the stairs and gave Arthur a disgruntled shove. “Don’t worry. Mum grew up with me and Will terrorizing her day in and day out – I’m sure she can handle your distasteful personality quirks.”
Arthur bit a comment back, and Merlin volleyed something else at him, and before long they were bickering quietly as Hunith brought them fresh baked cookies from the oven. They didn’t much notice when she came back into the room, too wrapped up in their conversation, and it was then that Hunith noticed Merlin’s hand on Arthur’s knee.
Maybe she hadn’t been too far off when she believed he was bringing a girl home.
Arthur stayed through New Year’s before the boys went back to school, but Hunith still waited a few months, taking her time, hoping Merlin would come to her on his own. But Hunith was a naturally curious person, and all she wanted was for her son to know that anything he did was fine with her as long as he was happy, and it wasn’t long before she couldn’t contain herself anymore.
“And how is Arthur?” She asked during their weekly Sunday night phone call.
“Arthur? Oh, he’s fine. Annoying as ever – yesterday he told me that his favorite band was the Beatles.” Merlin made a disparaging noise, and Hunith had to hold in a snort as well. “What a posh prat.”
“Do tell him I say hello,” Hunith said, before hurriedly adding, “And the two of you? How’s that going?”
“Um…fine?” Merlin sounded confused, and Hunith hoped beyond hope that she had never given him the impression that he had to be scared to tell her something like this. “I’ve finally trained him not to leave his dirty towels on the floor.”
“He’s not a dog, Merlin,” Hunith reminded him gently, though laughingly. “He’s…he’s your boyfriend, isn’t he?”
The phone was silent for a moment and Hunith held her breath, but when Merlin spoke again, it was with an incredulous chuckle. “…No? Mum, did you really think that I was dating Arthur and didn’t tell you about it?”
“Well, aren’t you?” Hunith said, a little frustrated that Merlin was still trying to hide this from her.
“No!” Merlin laughed. “He’s my friend, Mum. Probably my best friend. But we’re not dating. He’s way too irritating to date.”
“But you’re so close!” Hunith pointed out, not sure why she was arguing, but it wasn’t long before she realized that she was disappointed. She wanted Merlin to be dating Arthur. “I’ve never seen you like that with anyone.”
“What about Will?”
“That’s different, you and Will have known each other since you were three,” Hunith pointed out. “Arthur…I don’t know, Merlin. You bicker like you’re married.”
“We’ve been told,” Merlin said, voice still light and amused. “I’m not dating him, Mum. I would have told you if I was.”
That did make Hunith feel a little better, that Merlin wasn’t worried about her potential reaction to this apparently imagined event. She sighed into the receiver. “Well, that’s the important thing, I suppose.”
“I promise, Mum, if I decide to have a sexuality freak-out – or, God forbid, date Arthur – and I feel exhausted just saying that - you will be the first person I tell. Deal?”
Merlin came home that summer to work for Gaius at the vet’s clinic in town, like he’d done every summer since he was fourteen, but Hunith knew instinctually that this would probably be the last summer he’d spend in Ealdor. He’d stay in Oxford next year, take classes, get a job on campus – stay with Arthur.
He texted Arthur constantly throughout the summer, always had an antecdote at dinner about what Arthur had done that day. Hunith asked Gaius how much Merlin had been on his phone at work – Gaius had snapped a latex glove at her, raised his eyebrow, and said in a tone of the deepest possible suffering, “constantly.”
“Why don’t you invite Arthur to come stay for a week?” Hunith asked Merlin over lamb chops one night. Merlin looked up from his phone with an odd look in his eye. “Is he working this summer?”
“He’s too posh to have a summer job,” Merlin said with an amused look in his eye as he bit his lip. “Can I, though? Ask him to stay?”
And so Arthur stayed with them the last week of July. Merlin took a few days off of work, much to Gaius’s chagrin, but there was one afternoon that Merlin had to go in, leaving Arthur and Hunith alone in the apartment.
“You could see if Will is working this afternoon, see if the two of you could meet Merlin when his shift is off,” Hunith had suggested to Arthur, but his eyes widened fractionally and he shook his head at the idea.
“Will and I without Merlin as a buffer is a terrible experience I don’t want to inflict upon myself,” Arthur said with a shudder. Hunith frowned at him, and Arthur explained. “He doesn’t like me.”
“He’s probably jealous of how close you and Merlin are,” Hunith said gently, beckoning Arthur toward the kitchen where she had a teapot ready and waiting. “You two are like two sides of the same coin – never one without the other.”
Arthur shrunk in on himself slightly under Hunith’s gaze, which was truly a feat; Merlin had been at least partially right about Arthur’s arrogance. The boy certainly didn’t like to show any vulnerability.
“Did Merlin tell you,” Hunith began, trying to brush off her words as a light-hearted joke, but a curiosity burgeoning inside of her at how Arthur would respond, “that I thought you were dating? Back when you came for Christmas?”
Arthur looked over at her over the teacup she handed him, the same nervous look about him that had adorned his face when he had first come to stay. “He didn’t tell me,” Arthur said with a bit of a laugh, but Hunith could tell that it wasn’t completely genuine. “Though probably because I would have made fun of him if he did. He’s far too annoying to date.”
“Funny, he said the exact same thing about you,” Hunith remarked, and this time Arthur’s laugh was real. “Though I don’t really care either way; I’m just glad you’re here, Arthur.”
“I – I’m glad I’m here, too,” Arthur said, a small smile on his lips. “I – I don’t know how much Merlin has told you about me, but – I never knew my mother.”
“He mentioned that, yes,” Hunith said softly, reaching for Arthur’s hand with her much smaller one, closing a fist around his. “I just want you to know that you’re always welcome in my house and with our family. Always.”
“Thank you,” Arthur told her quietly, squeezing her hand back, and Hunith was taken aback at how fervently she wanted Arthur to be a part of her family.
Arthur came to Ealdor again at Christmas, and then over spring break, and if anything, he and Merlin seemed to be even closer. They practically hung off one another, never without the other, always having a joke or a comment or a comeback for the other. They finished one another’s sentences, seemed to know exactly what the other was thinking.
Hunith watched, and hoped.
She had been right about Merlin not returning to Ealdor for the summer. He and Arthur had gotten an apartment near Oxford with two other boys – “Lance and Percival, Mum, I’ve mentioned them before – Lance is the one who did the Heimlich on me when I ate that shrimp at that one party” – and Merlin had a job at the local bookstore.
However, Hunith fully expected to see Arthur that Christmas, so it was a surprise when Merlin told her that he wouldn’t be joining them this year.
“Why not?” Hunith said, heart falling in her chest. “Is he spending the holidays with his father this year?”
“God no,” Merlin’s voice crackled over the line. “Uther Pendragon doesn’t really do Christmas, or anything warm and fuzzy like that. No, he’s spending it with his bitchy girlfriend.”
“Merlin!” Hunith admonished, putting aside her own feeling about the situation for a moment. “I’ve never heard you use that word to describe a woman before and I hope I never will again.”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, and he did seem a little guilty about. “You haven’t met her, though. Sophia’s…awful. Everyone thinks so. Even Gwen, Lance’s girlfriend, who’s the nicest person on the planet, thinks she’s a terrible person. And he starts acting terrible when he’s around her.”
“I’m sorry,” Hunith told him sincerely, her heart breaking at the idea of Merlin and Arthur not being Merlin-and-Arthur. “I’m sure that if she’s really that awful, he’ll come to his senses soon enough. I’m sad to know that we can’t spend Christmas together, though. It was becoming a tradition.”
“About that,” Merlin said, and suddenly he sounded nervous. Hunith’s heart raced a bit faster in her chest. “I do have a friend who…who doesn’t really have any family. She was just going to stay here in Oxford, but I said that I would ask you if it would be alright if she come stay with us.”
“Of course,” Hunith said without hesitation, though a guilty part of her wished it was Arthur who was coming to stay. “Are – are you seeing this girl? Romantically?”
“Uh, yeah, a little,” Merlin said with a nervous laugh.
Hunith steeled herself as she said “Then I’m happy to meet her. What’s her name?”
Freya had been shy, but otherwise perfectly lovely. She clung onto Merlin like a lifeline throughout most of their visit, and they didn’t stay through New Year’s. Still, she was a pretty girl, and clearly very clever – she and Merlin had met through the biochemical engineering program that they were both a part of. She knew how to talk about science and literature, which Hunith was sure appealed to Merlin’s tastes.
Hunith didn’t want to judge, she really didn’t – and yet she couldn’t help but compare their relationship to Merlin’s relationship with Arthur. After seeing her son be that close with someone, it was disheartening not to see a similar connection with his girlfriend.
But Hunith had already known Merlin and Arthur were one-of-a-kind.
Arthur called her the day after New Year’s, his tone apologetic, and yet there was a quality to it that Hunith didn’t like.
“I just wanted to say that I really appreciated the invitation,” Arthur said, clipped and formal, which he hadn’t been around her since that first Christmas. “Unfortunately, I was skiing with my girlfriend in the Alps this Christmas.”
“It’s no problem, really,” Hunith assured him. “And that sounds fun! Did you have a good time?”
“Fine,” Arthur said, a bit too sharply for Hunith’s taste. “Hopefully I’ll see you sometime in this year.”
“I hope so, too,” Hunith said, upset as the line disconnected. She wondered what could have possibly happened between Merlin and Arthur to make Arthur so cold – and came to the realization that although the two of them may have never dated, maybe they had harbored some latent feelings. Feelings that had been disrupted by both of their girlfriends.
Hunith wasn’t sure exactly when Merlin and Freya broke things off, but by the time Merlin was home, alone, that spring break, they were no longer together.
“We just wanted different things,” Merlin said with a shrug as he curled up on the overlarge sofa in their sitting room, the television in the background. “She’s always wanted to go back to her hometown in America, settle down and have kids – I don’t know. I might want that someday, I guess. The settling down and having kids part, I mean. I don’t think I could ever live in a small town again; no offense,” he added, shooting Hunith a guilty look, but she just laughed as she sat down next to him, patting his shoulder.
“But she wants all of that too soon,” Merlin continued, grimacing slightly. “And she’s nice and sweet and everything, but she’s not –”
He broke off with a wince. Hunith sighed and put her arm around his shoulder, wider and broader than she ever could have imagined it being – her son almost grown up entirely.
“She’s not what you’re looking for,” Hunith told him gently and Merlin nodded in response. “We all find people we’re not looking for at some point. You just have to move past it and try again to find something else. Something you really do want.”
They were silent for a moment; Hunith thought of Arthur and wondered if Merlin was thinking the same. “How is Arthur?” She asked, hoping that the silence had been long enough that it wasn’t an inappropriate segue.
Merlin just shook his head. “Fine, I guess. He…he broke up with Sophia and he apologized to all of us for treating us like dirt when she was around. I guess that’s something. But we’re not…not close like we used to be. I just…I miss him, you know? We did everything together, and now –”
He stopped, taking in a breath. Hunith squeezed his shoulder, willing him to say whatever words were coming next.
“I – I started seeing someone else,” Merlin said quickly, biting his lip as he did. “Well, I mean, seeing is a bit of a stretch. Sleeping with. Sleeping with a guy. Gwaine. He’s in Percival’s program and we get along and it’s good, it’s great, I just – I promised I’d tell you, that’s all.”
Merlin looked down, his fingernails digging into his hand, a nervous habit from when he was a child. Hunith couldn’t help the overflow of emotion within her as she took her son’s hands in her own.
“I love you no matter what,” she told him softly, and she could see a couple of tears hidden beneath his mop of unruly hair. “But I have to ask, sweetheart. Do you have feelings for Arthur?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin said miserably, letting go of Hunith’s hands to press his own against his eyes. “And I feel like it doesn’t even matter if I do. He doesn’t feel the same way. We’re hardly friends at this point. I just want to be close to him. Maybe. I guess. I don’t know.”
Hunith reached up to stroke her son’s hair as he tried not to cry and she wished beyond hope that there was something she could do.
Hunith had always been a tad too overprotective; she would be the first to admit it. When Merlin was growing up, she always wanted to know what he was doing, who he was doing it with, and what time he’d be back. As a teenager, she had known every single one of his friends, had been second mothers to them all, and spent every second she could with her son from the moment he was born to the moment he left home.
It was only natural that she couldn’t help herself but to call Arthur.
“This is Hunith,” she said politely into the phone when Arthur picked up, feeling as though she was past the point where she needed to add Merlin’s mother.
“Oh, hello,” Arthur said, sounding surprised, but much more pleasant than the last time Hunith had spoken with him. “Did Merlin not charge his phone again? Because I can hit him over the head for you and tell him to call you immediately.”
“No,” Hunith said with a laugh, her heart soaring that the two of them were joking with one another again, their same old bickering selves. “I called to speak with you, actually. I know that you and Merlin haven’t been on great terms as of late –”
“That’s my fault,” Arthur hurriedly added as soon as Hunith gave him an opening. “I was…pretty awful to all of my friends these past few months. I was trying to impress a girl. I realize now that I was just being a massive dick – I mean –” he stammered for a moment. “– A massive jerk.”
“I didn’t call to place any blame,” Hunith said. “I just wanted you to know that – that he misses you. And he’s too proud to say it. And I’d like to think that I know you well enough to know that you’re too proud to say it, too.”
Arthur was quiet for a moment. “I suppose you’re right,” he said, begrudgingly but still respectfully. “I wish – I wish things were different, I just want him to –”
He broke off and when he spoke again, Hunith’s heart seized in her chest. “I really care about him, you know. I don’t know how to show it. I’ve never had to – to apologize for something like this. I just want him to – I just want him. That’s all.”
“Then try,” Hunith said, trying not to let her voice convey the tears pricking in her eyes. “Because I think the two of you would be rather lost without one another.”
Six months later and it was Christmas again; this time, Arthur was there again, and his fingers were entwined with Merlin’s as they walked in the front door.
It was Christmas three years later when there was a ring on Arthur’s finger and Hunith said “I think you should call me Mum from now on.”
Arthur looked over at her across the television with wide eyes; Merlin’s footsteps were in the next room, filling a plate with Christmas cookies. There was a kitten curled up between them on the couch, taking Merlin’s seat; Merlin and Arthur’s attempt at we’re seeing if we can handle this before we even think about approaching anything resembling caring for human beings.
“I’d really like that,” Arthur smiled, “Mum.”