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Author's Note: As every fanfic writer most certainly has at some point, I decided to write a Christmas/Yule fic in honor of the upcoming holidays. For those of you who follow me or my stories at AO3, I will most likely turn this into a series. Those of you who are readers, this may, or may not, remain a one-shot. Certainly, I have plenty of ideas for more seasonal stories that I look forward to turning out, so please keep your eyes peeled!
Summary: Merlin's first (not) Yule in Camelot has arrived, and upon learning how cherished the holiday had been by a certain special lady, he sets out to provide Arthur with a little holiday cheer…(Friendshipfic. Christmasfic. Season 1.)
Personal Thoughts/Memories (Italics)
By Sentimental Star
I: First Yule
Given its Druidic origins, the outlawing of Yule had not terribly surprised Merlin. Although he had only newly arrived in Camelot not eight months prior, he knew well enough that anything even remotely hinting at magical origins would be banned, barred, and otherwise prevented from ever surfacing.
Still, he had hoped that a celebration as deeply rooted as Yule would at least receive some sort of acknowledgement. But Ærra Jéola—Before Yule—came, went, and not so much as a sprig of holy appeared.
When he spied Arthur looking particularly listless one day after returning from a cold, sleet-infested practice with the knights, Merlin drew up a hot bath for the prince and confronted Gaius the moment Arthur released him.
"…Whatever anyone tells you, Merlin," his teacher, too, looked particularly tired this night and Merlin's conscience smote him for his loud and rather uncoordinated entrance, "it is not the Druidic origins which cause Uther to try and blot Yule's existence from collective memory. It was once Ygraine's favorite holiday."
Some of the air went out of Merlin, "But that's ridiculous!"—if not much. His sputter filled the silence that had settled between master and pupil.
Gaius's disapproving eyebrow told his apprentice exactly what he thought of said warlock's (perceived) hot-headedness.
As in so many other things, however, Merlin surprised his mentor, "If Lady Ygraine loved Yule so much, should he not celebrate it in memory of her? In order to honor her memory?" He trailed off at Gaius's struck expression, "What is it, Gaius?"
"I…am not sure he has ever thought of it in quite that manner, young one. I do not think anyone has since she…passed away," Gaius's voice had turned soft, his blue-green eyes glowing sad and thoughtful, but clear.
Merlin flushed, hearing the ache Gaius could not quite conceal, "I…sorry, Gaius. I-I know you still miss her, but…hasn't this ban gone on long enough? I-I mean, Arthur is-"
Gaius's sudden warm, wide smile did not help his composure any, "What?" repeated again, more than a little embarrassed.
Gaius shook his head, gently patting Merlin's shoulder as he stood up from where he had seated himself by the fire, "Do not ever change, young one."
As he swept off towards one of his open potions books, a puzzled (and therefore highly annoyed) Merlin scowled faintly (if fondly) at his back.
He started when the elderly physician stopped halfway across the room, "Oh, and Merlin?"
Merlin stiffened, straightening up and bracing himself for a scolding, "Yes, Gaius?"
The scolding never came—Gaius tossed a small smirk over his shoulder, "Should you find yourself so inclined, the stable master is sure to have an extra strip of leather lying around and, provided you replace it, I am not averse to repurposing a bit of our fire wood. You know where the leather- and wood-working tools are, I am sure, and should you find yourself in need of a little extra guidance, you certainly know where to find me."
It took Merlin a few moments to process Gaius's offer and what it meant; when he did, an enormous grin spread across his face from ear to ear.
"Hmm?" the physician had clearly reached his potions tome by now.
"What was Lady Ygraine's favorite bird?"
Merlin had not quite accounted for Arthur's hard-learned suspicion, and found great difficulty in smothering the urge to laugh hysterically at how warily Arthur circled his bed, critically eyeing the nondescript package sitting in the middle of the mattress.
"What is it, Merlin?"
Merlin snorted softly, "A box, Arthur."
Arthur jerked his head up to scowl at him, "I know that, Merlin! I meant, why is it here?"
"Have you ever heard of a Yule gift?"
The question itself should have dripped sarcasm and teasing, but Merlin honestly did not know if Arthur were aware of the traditions that accompanied Yule if he had never truly celebrated it.
Irregardless, Arthur scowled even more, "I do know it's Yule, Merlin. I also know my father has expressly forbidden celebrations of any kind from taking place. Why would anyone risk that just to give a gift to me?"
Merlin felt fairly certain his chest should not have clenched as much as it did upon hearing that (unconsciously self-conscious) question, "Perhaps to curry favor with the newly-instated Crown Prince?" he shrugged.
Arthur's brow furrowed as he frowned, "Perhaps…"
Merlin tried not to shift impatiently (or uneasily) from foot to foot, "Shall I remove it, Sire?"
His frown deepening, Arthur shook his head, "No…I just…do you think I should open it?"
Merlin rolled his eyes, "I believe that's its purpose, you prat."
He received a scowl for all his trouble.
"Just open it already, Arthur," perhaps it was not the wisest idea to pick up the brown-paper wrapped parcel and shove it into the prince's chest, but he did so nonetheless and was rewarded by the disappearance of Arthur's scowl.
The prince's brow furrowed again, thoughtfully this time, as he closely studied his manservant's expression, "You didn't…" he trailed off uncertainly, then shook his head, clearly dismissing the unspoken possibility.
Merlin stiffened, and prayed desperately than both the rigidness of his stance and the embarrassment in his expression passed unnoticed.
Fortunately (or so it seemed), they did. Arthur sat on the edge of his mattress and carefully unwrapped the package he held, half-choking on a gasp as he struggled to maintain some semblance of princely composure once he lifted the lid to reveal its contents.
Merlin wished he could tell him not to bother, and tried not to look as invested in Arthur's reaction to the gift as he actually felt.
"…How could they know?" the whisper barely penetrated the silence between them, and its fragility caused Merlin's stomach to flip-flop. "How could they possibly know?"
Merlin barely restrained a sharply inhaled breath when Arthur lifted his head and gazed up at him with blue eyes whose shimmering quality most certainly had not been caused by the winter sunlight flickering around them. Cradled delicately between his hands' palms lay a carefully braided leather cord, off of which hung a finely carved wooden figurine.
Merlin did not expect his prince speak, but Arthur did, and it was with a tremble in his voice, "My mother's sigil—indeed, her favorite bird—was a dove. And this is…this is…" He trailed off, clearly unable to speak any further.
Marveling at Arthur's reaction, which had far surpassed any expectations he may have had, Merlin carefully knelt in front of the older boy. Gently (especially so, when he met no resistance), he curled his master's fingers over the necklace in his hands, "Perhaps they were a former servant of your mother's," he offered up softly, "and felt that you had gone without knowing her long enough."
Arthur glanced up sharply at this observation, opening his mouth to retort, when a sudden, hard knock sounded throughout the Crown Prince's chambers.
Both boys jumped at least two hands' span.
"My Lord?" the query was accompanied by another loud knock. "My Lord, are you awake?" Sir Leon's voice reached them easily through the door, "Your father has requested your presence at the breaking of last night's fast, Sire."
Perhaps it was inevitable that the knight's next knock was accompanied by manservant's and prince's breathless (if relieved) laughter.
Arthur remained thoughtful throughout the entirety of breakfast. Uther, while making note of it, did not seem inclined to inquire any further into his son's unusually pensive state that morning, and while Morgana seemed as though she desperately wanted to, Arthur's not-quite-sister knew well enough that she would not receive any information from him when he acted like this. Merlin smothered his grin at her exasperated glances in his direction while he served.
Said manservant did find it a tad bit difficult himself to conceal the smile tugging at his lips when he leaned over Arthur's shoulder to refill his pitcher of cream, and spotted the thinly braided chain from this morning's gift hanging unobtrusively around his neck. The dove pendant had been tucked discreetly beneath the Crown Prince's tunic, and Arthur could not seem to refrain from touching it once he sensed Merlin beside him.
Perhaps Merlin's presence had triggered something in Arthur's royal brain, for the prince quickly snagged his sleeve before his manservant could duck away and begin serving any of the others, "Merlin."
Merlin stilled, "Yes, Sire?" He followed Arthur's example by keeping his voice low.
"Were you the only one who entered my chambers this morning?"
"As far as I am aware, Sire."
Arthur frowned contemplatively, "No one else?"
"No, my Lord, not that I know of. May I be so bold as to inquire why?"
Arthur scowled, tightening his grip on Merlin's sleeve, "You may be so bold as to stop speaking in that manner," he hissed softly.
Merlin stifled a laugh and feigned confusion, concealing their most-likely-not-Uther-or-nobility-sanctioned-conversation by pretending to fuss over Arthur's place setting and serve him, "Speaking in what manner, my-"
Merlin bit back another laugh and leaned almost indecently close, "As you say, my Liege."
He checked a hiss of his own at the hidden elbow Arthur dug none-too-gently into his side.
Rolling his eyes (and hiding that fact by refilling Arthur's plate), Merlin quickly tried to slip away, lest Uther or a noble take more than a passing interest in master and manservant's conversation.
Arthur was not willing to release him quite so easily, however, and grabbed his elbow, eyeing him seriously, "Not everyone is so fearless and bold as you, Merlin."
Unsure what to say or how to respond to what sounded suspiciously like a disguised compliment, Merlin chose the safest route: restraining another eye roll, he murmured, "Yes, Your Prattiness."
Arthur's face relaxed into his usual, comfortable smirk, and Merlin decided he far preferred that expression to the isolation and exhaustion he had seen there all week. "Much better," came the prince's fond retort.
Merlin stood there for a full five seconds after Arthur had released him, trying to process why his chest cavity felt so bloody warm, and finally gave it up as a bad job. He did not sense Arthur's speculative look at his back once he began to serve again.
End First Yule