A/N: Beta'd now, thanks to Writing2Death. :)
Disclaimer: Neither Arthur nor Merlin nor Uther nor Morgana nor any other of the Merlin characters are mine. I just like them. :)
.:The Break-up Box:.
When Arthur met Merlin, Merlin was bubbly and bright and brilliant. Arthur was just... Arthur.
Merlin had known all about Arthur's utter success as a male model, but he never said a word about it. He would instead sit there and chat all about his day - how his uncle had another emergency at the hospital, and it was the cousin of so and so and when they found out wouldn't they just flip, or how his friend at school had gone out with this horrible girl who was not so horrible because she had saved the lives of three kittens last month and he was trying to get back together with her but was trying to make it clear that he mattered more than her animals, and how the sister of so and so had just gotten...
He generally just let it wash over him. They would meet every morning, Monday/Wednesday/Friday at 10:35, and Tuesday/Thursday at 11:29, and Arthur would get their coffees from the pretty barista he had kind of maybe had a thing with, but it was complicated, and then she had found a great guy who oozed loyalty and commitment and now she looked on their table with a sappy smile on her face, and all that was okay because she was happy and he could just sit and Merlin could just talk. It was his favourite part of the day.
He knew to get Merlin something with far too many syllables and words like 'shot' and 'lite' and 'extra this and that', along with the absolute thickest slice (he swore she cut it thicker just for Merlin) of triple chocolate cake topped in mousse and fudge and heavy on the syrup please. For himself he would get a coffee, black, one sugar, with a salad wrap or tuna sandwich that he would only pick at - if he got anything sweet at all Merlin would go on about health and sugar levels and living until you were too old to eat anyways, all the while getting a small goatee of chocolate on his face that Arthur would have to take a napkin to before they left for the rest of their days, which Merlin would ignore like it was just a drip of coffee on the table.
They would go on the rest of their days, separate from each other. The coffee shop was the closest to the bus terminal, and so while Merlin boarded the 71 east to the college, Arthur would board the 54 west for the business sector. He was a lawyer, a partner at a firm, and the best on the west side if he did say so himself. His specialty was civil dispute cases, and had a very fair record when it came to land and property disputes. It was another thing that Merlin knew about but never mentioned unless Arthur brought it up, which he didn't.
The first time Arthur asked Merlin to come back to his place it was a Monday, and it was raining.
He had momentarily forgotten that Merlin had to go to class, and forgot it all over again when Merlin said okay. He was skipping out at work, but he was often away from the office doing legitimate work related things and just this once he didn't think anyone would notice or care.
He stood perfectly still while Merlin walked leisurely through his loft apartment, chattering about the view he had and the pretty sculptures that were strategically placed about and how the shade of the curtains perfectly matched the throw pillows and ottoman. He stopped in a rare moment of stillness for Merlin as he reached the little photos on the mantle of the electrical fireplace that depicted his family sitting in shiny platinum frames.
Who's this? She's really pretty. Where is she now? What does she do? Who's that with her? She's pretty too. Did you grow up with them? Who's that? What does he do? Is he around much? Do you get along? Did you get along with her? I'm sorry. How old are you here? What are you doing?
That's my step sister Morgana. She's touring Australia. She works in forensics. That's her older sister Morgause. No, just Morgana. That's my father. He's a judge in the supreme courts. Yeah, he's around more now. We get along okay. I never knew her, she died when I was little. I was twelve, and we had just gone fishing and we're cleaning the fish. See my sun burn?
Yes. I see your smile too.
I smile all the time.
"Do you want some cocoa?" Arthur had relaxed much more when Merlin had stepped away from the mantle. He had flicked the switches to turn on the dimmed lights and the fireplace. He was fluffing the pillows now, suddenly aware that he hadn't sat on this couch in about a month, and neither had anyone else, ever since Morgana had gone.
"Yeah, that'd be brilliant!" Merlin flopped down on the couch, bouncing a little because of it. He was slouched and comfortable and Arthur decided he really didn't care if Merlin happened to put his shoes that weren't really shoes but more like boots pretending they were shoes and that he had not taken off at the door like Arthur had, on his black Italian sofa.
When he came back into the room announcing that it would be a minute for the machine to do its thing, his sentence died as he found his living room quite different than how he had left it. For one thing, all of the pillows had walked their way off the couch and on to the floor in front of the fire; for another his coffee table had completely vanished. He briefly entertained the notion the robbers had broken in, beat up his sofa and kidnapped his table, but he realised Merlin would have made enough noise about it. Speaking of Merlin...
"Where did you go?"
"I'm in the fort. Isn't this fun? It's raining out and we have a fire and a fort and cocoa, and do you have any of those packets of cookies with the rainbow chips in them?" Merlin's cheery voice came from what he assumed to be the 'fort'. He hadn't made one in exactly 12 years and was not exactly sure what he thought of the idea yet.
"I don't think I do. Strictly boring, grown up food. I could make popcorn if you want." He went back to the kitchen, neatly penciling in "Rainbow Cookies" on his next grocery list that was magnetized in a fancy clipboard setting to the fridge.
He came back the second time with two mugs in his hands and the bowl tucked away under his arm. He realised he had no idea where to put everything since the coffee table was supporting the mound of pillows. Settling for moving the lamp and setting it all on the tiny table beside the couch, he then peered into the fort from the top.
Merlin was laying under the table, jiggling his ankles as he looked up at Arthur.
"Want to come in?"
"There's hardly room."
"I'll budge up."
"Okay then." Arthur still wasn't sure he'd fit, but if this was what Merlin wanted him to do, he would.
"Wait!" He stopped suddenly in a rather awkward position before realising he didn't have to stay like that. "What's the password?"
Merlin's eyes were bright with reflected firelight and mischief and just plain being himself. Arthur thought the password was a bit much but he still played along.
"Well that's boring." Merlin's eyebrows wrinkled in disapproval.
"It's normally what it is, isn't it? How about... Neckerchief," he guessed, lightly tugging at Merlin's as he did.
"Haha, nope. It's something famous. A sword."
This time Arthur's eyebrows wrinkled. "I'm no good with this stuff. I only watched Lord of the Rings once, and it was because Morgana made me." He'd actually been really impressed with it, but would never admit it to anyone.
"Don't worry, it's not from Lord of the Rings, or the Hobbit. It's legendary. Everyone knows it!"
Arthur wasn't sure. If everyone knew what Merlin thought they should know, their brains would be very busy and loud and probably quite disturbing. He decided to go look it up but as soon as he stood up from his crouch in front of the fort, Merlin sprung out like a rabbit from a trap and was asking him where he was going.
He didn't know why he didn't just tell the truth but thought it had something to do with showing Merlin that two could play that game.
"I'm going to build my own fort. It will be much cooler since I have the 600 count Egyptian cotton sheets." He walked into the dark hallway, not sure of what Merlin would do. He didn't even hear him but he was suddenly at his side and tugging his hand.
"I've changed my mind. Passwords are dumb. Everything should be equal, right?" Those big blue eyes were searching into his own, afraid their owner had messed up.
Arthur nodded slowly and Merlin went right back to ordering Arthur in first so that there was enough room and grabbing the drinks and wishing for those little tiny marshmallows and whipped cream that he could stick in his cocoa and throwing popcorn at Arthur only to have it hit him anyway because there was so little room between them.
Arthur knew Merlin was his best friend when Merlin explicitly told him so and then pulled out a shoe box from behind his back. They were at Arthur's like they always were now, sitting on the couch and sipping coffee - well, gulping in Merlin's case.
It was green and slightly dusty and Merlin admitted he kept it under his bed.
"What is it?"Arthur dared to ask. He could see Polaroids sticking out of the sides and what he thought was a piece of yarn.
"Have you never seen Clueless? Well knowing you, probably not. Okay, well this is a break-up box. When someone breaks up with you you're supposed to put everything that reminds you of them into it and then burn it to help you get over them."
It seemed like an odd and somewhat psychotic ritual to Arthur, but if Merlin said that people did it, he'd believe him. Maybe.
"This doesn't look very burned to me." Arthur wasn't sure where this was going. Merlin had never mentioned his old relationships or his current ones, if he had them, and quite frankly Arthur didn't really want to know if he did.
"That's the thing. I never could burn them. I only have this one now though, the other one got taken back by the person it was about." He grinned like it was some great twist at the end of the story. Arthur wondered who could be conceited enough to take something like that from Merlin, with his puppy dog eyes and his mismatched socks that you could always see were never the same height when he crossed his legs under the table or the way he bit his thumb when he was about to tell you something he thought really truly mattered.
"Anyways, this one I've never showed anyone, but since we're best friends now, I want to show you so you know about me." He was still grinning, but it was sadder now. Arthur decided that as curious as he'd become he definitely did not want to see what was in the box if it made Merlin wear that sad smile.
In the box were pictures of a girl. She had dark stringy hair and huge dark eyes and the look of a small wild animal that needed help but was too afraid to accept it. There were pictures of Merlin and her laughing, Merlin's eyes on her even while they were crinkled. There were pictures of what looked like a party in a basement, a cake with gobs of icing and candy boats and a messily written 'Happy Birthday Freya' with the y of birthday dripping off the side of the cake and onto the plate, and brightly coloured candles all arranged in a clearly Merlinesk style. There were shots of Merlin trying to make her eat the icing off the bottom of the candles and him attacking her with a handful of the cake.
Looking into the box, Arthur saw the exact same candles floating around in the bottom.
There were other things that he removed from the box, slowly piecing together a different time in Merlin's life, one that he'd never known. When he was almost through he noticed that Merlin had actually stopped talking, and now that he thought about it he hadn't heard his voice in quite a while. He was looking at Arthur, watching as he took out fragments his past.
Arthur didn't say anything as he put it all back carefully. He was uncomfortable and wanted to change the subject.
"Did you want me to order pizza?" He thought his throat was a little tight.
Merlin was on board right away, shoving the box into his backpack as he rambled about getting tomatoes, and not the normal tomatoes but the sun dried ones because they had more spice, and did Arthur like lots of meat on his pizza? Because Merlin took him for that kind of guy and he thought he could try it although he really only liked pepperoni cut thick.
Arthur didn't like that it made his chest constrict when Merlin could start talking about something so trivial so quickly when he'd just shown him the break-up box. He didn't think it was fair, especially because now that he was thinking of it, he'd never cared about anyone enough that he would make a break-up box for them.
"Do you want to come to my Father's wedding with me?" Arthur wasn't sure how Merlin would react. It wasn't anything big really, going to a wedding with anyone, at least he didn't think it was.
"Since we're best friends, I figured we could help each other stay awake through the toasts." He had started explaining because Merlin was looking at him like he had said something important, like he had asked if they could get married and Arthur wasn't sure how asking someone to keep them company was any deal at all.
"Yeah," Merlin said, clearing his throat through the word. "Who's he marrying?"
"Her name is Catrina. She's a bit of a hag, but he really loves her." Normally he wouldn't have said that, but it seemed like something that Merlin would think was interesting, and Morgana had called her that at some point in time.
Merlin grinned that grin which showed each and every one of his teeth. "Well it doesn't matter then, it always works out in the movies when true love is involved." Merlin put way to much store in movie plots, but that was okay.
Arthur thought he was going to continue rambling again, but he stayed quiet and when his thumbnail made its way to his mouth Arthur started paying closer attention. He could never guess what was coming when Merlin did this.
"Would you, uhm, want to come over and help me get ready? I've never been to a wedding and don't know what to wear."
"Oh. Yeah. I'll come over." Arthur had never been to Merlin's house before.
It turned out Merlin lived with his mum on the other side of town. There was a garden out front and lots of plants inside and the house smelled of earth and bread and some underlying vanilla scent that Arthur thought was caused by the candles that crowded every surface along with pictures upon pictures of Merlin.
They were absolutely everywhere: above the stove, in a square as a centre piece, on the coffee table and on the mantle and by the door and on every single wall. And they were of Merlin doing everything. Some were snapshots of him playing with a dog or tossing a ball when he was smaller and gawkier, while others where of him with his big silly grin while he cut a cake or played a piano or went off to school. Arthur thought that if he payed attention he could count every single one of Merlin's birthdays, and he did.
When he'd been looking for some time with Merlin's mum sitting at the counter, telling him about every picture as he approached it because she knew each one so well, he was taken by the hand and led away to Merlin's bedroom.
"Well, this is it. Don't mind the mess, mum is always on my case." Arthur had to stop and take it in piece by piece. The walls were a faded baby blue colour, but they were almost invisible under all of the posters that Merlin had pinned to his walls. Arthur hadn't heard of half or even a quarter of them, but they all seemed to be movies.
When his eyes got to the floor, he realised that it was invisible too. Clothes of every colour and shape were flung about, and it was no wonder Merlin wore mismatched socks since he probably couldn't find two of a kind.
Merlin had started his talking, rambling on about button up shirts coming back into fashion and what kind of cuffs were more comfortable and zip up hoodies versus pull overs, and it all sounded like another language. Arthur was looking for a place to sit considering the lack of surfaces.
"Oh, here, let me move some of this," Merlin bubbled happily, shoving what looked like a nest of pillows from the bed to the floor.
"So I was thinking about just wearing dress pants and a nice shirt with the collar open and just a scarf maybe, but seeing you all dressed up like that has made me reconsider." He was looking Arthur over with an appraising eye and Arthur started to wonder if he had actually needed any help at all.
"That sounds all right. I have to be fancy. I'm the best man. And I'm walking Morgana down the isle, and you know her." He hadn't wanted to introduce them at first because he knew that they would get along well and talk about clothes and coffees and music and him. But when Morgana got back from Australia she immediately knew that someone else had been in Arthur's apartment and had dragged out a lot more from him than he would have liked.
"She would absolutely skin you if you didn't show up in your best, and I bet she helped pick everything out since it was a wedding and did she pick that colour of tie you're wearing? It probably matches her dress right, or did the bride pick it all out? Is Morgana the Maid of Honour?" And he went on like that until he had chosen himself a dark blue tie with white stars on it that somehow made his eyes look amazing.
"Do you want to dance?"
They had been at the reception for two hours now, and Arthur had been watching the candles burn while Merlin tried to see how many sugar packets he could dissolve into his coffee before it turned to a slushy state.
Arthur turned to Merlin, but he didn't look up.
"Dance. Like all those other people are doing." He nodded towards the dance floor where almost everyone was now after the lull between everyone talking to everyone else, and everyone seemingly wanting to talk to Merlin and Arthur, and anyone who needed to get home at a reasonable hour left and all those who stayed intended on getting happily sloshed. Once they had, they all migrated to the dance floor where nobody cared that the Macarena had already been done twelve times.
"I guess so." Arthur again wasn't sure what he thought about it, but was bored and tired and had seemingly danced with all of the elderly woman here, not to mention the bride and the bride's maids and Morgana and why not Merlin?
It was a slower song. They started out dancing but it turned quickly to a slow shuffle around in a never ending circle. Their heights made it odd, since Arthur was used to leading someone shorter than him and Merlin was definitely taller. Merlin of course didn't seem to notice. He was talking about the lights and the water and did he think this would ever be him?
"What?" Arthur asked as Merlin waited for an answer.
"Do you think you'll get married like this with the love of your life?" Merlin was looking him in the eye now, a subtle and bemused smile on his face.
"I don't know. I've never thought about it. I guess." Merlin hmmed and fell silent for a while, which made Arthur think. Is this the kind of thing he wanted? Is this what Merlin wanted? Is this what Merlin wanted from him, from their 'best friend-ship"?
Have you ever been in love?
Yes Merlin. Yes I have.
It was hard to ask Merlin about things that had to do with them, since they rarely talked about themselves. But Arthur figured that he should be the one to do it, to act like a man and figure this out. The problem was he had no idea what he was doing.
"...Merlin?" He'd asked one day, interrupting a blow-by-blow description of the movie Merlin had just gone to see.
"Are you... Do you want to date me?"
Merlin's thumb went to his mouth, and he quickly bit off the skin before answering, "Yes. I would," and continuing with his story.
And it was like that for a long time, where the important parts that changed their relationship were thrown in between words and events, like the baseball game Arthur had taken Merlin too. They were both cheering, arms raised, when Merlin suddenly turned to Arthur and kissed him wetly before going back to shouting and waiving his over-sized foam hand above his head.
Arthur was glad though when Merlin decided to have a ceremony for a certain green box. He knew what it meant to him, and was surprised when Merlin showed up at his house one day, covered in snow and his nose bright red, announcing they were going to do something special.
"I brought matches in case you didn't have any. And I figured since you don't have an actual fireplace, we could do it in a metal dustbin, if you have one. I think you have one, in the toilet, right?" Arthur was slightly disturbed that Merlin had taken note of what type of bins he had.
So sitting in front of the fireplace, Merlin had slowly placed the break-up box into the now empty bin. "It'll be like it's in the fire, since it's right behind," Merlin explained. He took his matches from his bag and held them up.
"Are you sure you want to do this? I don't mind that you have it." Arthur actually wasn't sure. He wanted Merlin to be happy but he had kind of hoped that Merlin would be happy enough with him not to need something that he could go through to remember being happy with someone else.
"Yes. Definitely." He looked determined. He struck the match and put it in. They waited a second, but when nothing dramatic happened they both peered into the bin only to discover the match hadn't taken. They tried tree more times, in the end both holding two matches and dropping them, before it took and the whole thing burned slowly and horribly and the smoke alarm went off and Arthur's place smelled like burnt plastic for three days after.
"Did you have copies of the pictures?" Arthur asked.
"Mum probably does somewhere, but I don't." Merlin stared into the fire for a while before turning to him.
"Yes?" Arthur asked when Merlin didn't say anything right away.
"Did you know I used to keep pictures of you in my closet? I know that sounds bad, but you know when you were a kid and the closet was like special and you could paste anything you wanted there so you could look at it while you were on the phone where your mum couldn't hear?"
"Uh... No, I can't say I ever did that."
"Oh. Well I did, and I had cut out a bunch of people from magazines, and you were one of them."
Arthur nodded, still trying to process. He had been a male model to help him pay his own way through law school, and he didn't like to think about those days anymore. He didn't mind that Merlin had done that though and to let him know he asked, "Are you secretly a teenage girl?"
Merlin laughed and answered yes.
It had been nearly a year since they had started officially dating, and over two that they had sat there and talked in the coffee shop.
When Arthur decided to do what he felt was right, all those minutes and hours seemed not nearly enough.
"Merlin," he started, sitting him down at the shop and giving him his coffee. "I need to tell you something."
This was going to be messy, he just knew it, because he hadn't slept in a week and his head was a mess and he'd flopped on three separate cases at work. He couldn't even look at Merlin now because he knew he'd not be able to tell him.
"I need to be on my own." There. Now just explain. "Morgana's gone missing and our family is falling apart and I need to be there for my father without dragging anyone else into this." He looked up then, and instantly wished he hadn't.
Merlin's eyes were big and glassy. The long bunny ears on his hat seemed to droop with sadness, and it was then that Arthur really thought about how different they were. Merlin, a student, bright with life and always wearing at least four different colours and talking at 100 miles an hour about everything he could think of. And Arthur, in his dark suits, in his cold apartment and his mismatched family and his silent way of life.
Maybe this was better. Maybe Merlin could find someone who could shine as brightly as him.
It was tough without Merlin's hand in his own while he spent night after night comforting his father and tracking down where exactly she had ended up.
In the end, it was bitter sweet. He found her, and his father disowned her. She had run off back to Australia at the call of someone she had met there while on her tour. She had come back when they found her, raging about living her own life and Uther being a bunch of things that Arthur didn't want to think about because they hit somewhere close to home. And all at once she was back in Australia and Uther was colder and Arthur was lonelier and it wouldn't stop snowing.
Arthur didn't know how to cope with all of this, and he didn't want to. He didn't want his father or his step sister or any of it. He found himself driving around aimlessly, wondering vaguely if he'd get in an accident with all of this snow. He didn't. He found himself in a small driveway that he'd driven to a million times before.
Merlin's mum answered right away, and he instantly felt bad about having clearly woken her up. She didn't say anything to him, and he didn't say anything to her, but she moved aside and pointed him up the stairs.
Merlin's door was shut and he opened it to a room lit with a glowing yellow moon lamp and two pink lava lamps. Merlin was nowhere to be seen and Arthur was careful as he walked through his room in case he was buried in a pile of clothes somewhere.
When he got to the bed Arthur was surprised that Merlin wasn't there. The red glowing numbers on the clock said three thirty and he realised that it was the middle of the night and now felt doubly bad for waking Hunith.
He sat on the bed and wondered where Merlin could be. He thought about his love of small places and his story of spending time on the phone in the closet. Opening the swing-out door, he saw a large cardboard box with a pair of legs hanging out of it. Inside was Merlin, covered in an assortment of things that included the throw from Arthur's living room that he hadn't even noticed had gone missing.
"Merlin," he called softly, petting the midnight coloured hair. There was no response at first and there was more guilt involved but he called again and again until Merlin woke up.
"What? What are you doing here? What time is it?" He groggily sat up and blinked at Arthur, looking for all the world like a ruffled up baby owl.
"It's nearly four. I know it's late, but I need to talk to you."
Merlin climbed out of the box and shut it quickly. They sat on the bed and stared around the room for a bit before Arthur began.
"We found Morgana. She had run away to someone. She's not my step sister any more."
"Oh." Merlin still looked like he was trying to wake up, or maybe that he wasn't sure what was good and what was bad anymore.
There was more silence.
"Look, I made a mistake. I never should have broken up with you." It was lame, but it was there.
He wasn't sure what he expected Merlin to do, but it seemed out of place that he merely humphed with a laugh and shook his head.
"I want you back. I want to be with you. I want our coffees every morning and our evenings under the fort and those long drives through the fields to look at the colour of the wheat when it's ripe. I can't live without that." It was the most Arthur had said in a very long time.
"Oh Arthur," Merlin grinned, brushing Arthur's hair from his eyes. He looked far too serious, and Arthur was suddenly realising that Merlin was going to say no. He was going to say that he couldn't trust Arthur and that Arthur was an idiot and...
Merlin kissed him, slow and sweet.
"I'll come back, but you have to realise that you're not a teenage girl anymore and that you can't push me away when things go badly."
Arthur was shocked and didn't know what to say. He started nodding as he realised Merlin was right - he had been acting immature, and it wasn't worth it in the end.
"So why were you sleeping in a box?" Arthur was truly curious.
"It was my break-up box for you. It started out small, but I kept realising there was so much that reminded me of you, and in the end I just ended up going in there myself."
He blinked, not sure how to handle that.
"Do you want to go through it?" Merlin asked. They were still sitting on the bed and bits of starlit morning were starting to shine around the scarves that Merlin used as curtains.
"Okay." Merlin went to his closet and dragged it out, thumping down on the bed.
He randomly reached in and pulled something out.
"This is the mix tape I made you play in the car on our drives." He pulled out something else. "This is the place mat from your father's wedding. The little gift bags and our name cards are in here somewhere too." He placed it down on the bed so that the white and lacy paper didn't get creased. "These are rainbow cookies because you always had them in your house after the first time I was there."
And it went on like that, memory after memory filling the bed around them, some of them sharp in Arthur's mind and others he'd thought Merlin hadn't payed attention to.
"So are you going to burn it?" Arthur asked at the end.
"Nah. I think I'll keep this one stored away for when we're old and bored with life." He reached across and nuzzled his nose against Arthur's cheek.
He helped Merlin put it all back and then they lay on Merlin's small bed, intertwined and half asleep.
I made one too. It's not as good as yours though.
You weren't supposed to make one, since you were the dumper and I was the dumpee.
Honestly Arthur, I thought you knew how to be a teenage girl.