The car ride to Camelot was quicker than either of them realized. It took some shouting from Merlin for Arthur to remember which side of the road to drive on, and he said it felt so alien driving on the right side of the car again. They found a hotel and as soon as they had stripped out of their clothes, they were asleep on top of the bed. Arthur woke first the next morning, and Merlin soon after. Merlin blinked against the white sunlight streaming through the crack in the curtain where they hadn't been pulled completely shut. He let his mind wander to the last few years with Arthur. They'd been hard, then easy, then hard again. During this last year, he'd almost given up once or twice, but he would never tell Arthur that. Once he'd gone into the closet, taken out all his clothes and shoved them in his suitcases, only to immediately hang everything back up.
Arthur had spent all of last year in school and at the hospital. Between working and studying, Merlin had felt completely neglected. He knew it was going to happen and had encouraged Arthur to take on another degree, so every time he got angry for watching another episode of Project Runway alone, he silently berated himself for being such a shit boyfriend. If it wasn't for him, Arthur wouldn't be trying to get into administration. It was for him that Arthur was trying to better himself and better their lives; it was for their future that all this was happening.
And now the year from hell was over. Arthur didn't automatically get a new job now that he could put three new letters at the end of his name, but it was a start, and Merlin had the sneaking suspicion that Arthur was looking for jobs in other cities, possibly New York, where they had both expressed an interesting in living again. He was absolutely right, though: Administration was vastly different from actively practicing medicine and it could mean a more stable life for them. Merlin closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, feeling terrible that he hadn't been more gracious over the past year.
He turned over and tucked himself into Arthur, mumbling into his neck.
"What was that?" asked Arthur, pressing his lips to the top of Merlin's head.
"I said, thank you for this past year."
Arthur laughed. "I don't know why you're thanking me. You never saw me."
"I know, but . . . you did it for us and I don't think I was as understanding as I might could've been."
Arthur cleared his throat but didn't say anything.
"There's an open position at a hospital in New York," said Arthur. "My professor told me about it and wrote me a letter of recommendation. It'd be working in the Medical Affairs office and definitely over forty hours a week, I imagine, but I'd have a set schedule, weekends off. It's not even a lot of money, which is ridiculous because I don't need to really make money anyway."
"Are you going to interview for it?"
"Interviews are in March, but I'd have to have my degree first, which" – Arthur smirked – "won't be a problem, and yeah, if you think you could be happy living in New York again."
"I'd miss the hospital – and Gwen."
"She comes to New York to visit her family a lot so I'm sure you'd see her."
"But New York seems more . . . accepting than the south where we live now. We may have a better chance of adopting there."
Something raw caught in Merlin's throat and he thought he might choke. His heart beat somewhere between his ears and he was glad to be lying down so his knees wouldn't give out. Sometimes Arthur was completely overwhelming without even meaning to be.
Merlin sat up. "All right, let's go see your father."
Arthur nodded. "This could be terrible."
"We won't know until we go. If he doesn't want to be in our lives, then he misses out on you and me and the family we'll have one day."
Arthur nodded and stood. They showered and dressed in silence, quickly packing their bags and leaving the hotel room. In the lobby, Merlin stood a couple of feet behind Arthur, next to the bags, as Arthur checked out and paid. He was sleepy and anxious but so happy to be with Arthur.
Merlin nodded and picked up his bag while Arthur took the other. As they walked out of the hotel, Arthur slipped his hand into Merlin's. Merlin started, unsure of the gesture. He looked down at their hands, where Arthur had entwined their fingers, and felt gobsmacked. A smile tugged on the corners of his mouth. He squeezed Arthur's hand and felt Arthur squeeze back.
They held hands all the way to the car.
"It's that house there," said Arthur, slowing the car. He put it in park but kept it running.
Merlin looked at the house across the street. It was quite possibly the largest house he had ever seen. The drive in front was circular, and a car sat in front of the front door. It was a Porsche, sporty and completely unsafe, but fit seamlessly against the backdrop of the three-level house. The trim was all in white, the brick a muted red, and the shutters were drawn over each window.
"Looks like your father's going somewhere," said Merlin. "The house looks almost boarded-up."
Arthur undid his seatbelt and got out of the car. Merlin got out quickly and walked to the other side of the car. He leaned against the door, his hands in his pockets to stay warm, and watched Arthur.
"Perhaps you should ring him," suggested Merlin.
"He never picks up when I call," replied Arthur. "I think I should invite him to the coffeehouse just down the street. I think if we went inside, he might feel as though this is an ambush and I don't want him on the defensive. He's so bloody stubborn that it would completely ruin the point of coming."
"So what d'you think? Knock him up and tell him to meet us?"
Arthur was silent, his back still to Merlin, facing towards his childhood home. Merlin pushed off the car and placed a hand on his shoulder. Arthur reached up with his opposite hand and put it on top of Merlin's. He smiled at him, sad but warm.
Just then, something caught Merlin's attention. "Oh," he said, "is that your father?"
Arthur's head jerked back towards the house. An older man with gray hair had opened the front door and walked towards the car, two large suitcases in either hand. He opened the boot of the car and threw them inside. Just as he was shutting it, he looked up, and Merlin knew he'd seen them.
"Shit," breathed Arthur under his breath. "Come on." He dropped his hand and walked across the street. Merlin hesitated before slowly following. He wanted to be there for Arthur, but he also knew his presence would anger Uther and he didn't want to be the cause of another family blow up.
Arthur stopped a few feet away from his father. "Happy Christmas," he said.
"Christmas was yesterday. What are you doing here?"
Merlin couldn't help but stare at Uther. His presence was commanding, stiff, and made Merlin completely nervous.
"I was in England – well, obviously – in Ealdor to be exact and it's so close, I thought I'd stop by. . . ."
"Ealdor? What an utter waste of a town. What on earth possessed you to go to Ealdor?"
Merlin could see Arthur physically stiffen.
"Merlin's mum lives there and we spent the holiday with her."
"Merlin?" said Uther.
"Hello," said Merlin, giving slight wave and smiling, but the smile was soon gone as Uther continued to stare at his son and completely ignore Merlin altogether.
"I was going to see if you wanted a coffee with us at that little shop down the road. I noticed driving in that it's still there."
"What would I want to go there for?" asked Uther, his face expressionless. It gave Merlin chills.
"To sit and talk," answered Arthur, "with me and Merlin. We have rather a lot of catching up to do."
Uther shook his head. "I don't think we do. I seem to remember forbidding you to ever bring Merlin to this house, so I would appreciate it if you got off my property before I have to phone the police."
"Dad," said Arthur, and Merlin could hear the wretchedness in his voice.
"No one calls ms that anymore, especially not when they bring home their gay lovers. I could perhaps talk to you, but not with him here."
Arthur sighed and wet his lips, taking in a deep breath. Merlin wasn't sure what Arthur was going to do, but he was ready to take Arthur's lead.
"This is just me, Dad," said Arthur. "This is me and if you ask Merlin to leave, then you ask me to leave, because he's with me and always will be. It's just like you and Mum—"
"Don't you dare bring your mother into this."
"But Mum was always with you, always invited to parties with you, always a part of your life. Merlin is like that for me. You can't ask him to leave, but not me. It's either both of us or neither of us. Merlin is not only part of my life – he is my life."
"I will not hear this!"
Suddenly everyone's attention turned towards the front door as a thin blonde emerged from inside. She was younger than Uther, but not by much, yet she looked youthful and was very stunning. She was in the middle of talking to Uther as she thumbed a message on her mobile.
"Uther, darling, I looked everywhere for your watch, but I simply – oh." She looked up from her phone. "Hello." Her eyes sought Uther's. "What's happening out here then?"
"Nothing, Catrina," replied Uther. "These men just needed directions." Turning back to Arthur, Uther cleared his throat and said, "The coffeehouse is about a kilometer away. Go back the way you came and make a left at the end of the road. You can't miss it. It's only open until four this afternoon. Holiday hours."
Merlin wondered if Uther was making that up, but either way, his dismissal of them was blatant.
"Directions?" repeated Arthur. "Right. Well, I'll be there until closing, waiting for my father, hoping he decides to show up and talk to his only son."
"Oh," said Catrina, looking awkward. "Sir, are you all right?"
Uther held up a hand, silencing her. "He's fine. Stress of the holidays, am I right, boy? If we don't leave now, we'll be late for our flight."
"We're going to Paris for the new year!" cried Catrina, her eyes beaming with delight.
Arthur nodded. "Right," he said. "Have fun and all that." He turned to Merlin. "Let's go."
"Thanks for the directions," said Merlin, daring Uther to look at him, but the older man just took his keys and went to his front door, locking it. Merlin waited for a moment before turning and following Arthur.
They waited inside the car, Arthur staring at the silver Porsche as it peeled out of the driveway and down the street, disappearing from view as it turned left at the cross street. Merlin placed his hand on the gear shift, palm up. Without breaking his gaze with the horizon, Arthur curled his fingers around Merlin's. He brought their hands to his mouth and kissed the back of Merlin's hand.
"That could've been worse," said Merlin. "I guess."
Arthur was silent.
"D'you want to go to the coffeehouse?" asked Merlin. "Just in case? You never know. Your father could show up."
Arthur snorted. "Right." He shook his head and let go of Merlin's hand. He turned the ignition on the car and started down the street. He drove slowly, well below the speed limit. "Perhaps . . ." he began then shook his head. "We'll go to the coffeehouse, I suppose, and then, I don't know."
"You could show me around Camelot before we drive back to Ealdor," suggested Merlin. "I wouldn't mind seeing the city where you grew up."
"There's a square up here. We're about ten kilometers outside of the actual city of Camelot. These are the, er, suburbs, if you will."
Arthur drove through the square, pointing out the sandwich shop where he and his mates used to go after football practice, the bookstore where he used to hide in the corner and read books his parents would never approve of, the bowling alley where his mates used to go on weekends off campus from boarding school, and the coffeehouse where all the university students went to study. It was bits and pieces of Arthur's life, the life he didn't like speaking of because it was all during his years in England, years he wanted to forget. But it was like reading a prequel and finding out the lovely history behind his favorite character. Merlin grinned and committed each of these places to memory, putting more and more pieces together that made up the person of Arthur.
Arthur parked on the side of the street. They walked down the sidewalk, which was made of rounded stones; their shoulders brushed but nothing more. Merlin's fingers shook from the cold as he buttoned-up his coat. He pulled Arthur into the coffee shop and ordered them both drinks. He paid with his bank card; he had some notes, but he hadn't touched British money in so long he hardly understood the exchange rate anymore.
Merlin grabbed a newspaper and forced Arthur to read it with him, trying to keep his mind off his father, off the emptiness of the small café. There were a few people there, mostly university students studying even though classes were surely out for holiday. Whenever Merlin spoke, he made sure his voice was low. They were quiet for a while, Arthur staring into his coffee cup, Merlin reading through the Camelot Times.
"It's half past four," said Arthur.
"Suppose the coffeehouse isn't closing at four after all," said Merlin. "Shall we wait a little longer?"
"No," said Arthur firmly. "I can't. Let's go."
Arthur stood and walked straight to the door. Merlin scrambled to gather their mugs and bring them back to the barista behind the counter before running after Arthur. Outside was cold, as most Decembers were, and Merlin rushed to catch up with Arthur. He was going towards the car, as though fully ready to leave Camelot behind.
Suddenly Merlin stopped and grabbed hold of Arthur's arm.
"Stop," he said.
Arthur looked at Merlin, confusion in his eyes.
"Look," said Merlin, nodding towards the shop he'd made them stop in front of.
"A jewelry store? Really, Merlin?"
Merlin grinned. "Why not." He held up his hand. "You bought me a ring and I really think you ought to have one."
"I don't want one just because I gave you one."
"Don't be so ridiculous, Arthur. Trust me a little more. If I didn't want you, I wouldn't do this. So let's go."
"Don't you think we should wait until we're home?"
"Why?" Merlin shrugged. "If there's really nothing here that you like, fine, but it seems proper. That way we can remember this Christmas as they one where we exchanged rings and forget about your father altogether. We'll pretend he never happened and only remember the good parts."
"The good parts," repeated Arthur.
"Yes, where you gave me this ring and I gave you one as well. Where we promised to spend the rest of our lives together. Where you only had two more months of school before we can start living our future. Where we talked about selling our house and letting a flat in New York and finding an adoption agency to help us be parents."
"But we haven't talked about selling our house or New York or being parents."
"Yet," replied Merlin, "but we've got an eight-hour plane ride home."
Arthur paused and then laughed loudly. "I don't suppose I could persuade you to let me sleep on the plane?"
Merlin shook his head. "No way."
Arthur took hold of Merlin's hand and smiled with a small shake of his head. "All right," he said, "then we can talk about all those things for eight hours on the ride home."
Merlin knew his grin was wide, but he couldn't help it. He held Arthur's hand tighter and bounced on the balls of his feet, feeling so full of Arthur that he thought he might burst. Whatever ill feelings were inside Arthur seemed to melt away as he looked at Merlin, at the large smile on his face.
"Let's go inside," said Merlin. "Please?"
Arthur nodded. "All right, then."
Merlin grinned impossibly wider and pulled Arthur inside the shop. Merlin browsed while Arthur held back, looking slightly uncomfortable. The store was small, quaint, and a short, plump young woman worked behind the counter. She allowed them to look, took out rings for Merlin to look at. Finally Merlin found one he really fancied and showed it to Arthur.
"Can you give us a moment?" Arthur asked the shop girl.
She nodded and walked a few paces backward.
"Why d'you look so scared?" asked Merlin.
"M'not," replied Arthur, his voice tired. He tried to force a smile. "I just want to make sure that you're sure, because once you do this, I don't want you to ever take it back."
Merlin rolled his eyes; sometimes Arthur was so infuriating, like a brick wall lay in front of him that he refused to see around.
"Of course I'm sure – are you daft, you prat? I love you."
Arthur nodded. "All right then."
"Arthur . . . I knew from the beginning. I knew you were bad for me, so I stayed away, but perhaps – maybe I was wrong, and you were rather good for me after all."
"I like the one you've got in your hand."
Merlin looked down at the band. "Brilliant."
Arthur took it and held it in the palm of his hand as though weighing it. He slipped it on his finger, his eyes lingering on his hand. Then he was kissing Merlin in the middle of the shop.
Merlin took a sharp intake of breath, caught off guard at the feel of Arthur's tongue sweeping across the inside of his mouth. Arthur's hands pushed Merlin's coat aside, his fingers digging into Merlin's hips. Merlin whimpered against Arthur's lips and pulled away, looking at Arthur, wishing they hadn't already checked out of their hotel.
"Pay for it and let's get out of here," whispered Arthur, his breath tickling Merlin's ear.
Merlin didn't need to be told twice. He paid with his bank card and stuffed the receipt in his pocket. He thanked the shop girl for her help and exited with Arthur. When Arthur took his hand again, Merlin was only vaguely surprised.
"You've been holding my hand loads lately," said Merlin, lacing his fingers through Arthur's.
"You know you have."
Arthur shrugged. "I realized a long time ago you like a bit of hand holding because you're a bit of a girl."
Merlin laughed. "I am not."
"You are. And it's all right. Besides, people can change. I've changed."
"No." Merlin shook his head. "That's the thing. You're exactly the same, just relaxed. I don't want to change you – ever. I want you as you are."
"Ready to go back home?"
"You've no idea."
Arthur tugged on Merlin's hand and led him back to the car. Merlin looked at the small square, the rows of cafés and shops, and as beautiful as the buildings were, the sight was bittersweet. Then, at the car park, just across the street next to the coffeehouse, Merlin saw it, the silver Porsche.
"Arthur," he muttered, his feet slowing. "Is that your father's car?"
Arthur's eyes scanned the road before settling on the car park. "No," he said slowly, "it's the wrong silver."
"Are you certain?"
The silence that followed answered Merlin's question.
"Let's go back to the coffee shop then," implored Merlin.
"No, Camelot is full of rich men. There are at least seven other doctors and businessmen here who have silver Porsches. It's not him."
"You don't know that."
Arthur swallowed and avoided Merlin's eyes. "What if it's not him?"
"What if it is? You'd never forgive yourself if you refused to even find out." After a long pause, Merlin continued, "Look, either way, I'll follow you – either to the car and back to Ealdor or into the coffee shop. Either way."
"All right, then. Only because I can never say fucking no to you, Ems."
Merlin grinned and started walking towards the coffeehouse. "Let's go! Let's go see if your father's come to make amends."
Arthur had never let go of Merlin's hand and he held it as they walked towards the coffeehouse, towards whatever lay in front of them, together and joined.