Light blue and grey had started to bleed into the inky black of the sky when Arthur let himself in Merlin’s flat, fingers heavy and clumsy on his keys.
The air coming through the tall and wide windows covering the eastern wall of Merlin’s flat smelled like fresh bright skies and stones, like the metal of the city and the earthy wet soil of the plants Merlin kept all over.
Arthur toed off his shoes and took off his jacket, carefully leaving it on the back of one of Merlin’s dining chairs. He stood there for a moment, inhaling deeply, hands on the chair. He took in the stillness of the space, the familiar scents, the soft, calming susurrations of Merlin’s birds, feathery little movements and little chirping noises as they woke up.
Shifting blues and purples bathed the room, the receding darkness only warmed by the orange glow of a lamp on the floor beside Merlin’s bookcase and of the heat lamp on the dining table.
Arthur’s muscles loosened, everything tight and always alert, always aware shifting and expanding as it all seeped out of him in a long exhale, something shaky and tired, until finally he felt himself slot back into the right shape.
Two of Merlin’s canaries were hopping on the back of the sofa and Arthur reached out for one with his finger. It climbed on with a small cheep-cheep and Arthur settled it on his shoulder.
A ruffled of feathers made Arthur look up to meet the wide yellow gaze of a tiny owl perched on top of Merlin’s telly. It let out a hoot that had Arthur looking warily to the blue parrot sleeping on its perch in the corner, where it usually preened and yelled imperiously (so Merlin said) at everything and everyone, but especially Arthur. Merlin had named it Uther after Arthur’s father. Merlin also thought himself very funny, and not even the possibility of it being treason had made him change the name (however appropriate).
Merlin was sitting on one of the windowsills, bare toes curling on the carpet on one side, his other foot on the metal fire escape outside. His back was to Arthur and he didn’t seem to have heard him, bent over as he was over his cupped hands, talking quietly between his fingers.
In the kitchen, Tristan and Isolde were sleeping on the counter in their usual spot―curled into each other under the leaves of a fern, their green and yellow plumage making them almost indistinguishable in the dim light―and Arthur was careful not to disturb them as he reached for a small saucer in the cupboard.
He opened a seed container and filled the saucer, before scattering some on the table and letting down the canary to have its breakfast. It was quickly joined by a swallow who had been perched on the ceiling fan.
“Hey,” Arthur said, low, as he grabbed the gold and red cushion he always used from the sofa.
Merlin startled a little, but looked over his shoulder with a smile, eyes heavy and sleepy.
“Hey, you’re back.”
Arthur kissed Merlin’s hair and nuzzled behind his ear a little, inhaling. Merlin smelled warm and like the apple-scented shampoo he used.
“Been here for five minutes, at least.” Arthur set the cushion in front of Merlin, carefully put down the plate full of seeds on the fire escape, then hitched his dress trousers up and sat astride the windowsill, where his knees bumped against Merlin’s. “You’re lucky I wasn’t a burglar. Honestly, Merlin.”
Merlin huffed a laugh and stuck out his tongue at him and Arthur felt himself settle even more, his chest swelling with affection. He reached out and swept his thumb under Merlin’s eye. “Have you been awake all night?”
“No. Was woken up early, is all.” He carefully opened his hands to reveal a small bird, skinny and fragile looking, with brown ruffled feathers and a black head. Maybe a tit of some kind, Arthur thought. He was still terrible at recognising what kinds of birds came in and out of Merlin’s flat all the time, only familiar with the few that were permanent residents.
Merlin lowered his hands and the bird hopped down carefully, immediately picking at the seeds in Arthur’s saucer.
“He misses his mother,” Merlin said looking at it and smiling a little at its enthusiastic chirping. “Poor thing died a few days ago.”
“There’s a pigeon on your table.” Arthur said. “In case you didn’t know.”
“I was aware.”
Arthur rolled his eyes at him when Merlin didn’t explain any further. It’d been worth mentioning since Merlin rarely let pigeons inside his flat. He said they were either too whiny, or too bossy, or a combination of both. And they had a bad habit of inviting their friends over and just taking over. Plus, they scared the hummingbirds.
“It’s Geoffrey,” Merlin said, then rubbed his face with his hands. “He said he was cold so I let him warm himself up beside the heat lamp.”
“It’s really not cold.” Arthur leaned in to run his hands over Merlin’s thighs and ducked his head to kiss the corner of his mouth. “Hey.”
“Missed you, too.” Merlin’s soft lips against Arthur’s and his warm breath over his chilled nose and cheeks, sent a shiver down Arthur’s spine.
“What’s wrong with Geoffrey?” Arthur asked.
Merlin straightened and stretched his arms over his head. “He’s… getting old.”
“I’m sorry.” Merlin shrugged, and Arthur ran his fingers along Merlin’s sides until he found the familiar ticklish spots and made Merlin giggle like a child. There was always such a rightness in making Merlin laugh, and Arthur had yet to tire of it, didn’t think he ever would.
Merlin batted his hands away then cocked his head to the side, listening to something. It used to confuse and even annoy Arthur how Merlin would stop to listen to things Arthur couldn’t hear, sometimes in the middle of a conversation. He didn’t quite understand it then, what Merlin did and heard and how difficult it could be to ignore. But he’d learned to be patient with time, to wait it out. Then, it’d become this marvellous, extraordinary thing that had Merlin blushing, until it smoothed itself out into this normal, yet still beautiful, aspect of their lives that Arthur cherished and loved and wouldn’t change for the world.
Merlin smiled and made a familiar sound with his lips, high and short, and Arthur had to lean in once more to kiss him, to catch the sound on his tongue.
Five little robins came flying towards them with little trills, and perched themselves on the side of Arthur’s saucer.
“Hey, if it isn’t my little knights,” he said, and ran a finger over the red-breast of one them. It poked at Arthur’s fingers a few times with its beak before digging back into the seeds. “That must be Gwaine.” Arthur shook his fingers and glared at the bird.
“They love you best and you know it. I have no idea why, I’m the one feeding them constantly.”
“You gave them their names, what did you expect? I am Prince Arthur, after all. And they’re my knights of the Round Table, see?”
“I named them that because they already adored you and followed you everywhere.”
“Let’s not exaggerate,” Arthur said, smiling. He’d taken quite a liking to the five little robins that had showed up one day, settled themselves close to Arthur while he was watching telly with Merlin and refused to leave until Merlin glared at them and threatened them with no food for a whole week if they didn’t let them go to bed.
Rule number one of Merlin’s aviary: no birds in the bedroom.
“They pine Arthur. Just yesterday, Percival and Leon almost took on that old rook who’s been showing up more and more because it rested itself on your cushion while I was refilling the birdhouses.”
“Awww, my heroes.”
The robins chirped enthusiastically.
Merlin mumbled something Arthur couldn’t hear, but he laughed anyway. There was nothing more perfect, nothing that felt more like home, than sitting here with Merlin, with the sky slowly turning pink, and the city waking up below them. With Merlin’s toes crawling under the hem of Arthur’s trousers, and the heat of Merlin’s skin under Arthur’s hands. With all the bloody birds waking up around them―their tiny voices, the feathered, muffled sound of their wings.
“Did you watch the wedding?” Arthur asked as Merlin bent forward until his head was on Arthur’s thigh. Arthur buried his fingers in his dark hair, soft between his fingers, and pushed against Merlin’s scalp until Merlin hummed contentedly and Arthur had to tug a little to get him to answer.
“I did. Morgana looked beautiful. She looked happy.”
“How was Elena?” Merlin said after a moment, obvious in his attempt to hide his hesitation. Arthur pushed at Merlin’s shoulders until he straightened again so he could look at him. Merlin avoided his eyes and looked at the brightening sky. He didn’t look sad, or resigned, and yet Arthur couldn’t help feeling horrible.
“That was the last time,” Arthur said, unable to look away from Merlin’s profile, the sharp slant of his cheek, his nose.
Merlin lowered his head and looked down, picking fluff out of his threadbare pajamas. “What?”
“This whole… thing.”
“You can’t stop being the Prince, Arthur. And I―I wouldn’t want you to.”
“Not that, idiot.” Arthur huffed and gave a small kick to Merlin’s foot. He did wish it sometimes, though, wished he could be anyone but the Prince of Wales―someone who could move into Merlin’s dingy flat and spend Sundays lying on the sofa with him. Hold his hand in public. Everything and anything that struck his fancy. “I meant the pretending. The dates.”
“I thought you liked Elena.”
“Oh, Elena’s a hoot. And she had me figured out in ten seconds flat, which is worrisome, but it did make things easier.”
“So, I just don’t want to. I’ll go on my own.”
“Arthur. You know it’s okay, right? I―I understand. Really.”
“I know. But this isn’t about you, you self-sacrificing weirdo. I just don’t want to go with anyone if they’re not you.”
Merlin looked up at him and smiled, this slow blooming thing that took over his whole face, made it bright and opened, and made Arthur never want to look away. “Okay.”
There was such joy and acceptance in Merlin in that moment, such barenaked love and adoration that Arthur felt dizzy with it. He’d never get used to being looked at that way. To have someone look at him and see the world in him, see everything they wanted and nothing more.
And Arthur smiled back at Merlin, certain that the same look was on his face.
“Marry me,” he said.
Merlin’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “What?”
“Arthur, we can’t. You’re not even―”
“I know, I know. But. But I want you to know. I’d marry you right now if I could.”
“I would too.”
Arthur kissed Merlin, urgent and wet, fingers curling into Merlin’s pajamas. “Yeah?”
“Of course,” Merlin said as he nuzzled Arthur’s cheek then bumped their noses together. “As if there was even a choice.”
“There’s always a choice.”
“Not for me.”
Arthur buried his face in Merlin’s neck, taking deep long breaths until the wild beating of his heart had settled.
“Let’s do it,” he said, Merlin’s pulse beating under his lips.
He ignored Merlin’s questioning grunt and got up.
Merlin’s kitchen was the size of a stamp, but Arthur remembered seeing a spool of Christmas ribbon in one of the drawers a few months before when he was looking for Merlin’s wooden spoon. (It later transpired that it had been requisitioned by a couple of larks who refused to give it back, in an argument later to be known as the Day of the Spoon.) Why the ribbon was there Arthur never asked. In any case, there was rarely a reasonable explanation for these kinds of things and it was just easier for everyone involved (namely, him) to roll with it. Many a headache were avoided that way.
He found the golden ribbon where he had last seen it, grabbed a pair of scissors and went back to sit in front of Merlin.
“What are you doing?”
“No time like the present, Carpe Diem, yadda yadda.”
“But―” Merlin said even as he was grabbing the end of the ribbon. “I’m in my pajamas…”
“And you have never looked lovelier,” Arthur said with a wink that made Merlin roll his eyes, but wasn’t fooling anyone. Arthur could see right through him, what with how bright his eyes were and the way he was biting his lower lip.
“Don’t we need witnesses?” Merlin said as Arthur cut a long thread of ribbon. His voice was soft and breathy, and Arthur kissed him quick and easy on the lips. He never wanted to stop doing that.
“Merlin, we’re surrounded by witnesses.” As if on cue, Arthur’s little knights chirped, Geoffrey cooed from his cozy spot on the table, and the little canaries that were half sleeping when Arthur came in flew over their heads to perch themselves on the fire escape railing with the sparrows who up to that point had been too busy eating to pay much attention.
Merlin laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
“What do we do?”
“This is how they did it at Morgana’s wedding. It’s a handfasting ceremony. First we tie our wrists together with this ribbon.”
There was a fair bit of fumbling until Merlin took Arthur’s hand in his and laced their fingers together. His palm was soft and warm against Arthur’s and he squeezed a bit tighter as he pulled on the end of the ribbon to make the knot hold.
“Should I wake Uther?” Merlin asked, and Arthur narrowed his eyes.
“Let’s not go that far.”
Arthur scooted closer to Merlin, until their elbows were comfortably bent, and Merlin had to put his thighs over Arthur’s.
“We have to give something or make a promise. To each other.”
Merlin licked his lips, thinking. Lancelot chose that moment to fly and settle himself on their linked hands and Merlin smiled at him, picking him up and settling him on his thigh instead. “My magic is yours,” he said and looked back at Arthur, eyes big and blue and beautiful in the rising light. “I promise you my magic.”
“Merlin, you talk to birds. What am I suppose to do with that? Ask them to make my bed every morning?”
“Maybe they can make you a pretty gown to wear to the ball, you ungrateful arse,” Merlin said, pinching Arthur’s side with his free hand.
“Ow, ow. Quit it. Jesus.” Arthur thought for a quick moment. “Then, I promise you my kingdom.”
“You don’t have a kingdom, your majesty. You’re just a fancy title. And a face on my future money.”
Arthur wrinkled his nose at the thought. “I doubt they’ll ever put my face on any money.”
“With a jaw like yours, they’d be crazy not to. But okay, fine, my future stamps, then.” Merlin wriggled a little and Arthur put his free hand on his lower back to keep him in place. “I mean, it’s all fine and well to be able to say that I married a man whose pretty face adorns every postal package in the country, but it’s pretty fucking useless in the end, if you think about it.”
Arthur laughed, loud and sudden, startling Lancelot into flight, and making the sparrows call in a way that could only be interpreted as disapproving. He settled his forehead on Merlin’s shoulder pinching his lips together. “We’re truly rubbish at this.”
Merlin nuzzled Arthur’s ear and cheek with his nose, bit lightly on his earlobe. “Look, Arthur,” he whispered, close and soft, like the most precious of secrets. “It’s easy, right? I love you. I’ll always love you. No matter what. I’ll nag you in the mornings until you make me coffee, and when you’re away I’ll always text you links to funny cat videos―don’t even pretend you don’t love them you’re not fooling anyone. And I’ll still wait for you to watch our TV shows together even if I have to go to extreme and ridiculous measures to not get spoiled until you get your pretty arse back into my flat and we can have an epic marathon. But you know what? I’ll never mind that. Because you’re Arthur, and I’m Merlin and you’re it. We’re it.” He paused, and Arthur shivered all over at the quiver in Merlin’s voice, the tremble of his lips, and the heat it sent all over him. “And if I figure out how, I’ll get my silly birds to make your bed in the morning.”
“Don’t forget the gown,” Arthur said, pulling back and letting his lips drag across Merlin’s cheek. “I really want that gown now.”
“And a gown. Done. And I―I promise to always be patient and understanding of your situation and station. I’m not saying I won’t miss you when you’re gone, and that I won’t get sad sometimes when I’m not able to go out with you to frankly ridiculous weddings, but―
“It won’t always be like that, Merlin.” Arthur cupped Merlin’s face with his hand, angling it so he could look in his eyes. “Please believe that. I know it’s―”
“I know. It’s okay. One day it’ll be out there, but… this is good. This is only mine for now. And it’s enough.”
Fingers digging into Merlin’s neck, Arthur took a moment to try and swallow past the lump in his throat, past the huge, unnameable feeling growing in his chest.
“I promise you―” His voice was reedy, and he swallowed again, clearing his throat. “I promise that no matter where I am, or what I have to do, even through all the pretenses and the―well, the lies, I’ll never be untrue to you, to us. And one day I’ll make things right. I promise. I will, Merlin, I swear, because there’s no one―No other―” He inhaled sharply. “But until then, I’ll make your god awful coffee in the morning, and I’ll always listen to your prattle because I actually do really like it and―”
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that? I don’t think I heard correctly.”
“Don’t make me say it again.”
“I should really get it in writing.”
“Shut up, idiot, I’m not done. And―And I promise that you can watch Game of Thrones without me as it airs so long as you don’t spoil me and you’re willing to re-watch with me when we can.”
“Yesssss.” Merlin raised his fist in victory over his head and grinned at him. “You all heard that, right?” he said looking at the birds around them.
More and more had joined the canaries and the sparrows, and they were all just looking at them in a way that made Arthur want to hide his face in the crook of Merlin’s neck. He stopped himself in time, though. They were bloody birds for fuck’s sake.
“You can’t take it back now,” Merlin said, with a knowing smile.
“Figures that’d be the thing that makes you happy.”
“Shut up, this is the best, okay?”
“Whatever, you love it.”
Arthur kissed their linked hands, then Merlin’s nose, feeling ridiculous and soppy, but not caring really, as it made Merlin blush a little and smile even wider.
“I do. I really, really do. I love you so much I don’t even know what to do with myself sometimes, it drives me insane how much I love you, and how much I miss you even when we’re together because I know that at one point I’ll have to leave. You’re it for me too, you great, big freak.”
“Good. This would have been embarrassing otherwise.”
Arthur squeezed Merlin’s hand with his, the ribbon digging into his skin in a way that made his breath catch.
“And,” he said. “And since you so graciously offered them to me, I promise to only use your powers for good.”
“Oh, thank fuck. For a moment I was worried that the whole money-slash-postal stamps thing would have gone to your head and you’d force me to create some kind of Hitchcockian bird apocalypse.”
“Bugger it all, you’ve figured me out.”
Arthur put his free arm around Merlin and let him laugh softly into his neck, scooting forward until Merlin was practically in his lap and both their elbows were bent in an uncomfortable position.
It was perfect.
The sky was bright pink and purple with morning, the neon lights of the city melding into it, softened. Birds were singing all around them. And Merlin was warm and solid in his arms, smelling like apples, like the best thing in the world.
“Wanna see if I can ride you while we’re still tied together?” Merlin said after a long moment.
Arthur nipped at Merlin’s earlobe, then licked the soft skin behind his ear. “I knew I married you for a good reason.”
Merlin hummed, mouthed kisses on Arthur’s throat. “We’re so good, love,” he said with a roll of his hips. “Best. Husbands. Ever.”
The birds agreed.