"Happy Christmas, baby brother."
Arthur doesn't bother to look up from the stack of papers in front of him, frowning at the mess of notes from his father that mostly add up to a giant Fix this now or I am placing the blame squarely on your shoulders. "In case you've forgotten, Morgana, Christmas is still three weeks away."
"I know," Morgana says breezily, sliding into the plush chair on the other side of Arthur's desk. "But that doesn't mean the festivities haven't already started." She pauses, raising an eyebrow. "Or have you forgotten?"
"Forgotten that our father has completely and utterly lost his mind?" Arthur asks, finally glancing up at her. "No, actually."
"Oh, come on, Arthur. It's not that bad," she says, eyes sparkling with sudden mischief. "You've done Secret Santa exchanges before. And who knows? You might get a certain somebody; this could be the perfect opportunity to show him how you truly feel."
Arthur narrows his eyes. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he says as coldly as he can manage, and scowls when Morgana just laughs. "Go away. Some of us have actual work to do."
"You mean messes to fix," she says pointedly, and it's all Arthur can do to stop himself from sticking his tongue out at her like a petulant child. She stands gracefully and taps one nail on the top of his desk, expression turning serious. "You should think about what we talked about the other day, Arthur. It's past time Father retired and you took over."
Arthur drops his eyes to the papers in his hands, jaw clenching. "See you and Leon at the pub tonight?"
Morgana sighs softly. "Seven o'clock," she says. "Don't be late."
Arthur waits until the door is shut behind her before he reaches over and hits the intercom button on his desk phone. "Merlin? What have I told you about letting Morgana in here without warning me?"
It takes a few seconds for Merlin to answer, and when he does he sounds far more amused than Arthur feels is appropriate. "She was very persuasive. And fast."
Arthur rubs one hand over his face. "Meaning she brought you a chocolate éclair and a gourmet coffee."
"You know me so well," Merlin says, and Arthur's pretty sure he detects a hint of something not-very-nice in his voice.
"Get back to work," Arthur snaps, and ends the connection before he has a chance to hear Merlin's indignant spluttering.
Of course, he promptly wants to bang his head on his desk, because Merlin's been working for him for over a year now and Arthur still manages to stick his entire foot in his mouth while talking to him. It's a bit ridiculous, how much Arthur feels like a just-hit-puberty teenager with his first real crush.
Except it's not a crush, and that's part of the problem. He wouldn't be able to tell you exactly when, but sometime between his and Merlin's first explosive meeting and Elena and Gwaine's engagement party two months ago, Arthur fell arse over tits in love with the stupid, beautiful clod. And now he can't seem to get it together and act like the actual grown up he is and do something about it.
Probably because Arthur is fairly certain that Merlin would just laugh in his face if he tried.
Not to mention the fact that he's stressed enough from the mess with Uther. Making a pained noise, Arthur stares at the papers from his father and decides that no matter what Morgana says, he has neither the time for romance nor the heart to tear Uther away from the company he built from the ground up. Everything else will just have to wait until he's good and damned ready to face it.
It takes all day, at least fifteen phone calls, three extra large cups of coffee (brought to him by Merlin), a forced lunch break (also thanks to Merlin), two loud rows with Uther, a Mars bar that appears on his desk while he's in the loo (probably from Merlin), an emergency board meeting, a long talk with Gaius (the company's solicitor), and some very careful wording to both wrong-footed clients, but finally – finally – Arthur has everything fixed and everyone calm and a major crises averted.
"Jesus fucking Christ," he mutters, leaning back in his chair and running both hands over his face. He's fucking exhausted, and just wants to go home and collapse into his nice, soft, king-size bed.
"Got everything sorted, then?"
Arthur drops his hands and looks at where Merlin is leaning against the open doorframe. "I'm thinking about quitting and becoming a farmer," he says, only half-joking. "Care to join me?"
Merlin's eyebrows shoot up in disbelief. "And go from being your errand boy to being a plow horse? I don't think so."
Well, no. That wasn't exactly what Arthur had in mind. "Too bad. I was going to give you a raise and more time off."
"In that case, sign me up," Merlin says, dropping into the same chair Morgana had sat in that morning. "Seriously, Arthur. I don't understand why you keep letting him do these things. I know he's your father, but this is ridiculous."
Arthur frowns. "I really don't think that's any of your concern."
"Maybe not," Merlin agrees, shrugging. "But I can see how it stresses you out, and I don't think that's at all fair to you." He flushes slightly. "Not to mention the fact that when you're stressed you take it out on me. Also, you have a grey hair."
"What?" Arthur squawks, and immediately spins his chair to look at his reflection in the big glass window behind his desk. The only thing he sees, however, is the city lights against a dark sky and Merlin's laughing face. Narrowing his eyes, he turns back to glare at him. "Bastard."
"Oh, you should have seen your face," Merlin gasps out through his laughter, eyes crinkling at the corners in that way Arthur kind of adores. "Remind me to stay far, far away when you do finally get a grey hair."
"Remind me why I keep you around?" Arthur returns sulkily, ignoring the happy little squirm in his stomach at the thought of Merlin still being there after that long.
Merlin grins. "Because you couldn't survive without me," he says cockily, and goddamn it Arthur knows he's right. "For example, it's a quarter to seven."
Arthur blinks at him, confused for a second before he suddenly remembers. "Fuck!" he exclaims, jumping up from his chair. "Morgana's going to murder me."
"No, she won't," Merlin says, and holds up the extra key to Arthur's flat that he'd been given in case of emergency. Or, at least, that's what Arthur tells himself. "I've already brought you a change of clothes so that you don't show up to a birthday party at a pub looking like a twat. They're in a duffle bag by my desk. Your car has already been taken to your building and I've called a taxi to pick you up here and then take you home from the pub; it should be waiting outside for you. Also, I know you forgot to buy Leon a birthday gift, so there's a bag on my desk that contains a very nice watch, paid for with your credit card."
Arthur stares at him, at a complete loss for words.
"You're welcome," Merlin says, grinning.
"Would you like to come?" Arthur blurts out. "To the pub, I mean."
Merlin's smile falters slightly. "I can't," he says, and Arthur's heart sinks. "Morgana invited me earlier too, but my mum's coming by tomorrow and the last thing I need to be is hungover. And I have to clean the living room."
"Oh," Arthur says, trying not to let any of the disappointment he feels show. "Right. Well, um. I guess I should go change." He clears his throat. "See you Monday?"
"Yeah," Merlin agrees, standing. "Monday morning. Like usual."
"Bye," Arthur says weakly, and Merlin gives a tiny smile and a wave before leaving the office.
Arthur watches him go, and then groans loudly as he drops his head into his hands. Idiot. Idiot, idiot, idiot. Merlin would rather go home and clean than spend any more time with him. That's just fucking perfect.
Sighing miserably, Arthur drops his hands. He's suddenly grateful that his brother-in-law's party is at a pub, because he wants nothing more than to get completely and utterly shitfaced.
He's twenty minutes late, but Arthur ignores Morgana's glowers and heads straight for Leon, clapping him on the shoulder. "Happy birthday, mate," he says, handing over the little blue gift bag that had been on Merlin's desk. "Sorry I'm late."
"Don't worry about it," Leon says, taking the bag and adding it to the pile on the table behind him. He glances at his wife and then leans closer to Arthur, lowering his voice. "Morgana's more fussed than I am about all this, to be honest. I just want to get drunk and forget the fact that I'm thirty."
Arthur laughs, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets. "I don't think that's going to happen."
"Don't remind me," Leon says wryly.
There's a bunch of people there that Arthur doesn't know, most of them probably from where Leon works. He spots Elena and Gwaine at a table nearby and spares a grateful thought to Morgana for inviting them.
"Mind if I join?" Arthur asks, dropping down into one of the empty chairs.
Gwaine snorts. "No, you have to go drink with a bunch of strangers."
"Shut it," Arthur says mildly. "You know that's exactly what you'd make me do if Elena weren't here."
Gwaine grins and raises his glass in acknowledgement. "Only for your own good."
"Where's Merlin?" Elena asks. "I thought for sure Morgana would have invited him, or that you would at least get the balls to bring him along as a friend."
Arthur scowls at her and reaches for one of the full shot glasses on the table. "We both did, actually. But apparently he'd rather clean."
Elena and Gwaine exchange glances as he downs the alcohol.
"Maybe it's time you asked him on a real date, then," Elena says. "Instead of as a last minute afterthought."
Arthur shakes his head, a hard lump of something unpleasant settling in his chest. "I'd rather not give him more excuses to reject me."
"You mean you'd rather not take a chance at being happy," Gwaine corrects. "Being alone and bitter is what you do best, after all."
"Gwaine," Elena hisses, glaring at him.
"No, it's alright," Arthur says tightly, stomach clenching painfully. "He's right. Give Morgana my apologies; I think I'd rather drink at home, where I can be lonely and bitter in peace."
"We're just worried about you, Arthur, that's all," Elena says pleadingly. "You haven't been yourself for a couple of months now."
Arthur smiles weakly at her as he stands. "I'm fine, I promise. Tell my arsehole of a best friend that he'd better not call me in the morning."
"Tell me yourself," Gwaine says, and Arthur gives him a hard shove to his shoulder as he walks by.
The air outside the pub is cold, forcing him to shove his hands inside his coat pockets and scrunch his shoulders up. The taxi that Merlin arranged is still waiting, and Arthur debates briefly on whether or not to walk before a sudden, sharp gust of chilly wind sends him into the warm interior of the vehicle. He gives the driver his address and then stares blankly out the window the entire ride home.
His flat is cold and empty when he arrives, and Arthur sighs heavily before tossing his keys onto the kitchen table. He digs out the bottle of aged cognac he'd been saving for no particular reason and pours three fingers worth into a glass, swallowing it all in one go.
"I'm not lonely," Arthur declares, staring down into the empty glass.
The irony of the fact that nobody is there to hear him say it doesn't go unnoticed. His fingers tighten briefly around the glass before he sets it on the counter and picks up the entire bottle, heading for the living room. There's supposed to be a Doctor Who marathon on tonight, and nothing beats trying to figure out weird plotlines while plastered.
When Arthur walks into his father's office on Monday morning he's not at all expecting what he sees.
Uther is sitting at his desk, wearing a Santa hat.
"Um," Arthur says.
Uther looks up at him and grins, and Arthur's fairly certain he detects a hint of insanity somewhere in there.
"Ah, there you are. Are you all set for the Secret Santa?"
Arthur holds up the fancy Christmas gift box filled with tiny slips of paper, every one with a different employee's name on it. "Just finished."
"Good, good," Uther says, pushing away from his desk. "Everyone should be gathered in the multi-purpose room downstairs by now. Let's go."
Arthur follows him out and into the nearest lift, trying his best not to stare at the ball of white fluff hanging at the end of Uther's hat. There's no doubt left in his mind that his father really has gone truly mad.
As soon as they step off the lift and into the crowded multi-purpose room, Uther snatches the box of names from Arthur's hands and strides toward the front. Arthur stares after him, wondering if he can convince him to go see a psychiatrist.
"Arthur," Morgana says, appearing out of nowhere and making him jump. "Is Father wearing—"
"A Santa hat, yes," Arthur confirms.
Morgana is silent for a second. "I have a theory," she finally says. "I think he's been replaced by an Uther from an alternate universe. It's the only explanation."
"I thought you said it wasn't that bad," Arthur reminds her, glancing at where Uther is now donning a red and white Santa coat. Where the hell had that even come from?
"I was wrong," Morgana admits, giving their father a distraught look. "It's much, much worse."
"Attention please," Uther calls out, voice booming. Arthur watches with an odd sort of non-shock as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out an actual bell, ringing it loudly. "It's time to draw names for the Secret Santa exchange!"
The room quiets, and Arthur looks around to see if he can find Merlin. He spots him off to the side, looking far more amused than should be appropriate.
"Everybody line up," Uther says, waving vaguely to the area in front of him. "No shoving, we're not school children. Pick one slip of paper from the box, and make sure you don't tell anyone who you've chosen! You have until the Christmas party to deliver your gift, and whether or not you reveal your identity to your giftee at that point is your choice. Alright, who's first?"
Arthur watches as everyone lines up to pick their little piece of paper, lips quirking when he sees Merlin at the front of the line.
"Come on," Morgana says, gripping Arthur's arm and dragging him forward. "The people need to see you participating."
"Why?" Arthur asks, but he lets her pull him along.
Morgana rolls her eyes. "You're not that stupid, Arthur. Even if you refuse to acknowledge it, this company should be yours. And it will be, one day, so it's a good thing for the employees to see you as one of them."
"Shouldn't they see me as the boss?" Arthur points out, just to antagonize her.
"Yes, of course," Morgana agrees. "But they also need to know that you'll understand where they're coming from."
"I already know this, you know," Arthur says, and grins when Morgana glares at him and drops his arm. "What I don't understand is why you don't want the company for yourself. You're just as capable as I am of running it."
Morgana smiles wickedly. "Because sometimes it's better to be the one behind the scenes than the one on stage."
Arthur's not quite sure what to say to that, so he just shakes his head and moves into the line of people waiting to draw names. He can hear several conversations around him, and is both unsurprised and dismayed that most of them are musings on why Uther is acting the way he is. He wishes he had an answer to give them, but he's just as confused as they are.
"Your turn, Arthur," Uther says cheerfully when Arthur reaches the front of the line, holding the brightly colored box out in front of him.
Arthur gives him a tight smile and reaches into the box, grabbing the first slip of paper he touches before quickly moving out of the way for Morgana to take her turn. Off to the side, he opens the folded paper and looks at the name printed on it.
Merlin Emrys, top level assistant
It takes several seconds to fully sink in, and when it does he's not sure whether to laugh or go hide in his office the rest of the day.
"So who'd you get?"
Arthur jumps, his hand automatically closing around the slip of paper. "Telling you would defeat the purpose, Merlin."
Merlin looks at him with amusement. "For everybody else, yes. But I need to know who you picked so I'll know what gift to get for you to give them."
Arthur scowls, insulted. "You don't buy every present I give." He pauses, brows drawing together. "Do you?"
"Yes," Morgana says, stepping around from behind Arthur and startling him again. "Which reminds me – that was a lovely watch you picked out for Leon, Merlin. I hope you used Arthur's credit card to pay for it."
Merlin grins. "I always do."
"Whatever," Arthur snaps, suddenly angry. "You won't be buying this one, so you can forget about finding out who it's for."
Merlin blinks, looking slightly taken aback. "Er. Okay."
Morgana raises her eyebrows at him, and Arthur glares as he stuffs the slip of paper into his pocket. "Come on, Merlin," he says. "There's extra paperwork and filing to do today."
"Oh, fun," Merlin says sarcastically, but he quickly follows when Arthur turns and strides toward the door.
They manage to catch a lift with just the two of them, and as soon as the doors close Merlin turns to him. "Are you really not going to tell me who you picked?"
"I'm really not going to tell you," Arthur says as he pushes the button for the top floor, and Merlin frowns.
"But you tell me everything."
"Well not this time," Arthur bites out, and then winces internally at the hurt that flashes across Merlin's face.
The ride up is tense and silent, and as soon as the lift doors open on their floor Merlin steps out, heading straight for the area where his desk is located outside Arthur's office. Arthur follows at a slower pace, unsurprised when Merlin refuses to look at him as he passes.
Once inside his office with the door closed, Arthur takes the slip of paper out of his pocket and opens it again, half hoping the name has magically changed in the past five minutes. It hasn't, of course, and he bites back the distressed sound that rises in his throat. Morgana's words from the previous Friday replay in his mind, making Arthur curse under his breath. He doesn't want Merlin to figure out that he's in love with him, but he can't imagine getting him anything less than the perfect gift – which would probably make his feelings obvious.
So what the hell is he supposed to do?
"Get him a giant dildo," Gwaine suggests.
Arthur removes his Blackberry from his ear and stares at it in shock for a second before putting it back. "Excuse me? A dildo?"
"Or maybe one of those gay Kama Sutra books," Gwaine continues thoughtfully. "Wait – do you even know for sure that he's gay?"
Arthur blinks. "Er. His favorite mug has a gay pride flag on it?"
"Good enough. Hmm. Maybe some flavored lube? Or that massage oil that doubles as lube. You could get him a whole set, along with the dildo. And don't forget the condoms."
"Fucking Christ," Arthur mutters, closing his eyes. "I'm calling Elena."
He doesn't give Gwaine a chance to respond, ending the call and scrolling through his contacts for Elena's number. He feels utterly ridiculous, hiding in a rarely-used supply cupboard to make frantic phone calls to his friends, but if he'd stayed in his office there would have been a chance of Merlin overhearing. Then again, Merlin seems to be ignoring his very existence anyway if the past two days are any indication.
A hard knot forms in his stomach at that thought, and Arthur drums his fingers on his thigh as he waits for Elena to pick up.
"This better be important, there are possible new clients here to look over our stallions."
"I picked Merlin for the Secret Santa thing my father insisted on doing this year," Arthur blurts out. "And I have no bloody idea what to get him."
There's a brief pause before Elena answers. "Arthur, I can't tell you what to get him. You know him better than I do, and whatever it is has to actually be from you, not your friends."
"But—no. I know that," Arthur says hurriedly. "I just…need some suggestions on where to start."
Elena sighs. "If I were you, I would start by making a decision. Do you want to be nothing more than Merlin's friend for the rest of your life, or do you want to give yourself and Merlin a chance at being happy?"
"But," Arthur says again. "I can't make him be happy with me if he doesn't feel the same. I can't just decide for the both of us and expect him to go along with it."
"Exactly," Elena says, and Arthur wonders if she's gone as mad as Uther. "Look, I've got to go. If you can't figure it out on your own then try asking his friends."
She hangs up before he has a chance to say anything else, and Arthur is left even more confused than before.
Merlin continues to mostly ignore him for the rest of the week, and Arthur is torn between apologizing and demanding that Merlin pay attention to him. In the end he does neither, and when he finally leaves the office on Friday evening Merlin has long since gone home. Arthur has always taken for granted the fact that Merlin usually stays late with him on Fridays, and he feels the sudden loss of those last couple of hours together acutely.
The drive home is long and quiet, and when he enters his flat it feels more empty than usual. He digs out the leftover Chinese from two days ago and eats it cold at the counter, tossing the empty containers into the rubbish bin. The idea of watching the telly doesn't really appeal to him, so Arthur changes out of his suit and into a pair of pyjamas before settling into his cold bed with the book he's been working his way through.
He doesn't know he's fallen asleep until he wakes with a start, sunlight streaming through his curtains and the lamp beside the bed still on. His book is lying open on the bed next to him, and it takes him several disoriented seconds to realize that someone is knocking on his door. Groaning sleepily, Arthur rolls out of bed and pads down the short hallway to the front door.
"Alright, alright," he calls out, voice thick with sleep, and the knocking abruptly stops. Arthur frowns and fumbles with the locks for a moment before they finally click and he can pull the door open.
There's nobody there.
"What the hell?" Arthur mutters, sticking his head out into the hallway and glancing in both directions. He doesn't see anybody, and he narrows his eyes dangerously. "Fucking teenagers," he says, immediately feeling twice his age.
Sighing heavily, he starts to shut the door when he feels something warm and soft on his foot. Looking down in surprise, Arthur stares at the small, golden-colored puppy currently sitting on his toes. It's staring back up at him with big brown eyes, and is wearing a bright red collar with a matching lead attached. Arthur's eyes automatically follow the direction of the lead, only to see the end wrapped around the doorknob of his front door.
"Um," he says.
The puppy yips happily, tongue lolling out of one side of its mouth. It jumps up, placing both front paws on Arthur's leg, and Arthur catches sight of a piece of folded paper tucked into its collar. Slowly dislodging the puppy and crouching down, he pulls the paper out and opens it, desperately trying to keep the creature from licking at his face while he reads the note.
I thought about giving you myself as a gift, but I'm fairly certain that's not something you would actually want. I hope that you can accept Penny (Penny Pendragon – get it?) as a suitable companion instead.
Your Forever-Anonymous Secret Santa
Arthur stares at the note in shock, and then looks back at the puppy (Penny, he reminds himself), who is currently chewing on her lead. "But I don't want a dog," he says weakly, making Penny wag her tail excitedly. He frowns, not wanting to find the action as adorable as he does. "I guess you should come in, then. At least until I figure out what to do with you."
He pushes himself to a stand, unwrapping the end of the lead from the doorknob and tugging Penny inside his flat. She follows him happily, and as soon as Arthur's shut the door he leans down and unhooks the lead from the collar. She immediately bounds away, sniffing her way around and acquainting herself with the flat. Arthur's lips quirk in reluctant amusement, but he's at a complete loss as to what to do.
Keeping one eye on Penny, he pads into the kitchen and picks up his Blackberry from where he'd set it on the table the night before. He dials Elena's number, despite knowing it's much too early on a Saturday for her to be happy about it.
"You'd better have a fucking good excuse for calling me right now."
"Don't you ever just say hello?" Arthur asks, shifting to hold the phone between his ear and his shoulder so he can start the coffee machine.
Elena snorts inelegantly. "To you? No. Now what do you want?"
"My Secret Santa gave me a puppy."
There's a pause, and Arthur's pretty sure he can hear Gwaine snoring in the background.
"A puppy," Elena finally repeats. "Someone gave you a puppy."
"Yeah, exactly," Arthur mutters. "Elena, I don't know what to do with a puppy. I don't have any experience with this – you know my father never allowed us any pets."
"It's not a child, Arthur," Elena huffs. "It needs care and attention and love, but it's nothing to freak out about."
"She," Arthur corrects absently, watching as the tiny dog tries and fails to scramble up onto his armchair. "Her name is Penny, according to the note stuffed into her collar."
"I'm coming over," Elena says after a pause. "I have to see this for myself."
Arthur thinks he should probably feel insulted, but just at that moment Penny starts to squat on the carpet in front of the armchair. "No!" he shouts in horror, and drops his phone as he runs toward her, snatching her up and immediately heading for the potted tree in the corner.
They make it just in time, and Arthur grimaces as he quickly decides to never tell Morgana her housewarming gift was used as a puppy potty.
When Elena arrives, Arthur is unsurprised to see her with a sleepy Gwaine in tow. He points toward the kitchen and says, "Coffee," earning a vague grunt of thanks as Gwaine passes. Elena immediately spots Penny sleeping in the sunlight streaming through the living room window, and lets out a noise of glee as she heads for her.
"Don't you dare wake her up," Arthur threatens as he follows. "She's only just now gone to sleep."
Elena glances back at him, eyes dancing with amusement. "Overprotective already? Maybe you really do have a heart inside that big, bad CEO chest."
Arthur scowls. "Ha-bloody-ha. I just don't want to have to keep chasing her all over the flat is all."
"Right," Elena says, obviously not believing his lie. She drops to her knees next to the sleeping puppy, reaching out to scratch gently behind her ears. "Oh, she's just adorable. Penny, you said her name was?"
"According to the note, yeah," Arthur says. "Penny Pendragon."
Elena makes another noise in the back of her throat. "Oh my god, that's just – can I see the note?"
Arthur hesitates slightly, but reaches into his pocket for the folded piece of paper anyway. "There's nothing telling about it, if that's what you're wondering," he mutters, handing it over.
Elena takes the paper and unfolds it, eyes scanning the written words. Her lips press together in an obvious attempt to keep from laughing, and Arthur rolls his eyes. "So what are you going to do?" she asks, pushing to her feet and handing the note back. "You're not exactly prepared for a dog, and whoever this person is, they're obviously attracted to you."
Arthur shakes his head. "I don't have any idea," he says, glancing down at the sleeping Penny. He stuffs the note into his pocket, frowning. "They could be a real creeper, for all I know. Keeping Penny might only encourage them to make inappropriate gestures."
"On the other hand," Elena starts, raising her eyebrow pointedly, "if they really were a creeper then they probably would have just gone ahead and thrown themselves at you instead of giving you an adorable puppy. The note did say 'forever anonymous', so I don't think they actually want you to know who they are."
"Why does it matter?" Gwaine suddenly says from the doorway, mug of steaming coffee in hand. "We all know Arthur's going to keep the dog anyway."
"Penny," Arthur automatically corrects, and then scowls when Gwaine gives him a shit-eating grin before raising his coffee to take a sip.
"Well, if you're going to keep her then you'll need puppy items," Elena says, and starts ticking things off on her fingers. "Food, bowls for food and water, those special pads to teach her not to use your carpet as a loo, toys, treats, a book on training – or better yet, an actual trainer. She's already got a collar and leash but she'll need a bed and doggie shampoo. Oh, and you'll need to find a vet to make sure she gets all her shots, and to take her to get spayed when she's old enough."
Arthur stares at her, suddenly feeling completely overwhelmed. "Right," he says weakly, and for the umpteenth time looks down at Penny. She whimpers and twitches in her sleep, letting out a tiny little bark, and he knows he's done for. "To the pet shop it is."
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on who's being asked), Elena knows of a nearby pet shop that allows the owners to bring their pets inside with them. Arthur clips Penny's lead back onto her collar and then picks up the sleeping puppy, ignoring both Gwaine's eye roll and Elena's soft cooing sound. It's not like he's cruel enough to wake up such a young dog; he may not know much but he's pretty sure they need their sleep.
Once outside the building Gwaine tries to escape in the opposite direction of the shop, but Elena knows her fiancé too well and easily grabs onto his arm, digging her fingers into his thick jacket as she drags him along. The air is cold, and Arthur's positive he sees a few flakes of snow swirling around them. He shivers and tightens his hold on Penny, wrapping his own jacket as far around her as he can.
Thankfully, it's not too long before they reach the shop, and when they step through the doors Arthur can't help but feel a bit lost. It's huge, and he has absolutely no idea where to begin. "Oh, hell."
"Here," Elena says, grabbing a cart and pulling Gwaine to it. "You can push."
"Why me?" Gwaine asks, scowling. "It's not my dog."
Elena narrows her eyes. "Look," she says, crossing her arms, "I realize you're in a bad mood because you didn't get any this morning, but could you stop being an arse for long enough to help your best friend?"
Arthur bites back a laugh as Gwaine pulls a face, pushing the cart toward the nearest aisle. "Come on, then," he calls back. "I haven't got all day."
"He does care, you know," Elena says quietly to Arthur as they follow Gwaine more slowly. "He felt mad guilty after the other night at the pub, but he refused to call you and apologize."
Arthur chuckles lightly, petting almost unconsciously at Penny's ears. "It's alright, I didn't need an apology. I've known Gwaine since we were in nappies; the way his brain works isn't much of a mystery to me anymore."
"Well, it still is to me, even after ten years," Elena mutters, but her tone is nothing short of fond happiness.
By the time they catch up with Gwaine Penny is starting to wake up, squirming in Arthur's arms, and he's completely unsurprised to see the bottom of the cart covered in various dog toys and treats.
"Here you go, Penny," Gwaine says, holding out a rawhide bone to her. She sniffs it, tail thumping excitedly against Arthur's arm as she opens her small mouth wide and bites into it.
"You're spoiling her already," Arthur says, trying and failing to sound disapproving.
Gwaine grins, and reaches out to scratch the happy puppy just above her collar. "Yep," he says without a bit of shame.
They make their way through the aisles, each of them grabbing whatever they think will be necessary for the proper care of one small dog and tossing it into the cart. Arthur picks out a large, soft-looking dog bed, the biggest bag of the most expensive puppy food the shop carries, and two matching bowls for food and water. Gwaine continues to mostly choose toys and treats, and Elena makes sure they don't forget the puppy pads, shampoo, and a grooming kit.
When they finally make it to the checkout the cart is nearly overflowing with stuff, but Arthur can't bring himself to put any of it back. Penny had struggled out of his arms about half-way through the shop, and she tangles her lead around his legs as he waits on the girl at the register to ring up the total. The number that pops up onto the little screen once everything is bagged up is very, very high, but Arthur doesn't blink as he hands over his credit card.
"You're insane, mate," Gwaine says as they leave the shop, Elena pulling out her mobile to call for a taxi; they bought so much there's no way they can carry it all back themselves. "I don't think a dog needs this much stuff."
"Excuse me?" Arthur splutters indignantly. "If I recall correctly, quite a bit of this you picked out. Twenty packs of bones to chew on? Really?"
"Rather the bones than your Italian leather shoes," Gwaine says flippantly, and honestly, how can Arthur argue with that?
Elena and Gwaine don't stay long once they get back to Arthur's flat, having made previous plans to meet with Elena's father for lunch. Once they're gone he goes about unpacking all the bags from the shop, trying to organize everything into some semblance of order. He clears out an entire cabinet in the kitchen for her treats, and puts the huge bag of food into the pantry. Her food and water bowls go onto a bone-shaped mat in one corner, all the toys go into the large, straw basket with paw-prints painted around the top, and her lead goes over an empty hook on the coat rack attached to the wall next to the front door. Arthur takes all the grooming stuff into the bathroom, storing it beneath the sink, and then sets out an entire pack of the puppy pads all over the flat.
Penny follows him as he does all of this, tail wagging and head cocking sideways in curiosity as she watches.
"Less than twelve hours and you've already taken over my life and my bank account," Arthur says to her, and she jumps up excitedly, placing her paws on his leg and letting out a tiny yip. He reaches down and scritches lightly behind her ears, sighing. "Maybe I really am as lonely and desperate as Gwaine said."
Penny twists her head to lick at Arthur's hand, tugging a smile onto his lips. He pets her one more time before straightening and heading back to the living room, Penny following him eagerly, and he picks up one of the toys at the top of the basket. She nearly snatches it from his hand when he holds it out to her, making him chuckle. She shakes her entire head, the toy in her mouth flopping back and forth before she drops it onto the floor and proceeds to jump around it and bark. Laughing even louder, Arthur pulls out his Blackberry and snaps a few quick pictures.
He debates for a second before choosing one of the best ones and attaching it to a text to Morgana. The newest member of the Pendragon family, he types out. Thanks to my Secret Santa.
He hits send before he can change his mind.
It takes several minutes for Morgana to text him back, and he's actually moved down onto the floor with Penny when he finally hears the familiar tone. Arthur reaches over and picks up his phone from where he'd laid it on the sofa, holding an over-excited Penny back with his other hand.
How surprisingly cute. Does it have a name?
Arthur lets out a breath and quickly types an answer. Her name is Penny.
Christ, Arthur, narcissistic much?
I didn't choose the name, you harpy. That's what the note said.
Note? Oh, do tell, dear brother.
Arthur scowls. There's nothing to tell. The note said her name was Penny and she was from my Secret Santa. That's it.
Interesting. Speaking of, have you decided what you're going to get Merlin?
Arthur blinks, startled. She can't possibly know he picked Merlin's name, can she? Elena and Gwaine are the only ones he's told, and they wouldn't have said anything. I have no idea what you're talking about.
Just remember what I said before. This could be the perfect opportunity to show him how you feel.
Arthur doesn't know how to respond to that, so he doesn't, tossing the phone back onto the couch and resting his elbow on his bent knee, burying his hand in his hair. He watches absently as Penny continues to play with her toy, and wonders if maybe Morgana is right. The thought makes his stomach clench with fear, images of Merlin's face filling with pity and rejection assaulting Arthur's mind.
"Fuck," he curses softly, closing his eyes. He's never been this insecure with someone before, even when he was in love with them, and he doesn't think he'd ever be able to fully recover if Merlin didn't feel the same.
Goddamn, he's a fucking sap.
"What do you think I should do?" he asks Penny. "Should I take that risk and tell Merlin I'm arse over tits in love with him?"
Penny stops chewing on her toy long enough to look up at him and cock her head to the side, tail thumping once against the floor.
"Yeah," Arthur sighs. "I'm confused too."
He tries to get Penny to sleep in her new bed that night, he really does, but after ten minutes of listening to her cry outside of his closed bedroom door, Arthur gives in.
"Don't get used to this," he says as he picks the trembling puppy up and holds her close, climbing back into bed. "You will learn to sleep in your own bed. I didn't buy it for nothing."
Penny licks happily at his face before wiggling her way beneath the covers and settling against Arthur's side. Sighing in defeat, he rests his hand over the warm ball of fur and lets her steady breaths lull him to sleep.
It's not until he's getting dressed on Monday morning that Arthur realizes he can't leave Penny in his flat by herself for the entire day. Unfortunately, he can't think of a single person he can leave her with while he's at work, and if he's completely honest he doesn't want to leave her with someone else.
"Well, shit," he mutters, glancing down at where Penny is watching him put on his tie. He sighs. "There's only one thing for it, then."
Forty-five minutes later Arthur is very carefully making his way through the corridors of Pendragon Corporation, his outer coat squirming suspiciously under one arm and a bag of odd items in the other. It's earlier than he usually arrives – which is good, because that means there's a fair chance he won't run into anybody before he can reach his office.
He makes it completely unseen, thank fuck, and firmly closes his office door behind him before setting the bag down on his desk and unbuttoning his coat. Penny immediately scrambles up to lick at his chin, body shaking with the force of her wagging tail. Arthur laughs and sets her on the floor, unhooking her lead and watching as she bounds away, sniffing around to learn her new environment. Keeping one eye on her, he pulls out the few items he'd brought from the flat: a container full of food, another for water, a few toys, a blanket to sleep on, and several puppy pads.
"Okay, I think we're all set," he says confidently; Penny doesn't even bother to glance up at him as she noses her way around his chair.
"All set for what?"
Arthur jumps and spins around, cursing loudly. Merlin is standing in the open doorway, eyeing him like he's gone round the bend. "What are you doing here?"
Merlin raises an eyebrow. "I work here, or have you forgotten?"
"No," Arthur huffs in irritation. "I mean, what are you doing here so early?"
"I'm always here this early," Merlin says, crossing his arms and giving Arthur a suspicious look. "You, on the other hand, never are. What's going on?"
Arthur stares at him, suddenly speechless as he searches for a viable excuse. "Um."
Before either of them can say another word, Penny comes trotting out from behind Arthur's desk. She gives an excited yip when she sees Merlin, whose eyes suddenly go wide.
"Close the door," Arthur sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Merlin immediately does as asked, and then drops down to his knees, whistling lightly. There's a huge grin on his face, and it grows impossibly bigger as Penny races to him and tries to climb up his chest. "Down, down," Merlin laughs, and to Arthur's surprise she actually obeys, backing off slightly even as her frantically wagging tail threatens to send her off balance. "Arthur, why do you have a dog in your office?"
"She was a gift," Arthur answers, suddenly uncomfortable. "From my Secret Santa."
Merlin looks up at him, absently scratching Penny behind the ear in the exact place Arthur had discovered she liked best. "Okay. But why is she here? Are you planning on taking her to the shelter on your lunch break or something?"
Arthur blinks, startled. "Don't be ridiculous," he says in shock, and steps to the side so Merlin can see the array of items on his desk. "I just didn't have anybody to watch her while I was here; she's much too young to be left alone for an entire day."
A smile even bigger and brighter than the previous one bursts across Merlin's face. "So you're keeping her, then?"
Arthur scowls. "Yes, Merlin, I'm keeping her. And her name is Penny, which you might do good to remember since you'll be helping me hide her from everybody else. This can't get back to my father."
"Of course not," Merlin agrees, pushing to his feet. He sounds happier than he did at any point last week, and Arthur's traitorous insides instantly turn to warm liquid. "Your Secret Santa must like you a lot, to get you such a great gift."
Arthur can't stop the flush that rises up the back of his neck, reaching to his ears and turning them hot. "Yeah," he agrees vaguely. He suddenly gets an idea. "So, um. Have you received your gift yet?"
"Not yet." Merlin shakes his head, glancing down at where Penny has her front paws planted firmly on his leg. "It's only been a week though, and there's this week and next to go."
"Right," Arthur says, and his heart decides it's going to start up a loud, pounding rhythm. "Anything in particular you're hoping for?"
Merlin shrugs, looking up and catching his eye. "Not anything I'd actually get."
Arthur huffs, crossing his arms as casually as he can and half-sitting on the edge of his desk. "Come on, then, be honest. It's not like I can track them down and tell them."
Merlin's lips quirk. "It's just a Secret Santa," he says, sounding bemused. "I'll probably get something half-way useful, or even just a gift card. Which is fine; I don't need anything fancy."
That's definitely not what Arthur wants to hear, but if he pushes then Merlin will get suspicious. He shrugs. "Well, I hope you at least get something better than a pencil holder, or a new notepad."
"Thanks," Merlin says dryly, rolling his eyes. He hesitates, and then gestures behind him at the door. "I need to get to work, so, um…"
"Oh, right," Arthur says in mild surprise. "Right." He glances over at where Penny has left them both to try and climb up onto the small sofa to one side of the room. "Try not to let anyone in here today, especially Morgana. You and I are the only ones who can know about Penny being here. If you can't keep them out at least give me some warning."
Merlin nods, and backs toward the door. "I make no promises. Your sister is pretty fucking stubborn."
"More like uncaring about other's feelings," Arthur corrects, straightening and heading around the end of his desk to his chair. "Oh, and Merlin?" he says just as Merlin is about to slip through the door.
"Yeah?" Merlin asks, glancing at him warily.
Arthur grins. "Bring me a coffee, and make sure you have the papers for the Greenburg client on my desk by ten."
Merlin glares at him, and shuts the door harder than necessary when he leaves.
Surprisingly, the two of them manage to keep Penny fairly well hidden over the next few days. Morgana nearly catches on at least four times, and one time Uther gives an unexpected appearance that has them scrambling to get the both the puppy items and the puppy herself out of sight. It's a close call, and Uther shoots Arthur an odd glance as he's leaving, though he doesn't say anything.
Once he and Merlin have settled into a workable routine with Penny, Arthur lets himself start thinking seriously about Merlin's gift. He immediately dismisses gift cards, anything work related, and books – he's been to Merlin's flat, and he's fairly certain there isn't a single book he could get him that Merlin doesn't already own. In all honesty, he has absolutely no idea where to even start. Giving Merlin something as impersonal as a pair of gloves or a new coat just feels wrong, and Arthur knows for a fact that Merlin would refuse anything that was obviously expensive.
He briefly considers Elena's suggestion of calling Merlin's friends, but that doesn't feel right either. Whatever he decides on should be one-hundred percent from him, not something based off another person's opinion. Besides, he doesn't actually know any of Merlin's friends. What would he even say to them? Hi, this is Merlin's boss, can you tell me what to get him for Christmas since I'm too pathetically in love to think of anything on my own?
That probably wouldn't go over too well, and there's no doubt in his mind that they would immediately tell Merlin what was going on.
By the time Friday afternoon arrives, Arthur is starting to truly panic. He's looked at hundreds of sites online, gone through every sales paper he can get his hands on, and even braved leaving Penny with Elena and Gwaine in the evenings so he could go to actual stores. Not a single thing has caught his eye as something he would want to give Merlin, and now there's only six days until the office Christmas party.
And on top of his present-buying stress, Uther has called Arthur to his office no less than ten bloody times in the past two days to apparently quiz him about random Pendragon Corporation clients. He must have managed to answer correctly, though, because Uther had done nothing but nod his head approvingly, and just a few minutes ago actually said the words, "Good job, son."
It has Arthur feeling completely and utterly out of sorts, which is not at all a feeling he enjoys having.
He's so deep in thought about his father (and the very-possibly-real fact that Uther has lost his mind) as he makes his way back to his office that he very nearly misses his saving grace. He's just passing the barely-open door to the small staff room on the floor his office is located on when Merlin's voice drifts out to him. It takes him until a few paces past the door to recognize whose voice it is, but as soon as he does he freezes in place and then takes a few cautious steps back.
"Gwen, would you please just drop it? It's not that big of a big deal."
Arthur hesitates, feeling skeevy for listening in on a private conversation, but this may be the only way he can get even a small hint about something Merlin might actually want for Christmas. There's silence in the staff room before Merlin starts to talk again, and Arthur realizes he must be on his mobile.
"No, it's not. I'm not even going to be at home on Christmas; I'm going to Mum's on Christmas Eve and staying until Boxing Day, just like I've done for years now. There's not much point in having a Christmas tree at my flat."
Arthur's eyebrows shoot up. Even he has a small tree in the corner, though he's had to remove the lowest decorations because of Penny. Why doesn't Merlin have one?
"Gwen. Stop, just—listen, alright?" Merlin pauses, and Arthur can hear him take a deep breath. "Before my dad died, he and mum used to take me to tree farms at Christmas to pick out a real tree and then we would bring it home and decorate it together. It was my favorite tradition, but ever since the accident I've had to do it by myself because mum can't handle it. And it just doesn't feel the same, you know? So I told mum I wouldn't have time to do it this year, and she bought one of those fake ones."
Arthur frowns; he knows Merlin's dad died in an accident while he was at Uni, but Merlin doesn't talk about him very much.
"It's not—there's nothing wrong with fake trees, Gwen. I just can't handle going by myself to get a real one, okay?" Another pause. "Of course I wouldn't be averse to going with someone else to pick one out, but I really don't see much point. We've got a tree that will do, and mum will still bake copious amounts of biscuits and pies and I will still get drunk on rum and eggnog and there will still be presents galore to open on Christmas morning. Everything will be fine. Look, I've got to go or Arthur's going to skin me. Tell Lance I said hello."
Arthur quickly walks away, hurrying toward his office. An idea is already forming in his mind, and he's got a few phone calls to make.
It's early the next morning when Arthur knocks on Merlin's door. Penny is excitedly bouncing around his feet, the end of her lead wrapped loosely around his hand. His heart is pounding almost frantically in his chest, and he's not nearly as sure as he was yesterday that this is the good idea it seemed like. It's too late, though, because he can already hear the locks being turned on the other side of the door.
"Arthur?" Merlin asks, gazing out at him sleepily. He's wearing a pair of blue plaid pyjama bottoms and a black t-shirt, and his hair is ruffled and messy. Arthur's mouth goes dry. "What are you doing here?"
"Um," Arthur says, trying to focus his mind. "Get dressed. And make sure it'll keep you warm."
Merlin blinks, and Penny lets out a happy yip as she tries to climb his leg. "I'm sorry, what?"
Arthur huffs. "Clothes, Merlin. Actual ones, not pyjamas."
"You do realize that Saturday is one of my two days off, don't you?" Merlin asks, eyeing him suspiciously. "I don't actually have to do what you say."
"Yes, yes," Arthur says impatiently, waving his hand dismissively. If he can't even get Merlin out of his bloody flat this whole thing will be completely pointless. "I can't give you details because it would ruin it; I just need you to get dressed. Warmly." He pauses, uncertain. "Just—trust me?" He flashes his most hopeful smile.
Merlin sighs and steps back, opening the door further. "Come on in. No sense in you standing out there while you wait."
Twenty minutes later they're leaving the flat, Merlin with them. "So where are we going?" he asks, wrapping a bright red scarf around his neck before pulling his beanie hat onto his head.
"It's a surprise," Arthur says, mostly because he's not sure Merlin will agree to go if he tells him before hand.
"A surprise?" Merlin repeats, raising his eyebrows. "Since when do you do surprises?"
Arthur shrugs, not entirely sure how to answer that without giving himself away. "When I feel it's important, I guess. I can't promise you'll like it, but—it's really all I can do at this point."
Merlin shoots him an odd glance, curiosity filling his features. "Alright, you've caught my interest. Do I get any hints?"
"Nope," Arthur says, grinning.
Merlin looks disappointed but he doesn't argue, following Arthur out of the building to his car. Penny runs between them, jumping and hopping around their feet, and as soon as Merlin opens the passenger door she scrambles in and settles onto it. Arthur laughs and unhooks her lead, pulling his keys from his pocket as he makes his way around to the other side of the car.
Merlin is obviously fighting back a smile as he places his hands on his hips and tries to look sternly at the happy puppy. "Penny Pendragon," he admonishes, and Arthur nearly drops his keys. "That's my seat."
Penny thumps her tail on the leather seat.
"I don't think she agrees with you," Arthur points out, eyes tracing over Merlin's face.
Merlin rolls his eyes with badly-hidden amusement. "Obviously. Alright, then, let's see if we can work out a compromise." He reaches down and picks Penny up, cradling her in his arms as he slides into the passenger seat and quickly shuts the door. Arthur moves to climb in on his side, eyeing the two of them as Penny excitedly clambers all over Merlin, licking wildly at his face and making him laugh. His heart gives a hard thump, and in that moment he wants nothing more than for this to be what his entire life is about – for this to be his family.
Arthur clears his throat and shifts his gaze as he starts the car. "Buckle up," he says. "We've got a bit of a drive ahead of us."
Merlin chatters the entire way, and though Arthur listens he can't focus on a single word that's said. His nerves are on edge, and a hard knot forms in his stomach at the thought of a getting a negative reaction from Merlin. Jesus fucking Christ, he must have been completely mad to try and do this.
When they pull into the parking area of the tree farm Merlin immediately falls silent, one hand absently petting Penny. He stares at the big sign announcing where they are, brows drawn together in confusion. Arthur parks the car and kills the engine, waiting for a response. Finally, Merlin turns to him.
"Okay," Arthur says, holding up one hand. "I know this seems odd, so just let me explain." He hesitates, and Merlin raises an eyebrow in question. "You know how my father's been calling me to his office every two bloody seconds over the past few days?"
Merlin nods. "To quiz you on random clients, yeah."
"Right," Arthur says, and takes a deep breath. "Well, yesterday I was coming back from the last one when I passed the staff room on our floor. The door was open and I could hear you talking, so I stopped."
Merlin's face immediately goes blank, his eyes guarded. "You were listening in on my conversation with Gwen?"
"Not all of it," Arthur says quickly, heart clenching. "Just the part about your dad and the Christmas trees. And I thought it was complete balls that you didn't have a tree, and that your mum had a fake one when she probably wants a real one. And you said – "
"Oh," Merlin interrupts, face filling with comprehension. "Oh. You heard me say – you brought me to a tree farm because I didn't want to do it by myself."
"Yeah," Arthur breathes, smiling hopefully. "I know I shouldn't have eavesdropped, but – " he pauses, swallowing. "I thought we could take it to your mum. Surprise her with it."
"Oh god, Arthur," Merlin says, and lets out a shaky breath. "Just when I thought – fuck, never mind. This is brilliant, and I can almost forgive you for listening in on my private conversation."
Relief hits Arthur hard, and his grin is almost giddy. "So you're happy?"
Merlin smiles, and there's something about it that's just a little bit off. "Yeah," he says, voice thick. "Yeah, I'm happy."
"Good," Arthur says, nodding. He grabs Penny's lead and reaches over to clip it to her collar. "Let's go chop down a tree."
"What about that one?" Arthur asks, pointing at a nearby tree.
Merlin shakes his head. "Too tall."
"Ok, what about that one?"
Arthur rolls his eyes. "Alright," he says, and looks around at the numerous Christmas trees surrounding them. He points at one that looks somewhere in between the other two. "That one?"
Merlin glances over and frowns thoughtfully. "No," he says after a moment. "It's leaning."
Arthur stares at the tree. "No, it isn't."
"Yes, it is."
And not for the first time in the past two hours, Arthur thinks he should have just bought Merlin a book. Or something. "Merlin, we've looked at probably more than a hundred trees. Is there really none that you like?"
A flash of guilt crosses Merlin's face, and he glances down at where Penny is playing in the snow at his feet, her lead wrapped around his hand. "It's just – I want it to be perfect."
Arthur sighs and shifts his grip on the axe they had borrowed from the main building. "It will be," he says, smiling slightly. "But if my fingers fall off from the cold then there won't be any tree at all."
Merlin snorts, visibly relaxing. "I could chop it down myself, you know."
"Yes," Arthur agrees, raising an eyebrow. "Though that might be hard to do if you're driving me to the hospital."
"This is true," Merlin says, and then points down a line of trees. "That one."
Arthur blinks and lets his gaze follow the direction of Merlin's finger. "You're going to have to be a bit more specific," he says after several seconds of trying to discern which tree Merlin is talking about.
Merlin huffs and starts down the row, tugging Penny's lead to get her to follow. "Come on," he says over his shoulder. "I'll just show you."
When they reach the tree Arthur has to admit that it's as close to perfect as a Christmas tree can get. The branches are all fairly even, and it's taller than Merlin but not so tall the top is unreachable.
"Are you sure this is the one you want?" Arthur asks, because he'll be damned if he cuts it down only to have Merlin change his mind afterward.
"Yes, I'm sure," Merlin says, rolling his eyes. "Mum will love it."
Arthur gives a short nod. "Good," he says. "Now you and Penny get out of the way so I can get it down."
It takes him longer than he wants to admit to chop through the base, and even longer for them to drag it to the front where Arthur's car is parked. Merlin tries to help as much as he can, but he's holding a wriggling Penny in one arm, so most of the pulling is up to Arthur.
"Here," he says when they've finally made it back to the car and dropped the tree beside it. He digs in his pocket and pulls out his car keys, handing them over to Merlin. "Go ahead and get in; turn the heat on so you and Penny can warm up. I'm going to take the axe back and get someone to help me put the tree on top of the car."
Merlin nods. "Hey," he says as Arthur starts toward the main building.
Arthur stops and looks back at him. "Yeah?"
"Thank you," Merlin says, looking him straight in the eye. "For doing this. You have no idea how much it means."
Arthur swallows, and can feel how shaky his smile is. "It was no problem," he says, and starts again for the building before his expression can give anything away.
It's a two hour drive to Merlin's mum's house, and Arthur is cold and tired and happier than he's been in a long time. He flips the heat to high and doesn't complain when Merlin turns the radio station to one full of Christmas songs, humming along as Merlin holds a sleeping Penny and smiles out the window.
When they finally reach their destination they untie the tree and carefully pull it from the roof of the car, standing it up between them.
"You think she'd be tired of it by now," Arthur says, eyeing Penny where she's happily jumping around in the snow nearby. "Considering how much of it we had to trek through at the tree farm."
Merlin grins at him around the branches of the tree. "You know you want to join her. Make some snow angels, maybe build a snowman—"
"Hardly," Arthur scoffs, giving Merlin his most indignant look. "I'd build a snow fort so that I could safely pelt you with snowballs."
Merlin laughs. "Are you so scared of me, then, that you have to hide behind a wall of snow?" His grin turns wicked. "For the record, I could beat you with or without a snow fort."
Arthur doesn't get a chance to respond to that particular lie before the front door opens and a woman he assumes is Merlin's mum – Hunith, Merlin had told him – looks out.
"Merlin?" she asks, surprise and happiness clear in her voice. "What are you doing here?"
"We brought you a tree!" Merlin exclaims, making a gesture that encompasses both Arthur and the tree between them. Penny gives a loud yip from where she's nearly buried herself in the snow.
"Oh," Hunith says, and presses the fingers of one hand against her mouth. She takes a visible breath and gestures them toward the house. "Well, come on then. Bring it in where it belongs."
Arthur glances at Merlin, and the expression on his face more than makes this whole thing worth it.
By the time they get the tree into the house Hunith has pushed her small, fake tree to the side and is already taking off the decorations. Arthur and Merlin prop the real one against the wall, Penny eagerly following them into the house and immediately beginning to sniff around in curiosity.
"Merlin, go find the tree stand," Hunith says, carefully placing the ornaments she's removed on a nearby armchair. "It should be in the hallway cupboard."
"Yes, mum," Merlin says, and drops a kiss on her cheek as he passes.
"You must be Arthur," Hunith says, smiling widely as she turns to him. "It's so lovely to finally meet you."
Arthur grins, startled. "As it is you. Merlin's mentioned you a few times, and I've wanted to meet you for a while." He pauses, hesitating but unable to stop himself from asking. "So he talks about me?"
"Oh, yes," Hunith says, laughing.
Arthur isn't quite sure what to make of that, but Merlin reenters the room before he can ask any more questions.
"Found it," Merlin announces, holding up the stand. "It was exactly where we put it when we took down last year's tree."
"Well, that makes sense," Arthur says dryly, and Merlin glares at him.
Hunith smiles. "Why don't I make you boys some hot chocolate while you set up the tree? There are plenty of biscuits, too, and I'm sure I can find something for this adorable little puppy."
She leaves the room and Arthur and Merlin immediately look at the tree.
"Okay," Merlin says after a moment. "You hold it still and I'll put in the screws."
"You sure you won't put them in sideways or something?" Arthur teases, moving toward the tree.
"You sure you can hold the tree straight?" Merlin shoots back, and Arthur grins.
They manage to get it settled into the base and screwed in without any major mishaps, and they're just stepping back from it when Hunith comes back in, a tray with three steaming mugs and a plate of biscuits in her hands. Penny is bouncing around her feet, nose sniffing the air.
"Oh, it looks lovely," Hunith says, setting the tray down on a nearby bookshelf, high enough that Penny can't reach it. "You two made a good choice with this one."
"Ah, well," Arthur says. "Merlin picked it out, I just cut it down."
Hunith waves his words away. "Details. Both of you went, so both of you get credit. Now let's get those decorations moved. It shouldn't take long between the three of us."
Arthur feels something warm and happy curl in his stomach, and he watches for a second as Merlin and Hunith begin removing the remaining decorations from the other tree. Part of him feels like an invader, looking in on their happy-family moment, and another part of him wants nothing more than to be part of their family.
He feels something at his feet and looks down to see Penny tugging on the bottom of his jeans leg, trying to pull him in the direction of Merlin and Hunith. Arthur laughs softly and reaches down to scratch behind her ears.
"Come on, you bum," Merlin calls out to him. "You're not getting out of this that easily."
"Bum?" Arthur repeats indignantly, moving to join them. "Who was it that did most of the physical work today? And I'll have you know that the last thing I want is to get out of it." He flushes as soon as he says it, keeping his eyes trained on a strand of tinsel as he starts to unwrap it from the tree. He can feel Merlin watching him, and tries his best to ignore him.
"Right," Merlin murmurs, and takes off several ornaments. Hunith has moved around to the other side of the tree, and is quietly humming a Christmas song. "I figured you'd be tired of me by now."
Arthur shrugs. "You've been tolerable," he says flippantly, and grins when Merlin throws a plastic ball at his head.
It's late when they pull into the carpark of Merlin's building, the light from the streetlamps casting shadows everywhere. Penny has long fallen asleep in Merlin's lap, and he opens his door to step out before carefully shifting her from his arms to the seat. Arthur hesitates slightly, stomach knotting like it had that morning, but he's not going to let himself back out now. He climbs out of the car, keys in hand, to head around the back and meet Merlin at the boot.
"Today was brilliant," Merlin says, sliding his gloved hands into his coat pockets. "You really made my mum happy."
"I hope I made you happy too," Arthur says, feeling heat rise up the back of his neck despite the cold.
Merlin smiles. "You did. I'm usually only thinking about how much I miss my dad, but today really brought back the good memories."
"Good," Arthur says sincerely, and uses his keys to unlock the boot. "Look, I – um. I've got something for you." He reaches in and picks up the small, wrapped package, leaving the boot lid open for the extra light. "I probably should have given it to you at your mum's so you could have added it to the tree, but – I kind of wanted just you to have it for a while."
Merlin looks at him for a moment, expression unreadable, before carefully taking the package. "'Happy Christmas, Merlin'," he reads from the sticker-label Arthur had put on it. "'From your Secret Santa'." He looks back up at Arthur in surprise. "You're my Secret Santa?"
"Yeah," Arthur says, smiling crookedly. "It took me ages to decide on what to get you, and it was only after I made plans to take you to get a tree that I got the idea for this. It's not much but hope you like it."
Merlin doesn't move to open the gift, his brows drawn together as he looks at Arthur. "Was taking me to get the tree part of the Secret Santa?"
Arthur blinks. "What? No. No, that – that was because you and your mum deserved the kind of tree you both wanted. That was because you're my friend and I wanted to do something for you outside of a random draw of names. The present goes with that, but they're – they're not the same. I mean, they both mean something, but—" He pauses, rubbing one hand over his face. "Christ. Just open it. Please?"
Merlin's lips quirk into a small smile, and he drops his gaze to the gift as he slides his finger under one of the taped edges. A wooden box appears as the paper rips away, and Arthur holds his breath as Merlin finishes unwrapping it, finally lifting the lid on the top and staring at the contents. After a long moment a huge smile appears on his face, and something in Arthur's chest loosens. Merlin reaches in and picks up the ornament by the string at the top, letting the heavy, bright green tree swing from his gloved finger.
"A Christmas tree," he says, sounding slightly disbelieving.
"I considered getting you something a bit fancier, but I thought you'd like this better," Arthur says. "And – oh, wait." He reaches over and flips the tree over, not removing it from Merlin's finger as he flips the switch on the bottom. It immediately begins playing the tune to Rocking Around the Christmas Tree, and several tiny multi-colored lights start blinking along to the song.
Merlin laughs loudly, staring at the tree with an open, happy expression. "Thank you," he says again, shifting his gaze to Arthur. "You definitely made the right choice with this one."
"You're welcome," Arthur says, smiling. "I'm glad you like it."
"I do," Merlin says, and turns the tree off before carefully lowering it back into the box. He stares at it for a long moment, and in the light from the inside of the boot Arthur can see his expression shift once again into something completely unreadable. Merlin clears his throat and quickly closes the lid, and when he looks back up at Arthur his eyes are guarded and his face blank. "Thanks, again," he says, voice not exactly cold but no longer full of the same warmth it had held most of the day. "It was really nice of you to take the time to do this. You're a good friend."
Arthur's heart sinks. "Oh," he says. "But. I mean, it wasn't—"
"I've got to go," Merlin interrupts. "And you should probably get Penny home so she can get a proper sleep."
"Yeah," Arthur agrees automatically, not entirely sure what's going on. "Merlin—"
Merlin gives a small, absent shake of his head. "Bye, Arthur. See you Monday."
He turns and walks away without another word, leaving Arthur to stare after him in confusion. He's not sure how long he stands there – a familiar, bitter ache settling back into his chest as he does – before closing the boot lid and taking the few steps to the driver's side door. Penny is still sleeping on the seat where Merlin had placed her, and Arthur stares at her for a moment before starting the engine and pulling out of the carpark.
He can't sleep that night, and even Penny's warmth curled against his side doesn't help. The day had been completely brilliant up until Merlin's sudden brush off, and Arthur can't for the life of him figure it out. It couldn't have been the gift – Merlin had seemed to really like the little tree. As a matter of fact, he'd seemed to have enjoyed the entire day just as much as Arthur had.
"Did I do something wrong and not realize it?" Arthur asks Penny, reaching down to scratch absently behind her ears. She snuffles and licks at his palm before settling back down, eyes closed, and Arthur can't stop the smile that tugs at his lips. "You've had a bit of an exciting day, haven't you?"
Penny doesn't move, and he chuckles lightly before raising both arms to slide behind his head, continuing to gaze at the ceiling. "I mean," Arthur continues after a moment. "I don't think I did anything wrong. Did I?"
It's not a question he can answer, and it's a long time before he finally drifts off to sleep.
By the time Monday morning arrives, Arthur isn't much closer to figuring it out. The only reason for Merlin's reaction that he's been able to come up with is that Merlin realized Arthur's feelings and didn't know how to tell him he doesn't feel the same. That thought leaves a dull ache in Arthur's chest and a bitter taste in his mouth, but it's the only thing that makes any sense. He's not looking forward to facing Merlin, but there's only so much avoiding he can do with his own assistant.
When Arthur reaches his office, Penny in tow, he's not just a tiny bit relieved to see that Merlin hasn't arrived yet. He lets himself breathe for a second before opening his door – only to find himself face-to-face with a startled-looking Merlin.
"Oh," Merlin says, blinking. "I'm sorry, I didn't think—"
"You're here," Arthur blurts out in surprise. "Why are you in my office?" Shit, that's not exactly what he meant to say.
Merlin frowns. "The Nelson report had come in this morning and I thought you'd want it first thing. It's on your desk."
"Right," Arthur says after a moment. He clears his throat, tightening his grip on Penny's lead as she jumps excitedly around Merlin's feet. "Um. Yeah, thanks. That's an important one."
"I know," Merlin says, and for once he doesn't sound like he's making fun of Arthur. He hesitates slightly, shifting his gaze somewhere off to the left. "I should – um." He gestures vaguely in the direction of his desk.
"Oh, right," Arthur says again, and quickly steps aside to let Merlin pass. He catches a whiff of his shampoo or aftershave or something, and has to fight not to reach out and pull Merlin to him. As soon as his office doors are firmly closed between them, Arthur walks mechanically to his desk and drops down into his chair. "Jesus Christ, Arthur," he mutters. "Be more pathetic."
He eyes the neatly organized surface of his desk, Nelson report carefully stacked at the forefront, and wonders how many times he'd have to bang his head against the polished wood before he lost all memory of his stupid, miserable existence. His father has completely lost his mind, Morgana probably has some sort of ulterior motive to pushing him to take over the company, his best friends are getting married, and the man he's so bloody in love with can barely look at him.
Arthur's not really one for self-pity, but fuck. There's only so much one man can take.
He feels something nudge against his leg, and looks down to see Penny gazing up at him calmly. Like usual, he can't stop the smile that pulls itself onto his face, and reaches down to pick her up.
"You're right," Arthur says quietly, sliding one finger under her collar to scratch gently. "I do have you, don't I?"
Her tail gives a small thump against his arm, and he sighs before setting her back on the floor and reaching for the Nelson report.
Arthur is not drunk. Not yet, anyway, though he definitely has plans to be before the night is over with. The annual office Christmas party is in full swing, and his father has spared no expense. There's a live band in one corner, an open bar, and every kind of appetizer-type food known to man – from caviar to pigs-in-a-blanket and everything in between. Professional decorators had been brought in, and the entire room is covered in baubles and tinsel and fairy lights and even fake snow.
Arthur would have been impressed if he weren't so intent in drowning himself in alcohol. Merlin had barely spoken to him all week, and it wasn't the angry non-speaking from earlier in the month but more of an awkward, obviously-has-no-idea-what-to-say non-speaking. Which is much, much worse in Arthur's opinion.
"There you are."
He looks up at Morgana as she slides onto the bar stool next to his. "Don't you have someone else to be obnoxious to tonight? Leon, for example. I know he's here somewhere."
She waves her hand dismissively. "Have you happened to have noticed Father yet?"
"Noticed him?" Arthur repeats, eyebrows rising. "I know he's around here somewhere, but—"
"Turn around," Morgana interrupts, voice flat.
Arthur gives her an odd look, but the seriousness of her expression has him glancing over his shoulder. It only takes a second for him to spot their father, and when he does he wishes Morgana had just kept her mouth shut. Uther is dressed in a full-on Father Christmas suit – hat, coat, trousers, even the boots – and is walking around, pulling envelopes from a big red bag and handing them out to all the guests.
Arthur stares, and then turns back around and gestures to the bartender. "Another martini. Extra dry."
Morgana eyes the two empty glasses already by his elbow but she doesn't comment. "I have to admit I'm kind of jealous. Why didn't he ever dress up like Father Christmas when we were children?"
"Because playing dress up isn't the kind of thing Father does," Arthur says, and downs half the drink the bartender sets in front of him. "Insanity has moved from possible to probable."
"All the more reason—"
"Don't start," Arthur snaps. "I'm really not in the mood to hear more of you trying to push him out of this company. He'll leave when he's ready."
Morgana is silent for a moment. "I am fully aware of that, actually. What's crawled up your arse?"
Arthur groans and runs one hand through his hair. "Sorry," he mutters. "I just." He hesitates, playing with the stem of his martini glass. "I took your advice, is all. About Merlin. And it didn't work out."
Morgana frowns. "What exactly do you mean by 'didn't work out'? Did you tell him how you feel?"
"Not in so many words," Arthur admits. "But I made it fairly obvious. And now he can't even look me in the eye."
"But," Morgana says, brows drawing together. "That doesn't make any sense. I was certain—"
"Well, you were wrong," Arthur bites out bitterly, and downs the rest of his drink. "He doesn't feel the same, and now we have to do that bloody awkward trying-to-stay-friends-when-one-wants-more," he waves his hand vaguely in the air, "thing."
"I'm sorry," Morgana says quietly after a moment.
Arthur shrugs, and retrieves the olive from the bottom of his glass, popping it into his mouth. "It's not your fault. I'm just that pathetic."
"Arthur," Morgana huffs. "You are not pathetic. Where the hell did your ego go? This is not how my brother would act."
"Exactly," Arthur says, gesturing at her. "I'm a pathetic, lovesick mess."
Morgana snorts. "No, you're just well on your way to being drunk." She slides off her stool and pats his arm. "By the way, Father's heading in this direction. Tell him I've gone to the loo." And with that she disappears back into the crowd of people, leaving Arthur to blink after her.
"Arthur, there you are," Uther says as he reaches the bar, clapping Arthur hard on the back. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
"Hello, Father," Arthur says, suddenly wishing he could hide the three empty martini glasses. "Having fun tonight?"
Uther laughs and gestures at his outfit. "More fun than I've had in ages. Can you come up with me to my office for a few minutes? I hate to drag you away from the party but there's something we need to discuss before you get any deeper into a haze of alcohol."
Arthur can't stop the flush that spreads across his face, no doubt helped along by said alcohol. "Of course."
He follows Uther through the crowd – quite thankful when he doesn't wobble – and out of the multi-purpose room, the sudden quiet of the empty corridors making his ears ring. Neither of them speaks as they take the lift up to Uther's floor, and Arthur resigns himself to more weird insanity before he can escape back down to the bar and continue drowning his sorrows. He briefly considers going home to finish getting drunk, but that thought makes him even more depressed. Penny would welcome him back gladly, but he'd still be just as Merlin-less and alone as always.
Uther's office is brightly lit when they arrive, and Arthur immediately takes his usual seat as Uther walks around his desk to his own chair. He looks simultaneously ridiculous in the Father Christmas suit and just as intimidating as always.
"Now," Uther says, sitting back and giving Arthur a scrutinizing look. "You're probably quite convinced by now that I've gone insane, aren't you?"
"What?" Arthur says, completely taken aback by the question. "No, I – of course not."
Uther snorts. "There's no need to lie, Arthur, I know exactly how I've been acting. I also know why, which is the reason I brought you up here." He pauses. "I'm signing the company over to you."
Arthur blinks. Opens his mouth, closes it again. "I'm sorry, what?" he asks weakly, and thinks he really shouldn't have had three martinis in a row.
"I'm giving you Pendragon Corporation," Uther repeats, sitting up straighter.
"But," Arthur says blankly, not at all processing what he's hearing. "Why?"
Uther raises one eyebrow. "Because I'm ready to retire. More than, actually. I've spent the past year making sure you were ready to take over completely, and—"
A knock sounds on the door, and it opens to reveal the company's solicitor. "I'm sorry, am I interrupting?"
"Ah, Gaius," Uther says, waving him. "Not at all, you're right on time. I was just explaining to Arthur that I'm signing everything over to him. You have the paperwork ready?"
"I do," Gaius says, setting his briefcase down on Uther's desk and opening it to pull out a large stack of papers. "It's all in order, just as you requested. All I need now is for both of you to sign it."
"Wait," Arthur says, reeling. "Right now?"
"Consider it an early Christmas present," Uther says briskly, taking the papers from Gaius. "Although it won't officially transfer until the first of January."
Arthur watches as Gaius shows Uther where to sign, suddenly much more sober than he was when he walked into the office. When it's his turn he automatically takes the pen proffered to him and signs his name everywhere Gaius points to, the entire thing so simple and surreal he half wonders if maybe he's actually passed out at the bar and dreaming.
"Alright, gentlemen," Gaius says after everything's been signed. He stacks the papers together and places them back into his briefcase, closing the lid with a snap. "It's done. Congratulations, Arthur, and I hope you both have a happy Christmas." He gives Uther a small nod before turning and walking out the door, shutting it quietly behind him.
"So, um," Arthur says. "All of the problems I've had to fix and the questions about clients—"
"It was all part of my testing you, yes," Uther finishes, nodding. "I had to know that you would be able to handle it. You did wonderfully, and I'm quite proud of you."
Arthur swallows. "Thank you," he says hoarsely, and then clears his throat. "Santa."
Uther looks slightly uncomfortable. "Yes, well. It's Christmas, and I felt I should do something to bid farewell, as it is."
"What are you going to do now?" Arthur asks after a moment of hesitation, unable to stop himself. Despite what he'd said to Morgana at the party, he's never imagined that Uther would want to retire.
Uther shrugs. "I'll finish out the year until Pendragon Corporation is officially yours, but by the end of the first week in January I'll be closing on a bit of vacation property." He gives Arthur a stern look. "I'll expect you and Morgana to come see it as soon as possible. No doubt she'll bring Leon, and you're welcome to bring a…significant other."
And just like that Arthur is reminded of everything. He gives Uther a smile that feels brittle around the edges. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Good," Uther says, and waves at the door. "Now go back to the party and enjoy yourself. It's your last as an employee."
Arthur nods and leaves the office without another word. The corridors are just as dim and quiet as they were twenty minutes ago, but they feel different somehow. They're not his father's anymore, they're his, and he's going to have to get used to seeing them that way. Which is kind of ridiculous, considering they're just hallways.
He feels on the verge of hysteria when he steps into the lift, and forces himself to close his eyes and take deep breaths on the ride down to the ground floor. The office party is still going strong when the doors open and he steps out, and Arthur automatically heads in the direction of the large room. He stops in the doorway, looking around at all of the people – people he's now fully responsible for.
What if he fucks this up? He's not his father, and there are things he wants to do differently. But what if those decisions are the wrong ones? Clients could go other places, employees could lose their jobs – everything Uther worked so hard for could be gone in an instant.
His stomach clenches and Arthur swallows hard around the sudden lump in his throat, struggling to draw in another deep breath. He needs some air, and barely thinks about it before turning on his heel and walking to a nearby side exit. It's cold outside, below freezing, and it shocks his mind clear, allowing him to breathe just a bit easier.
"Arthur, what the fuck are you doing?"
Arthur turns and stares blankly at Merlin, standing in the open doorway and looking at him like he's lost his mind. Maybe he has, but who can blame him really? "I just," he says, teeth clenching at the cold. "Needed a moment."
"Needed a moment?" Merlin repeats in disbelief. He shakes his head and grabs Arthur's elbow, dragging him back inside and shutting the door firmly behind them, closing out the cold. "What the absolute hell? Are you trying to kill yourself?"
Arthur laughs, and it comes out a bit wild. "Tell me, Merlin. How would you feel about a promotion?"
Merlin looks startled, his eyes widening. "A promotion? What are you talking about?"
"Well," Arthur continues, mostly to himself, "it's not much of a promotion, but assistant to the owner does come with more perks than assistant to the CEO. And a pay raise, of course."
Merlin stares at him, the blue of his eyes shadowed in the dim lighting of the corridor. "If you don't want me to work for you any more just say so," he bites out, voice cool. "There's no need to dump me onto your father."
"What?" Arthur asks. "No, don't be stupid. I'm not firing you." He pauses, frowning as something occurs to him. "Are you trying to quit? Because that's a really shitty way of doing it."
Merlin huffs in irritation. "Arthur, you're not making any sense. Why would I want to quit?"
"To get away from me, obviously," Arthur snaps, hurt slicing through him. "The way you've been acting all week it wouldn't surprise me at all."
Merlin stiffens, crossing his arms over his chest. "I didn't really have much choice," he says, and Arthur finds no relief that he's not denying it. "I thought it would be better for both of us to just distance myself."
Arthur stares at him, stunned, feeling as though he's been punched in the gut. "You know what?" he says after a moment, choking the words out through his closing throat. "Fuck you. I fucking put my heart on the line for you – cut down a goddamned tree to show you how I felt – and you stomped all over it. Maybe it would be better if you did quit."
Shock fills Merlin's face. "You what?" he asks, voice sounding strangled.
Arthur just shakes his head, unable to say anything else without completely breaking down. He turns on his heel and stalks away.
"Wait!" Merlin calls after him. "Arthur, stop!"
Ignoring him, Arthur ducks into the crowded party, quickly weaving his way through the people. He has to get out; he can't breathe and his eyes sting, and he's pretty sure he's going to throw up. Why did he have to go and fall in love with someone who couldn't love him back? He pushes through the front doors and into the cold. Uther had paid for several taxis for the night, to take home those too drunk to make it safely on their own, and Arthur jumps into the closest one, giving the driver his address.
Just hold on, he thinks to himself as the taxi pulls out, clenching his hands on his trouser legs to stop them from trembling. Just hold on until you get home and then you can get piss drunk and cry to Penny, who will never tell a soul.
The ride seems to take forever, but finally the taxi pulls up in front of his building. Arthur mumbles a thank you as he steps out, hurrying to the front doors. His flat is on the top floor, and he's glad that no one else stops the lift on the way up. He pulls his keys from his pocket, and as soon as he slides the right one into the lock he can hear Penny start whining and yipping on the other side. It helps to settle him slightly, as does the ball of yellow fur that flies at him as soon as the door swings open. Arthur lets out a short, humorless laugh, picking Penny up and kicking the door shut behind him.
"Good news and bad news," he tells her as soon as he's locked the door again. "My father gave me Pendragon Corporation, and Merlin definitely doesn't love me. Right now the bad news trumps the good, so I'm going to get drunk off my arse and forget this night ever happened."
Penny whines and licks at his chin. Arthur sighs and sets her down, heading for his bedroom so he can change into some pyjamas. If he's going to get drunk enough to pass out then he's at least going to be comfortable when he does. He's got his bottoms on and is just pulling a t-shirt over his head when a loud knock sounds at his front door, making him jump.
"Arthur!" Merlin's voice calls.
Arthur freezes, staring into the hallway. What the hell had Merlin followed him for? He scowls and pads out into the living room, eyeing the door cautiously.
"I know you're here," Merlin continues. "Open the door."
"Why?" Arthur asks before he can stop himself, not bothering to hide the bitterness in his voice. "So you can rub it in? It's not necessary. You've made it quite clear how you feel."
"No," Merlin says, and there's something a bit desperate in his voice now. "No, I really don't think I have. Now open this goddamned door so I can explain, or I'm going to use the key you gave me and let myself in."
Arthur curses; he'd forgotten about the spare key. Letting out a pained noise, he reaches for the lock and turns it, immediately stepping away from the door and heading for the kitchen. He can hear Merlin open and close the door, giving a quick greeting to an excited Penny before following. Arthur ignores him, pulling out a glass and the half a bottle of cognac that had been left after he had bailed out of Leon's birthday party, pouring three fingers and downing it as quickly as he can.
"Arthur," Merlin sighs, and takes the empty glass from his fingers, setting it down on the counter. "You are not going to be drunk for this."
Arthur glares at him. "I really don't think that's your decision," he says as coldly as he can.
"Well, I'm making it anyway, because I want you to understand exactly what I'm telling you," Merlin snaps back, and then takes a deep breath, looking Arthur directly in the eye. "I gave you Penny."
Arthur stares at him, completely baffled. "What are you talking about?"
Merlin makes a frustrated sound. "Penny," he repeats. "She was a gift from your Secret Santa – from me. I've still got the little slip of paper with your name on it, if you don't believe me. And the note – " he pauses, swallows, "the note said—"
"Oh," Arthur says, blinking. He knows exactly what the note says; he's read it often enough, wondering who it could possibly be from. And if it's from Merlin – but that makes no sense. "Then why – ?"
Merlin pulls a face, obviously understanding the question. "I thought you didn't feel the same as I do and were just being nice – a good friend, like you said. It hurt too much, and I thought that if I distanced myself from you a bit then maybe I wouldn't feel so fucking heartbroken." His smile is self-deprecating. "It didn't work."
Arthur stares at him as his words sink in, and decides that yes, he really has gone mad, because otherwise this wouldn't be happening. "Okay," he says. "Let me see if I'm understanding you correctly, because the past hour and a half has been one shock after another and I'm feeling a bit insane at the moment."
Merlin blinks. "Um. Alright?"
"You gave me Penny?" Arthur asks, and Merlin nods.
"And the note with her said that you – without saying it was you – actually wanted to give me yourself?"
Merlin flushes. "Yes."
"And then you acted like an arse because you misunderstood why I took you to chop down a tree and give it to a woman I've never met before."
"Yes," Merlin says, wincing slightly. "Though in my defense you could have been a bit more vocal about the reasoning behind it."
Arthur ignores him, stepping closer. His heart is pounding and there's blood rushing in his ears, but he has to hear it, he has to know. "And you did all of this because…?"
"Because I love you," Merlin finishes quietly, voice steady as he holds Arthur's gaze. "Yes."
Arthur can't breathe again, but this time it's for entirely different reasons. He takes another step closer to Merlin and raises his hand, not bothering to hide the way it's trembling, and cups Merlin's jaw, brushing his thumb across his cheekbone. His voice is shaky as he asks, "Your offer, the one in the note. Does it still stand?"
Merlin's eyes go dark and he swallows, nods. "Always."
"Good," Arthur says, dropping his gaze to Merlin's mouth. "I'm going to kiss you now."
"Oh, thank fuck," Merlin breathes, and pulls him in the rest of the way.
The kiss is wet and messy, desperate, completely brilliant and utterly intoxicating, and Arthur doesn't ever, ever want to stop. He presses his mouth hard to Merlin's, a moan escaping as he wraps both arms around Merlin's waist and fists his hands in the back of his shirt. Merlin makes a gasping sound and parts his lips, tongue flicking at Arthur's and drawing it deep inside. One hand slides into Arthur's hair, the other clutching at the fabric of Arthur's t-shirt as he pushes their hips together. Arthur can easily feel Merlin's hard cock through the thin material of his pyjama bottoms, and releases Merlin's shirt to grip his hips, thrusting his own aching dick against Merlin's.
Merlin breaks the kiss with a low moan, pressing his forehead to Arthur's. "Please," he rasps, "please tell me you have something. Condoms. Lube. Please."
"Oh god," Arthur chokes out.
He steps back to grab Merlin's hand, dragging him out of the kitchen and through the living room, down the hall to his bedroom. As soon as they step through the door he pulls Merlin to him and kisses him again, tongue delving into his mouth as his shaking fingers seek out the buttons on Merlin's shirt. Long fingers slide under his t-shirt and up his back, making him shiver, and he bites down on Merlin's bottom lip as he pushes his shirt from his shoulders. Merlin gasps and pulls back long enough to tug Arthur's shirt over his head and toss it away, immediately reaching for his pyjama bottoms and pushing them down over his hips.
Arthur jerks and lets out a strangled moan as Merlin wraps his hand around his cock, thrusting lightly into the grip as Merlin strokes him. "Ah, fuck," he breathes, shuddering in pleasure even as he gently pushes Merlin away. "Keep doing that and I won't make it."
Merlin lets out a short, breathless laugh. "Well hurry up, then, before I come in my trousers like a bloody teenager."
Arthur huffs in mock irritation, but if his expression is anything like the joyful one on Merlin's face then it's pointless to even pretend. His heart stutters in his chest and he grins, huge and giddy. "I'm not the one standing here still half-clothed."
Merlin glares at him, but there's no heat behind it at all. "Then I suggest we fix that problem. You can't fuck me if my trousers are still on."
Arthur's breath hitches, cock growing even harder at the image caused by Merlin's words. He swallows and reaches for Merlin's belt, quickly unbuckling it and popping open the button on his fly. The trousers easily slide off Merlin's hips to pool around his ankles, and Arthur tugs his boxers down to join them. Merlin's cock has a bead of liquid at the tip, and Arthur can't stop himself from swiping his thumb over it and then licking the bit of dampness off. Merlin makes an odd sound in the back of his throat, and quickly sits down on the side of the bed when Arthur gives him a gentle push.
Arthur kneels down to remove Merlin's shoes and socks, gazing up at him as he tugs his trousers and pants the rest of the way off. Merlin looks back at him, eyes dark and pupils blown wide, and Arthur sucks in a breath at the open, raw emotion he sees. His hands shake as he slides them up Merlin's legs, standing so that he can brush his lips over Merlin's as he wraps one hand around his cock and strokes. Merlin's breath stutters out of him and his hips jerk, fingers curling into the spread beneath him.
"Lay back," Arthur murmurs against Merlin's mouth, releasing his cock. "I want to see you."
Merlin swallows and shuffles backward, until he's lying flat across Arthur's bed. His eyes never leave Arthur's face, and he's caught his bottom lip between his teeth. His cock lies flush against his stomach, hard and leaking, and Arthur wants nothing more than to taste it. He follows Merlin across the bed until he's close enough to lean down and drag his tongue along the underside of his cock, closing his mouth around the head and tasting the bitter liquid at the tip.
"Fuck," Merlin gasps, hips bucking upward and one hand tangling in Arthur's hair. "Yes, that."
Arthur sucks harder, sinking down until he can feel Merlin at the back of his throat and then pulling up so he can twist his tongue around the head. He does it again, and again, savoring the taste and feel of Merlin's cock filling his mouth over and over. Merlin is letting out soft noises, his fingers tight in Arthur's hair, and Arthur's cock throbs between his legs. He pulls off with a wet pop, looking up at Merlin's face as he presses a kiss to the tip.
"One day," he says, "I'm going to let you fuck my mouth properly."
"Christ," Merlin whimpers, closing his eyes. "That day better be soon."
Arthur chuckles, and gently pries Merlin's hand from his hair. He reaches for the top drawer of his nightstand, pulling out his bottle of lube and a condom. Merlin watches him, his legs falling further apart as Arthur opens the condom and rolls it on. His hands are shaking as he flips the top on the lube and pours some out, not caring when it drips onto his sheets. Merlin reaches down and pulls his legs up, making Arthur groan loudly. He slides his hands down the inside of Merlin's thighs, gripping his arse cheeks and spreading them wide. His thumb brushes over Merlin's hole and he just barely pushes it inside, feeling the ring of muscle clench around him. Merlin lets out a breathless moan, and he drops his feet to the bed to push his hips upward. Arthur quickly replaces his thumb with two fingers, sliding them knuckle deep and twisting them slightly. He adds a third and Merlin whines, hips jerking as his hands clench in the sheets.
"Come on, Arthur, please," Merlin begs, and Arthur pulls his fingers free, pouring more lube onto his hand to spread over his cock. His heart is pounding madly in his chest, and part of him can barely believe this is really happening. He's wanted this, wanted Merlin, for so long, and to finally have him like this – in Arthur's bed, spread open and begging to be fucked – is overwhelming.
He swallows hard and presses the head of his cock to Merlin's hole, bracing himself on one hand as he pushes in, in, in, until he's fully buried and Merlin is stretched wide around him. "Oh god," he breathes, closing his eyes and dragging air deep into his lungs. Merlin is so tight around him, hot and perfect, and Arthur's fairly sure he's going to come any second.
Merlin makes a desperate noise in the back of his throat, shifting slightly to wrap his legs around Arthur's waist. "Fuck me," he says through clenched teeth.
Arthur shudders and starts to move, opening his eyes to stare into Merlin's as he pulls back and then pushes back in, harder and faster. Merlin's lips are parted and his eyes wide, dark with want and pleasure. He reaches up and pulls Arthur down to him, kissing him with too much teeth and tongue, a keening noise echoing from his throat. Arthur fucks into him again and again, each thrust pushing him deeper and deeper, his fingers curling into Merlin's hips hard enough to leave bruises. He can feel his orgasm building, heat curling at the base of his spine, and he shifts enough to wrap a hand around Merlin's hard cock, stroking him hard and fast.
Merlin cries out, one hand scrabbling at Arthur's shoulder and the other gripping desperately at his back. He arches beneath Arthur, tensing as his cock pulses in Arthur's hand and he coats his stomach with hot come. His hole clenches around Arthur's cock, too tight as Arthur fucks him through it, hips snapping over and over until he reaches the top and tumbles over, coming hard, his whole body trembling and jerking as an overwhelming pleasure courses through him.
Merlin's legs slide from his waist, his entire body loose and languid beneath Arthur. He smiles up at him, happy and utterly wrecked, and he's so beautiful in that moment that Arthur aches with it. He presses a kiss to Merlin's mouth and carefully pulls out, sitting up so he can remove the condom and tie it closed, tossing it toward the bin on the other side of the bed. Merlin pulls him back down so that they're side by side, curling around him until there isn't a single bit of skin untouched between them. Arthur wraps one arm around Merlin's waist and slides his other hand into his hair, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.
This, he thinks as he starts to drift into sleep. I want to have this forever.
When Arthur wakes the next morning, it only takes him a few fuzzy seconds to remember everything. His breath catches in his throat and he almost doesn't want to open his eyes. It all happened so fast, too fast, and he's not sure he can handle the disappointment and heartbreak of discovering that it was all a dream. Penny is curled up in her usual spot next to him, and he sighs as he reaches out to pet her. His heart nearly stops when he feels warm skin, and his breath stutters out as long, slender fingers tangle with his.
"You can open your eyes," Merlin says, sleepy voice filled with amusement.
Arthur does, and finds himself staring into familiar blue, his heart pounding madly against his chest. "Thank god," he breathes, and Merlin smiles, wide and bright.
"No kicking me out, then?"
He says it lightly, almost teasingly, but Arthur can see the vulnerability in his eyes, and the hope. He shakes his head, tightening his grip on Merlin's fingers. "No. You're not going anywhere. Ever."
Merlin lets out a short, breathless laugh. "I have to admit that I really like that idea, but it's Christmas Eve. I've got to go to my mum's later."
Arthur pulls a face. "Right," he says, not hiding his disappointment. "And I have to go to Morgana's for Christmas Eve dinner tonight. Though I think Leon's cooking it this year, so maybe I won't get food poisoning again."
"Food poisoning?" Merlin asks, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah," Arthur says, grinning. "Morgana is probably the world's most terrible cook. But don't tell her I said that; she'd have my balls on a stick."
Merlin makes a quiet humming noise in the back of his throat. "No, we can't have that. I like your balls right where they are."
"I like your balls in my mouth," Arthur returns, and Merlin's eyes go dark.
"Yeah," he says, voice rough. "I like that too."
"Before or after breakfast?" Arthur asks, stroking his thumb over the back of Merlin's hand.
"Definitely before," Merlin answers, and then hesitates slightly. "But after you explain to me why I have to go work for your father."
"What?" Arthur says, blinking in confusion. It takes him a second to remember their fight outside the party the night before. "Oh! No, I meant – the company's mine. My father signed over Pendragon Corporation to me last night."
Merlin's eyes widen. "Are you serious? It's all yours?"
"It's all mine," Arthur confirms, and his grin is probably a little mad-looking. "Everything." His smile fades slightly, stomach twisting. "I had assumed you'd move with me, and stay my assistant. But if you don't want to—"
"Shut up," Merlin says, and shifts until he's carefully climbed over a still-sleeping Penny and is straddling Arthur's hips. He leans down until his forehead is touching Arthur's and his hands are framing his face. "I will follow you anywhere," he says seriously. "You have been my life since the moment I met you, and that's not ever going to change."
Arthur swallows thickly, hands coming up to stroke along the bare skin of Merlin's back. "Good," he says. "Because I don't think I could survive without you."
Merlin kisses him, both soft and firm, licking into his mouth and twisting their tongues together. Arthur has no idea what the future will hold – whether or not he'll be able to run his company successfully, or even if Merlin will be able to keep his promise of forever. But right now, in this moment, with Merlin kissing him breathless and a giddy happiness filling his heart to bursting, all he can see is everything he's ever wanted.
And it is beautiful.