Again. It was happening again.
He rolled over, burying his head further into the pillows. Maybe if he ignored it, it’d go away this time.
It always started with that sound. It would be calm, and then the sound, and then—
Merlin let out a big gust of air, grudgingly cracking open one eye to glare over the edge of the bed at the source of the noise. Said source looked decidedly unapologetic, sparkling away in the early morning sunlight, tail starting to wag as it realized it had Merlin’s attention.
“Meep!” Tink tink.
“I hope you know you are awake far too early.”
The small creature—a dragon as it so happened—bounced around on her perch, a small cascade of coins and other shiny bits falling to the floor with the movement. Merlin fought to keep his face impassive, staring down the creature as it started fidgeting more and more, feeling his lips twitch.
Finally, the little white body reached the end of its patience and Merlin let out a yell—and it was a yell, not a squeal, thank you—as wings were unfurled, back legs were bunched, and then Merlin was being mauled, Aithusa attempting to viciously lick at his face.
“Ai-Aithusa, stop that!” Merlin laughed breathlessly, trying to untangle his hands from the blankets to bat at the little nuisance, but his movements simply caused Aithusa to curl closer to his chin, switching her attention from licking his cheeks to gnawing on his ears.
It was a few minutes of flailing and licking later that they reached a stalemate, Aithusa unable to attack Merlin again because of the hand he had wrapped around her tail, ready to pull her back—Merlin had found out early on that Aithusa did not like her tail being tugged—and Merlin unable to completely escape because Aithusa, while not heavy, was also not light and was perched on his chest, her bright amber eyes watching for the smallest signs of weakness or distraction.
They sat there, staring at each other, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Merlin could feel the tension building; something, someone, was going to have to give soon.
The silence was broken by grumbling sound from Aithusa’s belly and Aithusa wilted onto Merlin’s chest, almost as if the sound had cut the strings holding her upright. Head resting on her front paws and positioned near Merlin’s chin, she gazed at him imploringly. Merlin craned his head forward a bit and almost laughed when the movement prompted a little whimper from Aithusa, clearly she was in desperate need of something and given the time, Merlin was willing to bet that something was food.
“Alright, alright.” Merlin said, scratching her lightly behind the ridge by one of her ears. “Let’s go get some breakfast.”
Aithusa perked up at the words, shaking off Merlin’s hand as she bounded off the bed and onto her “collection” to streak off through the door and down the hall, her tail throwing off her momentum and causing her to stumble and slide on the hard wood floor as she tried to turn the corner.
Merlin chuckled and slowly untangled himself from the sheets and stood up, almost tripping over the pile of shiny things that Aithusa stashed around his bed.
Had it gotten bigger or had she just moved some of the items around? Merlin scratched his head, probably rumpling his hair horribly in the process, and decided he’d have to look through the pile later to see if there was anything important that Aithusa had gotten her claws on.
Picking his way carefully around the hoard and heading toward the kitchen, Merlin couldn’t believe how he’d gotten to this day. Just four months ago he we was just a regular geologist, no boyfriend or girlfriend, little responsibility besides remembering to show up for work on time and calling his mother every week, and his only real collections being those of rocks, fantasy books, and movies.
Honestly, with his hobbies, he should have expected to find what he thought was an oddly shaped stone during a survey, only to have it crack open and have a baby dragon come tumbling out.
Nonetheless, after a long freak out and a panicked call to his Uncle Gaius and his Mother, Merlin found himself taking on the responsibility of raising what was probably the last dragon in existence.
Even now, as Merlin leaned against the doorway to the kitchen and watched Aithusa try to wrap her paws around the cupboard handle to get at the food inside, he couldn’t bring himself to regret picking up that rock.
Later, after cleaning up the mess Aithusa made of the kitchen floor (Merlin had tried explaining that the food is in a tin for a reason, Aithusa, but Aithusa had just applied her innocent face and swirled her tail around) and attaching a leash and collar to Aithusa’s neck as well as pulling a sweater over her head that Merlin had repurposed from one of his own old ones (waste not, want not as mother would say) to hide the shape of her wings, they were finally ready to head out on their walk.
They went on walks every day, in part to keep active and in part to try to get Aithusa used to being around other people. Or at least those were Merlin’s reasons. The reason Aithusa enjoyed the walks almost certainly had to do with her addiction. An addiction that resulted in Aithusa almost obsessively collecting shiny things (and she got more than a bit cranky when she couldn’t find anything new, if you asked Merlin).
Anything from spoons to coins to little bits of aluminum caught her attention, the one requirement Aithusa had was that the item had to be shiny.
When Merlin had first started noticing Aithusa’s inclination, he had chalked it up to dragon instincts and had at first thought it cute—he didn’t care too much about his own things so he didn’t mind when the loose change from his pockets went missing or when an amethyst geode disappeared from the window sill in the living room and he could deal with the little bits of paper found on the sidewalk—but recently, Aithusa had decided to try collecting something a bit different, something that Merlin didn’t find so cute. At all.
Feeling an insistent scratching on his leg, Merlin broke out of his thoughts and looked down to see the little dragon pawing at him, obviously not pleased to still be in the building if her rather disgruntled face was anything to go by.
“Sorry about that, did I space out too long?” The previously wide eyes narrowed a bit. A warning. “I’ll take that as a yes. Come on, let’s get outside!”
Aithusa’s look of fierce determination as they went down the stairs worried him a bit, but Merlin had already been tugged out the door and there was little use trying to get Aithusa to come back inside now.
Their walks generally consisted of a brisk walk down the street, a loop through the local park, and then a brief stop at the coffee shop before settling on a bench up the street before returning to the apartment.
This was, of course, interspersed with frequent stops when something interesting caught Aithusa’s eye that she had to stop and investigate, followed by trying to make a decision as to whether or not the item was worthy enough to come home with them, which was then followed by Merlin trying to decide if it was something Aithusa could have. Merlin had had to put a limit of 3 things per walk after an incident involving a paperclip, some spare change, and a store full of silver Christmas bulbs.
Merlin still couldn’t walk past that store without being glared at.
Today, as had become an increasingly common occurrence over the past two weeks, Aithusa wasn’t stopping to consider the coins or bits of paper that littered the ground. Today Aithusa was on a mission and as they turned a familiar corner to the park and Aithusa insistently tugged Merlin away from their regular path and toward a bench next to the duck pond, Merlin could do nothing but resignedly follow along.
Most of the things Aithusa collected were small, things Merlin could fit in his pocket or at least carry in his hands.
Aithusa’s current obsession was a bit bigger than that.
Actually, as they neared a figure sitting on the bench—a figure who turned in their direction as Aithusa made a strange sort of barking squeal—Merlin had to concede that the obsession was a lot bigger. Aithusa lunged forward the last few steps, making Merlin stumble and almost face plant into the figure’s lap before he was able to regain his balance, lifting his head to find himself staring into resigned but amused blue eyes.
This time Aithusa had collected a human.
The man on the bench raised his eyebrows at Merlin as Aithusa crawled up his shirt to get at his perfectly styled, but more importantly shiny, hair where she proceeded to coo and run her claws through the shimmering strands, making it decidedly less perfectly styled hair.
In the past, the man would have quickly detached Aithusa before proceeding to scream at Merlin, but recently Merlin supposed Aithusa must have grown on the man as he now just calmly sat there and allowed Aithusa to continue her ministrations while he berated Merlin.
Merlin felt a twinge of jealousy toward Aithusa before mentally shaking himself.
The man may be pretty but there was no way in hell that Merlin was jealous of a baby dragon. The man quirked his lips at Merlin, revealing teeth that were just as shiny as his hair and Merlin felt himself blush.
Nope. Not jealous. Not at all.
“So, Merlin, I see you still haven’t figured out how to control your…pet.” The man paused and looked from Merlin to Aithusa with a considering gaze. “But you are wearing matching sweatshirts today so I suppose that could be considered an improvement.”
Merlin felt his fading blush bloom into a hot flush of embarrassment. Unfortunately, the man, Arthur Merlin’s mind stubbornly corrected, was more than a bit of a prat, which made him significantly less pretty.
“Good morning Arthur, lovely weather we’re having isn’t it?” Merlin asked blandly, trying to ignore Arthur’s snide comments. He’d gotten used to them in the time since Aithusa had started her collection scheme.
Arthur hummed in response. “I suppose it is, all things considered.” Here Arthur glanced pointedly at the little creature still playing with his hair, an action that Aithusa did not miss if the dejected slump of her head and shoulders was anything to go by.
Aithusa made a put-out sound before she decided to cease playing with Arthur’s hair and instead curl around his neck, informing Merlin that they would not be leaving any time soon, despite her toy’s less than enthusiastic response to her presence. Unlike previous instances that they had met and had similar conversations however, this time Merlin thought he saw a flash of guilt on Arthur’s face before it once again smoothed out into what Merlin had come to term his “business mask.”
On a normal day, Merlin would have remarked on Arthur’s pratishness and Arthur would have called him an idiot and they would have glared and insulted back and forth before Merlin finally got fed up and dragged Aithusa away. But, because today seemed to be anything but normal from the moment Merlin had taken a seat next to Arthur, he decided to keep quiet and watch Arthur from the corner of his eye as he gazed toward the pond in front of them.
The silence stretched for a while—not quite comfortable but not uncomfortable either—as families of ducks splashed around in front of their bench, and Merlin was eventually rewarded when he saw Arthur’s face soften just the tiniest bit before he reached his hand up to scratch Aithusa’s neck.
It was times like this that Merlin whished he knew the right things to say to Arthur. It was obvious from the way that Aithusa was eagerly leaning into Arthur’s scratching and Arthur was quirking his lips into a soft smile that they got along just fine. Which meant that the problem was him, that there was something that Merlin was doing that was making Arthur hate him.
Merlin was snapped out of his thoughts when a mumble from Arthur broke the silence.
“I don’t even know why you think you like me so much.” Aithusa’s response was to coo and butt against Arthur’s hand, demanding more pets; and Merlin, Merlin thought he might have finally found the right words for Arthur.
“You’re shiny.” Admittedly, that sounded a bit better in his head, but Arthur really shouldn’t be staring at him now like he’d gone insane.
Merlin took a deep breath, hoping it would give him the strength to deal with the reemergence of The Prat. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything after all. “Why Aithusa likes you. It’s because you’re shiny.” Arthur was still staring at Merlin like he was a particularly disgusting alien so Merlin found himself falling back to his default response to awkward silence. Rambling.
“I mean, it’s kind of like her hobby, you know? Well, maybe hobby isn’t the word for it. Obsession?” Aithusa hissed a bit. “Yeah, obsession sounds about right. I mean, anything that sparkles even the tiniest bit seems to find its way either under my bed or on it. Although I’m really trying to break her of that habit, because really, no one likes rolling over in the mornings to find all the forks they own suddenly underneath them. Or at least I don’t. I guess, I don’t know about you, if you like sharing your bed with various cutlery, who am I to judge…” Merlin trailed off slowly as a strange sound started emanating from the man next to him and it took Merlin longer than it probably should have to realize what exactly it was.
Arthur was laughing.
And not one of those polite little titters that Merlin sees some of the business people at his University fundraisers do, not even a little chuckle. No, this was a full-out laugh that built from the center of a person’s body and exploded because there was nowhere else for it to go.
And Merlin had caused it somehow.
Staring at Arthur’s head thrown back, his shoulders shaking so much that Aithusa was nearly dislodged and had to crawl down onto his lap for safety, Merlin didn’t think he’d ever been so mesmerized by another person.
As Arthur’s laugh seemed to continue for minutes on end, however, Merlin felt his elation dimming just a bit. Maybe Arthur saw it all as some sort of joke?
Here was Merlin, with messed up bedhead that never behaved, wearing jeans with crusts of dirt because the last washing hadn’t quite got out all the mud, trying to awkwardly flirt with a bloke who was clearly used to fancy things with even fancier price tags. Hell, even the sweatshirt Merlin was wearing was worn and stained and his bloody dragon was wearing a miniature version of the same thing! Of course Arthur would find them a joke.
Merlin felt himself flushing with indignation as this realization set in, standing and gathering Aithusa in his arms, Arthur’s lingering laughter abruptly cutting off with the motion.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize that I so amusing. I’m glad I was able to provide entertainment for you, your highness, but really you should try to consider that sometimes people aren’t there solely for your amusement.” This said, Merlin got ready to stalk off in a random direction, but before he could he felt a hand clamp down on his arm, halting his progress.
“Wait, Merlin, you idiot.” Merlin huffed and went to pull away. “No, wait. Seriously, I wasn’t trying to make fun of you, really! I just—” Merlin raised a brow as he watched Arthur agitatedly run a hand through his Aithusa-tousled hair before straightening and staring straight into Merlin’s eyes.
“Look, I can see how my laughter could have been taken as an insult, but that’s honestly not what I meant. I was laughing because I found it amusing that just prior to your lovely stumbling—yes, stumbling, Merlin—I had been trying to get up the courage to ask you out.” Merlin felt his eyes widen with each word before finally interrupting.
“You, you prat!”
Slipping into his usual holier-than-thou persona, Arthur crossed his arms and stared at Merlin. “Yes, Idiot?”
“You complete and utter clotpole!” Merlin’s brain seemed to have short circuited, leaving only insults available to him and allowing him to only vaguely feel Aithusa worm her way out of his hold and thump down to the ground, Arthur bending down to pick her up and allow her to settle around his shoulders again.
And then Arthur was advancing on Merlin, looming into his personal space.
“I believe you said that I was…shiny, yes? And Aithusa collects shiny things?” Merlin could do nothing but nod when faced with Arthur’s lowered voice and intense eyes boring into his own. “Then, it seems that I have been collected and there’s nothing to be done but to allow it to happen.”
Merlin jerked out of his stupor as Arthur brushed passed him with Aithusa in his arms, leaving Merlin to stumble after them as the leash still looped around his wrist was pulled taut.
“I believe you frequent a coffee shop on the other side of the park, yes? Aithusa seems to be getting cold and you obviously need something to wake you up if this is how eloquent you are before you’ve had caffeine. Oh, and Merlin?” Arthur threw a grin over his shoulder, “I would not be opposed to being one of the collectibles that found its way into your bed.”
Merlin stopped moving, feeling a blush start to creep up his neck once again, resulting in him almost falling over before Arthur reached back with one hand to entangle his fingers with Merlin’s and drag Merlin up next to him.
Mustering up a tentative grin of his own, Merlin felt his head still spinning with their recent conversation, and squeezed of their joined hands, not quite feeling that this was real, which only made Arthur’s grin widen. Really, the man was just too pretty. Unfortunately, Arthur already seemed to be claimed if the way Aithusa was purring and playing with the ends of Arthur’s hair was any indication.
Maybe, if he asked nicely, Aithusa would be willing to share.