Gwen smiled and spread her arms to encompass the scene before them. "Welcome to Hell," she said sweetly.
"Wow," Merlin breathed, impressed in spite of himself. He was morally and philosophically opposed to all forms of unbridled consumerism, particularly at Christmas, but Pendragon and Son's toy department in December was a quantum leap even above Harrod's most heinous excesses. Though granted, it was an eminently tasteful sort of excess.
He'd only set foot in the shop once before, and he hadn't seen much of it considering he'd been protesting in the fur department. Chaining yourself to a rack of mink coats didn't exactly allow you the opportunity to explore, and so Gwen's tour before his first shift was certainly an eye-opener. Pendragon and Son was one of those marvelous relics of an earlier age, an establishment which catered only to the disgustingly rich. There were whole sections – like the art and antique gallery on the top floor where Gwen worked – which didn't even display prices on any of the merchandise. Now that was elitism.
However, Merlin did see that they'd at least seen fit to acknowledge the existence of the lower classes, because there were Salvation Army representatives stationed at the exits. Doubtless Pendragon and Son made a generous contribution every year, and promptly trumpeted their display of munificence in a full-page Times advert that cost more than their donation.
"Here, I'll introduce you to the Dragon," Gwen said, leading him toward the heart of the toy department, where a large display housing a beaming Father Christmas and a troupe of brightly-caparisoned elves surrounding a tastefully gumdropped gingerbread house. At Merlin's odd look, she laughed and said, "No, no, there's nothing to worry about – the name's meant to be ironic. She was my manager when I started here as a student, and she's lovely. You'll get on famously."
Briefly, Merlin wished he'd taken a degree in art history the way Gwen had, instead of the crap one in comparative religion he was now saddled with. There were surprisingly few paying positions available in the United Kingdom for people with religion degrees who didn't want anything to do with Christianity. Looking on the bright side, he could now rattle on endlessly at parties about utterly useless shit.
"Can't wait to meet her," he said, trying to sound enthusiastic. He really was grateful to Gwen for getting him this job; at least Pendragon's paid their serfs well, and he truly needed the money at this time of year.
"Oh, stop! Please stop!"
Both Gwen and Merlin turned at the shout just in time to see a young man knock down the Salvation Army worker nearest the front doors. Snatching up the collection bucket, he tried to push his way through the crowds of shoppers to the exit. Finally giving up with a snarl of frustration, he spun round and started legging it down the main corridor, doubtless in search of an easier exit.
Gwen and Merlin glanced at one another, then broke into a run. "I know a shortcut! I'll try to cut him off!" Gwen shouted, disappearing down a side aisle. Merlin blasted past the astonished Santa and his crew, weaving through customers like a slalom racer around flagpoles.
After a few dozen yards, however, he lost sight of the robber, and craned his neck to try to see above the heads of the shoppers as he ran. Unfortunately, this also meant he was unable to focus on his immediate vicinity, and so he didn't see the blond man until his field of vision was filled with a startled face a fraction of a second before Merlin slammed right into both the face and the body attached, knocking the man flying.
"Bugger!" Merlin yelled, crashing to the floor – or rather, on top of the man, who was rather more cushiony than the floor but a great deal more irate.
"You – idiot!" the man spluttered, shoving at him. "Get off me this instant!"
"I'm sorry," Merlin said, scrambling off him and extending a hand to help him up, "I was trying to –"
"What kind of moron runs in a crowded department store?" the other man shouted. He struggled to his feet, waving off Merlin's hand.
Merlin straightened, starting to feel a little put out by the bloke's attitude. "I don't know," he said mulishly. "But I'm sure you're about to tell me in as loud a voice as possible."
The blond's eyes widened even further; obviously he was an upper-class twit who wasn't used to being addressed in such a manner by lesser beings. Sure enough, he was just sucking in a breath for the next round of hot air when Gwen came running up to them.
"Merlin, there you are," she panted.
"I'm sorry, Gwen," Merlin sighed. "Did he get away?"
"No, don't worry. I ran into Morgana on the way – she works with me in the art department – and between the two of us we brought him down. She and one of the lads from Cosmetics are holding him until the police arrive. Did you get lost?"
"Erm, no, not exactly," Merlin managed.
"Oh, hullo, Arthur," Gwen said to the blond man. "I'm sorry, I'm a bit out of puff – didn't see you there."
"Yes, that seems to be a common condition," Arthur said wryly, glancing at Merlin.
"Wait," said Merlin, "you mean you know this guy? Does he work here?"
Gwen shifted. "Well, yeah, he does actually," she said hesitantly.
"What happened?" Arthur asked Gwen.
Gwen pointed back toward the main entrance. "A man knocked down the lad from the Salvation Army and stole the collection bucket," she said. "Merlin and I were running to catch him."
Arthur shook his head. "What kind of person robs from the poor at this time of year?"
"Someone who's even poorer?" Merlin muttered. He could feel the weight of Arthur's glare, but didn't bother to look at him directly.
Gwen shook her head sadly. "You're probably not far off. It's Andy, one of the blokes who asks for spare change outside occasionally. He's – well, I talk to him now and then, and let's just say he's not exactly got a pleasant life." Sighing, she added, "Anyway, I doubt the Salvation Army will press charges, even if the lad's a bit banged up. And perhaps they might even be able to help him."
Merlin cocked his head sideways to indicate Arthur. "So who's this, then? He's pretty high and mighty for someone who works here, isn't he? But then I suppose at Pendragon and Son, no one's shit is allowed to stink."
Gwen flicked a glance at Arthur, then let out a breath. "Merlin, this is Arthur Pendragon," she said, and Merlin's knees may have wobbled slightly at this news. "He would be the 'Son' in Pendragon and Son. He would also be your new boss."
Merlin turned toward him slowly to find Arthur staring at him.
"You work for me?" Arthur demanded.
"Well, I suppose not for much longer," Merlin said weakly.
And then a glint came into Arthur's eye. It was wicked, mischievous and pure fucking evil.
"Oh no," Arthur said, corner of his mouth curling, "in fact, I have the perfect job for you."
Gwen giggled when she came to visit on her lunch break. "Nice hat."
"S'not funny," Merlin said, shaking his head, then stopping when he jingled. He'd been jingling for three hours and it was already beginning to drive him mad. "I think God is punishing me for not believing in him."
Gwen frowned. "Wouldn't this theory require you acknowledge his existence, thereby canceling out his wrath?"
"Not exactly. I also now believe God is a vindictive little bugger." He swept the hat off his head and ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, Gwen. I don't have time to change, and there's no way I'm going out in public looking like this."
Gwen patted his arm, which brought on another round of jingling. "I'll bring us back something and we can eat it in the break room, alright? My shout."
"Gwen, you don't have to –"
"Of course I do. We're celebrating your first day. And if it's any consolation, the Dragon thinks you're one of the best elves she's ever seen." She smiled at him, then released his arm.
"Thanks, love," Merlin said. "You're a queen."
"Mmm, hardly," she answered. "Be back in a tick." Merlin watched her go, trying to fight down the urge to run screaming from the building.
"Put that hat back on."
Merlin spun at the sound of the voice, already knowing who he'd find. "I'm on my lunch, sire," he said, sweeping the arm that held the hat in a mocking bow, jingling from collar to toes.
Arthur's full mouth thinned. "You're still in a public area," he pointed out. "If you don't want to wear the full costume, go to one of the employee only areas."
"That's just what I was about to do," Merlin muttered. "By the way," he couldn't resist adding, "I've had the hat off for about half the morning. Did you know a great many small children are afraid of people wearing big hats? You may want to consider allowing some of your elves to go hatless so that they don't send toddlers into screaming fits."
While Arthur gaped at this news, doubtless gobsmacked at the display of cheek from an underling, a young boy of about five or six passed by with his mum. She was trying to drag him toward the line of children waiting to see Father Christmas, and he was just as resolutely fighting her efforts. Merlin rolled his eyes behind the mother's back and called, "Wait a moment, please."
The mother stopped and turned, and Merlin squatted down beside the little boy. "Hullo," he said, "I'm Merlin."
"My name's Geoffrey," the boy said, sullenly; not even his foul mood could overcome his manners, which had probably been drilled into him from birth.
"Look," Merlin murmured, "I know he looks a bit huge and overwhelming, but I can tell you from personal experience that he's a very nice man."
Geoffrey shook his head. "I don't care. I don't want to see Santa. He's not going to give me what I want anyway."
Merlin frowned. The boy and his mum were as well-dressed as anyone in the shop; he hardly thought that money would be an issue, which meant it had to be something else. He glanced up at the mother, but she was hard to read. "Tell you what," Merlin ventured. "I know the old bloke pretty well. Why don't you let me know what you'd like, and I'll be able to tell you if it's something we can hammer together in the workshop or not?"
Geoffrey bit his lip and sidled a little closer to Merlin. "I, well, I want one of those cleaning sets, the one with the vacuum. I want to help my mum clean the house, but Father says boys don't do that."
Merlin suppressed his anger at the father's attitude, making sure none of it showed on his face. Speaking in a voice loud enough for the mother to hear, he said, "What does your mum say about it?"
"She says she thinks I'm lovely for wanting to help," the boy said proudly.
Merlin pursed his lips as an idea occurred to him. He wasn't sure the man standing behind him would exactly approve, but he couldn't be arsed to care. "Geoffrey, when your mum cleans the house, is your dad around?"
Geoffrey shook his head. "No. He says the dust gets up his nose."
"Well, I have an idea. Now, mind you, I'll have to take it up with the man in the red suit, and it's rather an unusual request and so I can't guarantee he'll be able to do it. But maybe I could get Santa to put the present somewhere else – not under the tree, but perhaps somewhere you and your mum will be able to find it later. Do you know a good spot?"
Geoffrey thought for a moment, brow knitting, then exclaimed, "The cupboard under the stairs! Father never looks in there."
Merlin raised his gaze to the mother, who was now watching him intently. "The cupboard under the stairs," he repeated, clearly. She held his gaze, and while her composure was still largely intact, he fancied it might have cracked a little. "Alright then, I'll mention it to him. If he can do it, he will, but if he can't, I don't want you to stop trying, alright? Keep asking – don't ever give up on something you want just because someone else doesn't think it's what you're supposed to want."
"Even if it's Father?" the boy whispered.
"Even if it's Father," Merlin whispered back.
Geoffrey stared at him for a long moment, then nodded solemnly. "Thank you," he said, extending his hand. Merlin swallowed and took the small hand, shaking it.
As the boy and his mother walked away, Merlin rose to his feet, dreading Arthur's reaction. He risked a glance at him, and although Arthur was frowning at him, it wasn't an angry expression. It more closely resembled confusion, as though Merlin had just done something totally unexpected.
The expression faded swiftly a moment after Merlin met his gaze, sliding effortlessly into a carefully blank one. Before Merlin could think about what this might mean, Arthur cleared his throat and said, "Well, that's one marriage that'll soon be headed for the divorce court, I expect."
Merlin felt his gut clench. "What did you want me to do?" he snapped. "Tell a six-year-old boy his father was right for thinking him a freak?"
"Now wait a minute, I didn't –"
"I'm sorry, Mister Pendragon, I'm on my lunch break," Merlin said, cutting him off. Jamming the elf hat back on his head with a vicious jingle, he headed off to the back area, his stomach churning too much for him to even consider eating anything.
"What's wrong with you?" Arthur's father demanded. "You've hardly touched your lunch."
Arthur shook himself from his woolgathering. "Nothing. Just not terribly hungry." Which of course was a lie; he was bloody ravenous. But he couldn't seem to stop thinking about a certain annoying employee long enough to shovel food into his face. Try as he might, he couldn't stop replaying in his head what Merlin had said to the little boy, encouraging him to be himself.
Well, that was simple enough for him, Arthur supposed; he was probably some oddball art student without a proper responsibility in the world.
Uther raised his eyebrows, but made no other comment. Turning to Morgana, he asked, "Did you resolve that issue with the restoration team?"
"Yes," Morgana replied smartly, "I took care of it days ago."
"Excellent. And Arthur, how are things coming with the Christmas staff?"
Arthur clenched his hands on his thighs under the table. "All hired and trained."
"No nutters this year?" Morgana enquired.
Uther made a face. "Morgana."
"Oh come on, there's one every year, and you know it. Remember the girl in lingerie who we discovered modeling things for the customers?"
"Don't remind me," Arthur said. It had taken weeks to convince several members of the House of Lords that that was not part of Pendragon and Son's usual service.
"So all I'm saying is that one's bound to turn up eventually," Morgana persisted. Arthur's mouth drew into a thin line; he was certainly not going to tell her that one had already shown up. Anyway, Merlin didn't appear to be a nutter, only very earnest and ridiculously good with children, and he had rather lovely cheekbones –
Morgana waved a hand in front of his face. "Arthur, are you sure you're quite alright?"
"Fine, fine, completely fine," Arthur said. He stabbed his salad with a fork.
"Morgana does have a point, though," mused his father. "I think it might be an idea for you to go over the background checks on all the temporary employees personally. We don't want a repeat of the previous years' incidents. Best do it before you leave tonight."
"But we hired over seventy employees in the last week," Arthur protested.
Uther raised his head, looking at Arthur levelly.
Arthur sighed. "Yes, Father." He shot Morgana a venomous glare; she at least had the good grace to appear sorry about it. Of course, he tended to stay late most nights at the office, but he wasn't in the mood to stick around the shop today. He felt strangely restless and out of sorts after the incident earlier, and he needed to get away for at least a few hours to clear his head. Reviewing six dozen employee reports would easily take him until closing time.
Well, a small, traitorous voice in his head reminded him, it's not as though you had anything more interesting planned.
Merlin emerged from the staff room to find all the customers gone and the shop closing down for the night. He'd worked a double shift when one of the other elves had telephoned in sick, and while he appreciated the extra pay, he doubted his feet would be thanking him in the morning. The elf shoes, besides being humiliating, weren't exactly the most comfortable, or at least they weren't designed to be worn for twelve hours at a stretch.
The Dragon – Mrs. Kilgarrah – had gone home hours ago, but she'd clapped Merlin on the shoulder and praised him before she'd left, telling him he was obviously destined to work in sales. Merlin had shuddered at the thought (after reeling from the shoulder-blow – she really was an enormous woman, with hands the size of dinner plates), but privately he had to admit that the day hadn't been as horrible as he'd expected. He enjoyed talking to the children, and watching their faces light up at the sight of Father Christmas was heartwarming. Considering he generally believed Christmas was largely a scam perpetrated by organised religion and money-mad capitalists, it was refreshing to get a different perspective on the holiday.
He said good night to the bloke who took the second shift as Father Christmas, still in the process of tugging off his huge black boots, and headed out. The toy department was already largely dark, the only lights the ones above the main walkways. Merlin passed by the Christmas display, smiling at the artificial snow and stuffed reindeer as he went by.
And then he heard a small, snuffling cry, and stopped dead.
The sound faded to nothing, and after a few moments of silence Merlin was convinced he'd imagined it. He took a step forward, only to stop when he heard it again.
"What the hell –" Merlin followed the sounds, pushing open the gate of Santa's Wonderland and walking forward carefully in the dim light. He blinked rapidly, trying to adjust his eyes, and took another step forward, then another.
A flash of movement directly ahead caught his eye, and as the cry rose in volume to a wail, Merlin was finally able to make out what was producing the noise.
There, lying on Santa's throne, wrapped in a blue blanket, lay a baby, its wee arms waving helplessly in the air. Merlin rushed forward, nearly stumbling in his haste, and snatched up the child before it had a chance to roll off the seat.
"Well, hello," Merlin murmured, as one of the baby's waving hands landed squarely on Merlin's mouth, "who are you, then?"
The baby, of course, had no answer to this, merely stared up at him and gurgled.
"Alright, let's figure out what to do with you, hm?" Merlin said, walking back toward the main corridor. He had no idea where to find a manager at this hour, so he supposed a security guard would have to do. Finding one was a bit of a job, but he managed it after a few minutes.
"Bloody hell," the security man – Leon – muttered. "Who would leave their baby in a shop?"
"Perhaps they turned it in for a newer model with more features," Merlin observed drily. Leon only stared at him balefully, then took out his mobile and punched a button with a finger.
"Gawaine? Yeah, s'me. One of the new lads found something interesting. Is any of the managers still round?" He paused for the answer. "He is? Well, maybe we better let him know about it." Another pause, in which Leon flicked a glance at Merlin and the baby. "Yeah, I think it is that important. Okay, great." He flipped the mobile closed, then nodded toward the lift. "Go on, then," he said.
Merlin frowned. "Who are you sending me to see?"
"You're going straight to the top, my lad," Leon told him. "Arthur Pendragon himself will deal with you."
Merlin's shoulders sagged. "I, erm, I don't suppose I could give you the baby and he could deal with you? You see, I feel as though I've already had my fair share of Arthur today."
Leon nodded toward the lift again, and Merlin sighed. "Yeah, I thought not," he said. In his arms, the baby giggled happily and swatted his chin.
"Thanks," Merlin told the baby, as the lift doors closed, "really, thanks a lot."
"That's a baby," Arthur said.
Merlin rolled his eyes at him. "I can see why you have the big office," he said dryly, "nothing gets past you."
"Well, what do you expect me to do with it?" Arthur demanded, irritated because alright, yes, that had been a stupid thing to say, not that he would ever admit it to Merlin.
"I found the baby in your shop," Merlin explained, speaking slowly as though to a drunk or an idiot, "on Father Christmas' throne. I think that makes it your responsibility."
"But I had nothing to do with it!" Arthur protested. "That is, the shop, I mean –" He trailed off, horrified at his own train of thought. But that's exactly what people would think if word got out to the media that an abandoned baby had been discovered in Pendragon and Son.
Merlin's eyebrows rose. "Well, I honestly hadn't meant to imply it might be your personal responsibility," he drawled, "but that would explain why someone dumped a baby essentially on your doorstep, wouldn't it?" He studied Arthur's face, then the baby's, as though searching for a resemblance. Suddenly beaming, he looked at Arthur again and said, "You know, I think he has your eyes!"
Arthur tried to think back to the last time he'd had sex with someone other than his right hand, and was rather appalled to realise it was a dim memory. The economic recession of the last year had kept him working at the shop nearly every day, often long into the evenings. If only Merlin knew how unlikely it was – not that Arthur could tell him that exactly. "How old is it?"
Merlin hefted the baby as though weighing him. "I dunno – probably about three months, I'd guess."
"Well, I wasn't – with anyone at that time," Arthur said. "I mean, at the time it would have been –" he waved a hand.
"Conceived?" Merlin supplied.
"Yes," Arthur gritted.
"Hm," Merlin said, clearly unconvinced. "I suppose I could be wrong about his age. Come to think of it, he could have been born prematurely –"
"Look, let's just say it's not a practical possibility," Arthur snapped.
Merlin's eyebrows climbed even higher. "Oh," he said. "I didn't know you were gay."
"I'm not!" Arthur said, perhaps a little more loudly than necessary; the baby fussed and waved its tiny arms at his outburst. Merlin took a small step backwards, and his expression hardened. "I mean, not that there's anything wrong with – oh, never mind. The point is, what the bloody hell are we going to do with it?"
"You mean what the bloody hell are you going to do with him," Merlin corrected, holding the baby out to Arthur. "It's your shop."
Arthur raised his hands in front of him. "I'm not – good with babies." It was true. His cousin Vivien had birthed a baby last year, perfectly blond and with a temperament stolen directly from the deepest depths of hell. He'd managed to avoid holding it, cooing over it or otherwise interacting with it for this long, and he wasn't about to start with some stranger's child.
"I'm sure you'd be marvelous with babies if you gave yourself half a chance," Merlin soothed. "Now come on, it's not hard –"
Huffing out an exasperated breath, Arthur slowly lowered his hands. "You have to promise to stay. I'm going to need help getting it wherever it's got to go."
"Fine," Merlin said, stepping closer to transfer the squirming bundle to Arthur. "There you are, no, don't worry about holding him firmly, just –"
The baby was most of the way into Arthur's arms before it let out the most blood-curdling wail this side of a zombie film.
"Oh my God, it hates me, take it back!" Arthur shouted, madly trying to dump the creature back into Merlin's arms.
Merlin sighed. "Yes, alright, here – no, okay, slow down," he ordered, and within a few moments Arthur was relieved of the tiny hellion and could breathe again. Merlin began rocking gently back and forth, a slow shifting dance from foot to foot that had the thing instantly soothed. Arthur shook himself when he realised he was watching the technique in fascination.
"What about a note?" he demanded. "Was there a note attached to it? Something that might give us a clue as to who it belongs to?" Notes were always left on babies headed for the orphanage in old black and white films.
But apparently times had changed, because Merlin shook his head sadly. "No note, I'm afraid," he said.
"Oh, that's just bloody typical," Arthur sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Alright, I suppose we have to take it to wherever one takes abandoned children."
Merlin stopped in his constant rocking of the baby and stared at Arthur. "What?" Arthur demanded, and after a moment Merlin shook his head and resumed his rocking.
"Nothing," he murmured, looking down at the child. "I – just wish you wouldn't say that in front of him."
Arthur opened his mouth to tell Merlin not to be silly – the baby was hardly much more than a newborn, it certainly couldn't understand words like 'abandoned' – but the words died in his throat when Merlin glanced up at him. Instead, he walked over to the coat stand and put on his scarf and jacket. "Let's go."
The children's ward at St Mary's Hospital close to midnight was a surprisingly depressing place, despite the brightly coloured walls and toys in the dimly lit waiting area. Merlin and Arthur had been here over two hours with the baby as the staff put him through a thorough examination, and eventually not even Merlin's soothing techniques were sufficient to keep him from descending into exhausted, angry tears when yet another blood sample was drawn.
"Listen, do you think you've got enough bodily fluids from this child?" Arthur demanded of the nurse, as Merlin picked him up again and cradled him close as he wailed. "Because I think it's completely sucked dry at this point."
"Yes, we're all done now," the nurse informed them, "thank you." She took the sample with her as she left, and Arthur glared at her retreating form.
Merlin was quietly surprised that Arthur had insisted on being present for all the examinations; he assumed the lord and master would be perfectly happy to leave all of that to Merlin and the hospital staff. However, having him there asking about the necessity and purpose of every procedure had slowed the process down somewhat. As much as Merlin wanted to put Arthur's behaviour down to his controlling, type A personality, he could see there was more to it than that. There had to be something else behind his restless, almost nervous agitation, but Merlin didn't know him well enough to even guess at what it might be.
"About bloody time," Arthur muttered after she'd shut the door behind her. Turning back to Merlin, he raised his hand and let it hover for a moment over the back of the crying baby's head, but let it drop before he could follow through. Merlin frowned, momentarily thrown by the gesture; Arthur hadn't exactly been eager to touch or hold the baby back at the shop. However, before he could give it much thought there was a knock on the door and a woman poked her head in.
"Hello," she said, coming forward and extending her hand to Arthur. "You must be Mr. Pendragon. I'm Penelope Brightwood, from Fostering Network." She nodded at Merlin, whose arms were currently full of baby. "And this is our young man, is it? He seems a bit unhappy."
"He was doing fine until he was poked and prodded for two hours," Arthur grumbled. "Was all that really necessary?"
"I'm afraid so," Ms. Brightwood said, curving her hand over the baby's skull in the same soothing gesture Arthur had attempted. "Best get it over with so that we can determine the state of the baby's health as quickly as possible, and perhaps locate the parents through the footprints. Unfortunately, identification by footprint is not always conclusive."
"And it also assumes the birth was recorded," Arthur said, a bit tartly.
Ms. Brightwood's head snapped up. "Yes, it does. Obviously you've given this a fair amount of thought."
"I've had opportunity over the last two hours," Arthur bit out, and alright, that was enough of that, Merlin thought.
"Have you found a placement for the baby?" Merlin asked, stepping forward.
Ms. Brightwood slowly turned her attention from Arthur to Merlin. "I'm sorry, Mister – ?"
"Emrys," said Merlin, "Merlin Emrys. I found him."
"Yes, Mr. Emrys, I've found a placement. It's a temporary one, I'm afraid – we're rather overburdened at the moment, as is the foster mother, but she's agreed to take one more on for now."
Merlin frowned. "One more? How many does she have?"
"Three children in care, and another two of her own." She must have read something on Merlin's face, because she drew herself up. "Well, I think it's time to be taking him along, then."
When she reached out her hands to take the baby, Merlin instinctively tightened his grip. "Perhaps I should just – calm him a little more," he said, continuing his rocking as the little fellow continued to squawk.
Ms. Brightwood dropped her hands and stepped back. Just then, another knock sounded on the door, and she turned to open it, admitting another woman. This lady was obviously the foster mum, though Merlin couldn't have said how he knew; she simply seemed like the sort of woman anyone would want to have for a mother. She was in her early forties, he guessed, and was kind-faced and smiling. As soon as she saw the baby, her smile grew even bigger.
"Oh, he's a darling," she cooed, coming up to Merlin and lifting the baby's hand with a finger. "Well, hello, little man. Penny knew I'd fall for you like a tonne of Caramilk the moment I saw you, didn't she? And she was right."
"I appreciate your coming on such short notice, Sarah," Ms. Brightwood said. "I can't thank you enough."
"No need, no need," she said, "there's always room for one more, though we'll have to keep him isolated, of course."
"What do you mean by that?" Arthur demanded, stepping forward. The foster mother looked at him in confusion.
"This is Arthur Pendragon, Sarah," Ms. Brightwood said, somewhat heavily, Merlin thought. "Mr. Pendragon, this is Sarah McTavish. The baby was found in his shop."
"Ah," Sarah said, nodding. "Pleasure. Well, Arthur, we have to isolate the baby because two of mine are already down with a bit of a tummy bug, and I don't want this wee one catching it."
Arthur turned to Merlin and the baby, a look of horror on his face. "You're going to bring this baby into a home with – well, possible swine flu?"
"Arthur," hissed Merlin as both women clearly bristled, "no one bloody said it was the swine flu!"
"They haven't said it isn't," Arthur insisted stubbornly.
"Mister Pendragon, there is no serious health risk to the baby, I assure you," Ms. Brightwood sniffed. "Now, we've kept you both quite long enough, I expect."
There was sufficient steel in her tone for Merlin to finally move to put the baby in Mrs. McTavish's arms. The stomach bug business notwithstanding, there was no doubt in his mind the child would be in good hands with her.
"Oh, that's it. Come here, love," Mrs. McTavish murmured, and Merlin felt the weight he'd been carrying for a good part of the evening leave his arms. He'd expected it to be a relief to yield the responsibility to more experienced hands, so he was unprepared for the sharp stab of loss that jabbed him in the ribs as he let go.
"I don't know –" Arthur began, but Merlin shook his head vehemently, cutting him off.
"Arthur, let's just go," he muttered, finally tearing his eyes away from the baby and turning to leave. "There's nothing else for us to –"
Behind him, the baby suddenly unleashed a terrified wail that put any sound it had previously made to shame. Merlin spun back round to see the baby squirming in Mrs. McTavish's arms, its arms and legs outstretched toward them.
Mrs. McTavish crooned soothing words and rocked the baby, but nothing consoled him. Tears sprang from his eyes and he began gulping in air, hiccoughing breaths doing nothing to keep his face from turning bright red.
"Merlin," Mrs. McTavish said firmly, "come here, lad."
Merlin obeyed, and was surprised when the woman passed the baby back to him. The little one quieted almost immediately, hands reaching out and attempting to curl in Merlin's jumper.
"Wow," Merlin breathed as he began rocking again, falling back easily into the rhythm. "That's – erm."
Nodding at him, Mrs. McTavish observed, "You're quite good at that. Do you have any of your own?"
"Oh, no, no," Merlin said, "my mum was a foster carer – still is, actually. I used to help out when I still lived at home."
Mrs. McTavish raised an eyebrow at Ms. Brightwood, then turned back to Merlin. "Are you First Aid certified?" she asked Merlin abruptly.
"Yes," Merlin answered warily, unsure where this was going.
"Have you a recent criminal records check?"
Merlin frowned. "I had one done just last week. It was a condition for employment at the shop."
"Sarah, I don't know –" Ms. Brightwood began.
Mrs. McTavish pointed at the baby. "I'm not arguing with success, Penny. I've had no sleep for the past two days, and as much as he's a prattish way of expressing himself, Mr. Pendragon is right – I'd prefer not to expose the baby to what Tasha and Malcolm have. Especially if there were another solution."
"He's not on our approved list," Ms. Brightwood said stubbornly. Merlin blanched and turned to Arthur, who was looking a bit pale himself; list of what?
"You can send him the assessment tomorrow," Mrs. McTavish said firmly. "I have a feeling he'll pass." Turning to Merlin, she said, "You don't mind if Penny contacts your mum tomorrow? She'll be able to speak to your experience."
"Erm, no, I don't mind. Her name's Hunith." Ms. Brightwood whipped out a pad and pen, and Merlin spelled it for her and gave her his mum's phone number. "She's in Gloucester."
Mrs. McTavish nodded at Arthur. "And in the meantime, I'm sure Pendragon and Son can vouch for his character."
Merlin opened his mouth to point out he'd only started working there today, and he didn't think Arthur could be persuaded to piss on him if he were on fire, but Arthur saved him the trouble.
"You're not suggesting that Merlin take care of this baby," Arthur said, stepping forward. "That's absurd."
Mrs. McTavish raised her eyebrows at him. "M'dear, he appears to be doing a great job of it."
"But I don't – I have a job already! I can't just quit and take care of a baby," Merlin protested, all thoughts of earning enough to pay for Christmas presents and rent for a change fading rapidly.
"Right, that's it," Arthur snapped. He reached into the breast pocket of his coat and pulled out a small case, then flipped it open and passed a card to Ms. Brightwood. "You can call me in the morning and we can sort it out then. Right now this child needs rest, and I can see he's not going to get it with the lot of us dithering here all bloody night. Come along, Merlin."
"Where – where am I coming along?" Merlin spluttered, as Arthur guided him toward the door with a hand on his elbow.
"I've got another job for you," Arthur said, jaw set.
"Oh, God," breathed Merlin, "is it as bad as the last one?"
"Far worse, I expect," Arthur assured him, opening the door and bowing aside to let Merlin pass with the baby, who was now snuffling happily, his head pillowed on Merlin's shoulder.
Arthur hated hospitals. He hadn't set foot in one in over fifteen years, and he'd vowed then never to do it again. It had taken everything in him to walk through the doors this time, but Merlin had been right about his responsibility to the baby, damn him. As it turned out, it had been a good thing he'd gone in, because if it were up to the bloody social worker they'd still be there. Perhaps he'd been a little – well, brusque – with her, but it had been no less than she'd deserved, in his opinion.
At any rate, even if he hadn't been at his best tonight, he was certainly paying for it now. The sour look on Merlin's face was punishment enough.
"What is that?" Merlin demanded, pointing at the object Arthur had just taken great pains to haul down from the attic.
"I thought you said you'd taken care of children," Arthur retorted. "It's a crib, of course. More specifically, my crib."
With the sleeping baby still in his arms, Merlin crouched down to examine it more closely. "I don't think this was your crib," he observed. "Because if it were, you'd have to be at least a hundred bloody years old."
"Well, it wasn't originally mine, obviously," Arthur huffed. "It was my great-grandfather's, and it's been handed down from father to son."
Merlin straightened. "And you're telling me your father put you in that old piece of shite when you were a baby."
"It's a family heirloom!" Arthur snapped, bristling.
"Lower your voice," Merlin murmured. "I don't care if it's an heirloom or not, it's not safe. For starters, those bars are just the right width for him to wedge his skull –"
"Yes, alright, alright, then where do you suggest we put him?" Arthur demanded, waving a hand. The guest bedroom he'd chosen for Merlin was luxurious enough, but it wasn't exactly child-friendly.
Merlin nodded at the chest in the corner. "Take out one of the bottom drawers on that."
Arthur gaped at him. "Are you mad? We can't put him in a drawer."
"Sure we can. I slept in one every now and then when I was a baby. If you pad the sides, it's far better than that rickety old thing."
Arthur stood for a moment, fists clenching and unclenching, then nodded. "Right. Fine," he muttered, and strode over to the chest.
Fifteen minutes later, after much low-voiced arguing and whispered but insistent directions from Merlin, the baby was lying on its side in the makeshift crib, happily sucking on its fist. They were sitting together, backs propped against the bed, and Arthur could finally feel a few of his knotted muscles relaxing.
"I don't think they're supposed to do that," Arthur said, indicating the baby. "I heard it was bad for them."
"Shush," Merlin said. "You can fetch him a dummy in the morning."
"If you make a list, I'll arrange to have everything sent." The hospital had given them a bottle and a small supply of nappies and milk powder, but that was all they had as far as baby things went.
Merlin turned to him. "Arthur..."
Arthur leaned his head back against the side of the mattress and closed his eyes. "Yes?"
"What's your plan? I mean, with regards to this baby?"
"I have no plan," Arthur said, suddenly exhausted. "I just – had to get out of there." His eyes snapped open. Where had that come from? He risked a glance and found Merlin gazing at him, a small frown marring his brow.
Arthur clenched his jaw. "I'll pay you three times what I was paying you at the shop, over and above room and board, to care for this baby for as long as it takes to find a permanent placement."
Merlin blinked at him. "Erm."
"Is that not enough?"
"No, that's fine –"
Arthur hauled himself to his feet. "Good. Breakfast is at seven. Is there anything you don't eat?"
"No. But I was wondering if I could ask a favour –"
"Yes?" Arthur asked, placing his hands on his hips in an attempt to appear forbidding. It wasn't lost on him that he'd just invited a complete stranger into his home – his father's home, really – to take care of a baby that could mean terrible publicity for Pendragon's in their most crucial season, and furthermore that this stranger had him over the proverbial barrel. In circumstances such as these, it could never be too early to start with the unreasonable demands.
Merlin sighed. "Well, I don't suppose you have a spare t-shirt I could borrow to sleep in? And perhaps a toothbrush?"
Arthur blinked. "Oh," he said. "Right, sorry."
"S'alright," Merlin said amiably, shrugging. "I mean, I can see about getting my stuff tomorrow, but for tonight –"
"Yeah, of course, no problem," Arthur babbled, "I'll just –" He pointed at the door.
Merlin's mouth curled. "Thanks," he murmured, ducking his head. He slapped a hand over his mouth to cover the enormous yawn that followed, and Arthur turned away, feeling foolish and mean-spirited and small.
Merlin staggered from his room at seven oh six, bleary-eyed and bone tired from a night of interrupted sleep. It took every ounce of his concentration to walk downstairs and juggle the bag containing milk powder, wipes, nappies and bottle along with the baby, and it was only when he reached the bottom that he realised he had no idea where the dining room was. The house had been mostly dark when he'd arrived, and so he hadn't gotten a proper sense of its scale, but it was bloody huge, with twelve-foot ceilings and ornately carved woodwork. Of course Arthur would live in a late Victorian mausoleum; it suited him perfectly.
He soon figured out his bearings from the sounds of raised voices. As he drew nearer, he made out Arthur's voice and another man's, this one more low-pitched and authoritarian.
"I cannot believe you did something so foolish," the other man's voice was saying.
"I didn't have any other choice!" Arthur shot back. "It was nearly midnight and a decision had to be made. I made it."
"While I normally appreciate your decisiveness, Arthur, I think in this case you might have left it in the hands of someone more capable –"
"I have done," Arthur countered. Reaching the doorway, Merlin poked his head round the jamb and saw Arthur sitting at the long white-draped table with his arms folded across his chest. "Merlin is an experienced child care worker, and he was the best choice to take care of the baby. Since he was already in our employ, I offered him this position, and he graciously accepted."
"I only hope you got around to reviewing his background check," the other man muttered, and of course the baby decided that would be the perfect time to start fussing. Arthur's head snapped up, and Merlin took a deep breath and walked into the room.
"Good morning," Merlin said. "Hope I'm not too late." The table, he noted, was big enough for twelve but only had three inhabitants at the moment: Arthur, a young woman probably round the same age as Arthur with long black hair, and an older man that Merlin had a sinking suspicion was the Pendragon in Pendragon and Son. He debated briefly on the best spot to sit, settling on a chair next to Arthur.
"Oh, is this him?" the woman cooed, leaning forward. "He's adorable!"
"Do calm down, Morgana," the older man huffed.
"Merlin Emrys," Arthur said, "this is Morgana le Fay, my stepsister, and Uther Pendragon, my father." Merlin hastily shifted the baby to his left arm so that he could reach across the table with his right. Uther's handshake was physically painful, but Merlin refused to let the man see him wince.
"I believe you work with a friend of mine," Merlin said to Morgana, grasping at some other topic of conversation than the controversial one he was currently holding in his arms. "Gwen Smith?"
"Oh, you're Gwen's friend!" Morgana said. "Wait, are you the one Arthur made wear the elf costume?"
Merlin saw Arthur stiffen beside him. "Yeah, erm, that was me." Perhaps a change of topic was overrated, he thought.
Morgana shot Arthur a pointed look, and Arthur threw up his hands. "Oh, for God's sake, we were short an elf, alright? It's not as though I put him in the stocks."
Uther raised a hand, and suddenly Merlin realised there was another person in the room, a butler who'd come into the room so quietly Merlin hadn't noticed he was there. "Gaius, could you please fetch another breakfast for this young man?" he asked.
"With pleasure, sir," the man said. He was older than Arthur's father and had a kindly face; as Merlin studied him, he met Merlin's gaze, then winked at him behind Uther's back. Merlin bit his tongue to keep from smiling.
"I, erm," Merlin said, pushing back his chair and standing, "I should feed the baby first. Could I pop into the kitchen with you?" After spending the whole night tending to his every whim, Merlin figured the baby owed him a convenient means of escape. Perhaps the Pendragons wouldn't notice if he didn't return to the breakfast table.
Gaius shook his head and came round the table to pick up Merlin's baby bag. "No need, Mr. Emrys. I'll prepare the baby's bottle and bring it to you shortly."
"Oh," Merlin said quietly, crestfallen as he resumed his seat. "Thank you."
"Tea?" Morgana offered sweetly, holding up the pot.
"Yes, please." Merlin said, attempting a smile. "Just pour it directly over my head, would you?"
Morgana chuckled and cocked her head at him. "You do look all in. Why don't you let me hold him while you eat your breakfast?"
"That's not really a good idea," Arthur broke in hastily. "The baby only seems to, erm, like Merlin."
"And you, it would seem," Morgana said, nodding. Merlin looked down to see the baby reaching a tiny hand toward Arthur, trying to touch him. Arthur stared at it with a faint expression of horror, as though the child had sprouted horns and was attempting an attack.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, he won't bite," Merlin huffed, shifting in his seat so that the baby's hand could reach Arthur's shirt. "Well, that's a lie, he might bite, but there's only so much damage he can do with no teeth."
"This is silk," Arthur managed, as the baby patted Arthur's shoulder and emitted a high-pitched squeal of delight.
"Yes, it appears he has an appreciation for the finer things," Merlin said, unable to stop a grin from emerging. "Do you like that? It's very soft, isn't it?" he murmured to the baby. "Would you like to dribble all over it? I just bet you would."
"Well, I must be getting along," Arthur said, shooting to his feet. Merlin reached into his pocket and dug out the list, then handed it to Arthur before he could run off.
"What's that?" Arthur's father demanded, scowling.
Arthur scanned the list. "Oh, I'd say about a thousand quid wholesale. Christ, Merlin, is it really necessary to –"
Merlin lifted his chin. "I don't need this job that badly," he lied, gaze meeting Arthur's, and he knew he'd won when Arthur blanched slightly.
"Fine," Arthur gritted. "You'll have it all by noon."
"Thank you. And what about my clothes and such?"
Arthur held out a hand, palm up, to Merlin, who stared at it in confusion.
"Your key?" Arthur asked, snapping his fingers. "And where do you live?"
"Camden," Merlin said; Arthur made a face as though he'd smelled something awful. "Look, never mind," he said, digging in his pocket and handing over the key, "just give it to Gwen and ask her to drop by my place on her way home and throw a few things in a bag, alright? You can get them from her tomorrow."
"Give it to me, Arthur," Morgana said. "I'll drive her there over lunch and we'll get the things to you today."
Merlin stared at her, gobsmacked. "You really don't have to –"
"Nonsense," she said. "I'm glad to be able to help. You need your things."
Arthur placed the list on the table in front of Merlin and handed him a pen from his pocket. "Write down your address; I'll bloody go there this morning."
"Arthur –" Morgana began.
"No, Morgana. It's my responsibility." Merlin looked up at him and saw that his jaw was set and his eyes were flashing. He hadn't known someone's eyes could really flash. While it wasn't the first time he'd wondered what the hell was going on in Arthur's head, it was the first time he was truly curious about the answer.
"Why are you so interested in this baby?" Uther asked. When Merlin turned to him, he saw that his gaze was assessing, speculative.
Oh gods, thought Merlin, he actually thinks –
Arthur's jaw muscle twitched. "I'm not particularly interested," he said evenly. "The baby was dropped in my lap –" he raised an eyebrow at Merlin, who bent his head and started scribbling his address "– and like it or not, some woman saw fit to leave it in our shop. There was nowhere else for it to go, and so I stepped in and did what I saw as the right thing. That's all." He snatched up the paper as soon as Merlin had finished writing and nodded at the three of them. "Father, Morgana, I'll see you at the shop in a while. Merlin, if you need anything else, Gaius has my mobile number."
"Thanks," Merlin said, and Arthur nodded at him and walked out. He'd never been impressed by authority before, but he had to admit Arthur's in that moment was impressive. There was nothing false or forced about it; it seemed a natural extension of him, the way a sword might seem in the hands of a knight of old.
Merlin's fanciful thoughts were swiftly dispelled when the baby screeched and whacked his tiny fist against Merlin's face, demanding attention.
"Yes, little man," Merlin murmured, rising from the table and excusing himself with an apologetic smile. "Let's see if we can find you some breakfast, hm?"
Oh, dear God. Arthur had trusted the future of Pendragon's to some kind of neo-hippie pagan nutter.
Merlin's flat was so minuscule that the whole of it could easily fit into Arthur's bathroom, its dingy walls and worn lino completely lacking in character or charm. However, the books and various artefacts littering every available surface showed the flat's inhabitant was literally bursting with character. There were hundreds of books, most of them dogeared and second-hand, on every religion imaginable, from Shakers to Zoroastrians, on philosophy and pyramids on Mars and anthropology and holy wars, both ancient and modern. There were crystals and fetishes from a dozen different cultures, tiny stone sculptures of men with huge erections and fifty-breasted women, more kinds of incense than Arthur knew existed, some sort of fragrant, dried herb twisted into a plait, and a plastic model of a fish sporting legs and trainers. There were books written in Old English and German and a script Arthur thought might be Sanskrit. There were brightly coloured paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, lending the flat the air of an exotic jumble sale.
What Arthur found completely insane – besides the fact that Merlin was clearly one of those weirdly obsessed academics who eventually disappeared up their own arseholes – was that he felt comfortable here, almost as though he'd been here before, which made no sense at all. He could never be comfortable in the midst of this clutter, this chaos.
He searched the tiny closet for a bag, and finding none, rooted around for a trash bag in the microscopic kitchen. Merlin's clothes were as nondescript as his decorating style was flamboyant. Arthur threw a few pairs of trousers and jeans, several shirts and a couple of jumpers, socks and boxers into the bag, along with the Old English book splayed across his coffee table and a couple more he found beside the bed. Surprisingly, there was a netbook underneath them; he packed that away securely in his briefcase. While he was about it, he decided to clean the perishables out of Merlin's refrigerator – they'd only go bad and stink up the place, he reasoned – and washed the dirty dishes in the sink. He poked his head in the tiny bathroom and threw in a few supplies: shaving gel, paracetamol, toothpaste, razor. He debated about including the tube of lube he found in the cabinet, then decided against it. It was enough that he was invading Merlin's privacy with this visit; he didn't need to compound it by throwing it in Merlin's face.
And that was the point at which it occurred to him he'd been there quite long enough, and he couldn't spend the whole bloody day lollygagging around some pathetic little mouse hole in Camden. Picking up one of the crystals and putting it in his coat pocket on impulse, he closed up the bag and departed the flat with the haste of a man committing a burglary.
Gaius, Merlin soon learned, was a godsend. He had a natural, no-nonsense way with the baby that reminded Merlin of his mum. Even better, he shooed Merlin off after breakfast to get some rest, and once he was convinced the baby wouldn't howl the walls down without him, Merlin ran upstairs, leapt into bed and slept through almost to midday, dead to the world.
When he awoke, some of his clothes were laid out over a chair, along with a note in a flowing, precise hand. Arthur popped round earlier with your things. I'm ironing most of them; the boy couldn't find a proper case and stuffed them all into a garbage bag, bless him. The rest are in your chest of drawers. Merlin studied the note; it felt strangely like eavesdropping to see the clearly fond way Gaius wrote about Arthur. Of course, the old man could easily have worked for the Pendragons since before Arthur was born. Perhaps Gaius had seen Arthur grow from a small baby to the man he was now, had even had a hand in raising him. Merlin had a sudden flash of Arthur as a boy, his hair bleached almost white by the sun, wide eyes huge in his child's face, legs too long for the rest of him. He probably would have been a serious one, Merlin thought, prone to going off on his own and doing God knew what, worrying Gaius when he didn't come in for dinner – and where the hell was all this coming from?
Merlin shook his head to clear it and swiftly stripped out of his boxers and Arthur's borrowed t-shirt to don the fresh clothes. When he descended the stairs he found a scene of bustling activity, as a couple of burly men hauled yet more boxes to join a growing pile. Gaius stood off to the side with the baby in his arms, an expression Merlin could only describe as serene amusement on his face. The baby squealed when it saw him and reached for him, and Merlin took him, smiling.
"Now what's all this, my lad, hm?" he asked. "Is the circus coming to town? Where's the lion, then? We'd better make sure you stay away from him or you'll eat him up and put him in your belly," he said, tickling the baby's stomach and making him giggle delightedly.
"This would be from Pendragon's," Gaius said dryly. "No lions yet, though at this rate I wouldn't be surprised."
"Wow," Merlin said, grimacing at the boxes. "I, erm, hadn't quite realised I'd ordered so much."
"You ordered it."
Merlin shrugged. "Yeah. I mean, Arthur asked me to make a list of what I thought the baby would need."
Gaius raised a speculative eyebrow, his gaze frankly assessing, and Merlin had to resist the irrational urge to squirm.
"What?" Merlin demanded, but Gaius only shook his head.
"Well, I suppose I'd better show them where to put it all," Merlin muttered, walking over to one of the workmen to introduce himself.
"Bugger!" Arthur exclaimed in frustration, when the bloody spanner slipped on the fastening for the dozenth time.
"You're going to strip that if you're not careful," Merlin observed. "And please don't swear."
Arthur glared at him where he was sitting on a blanket spread on the floor a few feet away, playing with the baby and some of the educational toys he'd demanded Arthur find for him. This was a set of brightly coloured fabric blocks with bizarre, sharply contrasting patterns all over them. The baby seemed to be enjoying them, but the artistic or educational merit was obviously lost on it, because it was mainly focused on scrunching them up in its fat little fists and chewing on the corners.
"As I keep telling you, it can't understand a bloody word I say."
"I just don't want the baby's first word to be a four-letter one, that's all."
"'Bugger' is not a four – oh, never mind," Arthur huffed. He spread out the directions again, hoping they would reveal their secrets to him.
"Told you they were impossible to understand," Merlin murmured, busily engaged in playing tug-of-war for one of the blocks.
"They're not impossible to understand," Arthur shot back, feeling the need to defend his shop's wares, "it's just that I've had a long day, and –"
"And people who'd buy a crib from Pendragon's hire workmen to put things like this together for them," Merlin said. When Arthur looked up at him, there was a definite insolent curl to his lip.
"If you're such a friend of the proletariat, why couldn't you put it together?"
"Because the directions are bollocks, and I'm more tired than you are. He can sleep in the car seat tonight, and I'll try to figure it out in the morning."
Arthur looked forlornly at the half-assembled crib, the remaining parts strewn across the floor, and sighed. He hated admitting defeat, but right now he wanted nothing more than to throw the whole thing out the window. First thing tomorrow, he was having each department begin a review of every piece of inventory listed as "some assembly required." If the staff couldn't build it themselves from the directions in a reasonable amount of time, Pendragon's would be in the market for a product they could.
"What are you scheming over there?"
Arthur stirred himself from his planning to see that Merlin's smile had turned from smart-arsed to indulgent, which was simply ridiculous.
"Nothing," Arthur muttered, getting to his feet. "Do you need anything else?"
"No, this is brilliant, thanks," Merlin said, sobering. "And thanks for picking up my things today. I appreciate it."
"Not at all," Arthur said. "I hope I brought everything you needed."
"Yeah, erm –" Merlin jerked a thumb at the nightstand, and Arthur saw the crystal sitting on it "– I was actually wondering what made you pick that. I mean, out of everything."
Arthur shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. "It was an impulse, really. If you'd rather have one of your other – religious objects, I can –"
Merlin cocked his head and smiled again, and Arthur felt his cheeks heating. "I mean," Arthur continued, "I don't want you to be without something you might need, for –" He trailed off, waving a hand.
"Well, now that you mention it, I could do with some fresh goat's blood, if you're doing any food shopping tomorrow," Merlin said sweetly.
A muscle in Arthur's jaw twitched. "I'm trying to be – inclusive," he ground out.
Merlin held up a hand. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I know you are. It's really not necessary, though. I studied religion in school, but I'm not – well, you could say I'm currently without belief. I think I got a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities, at least on a personal level."
"Oh," Arthur said, stupidly. "Well."
Merlin smiled. "Still, it's sweet of you to be tolerant of my devil-worshiping ways. Pendragon's is truly a model employer."
"Oh, shut up," Arthur said, feeling his mouth curl up into a smile against his will. "I feel silly having brought you that now," he added, gesturing at the crystal. He wasn't quite sure why he felt the need to confess such a thought, only that with Merlin it seemed easy.
"Don't," Merlin said softly. "It was – thoughtful. Thank you." His gaze locked with Arthur's, and for a moment Arthur found himself drawn in by eyes the colour of spring storms, an ineffable mix of winter greys and the promise of summer's brilliant blue.
"Yes, well," Arthur said, clearing his throat, "I'll leave you to it, then. Good night."
"Good night," Merlin said, and Arthur finally broke the contact and forced his feet to move.
Merlin placed his head in his hands as he stared at the sleeping baby in the pram. "God, Gwen. I don't know where to begin."
"Drink your tea, then tell me," Gwen said firmly, passing him the cup. He took it and started to drink mechanically, the hot liquid failing to warm him up. He'd felt chilled for hours, and it had nothing to do with the temperature outside.
It had now been a full week since Merlin had found the baby, and since then he'd been certified a foster carer, made eighteen calls to his mum for advice, and had learned how to fall asleep in under a minute, the way he'd heard men did on the battlefield. Despite Gaius' help, he was slowly losing his mind from sleep deprivation. And yet he wouldn't have traded a single moment of it: for all that caring for him was overwhelming sometimes, the baby was a joy to spend time with.
And then he had visited the hospital today, and everything had gone straight to hell.
"I take it they had no luck locating the mum, then," Gwen said softly after a minute or so.
Merlin shook his head. "No. They can't find any record that matches the baby's footprint and blood type. But that's not the bad news."
Gwen waited patiently for him to tell her, her gaze sympathetic and kind. Merlin swallowed before continuing.
"They conducted some developmental tests today, and based on that and the information from last week, they were able to draw some conclusions. He's at least four months, but he's extremely small for a four-month old. Hell, he's not all that big for a three-month old."
"Babies grow," Gwen assured him. "And with you taking care of him, I'm sure he'll come along in no time."
"It's not only his size," Merlin said, quietly so as not to wake the baby. "He's not exhibiting some of the skills he should have by now. He's hardly vocalizing at all, and he's not able to roll over. The muscles he needs – in his chest, his arms – they're not nearly strong enough."
Gwen stroked his arm. "Oh, Merlin, I'm sorry. But you must have known that he might need special care. Your mum had some pretty heartbreaking stories, as I recall."
"Yeah," Merlin said, passing a hand over his face, "and it's really not as bad as it could be. He's healthy – no illnesses, nothing congenital they've been able to determine yet – and he's gaining weight quickly on the enriched milk powder. But I – I've never tried to do something like this on my own."
"You're not on your own," Gwen told him. "You've got the hospital staff, and the foster carers organization, and Gaius, and your mum, and me."
"Yeah, but it's still ultimately my responsibility. It's – well, quite frankly, Gwen, it's more than a bit terrifying."
"I know, love," Gwen said, squeezing his arm one more time before releasing him. After a pause, she asked, "Has Arthur had anything to do with him?"
"Not a lot, no, though he was supposed to be there at the meeting today. At first, he tried to get one of the nursing sisters to come out to the house, but they wanted the baby in hospital for more tests. He rang me forty minutes before the appointment to tell me he couldn't make it."
"Oh, that's too bad," Gwen said. "But he is a very busy man –"
"Yeah, I know," Merlin huffed. "It's just –" He trailed off, unsure of what he was trying to say. A week ago, he would have said Arthur was another rich, spoiled prat, self-centred and boorish. But there had been moments over the last week – such as Arthur thinking to bring him his books and that crystal, or spending an hour and a half trying to put a crib together and then turning up the next morning with a fully assembled model from a competing shop ('because I always finish what I start,' he'd declared with a strangely endearing flush in his cheeks) – where Merlin had realised the Son in Pendragon and Son wasn't nearly as much of a prat as he had first appeared. Still, he kept a careful, measured distance from the baby at all times, and Merlin couldn't figure out why. It was more than simple inexperience, but he didn't know Arthur well enough to even guess at what it might be.
"Just what?" Gwen asked.
Merlin shook himself from his reverie. "Nothing," he muttered. "It doesn't matter. I'm the hired help, and I'd do well to remember that."
"Merlin..." Gwen began, but just then Merlin's mobile rang insistently, and he cursed softly and fumbled in his pocket for it.
"Crap, forgot to silence it," he murmured, rising to his feet and heading toward Gwen's kitchen as he thumbed the talk button. "Yes, hello?"
"Merlin, where are you?" Arthur demanded.
"I'm at Gwen's," Merlin replied automatically.
"Is the baby with you?"
Merlin rolled his eyes. "No, I thought I'd leave him with Harrod's Father Christmas. Of course he's with me; where else would he be?"
"Well, how the bloody hell am I supposed to know?" Arthur snapped. "You dismissed the driver!"
"I needed to go for a walk to clear my head, alright? And then I rang Gwen, and it happened to be her day off so she invited me over for tea."
"What's wrong?" Arthur's low voice was suddenly full of concern, and all at once it was too much; Merlin was horrified to feel his throat tighten and his eyes well up.
"Everything," Merlin managed. "Well, no, not everything – there's some good news, actually, but –" His breath hitched and he wiped at his eyes, mortified; he was about to break down like a hysterical child. "Sorry, sorry."
"Look, stay put. I'll be there in half an hour. Where does Gwen live?"
A pause. "I'll be there in an hour."
Merlin chuckled in spite of himself. "Yeah, okay, that would be – thanks." He took a couple of deep, steadying breaths, then gave Arthur the address, and rang off.
Gwen looked up at him with concern when he came in. "Who was that?"
Merlin sat back down and picked up his tea. "Arthur. He's coming to get me."
Gwen raised her eyebrows. "Really? Wow. Morgana says he never leaves work before six."
Merlin laughed, embarrassed. "Well, since I just had a miniature nervous breakdown on the bloody phone, chances are he's just coming to take the baby away and hire someone else."
Shaking her head, Gwen said, "I don't think so. Arthur may be many things, but stupid isn't one of them. He knows you're too good to give up."
Merlin snorted, ignoring the small, inexplicable thrill that went through him at Gwen's words. "Yeah, maybe," he conceded. "Thanks."
"Anytime, love," Gwen said, smiling her sweetest smile. "Anytime."
Arthur finished scanning the report and blew out a breath. "Right, then. What do you need?"
Merlin looked up from the baby, who had been wriggling happily in its jolly jumper while Merlin made faces at it. He was in considerably better shape than he'd been when speaking to Arthur on the phone earlier that afternoon, but he still had a weary look around the eyes that made it seem as though he'd been punched. "It's not something that can be fetched from your shop," Merlin muttered. "He needs interaction – very structured and intensive interaction."
Arthur frowned. "But you've been giving him that," he said.
Merlin closed his eyes briefly. "I have, of a kind. The problem is, it's looking more and more like he didn't get a hell of a lot of it in his first four months. He's got a lot of catching up to do."
Arthur opened his mouth, then closed it again when he realised he had no idea of what to say, of what Merlin needed to hear. He wanted to offer reassurance, to let him know he had faith in Merlin's ability to do what needed to be done, but he was afraid his words would sound like hollow platitudes.
The baby made an unhappy sound, indicating its displeasure at something, and Merlin smiled at it. "I'm sorry, little man, were we talking about you without including you in the discussion? That's very rude, isn't it?" Merlin looked the baby right in the eyes as he talked, and its gaze was glued to his face, fascinated. Arthur felt an odd tugging sensation just below his breastbone, and cleared his throat to dispel it.
"I'm sorry I didn't come with you to the hospital today," Arthur heard himself say.
Merlin glanced at him, clearly surprised, then shrugged. "Don't worry. I know you're busy."
"It wasn't –" Arthur briefly wondered what the hell he was doing, but his mouth was already moving again "– I wasn't that busy. I – erm. I really hate hospitals. I mean, we're talking enormous amounts of hate here. Perhaps even pathological."
Merlin said nothing, just looked at him, his gaze understanding, and Arthur heard himself say something he had never actually spoken aloud before this.
"My mother," Arthur murmured. "She died when I was born." He barked a hollow laugh. "So the only thing worse than hospitals are hospital maternity wards, actually. It's hard not to – think about it, you know?"
"Oh, God, Arthur," Merlin whispered, "I'm so sorry. I had no idea."
Arthur nodded, swallowed. "No, of course you didn't. But it doesn't matter. I'll be there in future. I promise." Merlin opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Arthur switched topics. "I think he should have a name. We can't just keep calling him 'the baby' and 'little man'."
"Yes, but we don't know what his name is," Merlin said, tickling the baby under its chin. "Do we?"
"Then let's give him one."
Merlin looked up at him, shocked. "We can't just –"
"Why not?" Arthur asked. "It'll help his development to have a name to recognise and respond to, won't it?"
Merlin studied him in that too-knowing way he had; it made Arthur distinctly uncomfortable. "Yes, it will. You know, they overlooked that in the report."
"There you are," Arthur said. "This child-rearing thing can't be so mysterious if a rank amateur can think of something the experts missed. Now: I've always been partial to Basil."
Merlin stared at him. "Please tell me you're joking."
"I am. It's your turn. We'll brainstorm as many as we can, then narrow it down from there."
Merlin stuck out his lower lip. "How about – Arthur Pendragon the Second?"
"Oh, that's brilliant, cheers," Arthur muttered. "My turn. Eustace."
"Alright, let's try some names that aren't horrid. Donald."
"Not bad," Arthur allowed. "Jonathan."
"Mmm, I don't know. Harry."
Merlin shook his head. "Potter and royal brat. No. What about Trevor?" Merlin grinned at the baby. "You like Trevor, don't you?"
"I think you're influencing him unfairly," Arthur said. He pulled his chair over so that he was sitting beside Merlin. "Let's try this again, and we'll see which one he likes best."
Merlin's mouth jerked as though he were suppressing a smile. "And how are you going to determine that?"
"It's all in the expressions," Arthur said confidently. "Now, once more from the top," he said, leaning in. The baby stared at him, gaze transfixed as Arthur bugged out his eyes and grinned. "Basil. Isn't that a marvelous name? Baaaa-silllll."
Merlin's laugh, Arthur decided, was worth his making a complete fool of himself.
"Oh, please, listen, it's okay," Merlin begged, pasting a grin to his face as David began to kick up a fuss, "you're going to love this, I guarantee it."
While Merlin knew intellectually that placing the baby on his stomach was vital for his development, helping to build important muscle groups he would need to roll and crawl, he inwardly dreaded every session of 'tummy time' because even after nearly a week, David was still violently opposed to the principle. Of course, Merlin tried to hide his feelings, presenting it as best he could as a grand, exciting adventure, but clearly the clever little sod was already capable of seeing through him like a pane of dirty glass. Merlin could only guess at how much frustration David had to be feeling when his underutilised muscles wouldn't respond, and it cut him deeply to have to put him through it, even though he knew it was ultimately for his own good.
This time, David began wailing as soon as he was face down; he refused to lift his head, and Merlin had to roll him onto his back again for fear he'd suffocate himself in the mat. When he was on his back again, he glared up at Merlin with an accusing look and waved his arms at him as though he were a magician trying to make Merlin disappear.
Merlin turned round to see Arthur standing in the doorway, and his jaw promptly dropped to the floor. Before this, he'd only seen Arthur in business attire: suit jacket, Oxford shirt, silk tie and expensive wool trousers, perfectly pressed. In the evenings after work he removed his jacket and tie, but that was as dressed down as he seemed to get. This time, Arthur had clearly just been working out in the gym the Pendragons had upstairs, because his skin was sheened with sweat and his hair was plastered to his forehead. Instead of the crisp tennis whites Merlin would have expected, though, Arthur was wearing a faded old London School of Economics t-shirt and a pair of Adidas tracksuit bottoms that looked as though they'd been through the wars.
Fuck, he was utterly gorgeous. And alright, so it wasn't the first time Merlin had noticed Arthur was good-looking, but the suits had always served to remind him of the differences between them, both in background and temperament. Here like this, in worn casual clothes, rumpled and flushed from his workout, Merlin could no longer avoid the fact that Arthur was not only a suit but a man, and a distressingly attractive one at that.
Arthur raised his brows at him, and Merlin belatedly remembered that he'd spoken. "Erm, good morning," he managed, his tongue thick in his mouth. "Sorry, I didn't realise you were still in the house."
"I'm working from home today," Arthur said, waving a hand.
Merlin frowned; Arthur had spent nearly all of last weekend at the shop, so he hadn't expected this Saturday to be any different. "Oh," he said.
"Still having trouble with tummy time?" Arthur asked, taking a step inside the room. Merlin nodded, feeling the weight of his failure settling on his shoulders. Since the visit to the hospital, Arthur had popped round every evening to find out how the day had gone and to discuss the baby's progress. Sometimes, if David was still awake, Arthur would spend some time talking to him or reading him a story, though always when the baby was sitting in his jumper or lying in his crib. Arthur hadn't expressed any desire to hold him since that first night, and Merlin hadn't suggested it again.
"Yeah," Merlin sighed, letting the baby grab and clutch at his fingers, "you'd swear I was torturing him."
"Well," Arthur said, taking another step, "would you mind if I – that is, I was thinking about it and I might have an idea." The words emerged in a rush, and Merlin blinked at him for a moment until he realised that this was what Arthur looked like when he was unsure of himself. Combined with the casual clothes and the messy hair, it was as though Merlin's image of Arthur had suddenly been turned on its ear, and he reeled a little before he could think of a proper answer.
"Erm, yeah, go ahead," Merlin said, nodding.
Arthur nodded. "Right, could you prop him up? I want him to be able to see what I'm doing."
"Sure," Merlin said, surprised at Arthur's enthusiasm. He gathered some of the pillows he'd been using for that purpose earlier and arranged David while Arthur fiddled with the fancy control panel on the wall that Merlin had been very careful never to touch for fear it might cause an alarm to sound and a trap door to open beneath his feet. Suddenly, a child's yell rang out, and David and Merlin both started. And then the music began, emanating from speakers that must have been embedded near the ceiling:
Suckin' too hard on your lollipop
Oh love's gonna get you down
Suckin' too hard on your lollipop
Oh love's gonna get you down
Merlin turned to Arthur, startled. "Mika?"
Arthur shrugged, though Merlin could have sworn he blushed a little. "I don't have any children's music. And it's – erm, bouncy. Children like that." He tapped Merlin on the arm and beckoned to him as he knelt down in front of the baby. "Come on, I'm not doing this alone."
"What exactly are we doing?" Merlin asked, kneeling beside Arthur.
"We're modeling the desired behaviour," Arthur answered, now moving to lie flat on his stomach. As Merlin watched, bemused, Arthur placed his palms flat on the mat beside his chest and lifted himself up a few inches. David stared at him, entranced, as he dropped down to the mat again in time with the music, then lifted up again.
"You're not helping," Arthur accused, shooting Merlin a glance.
"I think you're doing just fine on your own," Merlin said, grinning.
"Keep eye contact with him," Merlin instructed, "and keep smiling; show him how much fun you're having. I don't want him to get confused or overwhelmed with two of us, alright? This is brilliant."
Arthur turned back to David, an exaggerated grin plastered to his face. "I feel like a total tit," he said, still smiling as he bobbed up and down.
"Welcome to the world of child-rearing," Merlin said. Carefully, he moved just behind David's field of vision, so as to avoid any potential for distraction and to catch him should he tip over. Arthur continued on, offering encouragement to David as he moved, his voice animated. He even sang a little, and Merlin bit his tongue to keep from grinning. The song ended, and another one, just as bouncy, began.
Finally, toward the end of the second song, David unleashed a high-pitched squeal of excitement and waved his arms. "Buh-buh-buh-BUH!" he yelled, wriggling his upper body as though he were trying to keep time to the music.
No time like the present, Merlin thought, wishing briefly he had a god to pray to before he lifted David up and deposited him gently on his tummy in front of Arthur.
Arthur's smile grew even wider. "Are you going to play with me? I knew you could! You're so strong! You can do it! Yes, you can!"
"Buh-buh-buh-buh-BUH-buh-buh!" David agreed, beating his fists against the mat.
"That's it!" Arthur said, "That's my strong boy!"
David blew a raspberry of unabashed delight, and Arthur and Merlin both burst out laughing, their gazes locking as the baby's infectious joy swept over them both. Merlin was sure he'd never wanted to hug someone quite so much in his life.
Merlin and Arthur both stiffened at the sound of the voice coming from the doorway. As Merlin turned, he saw Uther and Morgana standing there, watching them. Uther's expression was clearly disapproving, and Morgana was red-faced as she tried to contain her laughter.
"Hello, Father," Arthur said cheerfully, waving from the floor.
The elder Pendragon strode over to the wall panel and stabbed a button, and suddenly the room was deathly silent. "I take it you're not coming in with us to the city?" he asked coldly.
Sighing, Arthur rose to his feet, and Merlin, knowing the moment was lost for now, gathered up David in his arms. "Not today," Arthur said, just as coldly. "I thought I'd actually try working from home. Maybe even do something mad like eat lunch at a regular time, or put in less than eighty hours this week at the bloody job."
Uther narrowed his eyes at Merlin, then at Arthur, and swiftly turned on his heel and walked out. Morgana stayed behind, gazing at Arthur expectantly.
"What?" Arthur demanded.
"Oh, nothing," Morgana said sweetly, "it's only that I never would have pegged you as the paternal type. Until now, that is."
"I was just –" Arthur waved a hand at Merlin and David "– helping."
Morgana arched a speculative eyebrow at Merlin, who tried not to flinch under her scrutiny. "That's actually rather lovely to see. As is your uncharacteristic display of spirit, I might add. We might just make a real boy of you yet."
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" Arthur snapped.
"I do," Morgana said, leaning in to buss Arthur's cheek. "Be good." She waved goodbye to Merlin and David. "All of you."
After she left, there was a strained silence, one Merlin had no idea how to breach. "Well," Arthur said finally, rubbing self-consciously at the back of his neck, "I'd better get a shower –"
"Arthur," Merlin heard himself say. When Arthur met his gaze, Merlin swallowed before continuing. "I usually schedule more tummy time after lunch. I'd really appreciate it if you could help out again."
Arthur hesitated. "I'm sure you could do a better job of it than I could," he said softly.
Merlin shook his head sadly. "'Fraid not. No sense of rhythm."
Arthur barked a surprised laugh, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and Merlin's heart may have flopped about in his chest a bit. "Alright, yeah. Just come and get me. I'll be in my office."
"Okay," Merlin agreed, and Arthur nodded, still smiling, before he walked out.
Merlin blew out a breath after he left and looked down at David, who was still gurgling happily.
"Lucky thing we're so good at keeping our heads around the charmers, isn't it, my lad?" Merlin murmured, tickling the baby under his chin.
Arthur had been working at Pendragon's for four and a half years, and he could honestly say he had never been one of those people who watched the clock. He looked forward to every workday as a new challenge, a new chance to improve the business. He had a drive and energy that had been praised by his father and recognised by other leading merchants. His father's son, they all said; a chip off the old block, that was him.
This afternoon, however, he had checked the time on his computer monitor no less than a dozen times. He'd learned that the more you did it, the more slowly the minutes seemed to crawl by.
The Monday morning meeting with his father and the other board members had not gone well; Uther had kept making pointed comments about the importance of duty until Arthur had wanted to reach across the table and shake him. Of course, matters were complicated by their conversation Saturday evening, when Uther had summoned him to his study and asked him point blank if he was the father of the baby. That exchange had been even less pleasant than the lecture yesterday at the breakfast table about the pressing need for Pendragon's to have its best Christmas season ever. As though Arthur needed to be bloody reminded.
Deciding to inject a little variety into the proceedings, he checked his watch this time. It was three-thirty four; David would be down for his afternoon nap by now, after two sessions of tummy time. Arthur had been itching to ring Merlin to find out how things had gone, but he didn't want it to seem as though he were checking up on Merlin or lacked confidence in him. Sighing, he opened the latest sales report from the department managers, but after a few minutes all the figures blurred together.
"Bugger," Arthur muttered, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes. He wanted to be home, with David and Mer – well, it was always nice to see Gaius. For all that it had been the only home he'd ever known, the Pendragon residence had never felt like one before, at least not in the way he saw on television or films, or heard other people talk about. His father had preserved the memory of his mother there, not so much in keeping pictures or other mementos about – there were none that Arthur knew of – but in the weight of her absence. David's presence – and yes, Merlin's – had brought life and laughter to the place, and Arthur hadn't realised how much he'd been craving that until it had been dropped in his lap.
Arthur was startled from his reverie by a knock on his open door. Shaking his head, he looked up to see Morgana smiling at him.
"Hey, you," she said, "I'm headed out. May not be back to the house until late, so thought I'd say goodbye."
Arthur pointedly looked at his watch, and Morgana rolled her eyes. "I have a meeting at Sotheby's for four, and then Gwen and I are going out to dinner and seeing the latest Twilight film so we can laugh our arses off. Okay, boss?"
"Knock it off. I'm not your boss."
"And Uther's not yours."
Arthur scrubbed at his face; they'd had several variations of this discussion before. "Yes, I know it says we're partners on the legal documents. That doesn't change the fact that he's the father and I'm the son, and so that means he is my boss in a way, at least until he retires."
"Which will be never," Morgana shot back. "So you might as well look at renegotiating your relationship before he sends you completely round the twist."
"I'm –" Arthur began, cutting himself off abruptly. He'd been about to say I'm fine with things as they are, which had been his standard response to Morgana in these arguments. However, he suddenly realised that this was no longer the case; he'd never chafed so much under his father's iron-willed rule as he had these past few days, and already it was becoming intolerable.
Christ, what was happening to him?
"Are you still in there?" Morgana asked; Arthur shook his head to clear it.
"No. I mean yes, of course." He blew out a breath.
Morgana chewed on her lip for a moment, then stepped fully into his office and closed the door before continuing. "Look, I'm sorry, but I have to ask: 'That's my strong boy?'"
"It's a – figure of speech. So bloody what?" Arthur snapped.
"Oh, come now. You know Uther's been grinding his teeth about that for the last two days."
"Well, I didn't know he was there, did I?" Arthur murmured, looking away.
"Arthur," Morgana said gently, "He thinks he's a grandfather."
"Yes, I know, and he's delusional. He knows how little time I've spent away from the shop."
"It doesn't take much time to get a woman up the duff," Morgana drawled. "For most men, fifteen minutes. I have confidence you could manage it in five."
"Very bloody funny," Arthur said. "Seriously, Morgana: do you think I'd father a child and not acknowledge it was mine?"
Morgana sobered. "No, darling, I don't," she said softly.
"Well," Arthur said, a little nonplussed at her faith in him, "there you are, then."
Morgana looked at him consideringly. "Too bad, though."
Arthur frowned. "What's too bad?"
"That you're not the real father. You looked – I don't know. You looked really relaxed this weekend. I don't know if I've ever seen you so happy."
Arthur could feel his face heating. "You mean you've never seen me look so foolish."
Morgana smiled. "Being a bit foolish now and then is good for one. I was starting to worry you'd never figure that out."
Arthur cleared his throat and made a show of organising the papers scattered across his desk. "Look, I can't tell you how much I enjoy our little heart to hearts, but I do wish you'd leave me in peace. I want to finish up my work so I can get out of here at a decent hour."
Morgana cocked her head, a wicked gleam lighting her eyes. "Hm. This sudden eagerness for hearth and home wouldn't have anything to do with a certain handsome au pair, would it?"
Arthur blinked at her. "Now you're being ridiculous," he snapped.
"Oh, come now. I saw the way you were looking at one another Saturday, when we found you with the baby."
"That wasn't – I'm not – " Arthur spluttered. "You know I don't fancy blokes."
"Then I don't know what you do fancy, to be honest. I haven't seen you with a woman in over a year." She raised her eyebrows at him. "Have you joined a monastic order and not told me? Or has it finally dried up and fallen off from disuse?"
Arthur made a show of picking up his stapler and lifting it over his head as if to hurl it at her. With a peal of evil laughter, she opened the door and waved him goodbye.
Merlin beamed and hoisted David high over his head. "Yes, that's right! Why don't you tell me some more?"
David squealed and grinned down at Merlin. "Muh-muh-muh-muh-muh-MUH-MUH!"
"That's a very astute observation, my lad. I hadn't thought of that!"
"He's quite the conversationalist,'" Gaius said, as he stood by the stove heating the baby's bottle.
Merlin lowered David into his arms. Pointing at Gaius, he said, "Who's that, then? David, who's that? Would you like to chat with him?"
Gaius inclined his head at David in greeting as Merlin brought him closer. "Well, hello, my boy. How are you today?"
"Duh-duh-DUH!" David squealed, reaching out for Gaius and smacking him on the shoulder with his tiny hands.
Gaius arched his eyebrows, clearly impressed. "That's very interesting, David!" he exclaimed, stroking the little boy's cheek affectionately. "You know, I could swear he wasn't vocalising as much yesterday."
"That's because he wasn't," Merlin said, grinning. "I swear it's like a dam broke this morning, Gaius. The last few days I'd been trying to get him to respond when I talked to him, but I hadn't been having any luck. Then when I tried it today, we suddenly started having a tremendous conversation. I was gobsmacked."
"Sometimes it happens like that," Gaius said, still smiling at David. "Arthur was the same: fits and starts all along the way, but he got there eventually." His eyes crinkled with mirth. "He walks and talks all on his own now."
Merlin chuckled. "Good to know." He paused, not sure if he was crossing a line – but then Gaius had brought him up. "What was Arthur like as a child?" he ventured.
Gaius raised his head and fixed Merlin with that inscrutable gaze of his. After a moment, he said softly, "Terribly serious. And terribly dear."
"You helped raise him, didn't you?" Merlin asked. At Gaius' shuttered look, Merlin murmured, "He, erm, told me – about his mum."
Gaius lifted his chin slightly. "Did he. That's – interesting." Before Merlin could process this fully, he added, "Well, there were nannies and governesses, of course, but I was the only member of the household who was with the Pendragons throughout Arthur's childhood, and yes, I did help as much as I could. Neither Uther nor I knew anything about children, unfortunately. We didn't have the first idea of what to do with him sometimes."
Merlin snorted. "I know how that feels."
"Be that as it may, you're doing much better at it than we ever did. Although Uther and I were from different generations, we were both raised to believe that one learned how to be a father from one's own father, for good or ill. There was no thought of actually working at it, or, heaven forbid, listening to experts."
"That's still pretty much the same today, isn't it?" Merlin murmured. He shrugged. "Not that I would know first hand – my mum raised me on her own."
Gaius pursed his lips, clearly debating with himself. Finally, he said, "Once, when he was oh, about five years old, I believe, Arthur told me he never wanted to be a father. He said that fathers were sad all the time and didn't like their children very much."
Merlin sucked in a breath. "Oh, god," he murmured, horrified.
"Over time, of course, he grew to realise the complexity of the issue, but I never heard him express the desire to have children. His interest in David – well, I never expected to see anything like it."
Merlin stared at him. "So you think he could be the father?"
Gaius shook his head. "No. Arthur has an incredibly strong sense of duty; if the child were his, he'd acknowledge it. I can't explain it, really, except to say that in spite of his reluctance, it would seem Arthur is a natural father. As are you," he added, nodding.
Merlin smiled, feeling the warmth of the praise spread through him. "Thanks, Gaius. That means a lot. Really."
Gaius patted his arm. "Not at all, my boy. Now, I think this bottle is just warm enough," he said, plucking it from the water and testing a bit of the formula on the inside of his wrist while David cooed excitedly at the prospect of supper.
"Looks delicious." Both Gaius and Merlin turned at the sound of the deep voice to see Arthur in the doorway of the kitchen, leaning against the door frame. His jacket and tie were gone, the top two buttons of his shirt were undone, and his hair seemed just slightly out of place, either from the howling wind outside or the loss of the tie.
Merlin's breath caught in his throat, not only because Arthur was gorgeous but because for a moment he was terrified that Arthur may have heard something of his conversation with Gaius. He searched Arthur's face for a sign of anger or betrayal, but found none.
"You're home early," Gaius said archly. "It's barely gone six."
Arthur pushed off from the door, a mulish expression coming over his features that Merlin already recognised. "Slow day at work," he said.
"Yes, Christmas is such a quiet time in sales," Gaius said, his tone dry with bottled mirth. Arthur's jaw twitched, but he said nothing.
"Well, how's the young man, then?" Arthur asked, coming closer. As soon as he was within David's field of focus, the baby told him himself; he squealed in delight and stretched out both his arms, reaching for Arthur.
To Merlin's surprise, Arthur made an aborted move toward David, his arms rising part way as though he might take the baby. He checked himself almost immediately, but Merlin decided on impulse to make another attempt.
"Would you like to feed him?" Merlin asked softly.
Arthur's head snapped up. "I don't – erm. I have no idea what to do," he admitted.
"I can show you," Merlin offered, in the same quiet tone. Arthur stared at him for another moment, then nodded.
Merlin lifted his chin. "Have a seat in that chair over there, will you?" As Arthur turned away to obey, Gaius shot Merlin an incredulous look which disappeared as soon as Arthur was facing them again.
"Now, hold your arms like I'm doing," Merlin added, moving to show Arthur exactly how he was holding the baby. Arthur studied him for a few moments and then copied him. "Good. I'm going to give him to you, okay?"
Arthur stiffened, then let out a breath. "Okay."
"But first," Merlin said, turning to Gaius, "Gaius is going to keep that shirt from getting covered in second-hand milk."
Right on cue, Gaius produced a tea towel with a flourish, and Arthur looked even more apprehensive. Draping the brightly-coloured linen depicting the historic sites of Bristol over Arthur's shoulder as though it were made of the finest silk, he stepped back, nodding his approval.
Merlin bit his lip to keep from smiling and bent down to transfer the baby into Arthur's arms. As he did, he was close enough to see that Arthur's eyes were even more beautiful close in, and that he looked endearingly uncertain. More than anything, he wanted to offer reassurance, but the best way to ease Arthur's fears was to let him try this.
As David's weight eased from his arms, Merlin straightened slowly, making sure that Arthur's hold was secure. To Merlin's relief, Arthur's big hands held David exactly as Merlin had, the crook of his elbow supporting the baby's head. David stared up at him silently for a long, breathless moment, and then he squealed happily and waved an arm, trying to reach Arthur's nose. Right away, Arthur leaned in, allowing David's tiny fingers to brush his face.
"Well, hello there," Arthur said, his voice hushed and a little rough, and Merlin actually had to turn away for a moment to keep whatever the hell was caught in his throat from choking him. God, what was wrong with him? He'd seen plenty of blokes with kids before, but something about the way Arthur took his hesitant first steps toward parenthood made Merlin's heart threaten to burst from his chest.
Merlin risked a glance at Gaius, and saw the old man's eyes were suspiciously shiny. Well, good to know I'm not the only one, I suppose, Merlin thought, taking the bottle from him with a silent, shared look and a small smile.
From that night on, Arthur was home at a decent hour every evening, though he usually brought work home with him to avoid his father's lectures. He spent more and more time with David and Merlin, even skipping some of the family breakfasts in the dining room so that he could feed the baby before he left for the shop. When he was at the shop, however, he found it difficult to focus on work. His mind would wander as he wondered what new milestone David might reach today, or the smile and hug (Merlin said David was too young to hug people properly, but Arthur ignored him) Arthur would receive on his return home. Concerned his efficiency and output would suffer, Arthur finally imposed some rules on his own behaviour, deciding to reward himself for a morning of uninterrupted focus by ringing Merlin for an update on David's progress at lunchtime.
Merlin seemed a little surprised by Arthur's first call, but soon got into the spirit of it, prompting David to babble into the phone to deliver his own report at times. Over the course of the week, their conversations lengthened and the topics broadened, until they talked about food or films or music or football as well as about David. Merlin thought Monty Python was brilliant but couldn't stand Mr. Bean; he loved Indian and Moroccan food but hated anything deep fried. He told Arthur about some of the odder jobs he'd done, from barista to bellboy, and in return Arthur told him about his summer working in a kebab shop when he was seventeen because he'd wanted to show his father he could earn his own money.
Merlin's laugh was delighted. "I can see you behind the counter, serving up fast food in a grease-stained apron. I'm sure you loved it."
"I did, actually," Arthur admitted, no longer surprised when he told Merlin things he'd never spoken aloud. "It seemed like half of London passed through that shop, and the owner, Mrs. Haddad, knew every one of them. I learned most of what I know about customer relations from her." He smiled. "I still pop round to see her every now and then, but I haven't been back there in months."
"Let's go tomorrow," Merlin blurted. "You, me and David."
Arthur's surprise at the suggestion left him momentarily without a response, and after a moment, Merlin added, "Well, I mean, we don't have –"
"No," Arthur interrupted. "It's a good idea. I'd like to go."
"Oh," Merlin said. "That's – erm. That's good," he said. Arthur could hear the silly smile on Merlin's face in the tone of his voice, and wondered at what point in their calls he'd started to picture Merlin as he spoke. Probably from the beginning, really.
After he rang off that day, Arthur was forced to confront the fact that while he thought about David a great deal, he also thought far too much about Merlin – and those thoughts were becoming rather confusing. More than once, he'd found himself daydreaming about his smile, his unfettered laugh, his ever-changing blue eyes and his deft, talented hands. He'd never thought about another man quite in this way – or rather, quite this strongly. In spite of what he'd told Morgana, he'd found other blokes attractive in the past, but not enough to consider following thought with action. He'd barely had any time to devote to dating women since leaving school and becoming a partner in the shop; the idea of dating men, which probably meant learning a whole new set of rules, had always seemed far too time-consuming to Arthur. Of course, he knew he could put a great deal less effort into dating either sex if he wished, but he'd never been one for casual affairs or reckless experimentation. He supposed that made him a bit of a prig, but he couldn't be bothered to worry about it.
No matter how much he thought about Merlin or his hands, however, acting on his attraction was no more likely now than it ever had been. Their amicable relationship aside, Merlin was still his employee, and making sexual advances toward him would be an abuse of his position.
Of course, that begged the question of what he would do if Merlin ever made advances to him; Arthur was a little fuzzy on what the proper response would be in that case. If Merlin looked at him with that oddly fond way of his, then stepped up to him and kissed him with that ridiculously full mouth, lips soft and warm on his, what would he do? Would he push Merlin away gently, listing all the reasons they shouldn't do this, or would he frame Merlin's sharp hipbones with his hands and tilt his head so that their mouths could align like two halves of a whole –
Arthur looked up to see his father frowning at him from the door of his office, and realised Uther had most likely been standing there for far too long while he'd been – well, fantasising about kissing Merlin. "Yes, Father?" Arthur said, as smoothly as he could manage.
Uther looked at him for another moment, then said, "I've decided to let you go to Liverpool this weekend after all," he said. "Turns out I have to fly to Zurich, and it'll be a good opportunity for you to network with some of the suppliers."
Arthur blinked. "Liverpool?" he said, stupidly.
"The importers' conference?" his father prompted. "The one you begged me to let you go to not a month ago?"
Arthur nodded, the light finally dawning. "Right, yes, sorry, Liverpool, sure," he said. "That starts tonight, doesn't it?"
"This evening, yes." Uther paused. "Unless you have more pressing plans for the weekend."
Well, Arthur hadn't exactly marked them on his schedule, but it occurred to him now that 'spend as much time with David and Merlin as possible' had been top of the list, along with 'visit with Mrs. Haddad and pick up a couple of kebabs'. The thought that he wouldn't be able to do those things was surprisingly disappointing. However, there was no doubt Uther would have little sympathy for Arthur's desire to help David strengthen his muscles, or to hear Merlin's delighted laugh when the baby did something new. With his father, the business came first; it always had.
It wasn't so long ago that the business came first with you, too, a small voice in Arthur's head reminded him.
"No," Arthur said. "Not more pressing, no."
"I hate Liverpool," Arthur said without preamble when Merlin picked up his mobile.
Merlin pulled the covers up to his chin, pressing the phone against his ear and rolling away from the side of the bed where David lay sleeping in his crib so as not to wake him. "I'm sure the city is crying great salty tears," he murmured, smiling. "What's the conference like?"
"Boring as watching mud dry," Arthur replied. "How did he do today?"
Merlin hesitated for a moment. David had actually rolled from front to back for the first time today, but if Merlin were to tell Arthur that in his state of mind, he'd be horribly disappointed he'd missed it. "Really well," he said instead. "He didn't fuss at all when I put him on his belly, and he pushed himself up on his hands three times this afternoon."
"Did he put up with your terrible sense of rhythm?"
"He was polite about it," Merlin admitted, "but it was clear I was his second choice."
Arthur chuckled, and Merlin felt the warmth of it suffuse into his bones, lulling him even further toward sleep. It had been a good day, but a long one, and he could barely keep his eyes open.
"What time are you done tomorrow?" Merlin asked.
"No later than noon, if I have anything to say about it," Arthur answered.
"Are you falling asleep?"
"Wha?" Merlin mumbled, shaking himself back to some semblance of consciousness. "Yeah, I s'pose I am a bit, sorry."
"It's only nine-thirty."
"David didn't sleep too well last night, so neither did I. I think it was colic."
"You think? Didn't you take him to the doctor?" Arthur demanded, his voice suddenly harsh.
"Of course not," Merlin answered, bemused.
"What do you mean you didn't take him? If he's in so much pain that he's not sleeping –"
"Arthur, he's fine," Merlin soothed. "He was much better today."
"Oh," said Arthur, sounding sheepish. "I suppose that was an overreaction."
"Yes, it was," Merlin said gently. "I understand, though. I got a little panicked in the middle of the night, believe me." He paused, debating with himself, then ventured, "You're getting really attached to David, aren't you?"
"It's okay," Merlin interrupted. "I am, too. But this is just temporary. We have to try to remember that."
"Right, yeah," Arthur murmured. "Of course."
"I talked to my mum about it," Merlin said. He didn't tell Arthur he'd talked to his mum about a lot of things yesterday. He'd been hugely disappointed when Arthur had rung him from work to say he'd be gone all weekend on business. When he'd realised he was starting to imagine himself as someone with claims to Arthur's time instead of the temporary nanny, he'd rung his mum in a panic.
"And what did she tell you?"
That it sounded like I was falling arse over teakettle for you. "That the first one is always really hard. And that not everyone's cut out to be a foster carer."
"Well, I'm not going to become a foster carer," Arthur said gruffly.
"Yeah," Merlin said, swallowing. "You'd, erm, you'd make a good dad, though."
There was a weighty pause. "I don't think so," Arthur finally said tightly.
"I know you don't, but I do," Merlin said softly. "So does David."
"Well, his opinion is fine, but yours is a little dodgy," Arthur said, tone more relaxed, and Merlin chuckled.
"Good night, Arthur."
"Good night," Arthur murmured,
When Merlin was awakened in the middle of the night by David's fussing, he found the mobile still clutched in his fist.
Arthur returned home late Sunday afternoon to find the parlour in a state of controlled disarray. Gaius was pulling ornaments from dusty boxes, and Merlin had a Christmas tree half-assembled. Morgana was sitting with David, who was watching the proceedings with wide eyes.
"What's this, then?"
"This is an attempt at generating some Yuletide spirit," Morgana said primly. "In celebration of David's first Christmas."
Arthur frowned. "Is that a new tree?"
"It is," Merlin said, putting another section together. "Yours was black. With blood-red ornaments." He shuddered. "It looked like it belonged to a family of vampires."
Arthur rolled his eyes, but privately he agreed; the tree had been Uther's idea, or rather his interior designer's. The other Christmas decorations had a similar theme; Arthur had always found them ghastly.
"I bought a new one," Morgana said proudly. "And don't worry, I got it at Pendragon's."
Arthur sighed. "I don't think that'll make Dad like it any better."
"Oh, Uther will do his nut," Morgana agreed, grinning. "Especially when he sees what we found in the attic." She pointed at Gaius and the boxes.
Arthur turned slowly to Gaius, who squared his shoulders and walked over to him with one of the trays of ornaments in his hands. "These were your mother's, Arthur," he said quietly. "She was quite keen on Christmas." He smiled. "The sort without vampires, of course."
Arthur took a deep breath and looked down to see a set of iridescent glass birds with brightly-coloured tail feathers. They were so joyful he thought they might leap up and start singing to him. Before he knew what he was doing, he had reached up and was stroking over one of the feathers with a fingertip.
Clearing his throat around a sudden constriction, he nodded. "Yes, well, I'll just go up and get changed so I can give you a hand, shall I?" He turned and left as quickly as possible, but not before he caught Merlin watching him with a concerned look.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said, as they sat later on in front of the lit tree. Morgana and Gaius had headed off to bed, and David was upstairs sleeping. The baby monitor – another of Morgana's purchases today, since she'd been appalled when she found out he didn't have one – sat on the table, ready to alert them to any sound David might make.
"Sorry for what?" Arthur asked, looking over at Merlin. He was drinking a hot toddy, and Merlin could smell the yeasty scent of fine whiskey in the air.
Merlin waved a hand at the softly glowing tree, resplendent with its joyful array of Christmas ornaments and tinsel. "I only made a joking comment about the other tree, and suddenly Morgana was – making things happen. She said that I was right, it was terrible David should imprint on a black Christmas tree, he'd be in therapy when he was forty, which wasn't what I had said at all, but –"
To Merlin's surprise, Arthur chuckled. "Don't worry," he said, "I know exactly what Morgana's like. She's a bit of a juggernaut when she gets going." He paused. "It's more than that, though. It's as though you and David have been catalysts, setting us in motion, helping us to –" He trailed off, shaking his head. "Never mind. I'm tired and I don't know what the bloody hell I'm saying."
Merlin ignored his pounding heart and the voice in his head that was telling him to follow his own damned advice about not getting too involved. "Your dad won't like this tree, will he?" he asked softly.
"No, I don't imagine he will," Arthur said, taking another sip of his drink. "He never talks about her. The only reason I know anything about her is because of Gaius."
"He's the one who brought down the ornaments."
Arthur turned back to the tree and gazed at it. "Well, my father kept them all this time. That's saying something, I suppose."
"Yeah," Merlin agreed. In the soft light from the tree, Arthur's skin seemed burnished with gold. It was all Merlin could do to keep from reaching out a hand and touching his cheek.
Of course, Arthur chose that moment to turn toward him again, and he must have caught something of Merlin's thoughts in his expression, because a small crease appeared between his eyebrows as though he couldn't quite figure out what was going on. And then his eyebrows rose, and Merlin felt his cheeks heat.
"Well, I should probably –" Merlin began, shifting on the couch. Before he could stand, however, Arthur's free hand shot out to encircle his wrist.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked, as though his very name were a puzzle to be solved.
"Arthur, just – oh, bugger it," Merlin sighed, and leaned in to press his lips to Arthur's softly.
Arthur's mouth was frozen beneath his for a moment, and Merlin had just enough time to think, Fuck, this was a huge mistake before Arthur tilted his head and slid his hand up Merlin's arm to curl around his neck. Relief washing over him, Merlin groaned and deepened the kiss, tasting the sweetness of the toddy on Arthur's lips. One hand rose to cup Arthur's cheek and found his skin as warm as he'd imagined.
Merlin wasn't sure which one of them broke it off, or perhaps they both had the same impulse at the same moment. At any rate, the kissing stopped rather abruptly and Arthur pulled back, his eyes huge in his face. And Merlin realised with a start that this was the face of a man who was experiencing a mild form of panic.
"Yeah, so," Merlin murmured, "that probably wasn't such a good idea, was it?"
"Don't get me wrong. It was – erm, lovely," Arthur managed, "it's only that it would be –"
"Complicated," Merlin supplied.
Arthur nodded. "Exactly. And really, it's not as though we have anything –"
"– in common," Merlin finished for him. "I mean, apart from –"
"David," Arthur continued, "and as you said, that's temporary."
"Right," Merlin murmured. "I did say that, yeah."
"And you were right," Arthur said, more firmly. "It's best not to get too attached."
"Right," Merlin said again. "Good point. Caring for a baby – it mucks about with your emotions. We have to realise that we're – hormonal." Arthur stared at him, and Merlin flapped a hand. "Well, not exactly hormonal, but – it's –"
"No, I know what you mean," Arthur said gruffly, turning away to drain the last of his toddy.
"Okay, well," Merlin said, now completely mortified, "I should be getting to bed. David's going to be up in another couple of hours or so." He bounded to his feet as though the couch had suddenly caught fire.
"Yeah," Arthur said, glancing up at him before looking away again, "well, good night, then."
"Good night," Merlin managed, fleeing the room with his gut churning, knowing there was no bloody way he'd be sleeping much tonight.
When Uther returned from the continent the following Wednesday evening, he took one look at the tree, then headed upstairs without a word to either Morgana or Arthur.
"That went well," Morgana said brightly. Gwen had invited Merlin over for dinner, and Morgana had volunteered to take David for the evening. Arthur had thought about volunteering himself, then remembered he wasn't supposed to be getting attached. That didn't stop him, however, from sitting with Morgana as she fed David, burped him, changed him and played with him. The baby was now lying on the couch beside Morgana, feet reaching skyward while he stared transfixed at his sock-clad toes.
"You didn't seriously think he'd react any better, did you?" Arthur asked, looking up from his laptop, where he was making notes on the last of the sales reports. With only two days to Christmas, it was looking like it would be a merry one after all. Not a banner year, certainly, but not the disaster they'd all been fearing. After months of worrying, Arthur was finally beginning to feel the weight of it lifting from his shoulders. Instead of the relief and euphoria he would have expected, however, he felt out of sorts, strangely restless.
"No, I don't suppose I did," Morgana was saying, and Arthur snapped himself back to reality. "I guess I should feel badly, but I don't. From what my father always said of her, your mum was a marvelous woman; she doesn't deserve to have her memory erased as he's done."
"Perhaps if you had lost someone the way he has, you'd be more charitable." Arthur frowned at the harshness in his own tone, and Morgana blanched.
"I have thought of that, Arthur," Morgana said softly. "But not talking about her has never done either of you any good, has it?"
David chose that moment to squeal happily and wave his arms at Arthur. Arthur smiled, but it soon faded.
"What's the matter with you lately, anyway?" Morgana demanded. "Why aren't you spending time with David any longer?"
Arthur shook his head. "Leave it, Morgana," he said. At her intake of affronted breath, Arthur met her gaze openly. "Please."
"I – I have to call New York," Arthur lied, snapping his laptop shut. "I'll see you tomorrow." He fled up the stairs, horrified at the constriction in his throat, the tugging sensation in his chest that was telling him he needed to go back down to David now, the thought that he and Merlin had kissed for no more than a handful of seconds and he'd literally spent hours reliving it.
God help him, he wanted – so much that he didn't even know where to begin.
As he approached the half-open door to his father's study on the way to his room, he sent up a prayer that he would be able to pass unnoticed.
Closing his eyes briefly, Arthur set his laptop on the hall table and forced himself to walk into Uther's study. "Yes, Father?"
Uther was sitting with his tie gone and a snifter of whiskey in his hand. He motioned Arthur to a seat and offered him a drink, which Arthur politely declined.
The silence stretched between them, but Arthur was determined not to speak first; after all, Uther had summoned him. And while the tree hadn't been his idea, he was perfectly prepared to defend Morgana and Gaius if necessary.
When Uther did finally speak, however, the words were far from the ones Arthur was expecting.
"I haven't been a very good father to you, I'm afraid."
Arthur tried not to let the shock show on his face, but he knew he was probably failing. "I wouldn't – say that."
"I know you wouldn't, because you've always been a better son than I've deserved." Uther said roughly. "But that doesn't change the fact that I could have done better, and I should have. And I also know it doesn't make a bloody bit of difference to you now, but I'm sorry."
Arthur gaped at him. "I – you're wrong. It does make a difference."
Uther shook his head sadly. "I've seen you with that boy, and it's brought back so many memories, good and bad. There are so many things I might have done differently, and so many things I wouldn't change for the world."
Arthur was horrified to feel the tears spring unbidden to his eyes. "What about me?" he whispered.
Uther frowned, uncomprehending. "What do you –"
"I mean," Arthur said roughly, "am I one of the things you'd change? Do you wish I'd never been born?"
Uther looked as though Arthur had struck him. "God, Arthur, no. Never that, I promise you."
Arthur wiped at his eyes. "Alright," he murmured. "That's – erm, that's good." He rose from his chair. "I'm sorry, was that –"
Uther cleared his throat. "Yes, that was all I –"
Arthur nodded and turned away, heading for the door.
"Arthur, I – that boy."
Arthur didn't turn around. "Dad, please," he said, screwing his eyes shut. "I don't want to talk about David. Not right now."
"I was just going to say," Uther murmured, "that I couldn't be more proud of you. You're a wonderful father."
Opening his eyes, Arthur stared at the door in front of him. He knew he should protest, remind his father the baby wasn't his, tell him in no uncertain terms that Uther was not a grandfather.
But for one moment, he wanted it to be the truth. And this moment was as good as any other.
"Thanks," he said instead, half-turning and mustering a smile for his father before leaving the room.
"So I, erm," Merlin began, after taking a fortifying drink of the wine he'd brought, "I kissed Arthur the other night."
"You kissed Arthur," Gwen repeated, clearly gobsmacked.
"Yeah," Merlin muttered, taking another sip.
Gwen arched her eyebrows. "How was it?"
"Brilliant. Also a complete disaster."
"What was a complete disaster?" Lancelot asked, coming in from the kitchen with the bowl of salad.
"Merlin kissed Arthur," Gwen said as Lance set the bowl down and began ladling out servings.
"Cheers," Merlin said glumly.
"Come on, we're all mates here," Gwen chided, putting her arm around Lance as he sat beside her. "Lance has surely kissed a few people he shouldn't have in his time."
"Oh, hundreds," Lance said, grinning. Gwen's eyes widened and she tugged on his earlobe in playful retaliation.
"So you think I shouldn't have kissed him too?" Merlin asked.
Gwen sighed. "Merlin. What do you think you should have done?"
"I don't know," Merlin said, stabbing at his salad with his fork. "I mean, it's complicated, isn't it? We've gotten terribly attached to David in such a short time, and when I watch Arthur with the baby, I can't tell if I'm seeing him or – you know, who he is when David's around. And when David's gone –" Merlin swallowed, surprised at how hard it was to say that "– well, what will we be to one another then?"
"Oh, Merlin," Gwen said softly, "maybe you're overthinking this a little? I mean, Arthur isn't a different person when he's with David. He's still Arthur. So if you're attracted to him –"
"Then go for it," Lancelot interjected. "After all, faint heart never won fair...erm. Gentleman."
Gwen shot Lance a look that said you are completely gormless but I love you anyway. Merlin sucked in a breath at the realisation that he wanted nothing more than to have someone look at him like that.
Oh, bollocks, never mind someone.
"Yeah, well," he managed, "it isn't exactly that simple, yeah? The other person usually enters into it somewhere."
Gwen frowned. "He doesn't feel the same way about you?"
"I have no idea," Merlin said, around a bite of salad. "He was kind of – stunned. We both were, actually."
"Oh, Merlin, do you know what this means?" Gwen said sweetly, patting his arm. "It means you're perfect for one another."
"Ha ha," Merlin said, as Lance stifled a chuckle.
"Seriously, love," Gwen said, "Lance is right. You owe it to yourself to find out exactly what's going on with you and Arthur."
"I was afraid you were going to say that," Merlin sighed, hanging his head.
"And eat your salad, it's good for you," Gwen instructed.
"Yes, mum," Merlin said, smiling in spite of himself.
The next day was Christmas Eve, and Arthur dutifully drove in to the shop with Morgana and his father as he had for the past four years. The ride was uneventful for the most part, with the three of them discussing the results of Uther's meetings in Zurich. However, Arthur might have known that was too good to last.
"So, will Merlin be with us for Christmas dinner?" Morgana asked, as the driver navigated the last few blocks through morning traffic.
Arthur stiffened. He honestly hadn't considered it; he should have at least given Merlin leave to go home for the holiday. He'd have to call him straightaway –
"Arthur?" Morgana asked.
"I don't know," Arthur said gruffly. "I'll find out."
"Well, don't bother, because I did," Morgana said smartly. "Merlin told me he usually spends Christmas with his mum, so I gave him a couple of days off."
"Thanks for arranging that," Arthur said hollowly. He might have guessed Merlin wouldn't be spending Christmas with them, but the knowledge was still strangely disappointing.
"You're welcome, darling," she said sweetly. "And buck up; at least this will give you a chance to spend more time with David."
Arthur's response to that was a pointed glare, but she only smiled back.
The day didn't improve from there; by eleven, Arthur had given up the day as a bad job. He couldn't concentrate on work for more than a few moments at a time, his mind cooking up insane fantasy scenarios involving him and Merlin raising David, celebrating as he grew and thrived. When he pictured David taking his first steps in the back garden on an autumn day, he knew he couldn't stand being in the office another minute.
He wound up in Soho with no idea of how he'd gotten there; he suspected the Tube might have been involved, but he couldn't be sure. He wandered the streets, finally stumbling across the Oxfam shop. Inside, he picked up several fairly traded toys and articles of clothing for David, but had trouble selecting something appropriate for Merlin. He was standing in the middle of an aisle inspecting brightly-coloured scarves with a feeling of fatalistic desperation when a worker came up to him, a kind smile on her face.
"Can I help you find something?" she asked.
"I don't know," Arthur said, "I'm looking for something for a – a friend. He's –" Arthur trailed off at the prospect of summarising Merlin in a couple of sentences. "He's hard to buy for."
"Have you considered our Unwrapped gifts?" the worker asked.
Arthur shook his head. "No. Where can I find those?"
The woman's smile grew. "Well, they're not exactly on the shelves. Why don't you come over to the counter? I have a catalogue I can show you."
Some time later, another Tube ride brought Arthur to a second shop, this one a good deal more familiar than the last. Mrs. Haddad greeted him with a hug that he returned with equal warmth, and when she drew back, her smile was so fond he longed to bury himself in her arms again.
"You look tired, Arthur," she said, as they sat at a table near the back of the small shop. "You been working too hard lately."
"I – erm. It's not only that," he heard himself tell her. "I have – well, it's a complicated story, but I have a baby."
"You got married and didn't tell me?" Mrs. Haddad demanded, affronted.
"No, I didn't get married. There's – yeah, did I mention it was complicated?" Arthur said ruefully, rubbing at his neck. "But he's – his name is David, and he's –" Arthur smiled "– really marvelous."
Mrs. Haddad smiled back, patting his hand. "You'll bring him by to see me, yes?"
"I will," Arthur replied, "soon, I promise."
He finally returned to his own shop close to two, an hour before closing time. His secretary caught him on the way in.
"Arthur, you've had a call from a Ms. Brightwood. She asked you ring her back as soon as possible."
Arthur's heart took a dive for his shoes. "Thank you, Owain," he said, taking the message from him. Going into his office, he closed the door and sat at his desk for a good five minutes before finally picking up the phone.
"Mr. Pendragon, hello," Ms. Brightwood said. "And happy Christmas to you."
"Happy Christmas," Arthur answered, trying to keep his voice steady and probably failing.
"I'm glad to be able to give you some good news in time for the holiday. We've found a more permanent placement for the baby."
David, Arthur wanted to say. His name is David.
"That is good news," he said instead. "When – will they be ready for him?"
"Well, anytime, really," Ms. Brightwood said cheerfully. "However, I know it's terribly short notice, so I understand if you can't manage it tonight. Shall we say the Monday after Christmas? I can arrange to meet with you at my office around eleven, and we can arrange for the transfer then. Mr. Emrys will have to be there, of course, since he's the official carer, but where he's in your employ I decided to ring you first."
"There's no need to ring Merlin," Arthur said, as evenly as he could. "I'll speak to him tonight."
"Thank you," Ms. Brightwood said. "I do have several calls to make before I can finish for the day, and that would be a time-saver."
"Glad to do it."
"Well, we'll see you after the holiday, then. Take care, and all the best to you and yours."
"You, too," Arthur said.
He was quite pleased with himself, really; he only started shaking after he'd hung up the phone.
Merlin sat back, bemused, watching Arthur as he washed David before bedtime. Arthur's shirt was plastered to his skin from the baby's splashing, his face was rosy from exertion, and he seemed happier than he'd been all week.
However, considering he'd seemed extremely unhappy all week, Merlin took the relative improvement with a grain of salt. Besides, he couldn't help noticing that whenever Arthur laughed or smiled at David, the emotion didn't quite reach his eyes.
Since coming home early that afternoon, Arthur had insisted on taking the lead role with David, although he'd sought Merlin's advice to be sure he was doing everything correctly. "I'm going to have to do this on my own for a couple of days," Arthur informed him. "I need to practice."
Which was bollocks, really; with Morgana's and Gaius' help, Arthur could easily manage to care for David without a practice run, and they both knew it. No, something had happened today, but unfortunately Merlin didn't have the first clue of how to get Arthur to talk about it. They still knew so little about one another, and Merlin wasn't at all certain they ever would, as much as he might want them to. And so instead, he let Arthur do what he needed to do, only providing direction when he was asked for it.
"Alright, little man, let's get you dry," Arthur informed David, lifting him from the tub. The baby wriggled in Arthur's grasp, but Arthur held him fast, with a confidence Merlin was surprised to see in him. As he watched, Arthur lowered David gently to the towel spread across the mat and patted him with the free ends him to dry him.
After putting some talc and a nappy on him, Arthur wrestled David into his babygrow and placed him in Merlin's arms, then ran to his room to change into something drier. When he returned, he took David downstairs with much fanfare, singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town as though he were leading a Christmas parade of three.
"Did anyone ever tell you you're a bit mad?" Merlin said, unable to keep the fondness from his voice.
"Never," Arthur answered, bringing David into the parlour. "I am a highly respected business executive, you know."
Merlin stifled a laugh. "Five minutes ago your shirt was drenched and you were covered in second-hand milk."
"And your point is?"
Merlin shook his head, still smiling. "I have no point. What are we doing here?"
"Well, I can't exactly give out presents without an appropriate backdrop, can I?" Arthur demanded.
Merlin frowned. "You bought presents for David? Don't you think that's –"
"Yes, I know, getting too attached," Arthur said airily, lifting David over his head, then letting him back down and touching their foreheads together. "But it's your first Christmas, isn't it? We have to make it special."
"Arthur," Merlin murmured, "he won't remember his first Christmas. But you will."
"Yeah, well," Arthur said gruffly, so quietly Merlin could barely hear him, "this feels like my first Christmas too." Handing David back to Merlin, Arthur went to the tree. He came back bearing two boxes, one large and square, the other flatter and rectangular, and handed the second to Merlin, who stared at it stupidly.
Arthur lifted his chin, met Merlin's gaze directly, and suddenly there was no air left in the room. "Yeah," he said, almost belligerently. "I know you don't believe in Christmas, but –"
Merlin swallowed. "No, I – that is, my mum and I and Gwen still exchange – so yeah, okay, I might have gotten you and David something as well," he huffed. "I left them under the tree so you'd find them tomorrow, and I, look, they're not gifts in the traditional sense, I don't do that, but –" he trailed off when he realised he was babbling, and Arthur was looking at him strangely.
"Why don't we open yours first?" Merlin said, smiling to cover his embarrassment. Picking up the bigger box, he untied the ribbon. "David, what's this, hm? Arthur got you a Christmas present!"
David watched, entranced, as Merlin lifted the lid to reveal a selection of soft toys, jungle animals made from brightly-coloured cloth. "Oh, David, look!" he exclaimed, pulling them out one by one and parading them across David's outstretched legs. "This is a giraffe, and a lion, and a tiger, and an elephant! These are wonderful!" David screeched ecstatically and batted at them as Merlin held him upright in his lap. Merlin thought the toys looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite place them.
And then he saw the envelope at the bottom of the box. "What's this?" he murmured, pulling it out and opening it. The card inside was very familiar, and Merlin's heart leapt. "A donation has been made in your name to Oxfam," he read. "A library will be established, with books and training for –" Merlin looked up at Arthur, gobsmacked. "You got him a library?"
"Erm," Arthur said, turning a little pink, "ten libraries, actually. I told them not to bother with the other nine cards."
Merlin stared at him. Still blushing, Arthur picked up the elephant and wriggled it in front of David, who giggled.
Merlin fiddled with the ribbon on his box one-handed, but it refused to come loose as easily as the one on David's, so Arthur took the baby from him, hoisting him into his own lap. "Thanks," Merlin murmured, finally working the knot free.
Inside was a dark red scarf woven through with navy blue threads, and another envelope. Merlin's fingers fumbled with the flap. He read the text silently, swallowing before he could trust his voice. "Care for a vulnerable child," he murmured. Glancing at Arthur, he asked, "How many?"
Arthur mumbled something incomprehensible.
"What was that?"
"A hundred," Arthur muttered, eyes downcast and cheeks flushed. He shrugged. "It's not as though I can't afford it."
"I know," Merlin said softly. On impulse, he reached out and squeezed Arthur's free hand, the one that wasn't holding David. "Arthur, you're –" Giving up, he let his hand rise to cup Arthur's cheek. Arthur closed his eyes and leaned into it, and a thrill went through Merlin that had nothing to do with the gifts.
"I, erm," Merlin said, sliding his hand away before he gave into the impulse to do more, "it's your turn now." He stood and went to the tree to dig in the back where he'd left the gifts he'd bought yesterday. He returned with two envelopes, one of which he handed to Arthur. Arthur turned the envelope over, frowning.
"Looks familiar, doesn't it?" Merlin said, biting his lip to keep from smiling.
Arthur opened the envelope and drew out the card. "A donation has been made in your name to Oxfam," he read. "Your gift will help to train a businesswoman..." He trailed off, reading the rest silently, then looked up at Merlin. "How did you –"
"These are the kinds of Christmas gifts I give every year," Merlin said.
Arthur looked at the card again. "This is – it's very thoughtful. What's David's?"
"Training for a midwife. It seemed to fit." He cocked his head. "But what made you pick Oxfam, of all places?"
Arthur shook his head. "I was – out today, and I saw the shop and thought it seemed like the sort of place you'd go."
Merlin chuckled. "Well, turns out you were right."
"Yeah," Arthur murmured, smiling. "I know."
Merlin nodded at David. "Look who's conked out for the night." The baby was lying back against Arthur's chest, eyes closed and tiny chest rising and falling. They both looked up at the same time; no doubt the gormless smile on Arthur's face was mirrored on Merlin's.
"Too much excitement, I suppose," Arthur whispered.
"Elephants are pretty exciting," Merlin whispered back, nodding.
"Happy Christmas, Merlin."
"Happy Christmas, Arthur. And I don't say that to just anyone."
"I know that, too," Arthur said.
As they continued to gaze at one another, their smiles slowly fading, Merlin felt something inside him shift irrevocably. Arthur searched his face as though looking for the answer to an unspoken question, and Merlin stopped hiding, opened himself to the scrutiny. He could see the exact moment Arthur found what he was looking for, and his heart began pounding so quickly he thought it might fly right out of his chest.
Carefully, Arthur shifted David into his arms and rose, and Merlin stood and followed him. David stayed fast asleep the whole trip, not even waking when Arthur laid him in his crib. They stared down at the baby for a few moments, and then turned to one another blindly. Merlin's hands threaded in Arthur's hair and Arthur's slid round Merlin's waist, and their kiss this time was mutual from the beginning, easy and unhurried, as though they'd been doing this for years.
"This isn't just hormones, is it?" Arthur murmured, as his lips trailed over Merlin's cheek to his ear.
"No," Merlin breathed. "Or if it is, I don't care any longer."
"Merlin," Arthur whispered, tightening his hold.
"Let's go to yours, yeah?" Merlin said, breaking away from Arthur to check on David one last time, turn on the baby monitor and snatch the receiver from the dresser.
One short, graceless stumble down the hall and they were alone. Merlin pressed Arthur against the closed door, kissing him hard, and Arthur hauled Merlin flush against him, nearly tugging him off-balance. Groaning, Merlin let his free hand roam everywhere he could reach while Arthur's hands moulded over the curves of his arse.
"I have to –" Merlin waved the baby monitor and pulled away to set it on the nearest flat surface. By the time he turned back, Arthur was already there, catching him round the waist again and leading him over to the big bed in the middle of the room.
They tumbled onto the mattress together, hands fumbling ineffectually at clothing until Merlin growled and rolled them both so that Arthur was on his back. "Hang on," Merlin husked, straddling him. "We're not going to get anywhere that way." Gripping the hem of his jumper, Merlin hauled off both it and the t-shirt underneath in one swift move.
Arthur stared up at him for a moment, then ran his hands up Merlin's bare torso. Merlin bit his lip as Arthur's fingertips brushed his nipples. "Fuck," he hissed.
Arthur flicked one of the nubs with a fingernail, and Merlin cried out, wincing. "Sorry, sorry," Arthur said, drawing back immediately. "Did that –"
Merlin shook his head. "No, s'okay, they're just a bit sensitive," he murmured. "Doesn't take much."
"I didn't realise, I'm sorry," Arthur said again, looking stricken.
"Hey," Merlin said, leaning down to kiss him softly. "What's going on?" When he pulled back, he saw that Arthur's cheeks were flushed.
"I, erm," Arthur said, clearing his throat. "It's been – a revoltingly long time since I've been with anyone. And – I've never done this with a bloke before."
"When you say 'this,'" Merlin ventured, "you mean sex."
Arthur stared up at him; it wasn't quite a glare, but it was close.
"I mean," Merlin began again, "what exactly have you done with blokes before?"
Arthur averted his eyes and his cheeks grew even redder. Merlin hadn't known that was possible.
"Wow, really?" Merlin squeaked. "Erm, that is, I'm – flattered."
"I've thought about it," Arthur said defensively, practically squirming beneath him. "I just – never got round to it." He wriggled a bit more, and Merlin realised Arthur was actually trying to extricate himself. "Look, maybe we shouldn't –"
"Arthur, no, wait," Merlin said, taking Arthur's face in his hands to force him to look at him, "please. Look, if you don't want to do this, that's fine, but if you're just backing out because you don't like to admit you're not brilliant at everything –"
Arthur barked a mirthless laugh. "You noticed that about me, did you?"
"I've been noticing a lot of things about you," Merlin murmured, and Arthur's expression changed, turning from closed off to warily curious. "I've noticed that though at first you can come across like a bit of a prat, you're harder on yourself than anyone. I've noticed that when you try something outside your area of expertise, though –"
"– I bugger it up?" Arthur finished.
"You get scared you'll bugger it up," Merlin corrected gently. "And I understand that – none of us wants to get hurt, or to fall flat on our arses. But if you never try anything new, you might risk missing out on something really special."
Arthur regarded him for a long moment, his body utterly still beneath Merlin's, and then he tentatively reached up and took one of Merlin's hands in his. "I'm glad I didn't miss out on David," he murmured, turning his head to kiss Merlin's open palm, "and God, I don't want to miss out on this. On you." He took a deep breath, let it out. "But I don't have the first idea of what to do here."
Carefully, Merlin moved off him and lay down beside him, stretching out on his side. Arthur followed his lead, rolling to face him and splaying a hand across his chest. Merlin took it in his and began lightly stroking the pulse point in his wrist. "It's not all that different to what you're used to," he murmured, leaning in to kiss him softly. "This is familiar, isn't it?"
"I suppose," Arthur allowed, brushing his mouth against Merlin's. Merlin nipped at Arthur's lower lip and traced his tongue over the place he'd bitten, soothing it. Arthur sighed and parted his lips, letting Merlin's tongue dip inside for a taste, and Merlin took his time, delving deeper in slow increments.
With a growl of what sounded like frustration, Arthur rolled Merlin onto his back, and soon they were panting, tangled up in one another, kisses hot and openmouthed. Arthur's hand skimmed Merlin's ribs, making him shiver and arch toward the touch like a plant seeking the sun. Merlin's own hands slid down Arthur's spine, finally coming to rest at the top of his arse. He could feel the hard shape of Arthur's cock against his thigh through their trousers and gripped Arthur's hips, encouraging him to move.
"God," Arthur gusted, burying his face in Merlin's neck and swiveling his hips before rising up to slip a hand between their bodies and trace the outline of Merlin's erection. Even dulled by the intervening layers of cloth, Merlin felt the tentative touch all the way down to his toes, and threw his head back, groaning. Arthur took that as an invitation to suck on his Adam's apple and scrape his teeth down the line of Merlin's jugular.
"Just so you know," Merlin managed, gasping for breath, "I don't think I'd have noticed you'd never done this if you hadn't told me."
"Bugger," Arthur said, chuckling. "Should have kept my mouth shut." He moved sinuously against Merlin a few more times, then heaved off him so that he could discard his shirt and trousers. Merlin swiftly shimmied out of his own jeans and pants, tugging off his socks as though they were on fire. By the time he was completely naked, Arthur was standing beside the bed, bending at the waist to push his boxers down. As he straightened, Merlin took in everything he could, from the soft, endearingly shy look in Arthur's eyes to the span of his chest to the twin knobs of his round, furry knees. Arthur's cock was as beautiful as the rest of him, thick and blood-dark, and Merlin swung his legs over the bed and encouraged Arthur to step between them.
When Merlin leaned in to take the tip in his mouth, Arthur whispered a curse and curved a gentle hand over the back of Merlin's skull. Merlin glanced up to see Arthur staring down at him with such naked longing that he had to grip his own cock for a moment to regain some measure of control. Closing his eyes, he bent to his task, immersing himself in the taste and the smell of Arthur, the heavy, welcome weight of him on his tongue. As he began to suck, Arthur's fingers curled in his hair and Merlin heard him whispering his name over and over.
Merlin pulled off as he felt Arthur approaching his release, and Arthur stared down at him dazedly for a moment, obviously a bit stupid from the pleasure. Taking Arthur's hands, Merlin tugged him forward, and after a moment of stunned inaction Arthur obeyed, kneeing his way onto the bed and straddling him with one hand on either side of Merlin's head as Merlin eased back against the pillows.
Merlin hissed as Arthur leaned forward and their cocks brushed together. "Now, what can I do for you?" Arthur whispered in his ear, reaching down to wrap his hand around Merlin and give him an experimental stroke.
"That's – oh, fuck – perfectly fine," Merlin managed, canting his hips to spur Arthur on. Arthur's grip was hot and tight and perfect, and Merlin couldn't get enough. "Just – just – keep that up – oh, oh, a bit longer –"
And then, to Merlin's immense disappointment, Arthur took his hand away. "I was enjoying that!" Merlin protested, but Arthur was already turned away and fumbling in a drawer. When he turned back with a tube in his hand, Merlin's mouth snapped shut.
"I – erm. Use it on myself sometimes," Arthur murmured, glancing at Merlin.
"You –" Merlin gasped, suddenly awash in mental images. Arthur had to mean that he used it for wanking; he couldn't possibly mean –
And then Arthur snapped the cap on the tube, squeezed a bit on his fingers and reached behind himself, and Merlin suddenly lost every one of his higher brain functions.
"Oh my God," Merlin breathed. If someone had told him this morning that Arthur would be sitting astride Merlin's thighs and working a finger inside himself that night, he would have questioned their sanity. The knowledge that this was a reality, that Arthur was actually right there and opening himself up, full lip caught between his teeth, skin flushed from cock to cheekbones, was almost too much to bear.
"Thought you – didn't believe," Arthur grunted, hips flexing. Just for that, Merlin tried to wrap a hand around Arthur's cock, but Arthur shook his head and twisted away.
"Don't. I won't last."
"Arthur," Merlin said, hands on Arthur's hips as he began to move, fucking himself on his fingers, "Arthur, what do you want to –"
"Not sure yet," Arthur said, shutting his eyes. "Anyway, even if I wanted – that, we couldn't. I don't think I have any condoms that were made after the Elizabethan era."
"Erm," Merlin managed, "I might have one in my jeans pocket."
Arthur's eyes flew open and he stilled and stared down at Merlin. "Really," he drawled.
This time it was Merlin's turn to blush. "It wasn't my idea. Gwen gave it to me last night." As Arthur's eyes widened further, Merlin hastened to add, "She was being – well, everyone thinks Gwen is all sweet and lovely, and most of the time she is, but there are times when she likes to take the piss, and I'm usually the one –"
Arthur laid the fingers of his free hand across Merlin's lips. "Merlin?"
"Be quiet for a moment, okay?"
Arthur watched him for a few seconds, took a deep breath, then nodded as though he'd come to a decision. He swung his leg over, then hopped off the bed and reached down for something on the floor.
Merlin caught his jeans as Arthur tossed them to him, then stared up at him. "You – you really want –"
"If you do, yeah," Arthur said. "I'd like to try."
"Under one condition," Merlin said. Arthur raised an eyebrow as he kneed his way back onto the bed. "If it isn't working for you, for any reason, you tell me to stop."
Arthur crossed his arms. "Isn't that something I'm supposed to ask for?"
"The problem is, you won't," Merlin answered. Arthur stared at him, startled. I know you, Merlin thought, holding his gaze.
Arthur lifted his chin a fraction. "Alright," he said, unfolding his arms. "I promise."
Merlin tugged the condom from his pocket and threw the jeans on the floor again. Arthur was already moving to lie on his belly, but Merlin stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Actually, can you get on your knees?" he murmured.
Arthur shot him a questioning glance over his shoulder, but did as he was asked. "Yeah, that's it," Merlin said, directing him with gentle touches and words. "No, stay upright, yeah? And a little closer to the headboard – good."
"Is this part of some elaborate ritual?" Arthur asked, some of the nervousness he must have been feeling evident in his voice as Merlin positioned himself behind him and slicked up his fingers with lube.
"Not exactly," Merlin answered, kissing Arthur's shoulder and sliding a hand across his chest to steady him. "Just want you to be in control as much as possible."
Arthur gripped Merlin's arm. "God, Merlin, I –" The rest of his words stretched into a long moan as Merlin pressed a finger into Arthur's body.
Merlin rested his forehead against Arthur's back, absorbing the shudder that ran through him. Christ, Arthur was hot and tight and Merlin wanted to be in him now. "Okay?"
"Yeah," Arthur panted, rocking his hips minutely, "more."
Merlin obliged him with a second finger, and Arthur stiffened, then let his head fall forward. "God, that's – I want – please –"
"Yeah," Merlin said, understanding, pulling out and returning with three fingers. Arthur whimpered and reached back to clutch at Merlin's hip, trying to pull him forward.
Merlin kissed the top of Arthur's spine where it curved into his bowed neck. "Not yet," he whispered. "Let me get you ready, yeah?"
"I'm ready now," Arthur growled, rocking back onto Merlin's thighs, arse brushing Merlin's cock.
"Just a little longer," Merlin insisted, twisting his fingers and pushing them in deeply.
Arthur jerked and grabbed at his cock. "Oh God, please –" he panted, rolling his head back onto Merlin's shoulder and shuddering with unashamed want.
"Okay, yeah, just let me –" Merlin eased his fingers free, then fumbled with the condom. Arthur twisted his head to nuzzle at his neck, his ear, his cheek, and okay, that was making it really difficult to manage anything requiring hand-eye coordination.
"Tell me to stop and I will," Merlin ordered.
Arthur nodded a little frantically. He straightened and leaned forward, allowing Merlin to see to line himself up, and then Merlin began pressing in.
"Oh," Arthur said.
"Too much? Is it hurting?"
"Of course – it's hurting," Arthur gusted. "That doesn't mean I want you to stop." He leaned further, bracing his hands on the headboard, and began pushing back. Merlin looked down to watch his cock disappearing as Arthur took him in.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed, when Arthur's arse was flush against him. This time he was the one trembling. His hands gripped Arthur's hips, then slid down to curl under his thighs.
Arthur's muscles grew taut against Merlin's palms, lifting Arthur until he was almost free. Then, fingernails scraping against the wooden headboard, Arthur impaled himself again with agonizing slowness. Merlin wondered briefly if it were possible to die of sex.
"Are you going – to make me –" panted Arthur, lifting himself again and nearly slamming himself back down this time, "– do all the bloody work?"
Merlin's response to Arthur's petulant question was to meet him with a powerful upward thrust on Arthur's next downstroke. Arthur gasped and threw his head back, and from there it was nothing but heat and motion and sharp jolts of near-unbearable pleasure. Merlin's fingers sought purchase on Arthur's damp skin, skidding over ribs and hipbones as he watched the muscles in Arthur's arms and back flex, the dim light playing over the constantly changing contours of his skin.
Arthur's thrusts were becoming more erratic and more desperate as he strained to reach orgasm, and when Merlin felt himself close to the edge, he urged Arthur to sit up, pressing them back to chest and driving Merlin even deeper. Merlin bit Arthur's earlobe and finally closed a hand around Arthur's cock, stripping him roughly as Arthur shuddered and shook, legs spread wide across Merlin's thighs.
"Oh, Christ," Arthur whimpered, clenching down on Merlin's cock as the first pulses of his orgasm spilled over Merlin's hand. Merlin muffled his cry against Arthur's skin, tasting salt on his tongue as his hips stuttered.
Merlin held him there, one arm across Arthur's chest and the other gentling his softening cock, until Arthur moved away and Merlin slipped free. Padding to the bathroom, Merlin disposed of the condom and returned with a damp cloth, wiping Arthur down before joining him in the bed.
"So," Merlin said, after Arthur had shut off the light. "Erm, are you –"
"Mmmgood," Arthur said, already sounding half-asleep. He tugged Merlin closer, arranging him like a blanket draped half across Arthur's chest. Sighing, Merlin found a comfortable spot and closed his eyes.
Arthur awoke sometime after nine on Christmas morning when David's soft cry came through the baby monitor. He felt Merlin stir beside him, moving to get up, and reached out a hand to still him. "I'll get him," he murmured, and Merlin rolled to look at him, holding his gaze. Unable to stop himself, Arthur let his fingers trail over Merlin's morning-rough cheek.
"Alright?" he murmured.
"Yeah," Merlin answered, smiling up at him. "What about you?"
"Bloody fantastic, actually," Arthur said, startling a laugh out of Merlin.
"Go on and get him, then," Merlin said, slapping Arthur's arse when Arthur turned to get out of bed.
Merlin's undistilled happiness made Arthur even more certain he'd made the right decision, though there had been moments last night when he'd felt a pang of guilt at keeping the truth from him. But in his defense, there truly hadn't been a right time when they were exchanging gifts, and then afterward Arthur had been rather preoccupied, and – well. Arthur's Christmas was going to be difficult enough knowing he was going to have to say goodbye to David on Monday; there was no point in ruining Merlin's, too. When Merlin came back on Sunday, Arthur would simply tell him Fostering Network had rung while he was away; it wasn't as though it made any difference one way or the other.
He was trying not to dwell on the thought of giving David up after Christmas. His only consolation was his certainty – after lying awake half the night thinking about it – that it was the only reasonable option. The last three weeks had been wonderful, and Arthur wouldn't have changed a thing, but to think that he might have gone on living in this domestic fantasy world was ridiculous. He couldn't simply keep a baby because he fancied playing house with Merlin, or because he woke up every morning wondering what David would learn to do today. He'd had a perfectly good life before this, and he would again.
As for him and Merlin – well. Certainly Arthur wanted to go on seeing him. He was – well, alright, he was somewhat besotted with Merlin, but perhaps it would be best to cool things off a little for a while, ease down from the emotional intensity of the last few weeks. In the cold light of morning, it struck Arthur that perhaps they'd leapt into this too hastily, and maybe –
Arthur stopped dead at the sight of David in his crib. "Oh, my God," he breathed.
David was making huffing, annoyed noises, one step below a full-blown wail. He was trying to move his arms and legs, but they were partly tangled up in the blanket; it would have been comical if he hadn't been on the thin edge of a tantrum.
Of course, there was a reason for his predicament; when Arthur had last put him down in the middle of the night, David had been on his back, and was now lying on his tummy. "David!" Arthur exclaimed, untangling him from the blankets and lifting him into his arms, "You rolled over! I'm so proud of you." His own grin converted David's cranky scowl to a tentative smile; Arthur raised him over his head, then lowered him to press their foreheads together. "Wait until Merlin hears about this, my lad. He'll tickle you until you wet yourself." Pausing, Arthur shifted David onto a hip and checked his nappy. "Hm. Apparently you already took care of that, didn't you? Well, we'll soon put you to rights."
After a quick nappy change, in which Arthur was pleased to note he hadn't thought of asking Merlin for help once, he dressed a much more contented David in a fresh babygrow and headed down the hall with him.
"Merlin, you'll never guess what David –" He trailed off abruptly as he noticed that Merlin was talking into his mobile, head down and expression unreadable. At some point he'd put on his jeans, but his chest was still bare. Arthur stared at the tense curve of his bowed shoulders and knew that something was very, very wrong.
"Yes," Merlin murmured into the phone, "thank you. Happy Christmas to you, too."
As Merlin ended the call and raised his gaze to Arthur's, something sharp and terrifying in his expression punched a neat but deadly hole in Arthur's chest.
"That was Ms. Brightwood," Merlin said. "She forgot to tell you yesterday that if you still have your receipts for the baby equipment you bought, you can bring them in Monday to receive partial reimbursement."
"Merlin, listen," Arthur began.
"When were you going to tell me?" Merlin asked, voice worryingly calm. "When you picked me up from the station on Sunday? Or were you going to wait until we were on our way to the hospital to give him up?"
"She called me at the office yesterday afternoon," Arthur admitted. "I just wanted us – the three of us – to have a nice Christmas, and I didn't want to ruin yours. I thought –"
"You thought wrong," Merlin shot back. "You should have told me, full stop. There are no extenuating circumstances."
"And if I had?" Arthur countered. "What then? It wouldn't have changed anything."
Merlin gazed at him for a long moment, searching his face, and for the first time, Arthur could see Merlin was disappointed with what he found there.
"No, I suppose it wouldn't have," Merlin said, rising to his feet and picking his shirt up off the floor.
"Please," Arthur began, suddenly realising Merlin was leaving. "Can't we just –"
"What was – this?" Merlin demanded, waving his hand at the bed. "Some kind of reward for a job well done?"
"No, of course not. You're – listen, I know you're upset about saying goodbye to David; I am, too. But I've given it a lot of thought, and it's for the best. You know it is."
Merlin barked a bitter laugh. "Oh, Arthur," he said hollowly, "I thought we established a long time ago that your management style doesn't work on me."
Arthur opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
Merlin tugged the shirt over his head and rolled up the sleeves, then ran a hand through his messy hair. "Look, I know I'm being unreasonable, alright? I'm angry, but I'm angrier with myself than with you. I was starting to think we were in this together, on some sort of equal footing. But that wasn't real, was it? You'll always be the prat in the top floor office, and I'll always be the idiot in the silly hat."
Arthur took a step back as though Merlin had struck him. He could feel what little control he'd had over the situation slipping through his fingers, and hurt and desperation was turning swiftly to frustration and anger. "I've never thought of you that way, not since that first morning. But if you still think that's all I am –"
"I don't," Merlin said quietly, his expression softening to something more familiar. "Of course I don't, Arthur. But it doesn't matter what I think; deep down, you still believe that's all you are. And one day you'll forget you once were –" Merlin stopped abruptly, took a deep breath, and began again "– so much more." He shook his head. "And I can't bear to watch that happen. I'm sorry."
"Merlin –" Arthur began.
"Yes?" Merlin murmured.
Arthur held his gaze for a long moment, then shook his head, defeated.
"Can I, erm," Merlin said, gesturing at David, "one more time?"
Arthur handed over the baby without a word, and David stared up at Merlin gravely, as though sensing something was wrong.
"I'll miss you, little man," Merlin whispered, smiling down at him, his eyes brimming. "You're beautiful and strong and smart; please remember that." He gathered David close, and Arthur had to look away, his throat closing around something huge and frightening. When he turned back round, Merlin had laid David down on the bed.
Arthur stood silently, helpless to stop Merlin or even to reply as he left the room. After he'd gone, David made an affronted noise at being neglected, and Arthur sat heavily on the bed beside him, splaying a hand over his small tummy to reassure him.
"I'm sorry," Arthur murmured. "I'm sorry, love."
"Rise and shine, sleepyhead."
Merlin groaned and rolled over, shutting his eyes against the shaft of morning light that was trying to drive a spike through his left eye. "Mmmm, wh'time s'it?" he mumbled.
He felt the bed dip and a hand stroke gently through his hair. "Almost ten," his mother replied.
Merlin opened his eyes and sat up abruptly. "Oh, bugger, I was supposed to take you out to breakfast, I'm sorry –"
Hunith squeezed his shoulder. "There's still plenty of time," she told him.
Merlin scrubbed at his face with his hands. "I don't know why I overslept –"
"Perhaps because you've been caring for a baby for the past three weeks?" his mother reminded him gently.
"Oh, yeah," Merlin said hollowly, grateful his face was still covered. "I suppose that could be it." Schooling his features to something approximating blandness, he lifted his head to see Hunith watching him closely.
"What's wrong?" he murmured.
His mother raised her eyebrows at him. "You took the words right out of my mouth. Do you want to talk about it now, or over breakfast?"
Merlin stared at her. "How did you know?" He shook his head. "Yeah, right, you always know. Look, I, erm – alright, I quit my job. Or rather, my job was ending, and I decided to quit before I could be let go. So technically I quit, but –"
His mother cupped his face in her hand. "You knew this job was temporary. There's more to it than that. Try again."
Merlin closed his eyes, all the fight leaving him. "I did what you told me not to. I got too attached."
"To David? Or Arthur?"
"Both," Merlin admitted. "The whole thing. I was playing house, and I knew it, but somewhere along the way it became real." He clenched his jaw against the hollow feeling in his gut. "At least it was real to me."
"But not to Arthur?"
Merlin swallowed. "He lied to me," he murmured. "I thought – well, I don't know what I thought. I suppose none of it ever had a hope of being real."
"Oh, sweetheart, I'm sorry. But why didn't you tell me this yesterday?"
Merlin opened his mouth, then closed it. "Dunno. I suppose I didn't want to ruin your Christmas," he said, Arthur's words echoing inside his head, mocking him.
His mother pulled him into a hug. "My Christmas could never be ruined as long as you're with me," she told him, squeezing him tightly before releasing him. "Now come along, you promised me a Boxing Day breakfast out and I'm holding you to it."
Merlin smiled. "Thanks. You're a pretty good mum, you know. Did anyone ever tell you that?"
His mother brushed his cheek. "I believe someone may have mentioned it once or twice, yes."
Penelope Brightwood was not having a good day. In fact, it was already a godawful day, and it wasn't even lunchtime yet. But then, considering her Boxing Day had been taken up by two emergency placements and the accompanying Matterhorn of paperwork, she acknowledged she hadn't arrived at work this morning in the best frame of mind, and had tried to make an extra effort to be civil to everyone she dealt with in order to compensate. That was why she quickly counted backwards from ten and took a deep breath before responding to the extraordinary statement just spoken by one Arthur bloody Pendragon.
"I'm sorry, could you repeat that, please?"
"I said that David is mine. He's been mine all along."
Penelope glanced at the baby, still asleep in the car seat Pendragon had brought with him. He was rosy-cheeked and clearly a great deal healthier than he'd been a few short weeks ago. Sighing, she rested her elbows on her desk, closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose between forefinger and thumb. "Don't mind me, just getting a bit of a headache," she murmured. "Now, when you say he's yours, you're speaking biologically."
"Yes, of course."
Penelope opened her eyes. "And yet you brought the baby in to the hospital and surrendered him to foster care."
Pendragon lifted his chin. "I took him to the hospital because he had just been dropped in my lap; I had to be sure he was healthy. And then the hospital called you, and everything happened so quickly, I –"
"And where is his mother, Mr. Pendragon?"
Pendragon's jaw twitched. "I don't know. She left the baby in the store with a note saying he was mine."
"Do you have this note?"
He shook his head. "I – got scared, so I burned it. She gave custody to me, though. Said she didn't want a baby, that it was too much responsibility."
Penelope paused; the story about the note was plausible, at least. "What's her name?"
Pendragon's gaze slid away to the baby. "I'd rather not tell you. She asked that I not reveal her name. It would be – embarrassing for her family. They're rather – erm, traditional."
Penelope eyed the man sitting across from her sharply. "So you had a relationship with her, then."
"A short one. A week or two, no more, over a year ago. We hardly knew one another, really. I haven't seen her since."
Penelope pursed her lips as her head throbbed unpleasantly. "I don't mean to be crass, but what makes you certain you're the father?"
"I had tests done. Independently," he added hastily. "At a private clinic abroad."
"I see." Penelope was now fairly certain he was lying; it was a combination of his tone, the slight flush in his cheeks, and his defensive body language. She told herself she should call him on it, demand copies of the doubtless nonexistent test results, but something stopped the words in her throat. Perhaps it was the odd look in his eyes that he couldn't quite hide; if she'd had to put a name to it, it would have been desperation.
"Mr. Pendragon," she said slowly, "this baby –"
"David," Pendragon said quietly, "his name is David."
Penelope stared at him, searching his face. "Arthur," she said, just as quietly, "why do you want to keep David?"
Pendragon opened his mouth, closed it again. He gazed down at the baby – David – where he lay, and for a moment Penelope saw such a look of pure love on his face that she forgot how to breathe. "Because," he murmured, "because he's my son. Because even though I've only known him a short time, he's come to mean more to me than anything. And because I think he'll be happy with me." He looked up at her then, and yes, that was definitely desperation. "I'll be a good father to him, Ms. Brightwood. I know I will. Tell me what I need to sign to make him mine. Please, I'll – I'll do whatever you like."
Penelope sat back in her chair. She thought about the overstuffed cabinet behind her, filled with the stories of child after child for whom a happy ending was yet to be written, and might never be written. She thought about how little biology sometimes had to do with making a good parent, and how much she wanted to write a happy ending for one child.
Just then, David stirred and opened his eyes. Pendragon immediately turned toward him, and the small frown that had been forming on the baby's face cleared at the sight of him. Squealing, he reached out for Arthur, who unbuckled him from the seat and hoisted him into his arms.
"Well, hello there," Arthur murmured, giving David his finger to clutch in his tiny fist. "How are you this fine morning?"
The baby burbled happily in response, as though carrying on a conversation.
"Really? That's fascinating," Arthur said. "I didn't know that. Thank you for telling me."
"Mr. Pendragon," Penelope said.
Arthur's head jerked up and he blinked at her as though he'd completely forgotten she was there. "Yes, sorry," he said.
Penelope took a deep breath, let it out; to her surprise, her headache seemed to be clearing up. "Please don't apologise," she said. "You've just helped me make my decision."
The doorbell rang just after eight on Monday as Merlin and his mum were in the kitchen mixing hot Ovaltine and putting out leftover Christmas biscuits and Quality Street. They'd both decided to stay in for the evening, get into their pajamas and enjoy a Fawlty Towers marathon. It had been Merlin's favourite television programme as a child – just further proof he'd always been a bit warped.
"I wonder who that could be?" his mother sighed. "And me without my dressing gown."
Merlin set down the mugs. "I'll answer it," he offered.
"Thanks, sweetheart," she said, smiling. As soon as she was safely up the stairs, Merlin turned on the outside light and opened the door.
Arthur was standing on the front step, his arms full of David. As soon as the baby saw Merlin, he emitted an ear-splitting shriek of joy and stretched out his arms toward him.
Merlin took a step back, his head reeling. "What – how did you find me?"
"Guinevere gave me the address," Arthur said. "Can I come in? It's rather cold."
Merlin stepped aside grudgingly. "Gwen is a traitor," he muttered.
"Please don't blame her. I was – utterly pathetic, really, and she has a kind heart."
"Yeah, well, she used to take in stray animals when we were in school," Merlin grumbled as he shut the door. "I imagine the resemblance was striking."
Arthur nodded at the couch. "Do you mind if I sit down?" he asked.
"Yes," Merlin said, folding his arms.
"It's only that David –"
"Stop using the baby to try to get what you want," Merlin spat. "Just say what you came here to say and get it over with."
Arthur frowned. "You're – a lot angrier than I thought you'd be," he said.
Merlin barked a laugh. "Christ, Arthur, what did you expect?"
"Well, of course you have a right to be angry with me. But David's been wanting to see you," Arthur added, just like the bastard he was. As if on cue, David smiled at Merlin again and waved his arms. "He keeps asking for you, wondering when you're coming home."
"You've no heart at all, have you?" Merlin gritted, clenching his fists. " Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to see him again? Did you think I'd want to see him one more time before you pack him off with some foster family?" Horrified at the lump forming in his throat, Merlin whispered, "Please go. Now."
Arthur looked stricken. "Merlin, you don't understand. He's not going to a foster home."
Merlin shook his head, confused. "What?"
"I went to see Ms. Brightwood this morning and told her David was mine."
Merlin stared at him, still uncomprehending. "You – you mean you – you're going to keep him?"
Arthur nodded. "I signed an affidavit swearing David was my biological son and had it notarized. She put it in the file and the matter's closed as far as Fostering Network is concerned. I'm sure there's a pile of other legal paperwork to be completed, but I'll deal with that later. I had to see you first."
Merlin leaned back against the wall. "This is mad. You just signed up for a lifetime commitment. And committed perjury in the process," he added.
"Yeah, I figured that out, thanks," Arthur said dryly. "Seems to me someone once told me I'd make a good father, though. And no matter what I may have told him in the past, I value his opinion." Despite his tone, there was a tentative, fond smile playing at the corners of Arthur's lips as he spoke. Merlin felt something inside him soften in response and fought to maintain his resolve.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Merlin persisted. "You were all set to give him up a couple of days ago. What changed your mind?"
Arthur cocked his head at him, and when he spoke, the answer wasn't what Merlin had been expecting. "Do you remember the day we met? You spoke to that little boy who wanted the cleaning set for Christmas."
Merlin nodded, wary. "Yeah, I remember."
"You told him to never stop asking for what he wanted, to never give up on his dreams. At the time, I thought it was a very nice sentiment, but not terribly practical. After all, each of us has to make compromises sooner or later, give up on some of the things that matter to us, for a hundred different reasons."
He took a deep breath. "Well, I was sitting with David Sunday evening, trying to put him down for the night, and he was screaming his head off. I'm not sure what I was doing wrong, but Gaius and Morgana didn't have a clue either, and so there I was, alone with him, wondering what sort of magic you used to get him to sleep, and thinking to myself, well, cheer up, Arthur, at least after tomorrow you won't have to do this, and –" Arthur's voice faltered as he looked down at David "– and the next thing I knew I was, erm, I was crying. I mean, serious sobbing; it was horrifying, just came out of nowhere.
"I must've startled David, because he stopped wailing and stared at me. I think I was dripping on him by that point. The next thing I knew, I was hugging him, and he was hugging me – and I know you say he can't, but he was – and I could feel his breaths against my cheek, in and out. It was – I can't even describe it." He paused, suddenly breaking into a grin. "And then he yelled at the top of his lungs, right in my ear. Nearly deafened me."
Merlin barked a startled laugh.
"I don't want to compromise any longer," Arthur said softly, taking a step toward Merlin, then another. "You told the little boy not to listen to anyone telling him what he wants is silly. Well, it was just as you said at Christmas: for the longest time, the person who's been telling me that has been me. All my bloody life, I've told myself I can't have this, I shouldn't want that, and for the last three weeks I did everything I could to convince myself that this life I kept seeing for myself – this life with you and David – was nothing but an impossible dream. But last night I finally told that voice inside me to bugger off."
Merlin felt his resistance crumbling as Arthur closed the final distance between them. David squealed and reached out for Merlin, batting him on the arm, and Merlin gave in, unfolding his arms and giving David his finger to hold onto.
"Your dad will be chuffed," Merlin murmured, looking down at David. "He wants a grandson."
"And what do you want?" Arthur asked, voice rough.
Merlin closed his eyes briefly. "Well, seeing as how I'm stupidly in love with both of you –" he looked up, met Arthur's shocked gaze. "I think I'd like the impossible dream, too."
Arthur stared at him for a moment, then laughed in obvious relief. "Oh, thank God," he breathed, "or, you know, not. Whoever."
"I've always believed in the power of crystals, myself," Merlin said seriously.
At that, Arthur leaned in and kissed him, and Merlin returned it eagerly, cupping Arthur's face in his free hand. Between them, David made a cooing noise, and they broke apart, laughing.
"We have to keep this suitable for family viewing, now," Merlin chided, leaning his forehead against Arthur's.
"He has to sleep eventually," Arthur said, waggling his eyebrows.
Still grinning, Arthur drew back and nodded down at David. "We didn't have a proper Christmas. I demand you come home so that we can do it right."
Despite the thrill at the word home, Merlin couldn't let that one go. "You demand?" he shot back, arching a brow.
Arthur sobered. "I humbly request. Entreat. Beg. Grovel."
"Alright, you don't have to go overboard about it."
Suddenly there was a clumping sound from upstairs, as though several mature elephants were practicing ballet steps. Arthur started and stared up at the ceiling, eyes wide. "What was that?"
Merlin sighed. "That would be my mother, announcing that she's about to come down and interrupt us, so we should probably quit snogging."
"Oh," Arthur said, wary gaze still aimed skyward. "Do you think she'll like me?"
"She'll probably think you're a bit of a prat at first," Merlin said, grinning as Arthur went bug-eyed with mock outrage, "but I'm sure she'll come round eventually."