Morgana opened the door after only half a knock, an uncorked bottle of wine already clenched in one fist, a glass in the other. She’d been waiting for this.
The door swung aside to reveal Leon’s smiling face, Gwen hanging on one of his arms. They noticed the wine with narrowed eyes as Morgana dramatically poured herself a glass three sizes too big without uttering a word to suggest why.
“What –?” Leon’s face scrunched up in confusion.
“Arthur,” Morgana declared, gulping down too much wine at once in order to prepare herself for the bone-chilling announcement, “is bringing his new boyfriend over tonight.”
Leon’s face crumpled.
“Fuck,” he swore, and Gwen gave him a shocked look. Leon wasn’t the type to swear unwarranted. “Give me that bottle.”
“What’s wrong with Arthur bringing a boyfriend?” Gwen asked, trailing after her own boyfriend as he picked up one of the glasses Morgana had already set on the table. “Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Every single person that Arthur has ever dated is a disgrace to humanity,” Leon said as he poured himself nearly as much wine as Morgana had. “He has the most terrible taste imaginable. Men, women – it doesn’t matter. Arthur will choose the worst of the worst.”
“You haven’t been around long enough,” Morgana put a comforting arm around Gwen as Leon poured her a glass of wine, too. “You’ve only ever been around Single Arthur. And while Single Arthur is an arrogant, annoying pain my ass, he has nothing, nothing on Not Single Arthur and his pitiful excuse for a boyfriend.”
“I mean, I know Arthur’s…Arthur,” Gwen said a little awkwardly. She clearly meant that Arthur could be a real ass but didn’t want to say the word. “But he’s really sweet under all that bluster. I can’t imagine that he’d only be able to attract…well, the worst of the worst, as you said.”
“It’s not a question of who’s attracted to Arthur,” Leon explained. “Plenty of people are attracted to Arthur. Hell, I’m attracted to Arthur. Arthur just always manages to pick the wrong person to date. It’s a skill. Nay, a talent. One that afflicts us horribly.”
“The three of us have been having monthly dinners for years now,” Morgana explained. “Ever since we graduated uni. And in that time, every single significant other Arthur has ever brought to meet us has ended in tears and recriminations.”
“Surely they can’t all have been that bad,” Gwen argued, but her voice sounded small. She and Leon had been dating for six months, and already she was Morgana’s very favorite of all of Leon’s girlfriends. And Leon actually had decent taste. Morgana was slowly worming herself into the Maid of Honor position, she could feel it.
One of the best things about Gwen was her refusal to see anything but the best in people. But seeing the best in Arthur’s shrill girlfriends and slimy boyfriends would be difficult even for her. Morgana was looking forward to seeing her break down and bitch about Arthur’s new boyfriend with them.
“Oh, they can,” Leon muttered darkly. Leon was more apt to see the good in people than most, but he knew better. After seven years of Morgana and Leon drinking heavily and complaining about how Arthur would never find anyone decent, he knew better.
“First there was Sophia,” Morgana explained, gesturing to Gwen to sit down. Arthur wouldn’t be here for another ten minutes. They had time to go over the whole sordid history. “I hated her from the get-go when she refused to eat anything that Leon cooked that night because it was too carby. And she had Arthur wrapped around her little finger, all yes dears and of course dears and whatever you say dears.”
“Arthur?” Gwen wrinkled her nose, clearly thinking of the stodgy, grumpy Arthur they all knew and loved. Well, loved under the guise of toleration.
“She convinced him to marry her at one point,” Leon said with a disgusted shake of his head. “He gave her a ring and everything. This was, might I remind you, after three months of dating.”
Gwen winced. Morgana did too, even though she had been there when it happened.
“I confronted him about it eventually,” Morgana said. “First he got defensive. Then he said he might as well marry her because no one else would ever want him. Which was something she told him, by the way. That little bitch.”
“We basically had to break up with her for him,” Leon shuddered. “That was the number she did on his self-esteem. He could barely face her. Then he spent a couple years recovering from her…everything-ness and graduated law school.”
“Which was when he started dating Vivian, one of Father’s associates’ little socialite daughters.” Morgana had to stop herself from grinding her teeth in anger. “They hated each other. They yelled at each other constantly. She told him he was fat, he told her she was a bitch. Then they’d make out. It was revolting.”
“So they were dating for Uther’s sake?” Gwen wondered aloud. Gwen had met Uther for the first time a couple of weeks ago, at one of Morgana’s work events. Uther had asked Leon what he was doing with someone so low class and Morgana was surprised Gwen hadn’t kneed him in the balls. Morgana had desperately wanted to knee him in the balls.
“Sort of,” Leon made a face. “I’m not really sure what Vivian was. She only stuck around for two dinners with us in which she called Morgana a horrid bitch.”
“And she called Leon an unwashed hooligan,” Morgana reminded him. “Arthur knew she was a bitch, he just tried to ignore it for as long as he could. Probably for Uther, to show him that he tried to date a girl of his class.”
“So immediately after he broke up with her, he started dating his first boyfriend,” Leon explained, pouring Gwen another liberal amount of wine. Her eyebrows were going up into her hairline, and she quickly drank from it. She was starting to understand then, what this evening would get into.
“Cedric,” Morgana snorted. “This little weaselly excuse for a man. You could tell he didn’t give a shit about Arthur. He was just in it for the money and the attention. But it was Arthur’s first relationship with a man, and he desperately wanted something to work this time, so he let Cedric stick around for a few months.”
“He tried to steal my silverware,” Leon muttered under his breath, still angry. Hell, Morgana was still angry. It had been four years, but they could both hold grudges.
“I think he was single for a few months after that, before Cenred came along,” Leon said, and Gwen frowned.
“Cedric and Cenred?” She raised an eyebrow.
“They weren’t anything alike beyond their weird names,” Leon brushed away her worry. “Cenred wasn’t a gold-digger. He was just a creep. I have no idea why Arthur put up with him for a whole year.”
“Because Cenred looked at Arthur like a wolf looks at frightened prey,” Morgana said dismissively, waving her hand. “Arthur was getting good dick for the first time and his lust blinded him from the fact that Cenred liked to look down my top and gamble away his money.”
“It was Cenred who broke up with Arthur,” Leon said, shaking his head at the memory. “He was really upset about it, though I’ve no clue why. When Mordred broke things off with him, I understand why he looked like a kicked puppy.”
“Mordred was his most recent boyfriend,” Morgana explained, and Gwen snapped her fingers.
“He told me about this one,” Gwen nodded seriously. “This is the one who cheated, right?”
“Yep,” Leon winced. “With some girl at a club. Kara something. I think they’re still together now, which I’m sure pisses Arthur off to no end.”
“You didn’t tell her the worst part,” Morgana reminded him. “Mordred was twenty when they were dating. Practically jailbait. I mean, I felt sorry for Arthur when he cheated, but honestly, what did he expect dating someone eight years younger than him?”
“So he’s been single ever since,” Gwen finished with a terrified look on her face. Good. She needed to be terrified, in Morgana’s opinion. Everyone needed to be terrified of Arthur’s abysmal taste.
“Do you know anything about the guy?” Leon asked nervously. “I mean, what did he tell you?”
Morgana shrugged a little helplessly. They were all such busy people that Morgana did have a lot of trouble keeping track of her brother outside of these monthly dinners. They got lunch together sometimes, or drinks with Leon, but it was easy for Arthur to hide things from her.
Especially significant others who Morgana would try to beat up if they did anything to hurt her baby brother.
“Just that he had a new boyfriend and wanted to bring him by tonight,” Morgana said. “He told us to be nice and don’t act like he’s on death row and you’re the jury.”
“He knows us so well,” Leon very nearly smiled before the look slipped off his face as there was a knock at the door. “God. That’s him. Well, let’s hope he’s better than Sophia at the very least.”
“We have a theory that Sophia is the reason he can only date shitbags,” Morgana whispered to Gwen as Leon headed for the door. “She ruined him for anyone –”
“Hey, Arthur,” Leon said loudly, causing Morgana to cut herself off and give Gwen a conspiratorial glance before heading toward the door. “And this must be your boyfriend…?”
“Merlin,” an unfamiliar voice answered, and Morgana peered around the doorway as Leon reached out to shake the other man’s hand.
Next to her very familiar brother who had a look on his face like he was swallowing lemons at the idea of introducing yet another future horror story to the family was a man just slightly taller than him, with a narrow face and dark hair. He looked a bit like Mordred had, but was actually age-appropriate, maybe a year or two younger than Arthur. He had a bit of stubble on his face, which helped differentiate the two, and was dressed in a beat-up bomber jacket.
His smile was kind and seemingly genuine as he said “You must be Leon, right? Which would make you Morgana and Gwen. It’s really nice to meet you. I brought wine if that’s alright?”
He held out a bottle of Merlot. Morgana took it untrustingly. He seemed nice enough, but then again, Mordred and Sophia hadn’t been horrible the first time around either.
“Thank you,” Morgana began a bit awkwardly, and Arthur shot him a look. “Won’t you come inside? Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.”
Merlin and Arthur made brief eye contact as they came in the door. As Merlin introduced himself to Gwen, Morgana headed to the table to uncork the bottle.
“I’ll set the table,” Leon muttered to her as he backtracked from the scene. “You go get the food.”
By the time Morgana came out with the roast, Gwen was giggling at something Merlin had said. She looked charmed. But again, Gwen was quite new at these dinners and at Arthur’s Arthur-ness. She didn’t know any better. That was okay; Leon and Morgana were there to protect her.
“This looks delicious, thank you so much for inviting me,” Merlin said as they all gathered around the table, Morgana carefully setting the roast in the center.
She chanced a glance at Arthur, who was staring steadfastly at the ground. Well, at least Merlin had politeness going for him. It was more than could be said for most of Arthur’s past dates.
“So how did the two of you meet?” Morgana asked as Leon started scooping food onto everyone’s plate. Morgana’s hawk-like eyes took notice of the fact that Merlin poured a glass of wine for Arthur.
Merlin gave Arthur a glance as he said, “Oh, we’ve known each other for a long time.”
Morgana blinked at Arthur, whose face resembled a fire truck. “Oh, really? Do tell, Arthur.”
“Harpy,” Arthur sniped at her before saying “We went to law school together.”
“Really?” Morgana raised an eyebrow, surprised. Arthur had never dated anyone who was anything resembling intelligent. “Well, Arthur, I guess you’re better at keeping things secret from me than I thought.”
Merlin snorted and Arthur rolled his eyes and said “We weren’t dating back then, Morgana. We fucking hated each other.”
“It’s true,” Merlin said with a vigorous nod and a laughing smile. “We were arch-rivals for the best grades and our professors’ attention. We called each other names. We almost got into a fist-fight once before remembering that we were in fact fully grown adults seeking degrees in law and maybe that wasn’t the best way to handle things. Well, I remembered that. Arthur still wanted to fight.”
Gwen hid a smile. Even Leon looked slightly amused.
Arthur scowled, but Morgana could tell it was an act for their benefit; a real smile lurked somewhere behind it. “You’re a very rude person. I couldn’t help myself.”
“But he’s so nice!” Gwen said enthusiastically, and Morgana was happy to see Merlin blush at the compliment. Humility was an attractive trait, especially in someone who was dating Arthur.
“It’s an act,” Arthur said seriously. “He’s trying to make a good impression, but he’s actually very mean. Still calls me names. Tried to push me in the Thames yesterday…”
“I was joking,” Merlin shoved at Arthur’s arm and Arthur laughed, a real laugh, one that boomed. Morgana and Leon exchanged a surprised look. They hadn’t heard someone make Arthur laugh like that before.
“Actually, Merlin is probably the only reason I’m in civil rights law,” Arthur said, after shoving Merlin back. “I had to try to best him.”
“Or you’re a big-hearted sop who would’ve died of boredom in corporate law,” Merlin shook his head with a grin. “But that’s actually how we reconnected. We hadn’t seen each other in years thanks to the fact that, uh, we despised one another, but the law firm Arthur works for is interested in buying out the company I work for, and we’ve been discussing the merger together. Then I asked him to dinner…”
“I asked you to dinner,” Arthur pushed back. “That’s what I meant when I said we should really catch up.”
“That’s not dinner, the word dinner was not mentioned,” Merlin rolled his eyes amusedly, gesturing to the rest of them. “We should really catch up is something obligatory you say to someone you haven’t seen in years! It’s not an invitation!”
“He’s right,” Leon said with a genuine smile in Arthur’s direction. “You say that to everyone at the office when you don’t actually want to catch up with them.”
“Yeah, but I meant it this time,” Arthur sulked, stabbing his carrot with mighty fervor.
Morgana noticed that Merlin’s hand was on Arthur’s knee. It wasn’t anything suggestive; it was just sitting there. Comfortably. Intimately. For the sake of contact and nothing else.
As the rest of dinner revealed, Merlin wasn’t just intelligent. He was much smarter than Arthur. The company he worked for was actually a small law firm that he had started for the sake of representing children of abuse cases, which had spun into representing children in general when it had expanded.
His intelligence veered into the territory of quick-witted repertoire, and was fast enough to beat Arthur at his own insult game, could keep up when the conversation headed into politics, and kept Arthur on his toes as they kept having snarky responses to each other’s comments, even if they agreed with one another.
He was effortlessly charming and genuinely interested in who Morgana, Gwen, and Leon were as people. He and Gwen already had plans to get coffee. He was already going to play football in the park with Leon and Arthur on Sunday. Morgana was even thinking of inviting him to dinner all on his own because they had so much in common.
What was the oddest thing about the evening, though, was Arthur. His grumpiness quickly melted into something akin to enjoyment and happiness and everything about him just seemed so much easier and relaxed. He and Merlin didn’t touch constantly in an annoying, sexual way like Vivian and Cenred had done, but in an affectionate way, a familiar way.
By the end of the night, when Merlin had thanked her profusely for the best dinner he’d had in weeks, she could hear Merlin say as soon as the door shut So did I pass the test?
Morgana slowly turned to Leon, their expressions of shock mimicking one another. “Did…I really just like one of Arthur’s boyfriends?”
“Arthur’s boyfriend?” Leon blinked. “Hell, I want him to be my boyfriend. No offense, Gwen.”
“None taken,” Gwen said, cheerful as ever. “I wouldn’t complain if he wanted to be my boyfriend.”
“Well, I’m too gay to have a boyfriend, but shit,” Morgana shook her head, “he was fucking perfect. I mean, there’s bound to be something wrong with him. Right? Maybe Arthur hired him. Maybe Uther hired him. Maybe he’s actually our cousin. He does look a bit like me.”
“I mean, we can check him out,” Leon said with a low wolf-whistle. “But damn. That was actually fun.”
“I’m not sure what the two of you were so worried about,” Gwen said with a shrug of her shoulders. “Arthur seems to have perfectly good taste to me.”
“I’m going to call him,” Morgana said with a bewildered laugh, “and tell him that he better not fuck this up. He’s never had someone who treated him like a human being before, let alone…”
“He loves him,” Gwen cooed under her breath. “Oh, that’s so wonderful. I’m so happy for them.”
Morgana let Leon and Gwen continue to consider all of Merlin’s merits as she dialed the phone and walked into the kitchen for some semblance of privacy.
Arthur picked up on the third ring. “Did I forget something?”
“He’s a gem,” Morgana told him. “Don’t freak out when wants to take you places, or spend quality time with you, or cuddle at night. Don’t panic when he tells you he loves you. I know you’ve never had anyone care about you like this before. You’ve always chosen people who couldn’t, because you couldn’t stand to get hurt by someone who actually mattered. But he matters. And I know you know it. You defer to him when you’re asked questions; you laugh at all of his jokes, even if they’re not funny. You’ve never had this before, Arthur, and I don’t want you to screw it up.”
Arthur was quiet for a moment. “Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
Morgana knew Merlin was in earshot and he was too scared to seem vulnerable in front of him. All of this must be terrifying for Arthur; Arthur, who had never had anyone love him before.
“You’re going to get scared,” Morgana settled on telling him. “Don’t let it get in the way.”
“I’ll try,” Arthur replied, and then said, softer and with nerves evident, “It feels different this time. It feels…real.”
“That’s because it is,” Morgana said with a smile, triumphant in the fact that her baby brother finally found someone who treated him like a person and not a plaything. “You might have some competition, though – Gwen and Leon would gladly steal him from you.”
“Not you, though?” Arthur asked, and Morgana could tell he was smirking.
“I’m far too happy for you,” Morgana said, and though Arthur would read her tone as snarky insolence, she had never meant anything more in her life.