Merlin cursed under his breath as he stumbled to the door. It was past midnight and his uncle’s fat cat stared at him impassively from under the cover of the couch he’d just used to swipe at Merlin’s legs. “That’s going to leave a bloody scar. Stupid cat. One of these days, Killy, I swear.”
The bell rang again just as Merlin opened it. “Yes? Can I help you?” He stared at the big man who might actually be taller than the old cottage’s doorframe.
Merlin’s midnight visitor looked startled and glanced back at the sign on the side of the door that read: Gaius Woodlark, Veterinarian. “Um, I was looking for Gaius.”
“Uncle Gaius is in hospital for a few weeks. He asked me to take over his practice until he’s well.” Merlin smiled at the man’s indrawn breath and hurried to reassure him. “He’ll be fine. He fell and broke his leg, so they’re keeping him in a care facility until it heals enough that he can move around safely here at home. I’m Merlin.”
“Oh, alright. Well, I’m Percy.” He unfolded his arms from where he’d been cradling them to his stomach. “And this little one needs some help, I think.”
A tiny, mud-encrusted puppy wrapped in a sweater whimpered a bit upon losing the warmth of Percy’s body. Merlin cooed as he reached out to the little thing. “Oh, poor thing. Bring him inside. Mind the attack cat under the couch.”
Percy chuckled. “Killy and I are acquainted. Don’t worry. I have my workboots on.”
Merlin led Percy to the examination room off the kitchen. The rest of the cottage may look like it belonged in the Middle Ages, but this room was where his uncle spent all of his money. The equipment was as current and high-tech as that of the veterinary practice Merlin worked at in Camelot.
He switched on the incubator as he passed it, and pointed Percy to the table while he prepped himself. Percy laid the puppy on the table but picked it back up again when it started shivering. “That’s fine, but I’ll need to check him out.”
When the incubator had heated up, Merlin told Percy to lay the puppy inside. He gently removed the sweater, ignoring the heat as he stroked the puppy’s matted fur. “Where did you find him?”
“He was in one of the pipes at the construction site I manage. Don’t know how long he was there, but when we found him we tried to dry him off, wrapped him up and put him in front of one of the portable heaters we have until I could leave. I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, but we were having troubles with some equipment and it took forever to get it fixed.”
Merlin smiled up at the worried man. “It’s alright. You did the right thing.”
Percy smiled back wearily. “Thanks. Last time we found an animal, we were able to get him here right away. That dog is now giving my friend Gwaine hell on a daily basis.”
“Well, puppers here looks to be in decent shape from a cursory exam. It’s young, probably about eight weeks, so I’m going to keep it in the ICU for a bit, but I think it’ll be alright. I can put out a lost pet notice in the morning.”
“Great.” Percy reached in and stroked the drowsy puppy’s head. “Can you keep me informed?”
“Absolutely. Leave your number, yeah?”
Two days later, Merlin was waiting in line at the coffee shop when he heard someone call him. He turned and there was Percy with a few other men. “Percy, how are you?”
“Good. How’s the pup?”
“She’s pretty good, actually. No one has reported her lost, but I think she was only outside for a day or so.”
Percy smiled. “I’m glad. I was afraid she was out too long.” His smile turned a little sheepish, “Don’t suppose I can come visit her?”
Merlin nodded, “Yeah, absolutely. It’ll do her good to have more socialization than me and Gaius’ version of Grumpy Cat.”
The shaggy-haired brunet with Percy chuckled. “Ah, Killy. The bane of every village pet owner’s ankles.” The man nudged Percy. “So, this is the vet, eh?”
Percy flushed a bit and nudged his friend back. “Merlin, this is Gwaine. That’s Kay. Generally best to just ignore whatever Gwaine says.”
“Gwaine? The one who has the last dog you rescued?”
“Hey! I rescued Apple.” Gwaine frowned.
Merlin grinned as Kay chimed in. “You were terrified when he came charging at you.”
“Yeah, well, you have a four stone bullmastiff jump on you in the dark and try to lick you to death and see what happens.”
Percy chuckled. “Apple sat on him trying to become one with this buffoon for a good fifteen minutes before we could coax him into the car to bring to Gaius.”
“That’s how he got his name. We had to raid Gwaine’s precious stash of apples.”
“He scared me, slobbered on me, then he ate my lunch, and he still managed to get me to adopt him. Crazy beast.” Gwaine grinned and shook his head, obviously in love with his dog.
“How big is he now?”
“Eight stone. He’s a year now.” Gwaine’s look turned mischievous. “It’s almost time for his check-up. I’m sure he’d love to show you how much of a lapdog he is.”
Merlin chuckled. “The big ones are worse than the little ones that way. If I’m still here when it’s time for his exam, I’ll be happy to meet him.”
Percy cleared his throat, “So when can I come see the puppy?”
Merlin shrugged and turned to get the coffee they had just called out for him. “Anytime is good. If I have another patient you can just play with him in the living room.” Merlin nodded at the men. “I do have to get back. Mr. Alator is bringing his iguana in for a check-up.”
The next day was almost as cold as the day Percy had found the lost puppy. He smoothed the scarf that he’d wrapped around his throat and knocked on the door, nerves buzzing. “I’m here to play with the puppy. That’s all. I’m not here to flirt with Gaius’ nephew.” he muttered under his breath as he waited.
All good intentions flew right out the window when the door opened on a bedraggled-looking Merlin. The shirt he’d donned this morning was untucked and his hair looked as if it had been raked through with both hands repeatedly. Basically, he looked as if he had been in the middle of a really good snogging session, and was way too tempting.
“Um, bad time?”
Merlin blew a breath, “Any time’s a bad time when one is trying to trim the claws of the worst cat in the world!” Merlin raised his voice for the last half of his sentence and grunted when Gaius’ cat Kilgarrah just stuck his hind leg up in the air behind him and proceeded to bathe himself. “Gah. I could use the break, though. Come on in. I take it you want to visit the little girl you saved?”
“A female, is she?” Percy grinned. “Any clues to her owners, yet?”
“No. Nothing.” Merlin led Percy into the exam room. “I’m starting to think she was abandoned.” He opened the incubator and pulled out the wiggling puppy. “And I think it’s because she’s deaf.”
“Deaf?” Percy reached over and plucked the white puppy out of Merlin’s hands. “That would explain why she was so frightened of us, she couldn’t hear us trying to soothe her.” He cuddled the little animal, who licked his cheek in return.
“Yeah. She shows all the signs.”
“Any idea of her breed?”
“I think she’s a Japanese Spitz, actually. Rare enough that I’d hoped we’d be able to track her owner, but with her deafness, I think they just cut their losses.” Merlin gave her a good scratch. “Otherwise, she’s an expensive enough dog that someone would be looking for her.”
Percy made a quick decision. He was already half in love with the puppy. “How hard will it be to raise a deaf puppy?”
Merlin grinned. “Honestly, if you didn’t take her, I was going to. She’s a charmer.” He moved closer to Percy and the puppy. “I want to keep her here a bit longer, just to make sure everything is alright, but I have a few friends who already parent a deaf dog. I can give you their number and Gwen and Lance can walk you through any issues you might encounter.”
He chuckled as the puppy’s eyes rolled back in ecstasy from being scratched by two people. “I know they used a trainer I recommended. He’s from around here. You might know him, Will Hedges?”
Percy nodded. “I’ve met him. He’s that bloke that helps run the Rising Sun. I didn’t know he was a dog trainer. Come to think of it, though, he might be who Gwaine went to for Apple’s training. I know he and Gwaine are friends.”
Merlin grinned. “I can see that. They seem like the sort of fellows that would get on well.”
Percy snorted. “Yeah. Sounds right. I’ll contact him about our girl’s training.” Percy sucked in a quick breath. Our girl. Stupid. Stupid , he thought.
But Merlin didn’t look upset at the phrase, and he didn’t move away from Percy and the puppy. The two men were definitely within each other’s personal space, close enough that Percy could feel Merlin’s presence. “So, Percy, when is your next day off?” Merlin didn’t meet Percy’s eyes as he asked, continuing to scratch the puppy’s scruff.
“Sunday. We’re trying to get the work on the site done before the weather turns too cold.” He tried to match Merlin’s deliberately casual tone.
“Fancy a coffee?”
“I like coffee before work, but otherwise I drink tea.”
Merlin huffed a small laugh and looked up to meet Percy’s grin. “Then how about some tea?”
One tea date led to more. Walks through the village center to watch the lights that had been put up led to cozy snuggles on the benches in the village green with cocoa or tea. Texts and phone calls became a daily thing if Percy wasn’t able to make it to play with the puppy.
One of Percy’s favorite dates thus far had been a simple trip to the bookstore. He and Merlin met at the coffee shop and spent a few hours before a cozy dinner wandering through the shelves of books. It turned out they had quite a few favorite authors in common, even though Percy was more likely to buy the books in digital form than Merlin.
Gwaine just laughed through the whole thing, especially when he found out that Aithusa wasn’t going to weigh more than a quarter of what Apple would. “We have the wrong dogs, Percy. I should have the teacup and you the horse.”
Percy tugged gently on the rope Aithusa was gnawing on. He was at Merlin’s after they’d just had dinner. Merlin was on the phone with Gaius.
Percy’s smile gentled as he remembered how she’d gotten her name. The two men had just had a very nice dinner date and Percy drove Merlin home. Of course, he’d gone in to see the puppy and in between cuddles and gentle kisses (with both the puppy and Merlin) he’d asked Merlin for suggestions on names.
“I don’t want to call her something boring or predictable. She deserves better than Rover or Scout or something like that. Look at this face. She deserves an amazing name.”
Merlin smiled and shrugged. “I’ve sort of been calling her something in my head already.”
“Yeah, Aithusa. It means ‘light of the sun’.”
“Aithusa.” Percy tried the name out a few times. The second time the puppy looked up at him and licked his chin. “I think she likes it.”
“You know she couldn’t hear you say that, right?”
Percy just shrugged and grinned. “Whatever. I like it. ‘Aithusa' it is for this beautiful girl.”
“So, when is he coming home?” Percy lifted his arm to let Merlin tuck himself under it on the couch after Merlin hung up.
Merlin sighed. “He’s not.”
Merlin hurried, “Well, he’s not coming home to take up the practice. He’s going to move in with Alice. The two of them finally decided it was time to stop dithering and get serious. That and she lives in town in a very modern house, so it’s better for his health.”
“What’s going to happen to the practice?”
Merlin took in a deep breath. “He offered to sell it to me.”
“And?” Percy held himself very still.
Merlin nodded as he blew out the breath. “I told him yes.”
The next month flew by as Merlin ended up taking the train back to Camelot a few times to sell his flat and his part in his old veterinary practice. The sales went quickly, aided by the most terrifying solicitor Percy had ever met, a friend of Merlin’s named Morgana. By the time Christmas drew near, Merlin and his friends had helped Gaius pack up what he wanted to take with him and store the rest of the things he wanted but didn’t have room for in Alice’s house in town. They’d also moved Merlin’s belongings in, even though that was mostly multiple shelves worth of books. He’d left his furniture as part of the flat he sold since Gaius left most of his furniture in the cottage.
“What are the pet owners going to do without Killy to beware of when they visit?” Gwaine chuckled.
Merlin had trouble answering him because Apple was doing his level best to give Merlin a bath at the moment while Merlin laughed and fended the dog off. It looked as if the two of them would get along splendidly.
Gwaine finally commanded Apple to sit and the dog did, mournfully looking at the ground now that his fun was over.
“Wow.” Merlin wiped off his face with a cloth and came back over to check the dog out now that he was behaving. “Will said he was a handful, but I honestly thought Will was exaggerating.”
Gwaine scratched Apple’s head. “He’s still a pup. He’s amazing.”
“That he is. He’s beautiful.” Merlin led the dog through the exam, smiling when it was done. “And he seems to be in very good health. I’m glad he found a home where he is obviously loved.”
Gwaine grinned. “Yeah. I never saw myself as a dog person before him. But he got me.” Gwaine nodded at Aithusa asleep in a dog bed in the corner. “When is she going home with Percy?”
Merlin blushed. “We haven’t decided. Aithusa’s ready, but, well, with the move and all, and Percy’s flat is kind of small.”
Gwaine chuckled. “His flat is a shithole. It’s basically just a bath, bedroom, and kitchen. Not much space to add a dog.”
“He’s looking for another place.”
“Just tell the big knucklehead to move in already and be done.”
Percy and Merlin decided that, even though their friends got along, the combined force of them was one of the scariest things in nature. The week before Christmas, all of Merlin’s friends had descended upon the town at once. Percy found himself in the unlikely position of being cornered by, not the men in Merlin’s fam, but the women. The scary solicitor, Morgana, led him to a corner booth at the pub where Merlin’s friends Gwen, Mithian, and former partners Freya and Elena, already sat.
“I suppose it’s not too hard to figure out what we’re about to say.” Morgana started.
Percy smiled, strangely charmed by the whole thing. “I assume I’m about to get the shovel talk?”
Elena grinned. “Yep. Merlin’s one of the best blokes any of us know, and we’d be very upset if he gets hurt. So don’t do it, yeah?”
“Elena!” Morgana looked annoyed that her thunder had been so cheerfully stolen.
“What?” Elena shrugged. “He’s a good guy. I’ve seen him with Aithusa, and he doesn’t even hate that evil cat of Gaius’.”
Morgana huffed. “Whatever. Fine. Just don’t hurt Merlin, and if he hurts you we’ll come down on him, too, because you do seem like a good person.” Elena reached over and patted Morgana’s hand as the other women snickered behind their drinks.
That night, Merlin was ensconced on the couch in Percy’s arms with the fireplace giving off a cheerful heat when Percy told him about the experience. Merlin chuckled and simply replied, “Gwaine and Kay gave me the shovel talk after our fourth coffee date. It would have been much more intimidating if Kay realized he had a marshmallow mustache from the hot cocoa he’d been drinking and had rubbed it off.”
Percy laughed. “I can absolutely see that.”
Their entire group of friends would be meeting the next day at the large house Morgana and her brother (and Merlin’s best friend), Arthur, had rented for the weekend. That way they could all have Christmas together, and still have it with their families on the real day.
The Christmas tree Percy helped Merlin decorate was twinkling away in the corner, Aithusa laying on a blanket right outside the baby gate Merlin erected once they realized she was fascinated by the shifting pattern of the twinkling lights. Percy gathered Merlin a bit closer, completely content for the first time in his life.
“Percy, do you really want to find a new flat?”
Merlin shifted his head so he was looking up at Percy. “I’m pretty sure of you. Hell, you’re part of why I moved here. I was going to try to be all romantic and do this at Christmas, but I don’t really want to wait. Move in with me?”
Percy smiled and leaned forward a bit so he could give Merlin a kiss. “I’d love to.”
“Merlin, we’re going to be late.” Percy called his boyfriend while he sat on the couch snuggling with Aithusa. The two men and Will had already started working with her on hand signals and commands and the clever girl was picking them up quickly.
He didn’t bother investigating the thump he heard from the other room. Experience had shown that Merlin was something of a klutz and unless he heard an actual scream for help, Percy just ignored the sounds of Merlin acquiring another bruise. He would simply kiss it to make it better later that night.
“Coming.” Merlin finally came into the living room in the gaudiest, most awful Christmas sweater Percy had seen in his life. Purple, green, and yellow dragons chased Santa and his reindeer while breathing fire around a bright red background.
“What the hell is that?”
Merlin grinned. “Sorry, I forgot which box this was buried in.”
“Why didn’t it stay buried? Dead and buried. Never to be resurrected.”
Merlin laughed at the look of dismay on Percy’s face and pressed a kiss to his cheek as he reached for his jacket. “Get used to it. This sweater has won me the ugliest sweater contest three years in a row.”
“I see why it would.” Percy laid Aithusa down on her bed and donned his own coat. “What contest are you talking about?”
“We have one each year, my group of friends. Arthur decided that since you guys are so new to the group and didn’t really have time to plan, you’re exempt, but next year, you all have to play, too.”
“Arthur decided, did he?” Percy snickered at Merlin’s bossy friend. Thankfully, he wasn’t bothered by their bickering friendship. Merlin gave as good as he got, and managed to deflate Arthur’s ego enough to make him a tolerable bloke.
“Yeah. And I’ve already talked to mum about what kind of sweater she’s going to knit for you.”
“Yep. How do ninja puppies and pirate kittens parachuting from Santa’s sleigh sound to you?” Merlin grinned as Percy unlocked the car.
“It sounds mad.” Percy chuckled at the bright grin he’d fallen in love with. “As long as the puppy looks like Aithusa.”
“Merry Christmas, Merlin.” Percy leaned over to kiss his boyfriend. He marveled at how a tiny puppy had led him to this sweet, insane, wonderful man, and he couldn’t be happier, even if he couldn’t unsee the fact that one of the dragon’s hind legs on Merlin’s sweater did seem to resemble something else entirely.