Arthur is nearly thirty years old. He has a full-time job and makes more money than most people will ever see in their lifetimes. One of his suits is worth more than most people’s entire wardrobes. He’s indirectly in charge of thousands of employees. He makes million-dollar decisions on a daily basis.
Also, every night he tucks five stuffed animals into his bed beside him.
Tiny the Teddy Bear is the oldest. He’s about two inches tall. All his fur is matted down from being clutched in a young Arthur’s sweaty fist. He’s objectively disgusting, but his little face is no less adorable now than it was twenty years ago and Arthur would be devastated to lose him.
When Arthur turned ten, his father told him that meant it was time Arthur started acting more grown up. For his birthday, all his childhood toys and stuffed animals got donated to charity.
He didn’t let on that it bothered him. The opposite, in fact: he made fun of the other kids in his school for still having their teddy bears and dolls and LEGOs. Some of them cried; some of them made fun of him right back. Nobody felt bad for him.
Well, almost nobody. When Merlin came over to Arthur’s house after his birthday, he asked, “Where’s all your stuff?”
“What stuff?” Arthur asked.
“Your toys and stuff,” Merlin said.
“Toys are for babies,” Arthur said. “I’m all grown up.”
Merlin made a face like he thought Arthur was dumb, but Arthur figured that said more about Merlin than about him.
The next time Merlin came over, he disappeared and snuck around Arthur’s house for a while, and when Arthur went to bed that night he found out why.
A tiny teddy bear was hiding under his pillow, with a little note attached that said, “Hi, my name is Tiny the Teddy Bear,” in Merlin’s horrible handwriting.
Merlin had known him well even then, because when Arthur found the bear tucked under his pillow, the only reason he’d kept him was because nobody ever had to know. If Merlin had presented Tiny to Arthur’s face, Arthur would never have accepted him. He’d’ve laughed at Merlin and thrown the bear back at him.
Instead, when he picked up the little bear, he gave him as much of a hug as you could possibly give anything so small, and Tiny had stayed clutched in Arthur’s fist every night since.
The next stuffed animal Arthur got was a unicorn.
Merlin was the first person Arthur ever came out to. They were fifteen and sitting at Merlin’s kitchen table and Arthur blurted out, “I like boys.”
Merlin said, “Cool. Cool. Ooh, wait right here!” and dashed out of the kitchen towards his room.
He paused, turned around, and came back far enough to poke his head in the kitchen and say, “Me too!” He then ran off again.
Arthur waited quietly, taking the opportunity to breathe in very deeply a few times. Working up to that declaration had been hard. (Part of him is a little annoyed that Merlin just came out to him so easily.)
A couple minutes later, Merlin came bounding back to the kitchen with a huge cardboard box. As he walked, he rummaged around in it and threw apparently unwanted stuffed animals out behind him, muttering, “She’s in here somewhere…"
“What are you doing?” Arthur demanded.
“A-ha!” Merlin said, brandishing a stuffed animal at him.
More specifically: a rainbow-coloured unicorn.
“Her name is Rainbow Sparkles,” Merlin said. He petted the unicorn’s flowing multicoloured mane, then held her out to Arthur. “She’s yours now.”
There wasn’t really anything Arthur could do but take her.
The ugliest stuffed animal is a rat.
When Arthur graduated university, Merlin was halfway around the world somewhere, but he still got the hideous thing delivered on the day of Arthur’s graduation. It was about two feet across and entirely round and accompanied by a card that said, “CongRATulations!”
Arthur called Merlin immediately. “This thing is hideous.”
“No, Arthur, shh! She can hear you! You’ll hurt her feelings!”
“Merlin, it’s a rat.”
“I know, she’s an adorable giant baby rat! Don’t you like her?” Merlin asked. “I thought about getting you one of those graduation bears but I didn’t want you to think I was getting lazy and uncreative. Plus, like, rats - remember the time --”
“Yes, I remember,” Arthur snapped, before Merlin could go down that particular lane of memory. He looked at the rat again. “I suppose she’s sort of cute....if you can get past the evil red eyes staring you down.”
“See, I knew you’d love her,” Merlin said.
Arthur decided it was easier not to correct Merlin’s obviously erroneous assumptions. “So, what’s her name?” he asked.
“Didn’t you get the card?” Merlin said. “It’s CongRATulations.”
“That’s her name?”
“Is something wrong with that?”
“No,” Arthur said. “Nope, nothing, that’s a great name.”
“Almost as great as you,” Merlin segued very smoothly. “Congrats, seriously, Arthur.”
When Arthur hung up, he picked up the rat in both hands and held her up in front of his face.
“You really are ugly,” Arthur told her. “Hideous. And with a name like that, I bet you got picked on a lot.”
The rat stared at him with her evil red eyes.
Arthur sighed. “Let me introduce you to your new friends.”
The polar bear is named Mr. Icicles.
The box he came in from Canada was huge. The postage must’ve been a fortune. Arthur had walked to the post office to pick up the parcel, then come back with his car, then come back with Leon’s truck. That’s how huge the bear was.
The worst part was that then Leon wanted to know what was in the package and Arthur had to open it up and take the bear out in front of another human being. At least Arthur managed to slip the note away before Leon had a chance to see it - mostly because Leon was busy patting the bear’s fur and suggesting names.
Dear Arthur, the note said,
I know I’ve only been gone a week but I’m sure you miss me terribly already. I’m sending Mr. Icicles to keep you company for the next few months until I get back. He’s promised to take excellent care of you and give you beary good hugs!!
“His name is Mr. Icicles,” Arthur said, interrupting Leon.
Leon frowned. “That’s terrible.”
Arthur sighed. “I know.”
That night Arthur put Mr. Icicles on the chair in the corner of his room. It was a really comfortable chair, and Mr. Icicles was huge, and there wasn’t any room in the bed for something that big. Arthur absolutely didn’t need to feel bad for excluding the bear from his bed; it would be completely unreasonable to treat this monstrously huge bear just like the other stuffed animals.
The moonlight came in Arthur’s window and glinted off the bear’s reproachful eyes.
“Damn it, Merlin,” Arthur said, climbing out of bed to get the enormous bear.
On the bright side, Mr. Icicles did give really good hugs.
Arthur loves all of his stuffed animals. They are all equally special to him and he would never hurt their feelings by treasuring one over another.
His favourite is his incredibly soft stuffed bunny.
A few years ago, Arthur got in a car accident and spent a couple of days in the hospital. Apparently, while high on pain medication, he called Merlin and managed to communicate that he was in the hospital and that Merlin should come immediately. Arthur has no memory of doing this, but he does remember waking up hours later in a hospital bed and being immediately punched in the shoulder by Merlin.
“Hey,” Arthur croaked out. “You can’t hit someone who’s in the hospital.”
Merlin hit him again. (To be fair, Arthur’s shoulder was completely uninjured - at least, it was before Merlin started hitting it.)
“You bloody bastard, I thought you were dying,” Merlin snapped.
Arthur tried a grin. “I’m touched you cared so much,” he teased, and then he yelped, “Ow!” when Merlin hit him a third time.
“Damn it, Arthur!” Merlin said, and then leaned over him and gave him a close, careful hug.
When he leaned back, Arthur realized there were tear stains on his face and bags under his eyes, and that Merlin had genuinely thought his life was in danger.
He reached out and grabbed Merlin’s hand. It was entirely to stop Merlin from abusing him, and not at all to reassure Merlin, or because it felt nice to hold his best friend’s hand and know that he was there for him.
“I’m all right,” Arthur said. “I’m fine, you idiot, I’m not gonna die.”
“You’d better not,” Merlin said.
Merlin squeezed Arthur’s hand, and Arthur squeezed back. They stayed like that for a few minutes, quietly, until Arthur had had enough of being stared at like Merlin hadn’t thought he would ever see him again, or something, so he had to look away. He cast his eyes around the room for something to talk about.
That was when he saw the bunny, sitting on a visitor’s chair in the corner of the room. “Aw, you got me a present!”
Merlin stopped staring like Arthur was something precious, and scowled fiercely at him instead. Nonetheless, he gave in to Arthur’s grabby hands and general pathetic injured-ness and handed the bunny over.
Arthur petted his ears. (The bunny’s, not Merlin’s.)
“You don’t deserve him, you know,” Merlin said, still glaring. “You’re not even close to dead. I’m closer to dead than you, from the fucking heart attack you gave me.”
Arthur hugged the bunny. “What’s his name?”
“His name is ‘Fuck You Arthur’.”
Anyways, the point is that half of Arthur’s bed is taken up by stuffed animals. So when Merlin visits Arthur’s flat unexpectedly - without giving Arthur a chance to hide them as he always does when he has company - five pairs of eyes stare at Merlin when he goes into Arthur’s room.
Merlin stops dead in the doorway and stares back.
“You still have them,” Merlin says, sounding stunned. He turns to Arthur, standing frozen in the doorway beside him. “You kept all of them.”
“Well,” Arthur says. “I. I tried to donate them to a children’s charity, but they turned me away because they were way too hideous and would give kids nightmares.”
“They’re in your bed,” Merlin says.
Arthur crosses his arms defensively. “Mr. Icicles makes a very good pillow.”
“You remember their names.”
“Unfortunately,” Arthur agrees. “What sort of ridiculous name is CongRATulations, anyway?”
“Ooh, the giant baby rat!” Merlin says. He crosses the room and pulls ConRATulations out from underneath Arthur’s blankets. “Hi, baby rat! I cannot believe you still have this ratty old thing,” he says to Arthur.
Merlin looks delighted, but also genuinely astonished and bewildered and Arthur doesn’t get that at all.
“Of course I still have her!” he says. “Of course I kept them all! You gave them to me. What did you think I’d do, throw them in the trash?”
“Well,” Merlin says. “Yeah, kind of.”
Arthur picks up Fuck You Arthur. “He doesn’t mean it,” he promises the bunny. “You’re very special to me and I’d never throw any of you out.”
Merlin smiles warmly at him, and Arthur returns it, and they just stand there for a minute until Merlin says, “Arthur, is that -” and then reaches over and picks up Tiny the Teddy Bear from his usual place on Mr. Icicles’ paw.
“You still have Tiny,” Merlin says.
“…Careful, one of his eyes is a little loose,” Arthur says, except it’s totally not necessary, because Merlin is holding the little bear practically reverently.
Arthur looks at the floor and says, “Merlin, I guess I’ve never said this before, but… thank you. For the stuffed animals, and for thinking of me, and being there to give them to me.”
“Awwww,” Merlin teases, except he’s beaming and his eyes are suspiciously shiny. After a moment, he asks, “So, hypothetically, if I had given you, say, a Valentine’s penguin, would you have kept that too?”
“A Valentine’s - why a penguin?” Arthur asks. Because that can’t possibly mean what he thinks it means. Can it?
“Because they’re monogamous and very cute and - and penguins aren’t what’s important here! Answer the question!”
“No, I think the penguins are very important,” Arthur says, grinning madly. He isn’t sure what he’s more delighted about - Merlin asking him out, or how incredibly flustered Merlin’s become while asking him out. “Does the penguin represent you or me?”
“… I don’t know,” Merlin says. Even his ears are bright red. “You? No, wait, me. Wait, maybe I should’ve got two penguins?”
“Are you saying you already have this penguin? I thought it was a hypothetical penguin.” Arthur’s face is beginning to hurt from how hugely he’s grinning.
“The penguin might be more tangible than I previously implied,” Merlin allows. “Do you want him or not?”
“Welllll,” Arthur drawls slowly, but Merlin is starting to look a bit peeved, so he says, “Yeah, all right.”
“Cool, cool,” Merlin says. “Wait right here.”