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Crush'd (The Sitterfic)

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 It’s a warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon when Arthur bursts into Morgana’s unannounced, tripping over one of Mordred’s toy trains and yelping out in pain.

“Arthur?” He hears her call through the large flat, her voice bouncing off the ample marble surfaces. Her tiny black heels make a sharp clicking sound as she walks down the hall to the front room.

“A little help, please?” Arthur kicks the train out of the way, but not before giving it a stern, distrustful look. “You need to tell your child to put his toys away.”

Arthur doesn’t have to be looking at her to know she rolls her eyes as she replies, “Not everyone is as organized as you, Arthur. Do you want Mordred to start organizing his trousers by color, too, hmm?”

“Saves time.” Arthur nods at Morgana as he hands her the bags he’s carried in.

“Alcohol,” He says at her questioning leer. With Morgana, it’s always a leer.

“What’s this for?”

She claps her hands together twice happily, not waiting to hear his answer, and Arthur hears her rings clack against each other. Pleased, she gathers two wine glasses from the cabinet and sets them on the bar that Arthur has wondered over to.

“I know better than to show up here without any.”

“This is true.”

Arthur crosses the room to sit down in a black, overstuffed chair that his sister only keeps because of his whining whenever she tries to get rid of it. He sweeps his eyes over the living room and frowns. Morgana clicks her way over to him and sits in the chair adjacent. She leans in a bit.

“He’s in the play room with Mordred.”

“What’re they up to today?”

“Going to space, I believe. They’ve been quiet for a while now. I hope they didn’t slip through a black hole into another galaxy.”

“That might be hard to explain to Leon.”

Morgana chuckles and clinks her glass against Arthur’s. They sit in companionable silence for a while and drink their wine until an odd buzzing sound turns both Pendragons’ heads toward the hall.

Mordred gallops out into the living room with a tupperware over his head, his little feet thudding on the white carpet. When he sees Arthur, he makes a bee-line to him and Arthur leans forward on his chair and grins.

“Uncle Arthur,” Mordred addresses him politely, tapping the giant metal spoon in his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Human. Not an alien.” He tuts before turning to his mother and doing the same. “Mommy. Human. Not an alien. Mission complete!” He makes his buzzing sound again Arthur wishes he could scoop him up into his lap, but somehow Mordred has always seemed to old for that. Even when wearing a large plastic bowl on his head and wielding giant silverware. Arthur reaches to pull it off and ruffle his nephew’s hair when he hears a voice shout from the hallway entrance.

“Careful, Arthur! That’s his only oxygen!”

Merlin then sprints into the living room in his jeans and dark button-up, also donning a tupperware helmet. He stops in front of Arthur and Morgana and salutes them both before squatting down to look at Mordred.

“Commander Mordred, have you identified these beings?”

“Yes, sir.” Mordred chants. “Mommy and Uncle Arthur.”

“Not aliens?”

“Not aliens.”

Merlin nods curtly at Mordred, still in character, and then slips out for a second to grin at Arthur and poke his shoulder with the spatula he’s holding.

“What’re those, then?” Arthur asks, nudging Merlin’s ankle with his shoe.

“They’re to fend off the aliens!” Mordred pipes up, moving the spoon closer to his face to take a closer look, like he thinks the object might have changed shape right in his hand.

“Are they now?” Morgana pulls Mordred to her and kisses his cheek. “Now that you’ve discovered the flat is safe, how about you get ready for practice. Merlin, would you?”

“Of course!” Merlin agrees, and points with his spatula down the hallway where the bedrooms are. “Ready for take-off to Mordred’s room, Alien Hunters Headquarters. Blast off in three...two...” Arthur raises his eyebrows as the two of them shoot off down the hallway, Mordred only slightly behind.

“So it’s space this week, I see.” Arthur says, unable to keep himself from grinning. “What was last week again? Underwater?”

“Jungle,” Morgana corrects. “The pens read ‘washable’ and yet I’m still having trouble getting out those zebra stripes out of his white shirt.”

“You mean Merlin is.”

“Right. Another glass?” Morgana asks as she stands up, smoothing her hands down her black pencil skirt.

“No, thank you. Though, liquid confidence and all."

“Confidence?” Morgana repeats after refilling her glass. She spins around and her black hair twirls behind her shoulder. Arthur hums and stares at the floor. “Go on, then. What are you planning?”

“I’m going to ask Merlin on a date.”

“Really?” She asks, eyebrows raised and red lips upturned at the corners, and that’s enough provocation for Arthur to continue.

“God, yes, Morgana! I need to just do it already, don’t you agree? Weren’t you the one who said not telling him was just going to make me more miserable?”

Arthur leans back in his chair, resting his head against the back of it and staring straight ahead. He has known Merlin since he first interviewed to be Morgana’s housekeeper/babysitter over two years ago. Arthur has watched him date people he knows were just awful for him (because they weren’t him) and has let himself go out with countless people who he knows he never would have a future with (because they weren’t Merlin). It was time, he was sure of that. He wanted those kind, blue eyes and to be able to kiss that wide smile off Merlin’s face. He was in deep; there was no denying that.

“You’re serious.”

“It’s Merlin; of course I am!” Arthur exclaims. “It’s not exactly easy being completely head over arse for someone and keeping it a secret! Morgana, I h-”

“Merlin,” Morgana directs her attention to the hallway entrance to where Merlin is standing, holding their tupperware helmets and silverware.

Merlin stares before clearing his throat and waving the spoon and spatula around in the air a bit. “I was just going to put back Mordred’s space things,” He doesn’t wait for Morgana’s nod to hurry into the kitchen. Arthur swears he sees his face flush crimson, like his own is undoubtedly doing at the moment.

Morgana’s eyes are wide as she turns to face him.

“Oh God.”

“Arthur, don’t freak out,” Morgana puts her hand on top of his on the arm of the chair.

“Oh, God.” He moans. “How long was he standing there? How much did he hear?”

“Probably nothing,” Morgana reassures him, but her face tells a different story and Arthur reads it in a split second.

He’s mortified. “I should probably found out what he heard.” Even as Arthur’s saying it, he’s regretting it. He wants nothing more than to just walk out of Morgana’s flat and into the nearest intersection.

“Yes,” Morgana agrees, taking his glass and shoving him in the direction of the kitchen as soon as he stands up. “It’s better to deal with a situation like this straight away.”

Arthur steps into the kitchen to see Merlin reaching up to put the tupperware in the cabinet above the refrigerator. Arthur clears his throat and Merlin spins around, eyes wide. Arthur still sees faint traces of a blush lingering on his cheeks and feels guilty for making him so (adorably) uncomfortable.

He says, “Merlin-” at the same time Merlin says, “Arthur, I,” and then they both stop.

“No, you go first.” Arthur insists.

“I’m guessing I wasn’t supposed to hear that.” Merlin shifts from one foot to the other and digs the toe of his moccasin into the tile floor. Arthur would grin about it if he weren’t so freaked out. “I should’ve said something when I walked in.”

Arthur waves his hand a bit. “No, no. I’m actually glad you heard it.” He waits until Merlin looks back at him to continue. “I’ve wanted you to know for a while now.” Arthur swears it’s the longest second of his life before Merlin’s face cracks into a huge grin, eyes sparkling.

“That’s wonderful!” He shouts, leaping across the kitchen to pull Arthur into a hug and dance him around in a circle. Arthur can’t breathe.

“Is it?” Arthur asks, continuing to let Merlin spin him around.

“Of course, Arthur!”

Merlin pushes back against Arthur’s shoulder to look him in the eye and grabs Arthur’s hand from its place at his side.

“So...” Merlin raises his eyebrow. “Who is she?”

Arthur stops. “Who?”

“The girl you’re so enamored with!”

“...You didn’t hear that part, did you?” Arthur’s heart falls flat in his chest.

“No. Well? Who is she?”

Arthur swallows and drops Merlin’s hand. Merlin’s standing there in front of him, that stupid grin cemented on his face, and Arthur thinks his cheeks must be starting to ache. He realizes he has two options here: he could tell Merlin the truth and possibly be either the happiest or the most miserable he’s ever been in his life depending on Merlin’s reaction, or he could create a fictitious woman and just generally be a total coward who, even in his late-twenties, acts like a fucking lovesick teenager. Arthur weighs his options and Merlin looks on patiently.

“Well. The name of the person I love so much is...Me-...lvina!”

Merlin quirks his eyebrow and Arthur instantly wants to castrate himself.

“Melvina?”

“Yes.” NO. NO NO NO.

“I’ve never heard that name before.” Merlin grins all the same.

“Well,” Arthur says again, stepping over to the cabinet and grabbing out a wine glass. “It’s a family name. Excuse me for a minute.”

He practically sprints into the living room and right to the bar. He sees Morgana look at him questioningly but he’s far too embarrassed to own up to his actions right now and instead favors filling the wine glass practically to the brim and downing it like it’s water after he’s run a particularly brutal marathon. Morgana doesn’t bother with him and steps into the kitchen herself, where Merlin is rinsing off the giant silverware.

“So, Merlin-”

“I’m sorry to barge into you and Arthur’s conversation like that,” Merlin turns around and tells her, toweling off the spatula. “I should’ve coughed or something.”

She waves the hand that’s not holding her nearly empty wine glass in the air. “It’s quite alright, Merlin. So...I take it you and Arthur had a chat?”

“Oh, yeah. He was intent on keeping it to himself first, but I dragged it out of him. He seems quite pleased.” He says cheerily, sticking the silverware back in the chrome holder on the marble counter.

Morgana exclaims, “This calls for a drink!” and ushers Merlin to the bar in the living room after grabbing him a wine glass from the cabinet. Arthur looks at both of them with wide eyes as they crowd around him and Morgana takes his (now half-empty) wine bottle and pours a bit into Merlin’s glass. “May I be the first to raise a toast to-” She stops when she sees Arthur gesturing wildly over Merlin’s shoulder and then dragging a finger across his throat.

“To Mordred and Merlin’s successful space mission!” Arthur supplies and claps Merlin on the shoulder. Merlin looks confused for half a second before raising his glass to his lips anyway, following the siblings suit.

Thankfully just then, the child in question pipes up from the back bedroom with Merlin’s name. Merlin hands his glass to Arthur, who sets it on the bar for him, and jogs out of the room and down the hall. Morgana immediately takes Arthur’s glass and sets both of theirs on the bar behind them next to Merlin’s.

“What the hell is going on?!”

“He heard that I was in love with someone but not that it was him.” Arthur reaches for his wine glass again but his sister slaps his hand away. “And when he asked who it was I panicked said the first name that came to mind.”

“And that name was?”

“...Melvina.”

Morgana cracks up and Arthur slings himself into a dining chair and buries his face in his folded arms.

“What kind of stupid name is that?!”

“I was going to say Merlin.” Arthur replies miserably.

“Merlin, Melvina... Yes, I hear the similarity!” Morgana manages between spells of laughter.

“You’re the worst sister ever.”

“What was that, Melvina? I didn’t hear you, Melvina. So Arthur, how’s Melvina?”

Arthur groans and makes grabby hands at his wine glass and Morgana, bless her, hands it over to him.

“You know you’ve got to clear this up.”

“Can it wait until at least the bottle’s gone?”

“No.”

“Fine!” Arthur shouts, just as Merlin and Mordred walk into the living room.

“We’re off to Mordred’s swimming lesson.” Merlin says, grabbing his bag off the front table.

“Merlin,” Morgana says, “Why don’t you let me take him and you can get a start on folding the laundry that’s just finished.”

“Alright.” Merlin crouches down to Mordred’s height and ruffles his hair. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Cadet.”

Mordred salutes back happily and then runs to give Arthur a hug around his legs before he and Morgana head out, leaving Merlin and Arthur standing in the front hall. Merlin sets his bag back down by the front door and smiles spectacularly at Arthur.

“Why don’t you tell me more about this Melvina?”

“I’d rather not,” Arthur says shortly as he follows Merlin to the laundry room. He watches Merlin pull clothes from the dryer into a basket, including Mordred’s faintly zebra-striped white shirt, and hears Merlin tsk at it before reaching back in to pull out more.

“Ar-thur. You said you’d been wanting to tell me for a while. So, come on. Have you asked her out yet?”

“Er, no.”

“Why not? You said yourself you were in love with her.”

“Uncle Arthur loves who?” Arthur practically jumps out of his skin as his nephew comes in, looking between Arthur and Merlin expectedly.

“Melvina,” Merlin answers.

“I’ve never heard that name before,” Mordred says, and Arthur wants to bang his head into the washing machine because he can’t even fool a seven year old. Mordred then cocks his head. “Mommy says Uncle Arthur loves-”

“Himself!” Morgana jumps into the room. “Isn’t that right, Arthur? Merlin, toss me his trunks, would you?”

“You’re too funny, Morgana. Now get out of here or you’ll be late.” He bites down on the last word and Morgana grabs the pale blue swim trunks from Merlin and guides her son out of the room with her hands on his shoulders.

“Have fun, Mordred!” Merlin shouts after them, grinning.

Arthur follows Merlin and his basket of laundry back out to the living room. He sits down on the couch while Merlin stands, looking small in the giant room, and starts folding one of Morgana’s jumpers. Arthur’s always hated it.

“I know you hate this jumper but quit giving it the stink eye or you’re going to burn holes right through it. You’ll wake up with an ‘X’ on your front door in red nail polish.”

“Another one?”

“Another one. Go on then, tell me about her.”

“Morgana?”

Merlin rolls his eyes and throws one of Mordred’s tiny socks at Arthur’s face. It has frogs and lily pads all over it and Arthur wishes he had a pair too. Maybe in a bigger size though.

“No, you prat, not Morgana. This dream woman of yours.”

Arthur inhales a calming breath. “Well, alright then. She’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. She...” Arthur tries not to get too specific, “She has the most wonderful sense of humor. I’ve never met anyone I’ve felt so...connected with. I knew from the day I met hi-” he coughs to cover up his slight mistake, “her that she was my other, better half.”

Merlin stops in the middle of bundling a pair of black socks to come over to the couch and sit down next to Arthur. Arthur’s heartbeat increases approximately six times the normal rate and he can feel the familiar warmth that’s always radiating from Merlin on his side.

“You know Arthur, if you like this woman so much, what are you waiting for?” He trades the now-bundled socks for a couple stray ones on the coffee table. “If she’s as wonderful as you say she is, she won’t be on the market much longer.”

Arthur looks at Merlin’s blue, blue eyes and steels himself. He stands up.

“You’re absolutely right, Merlin. I’ve been a fool to wait as long as I have.”

“I am, and you have!” Merlin agrees, giving him that stellar grin again that makes Arthur weak in the knees. He stands up to and goes over to the table in the front hall. He snatches Arthur’s keys from it and then hops back over to grab Arthur’s hand and put them in his palm. “Go ask her this instant!”

“I will. But,” he pushes his keys back into Merlin’s hands, “these won’t be necessary. Merlin,” Arthur’s heart is pounding so loud in his own ears that he can barely hear the words he says next. “I don’t have to leave this room to ask the object of my affections out for a date.”

“You don’t?” Merlin asks, setting Arthur’s keys on the coffee table among the numerous sock bundles, and oh god, even those are cute, Arthur swears by his life that every little thing Merlin does is the cutest thing he’s ever seen. And Arthur tends not to use the word cute.

“No, because,” Arthur steels himself for what feels like the ninth time that night, “Merlin... I know her phone number by heart!”

Arthur eyes the large marble fireplace over Merlin’s shoulder and wonders how hard he has to smash his head into it to put himself into a coma forever. He can almost hear the ambulance sirens already.

“Here, then. Use mine.” Merlin chirps happily, waving his god-awful flip phone in Arthur’s face. Arthur takes it and flips it open and oh god the background is a semi-recent and totally pixelated picture of him and Arthur and Arthur smiles so hard he thinks he might throw up.

“Excited, are you?”

“What? Oh, yes.” He punches in his home telephone number (the number Merlin doesn’t have saved in his phone) and waits for his own voice to tell himself that he’s not home and to leave a message. Merlin’s staring at him, grinning patiently, and Arthur feels like more of a jackass with every second that passes.

“Melvina! Hi. It’s Arthur Pendragon. I was wondering,” Arthur pauses for a split second to swoon at the hopeful face Merlin’s giving him from where he’s over at the coffee table folding Mordred’s pajama shirts, “if you’d like to have dinner sometime. Eight o’clock, my place? Great! I’ll see you then.”

______

 

“I left a message on my own machine. My own machine, Gwaine.”

Gwaine doesn’t laugh quite as hard as Morgana did when he called her on his way to the pub he’s currently sitting in, but it’s enough to make Arthur think he needs new friends. And family.

“In that case, this is on me.” Gwaine says, his voice hoarse from the laughter, as he sets a tall glass of beer on the counter loudly right in front of Arthur’s crossed arms.

“Thanks, mate.” Arthur says regardless, and takes a gulp. “So, when is this nonexistent date?”

“A couple of hours.”

“Are you going to take a nonexistent limo to a nice, fancy, nonexistent restaurant? Maybe sit out on the nonexistent patio? An expensive, nonexistent bottle of wine and a nonexistent candle to set the mood?”

Arthur barely has time to glare menacingly at him because a couple of men have waved him over from the other side of the bar. He taps along to the quiet music playing from the speakers of the pub with his fingernails on the mahogany counter and lets his mind wander. Of course he finds himself thinking about Merlin and his stupid sock bundling routine and the background of the two of them on his totally outdated mobile.

“Why couldn’t I just tell him, honestly? What is wrong with me?”

“I get off at midnight, Arthur. I don’t think I have enough time to answer that question.”

Arthur puts his face in his hands and sighs. “Fuck me.”

Gwaine leans in with a quirked eyebrow to ask, “Shouldn’t you be saying that to your nonexistent date?”

“You know Gwaine, one day it’s going to be you in a situation like this and I’m going to laugh so hard at your pain.”

“Like that’ll ever happen. Who could resist this?” Gwaine gestures to the entirety of himself and the answer is apparently no one, seeing as a couple young women at a corner table perk up. Gwaine raises his eyebrows at Arthur like, See?

“You’re ridiculous.” Arthur says as a goodbye. He slides off the barstool and grabs his keys, heading for the door. As he throws it open, he hears Gwaine shouting at him.

“Don’t forget to wear a nonexistent condom!”


He has just enough time to flip Gwaine off and retract his arm before the door shuts.

______

 

Half past seven finds Arthur sitting on his leather sofa playing computer games in his bathrobe. He doesn’t feel particularly good about it, but after the day he’s had, he figures it’s moderately acceptable. He’s fiercely tapping the spacebar to blow up enemy starships when there’s a knock on the door.

Arthur desperately hopes it’s Morgana with at least six bottles of wine, but the knocking he heard wasn’t in her usual pattern (“Why do you always knock exactly that way?” Arthur asked her once. “Just letting you know it’s me and not some crazy, Canadian assassin out to brutally murder you.” “Why Canadian?” “Why not?”) and she’s most likely still at the pool with Mordred. He shuts his laptop and goes to the door.

“Hurry up you prat, I can’t hold all this forever!”

Merlin?” He asks before he’s even got the door open. “What are you doing here?”

“Quit making that face or it’ll get stuck like that.”

“Okay, mum.”

“Be a good son and take some of this from me, will you?”

Arthur does as he’s told and takes what looks like a peach pie from Merlin’s arms, kicking the front door shut behind the two of them.

“I thought you’d need some dessert for your big date tonight.” He beams at Arthur and then wiggles the big brown paper bags he’s got in each hand. “And champagne.” At Arthur’s lack of a response, he sees a slight blush creep up high on Merlin’s (incredibly bitable) cheekbones and watches him look to the floor.

“You brought all this just for my date?” Arthur asks, setting the pie on the coffee table.

“It obviously means a lot to you, and I just wanted everything to be perfect.”

Arthur wants to scoop him up right there and kiss him like he’s never kissed anyone in his entire life, buy two plane tickets to who-cares-where and build Merlin a dream house with kids and two miniature schnauzers. Arthur’s never been a fan of the breed (or pets in general) but he’s seen the way Merlin fawns over them at the pet store downtown.

“Arthur. What are you thinking about?”

“Miniature schnauzers,”

Merlin grins and cocks his head a bit, getting a faraway look in his eyes. “I love those.”

“Don’t I know it,” Arthur replies.

Merlin looks like he suddenly remembers what he’s doing there and hands the bags to Arthur so he can grab the champagne bottles out of them. “I’m just going to put these in the kitchen, I’m guessing you’ve got about nine different things on the stove in there? Then I’ll be gone, I swear.”

“...Right.” Arthur says slowly, and then his brain catches up with him and he hops after Merlin. “Oh, Merlin, please, don’t trouble yourself, I’ll bring them-”

But Merlin’s already made his way across the living room and is pushing the door to the kitchen open with Arthur at his heels. At the sight of not a single thing being cooked, Merlin scoffs. He sets the bottles down on the island and holds up the small pasta box Arthur had been planning on making for himself later on in the night.

This is what you call a romantic dinner? There’s barely enough for you alone, you dunce.”

“Right!” Arthur says again. He wishes he didn’t find Merlin’s disapproving look so fucking cute. It’s like the sock bundles all over again. Oh god, the sock bundles-

“You’re lucky I stopped by,” Merlin says matter-of-factly, pointing a finger at him from where he’s now standing in front of Arthur’s fridge. “There’s enough greens in here for me to whip up a salad, we can stick this roast in the microwave to thaw... And where are your spices? Honestly Arthur, I don’t know how you were planning on getting through this date. Poor Melvina. Tell her she owes me one.”

Arthur’s about to ask, Who? but stops himself just in time. Right, right. His fictional date. Who Merlin thinks is going to be arriving for dinner in about, Arthur looks to the analog clock on the kitchen wall, twenty-five minutes. Though he’s miles and miles away from the pub, he swears he can hear Gwaine laughing at him. He wonders how difficult it would be to feign a heart attack and end this disaster before it’s begun. But Merlin’s probably too smart to fall for that.

Probably.

“You’re right, I’m completely unprepared. I’ll just call Melvina and reschedule.” Arthur says, relief washing over him.

“Nonsense.” Merlin frowns. Arthur tries not to look at his lips. Tries. “There’s no sense in backing out now. She’s probably on her way here, anyhow. Don’t worry yourself, Arthur, I’ll help turn this place into dating shape in no time. You’ve got candles, right?”

“Top right cupboard,” Arthur replies flatly, his plan foiled.

“Top left actually,” Merlin grins and reaches above the stove to collect a few. “I’ll get these things started.”

“Since when are you a chef?”

Merlin shrugs. “I used to watch Marcus do it. If he can do it, it can’t be that hard.”

Arthur immediately recognizes the name as an old boyfriend who used to come around Morgana’s to pick Merlin up after he was finished there. Arthur always hated him.

...Well, Arthur didn’t know him. But if he did, he’s pretty certain he wouldn’t have liked him based solely on the fact that he wasn’t Arthur. Merlin’s dropped tidbit of his personal life almost makes Arthur a bit melancholy. He longs to be the one to cook for him and build him a house and smooth his stupid hair down when it sticks up (like it’s doing at the moment) and get him those juice boxes Morgana buys for Mordred that he likes so much, and miniature schnauzers. So many schnauzers. Arthur’s so caught up in this thought that he barely notices Merlin padding over to him.

“Will you quit making that face? It’s like you’re in a completely different universe.” Merlin leans totally into his personal space. “Must be thinking about Melvina.” He gives Arthur’s shoulder a quick pat and retreats to the cabinet. “You should probably go get dressed into something sensible. Oh!” He spins around to point at him with the hand that’s not now holding one trillion tealight candles, “Wear that one blue blazer. No one could resist you in that.”

And wow, Arthur’s never been so pleased in his life and files that fact away for future reference. He hears the click of the fireplace lighter and watches the tiny flame of the lighter bounce warm colors across Merlin’s concentrated face. He smiles goofily to himself and stops on his way out of the kitchen to turn back.

“Which trousers?”

“Black slacks. And that thick black leather belt as well.” Merlin doesn’t lift his eyes from the row of candles as he responds.

_____

Arthur makes his way back into his living room minutes later but stops short. There’s a soft classical tune emitting from the speakers around his television and a soft, warm glow reflects off the shiny leather of the couch. Arthur stares at the many candles that seem to be set on every available surface in the room and he’s aware of the way his mouth is hanging open in awe.

“You did all this?” He asks incredulously as Merlin strolls into the room.

Merlin beams, throws his arms out (Arthur notices he’s got an oven mitt on each hand), and spins in a circle, gesticulating at his work. He nudges a candle a little further onto the coffee table from where it’s teetering close to the edge.

“I didn’t even know you the word ‘romance’ was in your vocabulary.”

“I could say the same to you,” Merlin shoots back, “Well, I have said it to you.”

“I underestimated you, Merlin. How do I look?”

“Melvina will be pleased.”

Arthur frowns. “That’s not very convincing.”

“Isn’t it?” Merlin cocks his head jokingly and Arthur rolls his eyes.

Merlin skips over to put an oven-mitt clad hand on Arthur’s shoulder and it could be the fireplace roaring (nice touch) or the billion candles surrounding him, but Arthur feels warm all over. He leans in real close and Arthur’s mouth goes dry at the abundance of colors in Merlin’s irises.

“I think it’s safe to say that once she arrives, she’ll probably be here for the remainder of the night. And morning,” and then Merlin honest-to-God winks and he must take Arthur’s stunned silence as taking offense because he’s quick to add, with a panicked look on his (perfect) face, “I mean, not to say she’s a slag. She’s not. I mean, at least I don’t think she is. I don’t know. But I hardly think you’d date a slag. Then again, you’ve had your fair share of...questionable relationships.”

“Questionable?” Arthur repeats, taken aback.

Merlin throws his oven mitts up in defense. “I’m only saying, it’s not like you’ve dated the most saint-like of women.”

Arthur thinks about it for a minute. “I suppose Morgana’s told you the story of Greg, then?”

“Greg?” Merlin questions, finally taking his hand off Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur immediately misses the warmth and subconsciously inches closer to the fireplace. “Who’s Greg?”

“One of the less saint-like people I’ve been with,” Arthur answers.

“Greg?” Merlin says again, messing with a candle arrangement that’s been set up on the bar. The tiny flames shine like fairy lights in the adjacent wine glasses.

“Total prick,” Arthur adds.

“He? Greg?” Merlin whips his head up again like he’s a dog who’s just heard an extraordinarily high- pitched noise emit from Arthur’s person. He sees something in Merlin’s eye that he can’t quite recognize at first but it’s gone the second he tries to place it.

“Well, there’s no use dwelling on that tonight. Tonight is about Melvina, right?”

“Right,” Arthur answers distractedly, fussing with his tie.

“Here,” Merlin says and walks his way back over to Arthur quickly, stopping short in front of him and thwacking his hands away. “You’ll just ruin it,”

“I resent that.”

Merlin says nothing back but smiles loftily, straightening Arthur’s tie effortlessly. Of course, Arthur thinks. He then raises his hands to adjust Arthur’s collar and Arthur has to retain the shiver that arises when Merlin’s finger accidentally brushes against the back of his neck.

“Have you even made an attempt at your hair?” Merlin raises an eyebrow, letting his hands fall back to his sides, but not for long because now he’s got his fingers running through Arthur’s hair and Arthur swears this has happened to him in a dream before.

It’s not like Merlin’s never mussed (and then fixed) Arthur’s hair before, because he has plenty of times, just ask Morgana, but this time is different; it’s gentler. Arthur glances around at the candles and fireplace and warm colors and mood lighting. He hears the crackling of the burning wood and the soft music Merlin had put on earlier and the man in front of him’s steady breathing and everything feels right and wrong at the same time. Right because of, well, everything.

And wrong because the only reason Merlin’s still here is to help him set up for a date with his ‘dream woman’, who, Arthur keeps having to remind himself, is completely fictional. Merlin’s gone through all this trouble to create this beautiful atmosphere and there’s a fucking meal cooking in the kitchen and oh, God, Arthur feels terrible. He worries at his bottom lip absentmindedly.

Merlin grins and states, “You’re nervous. Quit biting your lip or you’ll split it. And you’ll probably need it tonight.” Then Merlin giggles in a way that is far too adorable for someone past eleven years of age and Arthur wants to die.

“There. Handsome as ever.” Merlin says with one last touch to Arthur’s bangs. “Now come help me finish things in the kitchen.”

Arthur obliges and steps after him lively, the compliment brightening his mood instantly. Merlin stands close to him as they chop vegetables in sync for the pasta that’s boiling on the stove. Merlin hums a familiar tune and Arthur joins in, bumping their shoulders together occasionally. Arthur doesn’t notice Merlin’s stopped humming with him until Merlin speaks.

“Arthur?”

Arthur hums in response and scoops pieces of broccoli into a bowl between the two of them. Merlin does the same with the carrots and picks up the pieces Arthur has dropped on the counter before continuing.

“What took you so long to ask this woman out?”

Arthur stops chopping and sets the knife down gently on its side on the cutting board. He looks ahead of him and thinks of what to say.

“It’s not like there was a great chance she’d say no,” Merlin adds.

“Sure there was, Merlin."

“Well, I mean...you are lazy and overbearing and arrogant and-”

“Merlin, you do realize there is a plethora of knives in this kitchen-”

“Noted,” Merlin grins and gives him a sidelong glance. “But really, what was it?”

“I guess it’s just been a while since I’ve felt about someone like this. It’s difficult to muster up the courage. She’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” Arthur makes sure to keep his pronouns in check and to keep his gaze off of Merlin, who’s gotten back to chopping carrots, in case his eyes start forming into little hearts like Morgana claims they often do. Arthur declares that she’s being ridiculous, but really, you can never be too careful. Also, Morgana is right a lot of the time. “And if I blow it, I’m not sure what I’ll do.”

“I doubt you’ll blow it. She’ll be smitten from the moment she walks in here tonight.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“My romantic decorating and food preparing skills.” Arthur rolls his eyes. “Besides, Arthur, what’s there for her not to like about you?”

“You’ve already told me,” Arthur quips.

“Hush,” Merlin says back, bumping his shoulder into Arthur’s again. “I mean it. You’re CEO of a brilliant company that does, well, I’m still not quite sure I know what exactly, you’re tall, you have a great sense of humor-”

Arthur is practically blushing like a goddamn schoolgirl when he hears his cell phone chirping repeatedly.

“Hold that thought,” he says to Merlin and ducks into the other room.

“It’s half-past eight,” Morgana says matter-of-factly.

“...Yes?” Arthur answers, leaning against the wall next to the fireplace.

“So,” he practically hears her smirk, “how’s that dream date going? Let me guess- level seven of Space Invaders?”

“Nine,” Arthur growls.

Merlin swings the kitchen door open and says, “Arthur? The pasta’s done if you want to strain it.” Arthur nods at him and Merlin disappears again.

“Did I just hear Merlin?”

Arthur scrubs a hand over his face and groans.

“Arthur. Why is Merlin at your house right now? Have you finally wooed him?! I suppose you’ve told him about the whole fake woman situation then, haven’t you? What was her name again?”

“Morgana, for the love of God, shut up. He came over unexpectedly about an hour ago to help me prepare for my date.”

There’s a beat before Morgana responds, “Scoping out his competition, I presume.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing,” Morgana says quickly. “So I take it you haven’t come clean yet.”

Arthur flops down onto the leather couch and rubs his eyes exasperatedly. He hears clinks in the kitchen from what he assumes are pans or plates being placed on the counter.

“No,” Arthur says, ashamed.

“What are you doing to do?”

“I don’t know. Help me.”

“You know, I was in a situation like this once.”

“Really?”

Morgana laughs brightly. “Of course not!”

“You know Morgana, as much as this conversation has helped-”

Morgana shushes him. “Just say that instead of me, it was her calling and that she can’t make it tonight. Not that I condone lying but-”

“Yes you do.”

But,” Morgana continues, “it’s pretty much your only option at this point. Besides, of course, telling him the truth but I’m guessing you’re not up to that right now.”

“You’re right,” Arthur confesses. “Fine, I’ll do that first suggestion. Say goodnight to Mordred for me.”

“I will.”

“Morgana?”

“Arthur?”

“Thanks.”

“Not a problem.”

Morgana isn’t totally sinister all the time, and Arthur knows this, but it’s nice to get a reminder every once in a while. He stays on the couch for another minute just thinking about the whole situation before taking a breath and going back into the kitchen. His eyes widen at the remarkable display set out on the island; several plates filled with steaming food, all ready to be served.

“Oh my god,” Arthur says aloud.

Merlin spins around from where he’s rinsing the pasta pot in the giant stainless steel sink. “Look good?”

“Good?” Arthur repeats. “Merlin, it’s brilliant!”

Merlin smiles widely and walks over to where Arthur’s still standing by the kitchen door. He puts a hand on Arthur’s shoulder as they both survey the display together, Merlin radiating sunshine and rainbows from beside him. Arthur breathes in deeply and in an extraordinary act of courage, raises his hand to set it on top of Merlin’s.

There’s a barely audible intake of breath from the other man, but their hands stay where they are. The candles flicker from the counters surrounding them and the warmth from their hands interchanges. Arthur casts a subtle glance over at Merlin, whose elated expression hasn’t changed. Arthur’s insides are practically vibrating. What was only a few seconds feels like minutes to Arthur, and then Merlin’s hand is sliding out from beneath his to fall back at his side.

“Melvina’s going to love it,” Merlin states quietly, moving to nudge the plates around a little. Arthur’s face falls.

“Actually, Merlin, that was her on the phone. She can’t make it tonight.” Merlin turns around to face him and looks like a kicked puppy. Arthur winces.

“You’re joking.”

“Afraid not.”

“After I did all this?” He motions to his fantastic food display and then leaps behind Arthur to push open the kitchen door and gesture at the work he’d done in there as well. The fireplace crackles noisily in the absence of voices.

“I’m sorry, Merlin. You were so great in helping me, really.”

Merlin shrugs it off. “Not your fault,” he says.

Arthur shuffles awkwardly.

“I’m sorry too,” Merlin frowns. “I know you were really looking forward to your dream date.”

“I was,” Arthur sighs. Then it dawns on him. “Merlin, you know, if you’re not busy tonight...you could stay and eat this with me.”

Merlin blinks at him. “Are you sure?”

“Of course,” Arthur smiles in what he hopes is a charming way. “No sense in all our, well, mainly your, hard work going to waste, right?”

Merlin positively beams at him and to be honest, Arthur is surprised he didn’t blurt out a marriage proposal right then and there, or at least faint. He’s still on his feet though, so everything is going according to plan. Or at least it would be if he actually had a plan.

“We can probably blow out some of these candles then,” Merlin says, still beaming as he trots into and around the living room extinguishing most of the candles. It’s just as well, Arthur thinks, to take off some of the romantic edge before Arthur shouts something ridiculous like, “So, how many schnauzers would you like?”

“I’ll get the plates,” Arthur says and practically bounces into the kitchen.

“Champagne too?” Merlin asks, appearing behind him to grab the silverware. He doesn’t wait for Arthur’s answer before he grabs a bottle and swoops through the door and into the dining room.

Arthur couldn’t stop himself from grinning the remainder of the night, even if he had wanted to.

____

 

The next morning, Arthur wakes up earlier than usual. The sun is shining brightly and stretches its warm, golden fingers happily across the starch white sheets. Birds chitter outside the large window adjacent to the bed. He arches off the soft mattress and hears his back pop and crack softly, making him sigh. He lies there until his cell phone starts vibrating angrily on the nightstand to his right.

“Morgana,” he addresses, voice protesting after hours of not being used. He clears his throat.

“Morning, dear brother,”

“Why are you up so early? It’s the weekend.”

She sighs. “Leon is dragging me to a wine tasting in Stratford all day today.”

“I’d hardly call it dragging,” Arthur hears Leon protest in the background.

“That’s debatable,” Morgana says.

“Hi Leon,” Arthur says loudly into the phone.

“Arthur,” Arthur can practically hear his friend’s infectious grin.

“Enough digression. Merlin looks... happy this morning.” His sister says purposefully.

“Yeah?” Arthur questions, smiling at the mention of the name.

Morgana hums. “He’s also walking with a limp.” Leon snorts in the background and Arthur rolls his eyes.

“He is not.”

“Okay, fine. So what ended up happening?”

“Isn’t he there?”

“He’s in the back playroom with Mordred. There’s a hefty amount of tupperware missing from the kitchen so I’m guessing they’re pretty busy.”

Arthur rolls over on his side and recounts the night, smiling again. He can still feel the places on his arm that Merlin brushed against while they did the dishes and discussed Merlin’s love of certain dog breeds and how he didn’t understand why Arthur didn’t like pets all too much (“I bet if you were just around them for more than the ten minutes you let me play with them at the pet store when we go, you’d find you really like them,” Merlin had told him last night while scrubbing dutifully at the pasta pot. Arthur had responded by scooping some bubbles out of the sink and clapping his hand over Merlin’s ear).

“He stayed for dinner."

“Is that all he stayed for?”

Sadly, he wants to answer, but Morgana would just laugh. Also he’s trying to avoid sounding like a lovestruck teenager. Trying. He throws the sheets off of him and sits up in his bed, scrubbing a hand over his face and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

“Yes, Morgana.”

“Did you tell him?”

“Tell him what?”

She scoffs, and Arthur really should’ve seen that one coming.

“Gee, I don’t know, Arthur. That you’ve created a fake, woman version of him? That you didn’t actually have a date last night? That you’re disgustingly in love with him? That you find his big ears endearing?” Arthur really doesn’t remember telling her that last one. It was probably after a couple bottles of wine. She continues, “That you want his d-”

“Morgana,” Arthur groans pathetically, collapsing back onto his bed. “Leave me alone.”

“You’d be hopelessly lost if I did that.”

“True.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“I have no plan. When have I ever had a plan?”

He hears a shuffling sound that’s probably Morgana shrugging.

“Whatever. I’m coming over,” he says, and flings himself out of bed at last.
____

 

When he knocks on Morgana and Leon’s door, it’s Mordred who opens it for him.

“Hey there, chief,” Arthur says, squatting to ruffle his hair like usual.

“Uncle Arthur,” Mordred chirps back happily. “Are you playing with me and Merlin today?”

“I was thinking we could go to the pet store. How does that sound?”

Mordred’s eyes grow to the size of saucers and he claps his tiny hands together.

“That sounds amazing!” Merlin shouts from the entrance of the hallway. “Doesn’t it, Mordred?” He runs up in front of the child and squats down and Mordred climbs on his back, arms around his neck. Merlin stands back up and faces Arthur. “Is this your way of apologizing for not liking pets?”

“Never,” Arthur states. “But it is my way of having a nice day out with my nephew.”

Merlin raises an eyebrow.

“And his babysitter.” A bright grin breaks out on Merlin’s face at that and Arthur pointedly does not look down at his lips. Over Merlin’s shoulder, Mordred’s smiling too.

“You’re just trying to get on my good side.”

“Please. Like I’m not already there,” Arthur scoffs and steps more into the flat to set his wallet and keys on the front hallway table.

“Into the playroom, noble steed!” Mordred instructs, pointing over Merlin’s shoulder.

“Duty calls,” Merlin tells Arthur, and touches his shoulder lightly before piggy-backing Mordred down the hall. Arthur grins after them, his shoulder tingling, his attention turning when Morgana and Leon waltz into the room looking like money.

Arthur whistles low. “Looking sharp, you two.”

Morgana beams and poses and Leon swoops in to kiss her on the cheek.

“I notice you’re wearing your tight jeans,” says Morgana, smirking.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Arthur replies cheekily.

“Wine, Arthur?”

“It’s eleven in the morning, Leon. Not like that’s stopping either of you.” Morgana laughs at that.

“Anyway, I’m taking Mordred and Merlin to the pet store in a bit.”

“We’d better get going,” his sister says then, grabbing a wrap from the hall closet and instructing Leon to grab her purse from where it’s sat next to Arthur’s keys. “The wine’s not going to taste itself, is it?”

“Wow, Morgana,” Merlin observes from where he’s appeared at the entrance to the living room. “You look great. Same with you, Leon.”

“Thanks, Merlin,” Leon says cheerfully for the both of them.

“Have fun you all.” Then she points a shiny black fingernail at Merlin. “And I swear Merlin, if Mordred comes home with another lizard-”

Merlin puts his hands up quickly. “Won’t happen again,” he assures her.

Arthur laughs outwardly and looks to Leon over his wife’s shoulder, who’s just barely stifling his own laugh behind his hand (Morgana’s only upset because it ended up in the washer and by way of that, mashed up all over her favorite fall scarf. “Pure satin!” She’d cried to the high heavens, prodding Merlin’s chest until she was sure he’d have a bruise).

Merlin and Arthur wait until the door closes behind the couple to start cackling hysterically. Merlin’s bent over, hands on his knees, giggling like a madman and Arthur’s sure he’s no better.

“That was quite a day wasn’t it?” Merlin recalls, winding down and walking over Arthur to straighten his tie habitually. Arthur lets him, obviously, soaking in the proximity.

“We should get him one today anyway.”

Merlin laughs brightly.

“Morgana would skin me and make me into a fabulous coat.”

“Best coat ever,” Arthur agrees.

Merlin smiles at him and lets his hands drop, Arthur’s tie now perfect. “Pretty sure I’ve still got suds in my ears, by the way.”

“Not my fault. Not like they’re a particularly hard target to hit.”

Merlin rolls his eyes and shoves Arthur pathetically. Arthur shoves him back and Merlin slaps him on the back of the head. Arthur’s about to full-throttle tackle him onto the carpet when Mordred pipes up from the hallway. Merlin spins around on his heel (impressively, Arthur might add) and runs to Mordred, kneeling in front of him.

“Ready to see all the animals?” he asks cheerfully.

“Yes!” Mordred proclaims happily, running to the coat rack and fruitlessly reaching for his bright blue jacket. Arthur walks over and hands it down to him. Mordred puts it on quickly and Merlin crouches down to zip it up for him. Arthur thinks it’s adorable, obviously, and looks away before Merlin looks back up at him. Arthur reaches for Merlin’s dark red scarf and slings it over his shoulders when he stands up again. If Merlin’s cheeks heat up a bit, Arthur doesn’t notice.

___

“Will we see rabbits?” Mordred asks as the three of them walk the final block to the pet store.

Mordred walks between the two men, one hand clasped with each of them. Occasionally, they lift and swing him a bit, making the youth yelp with glee. It all feels very domestic, and Arthur’s cheeks are starting to ache both from the biting cold and his consistent smiling.

“I hope so,” Merlin responds. “I hope there’s a white one. Oh! With blue eyes.”

“Like me!” Mordred beams.

“Precisely, Mordred! Like Arthur, too. And me. All of us, I suppose.”

“We should start a club,” Mordred suggests. “Uncle Arthur,” Mordred pulls on Arthur’s hand until he looks down at him. “You should ask Melvina if she wants to be in our club.” His nephew’s cheery expression turns serious, far too serious for a seven year-old, when he says, “But only if she’s got blue eyes like us. Otherwise she can’t be. Right, Merlin?”

“That’s exactly right,” Merlin mutters, his grin gone.

Mordred nods at Merlin and then looks up at Arthur expectantly.

“I’m afraid she hasn’t got blue eyes. It looks like this club is just going to have to be the three of us. The Blue-Eyed Boys.”

“The Blue-Eyed Boys,” Mordred repeats, smiling.

“So original, Pendragon,” Merlin teases.

“You two are the creative ones in this club, don’t look at me.”

“Well I like it.” Mordred says, and it’s settled. “Blue’s my favorite color. I wish there were blue lizards.”

“You know Mordred, there are lizards who can change colors,” Merlin tells him as they round the corner to the pet store. Arthur’s giving him a stern look but Merlin continues, “They can even be blue.”

“Arthur, is that right?” Mordred asks hopefully, his eyes big.

“Now you’ve done it,” Arthur tells Merlin as he holds the door of the shop open for them. “You’re just asking for another bruise right here,” he says and pokes Merlin square in the chest.

Ow,”

“Big baby.”

Arthur lets the door fall closed behind them and shut out the cool fall air. The whole place smells like fish food and cats and the rubber of dog toys but it doesn’t bother Arthur as much as it should. He gives a small wave to the young girl at the cash register and heads after Mordred and Merlin, who are undoubtedly heading toward the large, glass wall of reptile terrariums.

Mordred spends almost an entire hour leaving tiny fingerprints all over the glass and talking animatedly with Merlin about the different kinds of lizards while Arthur watches, amused.

“Do they all change colors, Merlin?”

“Just the chameleons,” Merlin tells him, gesturing to the lizards in question.

“Do you think Mom would ever let me get one?” Mordred asks wistfully.

“I can try to talk her into it. They shouldn’t be too hard to care for,”

“Sorry to interrupt,” an deep and unfamiliar voice says, “but chameleons are actually among the most difficult lizards to care for.”

A tall, blond man with broad shoulders approaches the three of them, smiling charmingly. Arthur eyes his name-tag donning the logo of the store.

“That’s alright, I’m sure you know more than I do about these guys,” Merlin smiles back.

“Don’t sell yourself short, I heard you before. You sound like you mostly know what you’re talking about.” This Alex smiles again, walking up next to Merlin and stationing himself there. The blond’s eyes switch between Merlin and Mordred, who’s now poking at the fish tanks a little further down the aisle.

Merlin nods a bit, eyes glossy. “I had an iguana in uni.”

“I have two chameleons at home,”

“Seriously? I-”

Arthur’s glad that Mordred interrupts at that moment, because the conversation seems to be going swimmingly, and Arthur does not like it one bit. He stands there next to Merlin, feeling nonexistent until his nephew runs up and pulls on Arthur’s sleeve.

“Did you hear that, Arthur? Two chameleons,” Mordred exclaims, stumbling a bit over the last word adorably, making Arthur grin.

“Two chameleons indeed,” he agrees. “Are you ready to go, chief?”

“Can we look at the puppies first?”

“Of course.”

At that, Mordred turns around and steps quickly toward the other side of the store. Arthur follows after, turning back when he reaches the end of the aisle to stare at where Merlin and the handsome pet store employee remain stationed, talking lively about something Arthur can’t hear.

“Merlin?” He calls, turning half-around. Merlin turns his head away from the other blond to stare at Arthur, brow furrowed like he’d forgotten he was there. “Puppy time,”

Merlin’s eyes usually brighten at this, but Arthur doesn’t note a change considering they’re already lit up. Arthur sees something he doesn’t quite recognize in Merlin’s eye, which makes him almost ask him what’s wrong considering Arthur thought he knew all of Merlin’s looks by now and how to decipher them.

“I’ll meet you guys there in a minute,” he grins at Arthur casually.

Arthur waits another second before trying not to stomp out of the aisle like a dejected child.

____

 

Mordred’s making grabby hands at a siberian husky puppy, telling Arthur all about a movie Merlin watched with him about dogs like these that pulled sleds through the snow.

“If we get nine or ten, we should be able to do the same thing,” he tells Arthur seriously, nodding at the puppy as it stares up at him from it’s make-shift wire pen on the granite floor. The puppy yelps and Arthur’s heart practically melts it’s so cute. He and Mordred are now kneeling on the floor next it, sticking their fingers in the cage exactly like the sign says not to. The puppy gladly walks over to them and presses itself up against the side of the fence, happy for the attention. Arthur’s marveling at how soft it’s light grey coat is when he hears Merlin.

“Oh, Arthur!” Merlin shouts, suddenly kneeling right by Arthur’s side. “Look at him!”

Arthur agrees wholeheartedly, watching as it licks happily at Merlin’s fingers.

“He’s the last husky we’re gonna have here for a while,”

“I hope someone takes him home.” Merlin tells the blond man who has appeared behind them once again. Arthur has to stop from rolling his eyes when he notices him in his peripherals. He inches closer to Merlin surreptitiously.

“I hope so too. He’s a total sweetheart. You like dogs, then?”

Merlin stands up to face him, grinning, “I do. I like all dogs, really, but my favorite are-”

“Schnauzers,” Arthur supplies glumly from his place on the ground.

“Schnauzers? We’ve just sold the last schnauzer puppy this morning. Sorry, Merlin.”

Arthur raises an eyebrow at the puppy. When exactly did these introductions take place? Probably when Merlin had shooed him off in order to get some alone time with the hunky, blond employee. Arthur huffs so hard that some of his bangs fly up off his forehead. The puppy sneezes and okay, that cheers Arthur up a little because now it’s itching at it’s snout with it’s paw and its tail is waving up in the air.

“Are you getting more any time soon?” Merlin asks, bottom lips sticking out. Arthur swallows hard and sees Alex flicker his eyes down to Merlin’s mouth.

“I think so. You should stop back in soon,” Alex smiles purposefully.

“Uncle Arthur, I thought you didn’t like dogs,” Mordred says somewhat smugly and Arthur snaps out of it and reaches over to muss Mordred’s hair up.

“I don’t,” he swears.

“You have to admit he’s the cutest pup ever,” Merlin then says in his ear, a hand on his shoulder.

“Fine, he’s sort of adorable,” Arthur admits, eyes going a bit glossy as the pup stares into his soul like it knows what he’s said. Arthur gives it a stern look, like I’m not falling for that, so the puppy gives up on him and trots over to Mordred. After another minute, Mordred wanders over to where the magazines are and starts flipping avidly through one titled Leapin’ Lizards. Arthur snorts and watches, amused, grabbing up one off the shelf about dog breeds and opening it.

“So, he-”

“Mordred,"

“Mordred. You babysit him?” Alex asks quietly. Arthur has to strain his ears to hear.

“Sure do.”

“And the other bloke,”

“Arthur,”

At this, Arthur pretends to be completely engrossed in an article about poodles.

“He’s your cousin, then?”

Merlin chuckles a little, “No, we’re not related. Do we seem related?”

“You seem...close,”

“We are,” Arthur practically blushes at the smile he hears in Merlin’s voice.

“Oh,” Alex says slowly.

“Not like that!” Merlin assures him quickly and Arthur sees Merlin put his hands up in his peripherals. He’s getting pretty good at this looking-but-not-really-looking thing. At Merlin’s words, his heart drops just a little but he can’t exactly pinpoint why. They’re not close like that, so why does it pain Arthur so much to hear it from the horse’s mouth? One of the poodles stares up at him sympathetically from the page.

“He’s Mordred’s mother’s brother. We’re practically best mates,”

Alex hums back, crossing his thick arms over a broad chest. Arthur wants to die. He puts the dumb poodle magazine back on the shelf.

“Mordred? You ready?”

“Uncle Arthur, can I get this?”

“Leapin’ lizards!” Merlin shouts happily upon seeing the magazine.

“Leapin’ lizards!” Arthur repeats, taking the magazine from Mordred’s clutches and walking back to where Alex is standing. He hands it to him.

“Just this, please,”

Alex nods and takes it from Arthur, glancing once more at Merlin (who has now slung Mordred up on his back and is piggy-backing him down the aisle) before walking to the check-out. Arthur follows him and so does Merlin, bouncing a little bit and making Mordred giggle.

They stand at the counter and Arthur pays for the magazine, handing it up to Mordred once Alex rings it up. Mordred beams and thanks Arthur, telling Merlin to hold it. Merlin obliges and points to the chameleon on the front.

“I think if Mom just met one, she’d let you get it,” Merlin tells him.

“That would just lower his chances, let’s be honest,” Arthur says, smiling when remembering the look on Morgana’s face when they brought the first lizard home all those months ago. It was like the time Mordred knocked an entire bottle of red wine all over the white living room carpet. It was Arthur’s fault anyway (of course) for swinging him around near open alcohol. He remembers the dent that that incident made in his wallet. Worth it, Arthur thinks, finding himself smiling about it again.

“You all have a great day,” Alex says, looking only at Merlin, and handing him the receipt which is odd considering Arthur had paid.

“Thanks,” Merlin and Arthur say at the same time, shooting each other matching amusing looks as they walk out of the store.

“Receipt?” Arthur says to Merlin, wallet open in one hand and other hand outstretched toward him.

Merlin lowers Mordred to the ground and hands him the magazine, at which Mordred screeches childishly. He opens it so quickly Arthur’s surprised a page or two doesn’t rip out. Who knew Mordred was so passionate about lizards. Merlin then fishes in his pocket for the receipt, tearing a bit off the bottom before handing the rest to Arthur, grinning. His cheeks are a bit red, emphasized on the pale background of the fall sky.

Arthur watches but doesn’t ask about it, sticking the paper in his wallet and pushing it into his pocket. Mordred takes his usual place in between them and grabs their hands, making Arthur hold his magazine this time.

Arthur’s heart doesn’t drop until he sees a series of numbers on the piece of paper before Merlin quickly stuffs it in the back pocket of his jeans.

____

When Morgana gets home later that evening, she’s elated to learn that her flat has remained lizard-free.

“How was the pet store?” she asks.

Arthur says, “Alright,” at the same time Mordred and Merlin exclaim, “Awesome!” and Morgana raises an eyebrow.

They’re all in the playroom building a city of legos; well, Merlin and Arthur are doing the actual building part and Mordred is just pointing and telling them where to put the little plastic pieces. The youth is quite the bossy perfectionist and slaps Arthur’s hand away more than once when he tries to move the buildings closer together.

“Commute is going to be hell,” Arthur says, and Merlin laughs.

“Maybe this is a city full of people who can apparate.”

“We’re building wizarding London?”

“Nerds,” Morgana proclaims and walks out of the room.

Arthur tries to protest but Merlin tells him there’s really no point in denying it, to which Arthur shrugs. Mordred giggles at them and then scolds Merlin for attaching a blue platform to the green half of the city. He digs through the giant pile of loose pieces and hands Merlin a green one, nodding happily at his accomplishment.

“We brought cake back from the restaurant!” Leon yells from the kitchen.

Mordred screeches and scrambles up from the floor, flying out of the playroom in record time. Arthur’s up too, heading for the door when he hears Merlin let out an anguished scream behind him. He turns around to see Merlin back on the ground, face twisted up like he’d eaten a sour grape.

“You stepped on one, didn’t you?”

“Maybe,” Merlin manages between clenched teeth.

Arthur barks out a laugh and grips his shoulder, helping him to his feet.

“Hurts so bad,” Merlin whines. “Carry me,”

“Up you get,” Arthur says as he swings Merlin up into his arms, bridal-style, which is almost shamefully easy. “You good?”

Merlin fans a hand out over his chest, “My hero!”

“You’re an idiot.”

“No, you.”

“No, you.”

“No, you, Pratdragon.”

No.”

“Yes.”

“Like an old married couple,” Leon comments as they arrive in the kitchen.

“Merlin Pendragon,” Arthur says, testing it out. “Nope, don’t like it.”

Merlin scoffs. “Who says I’d take your last name?”

“I do,” Morgana says, not looking up from where she’s cutting the red velvet cake over at the counter.

“Our last name is legend.”

“Arthur Emrys,” Merlin tries.

“Two syllables in both parts,” Leon scrunches his face up. “The first one’s better.”

“Fine,” Merlin sighs. “Merlin Pratdragon it is.”

“I win,” Arthur says, finally setting Merlin back down on his feet.

“Whatever,” Merlin grins, slinging his arm around Arthur’s shoulders, “Just give me some cake.”

It’s all just so easy that Arthur wants to cry. This is how it should be always; this is his family. He just wishes for a little more, and he doesn’t think that’s asking for too much. But perhaps it is. It’s either that or Arthur’s just a fucking loser.

Yeah, probably that one.

So he just eats his cake and happily listens to Merlin prattle on about the husky puppy at the pet store today.

____

The rest of the weekend and first half of the week simultaneously rush by and drag on and the sound of his alarm is grating on Arthur’s ears every morning. He meets Morgana twice for coffee on his breaks and each time she complains about how Leon doesn’t want to refurnish the study even though it’s desperately necessary. Arthur doubts it. Every room in Morgana’s flat is beautiful and can’t be improved on much. He tells her as much but she just rolls her eyes at him so violently that Arthur’s surprised they don’t fly our of their sockets and into his coffee. Friday finally approaches and the chilly afternoon finds the siblings (plus Mordred and Merlin) at the impressive, two-story bookstore downtown.

Merlin follows Mordred over to the shelf of puppets, each of them immediately slipping one on a hand and talking animatedly with them. Arthur and Morgana gravitate over to the café, sitting down at one of the big, comfortable booths.

“Coffee?” she asks.

“Yes,” Arthur pleads, fingers splayed out over the dark wooden table.

When Morgana gets back, she hands Arthur his cup and eyes him warily.

“Would you quit looking at me like that?”

“Sorry, you just don’t look hopelessly depressed,”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Of course,” she says, stirring her coffee. “I just thought, with Merlin having a new boy-”

“What?” Arthur says severely, making elderly couple at the booth over from them turn to look at him. “What are you talking about?”

“Unless it’s you he’s been texting so fiercely all week.”

“It’s not.”

“Then it must be the hunk from the pet store.”

“How do you know about that loser?”

Morgana snorts into her drink.

“He told you about that guy?” Arthur asks again, leaning forward.

Morgana nods. “He says Leon and I should meet him. Oh, quit pouting.”

“Why should I?” Arthur replies glumly.

“Because you’ve got a girlfriend.”

“Huh?”

Morgana glares at him.

“Melvina doesn’t count,” Arthur snaps immediately, sipping at his coffee.

“Merlin thinks she does.”

Arthur looks over to the puppet shelves and watches as Mordred rips a squirrel off of Merlin’s hand and replaces it with a dragon. Merlin roars and attacks Mordred’s hair with it and Arthur smiles.

“Your eyes are doing that heart thing again.”

“Are not.”

“Are too.” Morgana sets her cup down on the table and waits for a minute before continuing. “As your older sister, I demand that you tell him the truth soon.”

“What good will that do?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what if he feels the same?” Morgana inquires, brow furrowed sympathetically.

“Morgana, it doesn’t even matter now. He’s got that pet store guy.”

“I can’t listen to you anymore. You’re like a whiny five year-old. I’m pretty sure that Mordred could handle this situation better than you.”

“Well, he’s mature for his age.”

Arthur snickers at his sister’s incredulous expression, dumping more sweetener into his coffee. “Exactly how often has he been texting, anyway?”

Morgana shifts her eyes over to the shelves again and raises an eyebrow. Arthur follows her gaze to where Mordred is now sprawled in a giant red armchair reading a book and Merlin sits in the chair adjacent, grinning slightly. Sure enough, his thumbs are tapping away feverishly at his mobile, glancing up at five second intervals to keep an eye on the seven year-old.

“Maybe it’s his mum or something.”

“Since when does Hunith know how to use technology?”

Arthur shrugs hopelessly and gulps down the last of the coffee in his cup. He takes his phone out of his pocket and texts Merlin the pineapple emoji. He watches Merlin pick up his phone from where he’d set it on the coffee table a second ago and beams, whipping his head up to where Arthur and Morgana are sitting. He shakes a fist at Arthur and ten seconds later, Arthur receives the egg in the frying pan. He grins up at Merlin, who’s still beaming at him and now waving him over. Morgana’s started flipping through one of the several thick fashion magazines she’d brought over to the table and only glances at him, uninterested, as he pushes his chair in and strides over to the circle of armchairs where Merlin and his nephew have planted themselves.

“What’s that?” He asks Mordred, poking at the book in his small hands as he passes him to sit in the chair next to Merlin.

“Book about plants,” Mordred answers shortly, brow knitted in concentration.

Plants? Arthur mouths at Merlin, who merely shrugs and looks down at his phone again and types away. Tik tik tik, tik tik tik tik tik.

“Morgana says you’ve been a texting fiend nearly all week.”

“Did she?” Merlin’s eyes don’t stray from the screen. Tik tik tik. Tik.

“She did.”

At that, Merlin finally sets his phone back on the table in front of him and leans in closer to Arthur, grinning infectiously.

“Remember that guy from the pet store?”

Arthur cocks his head a bit, feigning a confused look.

“Alex? The one who talked to us about chameleons?” Arthur nods slightly. Merlin continues, “Well, he’s been sending me pictures of the new puppy that just arrived all day.”

“A schnauzer?”

Merlin nods frantically.

“Have you gone in to see it yet?”

“No. But Morgana, Leon, Mordred and I are going in tomorrow. Mordred’s almost as excited as I am to see him. The dog, I mean, not Alex. Or, I mean, both, I guess.” Crimson creeps up high on Merlin’s cheeks and Arthur’s heart jumps around a bit before sinking in his chest.

“I’m more excited.” Mordred claims, eyes not leaving his book.

“Doubt it,” Merlin scoffs.

“So,” Arthur starts casually, playing with the silver ring on his index finger, “you and him are...” Merlin looks at him expectantly and ugh, he’s going to make Arthur say it.

“...Dating?”

Merlin smiles slightly and looks to the ground before glancing back up at Arthur. “I think so. I’m not exactly sure how he feels. I’m terrible at that sort of thing,” And thank god for that, Arthur thinks, or you’d have figured me out in a second. “But I like him, so...” Merlin trails off.Arthur tries desperately to find something to respond to that with but fails. Instead, he breaks the eye contact and looks over to Mordred, who, as it turns out, is watching them both closely with a neutral expression.

“I’m going to go sit with Mom,” he says then, shooting out of the chair and across the store.

“He’s quick when he wants to be, isn’t he?” Merlin says, eyebrows arched. “Anyway, I’ll send you a picture of the puppy when I see it tomorrow. Unless you want to come with us?” Merlin asks the question slowly. Arthur doesn’t really understand why he says in that weird tone, but there are so many thoughts jumping around in his head right now that he doesn’t care to find out.

“I’ve actually got a meeting on Monday I told myself I’d prepare for tomorrow afternoon. But I’ll probably be by Morgana’s later on in the day. Actually, I’ve got to run by the office before they close it for the night. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“...Yeah,” Merlin answers, unsure. “See you tomorrow,” he says, but Arthur’s already halfway to the bookstore’s double doors.

He sits in the parking lot with his head against the steering wheel for a few minutes before shooting Morgana a quick text and driving off. 

Chapter Text

He finds himself at the pub a half hour later and a huge martini is being set in front of him as soon as he’s sat down on his favorite stool.

“What’s this for?”

“You look like you needed something stronger than beer.” Gwaine tells him. “What’s got you down, Pendragon? Let me guess-”

“Shut up,” Arthur interrupts, but it doesn’t contain any venom.

Gwaine, bless him, just leans onto his elbows on the bar and smiles at him sympathetically, his brown eyes sad. He lets Arthur take a few sips of his drink before starting up again.

“I’ve never seen you not just go for something you want; whether it’s a job, a person...anything. It’s freaking me out.”

“Me too. It’s too late now, anyway. He’s dating someone else.”

“How long?”

“No more than a week.” Arthur pushes his glass to the side a bit to avoid knocking it over when he reaches up to scrub both hands over his face. He keeps them there until the silence emitting from Gwaine (which is odd enough in itself) stretches out unbearably long. Arthur looks up to find his friend staring into his soul with an eyebrow quirked disappointingly. When Arthur quirks an eyebrow right back at him, Gwaine reaches across the bar to swiftly slap Arthur on the back of the head.

“What the hell?!”

“What is this, grade school? Arthur, quit your sulking, for God’s sake. This guy’s got a measly week on your, what, two years?” Arthur nods grimly. “You’re in love with Merlin, and you’re going to let some bloke who works at a bloody pet store win?”

“You’ve been talking to Leon, haven’t you?”

“You’re the complete package, Arthur. And I wasn’t going to bring this up but I’ve seen you and Merlin together, and those stupid hearts you get in your eyes whenever he looks at you-”

“I see you’ve also been talking to Morgana.”

“-he gets them too. Is that it then? You’re just going to let Merlin go off with this guy so he can live in Pet Store Guy’s shitty, lizard-filled flat together and eat kibbles and fucking bits for the rest of his life, is that it? Well I say fuck that.” Gwaine prods at the bar with his finger for emphasis. “You’ve got to get him back.”

“Back? Gwaine, I didn’t have him in the first place.”

Gwaine dismisses the notion with a wave of his hand.

“You’re telling me to flirt with a man who’s got a boyfriend.”

“No, I’m telling you to flirt with Merlin. It’s different. The whole situation’s fucked, anyway.” Arthur reaches for his drink again as Gwaine continues.

“Listen. I’ve never seen you get this way about anyone you’ve had feelings for before. That’s saying something. There’s something there between you two, I know it. I’m not going to let you, or Merlin, for that matter, settle for less. And if you really love him as much as you say you do, don’t give up. It’s simple, really. Don’t give up.”

Gwaine leaves him to think about that for a minute while he tends to a young, giggling couple at the other end of the bar. He knows that everything Gwaine’s said is true; Merlin’s the only person he can see a future with. They practically act married already, anyway, and Arthur suddenly feels like a prick for flying out of the bookstore earlier; jealousy has never really been something he handles well. God, he really was a lovestruck girl, wasn’t he?

“There is one thing, though.” Gwaine says upon his return. “You should probably get rid of that Melvina character.”

Arthur laughs a bit at that, setting the empty glass back on the bar between them. “Probably,” he agrees, throwing money down on the counter.

“Just say she took one look at me and after that, you couldn’t possibly compare.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Thanks a lot, Gwaine. Seriously.” “I’m heaven-sent.”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Arthur chuckles and leaves the pub, feeling a million times better than when he walked in.

____

 

Staying at least a bit true to his word, Arthur actually does do some work the next afternoon. He drinks several cups of hot, hazelnut coffee and opens the window in the study so the light breeze can lazily flip his golden bangs around. His brain is fried by about five, when his phone chirps with a message from his sister.

It’s a picture of Merlin and the puppy he’d told Arthur about the day before. It’s black and cream colored and snuggled up in Merlin’s arms, looking nearly asleep. Merlin’s smiling from ear to giant ear up at the camera.

Arthur grins back at him, eyes glazing over fondly. He saves the picture to his phone and sets it so it’ll pop up whenever Merlin calls him. Then he goes through the rest of the photos on his phone, flopping himself down on the small, old sofa in the study. He’s halfway through the camera roll before he realizes that most of them are either of Merlin and Mordred, of Merlin alone (usually doing something stupid like climbing the giant oak tree at the park that one time Mordred flew his kite into the highest branch), or of Merlin and himself. He gets to the picture of the two of them together in Morgana’s kitchen on her last birthday and stops. Arthur’s arm is slung over Merlin’s shoulders and Merlin’s giving a thumbs up. With their free hands they’re holding up the cake they had custom-made with Morgana’s face printed on it. She’d absolutely hated it, which only made Arthur love it more. She’d begrudgingly took the picture when Arthur had asked her to, but by the end of the night (and after three or four glasses of red wine) she’d admitted that she’d actually kind of liked it, and that was enough for Merlin and Arthur.

Arthur grins fondly at the picture like a loon before setting it as his background and walking down the hall to his bedroom to get dressed for Morgana’s.

____

 

“Arthur,” Morgana greets him as he walks into her living room. “Wine?”

“You really don’t waste any time, do you?”

“It’s past five,” Leon shrugs from where’s he’s sitting on the sofa. Arthur doesn’t remember the last time he saw him without a tie on. But of course with the elegance of the room surrounding him, he fits right in.

“How was the pet store?”

Arthur takes the glass Morgana hands to him and sips from it happily. Morgana’s looking at him with wide eyes and a furrowed brow, and when he turns back to Leon, he’s doing the same.

“What? Oh god, you’ve poisoned me, haven’t you?” He swishes the wine around in his glass and stares at it distrustfully.

Morgana walks to the middle of the room so she can peer down the hallway and, upon seeing no one, she looks back at Arthur.

“Kitchen,” she commands.

Leaning up against the kitchen counter, Arthur asks, “Why are you being all James Bond?”

“Didn’t want Merlin to walk in.”

“On what?”

Morgana lets out a breath Arthur didn’t notice she’d been holding.

“We met Merlin’s new,” she waves her hand around in the air between them, “person.”

“Okay,” Arthur says. “And?”

She raises an eyebrow and calls Leon in from the living room. He waltzes in a few seconds later.

“What?” Arthur asks again, staring at the two of them strangely. The couple exchange a look.

“Arthur,” Morgana says exasperatedly. “You really don’t see it?”

“See what?”

Leon chuckles. “Arthur, he looks exactly like you.”

“Who? Pet Store Guy?”

“Yes!” Morgana cries, putting her hands on her hips.

Arthur squints, thinking. “No he doesn’t.”

“Blond hair, blue eyes, tall, kind of stocky.” Leon describes. “You two could be related.”

Granted, Arthur has partially forgotten what the guy had looked like, but if Arthur himself hadn’t noticed it then the resemblance can’t be that obvious. Right? He tries to think back to last weekend and recall making any like observations.

“I hadn’t noticed,” Arthur admits.

“Really?” Morgana asks incredulously, black hair flying everywhere as she tilts her head violently. “You didn’t notice? I realize you’re a bit thick but you spend half the time looking at yourself in the mirror, I would’ve thought-

“I do not!” Arthur protests, mirroring his sister’s pose. Leon chuckles but shuts up when Arthur gives him the infamous Pendragon glare that he’s more than used to by now.

“Whatever. Don’t you think that’s a bit...”

“A bit what?”

“I don’t know, peculiar? I mean, you get a new girlfriend,” her voice lowers to a whisper when she says, “or at least Merlin thinks you do, and then he starts up with a guy that looks exactly like you?”

Arthur shrugs helplessly, unable to let himself admit it.

“Fine then. You can see for yourself.”

When Arthur scrunches his face up at his sister, Leon clarifies, “He’s coming for dinner.”

Arthur groans. “Do you people live to torture me?”

“Leon suggested it to him when we were at the store earlier. Blame him.”

Leon pokes her shoulder and she just grabs his hand and laces their fingers together, kissing the back of his hand before pushing him out of the kitchen.

Morgana actually looks a little sorry as she quietly says, “You can go if you want. I know it can’t be easy, I know how you feel about Mer-” She stops when Arthur puts up his hand.

“That’s alright. Morgana, I don't plan on just giving him up. At least not without a fight."

At her questioning look, he says, “I talked to Gwaine,” and she nods like that explains everything. “Now it’s almost like a competition,” Arthur continues thoughtfully, pulling Morgana to his side and striding back out into the living room with his arm around her shoulders.

“And you know how much I like competitions.”

Morgana smirks at him. “Yes I do, dear brother.”

Arthur really should’ve figured she’d approve.

“Are they in the playroom?”

“Either there or Mordred’s room.”

Arthur clinks his wine glass against Morgana’s and heads down the hall. He peeks in Mordred’s bedroom. The lamp by the bed is on and barely illuminates the sky blue walls, but no signs of life except maybe the creepy stuffed bear on Mordred’s bed that appears to be staring into Arthur’s very soul. He gives it a distrustful look and closes the door on his way out, continuing down to the playroom. He eventually hears their voices drift through the darkness and there’s bright yellow light spilling out into the dark hallway. The door is half ajar and he sees Mordred sitting indian-style on the floor, fiddling with a Rubix cube. From what Arthur can see, one side is already completely white. Merlin’s back is to the doorway and he’s leaning back on his hands, legs out in front of him.

“What’s for dinner?” Mordred’s asking Merlin, eyes not leaving the cube.

“Pizza,” Merlin answers happily. “I think Alex will pick them up on his way over here.”

Arthur lingers in the dim hallway, inching out of Mordred’s view and just listening. He sees his nephew frown plainly.

“What’s that face for?” Mordred’s blue eyes glance up at Merlin quickly before his focus returns to the cube once again. Arthur watches him look down at it, but he’s not turning it anymore.

“I just don’t understand why you need a new Arthur.”

Arthur sucks in a breath and sets his wine glass down quietly on one of the hallway tables. He creeps closer to the door when he sees Merlin lean forward and retract his legs to his chest, wrapping his arms around them.

His voice is quiet when he replies, “What are you talking about, Mordred?”

“Nothing,” Mordred insists. Arthur watches as Merlin scoots a little closer to him.

“Mordred,” Merlin says a little desperately. Arthur waits with bated breath for him to continue, but it seems he can’t find any words. Arthur watches his back as if it’ll tell him what Merlin’s trying to say. He learns nothing.

“I just thought that when two people liked each other, they don’t replace one another.”

“Replace?” Merlin asks, reaching to wrap a hand lightly around Mordred’s wrist. Mordred finally tears his eyes away from the cube and when he looks up at Merlin, his eyes are glossy and sad. Arthur desperately wants to go to him and hug him, say something to make him laugh, but his feet seem to be weighted down.

“No one is replacing anyone. Arthur and I will always be friends, okay? Alex is just...a new friend that I have. Like Uncle Arthur has Melvina.”

At the name, Arthur swears at himself internally. He definitely needs to get her out of the picture and soon. He wonders if she’s the only reason Merlin’s dating someone else, and the thought almost makes Arthur out of breath. He watches Mordred turn the cube so that the former completely white side has two yellow squares and a blue one on it.

“I guess,” he says indifferently. “But I still don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?”

“Why you and Uncle Arthur aren’t together like Mum and Dad.”

Join the club, Arthur thinks to himself, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he leans against the wall. Whatever the reason is, it’s probably Arthur’s fault anyway, and there are one thousand things Merlin could respond to that with. Because Uncle Arthur is fucking lame, Mordred. Because Uncle Arthur is stupid and doesn’t know how to handle adult feelings, Mordred. Because, Mordred, Uncle Arthur isn’t tall enough, isn’t blonde enough, and I’d really prefer someone with more muscles who has extensive knowledge of lizards. But instead of any of this, Arthur just hears Merlin sigh. He watches Mordred’s huge eyes bore into him, waiting for an answer. Arthur just wishes he could see Merlin’s face, too.

“It just didn’t work out that way.” Merlin answers softly, his voice like cotton. Two seconds pass before Merlin visibly brightens, sitting up straight and reaching to mess up Mordred’s hair while assuring him, “And that’s okay. Sometimes things like that happen, alright?”

“Alright,” Mordred says, smiling again and batting Merlin’s hand away.

Arthur doesn’t know what to think about that. He stays in the hallway for another minute and listens to them discussing what kind of pizza to get. Just like that, the conversation is over, and Arthur wants it to come back so he can better understand. But instead he just walks a bit down the hallway and steps heavily the rest of the way to the playroom, making his presence known this time. He pushes the door the rest of the way open and smiles at the two of them.

“Hey,” Merlin smiles back as Mordred shouts, “Uncle Arthur!”

“Hi, you two,” He sits down next to Merlin on the floor, bumping his shoulder into Merlin’s affectionately. “Talking about pizza?”

“I want cheese,” Mordred demands, pointing at Merlin.

“Will do,” Merlin says, leaning back a bit to dig his phone out of his pocket. “Arthur?”

“I know Leon wants pepperoni.”

Merlin hums and puts his mobile to his ear. Arthur’s sitting so close he can hear the ringing.

___

 

“Uncle Arthur, you should tell Melvina to come over!” Mordred declares soon after Alex arrives with the pizzas. They’re all sitting around the pristine living room with glasses of white wine, chatting about anything that comes to mind. It would actually be kind of nice if it weren’t for the fact that Merlin and Alex are sitting close on the loveseat and look a little too happy about it. Morgana and Leon are on the sofa adjacent, and Arthur sits in his favorite chair. Mordred has laid claim to the spot on the floor right in front of the television. On it, cartoons play with the volume down low to keep him occupied when the conversation bores him (considering half of the conversation starts to bore Arthur, he can’t imagine how Mordred feels). A second bottle of wine has just been opened and when Alex pours Merlin’s for him, Arthur has to try his hardest not to roll his eyes. Morgana, of course, notices and gives him one of her looks.

At Mordred’s exclamation, Arthur sees Merlin get a weird glint in his eyes that Arthur doesn’t recognize. Leon leans over to refill Arthur’s glass and he looks away.

“It’s kind of short notice,” Arthur answers, “Maybe another time, chief.”

“Come on, Arthur.” Merlin coaxes, grinning.

“Melvina?” Alex asks, his brow furrowed.

“Arthur’s girlfriend. He’s completely head over heels for her.”

“Good for you, mate.” Alex smiles and raises his glasses toward Arthur. His free hand comes up to rub across Merlin’s back and Arthur openly glares. The more wine he drinks, the easier it is to do.

“Yeah, thanks.”

“So, Alex,” Morgana changes the subject, “You must see the view from our balcony. Especially on a beautiful night like tonight.”

She stands up and Alex and Leon do as well, ushering him to the balcony like the gracious hosts they are.

“I’ll be out there in a minute,” Merlin says after Arthur tells them all he’ll open another bottle of wine.

He’s at the bar twisting the screw into the bottle’s cork when Merlin comes over.

“Are you and Melvina in a fight or something?” He asks, concerned. Arthur turns to furrow his brow at him.

“What?”

“Melvina,” Merlin repeats. “You didn’t seem so keen on talking about her just then. I thought something may have happened.” He leans against the bar and puts his chin in his hands, looking up at Arthur expectantly through long eyelashes and wow, that is so unfair right now. Arthur takes a deep breath and then exhales before turning to face Merlin.

“It’s nothing,” Arthur says and then smiles at him to prove his point. “Really.”

“Are you positive?” Merlin asks, his concern growing. He stands up straight to look Arthur in the eye. Arthur nods and grins at him again casually. Thankfully, Merlin’s face returns to normal.

“If you say so.” He shrugs happily and then leans in a bit closer, “So, what do you think of Alex?”

And oh god, really? This is just cruel. Arthur glances at the corkscrew on the counter and wonders how hard he’d have to plunge it into his temple to die instantly. There’s a very slight blush creeping up high on Merlin’s sharp cheekbones, and if Arthur wasn’t looking at him so intensely (always), he wouldn’t notice it.

“Seems nice,” Arthur says and grins as to not let his malice show.

“Yeah,” Merlin agrees, smiling at the fireplace. “I think even Morgana likes him.”

“And that’s saying something,” Arthur adds, making the dark-haired man chuckle softly. He pours himself a fresh glass of wine from the newly opened bottle. “So, what made you like him? Was it his extensive knowledge of reptiles? I always thought you’d have weird kinks like that, Emrys.”

“Been thinking about my fetishes, Pendragon?” Merlin asks playfully. Arthur promptly chokes on his wine and has a substantial coughing fit at the question. Merlin’s laughing as he rubs at his back soothingly until Arthur can inhale successfully again.

“Fuck, Arthur, I’m only joking!”

He laughs and laughs and Arthur glares and takes a sip of wine to soothe his now scratchy throat.

“I can see why you like him. Tall, blond, blue eyes, fit...” he lists. He pauses to take another sip from his glass casually before continuing, “Remind you of anyone else you know?”

Merlin raises an eyebrow at him and says coolly, “Don’t think so, no,” before taking the half-full wine glass right out of Arthur’s hand and walking across the living room and out onto the balcony.

“‘Course not,” Arthur says to himself, sighing agitatedly.

“What’s that?” Mordred asks, turning away from the television to look at him for a moment before turning back. Arthur walks over and sits down next to him on the living room floor.

“Nothing. Merlin’s just an idiot.”

“That’s not very nice,” Mordred says sternly.

“No it’s not.” Arthur agrees.

“I don’t really like New Arthur either.” Mordred confesses and Arthur laughs brightly.

“Who says I don’t like him?”

Mordred shrugs, eyes still glued to the screen. “I can just tell.”

Even with his back turned to them and eyes focused on his cartoons, Mordred is perceptive. Arthur raises his eyebrows, impressed. He bites at his thumbnail until Mordred turns to look at him.

“‘New Arthur’?” Arthur inquires.

“Don’t worry, Uncle Arthur. I like you way better.”

“I should hope so, chief.” Arthur smiles and pats Mordred’s hair affectionately.

“Merlin does too.”

Arthur turns to look at his nephew questioningly, maybe ask him to expand on that, but Mordred’s eyes are already back on the television. It only takes everyone about five more minutes to bring the party back into the living room. Arthur hops up from his place next to Mordred and brings over the recently opened bottle to the coffee table. Everyone takes their original seats and the conversation starts up again fairly quickly. The pizza dwindles as Morgana raves about interior design and the layout of the flat while Arthur and Leon try not to look too bored and throw bits of crust at each other. When one of Arthur’s projectiles bounces off Leon’s hair and into Merlin’s wine glass, Morgana glares at the both of them.

“Hey! I wasn’t done with that,” Merlin whines.

“It’s probably for the best.” Morgana smirks, “You know what you’re like after one too many.” They all laugh at Merlin’s pout and Leon stands up and stretches.

“Remember Arthur’s last birthday?”

Merlin groans.

“What did you do?” Alex is smiling while he asks, hand moving to set on Merlin’s knee.

“He tried to drive my bathtub home,” Arthur answers. Leon snorts.

“And when he ‘turned on the ignition’, he was so confused as to why the car was filling with water. ‘Arthur!’” Arthur mimics, “‘Shut the sunroof, it’s raining! My pants, Arthur! My pants! Now what will I wear?’”

“Shut up!” Merlin shouts happily over everyone’s laughter.

Leon’s lost it completely and is doubled over on the couch next to Morgana, who’s also shaking with laughter. Arthur grins over at Merlin, undoubtedly blushing, and Merlin glances over to see if Mordred’s watching before flipping Arthur off. Arthur beams and raises his glass to him. Merlin rolls his eyes but beams back all the same. A second later, Arthur glances down at him and Alex’s clasped hands on Merlin’s knee and immediately looks away, looks to Morgana and pretends to listen to what she’s started on about. He pointedly doesn’t look at Merlin after that, distracting himself with another piece of pizza. Minutes later, he lobs the crust at Morgana’s head. To no one’s surprise, she grabs it out of the air and nails it right back at him.

“Not very classy,” Arthur notes after he’s deflected it with his forearm.

“Not very classy at all,” Merlin agrees.

“Classier than trying to drive a bathtub while stinking drunk,” Morgana retorts and stands up, setting her wine glass on the table.

“Just barely,” Alex says, and Merlin laughs brightly.

Everyone then follows Morgana suit and Alex says, “Well, I should be going; work tomorrow. It really was great seeing all of you again.”

“Good to see you too, mate,” Leon says and shakes his hand across the coffee table like the gentleman he is. Alex kisses Morgana’s cheek and shakes Arthur’s hand as well.

“See you, Mordred!” Alex calls.

Mordred waves, but his neutral expression doesn’t change and his eyes don’t leave the television, even though Arthur notices the cartoon playing isn’t even one Mordred likes. He wants to run over and maybe high five him or something.

“Merlin, can I give you a lift home?” Arthur hears Alex ask.

“I should probably stay and help clean up. I’ll call you tomorrow?”

Arthur’s stomach doesn’t drop at the way Alex pulls Merlin in by the strings of his hoodie for a (not short) kiss, and his heart doesn’t sting when he accidentally glances over at them and watches Merlin’s pink, full lips on someone else’s. Nope, nope, nope. He’s totally fine.

And that’s what he tells himself repeatedly as he brings a few wine glasses into the kitchen and sets them in the sink. He rinses them out silently and almost jumps when he hears Morgana’s voice behind him.

“You alright?”

“Peachy,” Arthur answers shortly.

__

 

“Want the last piece of pizza?” Merlin asks when Arthur walks out of the kitchen.

“Yes!” Arthur proclaims and snatches it out of the box.

“Hey! What if I wanted it?”

“Then why did you offer it to me?”

“I was trying to be nice. Not like you’d understand that concept, Pratdragon.”

“Mmm. That will be your downfall.”

“So that’s how you wanna play it, huh?”

Merlin glares for a second before getting up into Arthur’s personal space trying to grab it from him. Arthur struggles and pushes him away with a hand on his chest, but to no avail. He really is stronger than he looks.

“You’ve got to reach for it!” Arthur shouts as he holds the pizza above Merlin’s head.

“You do realize I’m taller than you,”

“By like, a fraction of a fraction of an inch,” Arthur snorts.

“Still counts as taller,”

“Not if I get up on this table-”

“You will do no such thing,” Morgana scolds them with her hands on her hips as she enters the living room. Merlin stop struggling and lets his arms fall to his sides, but Arthur keeps the pizza up in the air in case Merlin plans to make any sudden attacks.

“I’ll be tie-breaker,” Leon announces as he strolls up to them and takes the piece from Arthur, biting into it and humming.

“That is not what a tie-breaker is.”

Leon shrugs, peels off a single piece of pepperoni and pops it into his mouth.

Arthur and Merlin both sigh agitatedly and bring the rest of the odds and ends into the kitchen, like silverware and other random wine glasses. Merlin rinses and scrubs at plates while Arthur stands next to him and dries. After a while, Mordred steps into the kitchen and rubs at his sleepy eyes while telling them goodnight. When all the dishes are washed and dried, Arthur yawns loudly.

“I need sleep,” he tells Merlin, leaning his head onto Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin’s hand comes up to ruffle his hair and Arthur breathes him in subtly before raising his head up.

“Me too. Can you give me a lift home?”

“As long as you don’t put your bloody feet up on the dashboard.”

“You love it,”

“I do not,”

Merlin puts his hands up. “Fine, I promise I won’t. Maybe. I’ll try not to.”

Arthur shoves him lightly as they exit the kitchen.

___

 

“When am I going to get to meet Melvina?” Merlin asks once Arthur turns the key in the ignition.

“Must you meet her?”

Merlin shrugs. “Just kind of figured I would, what with you being around Morgana’s all the time. Besides, I want to.”

“What for?”

“I need to see if she’s good enough for you,” Merlin says matter-of-factly.

“Is that so?”

“Yeah. That’s the job of the best mate, isn’t it? I need to deem her worthy.”

“Worthy?” Arthur repeats, laughing. He changes the subject, “Well it’s not like you’ve asked me if I think Alex is worthy of you.”

“Haven’t I?” Merlin questions.

“You haven’t.”

“Fine, then.” Merlin turns his body in the passenger seat to face Arthur. “Do you deem him worthy, Arthur Pendragon?”

Arthur shrugs, “Eh.”

“What’s that mean?” Merlin asks, shoving Arthur’s shoulder.

“He’s fine!” Arthur insists truthfully. “He’s just... not...” Me, Arthur wants to finish. He almost blushes just thinking about it.

“Not what?” Merlin presses. When Arthur doesn’t answer right away, he turns back to face the road. In his peripherals Arthur sees him pull his knees to his chest and wrap his arms around them.

“If anything,” Merlin continues quietly, “I’d say I’m not worthy of him.”

Arthur outright laughs. Merlin turns to glare at him.

“What’re you laughing about? I’m being serious!”

“What are you talking about, Merlin?”

He pauses, presumably collecting his thoughts, before responding.

“I dunno, Arthur. He’s really fit and nice and...really handsome. I just...”

When Merlin trails off, Arthur glances at him and raises an eyebrow. The engine hums quietly in the absence of voices as the car continues down the road. Arthur waits.

When Merlin doesn’t continue, Arthur presses, “You just what?”

“He’s completely out of my league.”

This time when Arthur laughs, Merlin punches him fiercely in the shoulder so hard that Arthur yelps.

“Will you quit laughing at me?”

“I’m not laughing at you, Merlin! I’m laughing at how ridiculous you’re being. I mean, my God, if anything, you’re out of his league.”

Merlin looks at him sternly. “What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Merlin. Don’t make me say it.”

Merlin prods the now sore spot on his shoulder. “Say what?”

Arthur sighs. “You’ve just got nothing to worry about, alright? You’re extremely good looking. You’re probably the nicest person I’ve ever met - when you want to be, that is,” Merlin scoffs at that, “- you’ve got a great sense of humor. So will you quit sulking? He should be nothing short of elated for being with you.”

At a red light, Arthur turns to look at him. Merlin’s resting his chin atop his knee and is gazing fondly at Arthur through his stupid eyelashes and Arthur wants to pull the car over and kiss the shit out of him until he knows he’s better than everyone else and never feels unworthy again. Merlin doesn’t speak until they’re on on his front doorstep (Arthur walks him to his door out of habit, and maybe so he gets an extra minute with him) under the small yellow lightbulb that hangs right above the door.

Arthur’s about to start talking again, ask Merlin if he’s alright now and that he’ll see him later, but he stops short when he’s suddenly engulfed in a tight hug. Merlin’s thin arms are strong around his middle, palms flat against the curve of his back. Arthur, shocked into stillness, stares over his shoulder at the brick wall of Merlin’s flat for what seems like an eternity. The skin of Merlin’s cheek is cold against the warmth of Arthur’s neck and Arthur can barely breathe. They’re close, so close, that Arthur would only have to retract a couple inches to drag his lips across Merlin’s cheekbone until they met his. The moment is suspended in the air, waiting, and that’s when Arthur realizes his arms are still at his sides. He quickly reaches them up to wrap around Merlin securely, holding him in place. Arthur can’t help but notice their bodies are right up against each other’s, allowing no room for the cold air to slip in between them. When Merlin loosens up in an attempt to retract, Arthur reluctantly does the same.

“What was that for?” He asks, surprised he could form words, let alone make them audible.

Merlin crosses his arms over his chest and when he breathes out a laugh, Arthur can see it dance in the air in front of him.

“Just...thanks.”

Arthur’s about to ask him to elaborate, but Merlin grabs his shoulder once before unlocking his front door in record time and ducking inside.

Arthur walks slowly back to his car, heart pounding like rain against a tin roof.

___

 

The next day, Arthur’s just walking out of work when his mobile buzzes insistently in his pocket. It’s a text from Merlin:

Mordred is sick :( disney movies on couch all day- come round?

As long as it’s not fantasia again, Arthur texts back.

you love fantasia!!!

YOU love fantasia. i only tolerate it bc you bribe me with takeaway

not my fault you’re a whore for takeaway, Merlin texts back within ten seconds and Arthur laughs as he unlocks his car. When he calls Morgana on the car-phone while driving, she picks up on the first ring.

“What, Arthur?” She says distractedly.

“Busy?” He inquires.

“Someone just ordered like, ninety pillows all in various shades of maroon. So you could say that.”

“Sounds riveting. Mordred’s sick?”

Morgana sighs. “Yes, poor thing. I gave him antibiotics before I left this morning and luckily Merlin’s got an animated movie collection that could probably rival your reality television on DVD collection, so-”

“Doubt it-”

“-so he’ll be entertained all day, albeit throwing up into a basin.”

Arthur makes a disgusted noise.

“Exactly,” Morgana sighs again. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll get you those gold cufflinks you’ve had your eye on if you go by the pet store and get him another one of those lizard magazines he likes so much.”

“How’d you know I wanted those?”

“I don’t know, Arthur, maybe because you’ve bookmarked that page on the Nordstrom site on my laptop about ninety times? And on Leon’s?”

“And Merlin’s,” Arthur adds.

“Whatever, just go get him one, alright? I’ve got to go. Pillows and all that.”

“Bye, Morgana,” he grins as he hangs up and changes his route to the pet store.

He desperately hopes Alex isn’t working, and, ugh, he hadn’t even thought about that until he parks his car in the lot and turns off the ignition.

He strolls into the shop casually enough, making a beeline for the magazine aisle. He tries his hardest to ignore the puppies and fails. But to be fair, it’s their fault for making their little puppy sounds and being such pretty colors. Arthur sends a picture of a dozing Scottish Terrier to Merlin with the caption ‘do you think he can play the bagpipes?’ before tearing himself away from them and facing the magazine rack. It turns out that Leapin’ Lizards has several subcategories; Arthur flips through both Gallopin’ Geckos and Creepin’ Chameleons before deciding on the former. He taps at the chameleon’s face on the other magazine apologetically when he sets it back on the shelf, and heads for the checkout.

And apparently Arthur can’t catch a break, or the gods hate him, or he’s done something terrible in a past life, because Alex is behind the counter. He’s leaning up against it reading a book but sets it down when Arthur clears his throat. Arthur suddenly feels self-conscious because he never reads books and does Merlin like guys who read books? Arthur knows Merlin reads books, but is it a requirement for potential boyfriends? Arthur can’t remember the last time he honest-to-god read a book and starts to internally panic. He snaps out of it when Alex speaks.

“Arthur,” he grins, taking the magazine. “Didn’t think I’d see you here,”

“Hey. Yeah, I’m just picking this up for Mordred. He loved the first one.”

“Glad to hear it,”

“Sent Merlin a picture of the Scottie puppy,” Arthur says conversationally. “Though I suppose you’ve already done that.”

“Haven’t, actually,” Alex replies flatly. “We’ve broken up.”

“What?!” Arthur asks a little too enthusiastically as he hands Alex his money. “When?” “He did it early this morning over coffee.”

So Merlin was the one to break it off, Arthur notes. Of course he did; why on earth would anyone ever want to break up with Merlin? Arthur stares at Alex sympathetically regardless of his delirious happiness as he takes the magazine.

“I’m sorry to hear that, mate. I thought you two were nice,” Arthur lies.

“Me too. That’s alright. I hope Mordred likes his magazine,”

“I’m sure he will. See you around.” Arthur waves as he exits the store.

It’s all he can do to stop himself from skipping to his car. He just hopes Merlin’s not torn up about his break up, but he hadn’t mentioned anything to Arthur about it yet, so he’s probably alright. Arthur tries to think of the reason why Merlin had broken it off on his way to Morgana’s. Were his eyes too blue? Arthur ponders irrationally. Was he too blond? Oh god. He quickly glances at his own golden hair in the rearview mirror before shaking his head at the ridiculous notion. Maybe Alex was just a dick, he wonders, but puts that option aside immediately because as much as Arthur hates to admit it, the guy is pretty lovely. Arthur only admits that because he’s out of the picture, and now the only thing left to do is get himself inside that frame.

___

 

As soon as Arthur walks into Morgana’s place, he marvels at the nesting ground that has overtaken the living room. All the lamps are off and the blinds are pulled down; the only light in the room is the bluish glow emitting from the television. Mordred’s snuggled so deep into a heap of multi-colored blankets that only his eyes are visible, tearing away from the movie (to Arthur’s delight, it’s Hercules) to look at him.

“Uncle Arthur,” Mordred greets him, voice muffled. “Sorry you’re so sick, chief.” Arthur pats his head.

Merlin’s at the other end of the giant black couch, curled up in a ball and leaning on the armrest. He smiles at Arthur when he sees him, eyes blinking sleepily. Both him and Mordred look so cozy and tired in the warm, dark room that Arthur has to stifle a yawn. He takes his coat off, hangs it on the rack next to Merlin’s blue scarf and toes his shoes off. He is so ready to plant himself in his chair and watch a hunky animated man slice off monster’s heads with one fell swoop.

When he makes his way to it, Merlin scoffs. “You’re going to sit all the way over there?”

“But...my favorite chair-” he stops when Merlin pouts at him and oh man, if Merlin wants him to sit closer then Arthur is last person in the universe to refuse him.

Merlin sits up a bit and when Arthur goes for the spot by the armrest, he glares at him. “You’re going to make me sit by Mordred? I’ll get sick!” he whines.

“Nonsense,” Arthur dismisses, leaning down to shove Merlin over and take his place. “You’ve been with him all day; you’re probably going to get sick regardless.”

“If I do get sick,” - Merlin pauses to yawn - “I’m blaming you.”

Arthur settles in, trying to get comfortable, but finds it impossible because Merlin insists on shoving his bony elbow in Arthur’s thigh.

“Quit shoving your bony elbow into my thigh,”

Merlin makes an agitated noise. “Only if you quit jabbing your knee into my ribcage. Here, turn like this.”

Merlin sits up on his knees and swats at Arthur’s leg until he’s maneuvered it where he wants it, which is on the other side of himself. Arthur’s back is up against the armrest and he has to turn his head at a weird angle to see the television, but he decides it’s totally worth it when Merlin leans back down on his side and is right between Arthur’s legs. Arthur sucks in a subtle breath as Merlin settles himself in and puts one of the throw pillows on Arthur’s chest as a place to rest his head. Arthur glances at Merlin for a second, dumbfounded, but Merlin’s focused intently at the screen. Arthur shouldn’t be surprised; it’s Phil’s training montage, and that’s Merlin’s favorite part.

“I’m gonna set up an obstacle course like that for you,” Merlin says quietly through a yawn as Hercules jumps from column to column over a sea of sharks and leaps through a flaming hoop to rescue the rag doll.

“That makes you the damsel in distress.”

Merlin makes a sound and, if possible, scoots even closer to Arthur. Arthur’s eyes grow wide. He can feel Merlin’s stupid heartbeat faintly on his abdomen through his dress shirt as well as every slow breath he takes. Arthur’s warm all over and the closeness is making him dizzy. He’s glad Mordred’s four feet away to make the whole situation less intense. He tries not to think about it and pays all his attention to the movie, which proves to be unsurprisingly difficult, but he tries his best anyway because that’s all he can do. He sighs quietly when he feels Merlin’s hip up against his thigh.

When I Won’t Say I’m In Love comes on, Arthur pointedly does not look at Merlin. He keeps his eyes glued to the screen and only looks to the couch when the he hears a repeated tapping noise. It’s Merlin’s foot against the back of the couch, of course, and when Arthur turns more he sees Merlin bobbing his head slightly. Honestly, Arthur’s surprised Merlin hasn’t already begun singing.

But he’s spoken too soon.

Before Arthur even notices the loss of his warmth and pressure, Merlin’s up on his knees on the couch, long limbs flying everywhere to accentuate the lyrics that he is, sure enough, belting out.

“No chance! No way! I won’t say it!” He crows, pointing at Meg on the screen and clasping his hands over his heart. Arthur rolls his eyes.

“No, no!” Mordred chants, which makes Arthur start, considering just a minute ago he was positive the seven year-old was asleep and snoring, yet now his entire head is uncovered and he’s grinning weakly at Merlin who’s undoubtedly still flailing about.

When Arthur joins in with, “Give up! Give in!” Merlin turns to him and positively beams.

The rest of the song goes on much like that; Mordred’s laid claim to the background vocals of The Muses while Arthur and Merlin share the rest of Meg’s. There’s a lot of hand grabbing and backs of hands to the foreheads while faux swooning, and by the time the song nears it’s end they’re both laughing so hard they can barely sing it. Mordred’s eyes are back on the television now and he’s got a seemingly permanent smile plastered on his cute little face.

“At least out loud,” Merlin and Arthur both croon, arms thrown out to their sides like they’re standing on the deck of the Titanic. “I-”

Arthur stops short when suddenly Merlin’s hands are cupping his face and he’s staring into the blue of his eyes closer than he probably ever has before. His breath becomes short in mere moments and he’s sure Merlin can feel it warm on his full lips. Arthur would like to say that time stood still at that instant, so sure he was going to be kissed and it was going to the the greatest moment of his entire life. He waits for it, too startled to lean in and do it himself. Too much of a coward. Fuck it, Arthur thinks, and subtly takes in an encouraging breath. He’s leaned in a mere millimeter when-

“Won’t say I’m in love,” Merlin finishes, right in time with Meg and when she leans back dramatically on the stone bench, Merlin does the same on the couch, his head atop the bundle of Mordred’s many blankets. He kicks his legs out from under himself and rests them across Arthur’s casually.

“I love that song,” he announces, smiling.

Arthur is floored.

The rest of the movie continues but Arthur can’t focus on it. All he hears is Merlin’s calm breathing and the little amused sounds he makes whenever Pegasus is on screen, with a steady background track of his nephew’s soft snores. When the credits finally roll, Merlin has to wave his hand in front of Arthur’s face to get his attention.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes. Why?”

“I’ve called your name thirty times.”

“Thirty? Wow, you think I would’ve heard.”

Merlin swats his shoulder. “Shut up, idiot. I’m going to go put Mordred in his bed.”

Arthur nods and watches as Merlin hoists the sleeping child up into his arms and silently carries him down the hall to his bedroom. His heart hops in his chest at the sight. Arthur gets off the couch begrudgingly and stalks across the room to flip on the lights. He groans at the sudden brightness and rubs at his eyes with the heels of his palms. When he reopens his eyes he notices the lizard magazine in its bag on the floor next to his shoes. He leans down and takes it out.

“What’s that?” Merlin asks curiously as he pops up right over Arthur’s shoulder, small laundry basket in tow.

“I got Mordred another one of those magazines from the pet store. Forgot to give it to him.” “When?”

“On the way over here.”

“Gallopin’ Geckos!” Merlin shouts happily when Arthur shows him the cover.

“Gallopin’ Geckos!” Arthur repeats. Merlin laughs brightly.

“You should’ve gotten me the chameleon one.”

“We’ll go tomorrow, if you want?”

Merlin stares at him from where he’s standing over the coffee table folding a monogrammed dishtowel. He sets the towel down to start a pile and shrugs.

“Don’t think I’ll be going back there for a while,”

“Right.” Arthur says, nodding once. “Alex told me.”

Merlin huffs but doesn’t say anything. Then he sneezes into his elbow and Arthur fears he’s caught what Mordred’s got already.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, his tone caring. He goes to sit on the couch and looks up at Merlin. “I thought you liked him.”

“I did,” Merlin says flatly.

Arthur furrows his brow. “Did something happen?”

“Maybe,” Merlin stills with half of his arm still in the laundry basket and looks off to the side as if thinking. Then he glances at Arthur and pulls out another towel. “Not really.”

“Well, okay. That’s descriptive.”

Arthur watches Merlin take out two like socks and oh god, here come the sock bundles. But Arthur doesn’t have time to focus on his swift hands because he’s talking again.

“I’m afraid I don’t exactly want to go into detail, Pratdragon.”

Arthur puts his hands up in surrender, “If you say so. Did you get that picture I s-”

“Yes!” Merlin cries out suddenly, face lighting up. He pulls out a black and white button up flannel from the depths of the basket and stares at it in awe.

“Your favorite shirt!” Arthur exclaims. “You’ve finally found it.”

Merlin beams and lifts the plain black sweatshirt he’s been wearing over his head and throws it on the couch next to Arthur. Arthur watches the muscles in Merlin’s stomach clench as he shakes out the flannel and runs his palm over some of the wrinkles to smooth them. Arthur immediately busies himself with folding up the discarded sweatshirt and when he looks up again, Merlin’s clothed. Mostly. He’s fastening the bottom button and Arthur spies a sliver of flat white skin and his mouth goes dry.

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I-uh.” Arthur says dumbly. “I can’t remember.” Nice one, Arthur. Really charming.

“Alright then.”

Merlin throws his arms out once he’s got the shirt settled and spins around once.

“Good?” he asks.

“Yep,” Arthur replies shortly. “But it’s one button off. God, you’re hopeless.”

“Buttons are not my strong point.” Merlin agrees, hands on his hips and making absolutely no effort to fix it. He stares at Arthur expectantly and Arthur sighs, getting off the couch and stepping around the table to face him.

“Hopeless,” Arthur repeats and releases the buttons quickly, focusing intently on them and not the skin underneath the soft, thin cotton of Merlin’s shirt.

Merlin scoffs and the puff of breath sweeps Arthur’s bangs off his forehead and into his eyes.

“Thanks for that,”

“Sorry,” Merlin chuckles, reaching up to fix them. His fingers linger, though, Arthur notices, after his hair is back in place. But Arthur would be lying if he said he was fastening the top button as quick as he could, so he doesn’t mention it. Also, he loves it when Merlin messes with his hair. He almost sighs just thinking about it. He moves onto the third button.

“The key is to start at either the top or the bottom,” he tells Merlin, surprised at how out of breath he sounds to himself. “That’s why you always screw it up; you start in the middle like a buffoon.”

“Excuse me,” Merlin objects, fingers still threading through Arthur’s hair, “but do I have to mention how many times I’ve had to fix your ties? If anyone’s hopeless, it’s you.”

Arthur’s finally on the last button and when he reaches to close it, his forefinger brushes against Merlin’s lower stomach. Arthur freezes for an instant before continuing to close it, pretending he didn’t hear Merlin’s quiet but sharp intake of breath. It’s only because they’re so close that he’s heard it; he wasn’t supposed to. He wouldn’t have if he was standing a normal distance away, a friendly distance away, but personal space has never been big with the two of them. And Arthur’s not going to start now.

“I’m not hopeless,” Arthur protests, voice coming out much more hushed than he anticipated. He breathes Merlin’s familiar scent in subtly before continuing.

“I’m hopeful.”

“Me too.” Merlin almost whispers.

This is when Merlin’s arms drop back to his sides from their station at Arthur’s hair; well, one does. One of his hands rests heavily on Arthur’s shoulder, fingers clutching just slightly. If Arthur’s skin wasn’t tingling under his shirt where the contact was made, he probably wouldn’t have noticed. But that’s a lie; this is Merlin. With Merlin, he always notices. Every affectionate nudge, every playful shove, every bit of physical contact that’s ever happened between the two of them comes rushing into Arthur’s mind and it’s overwhelming. And he wants more.

Drunk off the proximity, he dares to take a small step closer, their feet almost toe to toe. Their blue eyes meet and Merlin’s are questioning and knowing at the same time, flipping between the two expressions with every draining second that passes. Arthur bravely reaches a hand up and slowly weaves it under Merlin’s shirt to place his palm around his small hip, gripping lightly. Merlin takes a deep breath and when he lets it out, he ducks his head and minutely looks at Arthur through long eyelashes, his eyes just slightly heavy-lidded. That look and the warmth of smooth, white skin pulled tight around a hipbone hits Arthur like a fucking train, but he refuses to let himself give in too easily. He needs to calculate every move, catalogue each second. Then, Merlin slowly slides his hand down from Arthur’s shoulder to put his palm flat on Arthur’s chest, right over his heart, and for a second he fears Merlin will push him away. But the pressure doesn’t come, and Merlin’s hand rests there lightly. Arthur wants to cry out, wants to jump for joy, but he stays on the ground and simply moves his head in closer to the dark-haired man’s. He gently presses his nose against the side of Merlin’s; a simple, sickeningly sweet action that has Arthur reeling as the closeness and trust. Merlin has closed his eyes, puffing hot breaths against Arthur’s lips and Arthur decides that’s enough of that, he needs to get his lips of Merlin’s now; he’s wanted them for years, and he won’t be robbed of another second without them.

“Arthur...” Merlin says softly, making Arthur flutter his eyes open to look at him, but Merlin’s are still shut. He wants to question, wants to act, wants to kiss-

Then the jingling sound of keys in the door erupts like a fanfare just outside of the quiet flat, and Arthur takes his hand off Merlin’s hip as if he’s been burned and quickly steps back a few paces. A millisecond passes and Leon strolls through the door, briefcase in hand.

“Hey, mates,” he greets happily, shrugging off his jacket. “Traffic was hell. Sorry I’m so late, Merlin. Mordred asleep?”

Air rushes back into the apartment and Merlin clears his throat before answering.

“Yeah, for about half an hour now. He hasn’t thrown up since this morning, though.”

“Lovely,” Leon says cheerfully. “Wine, Arthur?”

“Sure,” Arthur says, stepping slowly around Merlin to meet Leon at the bar.

“I’m going to get out of here, then. See you tomorrow,” Merlin chirps, smiling. Arthur spots crimson on his sharp cheekbones. Cheekbones he’d been within licking range of just a minute ago. He could kick Leon. He loves him as his own brother but he really, really could. Merlin collects his things (including the sweatshirt on the couch) and returns the basket with the now folded towels (and the fucking sock bundles) in it to the laundry room before grabbing his keys out of the bowl by the door.

“Arthur,” Merlin nods at him once, his grin fleeting. And then he was gone.
___

 

That night, Arthur can barely sleep. He tosses and turns and despite how weary he feels, he can’t seem to keep his eyes shut. The moonlight shines through the slats of the blinds and cascades in thick stripes across his white sheets. He counts them nine times before making a frustrated noise and sitting up, reluctantly accepting that sleep won’t come to him soon.

He calls Gwaine.

“Arthur, my friend,” Gwaine greets cheerfully. “Don’t you have work tomorrow?”

“Can’t sleep,” Arthur explains. “Something happened. Sort of.”

“You don’t say.”

Arthur ignores his tone.

“Come on, then.” Gwaine prompts after a moment. “Oh, how’s Mordred, by the way?”

“Better,” Arthur says. “He’d already been sleeping for a few hours when I left earlier, so my guess is he’ll be back to school tomorrow.”

“Glad to hear it. Now what’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” Arthur debates. “Well, wrong isn’t the word I’d use.”

“What word would you use?”

Arthur sighs. “I’m not sure, Gwaine. Something happened with Merlin and I, well, sort of,” he ignores Gwaine’s bark of laughter at that, “We didn’t necessarily kiss, but-”

“Ah,” Gwaine interjects. “So the word you’re looking for is horny-”

“No!” Arthur objects, splaying his hand over his white sheets and letting the moonlight illuminate his skin. “Well- yes, but. It’s different. Something’s different now. And I don’t know how to go about,” Arthur makes a vague waving gesture in the air in front of him until he realizes Gwaine can’t see it. “to go about letting him know I want to be with him. Like, forever.”

“You’re like a lovestruck girl.”

“I’m not a lovestruck girl.”

Or at least he’s not going to admit it, especially to Gwaine of all people.

“Since when am I your relationship guru anyway?” Gwaine asks, amused.

“I have no idea. What you tell me just always seems to make sense and I trust you, so. Help me. I don’t know what I’m doing. There’s only so much I can tell Morgana without her either giving me her sad, poor unfortunate soul eyes or taking the piss out of me. Not like you don’t do that too but...” He trails off. He hears Gwaine sigh.

“Help.” Arthur says again.

“You’ve made this whole situation entirely too complicated.”

“I know.”

“Have you killed Melvina yet?”

“Killed!” Arthur exclaims.

“Fine, exterminated-”

“That sounds just as bad. If not worse.”

“Arthur, she’s not real! You’ve made her up! I know it, Morgana knows it, Leon knows it, I’m pretty sure Mordred knows it and I’m surprised they’ve all kept their mouths shut this long considering how much they all love to talk.”

“Get to the point-”

“You’ve just got to tell Merlin.”

“And say what?” Arthur scoffs. “‘Hey Merlin I just wanted to let you know that the girl I’ve supposedly been in love with for a month now has been fake the whole time, and I only made her up because I was too afraid to ask you on a date because I’m a fucking loser’?”

Gwaine’s silent for a moment before responding, “Yeah, sounds good to me.”

“Fuck off.”

Gwaine laughs. “You’re the one wanting my advice.”

“You’re right.” Arthur sighs unhappily. “I know. This whole thing is a mess. And it’s my fault.”

“Chin up, mate. It’s not as bad as all that.” He can practically hear Gwaine smiling. “You have only good reasons for doing these things, and once Merlin hears you’re stupidly in love with him, the rest won’t matter to him.”

Arthur thinks on that for a minute.

“Thank you, Gwaine. I’ll talk to him tomorrow.”

“That’s my boy, brave as ever!” Gwaine hollers.

Arthur rolls his eyes but smiles all the same. “Just one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“How are you so sure he loves me too?”

“You’re fucking with me, Arthur, surely. Honestly, I can’t believe you haven’t picked up on it yourself. I’m not one to speak for him, but Merlin’s felt that way about you for, like, ever. He’s never outright said it to me, what with him being the way he is about these things, but, mate?” Gwaine whistles, “Anyone can tell. Anyone who’s around the two of you for more than a minute can tell. It’s just the two of you who insist on ignoring it. Until now, I suppose.”

Arthur’s heart is beating so quickly he fears it’ll leap out of his chest like in the cartoons Mordred watches and splatter all over his white bedroom walls. Were they both really that blind? What is it about love that makes even the most sensible of people into blathering, fictional-woman-creating idiots? Arthur rubs at his eyes and chuckles despite himself.

“You’re alright then?” Gwaine asks.

“Yeah. I’m alright. Thanks, Gwaine.”

“Good luck.” Gwaine chirps merrily, and the call clicks off.

It takes him another hour, but when Arthur finally nods off, he sleeps soundly.

___

 

The next day, he’s a total wreck. One hour into work and he’s already spilled coffee on two other people and on himself three times. He can’t focus for the life of him, staring blankly at his computer screen and barely hearing the usually blaring ring of the phone on his desk. His secretary comes into his office twice to ask him if he’s alright.

Turns out he’s a lot more nervous than he thought.

He keeps thinking about what to say to Merlin when he sees him and what Merlin will say in return. He plays his ideal turnout of the situation over and over again in his head (usually ending up in his bedroom, or if they don’t make it there, the living room couch). And, of course, because he’s Arthur, he thinks about the potentially terrible outcomes too. In most of them, Merlin gets mad and creeped out that Arthur’s harbored this weird crush for so long, quits his job, moves to the States and ends up resenting him (and in this scenario, Morgana and Mordred resent him too because they both really liked Merlin and now she has to find a new babysitter as well).

He freaks himself out so bad that he ends up leaving work at noon.

Luckily, since he’s the CEO, nobody questions him. He calls Morgana in the car.

“My dear sister,” he says happily.

“...Are you drunk? Arthur, it’s noon, for god’s sa-”

“I’m not drunk. I’m just saying hello.”

“You sound awfully chipper.”

“I might be.”

“Spit it out, then. I don’t have all day.”

Arthur wonders just how taxing interior design is and then responds, “I’m going to tell Merlin today. On my way to yours right now, actually. This is it, Morgana! Today is the day!”

“You say that at least once a month.”

Arthur frowns. “You’re killing my good mood. Which is hard enough to keep up as it is, fuck you very much, do you even know how nervous I am?”

“Knowing you, probably very nervous.”

“Exactly.”

“I hate to kill your buzz even further, but he called in sick today. Luckily Mordred’s back at school so-”

“What?” Arthur interrupts disappointedly. “No, wait. But today was supposed to be the day.”

“You could always go to his. He’ll obviously be pleased to see you, sick or not.”

“Good idea. I’ll do that then.”

“Go get him, tiger.”

“Will do,” Arthur grins and plans to go to the pet store, but not before stopping at home first to put on a particular blue blazer.

___

 

Half an hour later, Arthur’s standing on Merlin’s front porch holding the last available copy of Creepin’ Chameleons. He barely resists the need to do something with his hands, like text Morgana and tell her that this was a terrible idea, but stills when he hears shuffling.

As soon as Merlin opens the door, Arthur’s nerves wash away. Merlin looks tiny as ever in the doorway, color partially drained from his tired face. He’s got on Arthur’s red football sweatshirt from university with his name on the back of it (Arthur can’t remember how it got to Merlin’s flat in the first place, but nothing of the sort surprises him anymore) and it’s entirely too big on him, coming down to his mid-thigh. He’s got on the pajama pants Morgana got him last Christmas that feature skiing polar bears in goggles and puffy vests. His hair is everywhere, tufts sticking in every direction like he’s been sleeping. Oh.

 “Arthur,” Merlin smiles immediately. He sees Arthur staring at his hair and brings his hands up to try and pat it down, but it’s no use. “Wasn’t expecting to see you,”

“Were you asleep?” Arthur asks dumbly. “It’s half-noon.”

“I’m sick,” Merlin shoots him a glare. “I’m entitled to sleep all day if I want. I’m starting to think I should just hibernate all winter. Hollow out a tree, maybe find a cave. So many possibilities.” He’s got a faraway look in his eyes as he gazes off over Arthur’s shoulder.

“Right,” Arthur says, smirking. “All good ideas.”

“I’m full of them,” Merlin smiles again, far too chipper for someone who’s probably eighty-percent snot at the moment. But that’s Merlin. He waves Arthur in and shuts the door behind him, but Arthur doesn’t move past the front hall. Merlin turns around when he realizes Arthur isn’t following after him and his eyes grow big once he sees what Arthur’s got in his hands.

“Is that what I think it is?” He asks, eyes crinkling with merriment. “Creepin’ Chameleons!” He shouts, taking it when Arthur hands it to him.

“Creepin’ Chameleons!” Arthur cries back in turn, and can’t help but beam watching Merlin’s happy face as he looks over to cover.

“How would Melvina feel if she knew you were wooing other people with reptile magazines?” He asks jokingly, raising an eyebrow.

“She’s not real,” Arthur blurts out.

“What?” Merlin says, brow furrowing immediately.

“She’s not real, Merlin.” He says again, surprising himself. He steels himself, continuing.

“Listen, that day I told you about her, I was meaning to ask you out, but I just... I lost my nerve, and made that name up and I’ve been kicking myself ever since.”

“Me? Really?” Merlin asks, eyebrows still knitted together. Arthur assesses that he doesn’t look angry, per se, but he’s not delirious with exuberance either. Arthur swallows thickly.

“Yes, you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he looks at Merlin seriously. “I’ve been wanting to for...well, forever now and I meant to tell you my mistake right after I made it but then you kept asking me about her and I didn’t know how to tell you and then you started dating that pet store guy and-”

“Alex.”

“Right, Alex, and if I told you then I’d look like a total fool because you had someone else, and that was awful, so I just kept putting it off and now I’m babbling because I’m nervous because you are so great in, like, every way and I can’t stand the thought of you with anyone else because I fucking love you, okay?”

Arthur is completely shocked by his own brazenness. He stands there for what feels like minutes, staring at Merlin’s slack jaw and blank eyes and learning nothing. He can hear his heart beating in his ears. Soon enough, his courage wears thin and he’s thinking of how he’s ruined everything. Merlin’s going to give him the brush off; he’s going to say, ‘Sorry, you’re not blond enough after all and Alex and I have just gotten back together and had crazy, wild make-up sex and he’s actually back in my bedroom right now waiting for me, so if you could go, please?’ and Arthur wants to disappear. Gwaine and Morgana were so sure and it only makes him feel more foolish for believing it. Another two seconds pass and he feels so naked under Merlin’s unreadable stare that he has to get out.

 

“I just- I just wanted you to be mine. I’ll go,” he says timidly, embarrassed at the squeak of his voice. He retreats and closes the door behind him, stepping back out into the cold once again.

The disappointment and embarrassment haven’t begun to sink in yet, but when they do, he wants to be at least two drinks down. The fact that it’s midday doesn’t matter anymore, Arthur just needs to get out of there. He can’t believe he did it, he can’t believe he just told him, just like that, everything all at once and so openly like that. He shouldn’t have listened to Gwaine or his sister. He should’ve listened to his cowardly self, like he’s done for the past two years, and he’s crushed that when he finally built up the courage to let it out, it was all for nothing. Now he can’t come round Morgana’s anymore. There’ll be awkward glances and formal greetings and Arthur really doesn’t think he can take it-

“Arthur,” Merlin shouts at him from the porch. Arthur turns back from his place on the driveway. When Arthur sees that he’s smiling, he can’t help but perk up. And when Merlin beams, Arthur does too, out of habit.

“Arthur, I’ve always been yours.” Arthur literally gasps at the statement.

“Look,” Merlin spins around and points at the giant PENDRAGON in white letters on the sweatshirt. “You’ve even branded me,” he jokes lamely.

“You’re such a fucking loser,” Arthur says back, his entire being radiating happiness.

“Me?” Merlin asks incredulously. “You created a fictitious woman! Who I was insanely jealous of, by the way, so thanks for that.”

“You were?”

“Of course!” Merlin yells back. “Arthur, can you come back here so we can stop shouting down the length of my driveway?”

Arthur does as he says and jogs back until they’re both standing on the porch facing each other.

Merlin continues, “Of course I was jealous. There I was, hearts in my eyes whenever you walked into a room and you telling me all about this dream woman of yours. ‘She’s so beautiful, she’s got a great sense of humor, nicest person I’ve ever met,’”

“Is that voice supposed to be me?”

“Duh,” Merlin snorts.

Arthur laughs. “Well, all those things were about you, anyway.”

Merlin grins almost shyly, which Arthur has definitely never seen before, but it’s delicious.

“I’ve never been anyone’s dream woman before,” Merlin states with a dreamy voice, making Arthur roll his eyes, but then Merlin looks at him seriously. “I was only with Alex because I knew I couldn’t have you, by the way.”

Arthur’s heart leaps.

“I didn’t even know you liked guys until you told me about that man on the night I came over to help you with your ‘date’.” Merlin laughs a bit nervously. “And when I found out, I couldn’t stop thinking about you. Not like I could before, anyway, but it was then I realized I actually had a chance with you. That night at Morgana’s, you and Alex were shaking hands when he was about to leave and that was the first time I’d seen the two of you side-by-side... I mean, my god, Arthur, you two look so similar. I couldn’t believe I’d been so blind to the whole thing. And then that night you took me back here and said all those nice things, and how anybody would be happy to be with me, and I couldn’t even think about Alex anymore. It was like a less cute, too polite, way less fun version of you...I broke up with him the next morning.” Merlin stares off over Arthur’s shoulder again like he’s deep in thought. Then he looks right into his eyes and grins like he’s figured it all out.

“Should’ve known I’d never find another like you, Arthur.”

Arthur’s floored. He sees so much hope, so much happiness, so much love in Merlin’s eyes that he’s sure can be found in his own at the moment, and he can barely stand it. He steps closer to him slowly and cups his face, memorizing the feel of Merlin’s cold cheeks under his fingers and palms. He brings their foreheads together and studies all the shades of light blue in Merlin’s smiling eyes. They stand there like that, Merlin’s hands coming up to rest lightly on Arthur’s hips, for what feels like minutes. Merlin’s the first to disrupt the moment.

“You gonna kiss me now, Pratdragon?” he smirks, and Arthur feels it under the edge of his palm.

“So I can get sick?” Arthur asks quietly. “Not a chance.”

“Shut up,” Merlin commands, and pulls him in with a hand at the back of his neck.

Merlin’s lips really are as wonderful as they look, Arthur decides after a mere moment. Soft and gentle and oh god, he’s been waiting for this for so fucking long. His arms wrap around Merlin’s slender waist, and Merlin breathes happily into it, pulling his body in closer and pressing it pointedly against Arthur’s. Arthur tilts his head just so to deepen the kiss, their passion exploding like a bomb, and grins into Merlin’s lips when his hands reach up to rake through the golden hair at the back of Arthur’s head. He hums automatically and Merlin makes an appreciative noise and, oh yeah, Arthur could get used to this.

He’s already waited two years, but for Merlin, he knows he’d wait ten more if he had to.

___

 

Later that night, Arthur rests lazily on the couch while Merlin’s crouched over the huge shelf, running his long fingers along the spines of his myriad of DVDs.

“Take as long as you’d like. I quite like the view.”

Merlin shushes him. “I’m concentrating. You’re throwing me off my game.”

“It really is a wonder how long it takes you to pick something to watch.”

“Well, you’re stuck with me now.”

“Finally.” Arthur grins at his back.

“Found it!” Merlin rejoices, spinning around and brandishing the case so Arthur can see it. “I haven’t watched it in at least three days. That’s probably why I’m ill.”

Arthur leers at it and insists, “Come on, Merlin, watching that going to make me ill.”

“Such a drama queen.”

And when Arthur starts to groan again, Merlin shuts him up with a kiss.

The pristine copy of Fantasia sits on the coffee table, forgotten. 

END