Summary: On behalf of his nephew, Mordred, Arthur sets off on a quest to the local animal shelter.
Word Count: 5k
Author's Notes: Happy holidays, Bunnysworld! I hope you enjoy this gift.
Disclaimer: Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
"I've got an idea for Mordred's Christmas gift," Arthur said when his sister Morgana answered her phone. "I'm buying him a kitten."
"Hmm, I don't know," said Morgana. "I've never really wanted a cat."
"It's a good thing I'm buying a cat for your son and not for you, then, isn't it?" Arthur replied.
"Your wit is astounding, really," Morgana said dryly. "He's five years old. It's not like he's going to be cleaning the litter box."
"But he can be in charge of feeding it and caring for it in other ways, and I know he'll love playing with it," Arthur said.
"Well, I suppose this would be a good way to encourage responsibility, now that he's started school," she mused.
"You sound like Father," Arthur said, before he could think better of it.
Morgana didn't answer for a long moment, and he moved the phone away from his ear and looked at the display to make sure she hadn't hung up on him.
"Yes, I see what you mean," she finally said.
It was very rare for Morgana to concede a point in a disagreement of any kind. Their father was cold and distant; there hadn't been any pets in their childhood home. He only permitted his children's participation in activities which he believed would somehow build character. Unlike Morgana, he hadn't felt that pets fell into that category.
"So, what do you think?" he said. He regretted the harshness of his words, but he was unwilling to apologise for them. This was too important.
"Yes, a kitten will be fine," she said, now sounding as decisive as she usually did. "There's an animal shelter in your neighbourhood, isn't there? I'm sure you can figure it out."
She ended the call without waiting for Arthur's reply.
It took years for Arthur to understand exactly how unusual his childhood had been. His family was wealthy, and his primary school was filled with kids from similar backgrounds.
He was at uni when his long-time best mate, Leon, started dating a bartender, Mithian, who was a little older than they were and lived in a small flat of her own. She had a dog called Lady, medium-sized and brown, with a very gentle nature.
Arthur fondly remembered Lady greeting him at Mithian's door like an old, beloved friend, even if it had been weeks since he'd visited. When he scratched behind Lady's ears like Mithian had shown him, Lady wagged her tail; when the three of them watched a film together, Lady was always content to sit on Arthur's lap, where she was a warm and comforting presence.
Mordred had been born around the same time, shortly after Morgana graduated from uni herself. To Uther's humiliation, she never named a father; she started her career in marketing as a single mother, and she was now VP of her department.
Arthur loved Mordred from the moment he saw him, a few days after his birth, and he always made time to spend with him. He was a quiet child who was content to read or draw on his own, although he also enjoyed playing board games or Legos with Morgana, Arthur, or their friends. Mordred never seemed to have any friends his own age; he squirmed if Arthur asked him about it.Arthur didn't know if Mordred was lonely, but it was something he worried about. Eventually, he'd hit upon the idea of a pet. He had considered a puppy, but he decided a cat would be more suited to Mordred's temperament.
On Saturday morning, Arthur found himself outside of a shabby-looking shop front he'd passed many times on his way to the gym. A sign proclaimed it "Kilgharrah's Animal Shelter" in bold, brightly coloured letters. He'd noticed the place before because of the rather garish sign, but he only had a vague idea of what an animal shelter even was. He'd never expected to have a reason to go inside.
When he opened the door, a bell jingled, and a young man standing behind a long reception desk looked up. He was very handsome, and he was smiling at Arthur. Pale and thin, with high cheekbones, full red lips, and messy black hair, the man looked like the finest Renaissance portrait made real.
Desire and fear took Arthur's breath away. He wanted simultaneously to turn around and flee, and to do anything he could in order to spend any time at all in the presence of this vision of masculine loveliness. He knew from experience that he'd probably cock up any attempt at flirting, though. Even at the age of 25, Arthur still got a bit tongue-tied when speaking to attractive strangers.
But he'd told Morgana that he would bring Mordred a kitten, and he wasn't going to fail on his noble quest.
He donned his armour by straightening his shoulders, raising his chin, and striding to the desk. He was aware that he didn't look as imposing in his weekend wear of jeans and a t-shirt as he did in the business suits he wore to the office, but it would just have to do.
"Arthur Pendragon," he said, as he held out his hand for a handshake.
The man looked down at Arthur's hand, then furrowed his brow at Arthur's face. As their gazes met, half-remembered sappy song lyrics about getting lost in someone's eyes filled Arthur's mind.
You're being ridiculous, Arthur, he thought. Pull yourself together.
"Merlin Emrys," the man said, finally taking Arthur's hand and shaking it. His grip wasn't firm, but his fingers felt cool against Arthur's skin. "Sorry, our visitors don't usually, er, introduce themselves, or at least not quite so formally."
"That's quite alright. I'm here to purchase a kitten," Arthur said.
Merlin frowned. "You do know this is an animal shelter, right? We're not a pet store. You can't actually buy a pet here." He was obviously annoyed, but he also sounded offended. Arthur had no idea why.
Arthur cleared his throat. "My sister recommended that I come here, but perhaps she was misinformed. I apologise for my mistake. Do you just house the animals, then?"
Merlin looked back at him. To Arthur's dismay, he was still frowning.
"No, we do provide adoption services," he said carefully.
"What does that entail?" Arthur asked.
"We require that you pay us for the animal's shots, and we also require you to provide us with proof that you've had your pet spayed or neutered within three months of the adoption. We can recommend a veterinary clinic for that service, if you like." Arthur could tell that Merlin had recited this speech many times before.
"I see," Arthur said. He realised he'd never known how Mithian came by her dog, but he'd thought people just picked out a pet at a store, paid for it, and took it home. He tried to tell himself that his error didn't matter, since challenges often littered the path of a hero's quest. In truth, though, he was beginning to feel discouraged.
"Have you never had a pet before?" Merlin asked.
"No, and I'm not permitted to keep pets in the flat where I live now. This kitten would be a present for my nephew," Arthur said.
"Are you the boy's legal guardian?" Merlin asked.
"No, he lives with my sister," Arthur said, puzzled.
"Ah, well, I'm sorry to say that I can't authorise an adoption, then," Merlin said. He did sound apologetic, in a detached sort of way. "We have a policy against the adoption of animals as surprise gifts, and it's a very poor idea near the holidays. It's far too likely that the recipient will not be willing to look after the animal, who would just wind up in our care again as soon as the novelty wore off."
Arthur was a bit insulted on Mordred's behalf. "I assure you that my nephew is not the sort to abandon an animal," he said, forcing himself to speak calmly.
"I'm sure that's true, but that's our policy," Merlin said. "You'll need to come back with him and your sister."
Arthur was aware that he wasn't making a great impression on Merlin. He wished they'd met in a situation that was comfortable for both of them, instead of one in which Arthur had to quickly learn and adapt to complicated rules—especially since the rules of dating and romance often seemed mysterious to Arthur, too.
He took a deep breath as he realised that Merlin had undoubtedly explained these policies to many people, some of whom had no doubt lost their tempers with him. Arthur didn't need to add to that burden. He relaxed his posture and summoned a smile.
"Do you have any kittens here right now?" he asked.
At the question, Merlin's entire demeanour changed, from cool and professional to warm and excited. "Oh yes, of course," he said, matching Arthur's smile with a genuine, impish grin that crinkled up the corners of his eyes. Arthur blinked at him slowly.
Right, that was why I didn't want to relax around him, Arthur thought. Now I'm going to do something insane. I wonder what those lips would feel like on mine; they look so soft....
"I can introduce you, if you like," Merlin said.
"Introduce me?" Arthur asked. The word brought Arthur out of his daze, and for a moment all he could think of was his father introducing him to well-heeled young people, in the hope that Arthur would settle down with someone from a suitable background. Uther had grudgingly accepted Arthur's bisexuality, but he didn't approve at all of Arthur's bachelorhood. Was Merlin going to channel Uther and list all of Arthur's accomplishments and finer points to the kittens?
"Yes. It's important to us that our animals are comfortable around the families they'll be going to, so we always have meetings beforehand. In this case, it will be more than one meeting, of course, but there's no reason you can't meet the kittens today," Merlin explained. "You'll be part of the pet's family, even if he or she won't be living with you."
Oh. That made much more sense than Arthur's panicked imaginings. "Yes, I'd love to meet them," Arthur said quickly.
Merlin motioned for Arthur to follow him behind the reception desk and down a long hallway lined with cages and fenced-off pens. There were large dogs in the pens, some of them resting and others running around in circles. One dog startled Arthur by jumping on the front of his pen and barking loudly at him as he passed. Merlin glanced back just in time to see Arthur's embarrassing involuntary jump.
But to Arthur's relief, Merlin didn't laugh at him. "Sorry about that. That's Gilli. He was a stray someone brought in, and he's still a bit aggressive," he said. "We're working on his training, but it's been a slow process."
Arthur nodded. It seemed this shelter provided a lot of services.
"Come on, the kittens are just back here," Merlin said.
They finally reached the kitten enclosure, which was actually a small room with large glass windows. Inside the room, Arthur could see a door that led further into the building.
There were only five kittens in the room, and they were playing together. They were black with white markings, and very tiny.
"These kittens are all from the same litter," Merlin said. "The owner of the mother cat couldn't care for them, so once they were weaned, he entrusted us with the job of finding good homes for them."
They were all very cute. As Arthur looked more closely, though, he could see that only four of the five cats were pouncing around and tussling with each other. The fifth one sat in the corner, licking its white paws placidly and unconcerned with the activity going on around it. The lone cat reminded Arthur a lot of Mordred.
"They must be very young. Do they have names yet?" Arthur asked.
"Well," Merlin said, rubbing a hand on the back of his neck. "Not exactly. I always give all of our animals names in my own mind, but I rarely mention it."
"What have you named that one?" Arthur asked, gesturing towards the kitten in the corner.
"Oh, that's Socks," Merlin said. When Arthur looked at his face again, he noticed that Merlin's cheeks had gone red. He looked adorable, and Arthur averted his eyes quickly.
"I think that one might be the best choice for my nephew," Arthur said.
Merlin nodded. "Socks is in good health, but he's very placid for a kitten. He seems to prefer people to other cats. He loves to be around me and my employees. I'm sure he would get on with your nephew, too, but we'll have to see."
Arthur hadn't noticed any other people here today, but perhaps they were in another part of the building.
"Is this your own business, then?" Arthur asked.
Merlin nodded. "It's not technically a business; we qualify as a charity. But yes, it's my place."
Arthur estimated that he and Merlin were the same age; he was impressed that Merlin was running his own charity. Arthur had sometimes daydreamed of opening a small shop of some kind rather than working for his father, but he really didn't mind his job enough to go to that much effort.
The bell on the door jingled.
"Sorry, have to head back to the front," Merlin said. He turned and Arthur watched, rapt, as he did an endearing little half-jog towards the reception area.
Arthur looked back at the kittens. Socks was watching him through the glass, cocking his head back and forth as though Arthur were a strange and fascinating creature. Arthur raised his hand and waved a little. Socks continued to stare at him.
Merlin returned before too long. "A client was just dropping off some forms. Would you like to play with Socks today?"
Arthur considered it. Although he felt drawn to Socks, he was glad, now, that Merlin's policy had prevented him from choosing Mordred's pet. He didn't want to make such an important decision for Mordred. Too many decisions had been made for him in his own childhood.
"I think it would be better to bring Mordred round and let him see all the kittens," he said. "Will you be open tomorrow afternoon?"
Merlin looked pleased with that response. The smile he gave Arthur was gentle, almost indulgent. "I'll be here, yes," he said. "I look forward to meeting him, and he should be able to take a kitten home."
When Merlin arrived at the shop on Sunday morning, he was looking forward to the day ahead. He hoped that Arthur would be back, along with his sister and nephew.
Merlin couldn't recall having met anyone quite like Arthur before. He was very awkward. He was also obviously wealthy—what sort of life must he have led to have never heard of an animal shelter? Merlin had definitely encountered posh, entitled people before, and they could be very difficult to handle when their demands weren't met. But Arthur had been overly polite, only losing his cool once in order to defend his nephew.
Merlin noticed Arthur's good looks right away, but it wasn't until he returned from dealing with the other client to see Arthur staring soppily at Socks that Merlin had felt a real attraction to him. Socks was a favourite of Merlin's, too; he'd been hoping someone else would fall in love with the strange little cat, but sometimes solitary animals were more challenging to find good placements for.
One of Merlin's employees, Steven, came in to run the front desk while Merlin was checking on the animals. Merlin headed to his private office to take care of some paperwork.
He did have a full staff, but many of his volunteers and employees weren't able to work weekends so close to Christmas. There were only a few dogs here right now, in addition to the kitten litter. This time of year, he mostly shared the work with his best mate Freya, who looked after the animals during his hours off. But this arrangement meant that they had opposite schedules, and Merlin missed spending time with her.
Since he was short-handed, Merlin knew he only had a little time to work before he'd be needed elsewhere. But he couldn't resist taking a moment to talk about Arthur.
"Do you think he'll be back, Kilgharrah?" Merlin asked the framed photo of his childhood cat that he kept near his computer. Merlin had grown up with the habit of asking Kilgharrah for advice. It always helped, even if Merlin could never know his friend's opinions, and he still found it a good way to work out his thoughts.
"Maybe I should ask him out, but I don't even know if he dates men," he continued. "Well, we could become mates, no matter what. He seems like he could do with a bit of fun, I think."
Merlin worked through the morning with few interruptions, until Steven called his desk phone to tell him that there was a family asking for him by name.
He emerged from the hallway to find Arthur standing beside a beautiful woman who was holding the hand of a very young boy.
Arthur went for a handshake again, but this time, Merlin was prepared.
"This is my sister Morgana and my nephew Mordred," Arthur said.
Merlin shook Morgana's extended hand, as well.
"Hi," Merlin said to Mordred. "Your uncle tells me you'd like a kitten of your own. Is that right?"
The boy stared at him calmly, then nodded. It was unusual; most kids seemed far more excited in this situation.
"Speak up, Mordred," his mother said gently.
"Yes," Mordred said. "Uncle Arthur says you have five black-and-white ones."
Merlin grinned at him. "We do. Do you want to go take a look?"
"Yes," he said. Politeness seemed to be a family trait.
Merlin turned away to lead them all to the kitten enclosure.
"I can see why you chose this place. He's gorgeous," Morgana whispered to Arthur, loud enough for Merlin to hear.
I was wrong about that family trait, Merlin thought, feeling his face heat up.
Arthur didn't reply in words, only with a yelp of embarrassment. Merlin could sympathise.
When they reached the room, the kittens were up to their usual antics. Mickey, Boyo, Candy, and Tiny were all playing together, while Socks was reclining in the corner, idly batting at the air. Socks sat up when he saw people at the window, while the others ignored their approach.
"Here they are, Mordred," Merlin said. "Watch for a while and see if any of them seem like they'd make a good friend."
Mordred put both hands on the glass and leaned in, his eyes darting everywhere.
"I like that one," he said, pointing at Socks. "He's watching me, too."
Merlin looked at Arthur. His face had lit up with a wide grin, and Merlin's heart swelled at the sight.
"I call him Socks, but you can name him whatever you like," Merlin said. "I'll take you to the visiting room so you can all meet each other properly and we can make sure it's a good match."
Merlin ushered them into the small room and closed the door, walked around to the far side of the kitten enclosure, and entered it slowly. He picked up Socks, who instantly snuggled up to his neck.
Before he opened the door, Merlin could hear Morgana speaking in a raised voice. He hurried inside.
"Is everything alright? I hope there isn't a problem with the adoption," he said. He needed to be sure that Morgana was enthusiastic about caring for Socks, too.
But when Merlin glanced around, he saw that Morgana was smirking in a very unsettling way, while Arthur was blushing and glaring at her.
"No problem at all," Morgana said.
Merlin placed Socks on the table in the middle of the room and beckoned everyone closer.
"Now, be gentle, but please do pet him. He likes to be around people."
Mordred immediately reached out and touched Socks' fur.
"He's so soft," Mordred said, sounding truly amazed.
"You can let him sniff your hand," Merlin said, demonstrating how to do it in a way that wouldn't frighten Socks.
Morgana followed Merlin's instructions, and soon she and Mordred were both petting and cooing over Socks, who basked in the attention and even began to purr quietly.
"You too, Arthur," Merlin said.
Arthur nodded to himself and stroked a single finger behind the cat's ears with a light touch. Not all cats liked being touched there, but Socks didn't seem to mind.
They made a sweet picture, Merlin thought.
"Now, Morgana, how do you feel about this adoption?" he asked. This meeting was going very well, but it was important that all family members were in agreement.
"Honestly, I don't think I could bear not to take him home today," she said. She turned to face Merlin. "Could we get started on the paperwork?"
He took Morgana to the front desk and explained all the shelter policies to her, as well as the basics of cat care. "And regular vet visits are very important," he finished.
"Yes, of course," she said, filling out and signing the documents. "It will be no trouble at all. Mordred really likes him, which is all that matters to me."
Merlin nodded. He was very pleased with this adoption.
"Thank you, Merlin. It was nice meeting you. I'm sure I'll be seeing you again soon," she said.
"Yes, when you bring in the verification that the cat has been neutered," Merlin replied.
"Right," she said, with a mysterious little laugh.
Morgana had thought to buy a cat carrier and a few essentials before they headed out that morning, and she was driving Arthur home with Mordred and Socks in the back seat.
"I'm never wrong about these things," she said. "That bloke was looking at you with hearts in his eyes. It was a bit too much for me, if you want to know the truth. I shouldn't be encouraging you, because I'm not sure I'll be able to handle all the saccharine shi—shenanigans you two will no doubt force me to witness."
"Yes, alright," he sighed. "You've made your point."
"Mummy is right, Uncle Arthur," Mordred piped up. "Merlin likes you."
"You always take her side," Arthur said, half-turning so he could stick his tongue out at him. Mordred giggled. "So you think I should ask him out too, is that it?"
"If you want to. He's nice," Mordred said, shrugging.
He never admitted it out loud, but their opinions always carried a lot of weight with him. If Morgana saw something Arthur had missed, he was inclined to believe her.
"Much better than the people Uther throws you in front of, especially the ones you've taken up with. Like that awful Sophia and that ridiculous Gwaine," she said. "How he tricked Uther into thinking he was worthwhile, I'll never understand."
"Gwaine is one of my best mates now, as you're well aware," Arthur said. "He's also a doctor. There's no mystery."
"Yeah, Mummy. I like Gwaine, too," Mordred said.
Arthur grinned at him. "Except for your mother, everybody likes Gwaine, and he likes everybody right back," he said. Which was sort of the problem, I suppose, he thought.
To Arthur's relief, the conversation turned to where Socks would sleep and if he'd like the food Morgana had chosen.
After Arthur had exchanged promises with Mordred and Morgana to text him lots of photos of Socks' first night in his new home, he got out of the car and unlocked the front door of his building. But he stood in the vestibule thinking, rather than heading up the stairs to his flat.
It wasn't like him at all to act spontaneously, but if Morgana was right, there was really only one thing to do.
He hailed a taxi, feeling far too nervous about what he was going to do to drive his own car, and returned to the animal shelter.
When he opened the door, Merlin was behind the front desk again. He looked very surprised to see Arthur.
"Arthur? What brings you back here so soon? Is there a problem with Socks?" He sounded worried.
"No, nothing like that," Arthur said. He straightened his shoulders and raised his chin; then, he shook his head, smiling to himself. There was nothing to fear here, and no need to wear any armour at all.
"I came back in order to ask you out to dinner," Arthur said. "We could go somewhere after your shift today, or some other day, if you prefer."
"Oh!" Merlin said, and he beamed at Arthur. "I was going to ask you out myself. I'll be done here at about four o'clock, if that's alright."
Arthur felt the last of his nerves fade away. "That will be fine, yes," he said.
"Do you want to meet me for a curry at the place down the street, say, around five?"
"It's a date," Arthur said.
Arthur returned home and drove his own car back to the restaurant a few hours later.
They were both exactly on time. They greeted each other with shy smiles and headed into the restaurant together.
"I haven't been here before. What do you recommend?" Arthur asked, as they stood in line to place their orders. He wasn't used to the sort of restaurants that had pictures of the food on offer above the registers and aproned clerks taking orders.
"Anything. I've never had a bad meal here," Merlin said. He bumped his shoulder against Arthur's. "Just try something that looks good. They'll ask you how spicy you want it, don't worry."
In the end, Arthur ordered the same dish as Merlin, and they took their food to one of the few small tables. Merlin leaned his head into his hand and gazed at Arthur, blinking slowly.
"You're very handsome, you know," he said, and Arthur blushed. "I wasn't expecting to have dinner with you tonight, although I'd certainly hoped to ask you out soon. I realised too late that I didn't even have your contact information, only your sister's, and I suspect she would have teased me if I'd called for it."
Arthur threw his head back and laughed. "Yes, she was rather adamant about us getting together."
"I noticed," Merlin said, chuckling.
They ate, chatting about their lives and backgrounds. Arthur learned that Merlin had inherited a large sum of money from a deceased uncle, which he'd used to start the shelter.
"Is the shelter named after your uncle, then?" Arthur asked.
"No, it's named after Kilgharrah. He was a stray cat that my mother adopted when I was a child. He died of old age while I was at uni, but I feel like he's still with me, in many ways," he said. "So, I always wanted to help neglected animals. I volunteered at shelters as soon as I was old enough."
"I'm surprised you didn't become a veterinarian," Arthur said.
"I wanted to, but none of the sciences were strong subjects for me. My degree is in business, actually," Merlin said.
"Mine as well," Arthur replied.
"I guessed that," Merlin said, winking at Arthur. "Do you work in an office?"
"Yes, my father's office. It's very dull, really, not like your job at all," he said.
"I do love my work," Merlin replied. "The best part is knowing a pet is going to a good home, like today."
"I think Socks will be very happy with them, yes," Arthur said.
"You spend a lot of time there yourself, don't you?" Merlin asked. "I was including you in that 'good home' bit, you know."
"I do," he said. "Mordred doesn't have a lot of friends his own age. He prefers to be around adults."
"I was very similar at his age," Merlin said. "I'm so glad that I had Kilgharrah. You did a great thing for your nephew, Arthur."
The praise warmed Arthur. "Thank you," he said.
After dinner, Arthur offered Merlin a ride home, but Merlin said that wasn't necessary, since he only lived around the corner. Arthur might have thought this was a rejection, but Merlin was still gazing dreamily at him and had even taken his hand as they walked to Arthur's car.
"May I kiss you goodnight?" Merlin asked, when they reached it.
In answer, Arthur stepped in front of him and pulled him close. Merlin gasped, his eyes widening. Arthur kissed him, gentle and hesitant at first. It was pure bliss to finally know just how soft those full lips were. Merlin's hand stroked Arthur's hair as the kiss deepened, then he trailed his fingers along the sensitive skin of Arthur's neck. They stopped for air more than once and went right back to kissing.
"That was really nice," Merlin whispered against Arthur's lips. "Can I see you again?"
"Mm," Arthur said. He had completely lost himself in that kiss, and he shook his head to clear it. "Yes, I would like that. Let me give you my number, and we can plan something."
"Would you like to come to my place, next time? I can make us dinner. I'm not a great cook, but I'm not half-bad."
"You move quickly, don't you, Merlin?" Arthur said.
Merlin grinned. "I suppose I do, when I meet someone I like as much as I like you."
They kissed again, briefly this time. After they exchanged numbers, Merlin left.
For the rest of the night, Arthur got a happy thrill every time he remembered the touch of Merlin's lips against his. He couldn't wait for their next date.