lady_ragnell (lady_ragnell) wrote,

The Boy Next Door

Title: The Boy Next Door
Wordcount: ~6,800
Summary: In which there is pining, Merlin bakes, Arthur borrows batteries he doesn't actually need, and did I mention the pining?
Warning: I know how fluffy most of my fic is. So take it seriously when I say that this may do some serious sugar damage to your teeth.
A/N: Written for this prompt at the meme, which I am not anoning first since there is already a perfectly lovely WIP fill over there already. There are a few more notes at the end of the story.
Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin.

“Ah, Merlin! What can I do for you tonight?”

Merlin is mostly inured to how painfully attractive his neighbour is. And by “mostly” he means “only swoons every second or third time they interact these days.” And that’s only when Arthur doesn’t open the door glistening with sweat from a workout. Which he has just done. Shit. Merlin attempts to remember what words are when Arthur just looks at him expectantly. “I need an egg,” he manages, “and I know you like omelets.”

“Yes, of course. Won’t you please come in?” Arthur’s more than a bit posh, and sometimes so polite that Merlin idly wonders if he’s a robot. (Of course, then Arthur doesn’t hold the lift for him or acts like a complete arse or has loud posh parties without inviting informing Merlin, and Merlin figures no robot would do that.)

“Sure.” Merlin smiles, though he suspects it’s the smile that makes him a bit mad, because Arthur just raises an eyebrow and steps aside to let Merlin in before shutting the door after him and wandering off towards the kitchen. Merlin stays in the hallway, where it’s safe. And there are pictures of Arthur standing about looking chummy with women, as a reminder of what a bad idea his hopeless crush is.

“So what are you cooking this time?” calls Arthur from the kitchen. “You do bake a lot.”

Merlin’s always liked cooking, but he’s baked more in the last seven months since he moved in across the hall from Arthur than he had since Sixth Form, when he’d worked at his mother’s bakery. (That had been an ill-advised experiment and she later found him a job at the video store, where neither of them would be tempted to murder the other.) “Chocolate raspberry cake, it’s my turn to bring the dessert for the monthly office birthday party thing. And the damn thing takes seven eggs but I only bought a half dozen.” On purpose. And Gwaine says he can’t be sneaky and underhanded.

“Seven eggs? Good Lord, Merlin.”

“It looks delicious.”

“You’ll have to tell me how it turns out,” says Arthur as he reappears with three eggs. “You’ll break at least one for certain, and you won’t have anything for breakfast afterwards, Merlin, just take them,” he adds before Merlin can object.

“Yes, okay, right. I’ll … I owe you, yeah? Let me know if you ever need anything?” He can’t quite keep the pathetic hope out of his voice, and he winces while he takes the eggs because really, he’s wasting his time on his gorgeous neighbour and should really stop “forgetting” to buy key ingredients for baked goods.

Arthur’s smile is devastating, though, and Merlin makes a pouch out of his shirt to hold the eggs in so he doesn’t drop them. “No problem at all, Merlin. Just being neighbourly.”

Merlin keeps his smile bright and knows he must look a bit daft. “Yes, right, of course. If there’s any cake left after the party, I’ll save some for you, okay?”

“I’d like that, Merlin.” Arthur pats his shoulder and then raises his eyebrows in the way he does when he’s about to say something particularly prattish. “Of course, I might die of a sugar overdose and go into a diabetic coma, in which case you’ll have to feed my sister’s cat when she goes out of town next week, but at least I’ll die happy.”

“You … you will?”

“Well, nothing you’ve given me before has tasted bad, so I reason you’ll hold to your usual adequate standards.”

“Gee, thanks,” says Merlin, and flees before he can do anything embarrassing like ask Arthur to come cook with him, because that will only lead to them both getting covered in melted baking chocolate and Merlin forgetting himself and licking Arthur or something equally horrifying and then getting hauled off for sexual assault. It’s generally safer to flee.

“Have a good night, Merlin,” Arthur calls after him, and Merlin makes a noise that he really hopes isn’t complete gibberish and gets out into the hallway.
*
Arthur straightens his jacket before he knocks on Merlin’s door. It’s not that he particularly believes that his neighbour has any standards for dress or cleanliness, considering his printed t-shirts and flat covered in electronics cords, but his father impressed on him young that he should always look neat if he wanted someone to pay attention to him. And he really wants Merlin to pay attention to him. So he knocks, and prepares his most charming smile.

Merlin answers a few minutes later (after Arthur has knocked three more times, increasingly worried that he can hear the television but not Merlin), sleepy and rumpled, obviously just awoken from a post-work nap. He yawns around a smile when he figures out who’s at the door, and Arthur tries hard not to look as guilty as he feels for waking him. “Hello. Did you need something?”

“Yes. Hello. Sorry I woke you,” says Arthur, and then wants to beat his head against the door because that wasn’t suave. “I can come back later if you want to continue your nap.”

“No, no problem, shouldn’t have dozed off anyway. What can I do for you?”

You could step aside and let me in and let me ravish you. Arthur reminds himself that he is a gentleman. “I need batteries, actually.”

“Right, sure, yeah, come on in. Did you still want a piece of that cake? There’s a couple pieces left, but I should warn you that the crash from the chocolate is probably what made me pass out on the couch.” Merlin lets him into his flat, still rambling away.

Arthur is stuffed from dinner with his father and Morgana, but the cake is a reason to stay. “Cake sounds lovely. Is there enough for you too?”

Merlin beams at him. “Definitely. What size batteries did you need, again?”

“Ah. My torch died.” And, he reasons, that might well be true. It’s just that he hasn’t used it for several years, so he doesn’t know. “So … large ones?”

Merlin laughs, and disappears into his kitchen. “Is it a large torch, then?” Arthur mumbles something noncommital. “What do you need one for, anyway?”

“My sister wants to borrow it for her own nefarious reasons,” he invents quickly, glad Merlin is fussing with the cake and not looking at him. “She will mock me forever if I give her one that’s broken.”

“Well, we can’t have that.” Merlin brushes by and hands him a plate with a sliver of cake on it. “Here, let me find you something.” Without waiting for an answer, he goes into one of the many boxes strewn across his flat and eventually produces a pack of batteries. “These are the ones I use for my torch, but if they’re not the right size--”

“No, those are right. I’ll come back if they aren’t.” Arthur tells himself sternly that he’s already stealing Merlin’s batteries for pathetic reasons, he isn’t allowed to pretend they don’t fit the torch he certainly isn’t lending Morgana just so he can come back. He takes a bite of the cake and makes an involuntary noise. “Merlin, this is amazing.”

When he opens his eyes, Merlin is staring at him, blush creeping up his neck. “Um, thanks. It was a pretty big hit at the office.”

“I can see why.”

“Do you want the recipe?”

Arthur thinks of his frozen meals and takeaway and the fact that the cups of sugar or flour he’s begged off Merlin end up in the bin more often than not because he’s never learned to cook properly. His guilt over that is why he’s purloining batteries instead. “No, I couldn’t possibly. My office doesn’t have birthday parties, after all.” He takes another bite and manages to contain the noise this time.

Merlin’s holding the batteries out, and Arthur takes them and stuffs them in a pocket, which makes Merlin go back to the kitchen and emerge with another piece of cake for himself. Which he proceeds to eat, getting chocolate and raspberry preserves all over himself in the process. There’s a long silence while Arthur tries very hard to concentrate on his cake. “Well, glad you liked it,” Merlin blurts when Arthur finally puts his fork down.

There’s a definite sign that Merlin wants him gone, so Arthur puts on his best smile and ducks into the kitchen to drop off his plate. “It was really delicious, and hopefully it’ll give me enough of a pickup to get me through the work I’ve still got to do tonight.”

Merlin’s brow knits, but he just nods. “Well, best get on it, then. The sugar crash will be epic, I can tell you that already.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Have a good night, and thank you again for the batteries.”

“Well, you know. Just being neighbourly.”

Arthur waves and heads out before Merlin can catch his disappointed look at that.
*
When Arthur opens the door the day after making pornographic noises at Merlin’s cake, he blinks a few times at Merlin before actually saying anything. “You’re wearing a suit,” he says eventually.

“I came right from work, and we had clients in the office today,” Merlin explains. “You’re not. You’re home. Since when do you get home before seven?”

“Since a water main in my office broke and we were all dismissed at two. I’m sorry, did you want something? Why were you coming over if you didn’t think I would be here?”

Merlin waves the envelope he’d found in his mailbox around a bit. He’d been planning to avoid Arthur for a few days after the Cake Incident to attempt to get his crush back down to manageable levels, and then he’d found a piece of mail addressed to Arthur in his own box and … well, it was only neighbourly to deliver it. Arthur actually being home sort of kills his plan to shove it under the doorstep and flee before Arthur got home. “Got a piece of your mail, and thought I’d deliver it as I passed. I only knocked because it was polite, I just didn’t figure you’d be home.”

“Oh. That makes … what kind of mail?”

That’s Merlin’s cue to hand over the envelope, which is good, because he has no idea what the look on Arthur’s face means. “It just looked a bit important.”

Arthur opens it and then nods. “Yes, thank you, I would have missed that. Invitation to a friend’s wedding.”

“Oh, wow, definitely good I got it to you, then.”

“Yeah.” There’s an awkward silence. Merlin starts pondering escape strategies. “Would you like to come in for tea?” Arthur asks. “Least I could do, Gwen would be so disappointed in me if I didn’t RSVP in time.”

If the Cake Interlude was as awkward as it was, Merlin can’t imagine tea going any better, even if it would give him a chance to ogle Arthur more. Besides, it’s irrelevant. “Sorry, I’m actually going to a mate’s for dinner tonight and I should be getting ready as we speak.” Not that Gwaine particularly cares what he shows up looking like, but he suspects Gwaine has invited someone to the little gathering who he will be pushing Merlin at, since he’s aware of Merlin’s hopeless infatuation and is trying to kill it. So he should probably make an effort.

“Of course. Just let me know how I can return the favour. You’re always giving me cake and batteries and delivering my mail--”

“And you give me baking supplies more often than I have any right to ask,” Merlin assures him. “I’d say we’re even, really. I tried to ask the woman upstairs--you know, the one with the little blonde girlfriend?--anyway, I tried to ask her for some sugar once and I thought she was going to castrate me.” Though that might have been because he had actually been out of sugar, and it was the early days when he was still worried about being too much of a creeper so he’d avoided going to see Arthur.

“That’s her default setting,” says Arthur with one of those grins. “I always think about introducing her to my sister and then I realize that they would take over the world within a day.”

It takes Merlin a few seconds to realize they’re just standing there smiling at each other like a pair of idiots. “Well, we can’t have that,” he manages after a few seconds.

“No, Morgana would be a terrible queen. Although she keeps threatening to off Prince William’s fiancee so she can marry him instead.”

“Well, it’s not like I’ve never thought of it,” Merlin says, and then wants to beat his head against the nearest wall because Arthur is just staring at him, and really? Really, did Arthur not figure out that he’s gay? “I mean, not the potential-princess-icide, but the marrying the prince. And then I realized that I’d be a really rubbish princess.”

“You would look very fetching in a tiara.”

Merlin is pretty sure he turns a very unflattering shade of magenta at that. “Yes, well. Not going to get the opportunity, anyway. So I’m going to go get ready for dinner. Thanks.”

Arthur opens his mouth and then stops, looking bemused. “What are you thanking me for?”

Merlin blinks at him. “I have no idea, actually. I’m just used to borrowing things from you when I come to your door, so it was automatic reflex.”

“Very nice. This time, however, I shall thank you. Do let me know what I can do in return.”

It takes him a few seconds to remind himself that Arthur doesn’t mean to look predatory. Then he stammers something polite and goes back across the hall, where it’s safer.
*
Arthur had told himself sternly that it was Merlin’s turn to ask him for something. They’re generally quite even about exchanging favours so they see each other three or four times a week, alternating who needs help, but the misdelivered letter threw things off. That’s why, three days after Merlin had babbled about marrying Prince William, flushed an amazing shade of scarlet, and fled, Arthur is pacing in his hallway pondering the wisdom of going across the hall if Merlin is avoiding him. They rarely manage to go more than a day without running into each other by chance, let alone design, so three days feels … significant.

Finally, he gives in, thinks up an excuse, and goes across the hall. Merlin looks like a rabbit in gunsights when he opens the door, but that melts into a smile just as Arthur is starting to feel guilty. “Hey, Arthur! Can I do something for you?”

“Laundry detergent.”

It is, he realizes a second later, an appalling excuse. He’s careful of his clothes, and Merlin knows it, and they both know that Merlin’s detergent is whatever was on sale at Tesco’s. “Laundry detergent?” Merlin repeats.

“I’m out, and I just want to get a bit of my footie stuff washed, I have a pick-up game with some mates,” Arthur invents.

Merlin’s face clears. “Come on in, then, I’ll get you a cup.”

It turns out, a few minutes later, that Merlin really does mean “a cup.” He arrives from rummaging in a closet with a mug half-filled with detergent. “Do you expect me to drink it?” Arthur asks.

“Of course not! Just, the plastic thing that comes with the detergent broke. So that’s the detergent mug. So return it when you’re done, yeah?”

“Right, of course, I won’t steal your mug.” Especially as it’s bright orange with purple polka dots all over it.

Merlin smirks at him. “No, nobody would. That’s why it’s the detergent mug. It will always return to me. My friend Gwaine got it for me as a joke when I moved in here, said it was a flatwarming gift, and I couldn’t bear to get rid of it. So I found a use for it where I wouldn’t have to see it in my cupboard every morning. It’s sort of eye-smarting, isn’t it?”

“Very eye-smarting.” Arthur eyes it for a few more seconds. “Well. I’ll … return this, soon as I may. Perhaps I’ll break it accidentally, do you a favour.”

“No, don’t do that! Gwaine would be heartbroken. Or at least he would pretend to be heartbroken, and then I wouldn’t get invited to his place anymore, and he has really good beer.”

Arthur reminds himself that he has no business asking if Gwaine is Merlin’s boyfriend. And then he asks anyway. “So, Gwaine, is he your boyfriend or something?”

Merlin’s horrified look is more comforting than he’d like to let on. “No! Oh, God. He’d be the worst boyfriend ever, he has commitment issues from here to Bermuda.” His ears go pink, which is a sure tell that there’s something more to the story, but Arthur decides he’s had quite enough of this line of questioning. “But anyway, you’ve got laundry.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll get this to you as soon as I can.”

Arthur goes back across the hall and spends ten minutes frantically finding things that he won’t mind being washed in Merlin’s detergent before hauling them down to the basement of the building and starting the cycle. He feels more than a bit pathetic coming up with elaborate stories so he has an excuse to knock on Merlin’s door, but Merlin, aside from the odd fit of blushing, doesn’t seem particularly interested in him, so he isn’t quite willing to risk asking for anything more.

When the laundry’s finished (and he’ll probably have to wash it all again, since knowing his luck Merlin’s detergent will make him itch), Arthur rinses out the ugly mug and goes to knock on Merlin’s door again.

Merlin looks a lot happier to see him this time. “Arthur! You didn’t break my mug!”

“I gave serious thought to it. It is an abomination, and you should have been grateful that I offered to give you an excuse to lose it.”

“But if it breaks, then I lose the right to give Gwaine something equally horrifying next time I have the chance to give him a gift.”

His grin is infectious, and Arthur doesn’t even try resisting. “You’ll have to tell me what you choose. One of those singing fish, maybe?”

“No, I’m sort of afraid he would like that unironically. The point is to get something awful that the other person feels obligated to use.”

“You’re very odd, you know.”

“Believe it or not, you aren’t the first person to tell me that.”

“Shocking.” Arthur remembers that he’s beaming stupidly at Merlin and that he has a presentation to prepare for at work, so he hands over the mug at last. “Anyway, thank you again. You’re a lifesaver. Please do let me know when I can do anything for you.”

“Definitely.” Merlin’s smile could power cities, and Arthur knows he’s blushing when he mumbles his goodbyes and strides back across the hall in a way that he really hopes doesn’t resemble fleeing, since Merlin doesn’t close his door until Arthur’s through his.
*
Merlin isn’t quite sure how it happens, but he realizes one morning, shuffling bleary-eyed to pour Arthur a cuppa from his kettle in the middle of the hallway (Arthur’s is broken) before holding out his own cup for a slosh of milk (his went bad), that he and Arthur are basically flatmates. Who live in different flats. “We need to go grocery shopping,” Arthur mumbles, which only cements it.

He should say something witty to that, he knows, but it’s early in the morning and he thinks maybe his brain just shorted out. “We? Like, you and me?”

“Not together, I mean.” Arthur goes bright red, which Merlin finds hysterically funny for some reason. “Just, both of us are sort of out of a lot of things, seems like.”

“We always are,” Merlin agrees, and then panics, because what if this is Arthur saying he’s on to Merlin’s shameless ways and wants him to stop knocking on his door at all hours of the evening? He’s never objected before, or even looked like he might object, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. “I should probably know to stock sugar by now, I guess.”

“It’s not like I mind.” Arthur’s casual shrug goes a long way towards staving off Merlin’s panic. “I just dread the day when we’re both out of something and have to draw straws on who has to go upstairs and ask if they have it there.”

“Best we stock up ourselves, then.” Merlin goes into his flat to put his kettle down and comes back out into the hallway with a sugar cube for Arthur, because Arthur will never admit that he likes sugar in his tea even though he obviously does. “I don’t have time for a few days, though. Big thing coming up at work.”

“Oh?”

Merlin takes a sip of his tea. “Just a software update, but my team’s in charge of it. Nothing big.”

“Let me know if you need me to pick up anything to tide you over. I owe you a favour or two, as I recall.”

“I may take you up on that.” Merlin mentally surveys the contents of his cupboards and his freezer. “Actually, I’ll definitely take you up on that.”

“You need milk,” says Arthur, and then looks at him expectantly. “What else, then?”

“I’ll write it down. Just a few things, but that way you’ll know what brands I like.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “I know what kind of milk you like, Merlin. You’re forever complaining that mine comes from mutant cows or something ridiculous like that.”

“I’ll write the rest of it down, then,” says Merlin, and finishes the rest of his tea in a hurry (scalding his throat in the process) before rushing back into his flat for paper and a pen and scribbling down a few necessities (bread, cheese, canned beans--he can afford to eat like a uni student sometimes, especially when he’s this busy). When he comes back and hands Arthur the list, Arthur’s finished his tea, and arches an eyebrow when he reads the list. “Busy, remember?” he says defensively.

“You are going to get scurvy and die,” Arthur informs him, but he stuffs Merlin’s list in his pocket, and that’s what matters. “I’ll get these to you tonight, shall I?”

“That would be great.” Merlin looks at his watch and curses. “Got to get ready for work, sorry, Arthur. Let me know how much I owe you later, yeah?”

“Definitely. See you tonight,” says Arthur.

Merlin’s exhausted and staring at his stove in defeat that evening when Arthur knocks on his door. “Oh, good, I was afraid I was going to starve to death,” he says, and then looks inside the bag, which contains his requests and a few other things as well. “Some of your groceries got mixed up in here, I think.”

“Being busy is no excuse not to get nutrients,” says Arthur, scowling at him, and pushes past him into the apartment. “So I found you vegetable matter that you won’t have to cook. And fruit. You don’t have to pay me for it, since you didn’t ask for it.”

“No, I’ll pay. Thanks, Arthur, that’s … nice of you, I guess.” High-handed and rather prattish, but oddly sweet in that way that Arthur sometimes is. Not that he would ever say it to Arthur’s face. He suspects Arthur tries to cultivate a reputation as a fierce businessman and not someone who opens the door in the morning with his toothbrush stuck in his mouth. “Let me grab my wallet. Seriously, this is above and beyond the call of neighbourly duty.”

Arthur smiles at him. “Well, I’d like to think we’re friends as well.”

Merlin can’t help smiling back. “Yeah, I’d like to think that too.” He thinks about asking Arthur to stay for dinner as thanks, but then Arthur is excusing himself and he can’t quite manage to get the words out.
*
Arthur opens the door one Saturday afternoon to find Merlin, which isn’t unexpected, looking completely out of his mind with panic, which is. “What on earth’s the matter?” he asks immediately, preparing himself for anything from flames to a one-night-stand that needs to be kicked out.

“My mother’s just called, she’s visiting today.”

Merlin speaks of his mother often, and quite fondly, so Arthur isn’t entirely sure what the problem is. “Is there a problem with that?”

“She didn’t warn me,” says Merlin, sounding a bit distraught.

“So you need help cleaning your flat up?” That he can do. He may not cook well, but he certainly keeps his flat neater than Merlin’s pigsty.

“No, she knows how messy I am, that never matters, and honestly it gives her something to cluck at me about that isn’t my love life, which is never a problem. But … look, this is incredibly awkward, but time with my mother always goes much easier when there’s someone else there, because then she doesn’t ask about my love life and get all disappointed at me, and--”

Arthur interrupts him. “Are you asking me to pretend to be your boyfriend so your mother won’t bother you?” Please, please, please.

It’s never not fun, watching Merlin blush. This one starts at his ears and spreads, which means he’s mortified, as opposed to the ones that start under his shirt collar, which tend to mean that he’s pissed off. He carefully doesn’t think about the fact that he pays enough attention to Merlin to catalogue his blushes. “No. I can ask many things in the name of friendship, but I can’t ask you to pretend to be my boyfriend in front of my mum. She would interrogate you. Really, I just need a buffer, and Gwaine’s busy, and she knows Will well enough that his presence doesn’t matter, so of course I thought of you …”

Though it’s a bit lowering to know he wasn’t Merlin’s first choice, Arthur can’t really bear to leave him looking that pathetic. “No need to babble, Merlin, of course I will. But you owe me. It’s not often I consent to meet a boyfriend’s parents.”

“We’re not--I’m not--boyfriends?” Merlin blinks at him, apparently shocked out of his feverish state of panic, and Arthur just stares back, because it is almost impossible that Merlin has not yet realized that he’s gay. Perhaps the only way to make it more obvious would be to snog a bloke on his doorstep until Merlin came out and saw, and that would rather ruin the plan of making Merlin fall for him.

“Focus, Merlin. Let me put on something besides sweatpants and I’ll be right across. When’s she coming?”

Merlin shakes his head a few times, apparently still surprised by Arthur’s not-very-surprising announcement. “Half an hour, maybe?”

“Okay. Then go take some deep breaths and put the kettle on, and put any food refuse in the bin. I’ll be over in ten.”

Merlin nods jerkily a few times, still shell-shocked but a smile growing, and Arthur grins back, feeling more hopeful than he has in ages, and gently shuts the door. Then he runs for his closet and dresses like he actually is meeting his boyfriend’s mother for the first time, a button-up and nicer jeans than he would wear for one of his mates. When he goes across the hall, Merlin opens the door and immediately returns to a flurry of clearing dirty clothes and electronics off his furniture. “You’re a lifesaver,” he says over his shoulder.

“You’ll pay me back. Maybe …” Arthur decides to blurt it out, something he’s been pondering for weeks. “Remember the wedding invitation you delivered to me? I’ve got a plus one, and I’d love to have you along for company. Otherwise they’ll all decide I need to be set up with someone.”

“I’d … okay. I mean, if you’d really like.”

“I would,” says Arthur, and goes into the kitchen. “What are you feeding your mother, Merlin?”

“We’ll go out for dinner, probably.”

“Oh. Am I coming as well?”

“You could. I mean, I’d like you to. But she won’t bother me too much, it’s public there.”

“I’ll come along. May as well make my rescue attempt complete. But if we’re having tea, we should at least have digestives.”

Merlin, when Arthur turns around, is making a face. “Mine are stale.”

“I’ll go get mine, then. I would bake something quickly but I don’t really want to poison your mother the first time I meet her.”

Merlin cocks his head. “You cook, though, don’t you? You’ve borrowed ingredients from me before.”

Arthur winces and turns back around to fiddle with Merlin’s overly fancy kettle so he doesn’t have to meet his eyes while he lies. “Ill-advised experiments, I’m afraid. I’m always trying to learn, but always fail. That’s why I’ve never brought anything for you to try.”

“I’ll teach you how, sometime, if you’d like.”

Arthur smiles at him. “I’d love it, though I fear I’ll be a hopeless case.”

“We’ll bake something when we’re back from the restaurant tonight, prove you wrong,” says Merlin, then pauses. “That is, if you aren’t busy. I’ve sort of taken over your Saturday.”

“I had no plans that didn’t involve the telly and a bottle of beer, so that’s entirely fine. And I think I’d like to learn to bake something.”

“Then I’ll give you lessons, or at least one lesson, in return for you having to meet my mum.”

“You’ll have to meet my sister at Gwen’s wedding,” Arthur points out. “Now, I’m going across the hall to get my digestives, and then we’ll finish getting ready for your mother together.”

Merlin smiles at him. “Seriously, beyond the call of duty.”

Arthur shrugs. “I like doing things for you,” he says, and lets himself out to fetch the digestives before Merlin can answer him.
*
By ten o’clock, Merlin isn’t quite certain that he isn’t living in some sort of alternate universe. Ever since he knocked on Arthur’s door to beg to be saved from his mother, things have been … odd. For one thing, Arthur’s reaction to Merlin’s mum’s raised eyebrows and query as to their relationship status was greeted with a “Sadly, no, I just live across the way and wanted to meet you” and a squeeze to Merlin’s shoulder.

After that … Merlin’s only introduced two boyfriends to his mother, and one of those is Will, and he didn’t count, since they’d known each other forever anyway. But he knows what meet-the-parents behavior is like, and Arthur is definitely acting more like that than just a mate. Half the time he’s got a hand on Merlin somehow, and the other half he’s smiling at him, or at least just looking. He pours the tea and asks how Merlin’s mum likes it and talks about his work in the reassuring “I can take care of your son should he need it, ma’am” way that he’s only ever seen in the movies. He tells stories about how they always borrow things from each other, looking at Merlin in a fond, conspiratorial sort of way while his mother smiles gently at them. Merlin spends dinner in frozen, shocked silence.

Arthur pointedly excuses himself to the loo after they’ve paid and Merlin’s mum immediately pins him with a look. “Why on Earth aren’t you dating him, Merlin? He obviously wants to. It’s been a few years since Will …” She trails off delicately.

“I’ve dated since Will, mum. And he doesn’t act like this usually.” Except when he sort of does, smiling and teasing Merlin and doing him favours and then making a point of announcing that he’s gay. “Look, if he asked, I would. Otherwise I don’t want to mess up a good thing.”

“You made that exact same excuse when I encouraged you to ask Will if he wanted to give it a go,” she points out, and rightly so, but Merlin doesn’t have time to make a retort before Arthur returns. “Well,” she says brightly. “This was lovely, gentlemen, but I really must be going.”

“Sure I can’t tempt you to spend the night?” Merlin asks.

She just raises her eyebrows at him. “Unless your flat sterilised itself while we’ve been at dinner, I would much prefer to have a late-night cab ride.”

“You could stay at mine,” offers Arthur.

Merlin squirms when she raises her eyebrows at him. “Really, Arthur, I couldn’t, but you’re a dear for suggesting it. We’ll have to do this again sometime.”

“We certainly will. It’s been a pleasure, Hunith.” She kisses Arthur’s cheek, and he gives her a big of a hug before stepping back again and watching with a smile while Merlin hugs his mother and promises a return visit soon. Once she’s bustled out of the restaurant, Arthur grins at him. “Ready to go home? Unless you’re tired, it’s pretty early, and I’d appreciate one of those baking lessons.”

Right. Baking lessons. Standing in his little cramped kitchen with Arthur, teaching him how to make chocolate biscuits, fighting off the nigh-overwhelming urge to jump him. That’s going to end well. “Sure, why not?” he says, since he didn’t have wine with dinner and at least has some self-control left.

“Let’s go, then.” Arthur holds the door open for him, and Merlin snorts, but Arthur just prods him in the side and he walks through. They don’t talk much on the walk home, which is just fine with Merlin, because he’s still trying to figure out if “baking lessons” are meant to mean “snogging.” “You’ve got sugar and flour and all that, right?” says Arthur as they’re going up the stairs.

“Yeah, I think I have enough for a simple batch of biscuits. A little low on eggs, but that’s fine, what we’re making doesn’t take many.”

“Let’s hope we don’t break any, then. I’m out at the moment.”

Merlin keys into his apartment. “Do you need to go across the hall for anything first?”

“I’ll be there in a tick, I’ve just got to change and check my e-mail.”

“Okay. Just come in when you’re ready, I’ll leave the door open.” Arthur waves and goes to his own door, and Merlin takes a few deep breaths and then sets about finding all the ingredients they’ll need for baking. By the time Arthur comes back, in a t-shirt so tight Merlin almost spills vanilla extract all over the floor, everything they need is all laid out. “I figure everyone should know how to make chocolate chip biscuits, so we’ll start there,” he says, gesturing at the counter.

“Sounds like an excellent plan. Please, teach me.”

Merlin measures out all the ingredients before he mixes them together, something his mother taught him that he’s never got out of the habit of doing, telling Arthur amounts as he goes. “I’ll write the recipe down for you,” he says when Arthur looks like he’s itching for a pen and paper. “Just pay attention now. We mix the butter and sugar first, okay?”

He lets Arthur mix them, busy fiddling around with the cookie sheet. “When I was a kid I would just stick the chocolate chips in that and eat it all,” he says when the silence gets to be too long. “Just lick it up. My mum would yell at me.”

“I’m sure every grey hair on her head is your fault,” says Arthur, still stirring.

“Liar, her hair isn’t--” Merlin trails off, because Arthur has stuck his finger in the butter and sugar and started sucking it off, and he suddenly needs to divert his bloodflow back to his brain. Arthur makes a satisfied noise and Merlin may or may not whimper. “It’s--it’s better with chocolate chips,” he manages when Arthur smirks at him. He has a suspicion that this baking lesson is not going to end in a successful batch of biscuits.

“Giving up already? Shame, Merlin, I’m not that hopeless a student.”

Merlin fidgets and tries to think of something to say, and it degenerates pretty quickly into an awkward silence. This, he decides, is the moment where in a book one of them would grab the other and snog him, which would end either in a honeymoon on Crete and several adorable adopted orphans or in yelling and possibly slapping and one of them moving to a different building. However, he’s sure as hell not going to be the first one to make a move, because if Arthur does choose to slap him for assaulting his virtue, he imagines it will hurt. Arthur works out.

Finally, Arthur swipes his finger in the bowl again, and Merlin thinks he is going to do more unfair pornographic things while Merlin watches helplessly, but instead he holds his hand out until it’s just a few inches from Merlin’s face. “You ought to try some too, before we put any of the other ingredients in. For old times’ sake.”

Judging by Arthur’s low voice and very intense eye contact, he actually intends for Merlin to eat the batter off his finger. Which could mean he’s being an arse and wants an excuse to slap Merlin (or punch him, Arthur doesn’t seem the slapping sort, really), but Arthur’s nice and charmed his mother and is breathing a little hard, so he’s pretty tempted to take his chances. So Merlin keeps his eyes on Arthur in case he decides to do something violent, leans forward, and puts his mouth around Arthur’s finger. Arthur twitches but doesn’t do anything else, so Merlin swirls his tongue around to get all the butter and sugar before pulling away.

“Oh, shit,” says Arthur, claps his hand (still damp with Merlin’s spit, which would be gross if Merlin had any higher brain function left) on Merlin’s shoulder, and hauls him close. “I’m going to kiss you now, unless you have any particular objections.”

If Merlin answers, he is undoubtedly going to say something really stupid, so he just tugs Arthur forward and kisses him, clumsy and a bit sideways. Arthur responds immediately, tilting his head and licking at Merlin’s lips like he’s trying to get to the sugar. Merlin returns the favour and everything’s a bit messy and sugary-sweet, but amazing nonetheless. “I have wanted to do that forever,” he manages in between kisses, and then Arthur nips his lip and he sort of forgets about the talking thing, which will probably be important in the near future.

Arthur doesn’t waste any time about backing Merlin up against the counter and bending him nearly in half, and everything is sort of glorious until Merlin slips and knocks an egg off the counter. It cracks and splatters both of their shoes, and Arthur pulls off his mouth to breath heavily into his shoulder for a minute before speaking. “Well, I didn’t want to ravish you before the first date anyway, but really? Merlin, really?”

“First date?” he manages after a few seconds, and Arthur looks up to glare at him. “It’s not like I did it on purpose,” he mutters.

“And so we don’t have enough eggs for our biscuits, since I’m out too.” Merlin gives him a look that he really hopes conveys several layers of You are thinking about baked goods when we could be going to my bedroom right now? What kind of man are you? “Not before the first date, Merlin,” he repeats, and presses a quick kiss to Merlin’s lips.

“The first date had better be soon,” Merlin grumbles, then steps away to get paper towels to clear up the mess. When he’s crouched and has a bit of his brain back, he grins up at Arthur, who is watching him and not even bothering to hide a wide smile of his own. “And just so you know, if you want the biscuits, you’re the one who has to ask the scary woman upstairs for eggs.”

Arthur grimaces, then smiles again like he can’t help it and dips another hand in the butter and sugar. “Guess we’ll just have to put the chocolate chips in the batter and eat it like that, then. I hear it’s best that way.”

Notes:
1. The woman who lives upstairs and her "little blonde girlfriend" are a nod to the fact that a friend of mine has been making me watch far too much Xena lately. Sorry, I couldn't resist.
2. The mentioned baked goods are all delicious. Especially the cake. Cake recipe has been found by the amazing iamshadow  and can be found here: Deep Chocolate Raspberry Cake.
Tags: fandom: merlin, modern au, pairing: arthur/merlin, rating: pg-13
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