In his defence, Arthur was frazzled beyond belief.
It was his week to have Freya, which was always a delight, but it unfortunately coincided with an incredibly busy week at work. He had a huge presentation to deliver on Tuesday, a complicated report to submit by Thursday and a whole new strategy plan to show Uther on Friday. He couldn’t even swap weeks with his ex Mithian, amicable as their relationship was, because she was on holiday in Spain with her new partner Lance.
Thank God for the childminder. Merlin had been a real find in more ways than one. He lived near Freya’s school and was happy to do pick up and drop off, his hours as a freelance illustrator were flexible, and most importantly he was amazing with kids. Several times Arthur had practically had to drag Freya away from Merlin’s flat when she was having too much fun to leave. They’d only known each other three months but the two of them were thick of thieves, and it made Arthur feel a lot better about leaving her there.
Not that he employed Merlin too often. He loved his daughter and he wanted to spend time with her wherever possible. But on a week like this, up to his ears in work and no respite in sight, Merlin was an absolute godsend.
Arthur rather guiltily promised himself he’d make it up to Freya at the weekend. They could see the latest Pixar offering, or go to the park and get ice cream. Not the zoo, as was their traditional haunt, since Freya had recently decided keeping animals in cages was wrong. Arthur was proud of her for making her own decisions on things like this – though he had to admit he’d miss the mischievous little monkeys. But he respected her wishes. She was only six but she certainly had a mind of her own.
He was reminded of that mind of her own when he came to pick her up on Friday evening and she point blank refused to go.
“I haven’t finished my picture!”
Merlin and Freya had clearly been finger painting, they were both covered in smudges of paint which looked absolutely adorable on Freya, and well…
It was probably weird to find your childminder cute but Arthur had to admit that Merlin was pretty easy on the eyes. Even with a green streak across his chin and a splotch of purple in his hair.
Arthur leaned over his daughter to inspect the picture, forcing his tired eyes to focus.
“What a lovely dinosaur.”
“Daddy!” Freya folded her arms. “It’s a dragon!”
“Ah I see it now,” Arthur said quickly. He had high hopes for his daughter’s future ambitions but he wasn’t entirely sure art was her calling. The dragon in question looked more like a squashed cauliflower.
“I need to add wings.”
“We can finish it next time you’re here,” Merlin said diplomatically. “Go on and wash your hands, Freya.”
As usual, Merlin managed to instantly accomplish what would have taken Arthur several minutes of pleading. Freya trotted off obediently to the bathroom and Merlin gave Arthur a disarming smile.
“Sorry for covering your child in paint but she was very insistent that’s what she wanted to do today.”
“I’m just impressed there isn’t paint all over your flat.”
It was no mean feat the way Merlin had managed to drape almost the entire room with old sheets, though Arthur supposed he must be used to child proofing by now. He’d learned rather fast himself when Freya had discovered the joys that could be had with a marker pen and freshly hung wallpaper.
“No, it’s just all over me instead,” Merlin said and Arthur couldn’t help but notice his rather nice dimples.
“You’re an illustrator, you must be used to it,” Arthur said cheekily.
“Oi! I’m strictly pencil based!” Merlin said.
Arthur realised he didn’t know much about Merlin’s life or career beyond the brief chats they had at drop off or pick up. He would guess Merlin was a few years younger than he was, and he had a slight accent that suggested he wasn’t from Camelot, but he was unawares beyond that.
It would be nice to get to know him better but today was not the day for that, when he was so tired he could barely walk straight. It really had been a hell of a week.
Freya bounced back in, somewhat cleaner than before, and Arthur kissed the top of her head.
“Come on then, button. Say thank you to Merlin,” he said, taking her by the hand.
“Thank you, Merlin! Keep my dragon safe!”
“I will,” Merlin said with a wink.
He was nearly out of the door when Merlin called them back.
“Oh wait! You forgot your book bag!”
Merlin stepped across the threshold to pass it over to Arthur’s free hand and then…
It was some kind of sleep deprived reflex. Some kind of godawful mix up in the control centre of his brain. Or perhaps the universe was just playing him like a puppet for a laugh because there was no earthly justification for what he did next.
Which was take the book bag, thank Merlin, and... kiss him on the lips.
And perhaps the worst part was, Arthur didn’t even notice anything amiss.
It wasn’t until the door had shut behind them and they were halfway to the car that he realised Freya was giggling beside him.
“Daddy, you kissed Merlin.”
“What?” Arthur said, frowning down at her.
And then the bottom of his stomach dropped out.
He had kissed Merlin. Kissed him on the lips. Oh God, oh no. Why had he done that?
The only thing he could think was that was how he said goodbye to Gwen after the nights Freya slept over at her house. Friendly, platonic, a show of gratitude for looking after his kid.
The only difference was Merlin hadn’t been his best friend for fourteen years.
Merlin must think he was some kind of pervert! A devious harasser who used his own kid to steal kisses from childminders!
He was probably calling Mithian right now to ask her to make sure Arthur never set foot near his house again. And then Mithian would think he was a pervert too, and file for sole custody, and he’d never see Freya again and-
Alright, perhaps he was catastrophising somewhat. Mithian definitely knew him well enough to not think the worst of him. But Merlin didn’t! He was well within his rights to be thoroughly creeped out right now.
Freya was already chuntering on about something different; a slightly weird interaction from the generally weird world of adults was not enough to hold her attention long. But Arthur couldn’t think of anything else. How on earth was he going to fix this?
The next day Arthur took Freya to the park and bought her a double scoop ice cream and generally tried to enjoy the day as best he could without obsessing over the night before. Which actually worked out surprisingly well, as Freya was an excellent distraction, and he loved the time they spent together. It wasn’t until that afternoon, when she fell asleep on his lap during a viewing of Tangled, that he had time to obsess again.
He needed to apologise. He wouldn’t be seeing Merlin for another week until he had Freya again and that was far too long to let this sit. The best thing to do would be to phone him right now and try to explain himself.
After staring at the phone for several tense minutes, Arthur decided that the art of live conversation was somewhat overrated. A text would surely suffice.
Merlin, I am so sorry about the unfortunate incident yesterday evening. I deeply regret-
God, no, he sounded like a disgraced politician making a public apology. Arthur erased the message and started again.
Dear Merlin. I must sincerely apologise for my aberrant and unacceptable behaviour last night-
Right, now he just sounded like a Mr Darcy knock off.
Ronald Reagan once said, “mistakes were made”-
Arthur sighed and reached down to stroke Freya’s hair. Text message wasn’t going to cut it. He’d just have to bite the bullet and go round there himself.
Monday came around all too quickly for Arthur’s liking, but he tried to be a man of his word, so he steeled himself and headed over to Merlin’s after work.
He stood on the doorstep for a good three minutes, debating whether to turn around and leave, but eventually some anti-dithering impulse in his body forced him to knock.
Seconds later, the door swung open and Merlin stood there.
He didn’t look angry, which was a great relief. In fact if Arthur didn’t know better, he’d say Merlin looked almost amused.
“Hi Arthur, I’m not sitting Freya tonight, am I?”
“No,” Arthur said and then ploughed on before Merlin could ask why he was there, when they both knew damn well why. “I am so sorry for kissing you the other night.”
The words hung mortifyingly in the air but Arthur knew he had to add to them. Not able to meet Merlin’s eye, he continued.
“I had an insane week at work and I was just incredibly tired and basically had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even realise what I’d done until Freya pointed it out.”
There was an odd noise from Merlin which sounded almost like a snort.
“I’m so sorry to have harassed you like that, even accidentally. I understand if you don’t want to deal with me anymore, I’m sure I could find a way for my sister to pick up and drop off Freya, but please believe it was an honest mistake-”
Arthur finally looked up to meet Merlin’s eyes and found that his expression definitely could not be construed as angry or upset. On the verge of laughter was much more accurate.
“You absolute pillock, have you been that worried about this? I knew straight away it was parent brain.”
“Parent brain?” Arthur repeated slowly.
“In my job, you tend to see parents at their most worn out,” Merlin said kindly. “You wouldn’t believe the things people say or do when they’re running on empty. I just call it parent brain.”
“Other people do this?” Arthur said, the knot in his stomach unclenching for the first time in days.
“Oh I’ve had parents leave their phones here, their keys, their wallet. On one memorable occasion the kid they were supposed to be picking up. And last month a mother asked her daughter if she needed the toilet before they left, then turned and very earnestly asked me the same. She was so embarrassed but the daughter couldn’t stop laughing.”
“Freya laughed at me,” Arthur admitted.
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Merlin smiled at him and he caught a glimpse of those lovely dimples again. “I have to admit, I’ve never actually had a kiss on the lips before. I got one on the forehead once.”
“Same mum as the one who left her kid behind! She has six children, I can only imagine.”
“That… makes me feel a lot better,” Arthur said. “I thought you might have me banned.”
“It’s really not a problem. But thank you for apologising, that’s sweet.”
The conversation seemed to have reached a natural end but Arthur found himself not wanting to go. But there was no real reason to stay now that they’d cleared up the misunderstanding…
“So I’d better-” he started to say, just as Merlin said “Do you want to come in?”
“Oh,” Arthur said.
“It’s fine if you need to get on,” Merlin said. “But I’ve just made a pot of tea if…”
He trailed off and Arthur found himself nodded enthusiastically.
“Tea would be lovely.”
The painting sheets were gone but Merlin’s flat looked much the same as ever instead, a few toys dotted around and some scribbled on scraps of paper.
“Sorry, I haven’t cleaned up from my last kid yet,” Merlin called from the kitchen.
“How many do you look after?” Arthur said, settling himself down on the sofa.
“Not as many, recently. The illustration work’s taken off a bit so I’m cutting back on the childminding.”
Merlin walked in with two mugs in hand.
“Don’t look so worried, I’m keeping Freya on!” Merlin winked at him. “Don’t tell the others but she’s one of my favourites.”
Arthur couldn’t help but feel the dad pride that always welled up when someone praised his daughter.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that because she loves coming here.”
Merlin sat down next to Arthur and handed over his tea.
“So I’ve spoken to Mithian quite a bit but I never really had the chance to chat to you.”
“It feels like I’ve been in a permanent rush the last few months. Sorry not to be more sociable when I pick up.”
“No, not at all! I just thought tonight was a good opportunity to get to know you better.”
Arthur wondered if Merlin made this much effort to get to know all the parents. He kind of hoped not.
“So you and Mithian, are, er-”
“Not together,” Arthur confirmed. “In the most amicable possible way.”
“Yeah, I did wonder,” Merlin admitted. “I have a few divorced couples bring their kids here but their relationships seem a bit more… difficult.”
“The short story is we were together a while and it wasn’t really working out, then Mith got pregnant. We both wanted a kid so we tried really hard to make it work but…”
Arthur shrugged. They weren’t compatible, ultimately. It had been hard but neither of them had any regrets, because it had brought them Freya.
He said as much, trying not to over analyse why he was sharing his life story so soon with Merlin. The man just seemed like a good listener.
“Well of course you have no regrets. Freya’s a great kid,” Merlin said and Arthur laughed.
“Tell me that after she makes you watch Tangled for the eighteenth time.”
“Hey, Tangled is better than some of the others! Flynn Rider’s pretty hot.”
That was interesting. Merlin liked men. And this was the perfect opportunity to drop in the fact that Arthur did too…
“I’ll give you that, though I’m more of a Prince Naveen man myself.”
“Princess and the Frog! Ah, I see I’m dealing with a man of taste,” Merlin said, grinning widely.
Was it Arthur’s imagination or had he shifted a little closer on the couch?
“That was Freya’s old favourite, I can still recite every word. And before that it was The Little Mermaid.”
“Oh, Eric,” Merlin said. “Such a himbo.”
Arthur cracked up laughing.
“A himbo, really?”
They chatted until their tea went cold, jumping from Disney to local politics to Halloween costumes they’d worn as kids. Merlin was incredibly easy to talk to and he had a great sense of humour. Arthur hadn’t felt so relaxed in months.
“I should probably go,” Arthur said reluctantly after a couple of hours. He needed to be in the office early the next day, to review Uther’s edits to the strategy plan.
“Oh, of course, it’s late,” Merlin said, jumping to his feet. Arthur got up much more slowly, dreading the cold walk home to his empty house. On the weeks he didn’t have Freya, it somehow seemed cavernously huge and bare.
“Thanks for being so cool about… well, parent brain,” Arthur said as Merlin opened the front door.
“Honestly, I have no leg to stand on, it turns out childminder brain is totally a thing too.”
“The number of time I’ve told my friends ‘do up your coat, please’ or ‘make sure your shoelaces are tied’ in my best nanny voice. I never realise what I’ve said until they start teasing me.”
“But you’ve never kissed a parent by accident?” Arthur said jokingly.
Merlin met his gaze, looking bashful for the first time since Arthur had known him.
“I’ve never wanted to.” He paused. “Before now.”
Time froze for a moment. Then Arthur took a step forward and, for the second time, pressed a kiss to Merlin’s lips.
This one he didn’t regret at all. From the look on Merlin’s face, the feeling was mutual.
They parted slowly, holding each other's gaze.
“Do you really have to go?” Merlin said.
“I have to be in the office early,” Arthur said. “I’ve got a massively important plan to review. My boss – who happens to be my father by the way – will be absolutely furious if I’m anything less than completely fresh tomorrow. So… no, I can stay.”
Merlin’s face crinkled into a grin.
“I’ll make dinner. And then we can eat it in bed.”
“I like the sound of that,” Arthur said and pulled the front door shut.