Title: By Myself
Pairing: Arthur/Merlin, Merlin/Others
Rating: PG13
Word Count: 9,751
Spoilers: None
Warnings: Angst
Disclaimer: The characters depicted herein belong to Shine and BBC. I make no profit from this endeavour.
Author's notes: Written for a kinkme_merlin prompt.
Summary: Merlin leaves Lance for Arthur, but is it a case of once a cheat, always a cheat?

Prologue

Merlin hadn't meant for it to happen. He'd been happy with Lance, he honestly had; he'd loved him. At least he thought he'd loved him. That was before he met Arthur and realised that what he had with Lance wasn't love...it was a friendship with benefits.

He'd enjoyed Lance's company, enjoyed having sex with him: Lance was a good man, brave and honest, but – he wasn't Arthur.

Arthur had moved into town a few months ago and joined the same rugby team as Lance. It was three months exactly before Merlin met him; one week, two days and 14 hours after that first meeting when Arthur had fucked Merlin in his and Lance's bed. Two weeks after that Merlin had left Lance and moved in with Arthur.

He'd been with Lance for two years thereabouts. Two weeks of cheating on him with Arthur was all it took. Merlin knewthat Arthur was the one, his soulmate, the other half to his coin. Merlin would never have cheated on Lance with anyone else for any reason, he wasn't like that; he hated the kind of person that did that, the sort who always lined up their next partner before leaving the old one. He'd been happy with Lance, and if he hadn't met Arthur he still would be.

Apparently though, apparently, even Arthur, who claimed to love him so fucking much, was the type to hold his cheating on Lance against him somehow; even if it hadbeen with him. "Once a cheat, always a cheat!" he'd yelled at Merlin last night before throwing him out of his house, adding, "You're not making a fool out of me as well Merlin," before slamming the door shut on him, leaving Merlin shivering in the rain with just a rucksack that Arthur had stuffed full of who knew what and a tenner in his pocket.

He'd tried hammering on the door, desperate for Arthur to listen to him; at the very least to explain to him why he was being like this.

Merlin didn't even know what he'd done wrong.

-0-

Arthur had been persona non grata in the rugby team for a long while, since he'd got together with Merlin. Well, not exactlytrue, once they'd got over the fact that he'd stolen Merlin from Lance, they'd taken a different stance altogether; Arthur was the victim of a gold digging whore, and that it wasn't really his fault that he had fallen under his evil spell. The consensus was that Merlin would eventually leave him for someone else anyway; they treated Arthur like they felt sorry for him.

He should have quit the team really – the way they talked about Merlin had been completely out of order, and Lance was the main cheerleader. Arthur really couldn't blame Lance, not when Arthur had Merlin in his house and in his bed when Lance didn't anymore. Arthur knew Lance was heartbroken and understood why he was the captain of the 'Merlin is a whore' club, so he'd made allowances for that, aware that his own guilt played a part.

Lance had punched Arthur when he'd found out about him and Merlin; Arthur had allowed him that one hit. After that they had ignored one another unless they were on the pitch. Arthur's guilt was not enough for him to consider giving up Merlin; he adored every hair on his head.

Arthur had wanted Merlin from the first moment he'd laid eyes on him, needed him; and had actually deliberately set out to seduce him away from Lance. Merlin had let him. There was no point even denying this. Something, some invisible rope had pulled them together, it had felt so right.

Now it would seem that Merlin made a habit of letting people seduce him away from his current partner. He'd taken what he wanted – in this case Arthur's heart – and picked out his next victim; Leon Young. It would seem that Leon was a willing victim; Arthur's rugby team mates had made sure to tell him that they had seen Merlin going into Leon's hotel room at Gwaine's wedding. Merlin had been missing that night for nearly an hour; he'd told Arthur he was just 'around' and stupidtrusting, smitten Arthur had believed him.

Well, Arthur wasn't being anyone's mug again. Merlin was gone; Arthur had sent him away. It had only been six months of his life; he could get over this and move on. He could forget Merlin.

It felt as though someone had literally shot him through the heart, clichéd but a fact. He'd lost Merlin. He would never see Merlin's smile again, never feel his touch. Merlin would probably move to Oxford with Leon as he had only announced last week that he was moving there to take up a job at the college and it wasn't as though Merlin couldn't paint anywhere.

Once a cheat, always a cheat. Why had he fallen for it?

Arthur vaguely wondered how long he'd been sitting on the bottom step in his hallway staring at the door, but he didn't have his watch on. It has stopped raining some time ago. Arthur's stomach grumbled in hunger but he ignored that, as well the earlier numerous incoming texts and the persistent trilling of both his mobile phone and his landline. He didn't want to talk to anyone. He couldn't face telling people Merlin had cheated on him; that Merlin wasall the things people had said he was.

Arthur didn't realise he was crying until a big fat tear rolled off his chin and landed on his wrist. Oh God. Merlin was gone; he would never see him again. Arthur began to sob in earnest.

-0-

"I'm sorry Sir, you're non priority," said the bored sounding housing options 'adviser' at the council, not even looking up from Merlin's homeless application form as she spoke. "You're over eighteen and in good health; we'll process your application and you'll go on the list, but we can't offer you any emergency accommodation I'm afraid. There's a list of hostels in the pack we gave you.

"Right, thanks," Merlin replied, gathering up his rucksack and the paperwork he'd been given. Thanks for nothing. He felt like he was doing the walk of shame past all the queuing people in the council offices. He'd waited three hours to be told he wasn't a priority and that they couldn't help him. For a moment he'd wanted to argue back, say he was a person and he needed somewhere to go, but where would that get him? Most likely he would be hauled out by security.

Merlin had nowhere to go. Last night, after Arthur had kicked him out, he'd spent the most miserable night of his life, first in the bus shelter, then when the police had tried to move him on and he'd broken down on the WPC's shoulder; she'd taken pity on him and let him sleep the night in the cells. He'd spent the night in a police cell.

It was a new day, already half wasted on nothing. He should go back to Arthur's, ask him for his stuff, get his equipment...beg Arthur to just talkto him, tell him what had made him turn into that stranger who had been so vile and cruel to him; someone who had called Merlin a whore.

He didn't do that though; he couldn't face seeing Arthur's beautiful features twisted in hatred for him. As Merlin knewhe hadn't done anything that could make Arthur so mad, Merlin could only assume this was Arthur's way of breaking up with him. Maybe Arthur was not the man he had thought he'd fallen in love with after all, maybe it had all been a façade, though Merlin couldn't imagine what the purpose of that would be.

Nowhere to go, no friends to speak off; any friends he'd had beforehad been Lance's friends first and his second; they'd sided with Lance when Merlin left him. When he was with Arthur, they'd had no shared friends as the only people Arthur knew in town were the rugby team, and the rugby team hated Merlin. There were a few work colleagues Merlin sometimes had an after work drink with, but staff turnover in Costa Coffee was high and Merlin had only worked part-time, until Arthur had suggested he quit and work on his art full time.

Hence, he had no money either.

His mother had been dead for five years, he'd never known his father – Uncle Gaius was in China researching healing herbs or something. That left only one person he could turn to, and that person had also turned their back on him when he'd left Lance. Will.

Will's wifeVivian had cheated on him with another man and left him on their first wedding anniversary. Will had no sympathy for cheaters, and had told Merlin he never wanted to see him again. That had been six months ago and Merlin could only hope that Will had calmed down since then; he hoped so – Will was his oldest friend and the only person he could turn to now.

Merlin was jobless andhomeless. There was nothing to keep him here now. He had nothing to lose by going to Will. Miserably, Merlin headed towards the train station to wait for the next train to Ealdor; intending to jump the train as the £10 note he'd had last night was now £8.79, and was likely to be all the money Merlin would see in some time.

How pathetic to be twenty-five years old and have no one or nothing. Not that things or even other people mattered that much without Arthur. Would he ever see Arthur again? If he had the courage to go back to the house, try to talk to him, then the answer to that question would be yes, but right now, he just couldn't.

Arthur had his phone number; if he wanted Merlin, he knew what to do.

As Merlin huddled into a ball of folded limbs on the train and tried to snuggle into his thing coat for warmth, he tried not to think of Arthur, but that was like trying not to breathe. Arthur's smile, Arthur's touch, Arthur's expressive blue eyes, his pout when he wasn't getting his own way. Arthur telling Merlin he loved him.

What a fucking liar.

-0-

It was his PA Gwen who found Arthur then next day; he'd moved from the stairs, only because he needed to pee, and had relocated to the armchair near the sitting room door, the one that had a view of the front door if you left the living room door open wide.

She found him there, bleary eyed and unshaven, having come in through the side door with her key. "Arthur, what's happened? I was worried sick when you didn't show up for the merger meeting and haven't been answering your phone. Where's Merlin?"

Arthur's eyes reacted then, flicking up to meet Gwen's, filled with pain filled eyes and a shuddering breath. "Oh Arthur," Gwen dropped to her knees and pulled him into a hug. "What's wrong?"

Arthur almost thought he'd lost the ability to speak, but he managed to crack out a hoarse whisper, "Merlin cheated on me." He buried his face into Gwen's neck and found that apparently he wasn't done with the crying after all.

Gwen just held him, let him ride it out. "Has he left you?" she asked gently when his shoulders stopped rocking.

Arthur pulled back, shaking his head, "I threw him out." He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and sniffed. "I misshim Gwen."

"Are you sure he was cheating on you Arthur? I mean – well - I'd say he's not the type but, you and him and – what I mean is anyone could see how he felt about you; every time I saw you together I saw it. It was like a wild energy between you; and the way he looked at you..." she broke off, biting her lip as Arthur's head dipped. "You aresure, right Arthur?"

Arthur shrugged. "Of course I am."

"Arthur, your body language is contradicting your words," Gwen said, calm, controlled. "Did you catch him with someone else?"

Arthur couldn't look at Gwen as he replied, "No but Percy and Bors saw him with someone else at Gwaine's wedding – going into his hotel room. Merlin told me he'd been 'mingling'."

"Oh. Did he deny it then? There could be all kinds of reasons he would go into someone's hotel room at a wedding – maybe he spilt wine on his shirt and was borrowing a spare?" Gwen didn't look convinced with her own theory.

Arthur snorted, like he could believe that. He couldn't even blame Leon for wanting Merlin; there was just something about him, of course other people could see it too and were drawn to it. He'd thought Merlin was hisbut Merlin was no one's but his own, doing what he wanted and not caring who he hurt.

"I didn't give him chance to deny it, I told him to go. I didn't want to hear his lies, or his truth when he confessed, I just wanted him gone," and now all he could think about is that he might never see him again.

Should it hurt this much?

"If it was what it seemed with this other guy, it mightjust have been a one off, you could work through it if you love each other?"

He had still felt sick at the thought of Merlin with any of his ex's beforehe'd even met Arthur, he doubted he could forget Merlin being with someone else after they'd become a couple.

"I don't want to see him, I don't want to talk to him, I'm gladhe's gone; he was just a leech living off me anyway, I'm better off without him," Arthur wondered if he said that enough times it might make it true.

"But you just said you mi-" Arthur shot Gwen a glare that would have silenced even the most thick skinned of people. "I'll put the kettle on." Gwen got to her feet and offered Arthur a watery smile before heading for the kitchen.

Arthur grabbed his mobile phone from the sofa and deleted Merlin's number.

-0-

"Staring at it like that isn't going to make it ring," said Freya, patting Merlin on the arm gently, trying to console him.

"It never rings," Merlin whispered. Somewhere deep down he'd hoped Arthur would come to his senses, but the call never came. It had been nearly two weeks (one week, six days, thirteen hours and 43 minutes) and the phone had just sat silent, mocking him, nahnahnah; Arthur doesn't love you.

He'd arrived at Ealdor and bumped into Freya at the station; she was coming home for the weekend to see her father. Merlin hadn't seen Freya since they were fifteen and she'd moved away with her mother after her parent's divorce, but they had stayed in touch of sorts – the odd email here and there, silly messages on Facebook.

She'd told him that if Will turned him away he was welcome to stay a couple of nights with her and her father. He'd had to take her up in it; when he'd gotten to Will's, well, it wasn't Will's anymore, according to the neighbour he'd moved in with his girlfriend, and no, he didn't know where that was.

Merlin knew Will had changed his phone number since they last spoke as he'd tried to call him one time, hopeful of something, and the number was no longer in service. Approaching Will was a dead end for now.

Freya seemed to have been sent from above to help him in his hour of need; she lived in Hereford now and worked in an office, sharing a house with two other girls. As luck would have it they were looking for someone else to move into the box room; Merlin had gone home with Freya. The other girls, Annis and Rowena, were friendly, and willing to wait for Merlin to get a job for their rent.

Merlin's coffee making experience let him walk straight into a job at the art gallery's cafe in Hereford city centre and he was soon paying his way again. That was something at least. He had no space to do his art, and nowhere near enough money to replace all his abandoned equipment; his pride wouldn't let him call Arthur to ask for it back. Still, he was around other works of art, and – thatwas good even if the rest of his life had gone to shit.

When he filled his sketchbook with images of Arthur then – he was just getting him out of his system, right? If he fought back tears every night as he fell asleep – if he slept at all, he wasn't going to admit that to anyone. If he stared at his phone and willed it to ring, that was just because he wanted his stuff back.

And the Arthur shaped hole in his chest? That was just him missing Arthur; it was nothing.

-0-

When Arthur bumped into Leon outside the pub after rugby one evening, he didn't punch him as Lance had once done to him for taking Merlin away. He greeted him politely, as was fitting for acquaintances, before commenting on the crappy weather they were currently suffering.

He had to ask though, had to; there was something inside him that wouldn't let him notask. "How's Merlin?" He tried to look like he didn't care that he was asking the man who had taken him away, as though he was merely asking after an old friend.

Leon's brows drew together in confusion. "Merlin? I haven't seen him since Gwaine's wedding."

Arthur stifled a gasp. Then where had Merlin gone?

"Why are you asking me, youlive with him, don't you?" continued Leon, the confusion remaining.

Arthur saw red, and he tried not to react, but there he was, Leon backed up against the wall, Arthur's hand on his collar, his arm pushing into his chest, "You've got a fucking nerve, you know that? You fuck Merlin, take him away from meand you've just let him walk away – what, was he just a quick shag to you – huh?"

"I-I never -" Leon was spluttering and Arthur relaxed his grip on his throat, resolutely ignoring the stares they were getting from the smokers and passersby. No one was concerned enough to intervene it would seem. "Where the fuck did you get your information from?" he spat out, sucking air into his lungs noisily.

"You were both seen going into your room with him at the wedding."

"Oh. Seriously, we go into a room together and you translate that into me fucking him? You are something else Pendragon – after what youdid to Lance!"

"You don't seem to be denying it."

"I shouldn't have to, but as you really are that thick – I – Am - Straight. I – Have – A - Fiancée."

Arthur deflated and released his hold on Leon, a sickening dread creeping its way through his bloodstream, forcing his heart to beat faster. "If you - didn't– then what were you doing in that hotel room?"

Leon sighed, the confusion and the anger gone, watching Arthur with something akin to pity in his eyes. "I got talking to Merlin at the buffet, he didn't look well and when I asked he said he thought it was the start of a migraine; I get migraines sometimes and I always have the medication with me," he raised an eyebrow at Arthur as the truth began to dawn on him. "He came up to my room with me, I gave him the pills and said he could lie down for a while if he wanted while they kicked in – he agreed – I went back to the party."

"Oh God," Arthur pushed back and stumbled away from Leon.

"I know what you thought Arthur, but – how could you have been so blind – I know it got ugly when he left Lance for you, and that people weren't always that nice about Merlin but – any fool can see how much he loves you."

Any fool other than Arthur it would seem. Oh hell, what had he done?

-0-

When Arthur hadn't called after a month Merlin knew he never would. So when he accidentally dropped his phone into a cup of tea one morning, he chucked it, sim card and all, into the bin and bought himself a new one during his lunch break. At least this way he wouldn't be watching it, his heart in his eyes, hoping for something that was never going to happen.

Gradually his Arthur shaped hole stopped hurting so much and became a dull thumping ache, always, there but sometimes he could go a whole hour without thinking about Arthur, but he hadn't stopped waking up in the morning and forgetting for those first few seconds that Arthur was gone from his life; when he would realise all over again, bury his head in his pillow and remember to breathe.

Then he met Rowena's older brother at her cousin's wedding and his whole life changed.

-0-

Cenred was tall, handsome and powerful; and when Merlin met him, just for a moment, he could close his eyes and not see Arthur. He liked that. Once, he'd never wanted anyone other than Arthur, thought Arthur was the only person he could ever be with, but that was before Arthur had ripped his heart from his chest. Cenred wanted Merlin; and Merlin wanted to be wanted.

Cen had wooed him with thoughtful gifts and would drive up from London just to take him out to dinner. He treated Merlin like he was made of gold.

Merlin wanted to try, for his own sake; for Cenred's. He wanted to give him everything, be the best he could be for him. Make it so he didn't come home one day and find his lover waiting for him with a packed rucksack and a head full of excuses.

Six months after he last saw Arthur, Merlin moved to London to be with Cen. He didn't lovehim; he didn't think he could ever love anyone again, not fully, but he liked his company, enjoyed the sex, missed him when he was away on business; he thought that if he ever did fall in love again, Cen would be the one, and until then, Cen would never know he didn't have Merlin's heart.

Cen lived in a huge loft apartment and Merlin had the exclusive use of one of the rooms as studio. He got himself a job in Starbucks, which Cen immediately asked him to quit so he could concentrate on his painting; he'd said that he earned more than enough and he was happy to support Merlin. Merlin had insisted on keeping a couple of shifts a week for his own spending money; not paying rent was bad enough, but he wasn't going to ask his boyfriend for pocket money as well.

Another six months after Merlin had moved in with him, Cen proposed and Merlin said yes.

-0-

Arthur had lost the best thing that had ever happened to him and all because he'd believed a stupid rumour founded by the people who hated Merlin the most.

He should have trusted him, should have listened to Merlin's side of the story. Instead he'd let the rot take hold of him and thrown it all away.
If only he hadn't deleted Merlin's number. Of course, no one else had it; Merlin had been a social pariah thanks to his relationship with Arthur. By the time Arthur had received copies of his phone bill from the phone company and found Merlin's number, over a month had passed and the number rang dead.

Arthur had no idea where to start to look for Merlin. He'd tracked down his old friend Will in the hope Merlin might have tried there, but Will hadn't seen him and chewed Arthur out for letting him go.

He'd even hired a private detective, and several thousand quid later all he knew was that he was considerably poorer than when he started. It was like Merlin had fallen off the grid. He was probably working cash in hand and not coming up in the system.

Arthur worried. Merlin hadn't got any money and he hadn't come back for his stuff. For a long while Arthur had banked on Merlin's possessions being his way back to him, for surely he would come for them eventually? Merlin's painting was his life. The knock at the door hadn't arrived, and Arthur had sunk further and further into himself. He'd quit the rugby team, taken up running instead, preferring the solitude and not wanting the reminder of how they had poisoned him against Merlin – and how he had let them.

Was Merlin even alive?

Gwen had taken to fussing over him like a mother hen. If Arthur wasn't at work – which was unusual these days as he'd buried himself in his job – Gwen was trying to get him to do stuff, and he'd never let her until now, finally giving in and going out with her and some other work colleagues.

As soon as he was in the club he regretted it. People all over him, the heat, the smelland suddenly he understood the meaning of feeling alone in a crowded room.

He fell out the door, struggling to breathe, sinking down against the cold bricks of the wall opposite the club and dropping his head to his knees. He didn't want this anymore; he didn't want to be where Merlin wasn't.

Merlin wasn't anywhere.

-0-

Merlin finally found his niche. London was the perfect place to be for an artist like him. Yes, he painted, and yes he was good – but he'd never wanted to have an exhibition where lots of people in suits, who probably didn't give a shit about the art but liked the free champagne, milled around talking about...whatever it was people talked about at art galleries.

No, Merlin had always wanted to produce art that people could afford; and now he did just that. He'd done it – set up a workshop away from his home, worked out a business plan, financed himself with a bank loan – and it worked, his art flew off the shelf/market stall at the markets. He employed students to man stalls at Camden and Spitalfields. He often took stalls at craft fairs and markets around the country; he loved it.

It was quite a lucrative business. It meant he could pay his way with Cen, even though Cen insisted he didn't want any money from him – Merlin did not want to be dependent on one other person ever again, he'd been that person long enough – and now he was out there actually making money, he wondered why he hadn't done it before.

When he was with Lance he'd been fresh out of college and insecure in his talents; with Arthur, well, he'd just wanted to be with Arthur as much as he could, and by the time he'd started to think about what he wanted to do it had all been over and he'd had to start again. Cen had been encouraging and supportive and Merlin had known it was time to find his place.

Cen was amazing. Next month Cen would be Merlin's amazing husband and
Merlin had never felt so nervous in his life.

Nearly two years had passed since Arthur. Twenty-three months, 2 weeks and four days. The Arthur shape hole was still there, maybe it was smaller now, maybe it wasn't raw around the edges anymore, but it wasthere, and perhaps now it was time Merlin faced up to it, got the closure he needed before he walked down that aisle and became Merlin Emrys-King.

He told himself he was just doing this in the hope that Arthur still had all his old equipment - some of that stuff he still missed now – and he went to tell Cen what he was planning.

Merlin knew better than most how important honesty was in a relationship; he wasn't going to risk losing Cen by lying about where he was going.

He was ready to face Arthur.

-0-

Arthur was up to his elbows in packing boxes when the doorbell sounded; he'd finally realised he needed to move away from this town, and this house in particular. Too much hope that had dwindled to nothing. He needed a fresh start.

"Just a minute!" he called in the direction of the door, going to the bathroom to wash the dust off his hands before taking the stairs two at a time and flinging open the door to allow Gwen inside; she was coming by with her trusty marker pen to correctly label up all the boxes, something she had insisted was of the utmost importance. "Hey -" and the smile died on his face, because it wasn't Gwen at the door.

It was Merlin.

Arthur's heart stopped beating. "Merlin?" it came out as a question even though it was obviously him. He still looked the same, his eyes were still as blue, his cheekbones still had the power to turn Arthur's knees to jelly, and maybe he'd put on a little weight, but it looked good on him.

Merlin looked reallygood.

"Hi Arthur," Merlin smiled, but it was perfunctory, polite, nothing else. "How have you been?"

Arthur wanted to say, 'Absolutely wretched without you. We've been apart four times longer than we were together and I still miss you every day – every moment. '

Instead he said, "Great thanks – you?"

"Er – good, thank you. Things are going well."

They stood, silently staring at one another, Merlin on the footpath looking up at Arthur; Arthur, one hand still on the doorknob, speechless, trying to formulate something to say as the hope burgeoned in his gut; Merlin was here. He could reach out and touch him, and his hand was twitching to move, run the back of his knuckles over Merlin's cheekbones and lips, the way he used to before he would lean in and kiss him.

Merlin broke the silence, "I was hoping, maybe, that -"

"Yes," said Arthur; yes we can talk; yes we can put these last two years of hell behind us and try again. Yes to anything you want.

"...Merlin!" A male voice drifted around the corner from the direction of Arthur's garden gate, and it was followed by a tall dark haired man – and Arthur should add drop dead gorgeous onto that thought, but he really didn't want to. "Sorry about that, even on a Saturday I..." he paused when he got sight of Arthur, his eyes widening in surprise. He stopped beside Merlin and slid an arm around the younger man; an arm that slipped around Merlin's slender waist and hooked a hand over his hipbone.

A stab of something so painful shot through Arthur that it was all he could do not to keel over. His grip tightened on the door handle.

"Arthur, this is Cenred King – my fiancé. Cen, this is Arthur Pendragon – my, um – ex," Merlin's eyes met Arthur's then, cold and hollow. "We came up on the off chance that you still have my stuff?"

We...fiancé... Arthur couldn't even force a smile.

-0-

Oh God, this was so much harder than Merlin had thought it would be. He'd thought that he would see Arthur and – perhaps not quite feel nothing– but at least feel indifferent and resigned. It wasn't like that at all.

Arthur had opened the door, and everything Arthur had hit Merlin in the face. He hadn't forgotten what he looked like, but he had blurred his edges. Seeing him there, in the flesh, still golden and so fucking beautiful, it all came back to Merlin and hit him in the solar plexus like a comet.

The politeness and the awkward silence where they just stared and Merlin had wanted nothing more than to run his fingers through that soft hair and nuzzle his face into that neck, and if he just reached out his hand then Arthur would let him, and they would fall into each other...and then he'd heard the car door slam, and remembered Cen had insisted on coming with him and had just been taking a business call in the car, and he'd forced the moment to an end – he couldn't let his fiancé find him staring at his ex like a lovesick fool.

"This is a stroke of luck," Arthur was saying, his voice cold and strained. "I'm moving next weekend and I was wondering what to do with it all; but I didn't know where you were so -"

Arthur was standing back from the door and holding it open, silently inviting them inside. Merlin didn't want to go in, not really, not with Cen there and Arthur looking at him so...empty. The last time he had been in this house had been that day, when Arthur refused to listen to him and Merlin had ended up alone in the rain, his heart shattered.

He took a deep breath and shored himself up, stepping over the threshold with a polite "Thank you," as he did so. Cen followed closely behind, his hand on the small of Merlin's back.

"Can I get you a drink?" Arthur offered, waving a hand towards the kitchen. Everything looked the same as it did when Merlin had lived there. "Have you had a long journey?"

"London," said Cen, blatantly looking around the hallway, sizing the place up. "Just a couple of hours drive. I'd love a cup of tea if you have any – thank you."

Merlin did not want a cup of fucking tea; he didn't want to stay any longer than he had to, but Arthur was leading them into the sitting room, and Cen was sitting down on the sofa, and Merlin found himself seated beside him, Cen's hand resting possessively on his knee.

Merlin look at Arthur then; he was looking at Merlin's knee, his eyes going to Merlin's when he sensed his gaze on him. "Still a coffee drinker Merlin?" he asked, and Merlin nodded limply; Merlin's coffee addiction had been a joke between them.

Arthur nodded and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Merlin dropped his head onto Cen's shoulder and wished to be anywhere but here.

-0-

Arthur switched the kettle on and stepped out of the kitchen door into his herb garden and quickly called Gwen.

"Arthur – I'm five minutes away," she said without saying hello, and Arthur could hear the laboured sound of her breathing as she walked.

"Merlin's here."

"Oh – do you want me to stay away so you can talk then because -"

"No. Gwen, he's with his fiancé...he's just come for his things," Arthur tried to pretend his voice hadn't just cracked.

"Oh Arthur," Gwen's voice was full of sympathy.

"You couldn't, you know, when you get here – makelikeyouaremygirlfriend?" he closed his eyes and hoped she would do this one little thing to him, he didn't want to go back into that room with Merlin and his fiancéas a single man who had been pining for his lost love.

"What? No! Arthur – just – no OK? I'll be there in a minute and I'm not faking anything," she sighed, resignedly. "I just won't say anything that would make him think we're nottogether either, alright?"

"Thanks Gwen, you're an angel."

"Hmph," she hung up, and Arthur went back into the kitchen and finished the drinks.

He took their mugs into the sitting room, his stomach clenching at the sight of Merlin leaning against Cenred, nodding at something Cenred was telling him in a low voice. "Here," he held out the cup of tea towards Merlin's fiancé, resisting the urge to throw it in his overly handsome smug face.

He placed Merlin's cup on the coffee table, and sat himself back into an armchair awkwardly. "So you're getting married? When's the big day?"

"Three weeks," said Merlin, turning to Cenred and kissing his cheek.

"Oh," Arthur forced out, the last vestiges of any hope he had evaporating. "Well, congratulations."

"Thank you," said the happy couple in fucking unison. Arthur wondered what had possessed him to offer them a drink. He should have shown them where Merlin's stuff was and helped them carry it out and be done with it.

"Actually," Arthur ventured, wanting to get this done now, before Gwen arrived. "I owe you an apology Merlin. I – I was wrong to do what I did...to listen to gossip – I know now it was totally unfounded, and I should have trusted you. I know it's all water under the bridge now, but... I felt I should say this – and that I looked for you, for a long time and – well, none of that matters now. I'm just glad that you are happy."

He was happy that Merlin was happy he was; this was good for Merlin, someone loving him the way he deserved to be loved – and he was safe and alive which was so much better than some of the darker scenario's Arthur's imagination had provided him with over the years. It was just that in Arthur's head, when they got their reunion – if he and Merlin found one another again – it was supposed to be just the two of them, in one another's arms, whole again. Not this farce, an awkward, tense nightmare.

Arthur realised that Merlin hadn't responded to his apology and wasn't even looking at him, but staring at his cup of coffee, his jaw tight, his shoulders slumped in misery. This couldn't be good.

-0-

I should have trusted you. I was wrong. I looked for you. The words span around in Merlin's head, churning up his insides. Unfounded.

Merlin leapt to his feet, "Would you mind if I just grabbed my stuff; we've got a – thing – tonight and we need to be getting back, and you're busy and -"

"Merlin's right," Cen said, coming to his rescue. "We are in kind of a hurry so if we could just -?"

"Right, yes – of course. Follow me." Arthur led them out of the room and up the horribly familiar stairs, down the end of the corridor to the room that Merlin had used as a studio. Merlin hoped to God Arthur had packed the equipment away, because he didn't think he could face it if it was all laid out as he'd left it, as though he'd just popped downstairs for a drink and was coming back any moment.

To his relief, everything was in packing boxes. Silently Arthur, Cen and Merlin picked on up each and in a silent procession walked to Cen's car to deposit their cargo. There were two boxes left upstairs now, and Merlin moved to go back inside but was still by Cen's hand on his shoulder, "It's OK, you wait here now, I'll go back for the rest. Arthur?" and Merlin watched as his fiancé and his former lover walked back towards the house, shoulder to shoulder but worlds apart.

Merlin sighed and slumped back against the car. "Merlin?" he started at the sound of a familiar female voice calling his name. "It is you – how areyou?" and he turned to find Gwen walking along the footpath towards him he face a welcoming smile which he couldn't help but return. Gwen had always been unfaltering in being nice to him, a shining beacon amongst everyone else Merlin had associated with when he was with Arthur; if Merlin hadn't been awash with pain at missing Arthur, he would have noticed that he missed Gwen too; he'd known her from long before he'd even met Arthur.

"Gwen!" he pulled her into a hug. "I'm great, thank you. How are you? It's good to see you!"

Gwen pulled back with an easy smile, "I'm well, thank you Merlin." Her smile dropped. "Ar – I missed you, a lot. Where did you go?"

Merlin gave Gwen a quick rundown, ending with where he was now, how well his business was doing before saying. "I'm getting married in a few weeks – I'd love it if you could come. Bring someone – you're seeing someone?" Gwen nodded, beaming happily back at him with dreamy eyes. "Here's my card; email me and I'll send you the details."

He gave Gwen one of his business cards he always kept about his person, pressing it into her hands firmly. Suddenly it seemed absolutely necessary that Gwen come to the wedding. He noticed then her posture, the way she stood with one hand resting on her tummy, how she'd put on weight. "You're pregnant?"

Gwen nodded, beaming again. "Wow – that's fantastic – when -" he cut off as Arthur and Cen rounded the corner, each balancing the final two boxes in their equally manly arms, silence hanging between them like fog.

Arthur put the box into Cen's open boot and came to stand beside Gwen, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. "I see you've reacquainted yourself with Gwen," he said to Merlin, kissing Gwen's cheek in welcome. "Don't let us keep you; is that everything now?" he pointedly watched as Cen stowed the last box in the boot and walked back round to stand by Merlin.

"Er – OK, right," stammered Merlin. "Yes, we'll get going then. Cen?"

Cen walked around to the driver's door and got in without any further acknowledgement of Arthur. Merlin paused, feeling like he was waiting for somethingbut he didn't really know what, and he couldn't stand there like a fool any longer so he nodded at them both and climbed into the car.

He wound down the window, "Bye Gwen – Arthur."

"Bye Merlin," Arthur said. "It's been good to see you again."

Cen started the car and pulled away before Merlin could say anything else – what could he have said anyway? – and he waved a hand out of the window as the car turned the corner at the end, refusing to look back as he felt his heart shattering all over again.

He bit his lip and turned to Cen, "Well, that was awkward."

-0-

Arthur stared at the report and reread the opening paragraph for the seventh time before admitting defeat and rubbing his tired eyes with the heels of his hands. This was pointless. Everything was pointless. He just felt so empty now and it was much worse than before, because until Merlin had turned up, just over a week ago, his emptiness had held that one small sliver of hopethat one day things would change and fate would bring Merlin back to him.

Fate fucking hated him and enjoyed watching him suffer.

"Shouldn't you be at home unpacking?" Gwen appeared in front of him with a cup of tea which she put down before leaning over the desk and tipping Arthur's chin, forcing him to look into her eyes.

"Merlin gets married in ten days. Ten daysArthur."

"Thank you Gwen, I wasn't aware of that. Thank you for stopping by to rub salt into the wound." Honestly, did she really think that he wasn't aware of every single minute – every second – ticking by, moving closer to the moment Merlin said 'I do' to someone who wasn't him?

"So, you're just going to sit there, and do absolutely nothing about it? You're going to let him walk down the aisle and marry someone else?" Gwen's tone was angry as she stepped back from the desk and began pacing, or rather waddling, up and down in front of him.

"He doesn't want me, he's moved on."

"Of course he bloody well moved on when you didn't go after him. What did you expect him to do, spend his whole life waiting for you to swoop in with your big apology and make everything OK again?"

"I tried -"

"I know Arthur. I know better than anyone what you went through, how hard you searched for him, but think of what it must have been like for Merlin hmm? You threw him out like he was nothing; you didn't give him a chance to explain, and when you realised what you'd done it was too late and he was gone," she paused for breath, stopping in front of him, hands on hips. "I know it wasn't your fault that you couldn't find him – but Arthur – you know where he is now. It's not too late. Until that ring is on his finger there's still time."

"Gwen, I can't -"

"Fine then," she butted in again. "Just don't ever expect me to care when you want to pour your heart out about this, when you're doing absolutely nothing about it, just sitting here wallowing. Maybe you don't deserve him after all if you're not going to fight for him."

She stormed from the office and slammed the door behind her.

Arthur stared at the closed door for what felt like hours. Gwen was right. He could go, find Merlin and ask the question. He had to try.

His legs wouldn't move out of the chair.

He was scared. If he went and Merlin rejected him... His future rose up before him, hollow and empty, like the last two years had been. He forced his legs to move, checked he had his keys in his pocket and headed for the door.

If he didn't try, he'd spend the rest of his life wondering 'what if'.

-0-

"Hello Merlin."

Oh God, Merlin decided he really was losing it if he was hearing Arthur's voice when he was awake. OK, so he had his eyes closed, but he most definitely was notsleeping.

He opened one eye to confirm this and had the shock of his life. Arthur, standing above him, sunlight radiating out behind his head like a halo. Arthur was here.

Merlin opened the other eye to check and scrambled into a sitting position, wishing now he'd resisted the urge to have his lunch under the tree in the garden.

"Arthur?" he asked, still disbelieving his own eyes.

Arthur, unmoving, said, "I wondered if you had a minute?"

"Er, yeah, sure – sit down," Merlin patted the grass beside him, shuffling himself back so he was leaning against the tree. "What brings you here?"

"I – I -" Arthur was looking at his hands, fidgeting. He looked up then and pinned Merlin with his intense blue stare, reaching out to take one of Merlin's hands in his. "I'm here to ask you for another chance Merlin. I know I fucked up, and I know I ruined it all – but I never stopped loving you Merlin, not for one second. I'd give anything to turn back the clock to stop myself from doing what I did. Anything."

Merlin's heart was in his throat, beating crazily. Arthur still loved him. "Arthur I..."

"I swear if you give me another chance I'll spend the rest of my life making you happy," continued Arthur, his grip tightening on Merlin's hand. "I'm yours. I've been yours since the first time I set eyes on you, and you belonged to someone else then too... Merlin – please."

Arthur still loved him. Merlin pulled his hand out of Arthur's, ignoring the fire that burnt beneath his skin, his body recognising what it had been missing these last years. None of that mattered. He was committed to Cenred now. So – he didn't burn for his touch, or melt at the sound of his voice – but he liked him a lot, found him attractive and most importantly he trusted him, and what they had was enough - for most people it would be everything, morethan enough.

His heart was clamouring for him to renew the touch with Arthur, for him to fling himself into his arms and say 'I'm yours too' but it was too late. He wouldn't – couldn't– hurt Cen, nor could he throw everything away on a man he didn't trust to not throw him to the dogs again if he put a foot wrong.

"I'm sorry Arthur; you're two years too late. I'm with Cen, he makes me happy," he folded his arms across his chest and forced himself to look at Arthur. "Please don't embarrass yourself by asking me again – I'm serious. I get married next week."

"Merlin -" Arthur choked on his name, his voice thick with tears.

How Merlin prevented his own tears from forcing their way out was beyond him, but somehow he managed to look Arthur in the eye and lie, "I don't want you." He tore his eyes away, "Please just go."

He squeezed his eyes shut, listening for the sound of retreating footsteps, his heart breaking as he heard them. It was the right decision. It was the right decision.

When he was sure Arthur had gone, he curled himself into a ball and sobbed his heart out.

-0-

I don't want you.

Arthur fought with his legs to put one foot in front of the other; walking away from Merlin slowly, refusing to look back lest he couldn't do it.

I don't want you.

"What are you doing here Pendragon?" Cenred King appeared before him, brown eyes glowing with anger.

Arthur supposed it was to be expected, he was here, in his garden and his intention had been to steal Merlin from him – if it was the other way around the other man would have been pinned against the wall by now; Arthur's anger would know no bounds.

"I came for Merlin," Arthur taunted, unable to help himself, wanting the other man to feel his pain, even if just for one minute. "Told him I still loved him, promised him I could make him happy."

Cenred growled and stepped towards Arthur, his fists clenched, "You broke him!" he shouted. "I picked up the pieces, loved him as he deserved to be loved – and now you come back and think you can take him from me. I'll die before I let that happen you -"

Arthur wished Merlin would let him take him, but Merlin didn't love him – Merlin loved this man before him, a man who was distraught at the thought of losing Merlin to someone else, a man who made Merlin happy.

Arthur wanted Merlin to be happy.

"He turned me down, told me he was marrying you next week. No one's dying today." Except me."I'm sorry – I had to try, but I'm too late, he stopped loving me long ago."

Arthur pushed past Cenred, only turning to add, "You'd better take care of him King." He walked out of the garden and out of Merlin's life, this time forever.

-0-

A couple of hours after Arthur's departure Merlin was mechanically putting the finishing touches to a portrait commission when there was a cursory knock on the workshop door and Cen walked in. Merlin stopped what he was doing and wiped his hands on a rag before leaning in to kiss his fiancé hello.

Cen recoiled. "We need to talk," he said, and Merlin's insides did a nervous somersault. Why were four little words – when placed in that configuration – so bloody ominous?

"Is everything OK?" he swallowed nervously, watching Cen closely.

"Come, sit down," Cen led Merlin over to the old sofa he kept in the corner of his workshop to collapse upon when he needed to recharge his batteries on long afternoons when he'd been working since daybreak.

They both sat awkwardly, like strangers in a doctor's waiting room. Merlin waited for Cen to speak.

Cen took Merlin's hand, "You know I love you Merlin?"

Merlin nodded, wanting to say, 'yes – but?'.

"Do you love me?"

Merlin hesitated, it had been so long since he'd thought about this – Cen told him he loved him often, but Merlin only ever said, 'Me too' – he never said the words, he'd hoped that given time he would honestly be able to say it because he felt it – and in a way he did – he loved Cen as a person, as his lover, as his friend – but he couldn't say he was in lovewith him. He'd only ever felt that for one person, and he'd just sent that person away forever.

"Cen I -"

"It's alright Merlin – you can't even say it – you never could. I always knew you didn't feel as strongly for me as I do for you, and I always thought what we had was enough – but then I saw you with Arthur -"

"Please don't do this, Arthur's my past – I want to be with you." Even as he said it he knew it was a lie. He'd always known what he had with Cen wasn't it.

"I know you think you do – you want to believe it; I know you turned him away earlier in favour of me because you wouldn't want to hurt me. I'm not questioning your loyalty to me Merlin, I trust you – but I need more than that – and eventually you'll realise that you do too, and by then we would be married and it would be one big mess."

Merlin felt the sting of the tears on his cheeks and the pain of knowing that every word Cen said was true. "You're leaving me," he stated, unable to look at Cen as he nodded, and Merlin looked up to see there were tears streaming down his face too.

"I saw Arthur earlier, he told me what he'd said to you and I came to find you - you didn't even see me there - you were so caught up in grief. Go and see Arthur," he said, releasing Merlin's hands and wiping his own tears away. "You deserve happiness Merlin, and I think he can give it to you."

He pulled Merlin into a hug, and they stayed like that for what seemed like hours, the finality of it sinking in for both of them.

"I'm going away on business for a couple of weeks from tonight. I'd like it if you'd moved out by the time I come back. I'll sort out the wedding plans."
Merlin nodded, looking at a point to the left of Cen's head.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Goodbye Merlin," said Cen, kissing Merlin's forehead and walking out of his life.

-0-

The day of Merlin's wedding arrived and Arthur spent the day alone in his new house nursing a bottle of whisky. He was passed out on the sofa by noon, and was woken by a hallucination of Merlin, who made him drink a jug of water and put him to bed.

It was a surprisingly realistic hallucination, and it spoke, unlike his usual fantasy Merlin's who tended to...do otherthings.

When he woke up again it was dusk, and his head was banging. He shuffled into the en-suite and threw a couple of paracetamol down his neck and cleaning his teeth before heading downstairs to answer the call of his rumbling stomach.

"You're awake then." Merlin was sitting at this kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a nervous smile.

"Er, I thought I was," Arthur said, thinking perhaps he was still asleep after all. He rubbed his eyes, opening them again and finding Merlin was stillthere. "Are you real?"

Merlin laughed and got to his feet, "Last time I checked." He walked around the table and leant back against one of the chairs, not taking his eyes off Arthur.

Arthur was struck dumb.

"Did you mean it when you said you never stopped loving me?" Merlin but his lip nervously, peering at Arthur from under his lashes now.

Arthur nodded.

"You're really mine?"

Another nod.

Merlin took a step closer, then another and another until he was standing directly in front of Arthur, his breath fanning his cheek. Merlin tipped his head and kissed his cheek, whispering in his ear, "I've always been yours." He traced a path of tiny feather kisses from Arthur's ear to his lips, pressing his own firmly against them, his hands coming up to cup his face as he pressed for entry.

It was an honest kiss, the kiss of two people who had been apart from one another for too long, who loved each other desperately; who were fated to be together.

Merlin pulled back, "We should talk – mmmngh!" Arthur swept back down for another kiss. Merlin was here, back in his arms, and that was where he belonged; they could talk later – Arthur didn't think the power of speech had returned to him yet anyway. He lifted Merlin onto the kitchen counter and manoeuvred himself between his thighs, sighing into Merlin he wrapped his legs around his waist.

Arthur was never letting Merlin go again.

-0-

Epilogue

"Do you know what today is?" Merlin sidled up behind Arthur and slid his arms around his waist, resting his chin on his shoulder to look out the window at the garden vista Arthur was enjoying as he washed the dishes.

"Er – Saturday?" Arthur guessed hopefully.

"Nope – well, yes – but that's not what I meant. Try again?" Merlin smiled as he watched his and Arthur's four year old daughter, Lucy, making a snowman with a bucket and spade. Their 18 month old, Sophia, toddled behind her, always trying to win the favour of her older sister. Their proud grandfather Uther kept a watchful eye from the bench under the tree, whilst his wife Gwen and their nine year old – Arthur's little brother Owain – had a snowball fight in the orchard at the end of the garden.

"Your birthday's next week, so that's not it," mused Arthur. "My birthday?" He turned round and placed a kiss on the end of Merlin's nose.

"God you're shit at this game aren't you Pendragon?"

"Well, your clues suck Pendragon," Arthur replied proudly. "Oh God – is it our wedding anniversary?"

"No you prat – we got married in August!"

"Well what is it then?" he snapped off the rubber gloves he'd been using to wash up and cast them aside, threading his fingers in Merlin's hair.

"It's 12 years, four months, two weeks and three days since we first met."

"Oh, is that all? I thought it was something important."

-0-