Title: Blue Would Still Be Blue
Word Count: 32,000
Warnings: Age difference.
Disclaimer: The characters depicted herein belong to Shine and BBC. I make no profit from this endeavour. Credit also to Harlequin for the borrowed blurb.
Author's Notes: Written for Paperlegends 2012. Beta read by singlemomsummer, edited since, mistakes all mine.
A few months ago when I was modding hp_harlequin fest and chasing prompts, tama_abi told me she would rather read Harlequin Arthur/Merlin and foolishly I said I'd love to write that and challenged her to find me a book blurb she'd like to see written. She gave me a book blurb (kid!fic, oh no!) - at which point I immediately regretted offering! Still, my word is my bond, and I soon came round to the idea and planned to write this as a chaptered fic. However, when my original idea for paperlegends didn't seem to want to be written and my second choice looked set to turn into a 200k epic that I didn't have time for, I decided to write the story for this challenge instead. Here is the result!
Although this is fic is based on a Harlequin book blurb, I have not read the book, so any other similarity is a coincidence and I adapted the prompt to my purposes before I started writing. I set out to write what I hope is something in the Harlequin/Mills & Boon vein, but though I confess to devouring Mills & Boon books in my youth, I haven't been near one in years so I have no idea if this fic comes anywhere close!
This is meant to be light-hearted romance. It won't change your life but hopefully it will make you smile.
Summary: When widower Arthur Pendragon finds out that his three children have conspired to help him find 'someone to kiss' by placing an ad on an internet dating site, he allows his guilt to push him into agreeing to go on a succession of dates even though he's determined that he's not lonely and doesn't believe in 'love'. However, someone does set his heart racing, but it's not one of the endless parade of beautiful women he has to choose from, it's the children's new babysitter, Merlin.
: o : o :
When Arthur received the first email he thought it was spam. He deleted it with an annoyed click of the mouse and slammed his laptop closed. He didn't have time to waste and emails entitled 'I can make you feel good' were probably not something he wanted to read at work, or—ever.
He grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair and headed into the outer office where from the sounds of it Gwen was busy placating a stressed out patient who wanted an appointment right now. "Have you got the clinic notes ready?" he asked and without even turning around, Gwen reached for the foolscap folder on the desk beside her and handed it to him.
Gwen was scarily efficient and he had never once regretted giving her the job as his PA when Morgana had pleaded with him to offer her old university friend an interview last year— or rather Morgana had asked and Arthur owed her several favours—and he'd felt obliged despite not feeling all that comfortable employing a friend and Gwen's CV did not looking very healthy amongst the hundred or so other applicants for the position. Yet, she'd shone in the interview and Arthur had had no qualms in taking her on. His office now ran like clockwork and he often wondered how he had coped before; his previous PA, Sophia, has spent more time flirting with him than she had doing any actual work and Arthur had often thought that she should be paying him, not the other way around. When she'd handed in her notice, telling Arthur that she wanted to work somewhere more exciting, he'd barely managed to restrain himself from punching the air and shouting, 'yes!'
"I'll be back in time for my one-thirty with Mr Forbes," he said and without waiting for a reply—because after all Gwen was on the phone—he headed down the long corridor to the end office and knocked gently.
He heard the answering summons and opened the door. "Morning, Leon," he said, nodding at his best friend who was tapping away on a laptop at a desk in the centre of the room. "Have you had chance to look at Mr Craven's notes yet?"
"Sorry, Arthur, I haven't," Leon replied, glancing up at Arthur with a harassed expression. "After what happened yesterday with Mrs Jensen…"
"Of course, I'd forgotten about that," Arthur said and slumped into the chair opposite Leon's desk and rubbed the back of his neck tiredly. "I've been a little distracted these last few days, I'm sorry." When was the last time he'd taken a holiday? Probably over a year ago and even then it had only been a long weekend. He'd never been very good at relaxing.
"Yes, well, you have had a lot on your plate, Arthur. I don't know how you manage it all."
Arthur circled his neck and stood again. "Sometimes, Leon, neither do I." He went to the door and turned back. "If I don't see you here later, see you tonight for dinner, yes?" It was Wednesday; Leon almost always came for dinner on Wednesdays—a tradition from their uni days of sharing a house that hadn't died despite all the years that had passed.
"Wouldn't miss it," Leon said with a fond smile that Arthur returned before sliding out the door and heading through reception and taking the lift down to the car park.
As he settled behind the wheel of his stupidly huge 4x4 his mind slipped back to that email, 'Dear Arthur, I'm writing to you in response to your advert…' He certainly hadn't placed any adverts, but he was starting to get a very bad feeling that he might know who had.
: o : o :
Arthur felt exhausted when he arrived back at the office just after one o'clock. His NHS clinics always had that effect on him—probably the way they crammed in way more patients than he would ever see in the same timeframe in his own practice. They liked to get their money's worth out of him that was for sure. All he wanted to do now was loosen his tie, kick off his shoes and grab half-an-hour on the sofa in his office. In fact, that was what exactly what he intended to do…
"Sorry to drop this on you the moment you walk in but the school called," Gwen said as soon as he opened the door to his outer office and Arthur's heart sank. "Theo's been in another fight and they wanted you to collect him as soon as possible. When I couldn't get you on your mobile I called Lance and he's gone to pick him up and will keep him for the rest of the day."
Arthur's mobile was still in his office where he'd foolishly left it that morning in his rush to get to the clinic on time…along with his brain it seemed. For someone who made his living as a Consultant Neurologist that was not a good thing!
"Oh God," he groaned. "What is it with that kid?" He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms and resigned himself to not getting that nap, and probably not getting any sleep ever again.
Gwen's expression was sympathetic. "He's ten years old, Arthur. It's what they do at that age."
Arthur knew that better than most. Hell, he had been far worse at that age himself. Rarely a day had gone by when he hadn't been in some kind of fight with one of the other kids at school. He must've driven Uther insane, something Arthur was only now coming to appreciate now that he was the father of a ten year old boy himself. He just couldn't understand why Theo was behaving like that. For Arthur it had been—he knew this now with hindsight—a clear cry for attention. It hadn't worked. Uther had simple plucked him out of the local private school and sent him to board elsewhere; out of sight and definitely out of mind.
It was times like this that Arthur missed Helen the most. It had been seven years since he'd lost her, but sometimes that felt like nothing more than a blink of an eye. One moment they'd been bringing home their third child from the hospital, Helen swearing that she was never going through that again—just as she had sworn the same after the first two—then just a few short months later she had been dead, hit by a drunk driver on her way back from the shops one Saturday afternoon leaving Arthur a widower and their three children without a mother.
If it hadn't been for Morgana and his friends, Arthur would never have coped in those first few months. Sometimes he wondered how he had managed—three children under the age of five—yet here he was, years later, still going. Somehow the all three kids were all healthy and more or less undamaged—he hoped—and the world hadn't come to an end, it had just stopped for a while.
"I'd better go and ring Lance," he said with a weary sigh, heading to his office, "Gwen, any chance of a coffee?"
"Office coffee or hazelnut latte from Costa?" she asked, getting to her feet and Arthur heard her shrug on her jacket, clearly having anticipated Arthur's reply.
"Costa please," he called over his shoulder.
Arthur sank into his office chair and switched on his laptop. His mobile was where he'd left it, proudly advertising eight missed calls. He scrolled to Lance's number and leant backwards with his eyes closed. If he could just stay like this for a few minutes maybe this would rejuvenate him enough…
As he waited for Lance to pick up, he opened his emails and gaped when he saw there were twenty new ones, all proclaiming to be from – what the bloody fuck was going on?
: o : o :
"Alright you three," Arthur said when he got home that evening. He'd shed his suit jacket and tie and was faced with three all too innocent expressions regarding him from the dining table where they were sitting with Lance and Leon. He could hear Mary bustling around in the kitchen and his stomach rumbled—he'd skipped lunch and was only held together by caffeine and a mid-afternoon Cadbury's Cream Egg. "Which one of you is going to tell me what's going on?"
"We don't know what you mean, Dad," said his eldest, Florence, who was clearly the self-nominated spokesperson.
"Hmm," Arthur sat down and poured himself some orange juice from the jug in the centre of the table. "So none of you know anything about a personal ad on a website called okcupid?" He raised an eyebrow at his daughter who at least had the good grace to look guilty.
"We don't want you to be lonely anymore, Daddy!" Libby blurted, earning herself a loud "shh" from Theo and a hissed "Libby!" from Florence.
Arthur shot a worried look at Leon and Lance before turning his attention back to his children. "What makes you think I'm lonely?" He wasn't lonely; he didn't have time to be. "I've got the three of you, Aunt Morgana, Uncle Gwaine, Uncle Leon, Uncle Lance and Aunt Gwen—that's more than enough people around me—too many I'd wager."
"But you don't have anybody to kiss," Libby argued solemnly, her lower lip wobbling. "And sometimes when you think we don't notice you look so sad, Daddy, like you're going to cry."
"Hey," Arthur stood and rounded the table to where his youngest child sat and hunkered down in front of her. "Daddy's not lonely or sad, sweetheart; you don't need to worry about me okay?" He reached out and tucked a strand of golden blonde hair behind her ear and kissed her nose.
He turned to Florence. "You understand don't you, Flo?" The look she gave him from shrewd hazel eyes was one of scepticism, but she was very protective of her little sister, and Arthur knew she would agree for her sake and then probably challenge him about it later.
"Yes, Dad," she said leaning forwards, throwing her arms around him and burying her face in his neck. Arthur hugged her tight. His first born was the spitting image of Helen, all dark brown hair and eyes, feisty and loyal. The other two were all him.
Mary chose that moment to burst in pushing a serving trolley. "Alright then, here we go," she boomed, unloading steaming dishes of vegetables onto the middle of the table.
Arthur stood, relieved for the interruption and settled back in his seat. He'd worry more about this later, when the kids were in bed and he had time to digest the fact that they knew, they could see how he really was inside. He wouldn't say he was lonely, per se, would he? True, there hadn't been anyone else since Helen—no one more than odd nights when he was away on business trips at least—he didn't need anyone. He never really had. He didn't believe in love.
Or should that be, he didn't believe that that kind of love—like Gwen and Lance had found in one glance only last year—would ever come to him?
Yes, he'd loved Helen, very much, but he'd never been in love with her, whatever that meant. They'd been childhood friends; Helen's father was Uther's business partner and they'd grown up together. They'd always known they would probably get married and neither one of them had really minded. Arthur had never met anyone who set his pulse racing and his heart on fire like he'd been led to believe love did to a person. He supposed it was a fair assumption to say that he and Helen had been best friends. He'd never lied to her; she knew everything about him, like how he fancied blokes as well as women—they'd spent many a happy hour in their teens sitting in pubs and cafés admiring men's arses together.
She'd suggested he go out and experiment whilst he was at uni and Arthur had, but he hadn't swayed from his desire to marry her, and they'd visited one another regularly, stayed as close as they had always been—by unspoken agreement they never discussed any of Arthur's experiments and Arthur knew Helen had to have had a few of her own. He'd never regretted any of it.
He looked at his children now as they tucked into their meal, three little people who were solely reliant on him, until Theo said, "So, Dad, are you going to go out with some of the email ladies?"
Arthur set down his fork, the chicken going dry in his mouth. He swallowed and said, "I don't think I've got time—what with work and you kids, I'm a busy man."
"You're not busy in the evenings," Theo pointed out pragmatically. "We'd be okay if you went out on dates, wouldn't we Flo?"
Florence nodded eagerly. "I can babysit," she said. "Or Aunty Morgana can or Aunty Gwen-"
"You're too young," Arthur said. "And it isn't fair of you to start volunteering people when they're not here, now is it?"
"No, Florence," Arthur said firmly.
"I think they have a point," Lance said, earning himself a glare from Arthur. "When are you going to start living again? It's been nearly eight years."
"I'm thirty-seven, I'm not dead yet," Arthur replied, feeling his exhaustion return. "And I don't need anybody!"
He turned to Leon for support but found his friend's gaze to be one of knowing sympathy. Arthur started to feel like hunter's prey.
"Fine," he said, just wanting to escape. "I'll consider it."
He didn't miss Florence nudging Theo with an elbow and mouthing, "I knew it."
: o : o :
Arthur had fully intended to 'consider' and then decide that in fact, he would go with 'no thank you'. He didn't want to go out on dates. If he wanted sex, he could do what he usually did, and that certainly did not involve any kind of dating, just two people on the same page wanting the same thing somewhere very far away from here. If it had been a while since he had even done that then it was just because he'd not been away on any conferences lately. There was one coming up in a few weeks and he fully intended to make use of his hotel suite for the duration of his stay. It was safe, away from his home and the children, and that's how he wanted it to remain.
Unfortunately, Arthur's intentions didn't always work out in the way he would like, and on this occasion the odds were stacked so highly against him that he had little choice than to give in.
The day after the emails starting trickling through an article appeared in The Guardian entitled 'Has the Pendragon heir turned to internet dating to find love?'; How the hell they had found out Arthur had no idea, but find out they had. Arthur was the only son of the late Uther Pendragon and the holder of seventy-five percent of the Pendragon-Singer shares—and as such he didn't entirely escape the media's attention even if his lack of gossip-worthy behaviour wasn't exactly headline material. It seemed that someone somewhere had been doing their homework because Arthur had taken down the Okcupid profile the night before; once Florence had finally divulged the password.
Gwen spent most of her time that morning fielding phone calls from journalists and there were a distressing number of new female patients requesting appointments, ones who hadn't like being told exactly how much an appointment with Arthur would hit them in the pocket. Undoubtedly there would be one or two who slipped through, but if they wanted to pay Arthur's fee only to be turned away when Arthur told them he wasn't interested then that was up to them.
The following day his email inbox started to go crazy with emails that people were writing to his business email address because a couple of the other broadsheets ran the story and more women thought they would try their luck with him. He was only thankful that he wasn't interesting enough for The Sun to report about; yet.
That was when Gwen stuck her head in during a break in appointments and said, "I don't think the press are going to back off. I think you should give an interview."
Arthur blinked, surprised; he hadn't expected that from Gwen. "But—"
"I've come to know you well, Arthur," Gwen said gently, coming into the office and sitting down in the chair in front of his desk. "You're going to do this for the children, I know you are; but the press aren't just going to go away."
Gwen was also right. Arthur had decided he was going to attempt to go on a few dates with some of the women who had contacted him—he hadn't realised how his behaviour might have been affecting the children and if making this effort now, even if it was for show, turned that around even slightly then it would be worth it.
What was the worst that could happen anyway? Let the press follow him if they wanted, he couldn't stop that, but he wasn't about to invite them in.
"No chance. Let them speculate," he said. "They'll get bored soon enough when they realise I'm actually as boring as they thought I was."
: o : o :
"Okay, you win!" Arthur declared at dinner that night when they were all seated at the table—the three children and Morgana who just invited herself to dinner as she so often did. He was ninety-five percent certain that he was going to regret this decision, but his mind was made up. "I'll go on a date."
Florence and Theo had been oddly quiet about the whole thing since the other night, but Arthur knew they were just biding their time before they staged another attack—they were Pendragons and that's what Pendragons did, Arthur could hardly hold it against them. Libby, too young for strategy, had barely left him alone today clinging to his side from the moment he got home, telling him she didn't want him to be lonely and if he had been having any doubts then that had firmed his resolution. "I'm going to do it, I'm going to try this dating thing and see what happens. I'm making no promises though, so don't any of you buy a hat just yet."
Three wide eyed faces turned towards him with equally matching smug grins. Morgana smirked and said, "Good for you, Arthur." She turned and winked at her nieces and nephew.
"You say that, Morgana, but if I'm going to be out dating every other night I'm going to need someone to babysit." He flashed his smuggest smile and helped himself to more potatoes.
"Sorry, Arthur, I won't be able to do very much of that over the coming weeks because I'll be in Edinburgh, remember?" As soon as she said it Arthur recalled her saying as much the other week—she was guest lecturing at the university there for a few weeks.
"Then I'll have to put off the dating until you get back," Arthur said feeling an overwhelming sense of relief and hoping the kids would lose interest in the meantime.
"No you won't," Morgana said in her no-nonsense voice. "That's just a poor excuse. I know someone who is looking for some extra income, and you've been talking about getting someone in to help out after school anyway, you know it's not fair on Mary to expect her to mind the kids every day now that Miranda has left. I'll bring him over tomorrow, shall I?"
Arthur blinked, rapidly trying to think of an excuse. "How do I know I can trust this person with the children?" After all, there were lots of horror stories around. "I am capable of finding my own staff you know; I'm not just here to keep your friends out of the dole queue."
Morgana rolled her eyes and ignored Arthur's whining, waving away his objection. "I was right about Gwen wasn't I? And Merlin wouldn't hurt a fly, the kids will love him, trust me. Besides, he's not just my student, he's Gaius' nephew."
Arthur scowled but didn't object. Gaius had been a much respected old family friend, one who had known his mother—had been the only person ever to answer any of his questions about her when his father had refused to discuss anything about her when Arthur had dared to ask. He vaguely recalled Gaius having a nephew who had come to live with him in the last few years of his life but he had never met him and in his head the boy was still a child. Obviously somewhere along the line the child had grown up.
"Fine," he said, knowing there really was little point in arguing. "Bring him over." If he didn't like the look of this Merlin kid when Morgana introduced him then he'd find something wrong with him and make an excuse. The truth was that Arthur did need someone to help out. He'd had a local woman coming in the last couple of years, and Mary was always willing to step in should more help be required, but Miranda's husband had got a job in Birmingham and she had to leave, and since then Arthur had been 'making do'. Before Libby had started school he'd had a daytime nanny, but when she'd had to leave he'd not replaced her either. He'd never liked that he had to leave the children with someone as it was. He'd never wanted to be the kind of father Uther had been—the person who dished out the orders and the expectations but never backed it up with any affection, and certainly never spent time with his children.
"Dad, which girl are you going to go out with first?" Theo asked eagerly after a couple of minutes of awkward silence in which the only sounds were the scraping of cutlery against crockery and chewing.
"Can we help you pick?" Florence joined in. "She has to like fun things and stuff—no offence Dad but you need loosening up."
Arthur knew he was doomed when his twelve year old was coming out with terminology like that; the kids obviously spent far too much time with their Aunt Morgana. "I'll print out the all the replies," he said, weary, hoping that there would be at least a few who weren't offering to make him 'feel good'.
What the hell had he got himself into?
"I'll do it, Dad," Theo offered eagerly, pushing his chair back from the table and hopping down. "Um—that is if I may be excused please?"
Arthur smiled fondly. They were good kids, his three. Well behaved—at least most of the time, when not fighting in playgrounds—polite, and very loving. He'd done something right somewhere. He always made sure they all ate together in the evening when he was home in time, which was three or four nights a week, and always at the weekends.
"No, I'll do it," he said, thinking of the possible need to censor them before they could be viewed by ten year old eyes. "Make sure you do your homework now, Theo, and we'll look at the emails tomorrow okay?"
The other two excused themselves and followed Theo, presumably to ignore their homework in favour discussing future bloody wives for Arthur. Still, it was Friday night so there was plenty of time for their homework if it didn't get done tonight.
"You're loving this aren't you?" he huffed at Morgana when it was just the two of them left at the table.
"You know me too well," she said, and innocently added, "Who do you think planted the seed, and helped them set up a profile on the website?"
"Oh God, Morgana, whatever for? I don't need a girlfriend, wife or anything in between!" Arthur felt too tired to argue but ploughed on, "I work long hours, I come home to make sure my children see me, and then what do you think I do with my evenings—I work some more when they are in bed! I don't have time for anything else."
"Perhaps you should make time, Arthur! Your children love you and they've been worried about you being alone for a long time, especially Libby. They just want to see you happy that's all, because say what you want, but I know you, and I know you're lonely even if you won't admit it."
"No one's asking you to marry any of these women," Morgana continued. "Give it a try—at least then you can say it didn't work out. This is for the kids' sake. It'll do you good just to go out when it's not for business and not with me or your friends."
"I like going out with Gwen and Lance," Arthur argued, trying to remember the last time he even did that.
"Yes, I know you do, but you never go anywhere that you might meet someone."
"I sometimes go to the pub with Leon and Gwaine."
"Oh, and which pub do you frequent? Is it one of those trendy London bars where the hot young things hang out?" The tone of Morgana's voice made it clear she already knew the answer.
Arthur shifted in his seat. "No, it's The King's Head," he said quietly. He made a point of avoiding the trendy after work bars that Morgana referred to in favour of the back street pub where they enjoyed a game or two of pool and chatted to the locals, average age seventy-six.
"Yes, The King's Dead as everyone else calls it," Morgana scorned. "I rest my case."
"Okay, you've already won, there's no need to labour the point. I've said I'll go on a bloody date." He folded his arms and glared at Morgana who of course stared right back at him until it was he who looked away. "You've got a nerve you know, you're as single as I am!"
"I'm working on it though, Arthur, unlike you."
Arthur couldn't really argue with that either.
: o : o :
On Saturday morning Arthur spent a couple of hours in the pool with the children, determined to put off looking at the 'short-list' of women he'd printed off to choose his first date from for as long as possible. Unfortunately this meant that he was still in his swimming trunks when Morgana swept into the pool room with a tall dark haired young man on her tail.
A tall young man that was staring at him open-mouthed, his wide blue eyes trailing down Arthur's near naked form before seemingly realising what he was doing and snapping his mouth shut, blushing. Arthur felt a twinge in his lower stomach at the perusal and immediately felt guilty. The kid was eighteen if he was a day, and he was pretty—but, yes, he was at least half Arthur's age.
Presumably this was Merlin.
Arthur reached for a towel and tied it around waist. "You're early," he accused Morgana for the want of saying something to distract himself. He turned towards the pool, "You three, upstairs, shower and dressed please."
"I'm actually dead on time, dearest brother," Morgana drawled, waving at the children as they clambered out of the pool, grabbed towels from the side and flew past with a chorus of 'hello, Aunty Morgana!', "You remember we agreed I would bring Merlin to meet you today don't you?"
"Well, I had been hoping to be wearing more clothes when it happened, but of course I bloody remember," Arthur complained tightly, feeling immensely uncomfortable. "If you give me ten minutes to shower and dress I'll meet you in the living room?"
"What you mean is 'put the coffee on'," Morgana joked, unfazed by Arthur's brusque tone. "No problem. Come on, Merlin, we're making Arthur blush."
Arthur glanced at Merlin again, noting that his sharp cheekbones were still stained red and said without thinking, "I'm not the only one." His reward was more redness rushing up Merlin's pale neck and settling there as Merlin endeavoured to look anywhere but at Arthur. It was cruel, but Arthur was looking for an excuse not to hire the kid after all.
He turned away and made for the stairs that led up the bedrooms leaving Morgana and her guest to return up the other staircase to the hall. As he left he heard Merlin say, "Wow, this place is magical."
Morgana's response of, "It is rather, isn't it?" made Arthur smile, despite his mood. He did love his house. It was a proud mixture of old and new, an old listed building that felt like it was in the middle of nowhere despite being in the heart of London. It had been falling into disrepair when he had fallen in love with it the year after Helen's death. He had taken on as a distraction—not that he'd had the time really, not whilst he was in the middle of his second foundation year and well on the way to his speciality training. He'd hired the best architects and floated past planning because of it, and now the house lived again. He knew it might seem slightly ostentatious to some, but this was his home and he didn't care what people thought. Still, hearing someone call it magical actually made him feel pride at what he'd done with the place.
He took the quickest shower in history and was back downstairs in the living room in just a few seconds over the ten minutes he'd specified. Morgana and Merlin were settled in front of the coffee table where a large cafetiere and three mugs waited. There was no sign of the children but Arthur could hear them stomping about upstairs. The family cat, Dave, was sitting on Merlin's lap purring with loud contentment. Arthur gritted his teeth; that damned cat hated strangers, but apparently Merlin was the exception.
"I see you've met Dave," Arthur said, going to the bookcase to grab a packet of biscuits from behind an old set of encyclopaedias and placing them in the middle of the table before sitting down next to Merlin at the opposite end of the sofa as Morgana had taken the armchair.
Merlin grinned sunnily, his face coming alive. He rubbed under Dave's chin and the cat's purr doubled in volume. "He's gorgeous, aren't you, Dave?" Arthur was pleased to note he didn't do that baby talk thing that people so often did when talking to animals. Dave stretched happily and snuggled deeper into Merlin's lap.
"I didn't introduce you properly before," Morgana said. "This is Merlin, he's… What are you, Merlin?" Merlin shrugged, still smiling. "I was Merlin's tutor for his dissertation last year and we've become good friends—which is why I'd trust him with the children, Arthur."
Arthur narrowed his eyes. What kind of 'friend'? He wasn't about to enter business of employing Morgana's toy-boys. Just because she hadn't met 'the one' yet didn't mean she was celibate.
"Not like that you idiot," Morgana said with a roll of her eyes, seeing right through him like she always did. "Merlin's a genius when it comes to plants. Anything Merlin doesn't know about them isn't worth knowing."
"Don't believe a word of it, Arthur, I only let her believe that because I'm scared of her," Merlin joked, sticking his tongue out at Morgana and receiving a fond look in return. Arthur watched him in surprise. It was a rare talent was the ability to mock Morgana and live. He turned to Arthur. "I know you wouldn't want to leave your children with just anyone so I'd understand if you said no, whatever the reason."
That was Arthur's way out of this right there, but instead of saying so, he said, "The kids should be down in a bit—after you meet them properly you might not be so keen anyway."
"Morgana's told me a lot about them, and I met them briefly at the farm a couple of weeks ago," Merlin said. "They sound great to me—although I suppose Morgana is biased in their favour, much beloved nieces and nephew and all that."
"I make no excuses," Morgana said with a smile. "But don't forget I have another nephew with Morgause and there is no bias there when I say he is a demon."
"How is the lovely Morgause?" Arthur drawled, suppressing a shudder. There was certainly no love lost between him and his sister's sister and her son, Mordred. For a while, back in their teenage years when Morgana had hated everything and everyone she had fled home to live with Morgause—the sister she hadn't known she had until she was seventeen—and the already strained relationship between Morgana and their father had never fully recovered.
"Having an affair with her teenage gardener is how she is. She hit forty last year and has turned into a crazy cougar woman. Cenred's away a lot and Hans is there every day, shirtless—even in February—it's like a bad episode of 'Desperate Housewives'."
Arthur had never seen that show but he could imagine how that scenario might play out.
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of his offspring. "Dad, can we look at these replies now?" Theo asked, sitting cross-legged on the floor at the head of the coffee table and placing a sheaf of papers in front of Arthur—last seen on Arthur's desk in his study. Libby bounced over to him and curled herself into his side, and Florence sat down between her and Merlin.
Arthur had hoped they had forgotten about this, but he should have known that was wishful thinking. "I don't see why not. First though, there's someone I'd like you to meet—this is Merlin."
Merlin gave a half wave and all of the children politely chorused, "Hello, Merlin."
"How would you feel if Merlin picked you up from school like Miranda used to, and stayed here with you when I go on one of these…dates?"
All of the children immediately chorused agreement. "We met him before when we went to Aunt Morgana's farm," Florence said in a tone that indicated her words should be suffixed with a, 'duh'—as though Arthur should have known this, which he supposed was what Merlin had meant by meeting them at the farm the other week. They loved going to Morgana's farm—although 'farm' didn't really do the place justice: it was used by the university for the students studying plant science, as a Care Farm for people with learning difficulties, recovering addicts, people with disabilities, it had a farm shop and a café that was run by volunteers. The place had won that many awards that Morgana had probably run out of room to display then. Arthur was certain at least one of the children would follow in her footsteps. He also hoped one of them might have a liking for business—Uther had taken both his and Morgana's lack of interest in going into the family business far more good naturedly than he had expected considering their upbringing. Still, seventy-five percent of Pendragon-Singer was his—and fifty percent of that had been Helen's share from her. The remaining twenty-five percent was Morgana's.
Neither of them was particularly interested in the business and after Uther's death had kept it in the hands of a Managing Director, Gwaine Heath, the man who had worked his way up to Uther's second-in-command after getting a job with him upon leaving university. Gwaine had had a knack of standing up to Uther when others would have cowed—it had earned him Uther's trust and respect.
"Merlin does magic tricks, he pulled a flower from my ear," Libby said proudly. "It was pink."
Arthur glanced at Merlin who looked uncomfortable. "I'd love to see that," he said, curious. Would Merlin have come rigged up with fake flowers tucked away up his sleeve today?
"Libby, what colour flower would you like?" Merlin asked, leaning forward so he could see her better.
"Purple!" Libby squirmed excitedly and jumped down from the sofa to come and stand in front of Merlin. Dave stirred on Merlin's lap, opened one annoyed eye, and settled back down again. Merlin grinned, reached out to Libby's ear, and came back with a purple flower in his hand which he handed to her with a flourish.
"Wow," she said. "Look, Daddy!"
Arthur was impressed. It was an old and probably easy trick and Merlin had made it look effortless, and his daughter was in awe. "Florence, do you want one too?" Merlin asked.
Florence was clearly trying not to look interested, too old for this childish nonsense, but Arthur could see she wanted Merlin to produce a flower for her too. "Yellow please," she said eventually and Merlin immediately complied. Florence squirmed when she accepted it, still trying not to look excited by a magic trick because that wouldn't be cool. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Merlin said. He turned to Theo, who was watching him in fascination and winked. Theo grinned back.
Arthur had to concede that Merlin was probably going to be popular with his brood. In fact, even on this brief acquaintance he couldn't think of a real objection to saying yes. There was something about him. Also, if he was one of Morgana's dissertation students then he had to be at least twenty which was…better than the eighteen he had assumed upon meeting him.
"Well, Merlin," Arthur said. "I think we can come to some arrangement if you're still willing."
"Thank you, Arthur, that would be great," Merlin said, breaking into a smile, their eyes meeting, and for a moment, Arthur forgot to breathe. Bloody hell his eyes were the bluest Arthur had ever seen and that smile…
"Can we look at the replies now, Dad?" Florence asked, dragging Arthur's attention away from Merlin and Theo began to bounce up and down in excitement, picking up the sheaf of paper and waving it in the air.
"Dad, we had a look at the ones you printed," Theo began. Arthur had only printed the replies that arrived before the story hit the press, in the hope that those would be more genuine. "There was forty-seven of those and we've picked out nine that we like."
Arthur tried not to groan. "Nine, Theo? I hope you don't think I'm going to go out with them all?"
"Daddy, you promised," Libby whined. "It's okay though, cos you might like the first one and marry her."
"I'm not promising to marry anyone, sweetheart," Arthur said, wondering again how he had got himself into this. He'd married their mother all those years ago because he'd never seen his life going any other way and now his children wanted him to marry again—would he go that far to make them happy? He didn't think so—they said they wanted him to be happy, and getting married again wasn't the key to that, but he knew they would benefit from having another parent, but it was what it was, this was his life—he'd do what he could, he'd go on a couple of dates and see what happened, but he didn't think he'd be finding the second Mrs Arthur Pendragon!
"Okay then, let's have them," Arthur said, holding out a hand to Theo who thrust the wad of potential candidates at him.
Ten minutes later and he'd agreed to arrange a date with a pretty brunette named Nimueh Rivers and Morgana, Libby and Florence were all discussing what he should wear like he wasn't there. He turned to Merlin and mouthed, "Help," and was rewarded with that smile again. He groaned inwardly; an attraction to his kids' babysitter was the last thing he needed. Suddenly this date couldn't come fast enough.
: o : o :
The last time Arthur had been on a 'date' he'd been seventeen and Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince had been at number one. It had been in that month when he and Helen had had a huge falling out—the only one they'd ever had—and Arthur couldn't even remember now what it had been about, but it had been enough to break them up, both of them swearing they didn't want anything to do with one another ever again.
His date—Arthur had no idea what her name had been—had been keen and Arthur had been determined to show Helen that he didn't care that they'd broken up so he'd taken his date to the cinema to see Indecent Proposal and afterwards they'd gone for pizza. He'd walked her home, she'd invited him in for coffee and he'd been on the receiving end of an awkward blow job before they'd heard her parent's car on the drive and Arthur had been unceremoniously shoved out the back door thanking his lucky stars that he was still fully dressed.
They hadn't gone out again. A few days after that, he'd gone to see Helen and they'd made up and a few months later had gone to uni and begun a couple of years of 'experimenting'. He'd married Helen in the year after she'd graduated with a degree in fine art, he'd been twenty-three with many more years of studying ahead of him, but they hadn't seen any point in waiting. They'd both sown their wild oats so to speak and Arthur felt no jealousy towards anyone Helen might have been with.
It had been a huge frilly white wedding with all the pomp and circumstance that went with it. Helen's father had insisted upon it and Helen hadn't wanted to disagree, not when he'd been in such poor health at the time. He'd died less than six months after the wedding and had never met any of his grandchildren.
As it was though, he and Helen had never been on a 'date'. The time they'd spent time together when they were teenagers had been more like 'hanging out' with some hand holding and kissing involved in their early teens, graduating to greater intimacies as they'd got older—and then after the uni years, they'd got married. There had been no romance there, just a lifetime of knowing one another, enjoying similar upbringings at the hands of single fathers—even though Helen's father had been far more hands on—that had resulted in a deep solid friendship.
Agreeing to meet a woman he'd never met before for a date now was bloody terrifying. When he'd sent Nimueh Rivers the email inviting her for the date, he'd had his fingers crossed that she would say no. It was pretty pathetic really. He was a thirty-seven year old man who with a successful career as a well-respected neurologist and a single-father of three children—why was the prospect of spending a few hours in the company of a stranger such a nerve-wracking prospect?
"What should I wear?" he asked Morgana the night before D-Day as they sat in the living room enjoying a glass of wine in peace now that the children were in bed. It was her last night in London for a while and she left for Edinburgh the following day, abandoning him to this dating hell. "Is a business suit okay or will that make me look as though I'm trying too hard?" Arthur certainly didn't want that, he didn't want to be going at all, and the nearer D-Day crept, the worse Arthur felt about it.
He should know better than to make promises to children because it kind of meant that he was obliged to meet them.
"Honestly, Arthur, it depends where you're going. If you're going for a pizza then wear something casual, if you're taking her to The Ivy, then something more formal—and preferably designer—would be best." Morgana took a sip of her wine and placed it on the coffee table. "I'm starting to wish I wasn't going away, this is too much fun!"
Arthur glared at her and downed the contents of his glass in one gulp, reaching for the bottle to top it up. "I'm glad my discomfort amuses you!" he huffed, pouring himself another glass and sitting back again, still glaring at Morgana who merely winked and, kicking off her shoes, tucked her legs underneath herself.
"You'll be fine, Arthur, don't worry. Pretend it's a job interview and that your date is the candidate. It's what I do. No point hiring someone who's not up to my specifications is there? If they're not up to scratch but they've got certain…talents…then I might take them on as a temp."
Arthur groaned and pulled a face. "Did I want to know that about you?" Not a word of Morgana's monologue surprised him though. "It's no wonder you're single."
"I've told you before, I'm waiting for the right man and when I meet him, I'll know."
Arthur had to admire Morgana's conviction. She'd been saying the same thing since she'd been a teenager. Arthur had never known her to have a boyfriend for longer than a couple of months. "Good for you." Morgana had always maintained a belief in romantic love that Arthur couldn't mirror. "Maybe he's waiting for you in Edinburgh."
"Maybe he is." There was a long pause before Morgana said, "How's Merlin working out?"
It was nearly a week since Morgana had first brought Merlin to meet him, and since then Arthur had encountered him two more times. The first had been the Sunday after when Arthur had suggested Merlin come and spend the day with him and the children, wanting to be sure that they took to him before he left them in his care as well as being sure that Merlin could handle them. When they behaved they were easy to manage, but three children all wanting their own way was something else entirely.
They hadn't gone anywhere fancy, just up onto the heath with the football and a hastily thrown together picnic. Arthur had discovered two things about Merlin during those few hours. One, Merlin was fantastic with his children, two, that Merlin was terrible at football but was more than willing to have a go which had been handy because Arthur was exhausted and hadn't had the energy to do much more then be the referee from the side-lines. Merlin's boundless energy was mesmerising. Merlin was mesmerising.
The second meeting had been yesterday when Merlin had picked the children up from school for the first time and stayed with them until Arthur came home. Arthur's interaction with him had been short-lived as he'd arrived back at the house just after six and Merlin had updated him on his afternoon, with the children interjecting, and he'd left straight afterwards.
The arrangement was that Merlin would fetch the children from school at least four evenings a week and stay with them until Arthur came home from work and he would take care of them if Arthur went on a date and help out at other times as and when required. Apparently even though Merlin was a student, all of his lectures were in the morning.
"The children love him," Arthur said, thinking of Theo in particular who wouldn't shut up about him. It had been 'Merlin this' and 'Merlin that' all last night. "If he carries on like this then I might thank you for finding him for me."
"You'll be thanking me alright," Morgana said sweetly. "I know it."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Remind me to call Edinburgh and warn it's population to stay indoors for five weeks."
"Already called ahead," Morgana said. "The red carpet is waiting."
Arthur wouldn't be surprised if it was.
: o : o :
Saturday arrived far too quickly for Arthur's liking. He could feel his nerves fraying at the thought of the impending date later that day. Arthur hadn't been nervous since Helen's funeral, because saying the right thing had been so important, because how did you say goodbye to the mother of your children with dignity when what you really wanted to do was throw a punch at the wall, or kick something, someone, hunt down the person who had driven into Helen and left her for dead, leaving his children motherless and him a widower?
It was probably not the best thing to be thinking about his dead wife's funeral just before going on a date with another woman though. He checked his watch and groaned. It was only twelve o'clock in the afternoon. He wasn't meeting Nimueh until seven o'clock! Merlin wasn't due to come over until six.
Right now Arthur would like nothing more than a couple of hours of Merlin's chatter—for that was something else about him that Arthur had found he liked—to soothe his mood, but he couldn't just ring him and ask him to come earlier—for one, they weren't friends, he'd have to pay Merlin for the extra hours, and two, he didn't like that Merlin was the first person who popped into his head as a distraction from thinking about that evening. Distraction from such things was Leon or Lance's job as his best mates.
He stopped pacing and dragged his phone from his pocket and hovering his thumb over the Lance's number in the 'Recents' in his phone before sighing heavily and throwing his phone onto the sofa and joining it moments after. Talking about the upcoming date was only going to make him more agitated.
He checked his watch to find only two minutes had passed. Fuck. "Florence!" he called, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "Libby! Theo!"
He heard footsteps from upstairs and the voice of his eldest, "Yes, Dad?"
"Get your shoes on, we're going shopping."
: o : o :