: o : o :

Arthur buried himself in work the following day after ringing Gwen and asking if she'd mind taking the children out for the day—knowing that she'd have already talked to Morgana, that nothing was sacred. He needed time to think.

He didn't expect Merlin to show up around noon, rocking on his heels on Arthur's front doorstep. Arthur stared at him, no closer to a solution for the mess despite his morning of contemplation, than he had been the night before. "Come in," he finally said, holding the door open for him to pass.

"Where are the children?" Merlin asked, looking around him as though they might just jump out of a cupboard shouting 'boo!' at any moment.

"They're with Gwen for the day," Arthur said and Merlin nodded.

"So there's no one else here?"

Arthur should have recognised the warning signs, but he didn't, he wasn't used to having to, he supposed—but Merlin said, "Right, that's good," and before Arthur could blink, Merlin was kissing him, and God, it felt good. The tingle of his lips from the night before, the one that had still reminded him that he'd kissed Merlin then, returned in full force and he groaned, his hands coming around to cup Merlin's arse even as Merlin spun him somehow and backed him up against the wall.

Merlin pressed into Arthur, one leg between Arthur's thighs and Arthur could feel the rigid line of his cock beneath the tight confines of his jeans, digging insistently into Arthur's thigh. Arthur couldn't think, couldn't breathe, as Merlin claimed his mouth, one hand in Arthur's hair and the other on his neck, stroking the soft skin behind his ear.

"Merlin—" Arthur managed, pulling back, "We shouldn't be doing this." Even as he spoke the voice in his head screamed at him to be silent.

"Why not?" Merlin asked and pulled Arthur back in again. "I've thought of nothing else since—"

Arthur cut him off as the part of him that thought this was a bad idea fought with the rest of him that thought it was a fan-fucking-tastic idea and lost. Arthur kissed Merlin then, pushed into his mouth, spinning him, walking him backwards to the living room door, hands sliding under the cover of Merlin's t-shirt over smooth warm skin that felt so good against his hands.

He couldn't remember getting there, but when he hit the back of his legs on the sofa he went down, Merlin crawling onto his lap and straddling him, hands breaching his waistband, his cock being freed from prison of his jeans, Merlin moving to the floor and settling between Arthur's legs and taking the head of his cock in his mouth, tentative at first and then, looking up at Arthur with wide eyes—pupils so dilated that there was barely any blue left—taking Arthur in with greater confidence. Merlin wrapped a firm hand around the base of Arthur's cock and squeezed gently before taking the full length of him into his throat. "Merlin!" Arthur rasped as a hand found its way into his hair and the other tracing a circle on the side of his cheek near his ear. Merlin pulled back and looked up at Arthur again and that was all it took—Arthur exploded into his mouth, coming embarrassingly fast like it was his first time, his hips bucking up off the sofa—and the voice he could hear, "Oh God, oh God, oh God," was him.

Merlin licked him clean and sat back on his heels, one hand on each of Arthur's knees and scanned his face. Arthur groaned and closed his eyes, his head falling back against the back of the sofa. "Fucking hell, Merlin," he said, barely hearing his own words over the thundering of his heart. "Fucking hell."

Merlin clambered back up again, one leg on either side of Arthur's thighs and leant forwards to kiss Arthur lazily, before pulling back and regarding him with a half-smile. Through hazed narrowed eyes Arthur belatedly realised Merlin was still hard—he'd managed to release his own cock from his jeans and it stood long and proud from a thatch of dark curls. Arthur's mouth watered. "Here," he said. "Up." He wrapped his hands around Merlin's elbows and encouraged him up off Arthur's lap so that his cock was bobbing dangerously close to Arthur's lips.

"Please," Merlin said, swaying forwards slightly. "I need—"

Arthur swept the tip of his tongue over the head of Merlin's cock, tasting him there for the first time. He looked up at Merlin who was staring down at him with wonder in his eyes. "You're gorgeous," he said, repeating the words from the night before that he'd denied ever speaking. Once said, he went to work, working his tongue over Merlin's length, swallowing him down, relishing the feel of Merlin's hands threading into his hair and almost yanking a fistful out when Arthur pulled off him and paid homage to the underside of the head having worked out that Merlin liked it when he did that. He pulled off. "Fuck." His jaw ached and his eyes felt watery—Merlin was bigger than he'd expected. He took a deep breath and went back in, letting Merlin fuck his mouth until he felt the beginning of Merlin's orgasm in the way that Merlin's fingers still in his hair, how his breathing sped up and the length of his cock rippled. He wanted Merlin to spill into his mouth, wanted to swallow every last drop if his seed until Merlin was begging to be released from the torture. He yanked on the waistband of Merlin's jeans and pulled them down to his knees and gently he parted Merlin's cheeks, pushing on finger closer, enough to just ghost over the sensitive skin of his hole—it was enough and Merlin came with a shout of Arthur's name.

Arthur drank him down, resisting the urge to fist his own cock—he was hard again already like he was still Merlin's age.

"Jeez, Arthur," Merlin wheezed, settling back on Arthur's lap. "You're insatiable." Arthur watched him as he stared hungrily at Arthur's renewed arousal, blinked, and reached for him. Arthur's reaction was embarrassing considering he'd only recently come once—a few strokes of Merlin's hand and he was doing so again, firing his come up between both of them.

They were a sticky mess.

Merlin dropped his head into the crook of Arthur's shoulder and laughed. "I needed that."

Arthur stroked his hands over Merlin's lower back and waited for his breathing to return to normal, horrified reality seeping into his bones as his heart rate returned to something resembling normal. Gently he eased Merlin off his lap to the sofa at the side of him and tucked himself away, pretending for a moment that he wasn't covered in sweat and come.

"This can't happen again," he began, tucking his trembling hands under his arms. "It's not what I want."

Merlin was silent for what felt like hours to Arthur, but could only really have been minutes. "Not what you want?" he said yanking his jeans back up. "It looked to me like you wanted it pretty badly a few minutes ago."

"That's not what I meant and you know it. Look, Merlin, you're a great kid—and—"

"I'm not a kid!" Merlin lurched to his feet then, rounding on Arthur, his eyes flashing with anger. "I'm twenty-two! I'm more than old enough to know what I want!"

"Yes, well, so am I and it's not this."

"You utter arsehole." Merlin reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out his keys. "I won't waste anymore of your valuable time then, Dr Pendragon—it's my day off after all." He walked slowly towards the door, stopping when he got there to say, "You're going to have to fire me if you don't want to see me again, otherwise I'll pick the kids up from school tomorrow as usual."

With that he was gone.

Arthur closed his eyes. "Fuck." The front door clicked closed and the loud engine of the VW fired up. "Fuck it all."

He'd done it now hadn't he? He'd given in to the temptation that had been thrumming in his veins since Merlin walked into his life less than two months ago and with that one mistake he'd ruined everything. Merlin had said Arthur would have to fire him if he didn't want to see him again—Arthur felt sick. He'd hurt Merlin and he'd hurt himself and what for—a few minutes of the most intense pleasure he could ever remember? Was it worth it?

Merlin would be okay though, Arthur was sure of that. He was young, and yes, he had a thing for Arthur, maybe even fancied himself in love with him, but Arthur knew that there was no such thing as romantic love. His marriage had been based on friendship and affection, his dalliances had been based on convenience and at times, lust—these feelings he was having for Merlin, they were just a combination of those, chemicals mixing in his brain and trying to convince him that there was more to it, that this was 'love'.

Merlin was his employee. A temporary fixture in his life—Arthur had no illusions that Merlin would always need this job with him; he only had the time for it now because he was a student. It was already bad enough that his children had formed such an attachment to him—Arthur hadn't worried too much about that as it was a fact of life that children needed to learn. People come and go. The only constant is family. Merlin wasn't family, and if Arthur started a relationship with him, the children would be even more hurt when it didn't work out after a while when Merlin realised he'd bitten off more than he could chew with Arthur and his brood.

Arthur took himself upstairs for a shower and a change of clothes. When he was done, he leafed through the print outs of the women the kids had chosen for him and selected the only one of them that already had children of her own, one Elena Jones. That was what he should have done from the start.

: o : o :

Elena was utterly charming. She was a little clumsy, and she looked ever-so-slightly dishevelled; but then she was a mother of three herself, and she didn't have the help that Arthur did. Her husband had left her when she was pregnant for the second time, and that pregnancy had produced identical twin boys.

"I don't hate him," Elena said, helping herself to a chip from Arthur's plate. "Well, maybe a little, but only for the kids' sake—he never bothers with them, but he's a devoted father to his new wife's son from her previous relationship. I don't understand that, do you?" She stole another chip.

"No, I have to say I don't. I can't imagine not being involved in my children's lives."

"Wow, we've got six between us. If we get past this first date and this becomes something more, we're going to have our work cut out!"

Arthur liked her. He did. He could see himself enjoying her company, of being a family of sorts—maybe she was the one for him, the one who he could be content with? He shoved the image of Merlin that sprang up back out of his head, so, so unwelcome. "You never know," he said and then impulsively added, "I like you, Elena. Why don't you bring your three over to mine on tomorrow? I've got an indoor swimming pool," he glanced woefully at the vista outside the restaurant window. It had been raining non-stop all week.

"Thank you, Arthur, I accept," Elena said, grinning happily. Her eyes left his and landed on his plate. "Have you finished with those?"

Arthur nudged his plate towards her. He's barely eaten anything, he'd lost his appetite completely since his encounter with Merlin. "Help yourself."

When they left the restaurant Arthur saw Elena safely into a taxi before hailing one himself. He'd not driven this time—he'd wanted to have a couple of drinks, hoping that that would out him in a better frame of mind to enjoy this date. In the end he'd only had a couple of glasses of white wine from the bottle they'd shared, and it felt like it was curdling in the pit of his stomach. It probably was.

Morgana was curled up on the sofa with the cat in her lap watching some rom-com or other when Arthur got home. "Kids alright?" he asked, flopping down in the armchair opposite.

Morgana paused the DVD and peered over at Arthur. "You look terrible," she said. "Why don't you go and check on them and I'll put the kettle on?"

Arthur, on autopilot, stood again and went upstairs, sticking his head into three bedrooms and smiling at the sight of three peacefully sleeping children. He hoped they'd have fun tomorrow when Elena came over with her three—his were reasonably well behaved kids, but who knew what Elena's were like and if they would even get on with the three younger Pendragons.

"How was it?" Morgana asked when Arthur joined her in the kitchen.

Arthur filled her in, telling her about the impending visit tomorrow. "She sounds nice enough," Morgana said, placing a steaming mug of coffee on the counter next to Arthur. Arthur hovered a hand over the top of it enjoying the warmth from the steam. "You don't have to do this anymore you know."

"What? You instigated this whole bloody farce in the first place!"

Morgana sighed. "I know. But, Merlin—"

Arthur pushed back from the counter. "I'm not having this conversation!" He picked up his cup of coffee. "Either we return to the living room and watch the rest of whatever it was that you were watching or you go home and I drink this in peace and then take myself to bed so I'm up nice and early tomorrow to prepare for my guests."

There was a reason why Morgana was here looking after the kids tonight and not Merlin. Arthur hadn't asked him. He wasn't sure how he could. Merlin had picked up the children from school as usual all week, stayed with them until Arthur got home, and politely updated him about anything that had happened with them before making a hasty retreat. Arthur hadn't made any attempt at further conversation, following Merlin's lead and keeping it all business like. It was for the best. Yet—he'd not mentioned his date to him, not asked him to come over and mind the children whilst he went out with Elena.

It had been a week of pure torture.

"I can't be dealing with you when you're like this!" Morgana huffed. "I'm going home—I've seen that film before anyway."

"Morgana—"

She fixed him in her gaze then, pinning him to the spot with that way she had, making him squirm. "Save it."

Arthur was still standing in that same spot in the kitchen twenty minutes later, staring blankly at nothing, the coffee now cold beside him. He snapped himself out of it, poured the coffee in the sink and went to bed.

: o : o :

Sunday went well. Elena's three, Frank, Albert and Edward, were delightful children—well as delightful as children could be when playing rowdy games of tag in the swimming pool.

Before they left for the day Arthur kissed Elena's cheek and said, "Will you let me take you to dinner on Wednesday night?" and was pleased when she smiled her agreement. Arthur had a good feeling about her. She was sweet, funny and she was good with his children.

Libby had whispered her approval earlier when she'd swam over to Arthur in the pool, "She's nice, Daddy," and Theo had made it known it would be quite alright with him to have the three boys over to play again, which to Arthur was approval. Florence hadn't said anything, preferring to sit at on a lounger at the side and read a book rather than join in—but as she was the oldest one there Arthur hadn't pushed her.

"Are you seeing Elena again?" she asked him over dinner that evening and when Arthur nodded and said, yes, he was seeing her on Wednesday she'd looked at him intently and said, "You should follow your heart, Dad," and Arthur hadn't thought any more of that until later when he was in bed, his mind reeling with the events of the last week.

Follow your heart. He wasn't sure he knew what that meant.

: o : o :

Arthur had no other choice than to ask Merlin to sit for the children on Wednesday night—there was no way he was asking Morgana after the way she had left him on Saturday. He knew he could ask Gwen or Leon but—they would only want to know why he wasn't asking Merlin and Arthur wasn't ready for that conversation. He'd asked Merlin on Monday night, making sure to tell him it would be his third date with Elena. Merlin had shrugged, said, "Whatever you want," and left leaving Arthur feeling like he'd been caught kicking puppies.

He got home from work early and found Merlin and the children in the kitchen doing homework. "What time are you picking up Elena?" Libby asked as soon as he walked in, jumping up to greet him with a hug. "Where are you taking her?"

"One question at time," Arthur said, chancing a glance at Merlin who was watching him with a blank expression. When their eyes met Merlin looked away quickly. "I'm meeting her at the restaurant at seven," Arthur said.

"What time do you think you will be home?" Merlin asked, not looking up from the textbook in front of him.

"I don't know—do you have somewhere to be?"

Merlin looked up again. "No. I'm just making polite conversation."

Arthur swallowed. His traitorous heart had sped up the moment he'd entered the room and seen Merlin sitting there, now it was pounding in his chest so loudly Arthur felt as though Metallica had set up residence. "I'll try to be home by half ten."

Merlin nodded. "Do you mind if Percy comes over—we've got a presentation tomorrow and we could do with running over it a few times."

Yes, I fucking mind. "I don't mind," he lied, loosening his tie. "I'll just go and grab a shower."

He made his way upstairs slowly, stripping off his suit and tossing it onto his bedroom floor. He should be looking forward to his date tonight. Instead all he could think of was the flash of hurt in Merlin's eyes when he'd been asking about Elena. Arthur had liked it, in the moment before reality had set in earlier, when he'd arrived home to Merlin and the children, had thought that he'd love to come home every day to that.

"There's something wrong with you, Pendragon," he told himself as he stepped under the hot jets of the shower. "You can't have him."

: o : o :

After his evening with Elena, Arthur pecked her on the cheek and invited her over for drinks on Saturday night—it was his birthday and he was having a few people over as he did every year. "I'd love to, Arthur," she said. "Just me or me and the terrors?"

"All four of you," Arthur said. "Theo will be in heaven."

He watched until the taxi was out of sight and went to find his car. He checked his watch—it was only nine thirty.

All he'd been able to think about throughout the duration of his date with Elena was Merlin—and Percy—alone in Arthur's house, at least alone once the children went to bed. He shouldn't have been surprised that he got pulled over on the way home. "You were eight miles over the speed limit," the police officer said and breathalysed Arthur. Arthur grimaced and apologised. He didn't think his excuse 'I couldn't bear the thought of Percy's hands on Merlin' would hold up in court.

Arthur's on the spot fine wound up on the passenger seat for the remainder of his journey home, as he stuck carefully to the speed limit, taunting him. When he finally got home, he attempted a stealthy approach, like he wanted to torture himself with what he might find on the other side of the living room door, his imagination stepping into overdrive, of Merlin and Percy kissing, Merlin and Percy running their hands over each other, Merlin and Percy making love, Merlin and Percy—

Merlin was alone in the living room. "Where's your friend?" Arthur asked immediately, as though he was hiding behind the sofa ready to jump out and say, 'ha, you thought I had gone' before pulling Merlin into his lap.

"He left about half an hour ago," Merlin said, watching Arthur with narrowed eyes. "How was the date?"

"Um, yeah, good," Arthur said automatically. The truth was, he couldn't remember anything about it. He'd been there, but only in body. He knew he'd invited Elena over for his birthday thing, but that was about it. "She's great."

"I'm sure she is."

Merlin stood and began to gather his things. Arthur watched, stuck inside his own head as he tried to formulate something to say, the easy banter they had shared before a distant memory now. "You know," Merlin said carefully when he'd hoisted his backpack over his shoulder and looked ready to go. "I hate this." He waved a hand between them both. "I hate that it's awkward. I...miss how it was between us before we... Can we just forget it? I get that you don't want me, like that, but I never wanted this."

Arthur wanted to cry. Merlin looked so young as he shifted awkwardly in front of him—he is young, so young—and Arthur wanted nothing more than to reach out and pull him into a hug. He wanted to say, 'I do, I do want you, more than anything,' but something stopped him. What would that solve? They were just words. There was nothing behind them other than this ridiculous attraction to someone he couldn't have.

He was in a loop, caught in his own trap, and now he'd tasted Merlin... "Of course," he said. "I never wanted this either." He drew a deep breath. "I'm having a get together on Saturday night for my birthday. I'd like it if you could come. Morgana will be here and I know the children will like it if you're there."

"Yeah," Merlin said. "Thanks, I'd like that."

: o : o :

"She's very pretty," Merlin said when he joined Arthur by the window towards the end of the evening. Arthur had successfully avoided being alone with him until then, even if he had had considerably less success in losing his awareness of where Merlin was at all times.

"She is," Arthur replied and it was the honest truth. Elena was even blonder than he was and there was something about her that drew people in. There wasn't a person in the room who hadn't been charmed by her. Helen had been just the same. Everyone had loved her too. "Are you enjoying yourself?"

"Ready to admit you only invited me so I would keep an eye on the children yet?" Merlin's tone was light but his smile didn't meet his eyes. "I've spent all evening performing magic tricks to keep them entertained seeing as the pool is out of bounds."

"I admit no such thing. Is it my fault that you enjoy playing with—"

"Hello," Elena appeared beside Merlin stopping Arthur mid-sentence. "I'm Elena. I thought I'd introduce myself seeing as Arthur here is such a terrible host." Elena winked at Merlin. "You must be Merlin—my children are singing your praises."

Merlin blushed. "Yes, I'm Merlin." He held out his hand and offered it to Elena. "Child-minder extraordinaire." His voice was flat, and even though his smile was friendly, it was still only there for show. He glanced at Arthur quickly. "Um—I was about tell Arthur that I'm leaving. So—it was nice to meet you, Elena. Arthur, I'll see you on Monday as usual."

"Yes. Thanks for coming," Arthur said, watching as Merlin nodded and picked his way across the room to talk to Morgana, the both of them turning to look at Arthur before Merlin kissed Morgana on the cheek and vanished through the door. As the door closed behind him Arthur felt as though all the joy was being sucked from the room. "Er, I just remembered there's something I need to tell Merlin about Monday," Arthur said, watching the door. "I'll just see if I can catch him before he goes."

He heard Elena say, 'Okay," as he hastened away. He pushed through to the hallway and out of the front door as though he was being pursued by a pack of rabid dogs. There was no sign of Merlin when Arthur scanned the driveway, but his van was still there so Arthur headed towards it. He had no idea what he was going to say, he just knew he couldn't let Merlin leave without... Without what?

He heard him then, his voice drifting across towards him in the darkness. "...no, I'll come to yours it's fine. I just need—yes—that sounds perfect. No—that's behind me now. I'm okay, I told you. You were right." The enticing sound of Merlin's laughter made Arthur's heart contract. "I bet you say that to all the boys. You just want to get me naked!"

Arthur's stomach dropped suddenly feeling as though he was listening to a very private conversation.

Merlin was laughing again. "The almond oil please—it's my favourite."

Arthur turned abruptly and went back into the house. He sidestepped the party and went downstairs into the pool room to sit on the edge of one of the loungers. That was where Morgana found him half an hour later. She sat down beside him and wrapped an arm around him. Arthur wasn't sure whether to be grateful or embarrassed at her silent support. She knew, she always did, and when she wasn't trying to be awkward or to rile him up, she was perfectly attuned to him and could always give him what he needed. He dropped his head to her shoulder and said, "I've really fucked up."

She didn't reply.

: o : o :

After his birthday, time crawled by. Three weeks passed and Arthur felt as though he'd aged ten years.

Elena broke things off with him on their fifth date. "You're a lovely man, Arthur," she said gently, "And I've no doubt that we could be happy together and even be great friends—in fact I hope we can still be friends—but there's nothing else. At least let us be honest."

Arthur knew she was right. "I hope you mean it when you say we should stay friends—Theo would never forgive me if Edward disappeared out of his life!" Theo had found a new best friend in Elena's son. When they weren't together they were playing X-Box games against each other over the internet. He took her hand and squeezed. "You'll be the perfect match for someone—I'm sorry that isn't me."

He was genuinely sorry. Maybe if he'd met Elena six months ago things between them might have been different.

The following Saturday Arthur took Libby and Theo over to Elena's for the afternoon before dropping Florence at Jessica's for a sleepover. He went back home, feeling at a loose end. He sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen and thumbed through the news on his phone, jumping in surprise when it rang, the name of the caller: Merlin.

"Hello?"

"Good afternoon, is this Dr Pendragon?" It was a deep authoritative masculine voice.

"Yes this is him," Arthur said, disappointment spiking in his veins when it wasn't Merlin's voice. Things had been tense these last few weeks—their truce such as it was bring nothing more than hollow words. Of course they couldn't return back to how they were. Why wasn't it Merlin's voice? "Why are you calling on Merlin's phone?"

"Dr Pendragon, you are listed as Mr Emrys' ICE contact. My name is Dr Cooper. Mr Emrys has been in an accident."

Arthur felt the blood rush from his head and a terrifying wave of dizziness assuage him.

"Dr Pendragon?"

"Sorry, I'm still here. Is he..?"

"He's received a head injury and is unconscious. We believe—"

"Where is he?"

: o : o :

"I don't care how many times you say it, I'm not listening. You're coming to stay with me and that's all there is to it," Arthur said, avoiding Merlin's eyes and focussing on the plaster cast on his lower right arm.

Merlin could have died.

"I'll be fine—"

"Mary will never forgive me if she misses this chance to fuss over you," Arthur said, knowing it to be the truth. Mary still thought the sun shone out of Merlin's behind. "Neither would Libby."

When Libby had learned Merlin was in hospital she'd cried herself sick until Arthur agreed to bring her in to sit with him at Merlin's bedside. Merlin had suffered a head injury, and although all of his vitals had been fine, Arthur wanted to be there when he woke up, to be the one to perform the checks on him—the consultant neurosurgeon at the hospital was an old friend of Arthur's from his medical school days and she had merely rolled her eyes at Arthur, saying that she was still going to check Merlin again afterwards telling him, "You're too emotionally involved, Arthur—and you know that's the easiest road to making a mistake."

Arthur had nodded and turned his attention back to Merlin, Libby curled in his lap, watching the rise and fall of Merlin's chest as he breathed. He was alive. Nothing else mattered.

When Merlin had finally woken after thirty-six hours of being unconscious, thin slivers of blue appearing as his sticky lids prised themselves open, Arthur had felt faint with relief. Merlin's life had never really been in danger, logically he knew that, but that hadn't stopped him from moving into the chair at Merlin's bedside and making use of Mary's good nature to look after the children.

"Arthur?" Merlin had whispered, his voice hoarse from dryness, his eyes opening wider and blinking into the light. They were so blue—Arthur had feared he might never see them again with the light of life behind them. "Where am I?"

"You had a run in with a car on a crossing," Arthur said trying to keep the mood light.

Merlin blinked again. "My head hurts."

Arthur had sprung into action, placing his sleeping daughter into the chair he vacated and calling for the nurse.

Apart from a broken wrist there was no serious damage, but Merlin still had to stay in for another forty-eight hours and then they would only release him into someone else's care. Arthur wouldn't entertain Merlin going anywhere other than home with him. "I'm a neurologist," Arthur had insisted. "What better care is there?"

Merlin had eventually stopped arguing, until now—now he was insisting he'd be fine going back to his own house. It was an argument Arthur would not let him win.

Mary had made up the room Merlin had slept in last time, and Arthur helped him up the stairs as he was a little unsteady on his feet. "You don't have to do this," Merlin protested, but sank down on top of the bed with a contented sigh anyway. "I'm so tired..."

"You sleep," Arthur ordered, manoeuvring the duvet from under Merlin and letting him wiggle underneath, pulling his shoes off before laying a gentle hand on his forehead. "Sleep and later Mary will make you some soup. Then tomorrow the visitors arrive." Arthur had taken advantage of being Merlin's ICE and pulled rank, not letting any of Merlin's friends in to see him at the hospital. It was selfish, he knew that, but Merlin hadn't asked for anyone in particular and Arthur had felt his protective and possessive sides rising within him. Whoever it was Merlin had been sleeping with...Arthur could put that out of his mind if he wasn't confronted with it head on.

Merlin closed his eyes and Arthur stayed there for a few minutes, watching him fall to sleep. His long lashes fanned his pale cheeks and his cheekbones were stark in the wake of the last few days and Merlin not eating as much as usual. He'd lost weight.

He was still the most beautiful man Arthur had ever seen.

When the weariness, a result of the stress of the last few days, suddenly struck him, Arthur didn't think about what he was doing when he climbed onto the bed next to Merlin, on top of the covers and closed his eyes. He'd just lie there for a few minutes until the fatigue passed...

"Daddy?"

Arthur groaned. "Huh?"

"Daddy, wake up!" A small hand reached out to shake him and blearily Arthur opened one eye to find Libby standing next to the bed, grinning happily.

He was alone on the bed, Merlin was no longer there. "Where's Merlin?" he asked, wondering what Merlin had thought when he'd woken up with Arthur asleep beside him. "What time is it?"

"It's dinner time," Libby said. "Merlin's having some soup but Mary says she wants you to come down and have some as well, otherwise she's going to come up and fetch you herself."

"Right," Arthur said, trying to move his heavy limbs. "I'd better do as I'm told then."

He swung his legs to the floor and pushed himself to his feet. "I'll just go to the bathroom, Lib, tell Mary I'll be there in a minute." He needed a couple of minutes to himself before he faced Merlin.

He walked slowly down the landing to his own bedroom and into the en-suite. When he was done he washed his hands and braced them on the edge of the sink as he stared at himself in the mirror. A bleary-eyed version of himself stared back at him. He looked old and tired—worse than he felt. He was fifteen years older than the person he loved. Fifteen.

"I don't believe in love," he told his reflection angrily, pushing the thought away and glaring at himself. Love was just something people made up to sell books and greetings cards and to excuse the stupid things that they do, to give it an excuse. "No such thing."

Mirror-Arthur looked back at him, his face sad. "Liar," he said. "You love him."

Arthur splashed his face with water and turned his back on his reflection. When he arrived downstairs he was hustled to the kitchen table where a steaming bowl of soup appeared in front of him. "Eat up, you look terrible," Mary instructed.

"I'm not the one who was hit by a car!" Arthur protested even as his stomach rumbled as the aroma of the soup hit his nostrils. He glanced over at Merlin who was watching with amusement.

"No, but you are the one who spent two days sitting in a chair in the hospital!" Mary crossed her arms over her ample bosom and Arthur knew better than to argue.

He picked up his spoon and waved it at Mary. "Here," he said, "I'm eating." He scooped out some soup and held it to his lips, blowing on it gently before taking a mouthful. Satisfied, Mary bustled over to the oven and left Arthur alone with Merlin.

"Why'd you stay at the hospital with me?" Arthur couldn't help but look up into Merlin's eyes.

The soup turned to straw in Arthur's mouth and he swallowed with difficulty before replying, "Why'd you list me as your Emergency Contact?"

Merlin flushed but didn't look away. "I don't have any family, Will'd panic and Morgana was away in Edinburgh. I forgot to change it back." He held Arthur's gaze and said, "Thank you for staying."

"No problem."

: o : o :

Merlin's friends started to arrive the following day. Freya, Gilli, Will...Percy. Arthur showed them all in to see Merlin and left them alone in the living room to give Merlin some privacy. Elena came over with her children and Arthur stayed downstairs with her to supervise the children in the pool, trying not to think about Merlin upstairs with who knew who—was Percy Mr Almond Oil?

"I bumped into Leon yesterday at the supermarket," Elena said with a rush of air. "I asked him out for a drink."

Arthur turned to her, surprised. "Oh."

"I really like him—he's such a gentleman. I mean—not that you're not, Arthur, but he's—I just—"

"Well, that's okay with me," Arthur said, knowing he had no claim on Elena and knowing he didn't want one! Actually, thinking about it, Leon and Elena were kind of perfect. "What did he say?"

Elena's face fell. "He said he couldn't because of you."

Ah Leon, always so noble. "He's a good friend. Let me give him a call." He got to his feet. "My phone is upstairs," he lied, thinking that just in case Leon was using Arthur as an excuse he didn't want to have the conversation in front of Elena.

As it turned out, no, Leon really was being that noble. "Are you sure you don't mind?" he asked for the third time. "I would never..."

"She's a great girl, Leon—but I think you know that my heart was never in it."

Arthur ended the call advising Leon to call Elena the moment he texted her number through and he stuck his head into the living room to see if Merlin needed anything.

Merlin wasn't there. Arthur's brain immediately concluded that Merlin was upstairs with Percy, and now that Arthur had seen Percy in person, the images were both arousing and sickening. Percy was possibly the most perfect male specimen Arthur had ever seen—tall, built, good looking, friendly eyes, big hands…

Arthur back out of the room, panic building in his chest as the jealousy took hold. Merlin was his. He stared at the staircase, trying to stop his legs from carrying him up it at great speed and bursting into Merlin's room.

He forced his legs in the direction of the kitchen, slamming in through the door and leaning back against it, closing his eyes. "Get a fucking grip," he told himself. "There's no such thing."

"I just want to warn you that I'm here before you talk to yourself anymore," came Merlin's voice from the corner and Arthur's eyes flew open. Merlin was at the table, the local paper discarded next to him. His eyes were rimmed with red and he was as pale as parchment.

"I was wondering where you'd got to," Arthur said. Fucking understatement!

"Actually, I was waiting for you."

Arthur stepped forwards and walked closer to Merlin. "Do you need something?"

Merlin looked at him, eyes so blue, and unfurled his long limbs from where they had been curled beneath him, dislodging the cat who had been curled up on his lap, placing his feet on the floor. "I have to go home," he said, absently scratching at the edge of his plaster cast. "I—"

"Merlin, we've had this conversation. You—"

Something flashed in Merlin's eyes. "You're such a prick you know that?" he accused, his face suffusing with colour as he jumped to his feet. "I'm going home, and while we're at it—I quit!"

Arthur reeled back. "Merlin, what on earth is the matter?"

"You, you're the fucking matter, Arthur!" Merlin stepped closer. "I thought I could do this, but I can't be around you."

"Merlin." Arthur's arms acted of their own volition in perfect co-ordination with his legs, stepping forwards and reaching out, closing his fingers around Merlin's skinny wrist. He yanked Merlin into him and crashed his lips to his, his shock turning to desire as Merlin whimpered into the kiss, parting his lips for Arthur, pressing the full length of his body against his. The blood pounded in Arthur's ears and something clicked into place. I love you. Arthur pulled back, "Merlin—"

"Shut up," Merlin said, leaning back in, and Arthur let himself be led, let Merlin curved his good hand around the globe of his arse, let him nibble his lower lip and pressing him back against the kitchen table. I love you.

It was the doorbell that roused Arthur from the heady cloud of arousal he'd been lost within. "Who the hell is that?" he groaned, stepping back. "I'm sorry…" He tore himself away, heading for the front door and yanking it open.

It was Percy. "Merlin called me back to come and fetch him," Percy said, glancing casually over Arthur's shoulder and scanning the room. "Is he ready?"

That was when Arthur noticed Merlin's rucksack next to the front door. "I'm here, Perce." Merlin appeared in the kitchen doorway behind Arthur. "Would you mind waiting in the car?"

Percy shrugged and picked up the backpack from the floor. "Don't be long," he said. "There's an almondy treat waiting for you back at yours!" With that, he hefted the bag over his should like it weighed nothing more than a bag of sugar and with a nod at Arthur, was gone.

"Are you sleeping with him?" Arthur burst out, rounding on Merlin, every inch of him aching with jealousy.

Merlin paled. "How can you ask me that? You're the king of fucking double standards aren't you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you think that because I'm a lot younger than you that I'm stupid? You think that you can just pick me up and toss me aside at your leisure and I'll just pick myself up and dust myself off again and be totally fine? You think that I can't be in love with you? That you can use me to babysit whilst you go out with your girlfriend and I'll just do as I'm told, that it doesn't kill me every second that I know you're with her?"

With perfect timing, Elena appeared from the downstairs staircase, several children hot on her heels. "There you are, Arthur, I was starting to worry!" She stood aside to let the children pass, a train of six trailing through the hall and heading upstairs. "Hello, Merlin, how are you feeling?"

Merlin's lips pursed. "Much better, thank you, Elena," he said through gritted teeth. "I have to go. Tell the kids—tell them I'm sorry."

He pushed past Arthur who, stunned, let him pass. Thirty seconds later an engine fired outside and Arthur knew it was too late.

"Oh my," Elena said. "I supposed that makes an odd kind of sense."

Arthur wasn't listening. I love you. I love you. I love you.

"Please tell me you're going after him?"

I love you.

: o : o :

Merlin lived in a two storey old terraced house near Camden, a typical late Victorian building with a bay window and stained glass above the front door. As Arthur waited for someone to answer the doorbell he took a moment to admire the front garden—it was all of six feet long and as wide as the house minus the footpath Arthur was currently standing on, but it was perfectly kept with not a weed in sight. He knew without having to ask that it was Merlin's doing.

When the front door finally opened to reveal Merlin, Arthur fell speechless. It had only been an hour since Merlin had left his house but it felt like far longer than that. Merlin's hair was sticking up at all angles and his feet were bare. "What do you want, Arthur?" he said when it became apparent that no words were about to fall from Arthur's lips.

"I—" Finally he found his voice and began to stammer like a teenager asking a girl on a first date. "C-can we talk?"

"You better come in," Merlin said, stepping back to allow Arthur to pass. He closed the door behind him and Arthur rocked back on his heels, unsure how to proceed. The front door had opened straight into a small sitting room, one sofa across the back wall, an original wrought iron fireplace in the centre. The chimney breast was flanked on each side by built in bookcases and in front of the one nearest the window was a television unit. It looked warm and cosy—loved.

"Is there anyone else here?" Arthur asked, not fancying an audience for what he was about to say.

"No, Freya and Gilli have both gone to the Karma Festival and won't be back until Monday. I—Percy didn't stay. It's just…me." Merlin ran a hand through his hair and said, "Have a seat."

Arthur sat. Merlin perched on the opposite end of the sofa and looked expectantly at Arthur. Merlin looked at him and then down at his hands, fiddled with the tiny hole in the knee on his jeans before placing crossing his arms to still nervous energy that was running through him. Arthur saw it all, saw how Merlin was trying to keep his expression neutral, how he was refusing to look at Arthur.

He saw the person he wanted to grow old with.

That scared the hell out of him and drew all of the coherency from his thought process. All he knew was that he couldn't leave here without telling Merlin the truth. He couldn't leave here without Merlin.

"I—" he began, his hands trembling with nerves. What he was about to say was the most important thing he might ever say in his whole life. Everything hinged on it. "Merlin—" But the words wouldn't come. They were stuck somewhere at the back of his throat like he was a teenage boy asking a girl out for the first time. "Screw it," he managed, moving down the cavernous space between them on the sofa and reaching for Merlin, cupping his hand around the back of Merlin's neck and pressing their lips together in the only language he seemed capable of at the present moment. Merlin resisted for a moment, his folded arms hugging his own frame like his life depended on holding himself in place, but as Arthur licked into his mouth, tasting the now familiar essence of him, Merlin relaxed beneath him and his good hand came up to card into Arthur's hair.

It was everything Arthur wanted—yet he needed to tell him, he couldn't let anything else happen between them until he'd said what he came to say—but the feel of Merlin's hands in his hair and his lips on his…the sounds of his breathing heavy in Arthur's already pounding ears. He pulled back, searching Merlin's eyes for something, anything that indicated what he was about to say would get him the response he wanted—needed. He found confusion, desire and, dare he think it, hope.

He felt spurred on to say, "I don't want to be wasting my time dating all these other people when you've been right in front of me the whole time. I don't want them, I want you." Finally he'd found the words. He could only hope that they were the right ones. Saying that out loud lifted a weight off Arthur's shoulders that he hadn't realised had been there until now.

"What about Elena?" Merlin's hand was still in Arthur's hair, twisting the downy growth nervously, and the fact that he hadn't spring away immediately bolstered Arthur's courage.

"That ended weeks ago—I should have told you, I didn't realise I hadn't." It had just been that things had been so tense between them despite them trying to pretend otherwise and they'd stopped talking.

"Who ended it?" Blue eyes fixed on his and Arthur never wanted to look away. He'd never be able to enjoy the sky or the sea again if Merlin turned him down—blue would never be the same again.

"She did—but it should have been me. I think I was hiding behind her because I couldn't face up to how I felt about you—I was scared. I've never felt like this about anyone—never knew it was possible to feel like this." He took Merlin's injured hand. "I want to be with you—but I don't just want a fling, Merlin, I want it all—and that's what scares me the most. I've got three children. I'm older than you. I'm tethered to London."

"That just sounds like a list of excuses," Merlin said. "And I don't care about any of it, Arthur. I adore your kids—I adore your cat!—I adore you. I don't give a rat's about how old you are, and—why do you think I have a problem with living in London? I've lived here my whole life and I plan on staying here. And for what it's worth, I'm not sleeping with Percy—there hasn't been anybody since I met you."

Arthur smiled. He couldn't help himself as the happiness welled up inside him and tried to burst free. "I love you," he said, surprising himself as the words spilled forth. He laughed and kissed Merlin again, leaning back and saying, "Merlin, would you do me the honour of going on a date with me?"

Merlin blinked and lowered his gaze and Arthur felt a moment of panic that he'd got it all wrong—until he smiled the smile that had caught Arthur in the first place, the one that sent his heart rate stuttering and produced a pleasant tugging sensation in his abdomen. "Finally," he said and pulled Arthur in for a kiss. "I'd like nothing more than to go on a date with you and— I love you too."

: o : o :

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