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Not In This Land Alone

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Not In This Land Alone
 
Merlin was lost.  This wasn't surprising or even unusual but today he'd had plans that specifically involved not being lost.  In exactly seventeen minutes he was starting his summer job at Buckingham Palace and being late would probably not make the best first impression.
 
Hell, being late was probably a treasonable offence.  Merlin really didn't want to be put in the Tower of London; he'd gone there on a school trip once and the ravens had terrified him. 
 
Behind Merlin, Victoria Station stood large and comforting.  If worse came to worst, he could just jump on a train back home and pretend it was some other Merlin Emrys who was supposed to be reporting for work today.  He was sure it was a very common name.
 
Except, if Merlin did that, Will would laugh at him.  And, even worse, Merlin would be stuck picking plants, watering and spreading manure on his Uncle Gaius's allotment for fifty quid a week for another summer.  It was Gaius who had suggested he apply for this job; Gaius had been the royal physician for decades and, not being above a little nepotism, Merlin had willingly applied.

Gaius, in turn, hadn't seemed particularly sad that Merlin wouldn't be around to help out this summer. In fact, Merlin was fairly sure he was planning a party for his cucumbers to celebrate. The cucumbers always died when Merlin went near them; it wasn't his fault.
 
He regretted that decision now.  Now he was lost and had – great -- thirteen minutes left.  Probably, he should have printed himself directions from Google Maps but it was a palace, in the middle of London; he'd assumed it would be pretty well visible.  He'd assumed wrong.
 
In desperation, prepared to withstand the mocking, he phoned Will.
 
"What, have they sacked you already?" was how Will answered the phone because Will was a terrible boyfriend.
 
"No," Merlin said, jumping quickly out of the way of a group of Japanese tourists who were clearly on a mission.  He wondered if he should follow them; they might be heading to the Palace.  "I'm lost."
 
Will burst out laughing and Merlin took another couple of steps after the Japanese tour party, trying not to look like he was following them.
 
"Merlin, that is priceless.  I'm buying you one of those handheld GPS things for your birthday.  Or maybe just a lead."  A moment's contemplative silence.  "Hm, that'd be kinky.  What do you think?"
 
"I think you're an arsehole," Merlin told him.  "Now please, please go on the internet and tell me where the fuck I'm supposed to be going."
 
"Calm down," Will said, still laughing, "What do you think I'm doing."
 
Okay, so maybe Will wasn't the worst boyfriend.  
 
"Thank you."
 
"Hmm.  Do you see a Buckingham Palace Road?"
 
Merlin looked around.  "Nope."  Even he would have made that connection.
 
Will laughed.  Merlin liked Will's laugh, even when it was directed at him.  It reminded him of being five years old and hiding together under his bed.  It was soothing.
 
"What can you see?"
 
Merlin looked around.  Mostly he could see a lot of roadworks and theatres.  "Billy Elliot?" he tried.  "Wicked?  Hey, you should meet me up here one evening so we can go and see that."
 
Will snorted.  "In your dreams," he said because he didn't fully appreciate the importance of Merlin's crush on Lee Mead.  "Okay, stand so Victoria Station's behind you, Wicked's on your left and Billy Elliot's in front of you."
 
Merlin twisted around, trying to line himself up like Will instructed.  It was like playing Google Maps Twister of something.  "Okay," he said, feeling like he'd achieved one thing at least.
 
"Got it?  Turn left then right then keep walking."  Will made a sound that was his spoken equivalent of a wince.  "And dude?  You've got seven minutes."
 
"Shit," Merlin said and started to run.
 

***


 
By magic, Merlin managed to get to the Palace with one minute to spare.  And when he said by magic, he actually meant by magic.  (Making a couple of traffic lights go his way wasn't the worst use of magic ever and his mum probably wouldn't yell too much if she ever found out.)

He had to go through a checkpoint manned by actual soldiers to be allowed into the Palace grounds, which was equal parts terrifying and kind of hot. The solider on duty didn't smile at Merlin, but he also didn't laugh Merlin away from the gate either so Merlin counted that as a win.

The fact that Merlin was wearing his uniform (white shirt, navy blue trousers, waistcoat and a blazer with gold buttons and red trim) probably helped - which was good, considering he'd felt like a complete twat wearing it on the Tube, like the only kid at school who didn't realise it was mufti day.

Until he was actually inside, he wasn't completely convinced that this wasn't a really bad joke on Gaius' part. Seriously, who let Merlin work in Buckingham Palace?

There was a girl waiting for him on the other side of the gate and she raised her eyebrows when he sidled up to her trying to look like someone who wasn't really-very-nearly late.
 
"Merlin Emrys?" she asked.  She looked doubtful but not mean or anything and to be fair Merlin probably wasn't giving the best first impression.
 
"Yes, hi," Merlin said breathlessly.  "Um, I mean, yes.  I'm Merlin.  Sorry I'm late."
 
The girl smiled like she was considering not writing him off as an idiot, which was nice.  She was holding a clipboard and wearing a blouse and a long, dark blue skirt; Merlin wondered if she was someone important.
 
"That's all right," she told him, marking something on her clipboard.  "I'm the person you need to report to and I won't tell anyone."  She held out her hand and he wiped his palm on his trousers before taking it.  "I'm Gwen.  I'm your supervisor."  
 
"Hi, nice to meet you," Merlin said, remembering what Gaius had said about making sure his handshake was firm but not too tight.
 
"I'm Gwen," Gwen said again then, "Oh no, wait, I've already said that, haven't I?"  She flushed.  "Sorry.  This is my first summer as a supervisor, so if I make a hash of it, please tell me."
 
"Okay," Merlin said, feeling better about his own nerves now.  "I won't hold it against you."
 
Gwen laugh was unexpectedly bright.  "I think you're supposed to tell me that I won't make a hash of it," she said.  She was still blushing, but she didn't seem to mind.  "Come on.  I have to take you to HR for your induction, then I'll get you started on some actual work."
 
"Right," Merlin said, turning to follow her across the pale, gravelled courtyard towards the entryway.  His stomach started to knot up with apprehension.  Buckingham Palace, wow. The poshest place he'd worked up 'til now was Waterstone's last Christmas.  
 
Outside, the weather was bright, just bordering on too hot, but as soon as they stepped inside the palace Merlin was hit by cool air, like the heavy stone walls were refusing to let in the summer heat.  
 
He shivered.  
 
"All right?" Gwen asked, hunching her shoulders a little.  "This is the cloakroom; it's always freezing in here.  You can leave your things in here."  She looked over at him.  "Except you don't have any things. Come with me then."
 
Merlin stopped himself from reassuring her that he really did have possessions, he just hadn't brought anything with him, and followed her through the cloakroom and along a white-walled corridor with square, boxy windows and into a fairly nondescript office with four desks pushed together into a pod in the middle.

There was only one person in the room, a girl not much older than Merlin who smiled and stood up, shaking his hand and waving him into a seat.

"I'm Freya," she said, "Have a seat."

Merlin sat and nodded at fire regulations, disciplinary procedures and signed data protection forms, confidentiality and security forms until his hand felt like it might fall off.

Apparently he really might end up in the Tower if he wasn't careful.

Once Gwen and Freya were suitably satisfied that he'd been inducted to within an inch of his life and possibly signed away his soul, Gwen swept him out of the room and back along the corridor until they stepped out into what was obviously a public area, judging by the ridiculously huge, double-staircase, which glittered and shone like something out of Titanic.
 
Half way up the stairs, Gwen stopped and curtsied.  
 
Merlin straightened automatically, but when he looked around, he couldn't see anyone.
 
"Um, Gwen?" he asked.
 
"It's silly really," she said, offering him an embarrassed smile.  "We all do it, it's tradition."  She nodded her head at the painting directly in front of them and oh, right, Merlin got it.
 
The painting was huge, a large, dark square inside a heavy, golden frame; King Uther standing in front of a window somewhere, dressed in a smart black morning suit with a golden labrador at his feet.  
 
"Did you know him?" Merlin asked, automatically lowering his voice.  King Uther had been dead for nearly a year now, but he was still the person who came to mind when Merlin heard someone mention the King.
 
Gwen looked at the painting for another moment then turned back to Merlin.  "No, of course not.  I mean, I met him a couple of times when I was a kid; my dad's worked at the Mews all my life. He got the MBE last year."
 
"Cool," Merlin said, not really sure what else to say.
 
Gwen nodded awkwardly for a second then started up the stairs again.  
 
Merlin followed her and told himself he shouldn't ask her anything else, except he'd always been nosy and really bad at controlling it.  "Do you know the new king?" he asked.
 
"Hmm?" Gwen asked, pushing through a door at the top of the stairs and heading down another corridor.  The further through the palace they went, the more elaborate the wallpaper and paintwork became.  "Oh, yes.  I mean, only a little."
 
Merlin forced himself not to ask anything else.  It wasn't like King Arthur was actually going to be at Buckingham Palace this summer anyway and he really had no excuse for being curious about him.  
 
Arthur was the youngest monarch since Queen Victoria.  It had only been nine months since King Uther's heart attack and Merlin still remembered everyone's shock, Arthur looking stoic and beautiful and devastated behind the coffin.  
 
Arthur had been twenty and just starting his final year at university. He'd come home for the funeral and never gone back; apparently a degree in Politics wasn't as important as the actual politics of being King.
 
Still, Will and half the national newspapers were convinced that King Arthur did little more than sit around looking handsome on stamps while advisers like Lord Monmouth and the Prime Minister told him where to go and what to say.  Merlin didn't really care one way or the other, but it was strange to have a king who was barely older than him and it made him a little bit curious.
 
"Where are we going?" he asked Gwen instead.  They stepped through an open doorway and Merlin stopped, feeling his eyes grow wide.  They were in a massive, dome-ceilinged room with wood-panelled floors, dark blue marbled columns against each wall and heavy red curtains over the many long windows.  There was a piano toward one end and a couple of sofas towards the other but otherwise the room was completely empty.  
 
"Wow," Merlin said before he remembered that he'd been planning to play it cool.
 
"I know, right?" Gwen said, catching his eye.  "This is the Music Room.  I'm going to give you a tour of the public rooms first, okay?"  
 
"Okay," Merlin agreed.  That sounded pretty cool.  "Then what?"
 
Gwen laughed.  It was the sort of laugh his mum gave him just before she told him ominously that he'd see.  "Then I'm going to give you some work to do."
 
"All right," Merlin repeated, feeling slightly more dubious now.
 
Gwen patted him on the shoulder.  "You'll be fine. Now, follow me."

She took him on a whistle-stop tour of all the rooms that were open to the public, rattling off enough facts and figures and history that Merlin's head started to spin. By the time they'd made their way around to the top of the staircase above the visitor's entrance, Merlin felt like he knew more about Buckingham Palace than he'd known for any of his A-levels even.

Gwen grinned at his probably fairly dazed expression. "I'm going to send you home with an information guide," she told him in what was probably supposed to be a reassuring voice. "Don't worry, I won't make you take anyone on a tour until you can quote it from cover to cover."

Merlin just nodded. It looked like his nights were going to be busy for a while; hopefully Will wouldn't mind entertaining himself.

Gwen waved her hand in front of his face. "Have I killed you?" she asked, half teasing, half worried.

Merlin shook his head and found a smile from somewhere. "Just a bit overwhelmed," he told her.

"Okay, well, see this booth?" It was more a desk than a booth, pushed toward one wall out of the way of the stairs, "This is where we give out the audio guides. It's a nice and easy way to get you started. Just stand here and give people a guide in the right language, okay?"

Once she'd got him set up and fairly confident that he knew what he was doing, she patted him on the shoulder and told him she had to go and see to the rest of his team. Apparently he had a team. That was nice.

Gwen took a couple of steps back, still smiling at him encouragingly.  Half way out of the room, she stuck her head back in.  "Oh, I forgot.  If any of the tourists ask you about anything like what King Arthur wears to bed, be polite but don't answer them.  He hates it when they ask that."
 
Merlin blinked at her.  "Wait, what?" he asked, but she'd already walked away, her heels clacking on the floorboards.  "Gwen?" he called again, louder.  He was probably going to bring down the monarchy singlehandedly, shit. 
 

***


 
Arthur was dreaming about bananas when someone started shaking his arm and shouting in his ear.  Normally, he wouldn't mind being woken up but the bananas were being peeled by the new Doctor Who and it was very, very obvious that banana represented something else entirely to Arthur's subconscious.
 
"Go away," Arthur muttered and rolled over onto his stomach.  He wrapped an arm around his pillow and tried to drown out the yelling.
 
Wait, yelling?  He opened his eyes.  
 
Morgana was standing over him, her hair a mess and her eyes huge.  
 
"Arthur," she snapped, shaking him again.
 
He slapped at her, but he was mostly asleep and distracted by phallic symbolism so he missed.  "Eugh, go away," he said.  "I'm sure I told Lance to shoot you on sight."
 
Morgana stepped back and planted her hands on her hips.  It looked ridiculous since she was wearing pyjama shorts, a strappy top and the ugly fluffy bear slippers Arthur's father had bought her the Christmas before last.  
 
"You are going to regret that joke in a minute," Morgana told him and Arthur was just about to assure her that no, he really wasn't, when he registered the slight tremor in her voice.
 
"What's going on?" he asked, sitting up and swinging his legs out of bed.  Belatedly, he realised that he was only wearing boxers and he ignored Morgana's eye roll when he reached down to the foot of the bed for his dressing gown.  Modesty was a good thing.
 
"There was a fire at Gråsten Castle," Morgana told him.  
 
Arthur blinked.  That wasn't what he had expected her to say.  He went days at a time without thinking about the Danish monarchy -- which was probably a little shameful considering he was related to half of them.
 
"Fuck," Arthur said, sitting back down on the bed.  "Is the Queen okay?  And Morgause?" he added because he knew who Morgana would be most worried about.
 
Morgana nodded.  She pulled her hair out of its ponytail then tied it up again, hair scraped back tightly.  "Aunt Margrethe is in hospital but apparently that's just a precaution."  She sat on the bed next to Arthur and pulled her feet up onto the duvet.  "Morgause sounded--" She laughed.  "Well, you know Morgause.  She sounded like she would be scared if she weren't, you know, Morgause."
 
Arthur nodded.  He knew.  Morgana's cousin was scary in ways that Morgana only wished she could be.  But he knew Morgana adored her, so he didn't have to think before he said, "Feel free to invite her to visit if she needs to get away."
 
Morgana slanted a smile at him.  "I already have," she said.  Of course, she had.  "But thank you, Arthur." 
 
Arthur shrugged.  It wasn't as if he could fly to Denmark and help them rebuild their castle; inviting one of their random princesses over to England was the most help he could offer.

He watched her leave the room, message delivered, and wondered if he should possibly say something reassuring. Morgana cared about people in ways that Arthur only understood abstractly; she was probably more upset about her aunt being in hospital than she was letting on.

He let her go though, because he had no what she could possibly want him to say.
 
Later, after he'd showered and dressed and deliberated for a while between Cornflakes and Cheerios for breakfast (Arthur had insisted he be allowed his own kitchen when he moved into Buckingham Palace because, even with hoards of kitchen staff, they still succeeded in making his breakfast incorrectly), Geoffrey Monmouth bustled his way into Arthur's kitchen.
 
"Your Majesty," he said with a formal little bow.  Arthur wished he wouldn't do that; he'd known Geoffrey since before he could talk. "I assume the Lady Morgana has told you the news."
 
"About Gråsten?" Arthur asked, nodding his head at the coffee maker on the kitchen counter.  Geoffrey, of course, ignored it.  He never ate or drank in front of Arthur; it was as if he wanted Arthur to believe he was a robot.
 
Geoffrey shook his head.  "Terrible, terrible.  It reminds me of our own fire.  Your father was simply distraught."
 
"Of course," Arthur agreed blandly.  He'd been three years old when Windsor Castle had come close to burning down and he remembered very little about it.  He definitely had no memory of his father being distraught.   Disdainful , possibly, that someone had left a spotlight shining on a curtain and nearly destroyed a thousand year old castle, but that was all.  Of course, Geoffrey's memories of Uther always tended toward the poetic.
 
"You'll need to issue a formal statement, of course," Geoffrey told him, "And offer any help we can give."
 
"Yes, of course," Arthur said, refraining from rolling his eyes.  Sometimes he wondered if Geoffrey honestly thought Arthur was as clueless as he seemed to.  "Morgana informs me that Princess Morgause may pay us a visit."
 
"I see."  Geoffrey's lips pursed, but he didn't say what he really thought.  Not that Arthur needed to push him.  Geoffrey's thoughts on Morgause were simple: she was too liberal, too progressive, that the Danish monarchy would fall if left to her.  Arthur had heard it a dozen times from his father while Morgana quietly seethed at the other end of the dining table; he had no desire to hear it from Geoffrey as well.
 
"Is that all, Geoffrey?" Arthur asked, flipping open his copy of The Times and spreading it across the breakfast table.  
 
There was a pause and then, "Yes, sir, that's all."  
 
Arthur kept his eyes on the newspaper, not taking in a word until Geoffrey had left, closing the door a touch too loudly behind himself, then he blew out a breath and stood up.  
 
"It's all right, he's gone," Arthur told the room.
 
A moment later, the long portrait of Random Noblewoman on Horse, whose name Arthur didn't know but to whom he was probably related in some distant way, that hung beside the fireplace swung back and Morgana stepped back into the room.  

Buckingham Palace didn't have as many secret passages as some of the older castles but it did have more than a few nooks and crannies and false walls which only few people knew about.  Arthur wasn't sure if he and Morgana had discovered them all but they'd been looking on and off throughout their lives.  
 
"Thank god for that," Morgana said fervently, brushing dust off her jumper.  "I can't stand that man."
 
"Morgana," Arthur said because they'd had this argument nearly every day and all it achieved was to make Arthur tired and Morgana disheartened.  "I'm not sacking him."
 
Morgana opened then closed her mouth, derailed by Arthur jumping straight to point five of her argument instead of following the usual pattern.  "He treats you as if you're five years old."  
 
Arthur shrugged.  "Yes, but he knows what he's doing.  He was my father's advisor for forty years.  He knows much more about the King's duties than I do." 
 
Morgana just stared at him.  "Bullshit," she said finally, slowly, like she couldn't believe what she'd just heard.  "That is absolute bullshit."  She held up her hand before Arthur could try to argue.  "No, don't speak to me until you've come to your senses." 
 
Arthur watched, bemused, as she dropped down onto the sofa at the far end of the room, picked her book up off the coffee table and started to pointedly ignore him.
 
Arthur sighed.  He was the King for goodness sake, surely someone should at least pretend to like him.
 

***


 
Overall, Merlin's first day at work did not go too horribly.  

After he'd finished handing out audio guides, there'd been the job of collecting them all back in again. Half of them were handed in covered in chocolate, chewing gum or with the headphone cords contorted into amazing, improbable shapes (it had taken him a good hour to sort them out, but Gwen's smile had been so apologetic and genuine that he hadn't really minded).

Then there had been a lot of standing around, pointing lost tourists in the right direction (and then checking with someone who had worked there longer that it actually was the right direction) and an incredible amount of being approachable and friendly. 
 
Merlin had never had a problem with being friendly and he found he rather enjoyed it.
 
Still, he was completely exhausted by the time six o'clock rolled around and Gwen told him and the other wardens that they were free to go.

"We usually head to the pub after work," Gwen said, falling into step beside him, "Do you fancy it?" She stopped, looking at him closely.

Merlin hesitated. He felt like he should, but he couldn't stop yawning. "Maybe next time?" he said, "I think my boyfriend's expecting me home." Better to blame Will than his own pathetic ability to work a nine hour day.
 
"Oh," Gwen said then, brightly, "Coming back tomorrow?"
 
Merlin rolled his shoulders.  He'd done a lot of stooping today and his back hurt.  He flashed Gwen a grin.  "It takes much more than that to put me off," he said.  
 
"Excellent," she said enthusiastically.  She clapped her hands then blushed and stuck them in her pockets.  "Sorry.  I was just-- I was really worried that I might scare you off, you know?  I've never been responsible for anyone else's employment happiness before.  Not that I thought you were some kind of wilting flower or anything. Um."
 
Merlin couldn't help laughing.  He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth in the vague hope that she wouldn't notice.  "I was worried that I might screw something up and bring about the downfall of the monarchy," he offered.
 
It was Gwen's turn to laugh.  She bumped her shoulder lightly against his arm.  "I think we're both going to be fine," she said.  They'd reached the door and she stopped.  "Now go home, you look dead on your feet."
 

***


 
Will was sprawled on his stomach across the sofa when Merlin let himself into their flat.  He had a newspaper spread out on the carpet and was leaning down to read it, making faces at whatever he was reading.  
 
He twisted around when he heard Merlin come in, asking, "So how was it?" in a tone that implied he was expecting Merlin to say he'd nearly been beheaded by Beefeaters or something.
 
"Good," Merlin told him.  The Tube had been gross and too hot on the journey home and his uniform was sticking to him.  He started peeling it off, laying each piece over the back of the sofa until he was only wearing his boxers and a t-shirt.  Much better.
 
Will tipped his head back so far he nearly fell off the sofa.  "Promising," he mused.
 
Merlin flipped him off and flopped down in the ratty arm chair that sat at right angles to the sofa.  There wasn't really enough room in their living room for a sofa and an armchair, but Will liked to take up all the sofa and Merlin had argued that he deserved somewhere to sit too.
 
"That's a no then?" Will asked, sounding like he was laughing.
 
Merlin cracked open one eye.  "Hmm?"  He felt his eyes start to close again and didn't fight it. 
 
"You stripped for me but you're not putting out.  That is so sad."  
 
Merlin felt something tug at his feet and he kicked out automatically, but it was only Will, pulling off Merlin's socks.
 
"Later?" Merlin asked, smiling in what he hoped was roughly the right direction.  "Or you could make me dinner."
 
Will sighed.  "Is this how it's going to be now that you're a working man?  Coming home and expecting me to have your dinner on the table?"
 
"Mm," Merlin agreed, letting his head drop back against the chair and falling asleep to Will's grumbling.  
 
He woke up in time to have some reheated Chinese takeaway, which didn't count as Will cooking him dinner no matter what Will insisted, then rubbed at his eyes and tried to wake up a little more.  
 
"Sorry," he said, dragging himself to the kitchen where Will was throwing their takeaway containers into the bin, "I'm being boring, aren't I?"
 
Will shrugged and flicked a cardboard lid in Merlin's direction.  "You're just not used to working for a living," said Will, with all the worldliness of someone who'd worked part-time at KFC since sixth form and was now spending the summer making telemarketing calls from their flat.  
 
Merlin leant back against the work surface and tried to decide if he had the energy to argue that he'd worked for his living before - which he absolutely had, Gaius was a hard taskmaster - when his gaze fell on the piece of paper they'd torn out of the local paper and stuck on the fridge.  Cinema listings.  Shit.  They'd been planning all week to go and see Toy Story 3 tonight.  
 
"We could still go to the cinema," he said, feeling guilty and trying to sound like he hadn't forgotten all about it.  
 
Will just rolled his eyes. "Yeah, everyone else in the cinema would love trying to listen over the sounds of you snoring."  He glared which, weirdly, made Merlin feel better.  Will's glares normally meant he was teasing.  It was when his face closed down completely that Merlin knew he was in trouble.
 
He shuffled over to Will on his bare feet and propped his chin on Will's shoulder, trying to look contrite.  
 
Will shrugged but not hard enough to knock him off.  "You're useless, you know that?"
 
"Yes?" Merlin said, trying to get out of Will's bad books by not even defending himself.  
 
Will sighed and poked Merlin in the side.  "Come on then, your highness, the royal chambers are this way."
 
Merlin tried to smack Will's arm, but missed.  He let himself be poked and prodded into their tiny bathroom to clean his teeth then on into the bedroom where he collapsed face first onto his side of the bed.  The bed felt wonderful; he really was stupidly tired.  He made grabby hand motions at Will because he was too tired to ask if he was coming to bed yet.
 
The mattress dipped as Will climbed under the other side of the duvet.  He reached over and put his hand on Merlin's chest.  They never really snuggled, but it was nice to know there was someone else there.  
 
"So useless," Will said again.  
 
Merlin smiled, secure in the knowledge that Will didn't really mind.
 

***


 
Morgause called Morgana at ten in the morning, three days after the fire, to let her know she'd be arriving in London that evening. Morgana practically bounced out of her chair and Arthur smiled; he hadn't seen Morgana that animated about anything in a while.  
 
At least that meant she wouldn't miss him at all this summer, Arthur thought feeling his smile fade, leaving Morgana to her conversation and retiring to his study to read the latest plans for his royal tour of Australia and New Zealand.  
 
It would be Arthur's first royal trip since he came to the throne and there had been some talk that it should wait until his coronation but Arthur had been King for nine months now and he and the Prime Minister had agreed that people expected to see him out and about.  (It was so rare for anyone to actually agree with Arthur that he'd half expected there must be some catch. So far, none had shown up.)

As far as Arthur was concerned, the trip couldn't come quickly enough; the official court mourning period for King Uther had lasted six months, but unofficially it was dragging on and on.  Arthur needed to get away, be somewhere where every other word out of people's mouths wasn't, "Your father," or "tragically young," or "terrible accident".
 
Arthur shook his head, trying not to think about that.  He forced himself to concentrate on the happy cadence of Morgana's voice coming through the open doorway.
 
"Morgana," Arthur called toward the living room. "What are the chances that when I get back, you and Morgause will have staged a coup and taken the throne for yourselves?"
 
Morgana popped her head around the doorframe, her mobile still against her ear.  He smile was slow and not at all reassuring.  "Oh, I'd say about fifty-fifty," she said breezily.  
 
Arthur nodded to himself, pulling the first file out of his in tray.  That was about what he had expected.
 
He flipped the file open, blinked and smacked it closed again.
 
Bastards.
 
"Arthur?" Morgana asked, adding, "I'll call you back," into the phone and flipping it closed, stepping forward.  "Arthur, what?"
 
"They cancelled the fucking trip," Arthur said and reached for his desk phone.
 
Speed dial one would give him Geoffrey, speed dial two would give him the Prime Minister, speed dials three to infinity would give him any number of advisors, politicians and PR people, none of whom had bothered to inform him that they'd gone behind his back to cancel the one thing he'd been looking forward to in months.
 
He slammed the phone back into its cradle and picked up his mobile instead.  
 
"Lance," he snapped when his call was answered on the second ring.  "Come to the study.  Now."
 
He hung up before Lance could answer because Lance was the only person who worked for Arthur who Arthur could actually trust to do as he was asked.
 
"Arthur," Morgana said again.  She'd stolen the folder off his desk and was now watching him closely over the top of it.  "No one warned you about this?"
 
The door to Arthur's private rooms slammed open and Arthur listened to feet pound down the carpeted hallway.  
 
"Arthur?" Lance asked then pulled up short, hand falling from the Glock at his hip.  He cleared his throat.  "Your Majesty.  My Lady."
 
Morgana laughed.  "'My Lady', Lance, seriously?" she asked.  "And don't worry about Arthur, he's just being pissy."
 
Arthur opened his mouth to protest that.  Morgana had seemed rattled on his behalf less than a minute ago.  Then he saw the look in her eyes and realised she was protecting him.  It seemed ridiculous to try to protect his reputation from Lance, who had been on his security detail since he'd started at Durham, nearly two years ago now.  
 
"Yes, I'm sorry," Arthur said, standing up.  He took the folder from Morgana and handed it to Lance.  "Read this."
 
Lance's eyes barely skimmed over it, which told Arthur all he needed to know.
 
"You already knew," he said.
 
Lance held the folder in front of himself like a floppy, manila shield.  "It was mentioned at the security briefing this morning," he agreed.  "I didn't realise you didn't know."
 
Arthur made a wordless noise of frustration.  "No, well." He bit his tongue before he could snap that he was only the King around here, why should he know what was going on. "You wouldn't happen to know why, would you?" he asked in the calmest, most measured tone he could manage.
 
Since Lance's worried frown didn't abate, Arthur reckoned his most measured tone was probably not all that reassuring.  
 
"There are security concerns," Lance told him, dragging the words out like he didn't really want to say them.
 
"Security concerns?" Arthur scoffed.  "We're talking Australia here, not Afghanistan."
 
Lance didn't smile.  
 
Arthur frowned.  "Is something going on?"
 
Lance's, "No, of course not," came too quickly and too jovially.  Lance was a terrible liar; mostly because he didn't believe in lying.
 
Arthur planted his hands on his hips.  "Lancelot," he said sternly, drawing himself up so he could take advantage of the half an inch he had on Lance.  "Let me repeat: is something going on?"
 
"Ooh, very kingly," Morgana said lightly, bursting Arthur's bubble somewhat.  She drifted further into the room and sat down at Arthur's desk, waving a hand between them.  "Why don't you tie him to the rack?  I've heard that works wonders."  
 
Arthur glared at her before switching his glare back to Lance.  "If something is happening, I need to be aware of it."
 
"Of course," Lance agreed, "And I promise to make you aware of anything you need to know about," which was not at all the same thing, but Arthur suspected it was as good as he was going to get.  
 
"Fine," he said crossly.  He hated having to back down, but he had such little leverage that he had to pick his battles with great care and, as much as he wanted to take this trip, it probably wasn't a battle worth winning if it meant losing a more important one in the future.  Arthur smiled ruefully to himself; his father would have been so proud if he'd been alive to see Arthur learn that lesson.
 
"Is that all?" Lance asked awkwardly.  Normally, he'd stay for a cup of coffee but Arthur didn't feel like inviting him and Lance clearly wanted to get back to his desk outside Arthur's rooms.  
 
Arthur sighed and sat down on the window-seat.  "Yes, that's all," he said because as much as he wanted to pin Lance down and demand that he tell Arthur the truth, Lance was one of the few people around him who he genuinely trusted and he didn't want to ruin that.
 
Lance hesitated as if he wanted to say more, but eventually he left without another word.
 
Once the door had closed behind him, Arthur looked up and caught Morgana's eye.
 
"Something's going on," he said.
 
She nodded.  "Yes." She kicked her foot idly against the leg of Arthur's desk.  "But then there's often something going on, isn't there?  It's probably just another death threat."
 
"Well thank you, Morgana," Arthur said archly.  "I feel so much better now."  
 
"Hm, yes," Morgana hummed, "It does rather put a dampener on your holiday plans, doesn't it?" Arthur suspected that she was deliberately missing his point but he was distracted by the realisation that he now had no idea what to do for the next three months.
 
He forced himself to put his anger and frustration out of his mind for now. "I suppose we could go to Balmoral," he said slowly, not exactly enamoured by that idea.  His father had always summered at their castle in Scotland but Arthur's interest in hunting and fishing was very low.  Which was to say, zero.
 
Morgana shook her head at him.  "No, Arthur.  Your father spent his summers there because he hated hot weather.  And people," she said, not too unkindly.  "You're young.  You should be spending your summer with people, not holed away in Scotland, failing to hunt any deer and contemplating smoking a pipe."
 
"I was not going to--"
 
"Oh, please," she interrupted, "Every year we go up there, you get bored after a fortnight and start following the ghillie around like you want to mug them for their pipes and sporrans." 
 
"I have never mugged a man for his sporran," Arthur said indignantly.  Then he stopped and rewound that sentence.  "Is it me, or does that sound terribly dirty?"
 
Morgana's laugh rippled loudly around the room, and Arthur felt something unclench inside; at least he was good for something even if he apparently couldn't be trusted to know why he couldn't go to Australia.
 

***


 
By the end of Merlin's first week at Buckingham Palace, he felt more confident in what he was doing and Gwen was pleased enough with his progress that she was letting him branch out into some of the other roles, like ticket collecting and welcoming visitors.  Plus he'd stopped falling asleep the second he got home, which was a relief for him and Will.  
 
Now it was Friday night, just before six p.m. and Merlin was looking forward to the weekend.  He had one more mirror to polish and a quick glance around showed that he was alone in the room.
 
He flicked his fingers and the duster floated up from the table and started to polish the tall mirror that was screwed to the wall above it a lot more thoroughly than Merlin would have managed.  
 
He smiled and turned to put the can of polish back into his bag.  A soft creaking sound stopped him and he straightened with a jerk, prepared to grab the duster and swear blind that he'd been holding it all along.  But it wasn't Gwen come to check up on him, it was the whole wall, antique table, massive glass mirror and all, swinging out toward him.
 
Horrified, Merlin dived to catch it, not sure how the tiny little cleaning spell he was using could have gone so disastrously wrong.  Except--
 
The wall kept swinging outward, revealing a dark, shadowy passageway behind it and King Arthur staring at Merlin in surprise.
 
Merlin wondered dizzily what had been in that can of polish.
 
"Oh," said Merlin's King Arthur hallucination, "Hello. I didn't realise anyone would still be here."
 
Merlin continued to stare, possibly open-mouthed, at the King Arthur hallucination, which he was beginning to suspect might not be a hallucination at all.
 
The King Arthur hallu- oh, who was he kidding?  King Arthur (King fucking Arthur) frowned at him.  "Can you speak?"
 
"Um," Merlin squeaked.  "Yes?"
 
"Your Majesty," King Arthur said.
 
"Uh, what?"  Had he mistaken Merlin for someone else?  That would be embarrassing.
 
"You address me as Your Majesty the first time you speak to me during a conversation and as 'sir' from then on."
 
"Oh, okay, right."  Merlin shifted, feeling kind of stupid but really, it wasn't like anyone had taught him that at school or anything and Gwen had assured him there was no chance of him actually running into anyone royal.  King Arthur raised his eyebrows and great, now Merlin was blushing.  "Your Majesty," he added quickly.
 
King Arthur nodded.  "Better."  He stepped forward, and took a seat on the windowsill, staring intently out into the grounds.  Merlin tamped down a ridiculous impulse to tell him he wasn't allowed to sit there; this place belonged to him, he could probably sit on the windowsill if he wanted to.
 
He was wearing smart black jeans and a neatly pressed white polo shirt and he looked so much like a regular - albeit incredibly handsome - guy that Merlin really didn't know what to do.
 
Merlin stayed on the safe side of the thick, red rope which kept the plebs off the lush, expensive carpets, not quite sure if he should go or stay.  He had a feeling that he needed to be dismissed, but maybe that was only in the olden days?
 
"You're hovering," King Arthur said without looking up at Merlin.
 
"Yes," Merlin said, "Uh, no? Sir?"
 
King Arthur sighed.  "Do go away."
 
Merlin went.  
 

***


 
Merlin still felt dazed by the time he arrived home.  He could feel himself blinking stupidly but couldn't work out how to stop.  He kept pinching himself, but all he got from that was a nice line of reddish bruises: he was definitely awake and he'd definitely had a -- rather awkward -- conversation with King Arthur.
 
"Are you okay, there?" Will asked, kicking Merlin's ankle under the table. He clicked his fingers in front of Merlin's face.  "Hey!"
 
Merlin jumped.  "What?  Sorry?"
 
Will sighed and shook his head.  "Come on, we're going to the pub.  You look like you need it."
 
Merlin looked at him.  Alcohol, yes, that was what he needed.  "Yes," he agreed, grabbing Will's arm desperately enough that Will laughed at him most of the way to the pub.
 

***


 
After Merlin's unexpected – and slightly mentally scarring – meeting with King Arthur, he took to peering cautiously into rooms before entering them.  This earned him a lot of funny looks from the other staff and led to a couple of the tourists mimicking him, presumably thinking it was some kind of tradition (which was wrong, but also hilarious).
 
This went on for four full days, but by the time Friday rolled around again, Merlin had grown confident that there would be no more unexpected kings in his future and started walking into rooms the normal way again.
 
Which explained why Merlin was completely unprepared to enter the Ballroom after the last of the tourists had left for the day and find King Arthur leaning comfortably against one of the plush, red seats lining the room, reading a book and tapping a pencil against it.
 
Merlin was very proud of himself for not jumping this time.  Now, if he could just avoid stuttering or falling over his shoelaces or anything, he'd be doing fine.
 
"Good evening," he said politely, adding in what he hoped was a casual, not at all delighted-to-have-remembered way, "Your Majesty."
 
King Arthur turned to face him very slowly.  He fixed Merlin with an expressionless stare.  His eyes were very blue, and not at all warm or reassuring.
 
Merlin raised a hand and waved awkwardly.  "Hi?"
 
King Arthur sighed gustily and put down his book.  "What was your name?" he asked, standing up and walking down to floor level, stopping about five feet away from Merlin.  Five feet was still rather close for someone who Merlin was used to seeing exclusively on his TV.  
 
"Merlin, sir."  He was totally getting this right.  
 
King Arthur's lips quirked.  "Well, Merlin.  Allow me to give you a lesson in protocol.  Or should that be another lesson in protocol?"
 
Right, Merlin thought, so it turned out that King Arthur was kind of a prat.  That was nice to know.  He wondered if he could tell the Daily Mirror and make a fortune.
 
"Pardon?  Sir."
 
"You do not speak to me first; you wait for me to acknowledge you.  Assuming that I choose to acknowledge you at all, of course."  His lips stretched wider into a mocking smile.  "All right?"
 
"So if you don't speak to me I have to what?  Just ignore you?" Merlin was tired of adding 'sirs' to everything; he wasn't a serf and he didn't have any forelocks to tug.  
 
"No," King Arthur said, like he was talking to an idiot.  "If I do not acknowledge you, you leave the room quickly and quietly and you stop disturbing me."
 
"Um," Merlin said.  Was it okay to argue with a King?  Did Merlin actually care?  "I sort of need to be in here?  For my job?"
 
"Were those questions or statements?" King Prat asked.
 
"Are you deliberately trying to be an arsehole?" Merlin asked then bit his tongue.  Oops, okay, that had been maybe ruder than he'd meant to be.  "Um, I mean-."
 
Arthur's expression was somewhere between stunned and bemused.  "You mean-?" he prompted.
 
"Nothing," Merlin said.  He really didn't want to lose this job.
 
Arthur nodded.  "Quite right," he agreed.  "Now if you'll excuse me."  He walked back up to his previous seat, hooked his long legs over the chair in front and went back to reading his book.
 
Merlin stood staring up at him for a couple of minutes, dumbfounded.  He wasn't sure if he'd won that round or not.  Still, Arthur had acknowledged him, even if it was just to talk down to him and be a bastard so under the crazy rules he lived by, that probably meant that Merlin was allowed to get on with tidying the room.  Probably.  Possibly.  He decided to do it anyway, because Gwen hadn't told him what to do if he happened to chance upon the bloody King but she had told him to dust the Ballroom.
 
"I'll just be--" he said, pointing across the room.
 
Arthur ignored him.
 
Right, Merlin thought, charming.  He knelt down on the thick red carpet and started to chip chewing gum off one of the cornices - it was completely disgusting and Merlin didn't know what went on in some people's brains to make them think that was okay.  Still, it was coming off fairly easily. Obviously, it would have been even easier if he could have used magic, but that probably wasn't the best idea, what with Arthur sitting ten metres away.  
 
Someone cleared their throat right above him.
 
Or, shit, with Arthur standing two feet away.  
 
"Um, hi," Merlin said, swivelling around.  He was vaguely sure that he should stand up and that somewhere his mother was having a fit at his lack of protocol, but he'd just sat down and Arthur hadn't actually done anything to make Merlin want to show him any respect.
 
Arthur just looked at him for a minute.  "Your scraping is very loud," he said, "I'm trying to concentrate."
 
"On what?" Merlin asked.  His eyes fell on the book Arthur was holding against his thigh.  "The Strange History of Buckingham Palace?" he read, frowning.  "Shouldn't you know all that already?"
 
Arthur twitched and the book disappeared behind his back.  "I'm researching," he said then his jaw set crossly, like he hadn't meant to answer Merlin at all.  "And your insolence is not charming."
 
"Everything about me is charming," Merlin told him with his brightest grin, because it wasn't as if Arthur didn't already dislike him.
 
"Oh for goodness' sake," Arthur said, rolling his eyes and stomping away.  Merlin was secretly delighted; he'd got an eyeroll and a stomp, that was definitely an achievement. 
 

***


 
"Honestly," Arthur said, storming back into his private rooms.  "Where do we find our employees these days?"
 
There was no one in the room, so no one replied.  
 
Arthur sighed and dropped down onto the sofa.  "Lance?" he called.
 
Lance stuck his head around the doorway.  "Your Majesty?"
 
"Where are Morgana and Morgause?"  Morgause had been in England for a week and he'd barely seen Morgana.
 
Lance's hand lifted toward the radio in his pocket.  "I could find out," he offered, meaning he could radio Morgana's security.
 
Arthur shook his head.  "God, no, don't do that.  I don't want her to think I'm checking up on her."  Aglain, the detective in charge of Morgana's security, told her everything.
 
Lance sucked in his cheeks like he was biting them to keep from laughing.  Arthur hated him.  "I hate you," he said.  
 
Lance nodded.  "I know."
 
Arthur sighed.  "You're terrible.  All my staff are terrible.  There's a boy rubbing holes in the wall in the Ballroom because he hasn't mastered the basic skill of dusting and he didn't show me any respect at all when I went over to helpfully point this out."
 
Morgana would have laughed at him and normally so would Lance.  Arthur wasn't very good at making friends, but he could make people laugh if he was pompous enough.  
 
Lance didn't laugh though.  In fact, his face set into the most serious expression Arthur had even seen on it -- which was saying something since Lance was almost always serious.  
 
"Why were you in the Ballroom?" he asked and there was an edge to his tone that made Arthur sit up straight.
 
"Because I wanted to be?" Arthur said slowly, since he could hardly say I was seeing how many ways a terrorist could get in to try to kill me. Well, he could say that, but he didn't want to just yet.
 
"For fuck's sake, Arthur," and now Lance was genuinely angry.  Arthur had never seen that.  "You can't just go wandering off around the public rooms.  You know better than that."
 
"It was after hours," Arthur said, automatically objecting to being treated like a child, "And you know how carefully palace security checks that all the tourists are gone.  There was no danger."
 
"How do you know?" Lance snapped.  His voice rose at the end of the sentence and he stepped back, took a deep breath and visibly calmed himself. "Sorry, I'm sorry.  I shouldn't have shouted."  He sat down on the sofa beside Arthur.  "This guy who you met, do you know anything about him?  He could have been anyone."
 
"They do security checks on all employees," Arthur said stubbornly.  He frowned.  "You do security checks on all employees."
 
Lance's mouth twitched, just a little, like he might be contemplating smiling.  "Point," he admitted.  He sighed and turned until he was facing Arthur more fully.  "Please be more careful."
 
Arthur nodded.  It was a strange feeling, to have someone this worried about him.  Of course, Lance was probably mostly worried about the repercussions to his career if he let Arthur get murdered, not about Arthur himself.
 
"Lance," he said, before Lance could draw back into his Professional Bodyguard demeanour.  "Something is going on, isn't it?  Have there been more threats?"
 
"There are always threats," Lance said, starting to stand up.  
 
Arthur put a hand on Lance's arm to stop him going, then withdrew it immediately.  Arthur didn't touch people.  "Ones that you're worried about."
 
Lance looked at him hard and for a moment Arthur thought he might actually get to hear the truth.  Then, "No," Lance said, shaking his head.  "I'm not worried."
 
That was such a blatant and obvious lie that Arthur was too busy being disappointed to tell him not to leave.  

Once Arthur was alone again, he picked up his book and flipped it open to the right page.  If no one was going to tell him what was going on then Arthur was going to keep searching for ways to fortify the Palace.  No one could stop him from doing that, at least.
 

***


 
"Did you get me a Metro?" was the first thing Will said when Merlin arrived home.
 
"Oh no, I forgot," Merlin deadpanned, pulling today's copy of the paper out of his bag and flinging it at Will's head.  He made himself look like a freak every day accepting every free paper thrust at him because he knew how much Will liked them.
 
"Oi, this is quality journalism."
 
Merlin laughed.  "You're just still sore that they scrapped thelondonpaper."  
 
Will clapped a hand to his chest.  "Merlin, c'mon, show some respect.  We're still in mourning."
 
Merlin rolled his eyes and walked into the kitchen, coming out with a glass of water and picking the remote up from Will's knee so he could flick to More4 for the repeat of today's Deal or No Deal.  
 
"It's Clive," Will told him without looking up from the Metro crossword.
 
"Shh," Merlin said, flapping his hands, "Don't tell me how much he wins."
 
Will rolled his eyes.  "You're unhealthily addicted to that programme."
 
"Yeah, well you're unhealthily addicted to a newspaper."
 
"Yeah, well your unhealthy addiction features Noel Edmunds."
 
"Yeah, well -."  Actually, Merlin had no comeback for that.  It was true.
 
"Ha," Will said, smiling triumphantly and finally looking up from the paper.  He braced a hand on Merlin's thigh to lean across and kiss him.   "Good day at the Palace, dear?" he asked.
 
"It was-."  Merlin stopped, still not really sure of the best way to tell Will that he kept accidentally meeting King Arthur.  It just sounded so ridiculous.  "It was good, yeah."
 
"Yeah?  You don't sound sure.  You know you don't have to stick it out just because Gaius found you the job, right?"
 
"No, it's - it is good.  I found out about a secret passageway."  There, that was almost like telling Will about Arthur.
 
"Yeah?" Will asked, not sounding as excited as Merlin thought he should.  But then Will had never been as into the Famous Five books as Merlin.
 
"Two, actually." Unless the one Arthur used to appear in the middle of the Ballroom was the same one that Merlin had caught him coming out of last week.  Merlin preferred the idea of multiple secret passageways; much more intriguing. 

Of course, multiple secret passageways also increased the possibility of Arthur jumping out at him again somewhere else, but that was just a risk Merlin was going to have to take.
 

***


 
A prickle along the back of his spine told Arthur that someone was standing behind him.  He tensed and twisted around, preparing to leap to his feet and put his black belt in karate to good use.  
 
He relaxed slightly when he saw that it was only the useless employee from the other day, the one with the floppy brown hair and ridiculous ears.  The one with no sense of decorum or respect for Arthur's position. The one whose name Arthur did know, he simply chose not to remember.
 
Arthur snapped his notebook closed and glared.  "What are you doing?"
 
"Loitering until you deign to acknowledge me, Your Majesty," Ridiculous Ears said, with a little smirk.
 
Arthur rolled his eyes but he couldn't very well send him away without risking someone noticing.  They were one room away from the entrance the general public use to enter the Royal Gallery, which was really much closer than Arthur was supposed to get to his subjects without security protection.  Lance would probably keel over in horror if he knew.
 
"All right, I've deigned," Arthur snapped, "Now sit down before someone sees you."
 
Ridiculous Ears sat.  The uncharacteristic obedience worried Arthur.  As did the fact that he was being forced to think of him as 'Ridiculous Ears'.  "I don't remember your name," he said.  Not apologetically because, well, why would he?
 
"Of course not," Ridicu- the boy replied.  At Arthur's level, unimpressed look, he relented.  "I'm Merlin Emrys."  He held out his hand.
 
Manners had been drilled into Arthur since birth, so he took the hand automatically.  "Arthur Pendragon," he said then felt a fool when Merlin laughed brightly.
 
"I know that," he said, still grinning.
 
Arthur turned away, flipping his notebook open and ignoring Merlin.  He felt strangely wrong-footed and he hated that.  
 
Merlin didn't leave.  Nor did a portal open to another dimension and whisk him away, which was what Arthur had secretly been hoping for.  
 
"What do you want?" Arthur asked eventually.  He couldn't concentrate with Merlin sitting beside him, making the already stuffy room almost unbearably warm.
 
Merlin leant forward.  "I'm trying to work out what you're doing," he said.  "Are you writing a novel about the fascinating lives of Buckingham Palace staff?"
 
Arthur laughed without meaning to.  "Hardly," he said, although he could admit that it might look like that.  From his cold, stone seat, he couldn't see much further than the security guards checking people's bags on their way into the gallery.  "I'm making sure that our security guards do their jobs properly.  Is that all right with you?"  He wasn't sure why he was explaining himself to Merlin.  He certainly had no need to.
 
"Why?" Merlin asked, frowning.  He leant forward so he could see what Arthur was looking at.  This put him almost across Arthur's lap and Arthur moved backwards immediately, startled by the soft warmth of someone else's body unexpectedly against his.
 
Still shaken, Arthur answered much more honestly than he would have done otherwise.  "Because this is Buckingham Palace.  Nobody seems to realise what a prime terrorist target that makes it."
 
"I-I think they do," Merlin said, sounding surprised.  
 
No, Arthur thought, Something is happening and no one trusts me enough to tell me what.  "Do you remember the 7/7 bombings?" he asked instead, because he wasn't going to play Poor Little Emo Me, not when there was something he could do instead.  "No one ever does anything until it's too late."
 
"I do remember," Merlin said quietly.  "I was at school but the teachers let us watch it on the news."
 
Arthur laughed harshly.  "Well then, you must be an expert," he said cruelly, even though he'd done almost the same thing himself.  
 
Arthur had just returned from Eton for the summer when the bombings took place.  He'd heard the sirens from his bedroom at Clarence House, but hadn't realised their significance until he'd got out of bed, turned on the TV and found every channel reporting nothing but newsflashes.  He'd watched people being led off the Underground, their faces shocked pale and bloodied and he'd wanted badly to help.  Edgeware Road wasn't too far from Clarence House and he'd been sure he could do something.  His father's security had informed him in no uncertain terms that the presence of a sixteen year-old prince would do much more harm than good.
 
Merlin shrugged.  He was still sitting too close and Arthur felt his uniform sleeve brush Arthur's bare forearm.  
 
"Can I help with whatever you're doing?" Merlin asked, apparently not offended at all by Arthur's offhand dismissal.  Stupid boy, Arthur thought, bemused.
 
"I doubt it," Arthur said, but not as bluntly as he wanted to.
 
"Okay." Merlin pushed himself to his feet.  "My break's over anyway.  I'll be out there selling tickets if you need anything."
 
Arthur bit his lip before he could ask what he might possibly need from Merlin, acknowledging the offer with a curt nod instead.
 
Merlin sauntered off, stopping in the doorway to throw Arthur a quick, uncertain smile before he disappeared.  Arthur found it strangely hard to get back to what he'd been doing after that.  
 

***


 
The second half of July passed in a haze of garden parties, none of which were interesting enough to stick in Arthur's memory for long after they were over.  He made sure to appear bright and engaged and interested though, as he was introduced to one worthy person after another and even Geoffrey couldn't fault his charm.
 
The only interesting thing that happened was the decision to invite the leader of the British National Party, followed shortly by the decision to uninvite him, and Arthur hadn't even been allowed to be part of those discussions.
 
On the first day of August, it started to rain heavily and the flower show Arthur had been scheduled to attend was cancelled.  Thank god, he thought privately; of all the mindless royal engagements Arthur found himself involved in, flower shows had to be the least enjoyable.  He could barely tell a rose from a rhododendron and finding something intelligent to say about row after row of gerberas always proved a challenge.   
 
With rain lashing down against the windows, muting the sound of traffic on The Mall, Arthur curled up on the settee, comfortable in his softest jeans and his grey St Andrew's hoodie, pulled the agenda for tomorrow's event into his lap and switched on the television.  His father would not have approved of the multitasking but, then, his father wasn't around to complain.
 
"... killed while six others remain in a critical condition," Maxine Mawhinney was saying on the BBC news.  
 
Arthur frowned; Doctors was supposed to be on.  He'd developed a rather embarrassing addiction while at university and hadn't tried very hard to shake it.  Then he focused on the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen and was suddenly on his feet, papers falling in forgotten flurries around his feet.  
 
Breaking Three members of Dutch Royal Family killed and twelve injured after bomb blast at parade.
 
"Lance," Arthur shouted, pulling up Morgana's number on his mobile.  "Lancelot!"
 
The door crashed open and Lance came striding in, hand pressed to his earpiece.  He held up a hand apologetically to Arthur and continued talking in a low, worried voice.  He was very pale.
 
Arthur listened to Morgana's phone ring and ring and tried not to panic.  
 
Finally, there was a click and then, "I already know," Morgana said tersely.  "We're on our way back."
 
Arthur closed his eyes.  It wasn't as if there was any reason to worry about Morgana particularly, but he'd feel better once she was back at the Palace.
 
"Hurry," he said then hated himself for sounding worried.
 
For once, Morgana didn't tease him.  "Five minutes," she said and hung up.
 
Arthur put the phone back in his pocket and turned to Lance.  
 
Lance was watching him closely, the little light no longer glowing in his earpiece.  
 
"Morgana's on her way home," Arthur told him and Lance nodded.  "Which you knew."
 
"Yes." Lance folded his hands behind his back.  "Take a seat, sir."
 
Arthur hesitated, but it was mostly just for show.  He sat down.
 
Lance sat next to him.  "There have been rumours for the last few months about a terrorist group planning to target European monarchies," he paused and passed a hand over his face, "And if you tell anyone I've told you, I'm probably going to lose my job. Monmouth doesn't want you to know."
 
"Monmouth's an idiot," Arthur snapped, then stopped, pinching the bridge of his nose. It wasn't Lance's fault that Geoffrey still thought Arthur was a child. "What kind of group?" he said instead, trying to ignore the sudden clamminess of his palms and the too-fast beating of his heart. It all felt too close to fear and Arthur had been taught that Pendragons didn't do fear.
 
Lance shook his head.  "I honestly haven't been told any more than that.  Only to be on high alert."
 
"And you couldn't have told me this earlier?" Arthur demanded, with what he thought was justified anger.  
 
"I don't think anyone was taking it seriously until today," Lance told him, looking at him steadily.  
 
"The fire at Gråsten," Arthur argued.  
 
Lance shook his head.  "There's still no proof that was anything but accidental."    
 
Arthur didn't feel particularly reassured.  "What now?"
 
"You carry on as you have been, letting us worry about your safety," Lance told him, with a look that said he knew Arthur hadn't been doing anything of the sort.  
 
"It's not just me," Arthur tried to argue.  "It's Morgana and Morgause."
 
Lance held up a hand.  "Who also have security detail," he said firmly.  His hand flew to his ear.  "They've arrived."
 
"Excellent," Arthur snapped, striding past Lance then stopping with a sigh when Lance's hand on his arm held him back.  
 
He watched Lance leave the room and folded his arms firmly over chest.  His heart was still beating too fast, and no matter how reassuring Lance tried to be, Arthur knew he wasn't going to stop worrying.
 

***


 
It was almost time for Merlin's lunch break when Gwen appeared behind him and cleared her throat.
 
"Hi," Merlin said brightly, because he really liked Gwen and he was hoping she was going to tell him he could take his lunch early.  
 
"Yes, hi," Gwen agreed.  She was frowning and uh-oh, what had he done?  
 
"Everything okay?" Merlin asked hopefully, because he couldn't think of anything he'd done wrong.  Well, he had banished a can of Coke from this reality when the toddler holding it had come too close a priceless antique rug, but he hadn't done anything that could be traced back to him.  Hopefully. And at least he hadn't banished the toddler too.
 
"I-.  Yes?" Gwen shook her head.  "King Arthur's head of security just told me that Arthur-- That the King wants to see you.  Merlin, what on Earth?"
 
Oh.  Merlin hoped he wasn't blushing.  "I, um."
 
"You know Arthur?" she asked, voice rising.  
 
"No!" Merlin said quickly.  "I mean, we've only met a couple of times.  Do you know him?" he added, thinking of how she always defaulted to calling him Arthur not the King.
 
"No," and now Gwen was blushing, which hopefully cancelled out the heat in Merlin's cheeks.  "We spent some time together when we were younger.  Children, I mean.  When we were children.  Um.  You should go to him, since he's asked for you."  
 
"Right." Merlin thought that he should probably feel nervous, but he didn't.  Arthur was strangely easy to be around, even though most of the time he was a defensive prat.  He looked around.  "Where?"
 
Gwen nodded at the doorway where a tall (hot) guy with longish dark hair and a dark suit stood watching them.  He smiled and Gwen ducked her head.
 
"That's Lance," she said.  "Go with him."  She turned away quickly and Merlin shook his head before walking over to join this Lance person.  If he'd had someone that hot smiling at him, he wouldn't have run away.  
 
Well, except for how Will would kill him, so maybe he'd have to.
 
"Hi," Merlin said, trying to focus on Lance's face rather than the stretch of his white shirt over his very nicely muscled arms.  Merlin really liked men with muscles.  "I'm Merlin Emrys?"
 
Lance gave him a long, appraising look.  Not a come on, more an assessment of threat.  "Lance DuLac," he said with a nod.  "King Arthur would like to see you if you can spare some time."  He waited as though Merlin actually had a choice.
 
"Is it optional?" Merlin asked doubtfully, "King Arthur doesn't really seem like the kind of man who gives optional orders."
 
Lance smiled.  It was a genuine smile, not a grimace or anything.  "Don't let him fool you," he said, "He's not a tyrant."
 
"Hm," Merlin said doubtfully, but he followed Lance across the state apartments and through the door which led to the Royal Family's private rooms.
 
He would have loved to take a minute to look around, because even a quick glance showed him that these rooms were much simpler, less elaborate than the state rooms.  In fact, the walls were almost shockingly bare, a state which was explained a minute later, when they stepped through a doorway into what looked like a sitting room and found King Arthur standing on a chair, trying to take down a painting in a heavy, gilt frame.
 
"Didn't we just talk about this, sir?" Lance asked, rushing forward and putting two hands on the back of the chair, steadying it.  
 
"Did we?" Arthur asked, using the same kind of tone that Gaius used when he knew damn well that they had, but he didn't want to talk about it.  He moved to hand the painting to Lance then stopped when he saw Merlin.  "Oh, excellent.  Come here and take this, would you."
 
"Um," Merlin said but he stepped closer to the chair anyway, trying to ignore how much nearer that brought his face to Arthur's whole groin-hip-arse area.  "Should I-?" 
 
He broke off with a startled groan when Arthur dropped the painting into his arms and had to struggle not to pitch forward face first.  It was really, really heavy.  
 
"All right?" Arthur asked, but he'd turned away before Merlin could wheeze out an answer.  "Put it over in that corner."
 
He hooked his thumb in the direction of a corner that, of course, happened to be all the way across the room.  Wondering if this was really in his job description, Merlin did as he was told, trying not to pant too obviously.  
 
"Sir?" Lance said.  "Can I ask why you're taking down paintings of your father?"
 
Startled, Merlin looked down.  Staring up at him was, yes, King Uther.  The old King looked sour and annoyed, the same as he always had when Merlin saw him on TV.  And, like when Merlin saw him on TV, his eyes were moving.
 
For the second time in as many minutes, Merlin nearly dropped the painting.
 
"Do be careful," said King Uther.  King Uther who was a) dead and b) a painting.  
 
"I-" Merlin stammered.  "What?"
 
Uther stared at him for a minute then rolled his eyes and looked away.  "And they say you are my son's last hope."
 
Merlin stopped walking.  "What?  Who says that?  What?"
 
Uther stared forward out of dead, painted eyes, resolutely silent.
 
"Uh, Merlin?" Lance asked and Merlin looked up, wincing.  "Everything okay?"
 
"What?" Merlin asked, trying not to look like he'd just been yelling at a painting.  "Yes, fine, fine."  He put the painting in its assigned corner, trying to ignore the shaking in his hands, the words my son's last hope rolling around in his head like some cryptic, impossible omen.  
 
"Are you sure he's all right in the head?" Merlin heard Arthur ask with no attempt at lowering his voice.
 
"I don't know, sir," Lance said dryly, "He's your friend."
 
"He most certainly is not," Arthur sniffed.  "Merlin, come here and take this one too."  He waved a small painting of a blonde woman who Merlin was fairly certain was Queen Igraine.  "And do try not to shout at her, all right?"
 
Merlin took the painting him numb hands.  It wasn't as if strange things didn't happen around him all the time, but he'd never actually had a dead king talk to him before.  He looked at Queen Igraine suspiciously while he carried her, but she didn't offer up any conversation, snooty of otherwise.  
 
Relieved, he bent down to set her against the wall, next to Uther.
 
With a shake of his head, he stuck his hands in his pockets and decided to deal with this later.  
 
"Why are you redecorating?" he asked, wandering back to Arthur.  
 
Lance's eyebrows shot up but Arthur didn't tell Merlin to use his title.  Which was kind of a shame actually, Merlin thought, realising that he'd been relying on that to take his mind off the whole talking painting thing.
 
Arthur jumped down from the chair and up onto another.  Lance sighed and moved to follow him.
 
"Please tell me how that is any of your business," Arthur said, but it was more distracted than cutting.
 
"Well, if I'm helping," Merlin said, swinging his arms.  "I mean, since you asked so nicely and all."
 
Arthur turned around on the chair, causing it to tilt and Lance to pale.  He stared at Merlin for a handful of seconds then hopped down, landing with a little thud in front of him.  Merlin refused to jump.
 
"Merlin," Arthur said, rolling the name off his tongue like honey - forget about jumping, Merlin had to work not to shiver.  "Would you do me the great honour of doing what I tell you when I tell you to do it?  Or, in other words, of doing your job?"
 
Merlin bit his lip.  He didn't know why he found Arthur so amusing, knew he should find him a hopeless prat.  Which he was, he just also made Merlin want to laugh rather a lot.
 
"Sir, yes, sir," Merlin agreed with a half-arsed attempt at a salute.
 
Arthur nodded curtly, the very corner of his (full, pink) lips curling up before he turned away.  
 

***


 
Will was in bed by the time Merlin got home feeling sore and dusty.
 
"So," Merlin said, sitting next to Will and propping his chin on his knees.  
 
Will didn't stir, so Merlin kicked him.
 
"So," he said pointedly, ignoring Will's sleepy flailing. "A painting of King Uther talked to me today."
 
"Hm?" Will asked.  "Dude, it's the middle of the night." He rolled onto his side and blinked at Merlin blearily. "Wait, did you just say a painting talked to you?  What are you, Harry Potter?"
 
Merlin shrugged.  "It was weird.  He told me I was like, Arthur's last hope or something."  He scratched the dry skin between his toes.  He was tired but his brain was whirring.
 
"Arthur?" Will asked.  He propped himself up on his elbows and frowned at Merlin, eyelids heavy, but not in a good, sexy way.  "King Arthur?  Since when do you work for his security team?"
 
"Don't be stupid, I was just--" Merlin said, then stopped, realising that he still hadn't actually told Will that he'd met Arthur.  There'd just never been the right moment to look up from his dinner and say, oh, and did I mention I've been hanging out with the King a little bit?"
 
Will sat all the way upright, leaning into Merlin's shoulder and rubbing his eyes.  He looked like he had when he was ten and they were trying to stay awake past midnight, sure that that was when the best adventures started.
 
"Mm," Will hummed encouragingly.  
 
Merlin put his hand on Will's knee automatically.  "I met the King the other day," he said, softly like it was a bedtime story and didn't matter at all.  "He asked for my help redecorating today.  That's all."
 
Will's back went stiff and he shoved Merlin's hand off, staring at him.  "The King asked for your help redecorating?" he repeated.  "Because you met him the other day?"
 
"Yes," Merlin said slowly, not totally sure why he was being glared at.
 
"And you didn't tell me?" Will wasn't yelling, yelling Merlin was fine with; Will had always been kind of vocal about stuff that pissed him off.  But this, this was quiet and measured and just slightly shrill.
 
"It's not like it was a secret," Merlin tried.  He wished they could just skip whatever fight was about to come and go to sleep. Maybe even have sex first; they hadn't done that in a while.
 
"Bloody hell," Will exploded, "You don't even understand why that might be a problem, do you?"
 
"No," Merlin said, spreading his hands and starting to get a little bit mad himself; he wanted Will to tell him that paintings talking to him wasn't a sign of impending doom, not shout at him for no reason.  "I have no clue what you're talking about.  Why would you mind that I'm making a new friend?"
 
Not that Arthur was Merlin's friend, not really, but Merlin enjoyed him anyway.
 
There was silence for several long moments while Will just stared at him, hands clenched together.  "Because you didn't tell me," he said quietly.  "It's the kind of thing you tell your boyfriend.  If, you know, he really is your boyfriend."
 
"Will." Merlin scooted closer to him, close enough that their thighs pressed together.  "Will, come on, don't." They'd be on and off and on again for a while during Years 11 and 12, mostly Merlin's fault, and he knew Will was still sensitive about it.
 
Will laughed.  It was harsh and shaky and it set off a dull ache above Merlin's right eye.  He patted Merlin's leg and stood up.  "Don't worry about it," he said, tugging on his boxers until they sat straight on his hips.  "Go to sleep."
 
"Will," Merlin said again, helpless.  His stomach felt all twisted up.  He hated it when their fights made it feel like Will was slipping out of Merlin's reach.
 
He sat on the bed and listened to Will slam around in the living room then the sound on the TV coming on.  Eventually, he flopped back on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling, no closer to an answer about the paintings, but now feeling like crap.
 

***


 
Arthur didn't mean to notice that Merlin was moping and he certainly didn't intend to ask him about it.  But, well, Lance had forbidden Arthur from wandering unsupervised around the Palace so Arthur was bored and it gave him more opportunity to notice that Merlin wasn't eating the lunch the kitchens had made them.
 
"Oh, no, I'm fine," Merlin said, which was clearly a lie.  "I mean.  I'm not really hungry." Also probably a lie; he'd been helping to make Arthur's rooms more liveable all morning and Arthur was hungry just from watching him.

Arthur felt it was important to point out, even to the inside of his own head, that he did not mean that sentence in a euphemistic way.  
 
"I will not have you fainting away while in my employment," Arthur said curtly, waving him quiet and continued to spread the sandwiches across two plates.  He didn't know where this need to feed Merlin was coming from and he didn't like it.  "Just think what The Sun would make of that."
 
Merlin laughed, the first smile Arthur had seen from him all day skating across his mouth.  He sat down at the table and accepted the plate.
 
"Oh well, if--" he started to say, obviously intending to say something flippant and annoying, but he trailed off, frowning.  He looked up at Arthur from under his stupidly floppy dark hair.  "Sorry, I'm terrible company today."
 
Arthur rolled his eyes and sat down opposite him.  "Trust me, Merlin, I'm not keeping you around for your conversation."  He reached for the milk jug and poured a splash more into his tea.  The kitchens never made his tea exactly how he liked.
 
"Why are you keeping me around?" Merlin asked and there was something far too serious and genuinely curious about the question.
 
Arthur cleared his throat.  "You make a useful pack donkey," he said.  That was definitely one reason, anyway.  
 
"Right." Merlin's lips quirked into another smile, but he didn't look happy.
 
Arthur watched him pick the crusts off his sandwich for another five minutes before frowning and throwing a sugar cube at him.
 
"What's the matter?" he asked crossly.
 
Merlin stared at the sugar cube where it had landed on the table after bouncing off his forehead.  Arthur's aim was perfect.  "Nothing," he said, crumbling off the corner with the edge of his thumb nail.
 
"Of course not," Arthur said, not bothering to hide his disbelief.
 
Merlin sighed.  "Just.  Okay, just because you're dating someone it doesn't mean you have to tell them everything, right?"
 
"Who on Earth is dating you?" Arthur asked, refusing to acknowledge any emotion other than incredulity.
 
Merlin glared at him.  That was better.  "My boyfriend is dating me," he said, tipping his chin up a little on the word boyfriend, like he thought Arthur might have a problem with it.  Arthur tried very hard not to feel a pang at the irony.  Merlin deflated.  "Or, at least, he was.  We had a fight last night."
 
Arthur snorted.  "What did you do?"
 
"Why do you assume I did anything?" Merlin asked, sounding half way between resigned and stung.  Arthur didn't have much experience in the dating people department but he knew that that tone meant he had done something.
 
Arthur drank some of his tea.  He wasn't actually Merlin's friend, he reminded himself, there was no need for him to try to offer any advice.  If only Merlin's hangdog expression weren't quite to pathetic.  "All right," he said reluctantly, "What happened?"
 
For some reason, Merlin blushed.  Arthur really hoped he was going to confess to something deeply humiliating which would stop Arthur thinking things about him ever again.  
 
"I didn't tell him that I'd met you," Merlin mumbled, almost too quietly for Arthur to hear.
 
Arthur frowned.  "What?"  That couldn't be right.  Merlin and his boyfriend couldn't have been fighting about him.  He cleared his throat.  "Pardon?"
 
"Apparently meeting the King is a big deal and keeping it a secret is fairly unforgivable."  Merlin shrugged.  
 
The King.  Right.  Arthur felt something heavy settle in his chest and he sat back, feeling stupid, so stupid for thinking he could have a simple chat about Merlin's love life, that Merlin might see him as a friend not a monarch. 
 
"I suppose it is rather a big deal," he said shortly, "I wouldn't know." 
 
Merlin's posture had been getting loose as they talked but now it tightened, shoulders stiffening.  He blushed again.  "Of course," he said, standing up.  "Sorry.  You don't want to hear about my problems.  He waved a hand over his shoulder, long fingers fluttering.  "I'll get back to work."
 
"Merlin," Arthur said but he didn't put any command into it and Merlin ignored him.  
 
Damn, Arthur thought, staring at the lunch that Merlin hadn't touched.  Fucking damn.  He'd ballsed that up completely.  
 

***


 
When Merlin got home from work that evening, there was a Post It note taped to the kettle.
 
gone fishing - it said - back in a couple of days.  W.
 
Merlin stared at the note.  "Fishing?" he asked aloud.  Never in all the time he'd known him had Will gone fishing which meant that, unless Will had been a keen angler before he started playgroup, Will had never gone fishing before.  
 
Merlin pulled out his mobile.  There was a text message waiting on screen.
 
yes fishin. prob no rcption talk whn im bck
 
Right, Merlin thought, how convenient.
 
Too depressed even for Deal or No Deal, Merlin went into the bedroom and flopped down on the bed.  He found himself calling his mum with absolutely no input from his higher brain functions.  
 
"What's wrong?" his mum asked, bypassing hello.
 
"Um," Merlin said. 
 
Hunith tsked crossly.  "I've had Helena 'round this afternoon complaining that Will sounded 'off', so don't um me."
 
Right, so it was a very special lack of phone reception, then.  The kind that let Will talk to his mum but not to Merlin.
 
"Sorry," Merlin said because his mum and Will's mum only voluntarily spoke to each other at Christmas. Helena still hadn't forgiven Hunith for refusing to help her break up Will and Merlin as soon as it became obvious there was something to break up, and Hunith still hadn't forgiven Helena for wanting to try.
 
"Merlin," Hunith said.  It was her don't try to distract me with how much I hate that woman tone.  Merlin's mum had very specific tones.  
 
"Will's fine," Merlin lied, "He's gone fishing, that's all."
 
"Fishing?" A pause.  "I didn't know he fished."
 
"Yeah, first time," Merlin told her.  His ceiling was really interesting; how had he never noticed before?
 
"And you didn't want to go?"
 
"Can't, got my new job, remember?" Merlin said, latching on to that with all his might.  "Oh, and speaking of, you'll never guess what I've been doing."
 
Better to tell him mum about Arthur and listen to her formulate a plan to get him a knighthood than tell her that things maybe weren't okay with Will.
 

***


 
"Will that be all, Your Majesty?" Merlin asked, mid-afternoon on Monday.  "Only, I've got some things to do for Gwen."
 
He didn't say for my real job or anything snide at all in fact, and Arthur tried to hide his frown, but probably failed.
 
"I hate it when you do that," Arthur heard himself say.  His voice had been quiet but probably still loud enough for Merlin to hear. Shit.
 
"Do what?" Merlin asked, stopping 
 
Double shit.  Well, in for a penny, he thought resignedly.  "Speak to me correctly.  The one thing I can rely on from you is a certain lack of respect usually; are you ill?"
 
Merlin frowned at Arthur as though he simply could not understand him.  "I thought it was the correct way to address you," he said slowly.  The you weirdo was implied but, stupidly, made Arthur feel a little better.
 
"It is," Arthur said, pained.  He cleared his throat.  "Look, I'm--  If I said anything that offended you the other day then I.  I apologise."  For some reason apologise was a much easier word to say than sorry.
 
Merlin's eyes widened and he stared at Arthur for so long that Arthur had to force himself not to fidget.  
 
"Merlin?" he snapped.  "Did you suffer a stroke?"
 
"No," Merlin said, smiling slowly.  He sat back down in the chair he'd been perched on for most of the morning, finally sprawling rather than sitting stiffly.  "I had a really fucking terrible weekend.  Can I tell you about it?"
 
"No," Arthur said firmly, but he didn't actually try to stop Merlin when he started to prattle on.  
 

***


 
Merlin felt sort of ridiculous, but the truth was that he really didn't like living alone.  The flat felt bigger and too empty without Will there, and noises that Merlin had never heard before kept making him wake up in the night, sure that there were burglars in the bathroom.
 
He hadn't slept well since Will left and he'd been half asleep all morning at work, which was why it took him a minute to realise he was actually awake when he turned around and saw Will standing next to him, leaning against a pillar that was really not designed for leaning.
 
Will raised his eyebrows.  "Lunch?" he said.
 
"Y-yes," Merlin said.  They hadn't seen each other for nearly a week.  Apart from the holiday Will's family took to Crete in Year 10, they'd never gone that long without seeing each other before.
 
"What?" Will demanded.  "You look like a goldfish with your mouth open like that."  He waved a Pret bag, something that sounded like soup sloshing worryingly inside.  "Lunch."
 
"Yeah, okay."  Merlin looked at his watch.  It wasn't quite time for him to take his lunch yet, but Gwen would forgive him.  

He looked around, but no one was paying them any attention, so he pressed his palm to the trick panel below the mirror that concealed the secret passage, the one Arthur had used the first time they'd met. There was security at the entrance other people knew about and they knew Merlin by now but he didn't think they'd let Will through. "Come through here," he said and waved Will along the narrow corridor and into Arthur's sitting room.
 
Arthur was away on Official Business all day, and Merlin was sure he wouldn't mind.  Well, okay.  Merlin was sure Arthur would mind, but hopefully he'd never find out.  Merlin just wanted somewhere he could be alone with Will and it was raining outside.
 
Will's eyebrows climbed up and up.  "Um," he said, staring around.  "Where are we exactly?"
 
"The King's private rooms," Merlin told him then froze, wondering if this had been a bad idea.  Talking about Arthur last time had made Will storm off on a bloody fishing trip.
 
But, "Blimey," was all Will said.  "That's pretty fucking.  Wow."
 
He wandered over to the 50 inch, HD-enabled TV in the corner and Merlin winced. 
 
"Weird to think of the King like, watching TV," Will said, shaking his head.
 
"Yeah," Merlin agreed even though it wasn't, not anymore.
 
Will moved on from the TV (thankfully) and drifted over to the window.  "Good view," he said, leaning out.  After a minute, he turned around, offering Merlin a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.  "Does he spend a lot of time in here, then?"
 
"Yeah," said Merlin again.  He wished Will would stop talking about Arthur. "Does it matter?"
 
Will hesitated but, "Nah," he said, "I guess not." He nodded at the room.  "Got himself a nice pad, your Arthur."
 
Merlin shrugged.  "I guess. But he's not my Arthur." He had no idea what Will was getting at, but he was pretty sure he didn't want to know.  He crossed the room in four strides and grabbed Will by the shoulder.  "Hi," he said and kissed him hard.
 
"Hey," Will said when they broke apart.  He touched his mouth and smiled slightly.  "What was that for?"
 
"Nothing, just-."  He shrugged.  "Just wanted to."  The love of your life shouldn't ask why you kissed him, said a voice in his head.  The fact that it sounded like Arthur's was just another sign that Merlin was losing it.

"C'mon," Will said, patting the sofa, "Sit down."

Merlin sat. He didn't know how okay they were, but he pressed his knee against Will's anyway.

Will smiled at him slightly, but didn't say anything.

"This is great, thanks," Merlin said, taking the cup of miso soup Will handed him.

"Don't get used to it," Will said, "You're doing dinner tonight," but he put his hand on Merlin's thigh for a minute and Merlin let himself relax and believe they were going to be all right.
 

***


 
Merlin was barely through the door that night before Will was on him, biting his mouth and scrabbling with his belt buckle.
 
"Woah, wait," Merlin said, because he had Indian takeaway in his hands.
 
Will grabbed the boxes and dropped them on the table.  "Problem?" he asked.
 
Merlin swallowed.  "Um," he said, "No," and that was pretty much the last intelligible thing he said for a couple of hours.
 
After, Merlin lay flopped in the middle of the bed, a well-fucked puddle of his former self and asked dazedly, "So was it the fish or the palace that made you horny?"
 
"Shut up," Will said, slapping at him weakly.  He rolled onto his far side, hesitated, then rolled back toward Merlin.  
 
Merlin watched him and smiled sleepily.  "Are we cuddling?" he asked.  The trickiest thing about dating your best friend was that you still had to tease him when he ended up doing something sappy.
 
"No, we're fucking not," Will assured him, but he spread his hand over Merlin's ribs anyway and tucked himself close enough that Merlin could feel his body heat.  
 
He wondered, still watching the ceiling, if one of them should have apologised by now.  No sense in reminding Will that he'd been pissed off though, he decided, and kept quiet.
 

***


 
On the train to work the next morning, Merlin bounced his leg and tried not to smile too widely.  He'd missed having sex; it was amazing what it did for his mood.
 
His phone buzzed and he pulled it out, rolling his eyes when it turned out to be a Facebook notification.  He didn't even like Facebook but Will had insisted, so he had one.
 
It turned out that one of Will's friends had tagged Will in a couple of pictures from their fishing trip.  Curious despite himself, Merlin started scrolling through, ashamed at how relieved he felt on seeing the proof that Will actually had gone fishing.
 
He grinned at the pictures of Will, mud-covered and triumphant, holding up fish so tiny that Merlin had to squint to see them.  There were a couple of pictures of the blokes Will had gone with, Martin and Dean from school, and some guy Merlin didn't recognise was tucked into the corner of one photo.
 
Valiant Mellor the Facebook tags told him.  
 
Merlin made a face at Mr Valiant Mellor, who looked like an incredibly grumpy git, ducking out of the photo and scowling.  He hoped Will wasn't going to invite him over anytime soon.
 

***


 
"Your smile is incredibly annoying," Arthur told Merlin bluntly.  
 
Merlin bit his bottom lip but he was fairly certain it didn't help at all.  "Sorry?" he said. "I'll try to be unhappier in your presence in future."
 
Arthur sniffed.  "See that you do," he agreed.
 
Merlin grinned and reached into his bag.  "Crisp?" he asked, holding out his packet of Monster Munch.
 
"What are you, eight?" Arthur asked, but he leant forward to take a crisp anyway.  
 
There was a sound like breaking glass that Merlin couldn't place and Arthur froze for a millisecond, before leaping forward in an unexpected flurry of movement, throwing himself on top of Merlin, pushing him out of his chair and down onto the floor.
 
The floor was hard, knocking the wind out of him, and the old carpet scraped his back where his t-shirt rode up.

"Ow," Merlin said, far too late, scrabbling half-heartedly to get away from under Arthur's weight. "What?"
 
"Shut up," Arthur snapped, pinning him down against the floor.
 
Before Merlin could complain, the door burst open, Lance followed by a guy Merlin didn't know rushing in and Merlin scrambled backwards out of the way while they swarmed around Arthur.
 
Merlin stared blankly at the window behind where Arthur had been sitting, at the spiders-web cracks leaching out from around a perfectly circular hole in the windowpane and listened to Arthur repeat, "I'm all right, I'm fine," over and over.  
 

***


 
"Of course it's connected," Arthur shouted.  He could hear his voice getting shrill and he cleared his throat.  His hands had finally stopped shaking and he'd be damned if he let his voice betray him now.  
 
"There's no evidence of that," Lance told him gently.  He lay his hand on Arthur's arm and Arthur twitched, unintentionally brushing him off.  
 
He stared moodily at the walls of the safe room.  They were stark, boring, windowless and Arthur had already been in here for three hours.  If Arthur was going to make a habit at being shot at, perhaps he should think about putting a television in here.
 
Lance watched him for a minute then sighed.  "The Dutch authorities are sure they got the people who planted the bomb in Utrecht.  The fire at Gråsten was ruled an accident.  This arsehole today was more than likely working alone."
 
"Has he said that?" Arthur demanded.  He wished he was allowed to get the shooter alone; he'd find out whether he was telling the truth.
 
Lance shook his head.  "He's in hospital.  The guards shot him in the head and chest but the bastard's still alive somehow."  Arthur had never heard Lance swear before and now he'd done it twice in two minutes.  "Look, I promised I'd tell you if there was any reason to worry and I will."
 
Arthur laughed harshly.  "Reason to worry?" he repeated.  "Lance, someone shot at me today.  If Merlin hadn't offered me--" He froze, thinking of Merlin and a packet of Monster Munch crunching between them.  "Merlin? Was Merlin hurt?"
 
Lance shook his head.  "No, Merlin's fine.  He's around somewhere still, actually.  He wanted to make sure you were all right and I think Morgana's adopted him."
 
Good god, that was a horrible image.  "Okay," Arthur said, standing up.  "Now I definitely need to get out of this room."
 
"In a minute."  Lance pressed lightly on Arthur's shoulder and Arthur sat back down.  "Do you have lunch with Merlin every day?"
 
There was nothing insinuating about his tone but Arthur still felt uncomfortable.  "Well, not every day," he hedged.
 
"Hm," Lance said.  
 
"He doesn't work every day," Arthur heard himself rattling on and wished he'd shut up.  He met Lance's widening eyes and sighed.  "Don't, all right?  Be quiet.  I've been shot at, you have to be nice to me."
 
Lance's mouth curled up into a smile, despite his serious eyes.  "I didn't say a word, sir." They'd been friends at Durham, back when Arthur was only a prince and Lance was only one of his many bodyguards.  Arthur had rather wished for something more than friends once, but obviously that had been impossible for a dozen different reasons.
 
"Right.  Of course you didn't."  Arthur stood up again and this time Lance didn't try to stop him but he did trail Arthur out of the safe room, along the corridor to Morgana's half of their private wing.  
 
Arthur found Morgana, Morgause and Merlin sitting curled in Morgana's hideously expensive leather armchairs playing Uno.
 
It was not the most incongruous thing Arthur had seen, but it was definitely on the list.

Merlin jumped to his feet when Arthur walked into the room then blushed and sat back down.  Arthur's hands twitched to squeeze his shoulder or in some other way check he was unhurt, but he couldn't do that, especially not in front of Morgana, who would tease him forever.
 
"This looks like a lovely party," he said instead.
 
"Yes, we're having a marvellous time," Morgana assured him, but she caught his hand and squeezed it as he passed her chair to get to the other end of the settee.
 
"Are you all right?" he asked Merlin, settling next to Morgause and turning to the armchair on his right to look Merlin over.  
 
Merlin shrugged.  "Kind of bruised.  You're pretty heavy, you know."
 
Morgana laughed.
 
Arthur scowled.  "Oh, I do apologise," he snapped, "Next time, I'll just leave you to get shot, shall I?"
 
"They weren't shooting at Merlin," Morgause said mildly, the same way she said everything.  She stood up.  "Would you like some tea, Arthur?"
 
"Coffee, please," Arthur said, because the adrenaline had started to wear off and he was suddenly exhausted.  He waited for her to move out of earshot then added, "And thank you for that terribly encouraging interjection."
 
Morgana threw a cushion at him.  "She's right.  They were shooting at you; don't act like they weren't."
 
Arthur glared and wondered exactly how she'd like him to be acting.  Would some hysterical tears please her?  He was spared from having to ask by Lance moving into the room and squatting down beside Merlin.  
 
"I need to ask you a few questions," he said quietly and all of Arthur's attention snapped around to them.  
 
"Oh, uh, someone else already did that," Merlin said uncertainly.  
 
Lance nodded.  "I know," he said, "I'm just thorough."  Merlin laughed and Arthur's jaw clenched.  "Have you told anyone when and where you and Arthur usually have lunch together?"
 
Arthur wished Lance hadn't phrased it quite like that.  He was acutely aware of Morgana's interested stare zeroing in on him but he ignored her.  
 
"No," Merlin said quickly then shook his head.  "Only my boyfriend."  He shot Arthur a guilty look.  "I showed him around the room.  I guess someone might have seen us from the window?"
 
"You brought your boyfriend into my private rooms?" Arthur demanded, ignoring exactly why that hurt.
 
Merlin winced.  "Just once, just--.  You were out anyway."
 
"When was that?" Lance asked, interrupting their argument before it could start.  
 
Merlin folded his arms stubbornly.  "Yesterday.  Do you want me to ask him if he saw anyone creepy hanging around?"
 
"Yes," Lance said slowly, writing something in the notebook that Arthur knew for a fact he usually ended up using for song lyrics.  "Please.  That would be very helpful."  He pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it over.  "Ask him to call me if he has any information."
 
Merlin nodded.  His gaze slid over Arthur.  "I suppose I should go," he said, standing up.  There was enough of a question in his tone that Arthur knew he could ask him to stay.  But Arthur was exhausted and feeling stupidly betrayed right now.
 
"I suppose you should," he agreed, glancing at the clock.  It was only four p.m.; it felt much later.  
 
"Right, I'll-." Merlin stood up then shifted his weight.
 
"I'll see you out," Lance said when Arthur didn't move.  
 
"Bye," Merlin said.
 
"Yes, goodbye," Arthur agreed without turning around.  
 
Before the door had even closed behind them, Morgana was out of her seat and smacking Arthur on the arm.  "That was so rude," she told him, "He waited all afternoon to see you."
 
"No one asked him to," Arthur told her, standing up.  He ignored her disbelieving stare and walked into the kitchen.
 
Morgause stood by the fridge, a coffee mug in her hand.
 
"Is that for me?" he asked, reaching out.
 
"Yes."  Morgause handed it over.  "I didn't want to bring it out in case Morgana decided to throw it at you."
 
Arthur sighed.  He was in no mood to be lectured by someone who, if given half the chance, would like nothing more than to take Morgana away from him.
 
"Very thoughtful of you, thank you," he said and walked toward his own rooms, anxious the get to his bedroom where he could lock out the rest of the world, even if only briefly.
 

***


 
Standing in the middle of the concourse at Victoria Station felt surreal.  
 
Five hours ago, Merlin had been having lunch with Arthur, four and a half hours ago, Arthur had been on top of him, pressing him into the carpet and saving him from bullets.  And now he was here, getting bumped on all sides by commuters while he stared up at the departure boards, waiting for his platform to be announced.
 
On the right hand side on the boards, the huge TV screen was showing nothing but assassination attempt: latest.
 
Merlin rolled his eyes and was about to look away when something caught his eye.  Well, not just something; a blurry, camera phone picture and the words Suspected Shooter: Valiant Mellor.
 
Merlin's ears started to ring.
 

***


 
Merlin stood in the hallway, Will's arms around him, Will's face pressed into Merlin's neck.  "Oh my god, oh my god," he was whispering.  "Are you okay?"
 
"Don't," Merlin said, not really recognising his own voice.  He unpeeled himself and stepped back.
 
"Merlin?" Will asked slowly.  
 
Merlin shoved past him into the kitchen.  Stopped.  Stared blankly at the washing up still sitting in the sink.  He didn't turn around.  "Your friend Valiant is a piss poor shot."
 
There was a sound like Will had walked into a cupboard, then he was grabbing Merlin's arms, forcing him to turn around.  "How did you--," he started.  His face was grey-white.  "I swear to god I had no idea what he--.  I didn't know you'd be there."
 
"What difference does it make that I was there?" Merlin shouted.  
 
A cup on the draining board exploded, shards exploding around it.  Will flinched but Merlin didn't.
 
"I didn't know--" Will said again, helplessly.  "He said.  He said he was some like, peaceful anarchist thing?  And that he just wanted to get a message to the King? I only told him where he had lunch, I didn't know, I swear I didn't know that he had a gun.  When he found out where you worked, he said he just needed a bit of information."
 
Merlin was so angry his hands were shaking.  He could feel his magic burning up through his veins, more power than he'd ever tried to contain at once before.
 
"You need to get out of here," he said, voice low and serious.
 
Will, if possible, went even paler.  Merlin couldn't work out how to care about that right now.  "Merlin," he said, reaching out to touch him.
 
Merlin knocked his hand away without touching him.  "You need to get out of here or I don't know what's going to happen," he repeated.  
 
Will looked from him to the crockery quivering on the work surfaces and back.  "I--" he said.
 
"Really, really go," Merlin told him through gritted teeth.
 
Will went.  
 
As soon as the door shut behind him, the fight drained out of Merlin and he found himself sitting on the cold lino floor, the whole day catching up with him all that once.
 
Once again, his phone called his mother with no consultation from him.
 
"Mum," he said, hating the way the shake in his voice betrayed him.
 
"Come home for the weekend," Hunith said and Merlin could only nod, even though she couldn't see him.
 

***


 
Having nearly been shot was incredibly frustrating.  It meant that Arthur's security was doubled and, in some cases, tripled and it turned out that two or more bodyguards, all determined not to let the King get shot on their watch, were much harder to slip away from than an overly indulgent Lance.
 
"Poor baby," Morgana mocked, watching him while he paced up and down.  "Fancy these big, bad men wanting to keep you alive."
 
"I don't know why you're so relaxed," Arthur told her, "You're not allowed to go anywhere either."
 
Morgana smiled, slow and evil.  "No, but I have Morgause to keep me company.  What you need, Arthur, is a friend."  She held up her hand before Arthur could tell her to fuck off.  "I know it's a novel concept, but I'm sure you could make one if you tried really hard."
 
"I do have friends," he protested.  "Lots of them."
 
"Oh yes?" Morgana asked politely.  "Where are they then?"
 
Arthur opened his mouth.  Then closed it again.  "Fuck off," he managed at last, refusing to let her know that that had stung even though it had.  Rather a lot, in fact.

"Arthur," Morgana said, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Sorry, was that a bit close to the mark?"

He rolled his eyes at her. "Don't be stupid," he said, shaking her off.

He stalked next door and found Gawain standing to attention by the window and Leon watching the door.  They both sprang to their feet when they saw him.

Arthur stopped walking, his vague idea of spending some time bothering Lance dying a death.  "Where's Lancelot?" he asked.
 
"He's not here, Your Majesty," Gawain said.
 
Arthur resisted rolling his eyes.  "Really?" he asked.  "I never would have guessed.  Is he next door?  I'll just pop through then."
 
"No, sir," Leon said.  Arthur stared at him.  People didn't say flat nos to him.  Leon cleared his throat.  "I've been asked not to let you leave your rooms."
 
"On whose orders?" Arthur demanded.
 
Leon looked uncomfortable.  "Lord Monmouth's, sir."
 
Well, Arthur thought, wasn't that fantastic.  "Is he here right now?" he asked.
 
Leon didn't answer immediately, but Gawain's eyes flicked to the opposite door.  
 
"I see," Arthur said and marched past both of them, slamming through the door before either of them could decide whether they really wanted to try to stop him.
 
Three heads snapped up when Arthur pushed the door hard enough to send it bouncing off the chair behind it.  
 
Geoffrey's face tightened guiltily and Arthur was about to snap at him when he saw that Nimueh, his father's least favourite of all his Prime Ministers, was also there. Uther might not have liked her, but Arthur did; she'd gone to university with his mother and she was always prepared to talk about her.
 
"Good afternoon, Arthur," Nimueh said, smiling like she'd been waiting for him. She pushed out a chair for him.
 
"Hello," Arthur agreed, sitting down, "I'm afraid my invitation to this meeting must have been lost in the post."  
 
Lance was sitting on the other side of the table; Arthur raised his eyebrows at him, Lance just gave him a tiny headshake.  Whether he was telling Arthur that this hadn't been his idea or that Arthur should let it go, Arthur wasn't in the mood to work out.
 
"Your Majesty," Geoffrey said, leaning forward over the table.  "We were merely discussing the changes to your coronation, nothing that you need to concern yourself over."
 
If that was supposed to make Arthur back down, it didn't.  "The changes," he repeated. 
 
Nimueh walked around the table, her heels clacking sharply on the wooden floor.  She curled her hand around Arthur's forearm.  "In light of the recent attempt on your life, we all feel it would be safer to have a smaller ceremony and, of course, to forego the parade."
 
"No," Arthur said, horrified, before she'd finished speaking.  The coronation had been ten months in the planning, the first time the British public were really going to get to see him as their King.  "The parade is the most important part." He lowered his voice, looking at her pleadingly, "People need to see me, Nimueh."  
 
What with mourning for his father and the cancelling of his trip to Australia, Arthur was starting to feel more and more cut off.
 
"Your Majesty," Geoffrey started but closed his mouth following a glare from Nimueh.
 
"Lancelot," Arthur interrupted, "Security can handle it, right?"
 
Lance grimaced when everyone turned to stare at him but, "Yes, sir," he said confidently.  
 
"Good man."  Arthur set his face into his most decisive and regal expression.  "So that's settled, then."
 
Geoffrey did not look happy but he didn't fight him. Nimueh just smiled, nodding.
 

***


 
Merlin spent the weekend home in Ealdor staring despondently at stuff.  First it was the dashboard of his mum's car, then the television, then his mum, then next door's cat when it snuck in and curled up on his lap.
 
He didn't know what to do.  Will had probably committed treason or something, he'd used Merlin and nearly got Arthur killed.
 
But, as angry and hurt as Merlin was, he didn't think he could report him.
 
Unless.
 
What if Will knew more about Valiant than he'd let on, what if Valiant hadn't been working alone?  
 
"Fuck," Merlin groaned.  The cat looked up, tilting its head back at him.  "Fuck," he told it.  The cat meowed and butted against Merlin's hand until he started stroking it under the chin.
 
By Sunday evening, he still had no idea what to do.  He couldn't face the idea of going back to work and seeing Arthur, knowing he was part of the reason why Valiant had known which room to aim for.  
 
He called Gwen at two o'clock Monday morning, not realising how late it was until she answered, voice foggy and half-awake.
 
"Merlin?  Do you have any idea what time it is?"
 
Merlin glanced at the clock.  "I'm really sorry," he said, "I'll go."
 
She sighed.  He heard what sounded like a man's voice mutter something sleepy next to her and felt twice as bad.  
 
"Not much point now, is there?" she asked.  "Are you okay?"
 
"Yeah," he started to say then realised he'd need to tell her that he wasn't.  "I'm not going to be at work for a couple of days.  I, um.  I broke up with my boyfriend."  It was probably, horribly true and it sounded better than my boyfriend was in league with the guy who shot at Arthur.
 
"Oh, Merlin," Gwen said, sounding more upset than he did.  "You have, uh, five days' leave in your contract, I think.  You can take them this week, if you want?"
 
"Yes, please," Merlin said, feeling bad for leaving her in the lurch but incredibly relieved to know he wouldn't have to face Arthur for another week.  "And sorry."
 
Gwen just laughed softly.  She was so nice, he felt really bad for (half) lying to her.  "Take care of yourself," she said, "And don't forget to watch Arthur's coronation on Friday."
 
"That's this week?" Merlin asked, not sure why he was surprised that Arthur hadn't mentioned it.  He felt a rush of anxiety roll through him because what if Valiant wasn't working alone, and what if they tried something at the coronation? 
 
"Lance says security preparations are getting ridiculous," she said.  There was a soft murmur from her end of the line. "And apparently I shouldn't have said that.  Oops?" 
 
Merlin was so busy feeling incredibly relieved that security had already been heightened which, now he thought about it, of course it had, that Gwen was already saying goodbye by the time he realised that she'd just implied Lance was lying next to her right now.
 
"Gwen!" he said but she'd already hung up.
 
There went his half-formed theory that she was having some kind of Cinderella affair with Arthur.  Still, good for her.  One of them should be lucky in love and it sure as hell wasn't him at the moment.
 

***


 

Hunith gave a double take when she came downstairs the next morning and found Merlin still in his pyjamas, trying to get next door's cat to eat some toast from between his fingers.
 
"Merlin?" she asked. "Shouldn't you be dressed by now?  You'll miss your train." 
 
He snatched his hand back just before the cat decided it had had enough of him and took a swipe with its claws.  Apparently cats really didn't like toast.  "I'm taking the week off," he said, hoping she'd be fooled if he sounded casual enough.
 
She wasn't.  She walked around the table and wrapped her arms around him.  He squeaked and tried not to flail; she might be his mum but he was twenty years old and unexpected hugs were alarming.   
 
"I'm so sorry about you and Will," she said, "But, sweetheart, you can't hide here forever."
 
"I'm not," he said, "I'm just hiding here for the week.  Seriously, Mum," he added, when she looked like she was going to protest.  "I called my boss and it's fine."
 
Hunith stared at him long and hard.  He tried to look innocent, heartbroken but brave all at once; it stretched the limits of his acting ability.  He hadn't told her about being there when Arthur was shot at and he wasn't about to, even though it would probably have been a good excuse for why he wanted to avoid London for a while.
 
"All right," she said, "I have to get to work."  She leant over and kissed his cheek.  "Don't spend all day tormenting that cat."
 
After his mum left, Merlin spent some time watching How To Look Good Naked.  Once he'd decided that he was fully capable of accentuating his hourglass shape, should he ever acquire one, he dragged himself to the bathroom for a shower.
 
It felt weird to be hanging around his mum's house in his pyjamas, like being seventeen and on A-level study leave again or something.  He hadn't lived here since he and Will moved to London for uni two years ago.  

He didn't want to think about which was one of them was going to get the flat. Or, really, he didn't want to think about any of it.  
 
He stayed in the shower until the water went cold then stuck his head around the bathroom door and glared at the boiler until it heated up again.
 
Better.
 
He was just about to get back into the shower for another half an hour of wallowing when his mobile started to ring.  
 
"Shit," he said out loud and, grabbing a towel, raced down the stairs. If it was Will, he wouldn't answer anyway, but he still nearly broke his neck trying to get to his backpack at the bottom of the stairs.   
 
There was a number he didn't know on his screen and he answered it hesitantly, wondering if Will was sneaky enough to borrow someone else's phone to call him.
 
"You're not at work," said a voice.  A very familiar voice.  
 
Merlin blinked.
 
"Arthur?" he asked.  "Or Rory Bremner?"
 
Arthur snorted.  "Hardly.  That man does a terrible impression of me.  Now, where are you?"
 
"Um, I'm--" Merlin mopped up a droplet of water rolling down his shoulder and frowned.  "How did you get my number."
 
"Guinevere," Arthur said like that wasn't important.  "Are you ill?  You can't just take time off work when I need-- When the country needs you."
 
"The country needs me?" Merlin repeated doubtfully.  
 
"I'm being crowned on Friday and you've left my rooms half finished.  If I lose something in this mess, the whole ceremony could fall apart."
 
He sounded rather un-Arthur-like, a little shrill and strung out.  
 
"Arthur?" Merlin asked carefully, "Are you all right?"
 
"What?  Of course I'm all right.  I thoroughly enjoy being shot at and having to defend my right to a proper coronation from idiots and eating my lunch alone."  
 
Definitely not all right.
 
"I'm sorry you have to eat lunch alone," Merlin tried slowly, "But I'm in Ealdor for the week."
 
"Ealdor?" Arthur voice rose incredulously.  "Why on Earth?  There's nothing there but some allotments, a post office and a community centre. Trust me, I opened that community centre."
 
"There's lots here," Merlin said quickly, feeling the need to defend his home town even though he'd been quick to get away from it.  "We've got, um.  There's a library and a Budgens and it's only one bus from the nearest cinema and--"
 
"All right, all right." Arthur sounded like he was smiling.  "I believe you.  It's a regular metropolis.  Which doesn't explain why you've suddenly run off to it."  He paused and then said, as hesitant as Arthur ever got, "Oh, I suppose the shooting was a little much?"
 
Just like that, the guilt came back.  It would be so easy to let Arthur think that was the reason, but he couldn't do it.  Arthur had proven to be a surprisingly good almost-friend-person and he hadn't done anything to make Merlin bail on him.
 
"No, that's not the reason," he said, "I, uh, I broke up with Will."  Ask me why, he thought, maybe I can tell you if you ask.
 
"Oh." Arthur cleared his throat.  "Oh, well.  That's, uh.  Yes.  Very unfortunate.  Are you--?  How are you bearing up?"
 
Merlin smiled helplessly.  Right.  Arthur was far too posh and well bred to discuss breakups, especially if it might lead to a conversation about feelings.  
 
"I'm doing all right," he said.  "I'll be back next week" -- when I can hopefully look at you and not think about how my boyfriend almost got you killed -- "Good luck with your whole getting crowned thingy."
 
"My getting crowned thingy," Arthur repeated.  "You do have a marvellous way with words."  
 
Merlin smiled.  "It's why you employ me," he agreed.
 
Arthur laughed.  "I knew there had to be a reason."  There was another pause but he didn't hang up so neither did Merlin.  "Listen," he said in a rush, sounding awkward but determined, "If Will's the one you're meant to be with, I'm sure it'll work out."
 
Merlin pressed a hand to his stomach which hurt suddenly, rather badly.  "Will's not the one I'm meant to be with," he said, even though saying it made him feel sick.
 
Arthur cleared his throat.  "Right," he said. "Well. I'll see you next week."
 
"Yes," Merlin agreed but he was talking to the dial tone. 
 
He checked the caller display, amazed that Arthur hadn't withheld his number then, feeling reckless and kind of silly for feeling reckless, saved the number in his phone under King, Arthur.
 

***


 
They'd decided on open-top cars for the journey to Westminster Abbey rather than the horse-drawn carriages Arthur's father and grandmother had used for their coronations. 
 
Arthur was twenty-one and a lot of his PR revolved around making him look modern, not weighted down with tradition.
 
Predictably, Geoffrey hated the idea which, Arthur had to admit, was part of its charm.
 
There had been some talk about Morgana riding with Arthur but, "I'm not your consort," she'd told him firmly so she and Morgause were travelling in the car behind.
 
All of which had been fine, absolutely fine, while they were planning it, but now Arthur was riding to his coronation, alone, in a Bentley which he wasn't even allowed to drive.  He wasn't nervous, of course, but he was, perhaps, a little apprehensive. Some company might have been nice. 

He waved to the crowd but refused to scan the faces for anyone he might know.  Gwen was down there somewhere, apparently, and he would have encouraged Merlin to come, except Merlin was in Ealdor nursing a broken heart. 
 
Not that it mattered to Arthur where Merlin was, except that his ears might have made him easier to spot in the crowd. 
 
The procession turned the final corner and Westminster Abbey was suddenly in sight.  Arthur drew in a deep breath; the last time he'd been inside was for his father's funeral.  Which was something he wasn't going to think about today. 
 
He wished, suddenly and pointlessly that his father could have been here today.  He wouldn't have said anything reassuring, but he would have told Arthur to remember his duty and that might have helped, just a little, with the fluttering of Arthur's heart.
 
"King Arthur!" someone yelled from the crowd and then everyone was doing it.  A few people had flowers, which they threw toward the car.  It made him think of the bodies of soldiers being carried through Wootton Bassett and the pictures he'd seen of his mother's funeral but he forced himself to smile and wave and look like he appreciated the gesture.  
 
The roar of the crowd grew, drowning out the purr of the engine, the Abbey loomed up, filling his line of vision and Arthur was clenching his hands into fists, attempting to wring out his sweaty palms when, suddenly, the road ahead exploded in a geyser of smoke and flame and debris.  
 
Arthur tried to duck but the force of the whatever it was, explosion, it must have been, sent him flying backwards, over the boot of the car, landing with a bone-jarring smack on the tarmac. 
 
Everyone was screaming.  Arthur shook his head, trying to stop the ringing in his ears.  There was blood on the front of his jacket but he didn't think it was his. 
 
Rolling up onto his knees, he grabbed the back of the car and pulled himself to his feet.  His back hurt, his shoulder throbbed but he forgot about that when he looked across the car and saw his driver.  Or what was left of his driver.  There was blood everywhere and Arthur bent over, suddenly, retching. 
 
He was glad two seconds later that he was already on his knees when a second explosion rocked the already shaky ground.  He was flung off his feet and had barely come to a stop when someone grabbed him.
 
Instinctively, Arthur shook them off, but, "Arthur.  Arthur.  It's me," Lance shouted and Arthur stopped fighting and clutched at his arm instead.
 
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked.  He couldn't hear well, the explosions still echoing in his ears, but he could see fine and it was obvious that Lance was hurt, blood running down the side of his face and shards of glass glinting off the front of his jacket.
 
"Me?" Lance said, shaking his head, "Come on, let's get you out of here."
 
Arthur let himself be pulled around the side of the car.  Sirens were screaming toward them and Arthur knew the drill for this kind of emergency: stick with Lance or whoever got to him first, get in a car, get away.
 
Reality was rather different though.  None of those drills had included screaming, crying, terrified members of the public, some of whom were covered in blood and a few who weren't moving at all. 
 
"Arthur," Lance snapped but Arthur couldn't look away from a little girl with a bunch of flowers clutched in her hand and blood all down the front of her I ♥ London t-shirt.
 
"I think people are dying," Arthur heard himself say.  He sounded shell-shocked to his own ears but that didn't make it any less true.  "Lance, come on."
 
Lance stared at him.  "I'm going to get sacked," he said, but it wasn't a no. Leon was sprinting towards them; Lance waved him off.
 
"Just until the ambulances arrive," Arthur promised and took off running for the little girl. 
 

***


 
Merlin stared blankly at the television.  His hands were shaking, he wasn't sure if he was breathing.  He'd settled down on the sofa in his pyjamas with a cup of tea, expecting to spend a peaceful couple of hours watching Arthur be regal and magnificent but, instead, he BBC cameras had been right there to capture the explosion.
 
Merlin was fairly certain he hadn't blinked since, too busy looking at Arthur and Lance, both covered in blood, standing in the middle of the injured, doing what they could with torn off scraps of shirts for bandages and ties as tourniquets. 
 
That's my King, Merlin thought, or should have thought, but he didn't, not quite. "That's my Arthur," he told next door's cat, stunned, watching as Arthur paused for a moment, wiping grimy sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and spreading blood instead, looking out over his bleeding, frightened people.  
 
All he needed was a crown and a sword in his hand and he'd be the image of some medieval king surveying his battlefield.
 
Merlin's phone was in his hand before he could stop himself.  He knew Arthur wouldn't answer, Arthur was, at this very moment, kneeling at a woman's feet, wrapping what looked like a piece of his jacket around a nail sticking out of her leg, but he couldn't help phoning him anyway.
 
"Arthur," he told the voicemail when it kicked in, "Oh my god."  And then he couldn't think of anything else to say.  "Can you call me?  Please?"
 
He'd hung up before he realised that he hadn't said who he was and that the chances of Arthur recognising his voice weren't great.
 
"King Arthur is now being led away by his security," the TV announcer was saying and Merlin looked back at the TV to see that, yes, someone had peeled Arthur away from the injured woman and was leading him toward the back of an ambulance. 
 
Gwen was suddenly in the frame, her arms around Lance, helping him to follow Arthur.  He was limping and so was she and Merlin suddenly needed to be in London more strongly than he'd ever needed to be anywhere before. 
 
He didn't bother to pack, just threw on the nearest clothes, grabbed his wallet and headed out the door.  He was halfway down the drive when he realised he had no idea when the next train was to London. Ealdor was a tiny station; it might not be for hours.
 
His mum's car was on the driveway.  He put his hand on the door handle, unsurprised when it opened for him, slid into the driver's seat and put the car in gear.  He didn't have the keys but apparently the car didn't care about that right now.  He didn't have a driving licence either but he just couldn't work out how little things like that were supposed to stop him.
 

***


 
The television was on and Arthur couldn't look away from the updates scrolling across the screen: 
 
27 dead, 33 in hospital, King Arthur sustained minor injuries
 
28 dead, 31 in hospital, King Arthur released from hospital
 
Arthur had never actually got as far as a hospital.  At least he didn't think so.  He felt like he'd blinked just before the explosion and woken up here, back at Buckingham Palace with blood in his hair and stiffening his shirt. 
 
His whole body hurt, but he couldn't really feel it.
 
He knew he needed to shower and he knew he needed to take the tablets Gaius had given him, but he had to know what was happening outside first. 
 
The BBC seemed more interested in recycling photographs of him tending to the wounded, but he didn't want to know about them, he already knew which of those people had survived.  Now he needed to know about everyone else, about the thousands of people who had come to watch him be crowned and had possibly lost their lives instead.
 
He'd insisted on the parade, insisted.
 
"Your Majesty?" It was Gwen.  Arthur couldn't remember the last time she'd spoken directly to him.
 
He tried to smile but gave up when she winced.
 
"Everyone's worried about you," she said quietly.  "Why don't you take a shower?"

Arthur didn't mean to laugh but he couldn't help it.  "Everyone's worried about my poor hygiene?" he asked.
 
She didn't smile.  "I think Morgana wants to hug you," she said, "But not while you're covered in blood."
 
Arthur appreciated her in that moment for making it about Morgana rather than him.  "I can't," he told her.  He pointed at the television, feeling stupid and helpless.  "I have to know."
 
Gwen nodded.  "How about I stay here and call out any updates?" she suggested.
 
Arthur stared at her.  "Will you?" he asked, because that might work and he did want to wash away this blood.
 
Instead of replying, she sat down beside him.  "Lance fell asleep in one of the bedrooms," she told him, "I need to wait for him anyway."
 
Arthur stood up, feeling his back and shoulder scream at him in protest.  "Thank you," he said, hesitantly touching her shoulder as he passed by.
 
When she looked up and smiled at him, he felt a sudden nostalgia for the days when they were young and friends, playing together with the horses at the Mews. 
 
"Only 25 still in hospital now," she called before he stepped into the bathroom.
 
Arthur started to slowly unbutton his shirt and let himself inhale for the first time in hours.
 

***


 
Merlin had no idea how he got from Ealdor to London.  All he knew was that it was dark by the time he arrived and he was fairly certain he hadn't paid the congestion charge. 
 
He had to park his mum's car a few streets away because of all the police cordons, leaving it on a red line and made his way to the Palace without any plan about what to do next.
 
Quite a crowd had gathered, a lot of people laying flowers, which seemed a bit creepy since none of the royal family had died.  (Merlin knew that because he'd had talk radio playing the entire journey.  He knew Arthur was home too, he just couldn't imagine that he'd want to see Merlin.)
 
Merlin was used to convenient things happening around him, but it was still kind of a coincidence that his mobile started to ring at that moment.
 
King, Arthur flashed across the screen and Merlin's hands shook suddenly.
 
"Hi," he said then couldn't think of anything else to say.
 
"I got your message," Arthur told him.  He sounded quiet, less strident than normal. 
 
"Message?" Merlin repeated then, "Oh. That message."  He felt his cheeks heat up.  "Are you all right?"
 
"Mm," Arthur hummed.  "No.  Perhaps.  My doctor prescribed some pain medication, which I've taken.  It makes it a little hard to feel anything."
 
Despite himself, Merlin couldn't help grinning.  "I think that's the point," he said.  With Arthur clearly stoned, it was easier to admit, "I'm outside the Palace."
 
"Come up," Arthur said immediately, "Before someone arrests you for loitering."
 
"No, I." Merlin hesitated.  Except, he did really want to see Arthur and prove to himself that he was all right.  "Can I?"
 
"Wait there," Arthur instructed and hung up.
 
Merlin spent a few hysterical minutes imagining Arthur stumbling across the courtyard in his pyjamas to open the gate and let him in.  It was a relief when the solider on guard beckoned him forward instead.
 
"Merlin Emrys?" he asked. 
 
Merlin nodded.
 
The solider looked like he couldn't believe he was saying it, but, "Come with me," he said.
 

***


 
There were more people in Arthur's wing of the Palace than Merlin had ever seen there before, as well as a lot more guards.
 
He had his visitor's pass checked eleven times, but it wasn't annoying, it was reassuring.  People kept trying to kill Arthur; he'd submit to a cavity search if it was likely to keep Arthur safe.
 
Merlin frowned.  Possibly that had come out rather wrong.
 
Gwen looked up from a sofa when Merlin walked into the living room.  She jumped up and wrapped her arms around him.
 
"Hi?" Merlin said, patting her back awkwardly.  He thought of the pictures of her, down amongst the injured with Lance and Arthur and tightened his arms suddenly, squeezing her.  "Are you okay?"
 
She nodded but didn't lift her head from his shoulder.  "I twisted my knee a bit," she said, "Nothing serious.  Lance is all bruised and cut up and--" She waved her hand, hitting Merlin lightly on the bicep.  "There was so much blood."
 
Merlin pressed his face into Gwen's hair and held on.  They might not have known each other long but he cared about her a lot and he hated the idea of her getting hurt. 
 
"Where's Arthur?" he asked when the itch under his skin got too much. 
 
Gwen pulled back and rubbed at his collar a bit.  "Mascara," she told him apologetically.  "He's next door with Morgana.  He'll be pleased to see you."
 
Merlin didn't know why that made him blush but it did.  "I doubt it," he said awkwardly, "He'll probably think I'm in the way."
 
This time when she hit him on the arm, it was definitely deliberate.  "Don't be stupid," she said, "Not tonight."
 
Swallowing hard, Merlin nodded.  "Through there?" he asked, pointing at a door he'd never gone through before.
 
Gwen nodded and Merlin turned the handle.
 
He found himself at the bottom of a short flight of stairs.  He could hear voices floating down to him so he made sure to tread heavily as he made his way up.  He rounded the top of the stairs and nearly backed all the way down again when he found himself in a bedroom.
 
"Sorry," he said, staring at Arthur and Morgana, both in their pyjamas, lying next to each other on the bed.  "Really.  Very sorry."
 
Morgana rolled to her feet before Merlin could stammer anything else.  She was wearing a Muse t-shirt and there was a long scratch down her cheek. 
 
"Hi, Merlin," she said softly, touching his arm as she squeezed past him.  "Make sure this idiot sleeps, yeah?"
 
"Um, yeah?" Merlin agreed, staying where he was until she'd closed the door at the bottom of the stairs behind her.  "I'm really sorry," he said again as soon as she was gone.
 
Arthur sat up, wincing and frowning all at once.  "Whatever for?" he asked, "I invited you here, didn't I?" He frowned again.  "Or did I?  Maybe you invited yourself.  Either way."
 
"You and Lady Morgana," Merlin tried, feeling stupid.
 
Arthur's eyes widened.  He laughed then looked appalled at himself for doing so.  "Please don't ever say that again," he said.  "Do you have a sister?" Merlin shook his head.  "Imagine you do and then imagine sleeping with her.  That's what you just implied."
 
"Oh." Merlin didn't feel relieved, he absolutely didn't.  "Sorry?"
 
"Please do stop apologising."  Arthur had finally got to his feet.  His face had drained of colour and there were tiny frown lines around his eyes as though he was in pain. 
 
"Should you be standing up?" Merlin asked, finally walking toward him.
 
"Probably not," Arthur agreed but he didn't sit down.  "Could you come here?"
 
Arthur reached out as soon as Merlin was close enough, his hands curling around Merlin's shoulders as though he needed the support. 
 
This close, Merlin could see a bruise on Arthur's chin, that his hair was still damp from washing out other people's blood, that his eyes were heavy with painkillers and exhaustion.
 
Merlin was touching before he could talk himself out of it, pressing his palm over the bruise on Arthur's jaw.  
 
Arthur didn't move, didn't make a sound, just let his eyes fall shut.  He was shaking.
 
Merlin knew this was a mistake; he was going to get rejected so hard and he still wasn't over Will.  He knew all that but he still slid an arm around Arthur's shoulders, pulled him forward until Merlin could press his temple to Arthur's cheekbone.  
 
Arthur's arms wrapped around him.  "You came here," he murmured, like it was surprising. 
 
Merlin turned his head into Arthur's hair.  "Yes.  Sorry."
 
"Were you worried?"  Arthur asked.  His tone sounded like it wanted to be sly, wanted to be teasing, but it was too serious for that.
 
Merlin made himself laugh.  It didn't fool anyone.  "What me?  Worry about a prat like you?"  He somehow managed to pull Arthur even closer.  "Yes," he said, "I was worried."
 
Arthur was quiet for long, endless seconds.  "I know it's rather an imposition," he said at last, "But could you possibly stay here tonight?"
 
Merlin knew he should say no but he thought of the stiff way Arthur was moving, the shadows in his eyes and the images of him from this morning, doing his best to save his people's lives, and couldn't say anything but, "Of course I will."
 

***


 
Arthur's bed was the most comfortable place Merlin had ever slept.  The sheets were cool and light, the duvet reassuringly heavy and the mattress felt like it was made from clouds.
 
"I'm never moving," Merlin told Arthur seriously. 
 
Arthur made a soft noise.  "That's fine," he said, sounding half asleep.
 
Merlin decided not to think about that too closely. 
 
He was lying on his side, a good foot of bed between him and Arthur, except that Arthur kept shifting and wriggling and Merlin was sure Arthur was going to kick him in a minute. 
 
"You're in pain, aren't you?" Merlin asked, leaning up on one elbow and putting his hand on Arthur's shoulder to stop him moving.
 
Arthur hissed in a breath and Merlin snatched his hand back.
 
"Only when idiots lean on me," Arthur said but he sounded exhausted, tetchy rather than actually annoyed.
 
"Can you take any more painkillers?" he asked.  He wished for one brief, ridiculous moment that he was studying medicine like Gaius had wanted, if only so it meant he might be able to help Arthur feel better right now. Geography was an interesting enough degree but Arthur probably didn't care about the ethnosocial implications of bridge-building in Laos right now.
 
"Not until the morning," Arthur told him.  He breathed out slowly.  "I'm fine.  Just a little sore."
 
Right, Merlin thought, like the Titanic was just a little ship.  He didn't say that though, just reached out and put his hand back on Arthur's shoulder, softer this time, moving his palm slowly over the soft material of his t-shirt.
 
Arthur made a questioning noise but he didn't actually ask Merlin what he was doing, which was good because Merlin didn't really know. 
 
Eventually, he felt Arthur start to relax under his hand and he smiled as he listened to Arthur's breathing slow and steady.  He carefully withdrew his hand and settled down on his side of the bed, closing his eyes.
 
It was very quiet in Arthur's bedroom, almost peaceful, and Merlin was almost asleep when Arthur sat up with a choked off cry and a jolt that shook the bed.
 
"What?" Merlin asked, scrambling to sit up too. 
 
Arthur's eyes were wide and his breath shook.  "Sorry," he said, "I'm sorry. I thought I heard-- I think I heard the explosion again in my dream."
 
Merlin wondered if it would be all right to put his arms around Arthur then realised that he already was.   "Hush, you're okay, you're safe," he said helplessly. 
 
Arthur leant into him a little, letting Merlin take some of his weight, only a little but it still felt like something important.  "I know I'm safe," he said, breath blowing hot against Merlin's cheek. "It's everyone else I'm worried about."
 
There wasn't much Merlin could say to that so he just held on tighter. 
 

***


 
Arthur woke feeling too warm, but very comfortable.  It had been a long time since he'd woken up in bed beside someone else and he'd forgotten how grounding it was.
 
Merlin was sprawled across Arthur's chest which did nothing for the pain in Arthur's shoulder but quite a lot for the rest of him and Arthur's hand was tucked under the waistband of Merlin's boxers, fingers curled around Merlin's hipbone.
 
He felt he should probably be embarrassed by that, but it was hard to be when it felt so right. 
 
Merlin stirred sleepily and Arthur withdrew his hand reluctantly, laying it on Merlin's waist instead, over the top of his t-shirt.  He missed the feeling of skin on skin so much that it was ridiculous. 
 
"Mm," Merlin muttered, rubbing his cheek on Arthur's t-shirt. 
 
The only reason Arthur managed to resist curling forward and kissing the top of his head was that his back wouldn't currently bend that way. 
 
He cleared his throat and forced himself not to sound fond.  "Good morning, Merlin," he said as pointedly as he was currently able.
 
It would have been funny to see how quickly Merlin woke up and scrambled away from him if it weren't, well, not funny at all.
 
"Oh my god," Merlin said in one long breath, followed by, "Hi.  Sorry."  His hand shot out and he pressed two fingers just above Arthur's left nipple.  Arthur's breath caught.  "I dribbled on you, sorry."
 
Arthur shook his head.  "I should have expected nothing less," he said. 
 
Merlin's eyes were very blue in the early morning light and his bed hair was magnificent.  His t-shirt had twisted around so the neck was stretched along one shoulder, showing the long line of his collarbone.
 
None of which was the reason that Arthur reached out to touch; it was the expression on Merlin's face as he looked at Arthur, worried, fond, nervous, affectionate, that made Arthur be very, very stupid for once and drag his fingers across Merlin's hip, up the concave dip of belly, just lightly, nothing Merlin couldn't move away from.  
 
Merlin's breath stuttered and he stared at Arthur, cheeks flushing, eyes getting wider.
 
He licked his lips and terrified hope shot through Arthur like the promise of a kiss.
 
"Oh," said Merlin, so quietly Arthur almost didn't hear him.  He closed his eyes for a moment.  When he opened them, whatever had been there was gone.  He moved backwards and Arthur let his hand drop to the bed. 
 
"Would you like some breakfast?" Merlin asked quickly, "Or tea?  Coffee?  Orange juice?"
 
Right, Arthur thought, Of course.  "Coffee, please," he said and let Merlin escape without pointing out that Merlin didn't live here and the coffee was not his to offer.
 

***


 
Merlin's hands were still shaking while he waited for the kettle to boil.  He'd found instant coffee in the cupboard above the sink, which probably wasn't what Arthur was used to, but it was in his kitchen so he couldn't really object.
 
His stomach still buzzed from the drag of Arthur's fingertips across his skin, shockingly warm even through his t-shirt.  It had been too much, first waking up curled in Arthur's arms, then the Arthur actually touching him. His heart was still pounding.

The click of the kettle boiling made him jump and he almost knocked the whole thing off its stand when he flailed toward it.
 
"Careful," said an amused voice and he turned around to see Lady Morgana watching him from the doorway.  She smiled at him and brushed past on her way to set a breakfast bowl and mug in the sink.  He tried not to stare, like the King's stepsister always wandered past him in her pyjamas.
 
"How's Arthur?" she asked.
 
"Fine," Merlin said automatically then realised that was either really true or really not true.  He wasn't sure if sort of slightly coming on to him was a sign on impending PTSD or not.
 
Morgana tucked her hair behind her ear and swung herself up so she was sitting on the counter by the sink.  She stretched out long legs and braced her bare feet against the wall, blocking Merlin's route out of the room.
 
"Um?" he asked, pouring some milk into his coffee then hesitating over Arthur's.  "Does Arthur take milk?"
 
"Yes," she told him, "And sugar.  Although not officially."
 
Merlin frowned at her.  "He doesn't take sugar officially?"
 
She smiled blandly.  "He's the King.  There's an official statement somewhere for everything."
 
Wow.  Merlin would not be able to cope with that.  Some of his horror must have shown on his face because Morgana laughed.  
 
"It's not as strange as it seems when you're born into it."
 
"Right," Merlin not-agreed.  He glanced at her legs, still trapping him.  "Am I your prisoner?" he asked, keeping his voice light.  
 
This time, Morgana's smile was warmer.  "Only for a moment," she promised him.  "I just want to have a quick word with you, re your intentions etcetera."
 
Merlin choked.  "My what?"
 
"The last time Arthur spent a whole night in bed with someone, he was seventeen and did it mostly to annoy his father. His father isn't here now, so I'm assuming he cares about you."
 
Merlin stared at her.  "Okay, but Arthur's straight," he said slowly.  The whole slightly hitting on Merlin thing to the contrary, obviously.  
 
Morgana looked at him like he was slow.  It was a very familiar look, but normally Arthur was the one wearing it.  "Which is why he slept with you last night."
 
"Hang on!" Merlin didn't mean to shout but it came out sort of loud anyway.  "We slept in the same bed, we didn't have sex."  He had to lower his voice on sex because he was in Buckingham Palace.  You didn't say sex in Buckingham Palace.  
 
Morgana dropped her legs, pulling them up onto the counter and resting her chin on her knees.  "You didn't?" she asked slowly.  
 
Merlin watched her; she looked sort of sad for some reason. People didn't normally look sad when they found out that Merlin hadn't had sex with their brothers.   "No.  Can I go?"
 
"What? Oh, of course."  She waved him off, not really looking at him anymore. 
 
Frowning, Merlin made his way back to the bedroom.  He wasn't surprised to find that Arthur had got out of bed; he didn't seem the type of person who could appreciate a lie-in, but he had to clutch the mugs extra hard so he didn't drop them when he saw Arthur standing in the middle of his bedroom, plain black boxers doing all good things for the muscles in his thighs.  He'd obviously got stuck half way through putting on a hoodie, because his arms were tangled above his head and Merlin could only see the bottom of his face.  The bottom of his face was very disgruntled.
 
"Are you all right?" Merlin asked, biting his lip so he didn't laugh.
 
"Yes," Arthur said, voice strained.  "Yes, I'm perfectly fine."
 
Merlin put the mugs down on the bedside table and walked toward Arthur.  Close-up, Arthur's chest was firm and the hairs smattered across it were very golden.  Shit.  Merlin shut his eyes for a moment.  He really wished Morgana hadn't put those thoughts in his head.
 
"It's your shoulder, right?" Merlin asked, slipping his hand under the rucked up hem of the hoodie and pulling it straight, putting one hand on Arthur's upper arm to support it while he eased the sleeve down.
 
Arthur hissed in a breath.  "You don't have to do this," he said quietly.  "You could get Morgana."
 
Arthur's skin was really warm. 
 
"Wouldn't she tease you?" Merlin asked.  The hoodie fell into place and suddenly Merlin was talking against the side of Arthur's face.  His hair was messy and his cheeks were flushed.
 
"Pardon?" Arthur asked, half turning toward Merlin.  
 
Merlin couldn't remember.  That was really embarrassing.  And Arthur's eyes were really blue.  "Is your shoulder okay?" he asked instead.  Self-consciously, he unwrapped his hand from around it.
 
Arthur made a soft sound and turned toward him like he was chasing the touch.  Which he wasn't.  Obviously.  Arthur was the King; he didn't want Merlin.
 
"It's fine," Arthur told him.  He reached up and brushed his thumb under Merlin's lower eyelashes.  Merlin actually shuddered.  Arthur blushed.  "Sleep dust," he said awkwardly.  
 
Merlin nodded.  "Thank you."  He wondered suddenly, stupidly, if he could just lean in and kiss Arthur right now.  He was taller than Arthur, he realised, but not by much.  It would be easy.
 
"Yes," Arthur said even though Merlin knew he hadn't said that out loud.
 
"Yes?" Merlin asked.  It was too early for this; his stomach was in knots.  
 
Arthur opened his mouth, or maybe he just parted his lips, maybe he was going to kiss Merlin, Merlin thought dizzily but, before he could find out, sudden loud voices outside the door had Arthur stumbling backwards away from Merlin and Merlin left in the middle of the room like an idiot.
 
"You can't just barge in there," Merlin heard Morgana shout angrily followed by the clatter of outdoor shoes on the steps leading up to Arthur's room.  
 
Arthur straightened his hoodie and was every inch a king before whoever it was had reached the top of the stairs, the fact he was still wearing his boxers didn't seem to put a dent that at all.  Merlin was just glad he'd put on his jeans.  
 
"It's customary to knock," Arthur said mildly and an old man Merlin had never met but was pretty sure was Lord Geoffrey Monmouth stopped in his tracks.
 
"Apologies, Your Majesty," he said, with a half-sketched bow.  "I'm afraid my business is urgent."  His eyes skimmed over Merlin, one eyebrow raising delicately as though fully disapproving of Merlin and his presence was just too much effort.
 
Arthur folded his arms.  "I suppose you'd better tell me then."  
 
Merlin couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Arthur sound that formal.  Call it a hunch, but he didn't think Arthur liked Geoffrey Monmouth at all.
 
"In the circumstances it has been decided to move you to--" Another glance at Merlin, this one more suspicious-- "Well, somewhere else, as a safety precaution."
 
"It's been decided?" Arthur repeated.  "By whom, precisely?"
 
"Chiefly, Inspector DuLac," Geoffrey said and Merlin watched as the fight went out of Arthur.
 
"This was Lancelot's idea?" he asked.  "Where is he?"
 
"He went ahead to secure the route," Geoffrey told him.  He cleared his throat quietly.  "If you wouldn't mind getting dressed."
 
"Lancelot agreed to this?" Arthur asked again.  
 
Geoffrey's expression flickered with such a brief spark of annoyance that Merlin almost missed it.  "He did.  I'm happy to wait while you phone him to confirm."
 
He didn't seem like he'd be happy to Merlin.
 
"No," Arthur said, "No, of course I believe you, Geoffrey."  He looked pointedly at the stairs.  "If you could give me a minute?"
 
"Of course."  Geoffrey's bow was much more sweeping this time as he backed out of the room.  
 
"Should I go too?" Merlin asked once Geoffrey was gone.  
 
"No," Arthur said, opening his wardrobe and pulling out a pair of grey trousers.  "Wait, please."
 
Merlin carefully looked away while Arthur pulled on his trousers, waiting one more minute after he heard Arthur do up the zip.  
 
"Merlin." Merlin jumped; Arthur was much closer than he'd expected.  "Is my sock drawer really that fascinating?"
 
"What?" Merlin asked then blushed, realising he'd been staring fixedly at Arthur's chest of drawers.  
"Never mind," Arthur said.  His lips pursed like he was psyching himself up for something.  Before Merlin could ask if he was feeling all right, Arthur ducked forward and pressed his lips to Merlin's.  "There," he said, like he was marking a task off his day-planner.  
 
He stepped back one step then another.  "I'll-  Would it be all right if I called you once all this nonsense is over?" 
 
This was the most ridiculous situation Merlin had ever been in.  "Yes," he said, because it wasn't like he could say anything else.
 

***


 
 
"Where on Earth are you going, boy?" an imperious voice asked and Merlin froze automatically, realised that no, actually, it was fine for him to be here, and looked around.

Having decided that skulking around alone in Arthur's rooms was creepy, he was on his way out of the Palace, half way down the main staircase.
 
The giant painting of King Uther with the labrador was looking at him.  Um, King Uther, that was, and the Labrador.  Only King Uther was talking to him though.
 
Merlin glanced around quickly.  A family walked past the bottom of the stairs but there was no one else immediately around.
 
"Pardon?" he whispered.
 
"Your Majesty," Uther prompted and oh Christ, not this again.
 
"I beg your pardon, Your Majesty?" Merlin said properly.  
 
"That's better."  Uther's mouth didn't move but his eyes did and Merlin could still hear him clearly.  "Why are you traipsing around the place as if you've nothing better to do when my son is in mortal peril?  What kind of a guardian are you?"
 
"Um, I'm not--" Merlin started to say then, "Wait?  What?  Arthur's in danger?"  The idea was so terrifying he couldn't actually process it.  
 
Uther rolled his eyes.  "This is ridiculous.  Gaius assured me you were up for the task.  Yes, Arthur is in danger.  That bastard Monmouth has him."
 
Wait, Merlin thought, Gaius reassures paintings? before exactly what Uther had just said penetrated his brain.  "Geoffrey?" he asked, "He's in danger from-- Never mind. Where's he taken him?"
 
For the first time, some feeling other than annoyance crept into Uther's voice.  "I don't know," he snapped, "Find him!"
 
"Yes," Merlin agreed, because yes and took off running, back the way he'd come.  
 
He didn't know who he was hoping to find, just someone who might know where Geoffrey was taking Arthur -- and Morgana.  Arthur and Morgana; he was worried about them both -- but as soon as he'd flung the door open, he bumped straight into Morgause.
 
"Sorry," he said, trying to slip past her then stopped, turning back to look at her.  "Do you know where Arthur and Morgana are going?"
 
She tipped her head slowly.  Normally, she was very soothing, but not today.  "To safety, apparently."
 
Merlin groaned.  "No," he said, "No, they're in danger and I don't know where they are."
 
Morgause's hands were suddenly gripping his shoulders.  She was strong and he tried not to wince.  "Why are they in danger?  What do you know?"
 
Merlin hesitated.  "A painting told me," he said eventually.  He didn't care if she thought he was crazy, only that she either help him or let him leave.  
 
Morgause stared at him, her eyes narrowing.  "Okay," she said eventually.  "Uther or Igraine?"
 
Merlin blinked.  "What?"
 
Morgause waved a hand.  "Igraine talks to Morgana all the time but Uther never does.  I don't think she wants to hear him.  But that's not important.  Tell me everything."
 
"I think I should maybe be telling the police?" Merlin said, because as reassuringly calm as Morgause was, he didn't think the two of them were really up for pulling off a daring rescue all by themselves.
 
"Pfft," Morgause scoffed, "You trust the police?"  Her eyes flashed gold and Merlin forgot to breathe.  "No," she said, "I think we can handle Geoffrey Monmouth by ourselves."
 

***


 
Overall, Arthur rather preferred the first way he woke up today to the second.  Waking up with a warm, Merlin-shaped blanket was infinitely preferable to waking up to a throbbing head, bile in his throat and the soft, fast sounds of Morgana's frightened breathing.

Arthur opened his eyes cautiously and squinted across rough, dirty carpet.  Morgana was sitting up against the opposite wall, an open cut bleeding down into her left eye and a scared, furious glare on her face.

He couldn't tell if they were alone in the room, but he couldn't hear anyone else breathing so decided to risk it.

"Morgana," he whispered softly.

Her head snapped up and she crawled quickly over to him.  Her left arm was held tightly against her side and Arthur decided, very calmly, that he was going to kill whoever had hurt her.

"Are you all right?" she asked, flattening one hand over his hair like she used to do when they were children and everyone else was too busy to comfort him when he was ill. 

He forced himself to sit up even though it awakened the throb in his head, burning nausea in his stomach and the ache in his shoulder that he'd picked up yesterday.

"Actually, I'm a mess," he told her and tried to smile.

Morgana just shook her head at him.  "Don't move, you idiot," she hissed, but she slipped in against his side to help him sit up anyway. 

Arthur dropped his head back carefully against the wall and tried to breathe through the pain.  There were bright lights at the corners of his vision and a worryingly sweeping blackness ebbing and flowing over everything.

"I'm sorry," he said, hating to admit weakness, but needing her to know she couldn't rely on his help, "I don't know if I'm going to be much good right now."

"Idiot," Morgana snapped again, "I don't keep you around for your escape strategies."

Arthur tried to smile, or thought he did.  He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on staying conscious.  "Do you have any idea where we are?"

Morgana shook her head, long strands of her hair brushing against his face.  "No." She rubbed the centre of her forehead.  "I remember getting in the car but nothing else."

Arthur was the same.  Geoffrey had led them out of the Palace through the one of the seldom-used back gates and Arthur had followed Morgana into the waiting car, sat in his usual seat and-.  Nothing.

Morgana's arm tightened around him.  "We'll be fine," she said.  "It's not like the government won't pay the ransom."

"Of course," Arthur said and didn't point out how unlikely it was that this was that kind of kidnapping.  "Look.  If anything-.  If you can get away but I can't, you will go, won't you?"

"Duh," she said, although her voice shook, "You think I'd sacrifice myself for you?"

Yes, Arthur thought, As I would for you.  He didn't say anything at all. 

***

"Do you have any idea at all where he might have taken them?" Merlin asked again.

King Uther in the painting on the stairs had refused to give them any more information but Morgause had found a painting of Uther, Igraine and baby Arthur in the Gallery and this Uther was proving chattier.  Not that even a chatty Uther was particularly effusive.

Effusive, seriously, he needed to spent less time amongst the Eton-educated elite. 

"I'm afraid I know very little about Geoffrey's personal habits," Uther told them, eyes locked on the far corner of the painting where Igraine was stroking the downy soft hair on the top of Arthur's head. 

"Would Igraine know?" Morgause asked.  Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides like she'd like nothing more than to punch the painting until it gave her some answers.  Her tone was soft and patient though.

"You'd have to ask her yourself," Uther said and he sounded sad for a moment, "She hasn't spoken to me in nearly twenty years."

Since she died, Merlin thought.

He stayed back and watched as Morgause knelt down beside the bottom right corner of the painting.  "Aunt Igraine?" she said, "It's Morgause."

No answer.

Morgause shot Merlin a frustrated look.  "Geoffrey's taken Arthur," she ploughed on, "Do you know where?"

Igraine stayed silent.

"It's no use," Merlin whispered, not sure why he was whispering but sure that he should.  "I don't think she knows we're here."

"Yes, she does." Morgause pressed her hand to the painting, fitting her fingers over Igraine's against baby Arthur's head.  "Auntie.  Please."

"Camelot." It was so quiet that Merlin almost didn't hear it, but that was definitely what she said. 

"I don't--" Merlin started, but Morgause hushed him. Merlin pressed his lips together, sure that this was pointless. Camelot House was where Igraine had died, falling down a flight of stairs while Uther and Geoffrey sipped tea upstairs. It was one of those stories, the kind everyone knew.

"Camelot House?" Morgause asked, "Are you sure?"

Igraine didn't say anything for long enough that Merlin was afraid she wouldn't.  "Yes," she said eventually.  "It's where he killed me."

***


 
"Such a terrible tragedy." Geoffrey's voice was soft, old and tired, but his hand holding the gun was entirely steady.  "I did my best to save you, of course, but there were just too many of them."
 
"No one will believe that," Morgana snapped at him.  It was her are you stupid? tone, the one she used to use on Uther.  
 
She was standing between Arthur and Geoffrey.  Arthur wished she wouldn't, wished he could make her move but it was taking all his energy to stay on his feet to face down the gun.  His fingernails wedged under the window-frame were all that was keeping him on his feet. He could only hope Geoffrey hadn't noticed.  
 
Geoffrey shook his head like shaking away a bluebottle.  "Of course they will.  They always do."  He jerked his head at Morgana. "Now, move out of the way."
 
"Why?" she demanded.  "You're going to shoot me anyway."
 
"Oh," Geoffrey said, "That's true," and pulled the trigger.
 
Morgana crumpled like a house of cards. Arthur didn't recognise the sound that came out of his mouth, just launched himself at Geoffrey not caring any more about the gun still clutched in Geoffrey's hand. 

Geoffrey was an old man and Arthur had had self-defence training since he was three years old but he was uncoordinated with rage and possible concussion and Geoffrey let him get one punch in before shoving him hard, back against the wall. 

"I always knew you were a son of a bitch," he spat. 

Geoffrey just smiled.  "That's funny," he said, "That's exactly what your father said. Potassium chloride is excellent at mimicking a heart attack, you know."

Arthur saw red, actual, literal red, but before he could attack Geoffrey again and, by god, he would kill him this time, Geoffrey pressed the gun up under his jaw, forcing Arthur's chin upright.

"Your whole family is a disgrace," Geoffrey told him.  "Impostors, usurpers, you have no right to the crown."

Arthur set his jaw and didn't speak. 

"No, last words, Your Majesty?" Geoffrey shook his head.  "How disappointing. I have often regretted not giving your dear mother a chance to utter her last words."

Arthur flinched but god, no, he wasn't going to give this bastard the satisfaction. Fixing his eyes on the ceiling, feeling Geoffrey press the barrel of the gun harder against the soft skin under Arthur's chin, Arthur set his teeth. 

He wasn't going to beg.

"Oh well," Geoffrey said, and Arthur shut his eyes when he heard the scrape of the hammer drawing back.

The explosion was deafening, loud enough to take Arthur off his feet.  He rocked backwards, grabbing at the wall, realising as he did that people who've just been shot in the head very rarely grab.

Snapping his eyes open, he stared. 

The ceiling had come down.  Not the whole ceiling, but a perfect circle of masonry which had fallen onto Geoffrey's head and was currently pinning him to the ground.  From the amount of blood, Arthur didn't think he'd be getting up again.

Morgana lay on her side, her arm outstretched.  There was a look of horrified determination on her face and her eyes were glowing gold. 

Arthur felt his legs start to give out and he stumbled one step, two, then collapsed down next to Morgana.

"Oh my god," he said and wrapped both arms around her. He pressed his hand to the front of her shirt, expecting blood but finding nothing. He tried to turn her around but she stayed where she was, stiff and still, the clamour of her heart under Arthur's shaking hands reassuring him that she was very much alive, alive and apparently, miraculously un-shot.

For once in his life, Arthur had no idea what to say.  He wanted to demand to know what the fuck had just happened, how she wasn't dead, how Geoffrey was, but Morgana was trembling, he was trembling and he pressed his face into the curve of her shoulder and didn't say a word.
 

***

Camelot House was apparently the Monmouth's ancestral home.  Merlin had only heard of it in relation to Igraine dying there and Morgause didn't know where it was but, luckily, the car they stole from Buckingham Palace Road had GPS.

Yes, they stole a car.  Merlin was actually too distracted worrying about a million other things to worry about that, or about the fact that Morgause had clearly never driven on the left hand side of the road before.

"Oh my god, don't kill us!" Merlin shouted, grabbing onto the dashboard as they screeched from the middle lane into the right hand lane far too late and just in front of a double-decker tourist bus.

"I'm an excellent driver, shut up," she told him through gritted teeth.

Her glare was kind of scary so he shut up. 

For a minute, anyway.

"Why would Geoffrey want to kill Arthur?  I don't understand." He had his phone in his hands, turning it around and around but Morgause was right; they couldn't phone the police. If Geoffrey was a traitor then who knew who else was.

Morgause screeched to a stop at a red light and turned to look at him.

"Geoffrey's family dates back to the Middle Ages," she said, "Perhaps he has decided to stake his own claim to the throne."

"Does he have a claim to the throne?" Merlin asked.

Morgause shrugged.  "I'm sure he could find one.  Even I have a claim on the British throne." Merlin felt his eyes go wide and she laughed.  "But I'm not trying to kill your Arthur, don't worry.  I can't think of anything worse than being Queen."

Merlin subsided back into his seat.  "He's not my Arthur," he muttered, but not very loudly, because judging by the ache in Merlin's heart, it was quite possible that he was.

***


 
Camelot was a sprawling, grey stone building in the middle of the Gloucestershire countryside.  Merlin had never driven around so much of the country as he had in the last couple of days. 
 
They left the car at the gate, not wanting to let anyone know they were there, and set off at a run down the driveway.  Merlin had never been much of a runner, but a summer spent rushing around Buckingham Palace all day had apparently made him much fitter, because he only reached the front door a second or two after Morgause.
 
"You go through here, I'm going around the back," Morgause told him and melted back into the shrubbery, disappearing from sight.
 
"Right," Merlin muttered to himself, "I'll just alohomora this right open." 

He pressed his hand to the door, thought open really firmly and only just managed to stop himself cheering when it swung forward under his hands.
 
The house was eerily quiet, like a horror film or Beast's castle before Belle turned up and made the teacups dance.  Merlin stood at the bottom of the stairs and tried to listen for anyone moving about with regicidal intent.
 
Nothing.
 
Crap.  Okay.  Deep breath, he told himself.  "Where's Arthur?" he asked the room.
 
"He's in the wine cellar," a deep, bored voice told him.
 
Merlin spun around.  The Monmouth coat of arms was ridiculously elaborate and there, in the middle, a painted wooden dragon was fluttering its wings and talking to him.
 
"The wine cellar?" Merlin asked, because he'd given up on questioning the impossible.
 
The dragon flapped its tiny wings slightly.  "Must I do everything?  Through the kitchen and down the stairs.  You won't miss it; there's an idiot with a gun about to shoot the last hope this country has." A pause.  "Although I did hear a rather large crash a short while ago, so I suppose it's possible he already has."
 
Merlin didn't stop to listen to the end of the sentence, just took off running down the hallway.  He had no idea where the kitchen was but that didn't seem to be stopping his feet which took him through the third door on the left into an enormous, old fashioned kitchen.
 
There was a trap-door in the centre of the floor which had to lead down to the cellar.  He took the steps two at a time and nearly fell and broke his neck when the floor became ceiling and he could see into the room. Arthur and Morgana were curled together on the floor and Geoffrey Monmouth was looking really rather dead under a pile of rubble beside them.
 
"Um," he said and Arthur leapt away from Morgana, reaching for a gun lying abandoned on the floor before he saw Merlin and stopped.  
 
"Yeah," Merlin said, approaching cautiously.  "I promise I don't want to kill you."  He held his hands up in surrender.  
 
Arthur looked terrible, blood and grey plaster dust matting his hair, eyes wide and shocky and his pupils different sizes.  He reached out a hand to Merlin and Merlin took it automatically, dragging Arthur back down onto the ground with him.
 
"Are you okay?" he asked, squeezing Arthur's hand, not wanting to let go.  Adrenaline was buzzing in his ears; he'd been all prepared for a dramatic rescue but apparently someone else had already had that covered.
 
Arthur shot a quick, worried look at Morgana.  "We need to get out of here," he said.  He either didn't notice or didn't mind that Merlin was still clutching his hand.  "Did you bring the police?"
 
"Oh," Merlin said, "No?  I brought Morgause."
 
Morgana's head snapped up at that, eyes tracking to Merlin a beat too slowly.  Shock, he thought, wishing he knew what to do for her.
 
"She'll probably be here in a minute?" Merlin tried, wondering where she was.
 
Morgana nodded.  Her eyes kept straying back to Geoffrey's body.
 
"How did you find us?" Arthur asked, before Merlin could ask what had happened.  
 
Luckily, Merlin was spared from having to explain the whole a portrait of your mother told us she was murdered here so we thought it was a good place to start thing, by a shout from upstairs.
 
"Here!" Morgana called back immediately and, ten seconds later, Morgause came running down the stairs. 

Her hair was pulled half free from her long plait and there were scratches on her cheek. "There was a man conjuring fire at the back of the house," she said, wiping her hands on her trousers.  "There isn't now."
 
She took in the scene in the cellar then looked at Merlin.  "Did you do this?"
 
Merlin shook his head. 
 
"Right," she said and slid to her knees next to Morgana.  She pushed Morgana's hair out of her face and cupped her cheek.  "I was wondering if you ever would," she said softly, stroking her thumb along Morgana's cheekbone.  "It's all right."
 
Morgana drew her breath in on a long shudder.  "It's not," she said, reaching up and clutching Morgause's wrists.  "It's not.  I killed him."
 
"Wait," Merlin said, "You made the roof fall down?  How?"
 
Morgause turned around and glared at him.  Right, he thought, was everyone around here magic?
 
"Yes, how?" Arthur repeated.
 
Merlin looked at the girls; they were concentrating on each other, not on answering Arthur.  "Let's talk about it later, yeah?" he said.  "Can you two walk?  We should probably get out of here."
 
"And go where?" Morgause asked.
 
Merlin shrugged.  "Back to the Palace?"
 
The look she gave him was much less forgiving than it had been in the car.  He had the feeling she was more freaked out by Morgana using her powers than she was trying to let on.  
 
"Do you know who they can trust?" she asked, "Because I don't.  I very much doubt Monmouth was working on his own."
 
"You're right," Arthur agreed.  He scratched around the dried blood in his hair.  He sighed; he looked exhausted.  "But we can't stay here."
 
There was silence.  
 
"Another castle?" Morgause suggested.
 
Arthur shook his head.  "Too obvious."  He looked at Merlin suddenly, eyes focusing slowly.  "Ealdor," he said.
 
Merlin took a moment to imagine his mum's face if he turned up on her doorstep with the King, Lady Morgana, and a random Danish princess.  
 
"Yes, okay," he said.  It wasn't like they had any other choices.
 

***


 
The journey to Ealdor was bumpy and tense and did nothing for Arthur's headache.  He curled up in the front passenger seat and spent roughly half the journey watching Morgana and Morgause whisper to each other in the backseat and the other half watching Merlin drive.  
 
The look of concentration on his face was a little alarming, as was the fixed position of his hands at ten and two on the steering wheel and the way he carefully kept exactly to the speed limit.  Arthur hadn't done that since he was learning to drive.
 
"Merlin," Arthur asked, because he wanted to talk about something more normal than people trying to kill him and no one would answer any of the five hundred questions he had about what had happened today, "How long have you had your driving licence?"
 
"Oh, um," Merlin said and executed a perfect mirror-signal-manoeuvre.  "My instructor thinks I'll be ready for my test in November?"
 
"Good god," Arthur said and double checked his seatbelt.  Forget about Geoffrey; maybe Merlin was trying to kill him.
 
Actually, that thought wasn't very funny.
 
"Are you okay?" Merlin asked.  "You just went really pale."
 
"Look at the road!" Arthur snapped, not actually answering him.
 
They drove in silence for a while, no sound in the front of the car except for the annoying drone of the GPS.  

"What's wrong with just reading a map?" Arthur asked eventually.  His head hurt and it was making him grumpy.
 
"I don't know," Merlin said, "How are your map reading skills?"
 
"Excellent actually," Arthur told him, giving him a look.
 
"Shh, both of you," Morgause hissed from the backseat.  Glancing in the rearview mirror, Arthur saw that Morgana had fallen asleep, her head resting on Morgause's shoulder, her hair hiding her face from the world.
 
Arthur watched her until he felt a hand on his thigh.  Looking over, he saw that Merlin was obediently watching the road.
 
"Hand on the wheel, please," Arthur said but he gave it a quick squeeze before Merlin could move it.
 
"Yes sir," Merlin agreed.  He was smiling softly.  Arthur couldn't quite manage a smile yet but his insides felt a little lighter.
 
"Did Lance tell you we were missing?" Arthur asked when he couldn't stand the silence anymore. "Actually, where is he?"

"Oh." They swerved into and out of their lane. Arthur grabbed Merlin's mobile off the dashboard before Merlin could finish his faint, "I don't know."

Merlin didn't have Lance in his address book but he did have Gwen and experience had taught Arthur that that was the next best thing.

"Merlin, oh my god," was how Gwen answered the phone, "Where are you? Have you seen the news?"

"Guinevere," Arthur said, interrupting, "It's Arthur."

"Arthur," Gwen said, using his name for the first time since they were nine and his father informed that their friendship was inappropriate. "Are you all right? Where's Lance? I couldn't get hold of anyone."

Arthur felt his heart sink. "Lance isn't - ? He hasn't called you?"

"No," Gwen said slowly, "Why? What's going on?"

I really don't know, Arthur thought helplessly. "Everything's fine," he said heartily, "I'm sure he'll call you soon. When he does, could you please ask him to call me on Merlin's mobile? Thank you, Guinevere, take care." He hung up on her protests and sent the call to voicemail when she phoned him straight back.

The pounding in his head that hadn't really died down came back full force.

"Merlin," he said hoarsely, "Pull over."

"What?" Merlin glanced over at Arthur and whatever he saw on his face had him pulling up onto the hard shoulder.

Arthur fumbled the door open with shaking hands and managed to vomit on the gravel shoulder rather than the inside of the car.

"Arthur?" Merlin asked, touching Arthur's back.

Arthur let his head drop forward and didn't answer. He heard the click of a door opening and then Merlin was crouching in front on him. He put his hands on Arthur's knees and Arthur stared at them, unused to Merlin's easy way of touching him.

"He killed my parents," Arthur said, feeling stupid for the young, lost timbre to his voice. He'd come to terms with having been orphaned early, but it felt different now, knowing it could have been avoided, that his parents could have been alive right now, that he could have just graduated from Durham with decades to go until it was his turn to be King.

"I know," Merlin said. He squeezed Arthur's knees before Arthur could ask how he knew; apparently this was another thing no one wanted to tell him. "Doesn't Gwen know where Lance is?"

Arthur shook his head. If Geoffrey had killed him too, Arthur would-- Well, there was nothing left that Arthur could do to him but he might spit on his grave.

He sighed, feeling impotent and embarrassed at his loss of control. "I'm fine, Merlin," he promised. He waved a hand in the direction of his head. "Just the probable concussion."

Merlin looked at him like he didn't believe him, but he stood up anyway, getting back into the car and driving them in silence the rest of the way to Ealdor.

***


 
Hunith's expression was about what Merlin had expected it to be when she opened the front door and saw them all standing there.  
 
"Oh," she said faintly.
 
"Sorry, we need to get inside," Merlin said, waving the others in quickly.  If any of the neighbours looked out of their windows and saw them all there, they'd be on the phone to the papers before Merlin could say curtain twitcher.
 
"Yes, of course." Hunith still sounded faint.  She snapped out of it when she got a good look at Morgana and Arthur's cuts and bumps.  "Merlin, take them into the living room, I'll get plasters."
 
The house had never seemed particularly small to Merlin before, but seeing Arthur standing awkwardly in the kitchen doorway made him see how narrow the hallway was, how the paint was peeling off the banisters.
 
"Living room?" Arthur asked.  To be fair, he didn't seem particularly appalled.  
 
"Just, uh.  Just through there." Merlin pointed to the first door on the right and told himself not to be so stupid.  
 
They drew the curtains in the living room so no one looking in would see them (of course, Mrs Brown from over the road would probably ask Hunith about that the next time she saw her, but Merlin trusted his mum's ability to improvise).  
 
Arthur and Morgana sat stiffly on the sofa, Morgause stood with her back to the window and Merlin hovered uncertainly between them. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something else to happen.
 
"All right," Hunith said, coming back into the room with her arms full of boxes of plasters, TCP and cotton wool balls.  She set them on the coffee table.  "Can the three of you see to yourselves?  I need to speak to Merlin in the kitchen.  Merlin?"
 
There really wasn't any arguing with Hunith when she used that tone and Merlin knew better than to even try. 
 
He followed her out into the kitchen, holding up his hands before she could say anything.  "I know, I know, it's weird."
 
"The King is in my sitting room, Merlin," Hunith whispered shrilly, "That's far beyond weird.  Do you realise that the entire country is looking for them?  It's all over the news; they've disappeared.  People think they're dead."  She took a deep breath, glancing over her shoulder.  "Are they okay?"
 
Merlin thought about making something up, but this was his mum, who hadn't freaked out when he started using magic at two years old or kissing boys at thirteen or moved to London at eighteen and constantly forgot to call home. 
 
"Lord Monmouth tried to kill Arthur and Morgana," he said.  "We don't know where they can go that's safe, so I brought them here.  I'm sorry, I know you don't need this, but I didn't know what else to do."
 
It wasn't until he finished that he realised he was actually sort of terrified, not that his mum wouldn't help, because of course she would, but that there was no help to give, really.  If Geoffrey had been working with anyone else, they'd be able to find Arthur and Morgana eventually; they weren't exactly inconspicuous. 
 
"Oh Merlin," Hunith said and curled her arm around his shoulders.  "Of course they can stay.  I'm just worried, that's all.  They can't stay here forever.  We don't have enough bedrooms for a start."
 
Merlin bit his lip around a smile at her practicality. 
 
"We'll leave if it's too much trouble, Mrs Emrys," Arthur said from the doorway and Merlin took a half step away from his mum so Arthur wouldn't see him getting a cuddle. 
 
"It's Hunith, Your Majesty," she said, still with that worried, disbelieving look on her face, "And you're welcome to stay, of course."
 
Merlin could see Arthur trying to overcome his conditioning, but finally he managed, "Arthur.  You may call me Arthur."
 
Hunith blushed; it was sort of hilarious.  "Oh," she said softly, then pulled herself together.  "Tea?  Has Merlin offered you any tea?  Merlin, really, see to your guests."
 
"You dragged me in here before I could," Merlin protested, not that tea had really been at the top of his agenda anyway.
 
"I'll help," Arthur offered, stepping into the room.  He smiled charmingly at Hunith before she could protest.  "I think Morgana might need a little help in the other room, if you don't mind?"
 
He had this way of making a polite request as compelling as an order.  Merlin was going to have to teach his mum how to resist that if she was going to be spending much time with Arthur. 
 
Not that she'd be spending much time with Arthur.  Obviously.  Because he'd leave here soon and never come back.  That was how things worked.
 
"Merlin," Arthur said as soon as they were alone.
 
Merlin had taken the kettle over to the sink to fill from the tap.  Arthur's voice saying his name made him jump and almost drop the kettle.
 
"Careful," Arthur murmured, stepping up behind him and taking it from him.  He set it on the stand and turned it on. 
 
"There's too much water in there," Merlin protested, because Arthur was warm against his back and it was making his mind go crazy, "It'll take forever."
 
"Merlin," Arthur said firmly, "Fuck the tea."
 
Merlin turned around.  Their chests pressed together and he wound his arms around Arthur's neck with no input from his higher brain functions.  "You can't say that," he argued feebly, "They'll take away your right to be King if you say things like that."
 
"Right now, I feel like that wouldn't be such a bad thing," Arthur told him and closed the distance between them, pressing his lips softly against Merlin's cheek.
 
Merlin made a sound and clutched at Arthur's hair.  The edge of the counter was digging into his back, his mum was only one room away, this was still such a bad idea but Arthur was dragging his mouth over Merlin's face, kisses wet and desperate, and Merlin couldn't resist that.
 
He spread his legs, letting Arthur crowd up between them.  Arthur was hard against him – adrenaline, Merlin thought vaguely, it had to be that – and he bit at Merlin's throat, clutched at his back like a lifeline. 
 
Merlin turned his face into Arthur's when he couldn't resist any longer, kissing Arthur's jaw, the smooth skin below his ear.  "Shh," he whispered, wondering if trying to offer comfort was going to put Arthur on the defensive, "Shh, come on, it's okay."
 
"It is anything but okay," Arthur told him, but he relaxed his death grip slightly, smoothing his hands up and down Merlin's spine apologetically. 
 
They stood like that while the kettle roared to their right and the soft sounds of Hunith talking to Morgana and Morgause drifted down the corridor. 
 
"Merlin," Arthur said eventually.  He pulled back and ran his thumb along Merlin's bottom lip, staring at Merlin's mouth like he wanted to kiss him there too; Merlin wished he would.  "I don't know what this is, exactly.  But I do, um."  He cleared his throat.  "I do feel it."
 
Merlin's heart skittered wildly.  "Me too," he said even though he shouldn't; it was too soon after Will.  But he looked at Arthur and couldn't imagine him being anyone's rebound, especially not Merlin's.
 
Arthur was too tense for his smile to be really convincing but Merlin pressed his mouth to it because it was there.
 
They stayed pressed together until the kettle boiled and Arthur would probably have stayed longer if Merlin hadn't pushed him gently away. 
 
"Cups are on the mug tree," he said, pointing to the windowsill, "Can you grab some?"
 
"I don't grab," Arthur said with dignity but he went where Merlin pointed, taking down mugs and examining them before he put them on the work surface.  "Mighty Mouse?" he asked, "Lucky Charms."
 
"Shut up," Merlin muttered, "The Lucky Charms one used to sing when you turned it upside-down."
 
"Why would you turn a mug upside-down?" Arthur asked, finally smiling convincingly, "You'd get tea in your lap."
 
"Shut up," Merlin said again and threw the box of teabags at him. 
 

***


 
Arthur wasn't sure what it said about him that making tea with Merlin in Merlin's mother's kitchen was the highlight not only of his day but probably of his month. 
 
It was definitely better than sitting around the dining table once everyone was suitably supplied with caffeine, trying to work out exactly what they were going to do next.
 
"Is there anyone you trust implicitly?" Morgause asked.  She seemed to have taken charge even though, as far as Arthur knew, this was her first attempt at escaping from murderers too.
 
"Yes," Arthur said, "But we can talk about that later.  I would like some other answers first.  Morgana?"
 
Morgana had been staring into her tea cup, now she looked up at him.  "I don't know," she said, without him needed to clarify exactly what he was asking about.  Which was good, since he didn't know exactly what he was asking about.  "I was shot and then I wasn't and then the ceiling was falling down."
 
"I fell down the stairs," Merlin said, and Arthur was about to tell him that as interesting an anecdote as that was, it didn't really explain anything, when Merlin went on, "I was nearly two.  My mum thought I'd broken my neck but I sat up and I was fine.  After that, I started being able to do things like this."
 
He shot a quick look at Arthur then clicked his fingers.  The room went dark.  He clicked them again and the lights back went on.
 
"Holy shit," Arthur breathed.  

Morgana was staring at Merlin too.  Morgause just smiled.
 
From the other room, Hunith called, "Not when I'm on the phone, Merlin!"
 
"Sudden trauma is often the reason it starts," Morgause said, looking at Morgana now.
 
"What starts?" Arthur asked even though he thought he knew.  He couldn't know, of course, because it was impossible, but nothing else made sense.
 
"Magic," Merlin said, with another look at Arthur.  This time, Arthur could identify his expression; it was apprehensive. 
 
"You can do magic," Arthur said, not a question, "And you," looking at Morgana.  He looked at Morgause.  "And you?"
 
"I didn't know," Morgana said quietly.  "I knew Morgause could, but not me."  She stared down at her hands like they'd betrayed her. 
 
"It's all right," Morgause told her and shot Arthur a look.
 
"Oh," Arthur said, "Yes.  Yes, of course it's all right."
 
"Thank you so much for the spontaneous validation," Morgana said archly and yes, that was better.  That was more like his Morgana. 
 
"Okay," said Hunith, walking back into the room with a cordless phone in her hand.  "I've spoken to Gaius, Merlin, and he's worried sick.  Will one of you please call him?"
 
"Gaius?" Arthur asked, "My doctor Gaius?"
 
"And my godfather," Merlin said, "He's how I got the job at the Palace."  He hesitated.  "I think I trust him.  Do you?"
 
Arthur's strongest memory of Gaius was of him being one of the very few people to hug Arthur when his father died.  He'd also been the only person apart from Morgana who actually stood up to Uther.  Geoffrey hadn't done either of those things.
 
"Yes," Arthur decided, "I trust Gaius."
 
"I'll call him," Merlin said, taking the phone from his mother. 
 
"Wait," Arthur said, stopping him with his palm on Merlin's wrist.  Merlin didn't pull away and Arthur had to fight not to curl his fingers around it, not with Merlin's mother in the room.  "We all need to agree."
 
It was probably stupid but they had to work as a team right now.
 
"I agree," Morgana said.  She looked at Morgause.
 
Morgause shrugged.  "I don't know him," she said, "But I trust your judgement."
 
Arthur had no doubt that she was talking to Morgana exclusively there. 
 
They waited in silence while Merlin called Gaius.  Merlin's end of the conversation consisted of a lot of, yes, and I know, and it seemed like a good idea at the time? but he was smiling when he hung up.
 
"Okay," he said, "He'll be here soon."
 

***

It was strange waiting around in Hunith's house for Gaius to show up.  After all the activity of the last couple of days, Arthur felt like he should be doing something, moving or fighting or trying not to die, but instead he was sitting on the sofa next to Merlin, watching Deal or No Deal.
 
"I don't understand this game at all," Morgause complained, watching another box get opened and the audience groan.  "Why do they not take the first offer and leave?"
 
"Because then there'd be no show," Merlin told her, in a tone which Arthur was fairly sure meant, Shhh.
 
Experimentally, Arthur reached over and put his hand on Merlin's where it rested on the cushion in between them.
 
Merlin didn't look away from the TV but he did curl his fingers around Arthur's.  Arthur tried not to feel too ridiculously pleased, but probably failed.  When he looked up, Morgana was watching them with a curious, soft expression.
 
Arthur told himself firmly not to pull his hand away.  He must have ended up squeezing too hard instead because Merlin wriggled his hand free, putting it over Arthur's instead.  He rubbed his thumb back and forth over Arthur's knuckles and Arthur forgot that anyone was watching.
 

***


 
"Look up," Gaius said, shining the little torch into Arthur's eyes, "And down.  Good."
 
Merlin kept out of the way while Gaius checked if Arthur really did have a concussion.  Merlin hoped not; apart from the obvious reasons why concussions were bad, it probably wasn't ideal if their first real kisses happened while Arthur had a brain injury. 
 
"I'm fine, Gaius," Arthur complained, looking straight ahead when Gaius told him to.  "I hardly even have a headache anymore."  His eyes locked on Merlin and he smiled.
 
Feeling ridiculous, Merlin smiled back.
 
"Yes," Gaius said, stepping back and turning off the torch.  "I think you'll be fine.  If the headache comes back or you experience any nausea--."
 
"Yes, yes, I'll tell you straight away."  Arthur was fidgeting in his chair, apparently unable to sit still for this long when he didn't have to.  "Could you please check on Morgana?  She's the one who got shot."
 
They'd told Gaius about Morgana's magical healing as soon as he arrived.  He'd always known about Merlin's magic and, if they were going to trust him, they needed to be able to trust him with everything.
 
"I've already seen Morgana, Arthur," Gaius said, "You and Merlin were watching Relocation, Relocation, I believe."
 
"Oh," Arthur said and Merlin smiled.  Watching TV with Arthur was surprisingly relaxing. 
 
Once Gaius had finished cleaning up the bump on Arthur's head, he sat them all down in the living room and looked at them seriously. 
 
"This is going to be difficult," he said, "For all we know, there are more people out there who wish you harm."
 
Arthur scoffed.  "Of course there are," he said, "The people who tried to blow me up, for one."
 
"Aren't those the same people?" Merlin asked.  He'd been sort of hoping they were and that now Geoffrey was dead, they might give up.
 
Gaius shook his head.  "We can't be sure of that. Geoffrey may have hoped to take advantage of the situation to put himself on the throne, but I doubt he orchestrated it. If he's been biding his time since he killed your father-" Gaius winced; Arthur stared stoically ahead -- "I can't see him escalating into shootings and bombings which implies there's another traitor in the Palace."
 
They looked at each other hopelessly.
 
"The shooter?" Merlin asked, "Um, Valiant."  He felt sick but he had to say this; it wouldn't help anyone to waste time hunting for a traitor who might not exist.  "Would it help if I told you that I know a little bit about him?"
 
Everyone turned to stare at him. 
 
"Yes," Arthur said.  "It would have helped even more last week."
 
Merlin drew his legs up onto the sofa and told himself that honesty was important.  Arthur wanted them to be a team, and Merlin couldn't think of another way for them to survive this. 
 
"Will told him where your sitting room is," he said, hating himself.   

"What?" said Hunith.
 
"Pardon," said Gaius.
 
Arthur just stared at him.
 
"He didn't mean— I don't think he wanted anything bad to happen to you.  He was just mad that I didn't tell him we'd been spending time together and Valiant knew he knew me so he asked."
 
"And Will told him," Hunith said slowly.  She shook her head.  "No, he wouldn't."
 
"I know," Merlin said, looking at her helplessly.  "But he did."
 
"And you've known since it happened?" Arthur asked, "That's why you broke up with him?"
 
"Yes," Merlin said, not liking Arthur's tone.  "I would have told you sooner but I really don't think he knows anything helpful and he is my boyfriend."  Arthur's face shut down.  "Best friend.  I meant, he's my best friend.  Obviously, he's not my boyfriend anymore."
 
"Obviously," Arthur repeated but flatly, like it wasn't obvious at all. 
 
"Arthur," Merlin tried.
 
"So," Arthur interrupted, "Where does Will live?  Still in your flat?  I think someone should have a word with him."
 
"I will," Gaius said, looking between Merlin and Arthur like he didn't know what was going on and was rather glad about that.  "I'll head back to London now, talk to a few people I know I can trust and report back to you tomorrow.  You'll be fine here?"
 
"Of course they will," Hunith said, standing up to see Gaius out.  "A little squashed maybe, but if anyone tries to get to them in here I'll give them what for."
 
"She will, too," Merlin said, trying to catch Arthur's eye to make him share the smile.
 
"Gaius, could you try to find Lance?" Arthur asked, ignoring Merlin.
 
Oh, shit.  Merlin had forgotten all about Lance. 

"I'll see Gaius out, Mum," he said, bouncing to his feet and following Gaius to the door.
 
"Well?" Gaius asked when they were at the front door, out of everyone's earshot.  "What do you need to tell me?"
 
"Nothing," Merlin said quickly.  "Just. I think Lance was maybe kind of suspicious of Will when he found out I'd shown him around Arthur's room? What if he's been investigating him and someone who was working with Valiant got worried that Lance was too close to something?"
 
Gaius nodded.  "You think he might be dead?"
 
"No," said Merlin quickly.  Then, "I hope not.  It would break Arthur's heart."
 
"Yes," Gaius agreed somewhat elliptically, "You do seem rather concerned by Arthur's heart."

Merlin didn't really know how to respond to that.

***

Hunith's house had three bedrooms: hers, Merlin's, and a spare.  She tried to give Morgana her room, then Arthur once Morgana refused.  Finally, in desperation, she turned to Morgause.

"Mum," Merlin said gently, "Give it up.  No one's going to put you out of your bed."

Arthur tried not to look like he was listening but couldn't help smiling when Hunith hissed, "Your grandmother would turn in her grave if she knew I was making the King sleep on the settee."

"Gran's not dead," Merlin said, "And, um.  I don't think anyone will be sleeping on the settee."

He looked across at Arthur from under his eyelashes.  Arthur tried not to react.  He was still angry about Will, of course he was.  It was just.  Well.  With the rate people were trying to kill him, he might die tomorrow and that made it harder to hold on to his anger right now.

"No, no one will," he said.

"Morgause and I will take the spare room, if that's okay?" Morgana said, which distracted Hunith enough that Merlin was able to grab Arthur's wrist and lead him into Merlin's bedroom.

He pressed Arthur up against the door before Arthur could say anything.  

"I'm sorry," Merlin said, kissing Arthur's temple, "I'm so sorry.  I couldn't.  I can't just betray Will though."

"He betrayed you first."  It didn't come out very strident because Arthur was too busy tipping his head back against the wall.  It had been so long since he'd had someone who would touch him.

"Mm," Merlin whispered, "And I'm so angry with him."  Kiss.  "And I am on your side." Another kiss, creeping closer to Arthur's mouth.

Arthur heard himself make an involuntary sound.  

"We can't do this here," he said, "Your mother is next door."

"Nah," Merlin breathed, cool air on Arthur's kiss-wet throat, "She's two doors down. Morgana's next door."

Arthur made a face.  "That's really not very reassuring, Merlin."

"Shh," Merlin said and slid his hands up under the back of Arthur's hoodie.
 

***


 
Waking up sprawled across Arthur for the second morning running should probably have felt more embarrassing than it did.  

Arthur was wearing a pair of Merlin's pyjamas bottoms but no shirt because nothing of Merlin's would fit across his chest, so Merlin's cheek was resting on bare skin.

"Good morning," Arthur said.  He was tracing shapes along Merlin's spine through his t-shirt.  No, not shapes, Merlin realised, letters.

"What are you writing on me?" Merlin asked, his tongue feeling heavy from too much sleep.

"Nothing," Arthur said, "Secrets."

Merlin grinned.  "Don't be ridiculous," he said, secretly liking it.

"It's hardly my fault if you make me ridiculous."  Arthur ruined his snitty tone by pulling Merlin up so he could kiss him.  

They hadn't done anything but kiss last night - well, okay, a little bit of sleepy groping too - but everything with Arthur still felt so easy, like they'd been together for years, like it had with Will but with added passion.  

"This is really stupid, isn't it?" Merlin asked, resting his head on Arthur's shoulder.  "I mean, you're--"

"Don't say the King," Arthur begged, "I'm tired of people telling me that things can't happen or must happen because I'm the King.  Who says a king can't have a scrawny, magic boyfriend if he wants one?"

"Oi," Merlin said, punching him. "Also, um, everyone?"

Arthur hugged him hard.  "I'll find a way," he said, "If you ask me to."

Merlin tried very hard not to ask him to right now.  "How about we go on a couple of dates first?" he asked.  "You might go off me, you know."

"Yes," Arthur agreed solemnly, "That does seem very likely."

Merlin smacked at him again.  

Arthur grabbed his hands.  "Hey," he said, "No attacking your King, Merlin."  He rolled Merlin over, fingertips going to Merlin's ribs.  

"Merlin," Hunith called, before Merlin could dissolve into any embarrassing flailing and shrieking, "There's someone at the door."

Merlin groaned as Arthur snatched his hands back.  "Who?" he asked.

"Well." Hunith's voice was suddenly much nearer the door, "It's the Prime Minster, actually."

"Shit," Arthur snapped and rolled out of bed.

***

Merlin watched through the crack in the dining room door while Arthur paced and Nimueh talked.  

Merlin couldn't tell what she was saying to him and he really, really wanted to know.

"Drink your coffee and stop eavesdropping," Hunith told him and Merlin looked away guiltily.  

"I just want to know what they're saying," he protested then realised that oh, wait, that was the definition of eavesdropping.  

"I'm sure whatever they're talking about is fascinating but it's none of your business," Hunith said.  "Gaius said he'd only talk to the people he trusts so it must be fine."

"Yeah," Merlin agreed, nodding.  He only realised he'd tipped his chair back to see through the crack again when Hunith smacked him on the knee.

"Merlin," she said and Merlin thought he was going to get another lesson in manners until he dropped his chair back onto four legs and saw her serious expression.  "Sweetheart.  It's none of my business, but are you sleeping with King Arthur?"

"No," Merlin said automatically, because he wasn't or, rather, he hadn't.  Except, it wasn't like he didn't want to.  "We're going to go on a date when this is all over."

"Oh Merlin," Hunith said and Merlin winced; he really didn't want to hear it.  "Don't you think it's too soon after Will?"

Merlin blinked.  "I thought you were going to say it was hopeless because he's the King and this isn't a fairytale."

Hunith rolled her eyes.  "Really?" she asked.  "You could do magic before you could talk but you think catching yourself a Prince Charming is out of the question?  No, I've seen how he is with you.  Just don't rush anything, all right?"

"All right, Mum," Merlin agreed and didn't duck away when she kissed his cheek.

Merlin was still picking at his cornflakes and trying to sneak peeks at Arthur when his phone rang.  He'd left it on the table because he was waiting for Gaius to call and the buzz of the ringtone against the wooden tabletop made him jump and splash milk onto his bare knee.

"Hi?" he asked without checking the screen, mopping up the milk with the hem of his t-shirt.

"Look," Will said quickly, "I know you don't want to talk to me, but Gaius was here and are you okay?"

Shit, he wasn't ready to talk to Will yet.  Merlin had never actually hung up on anyone in his life though. 

"Yes," he said, trying not to sound too inviting, "Everything's fine."  He leant back in his chair again, watching Arthur get more agitated and missed whatever Will said next. "I'm sorry, what?"

Will's sigh made static crackle in Merlin's ear.  "I said, are you ever coming home?"

Oh.  "Will..." Merlin sighed.

"I know," Will interrupted, "I know we're over, that's pretty clear.  But I.  Fuck, I miss you, okay?"

Oh god, Merlin didn't need this right now.  He started to tell Will that, that they could talk about it later, but Will ploughed on. 

"Look, I'll move into the spare room, just-- It's really shitty not getting to hang out with you; you're my best friend and stuff, right?"

Merlin couldn't help smiling a little.  Will trying to talk about feelings was always entertaining, even when Merlin was pissed at him.  "Oh, your best friend and stuff?" Merlin asked and he hadn't realised that he was teasing until Will laughed, soft and relieved.

"Just come home?" Will asked.

Merlin thought about it.  It would be a pain to have to find a new place and, damn it, he missed Will too.  He wondered how Arthur would feel about him moving back in with Will. Probably not good. "I'm seeing someone," he said.

There was silence on the other end of the line, then, "Oh," Will said faintly, "Right."

Merlin winced and concentrated all his attention on the call for the first time.  "Maybe we should talk when I get back to London?"  He hated the fact that he felt guilty; Will had fucked them up, not him but, still, Merlin felt like crap.

All of a sudden, he wanted everything to be okay.  He wanted to slot Will back into his best friend box and to keep Arthur in the boyfriend box and for everything to work out.  He wanted an awful lot really, and that was dangerous.

"Yeah," Will said, "Okay."

"Okay," Merlin echoed. He stopped, realising that Arthur and Nimueh had stopped arguing. The silence felt ominous. He leant back to check up on them; neither of them were moving.  "I'll call you soon, okay," he said to Will and ended the call. 

***

Merlin wasn't great at moving around silently, but he managed it just this once, creeping to the door and pressing his ear against it.

Nimueh was saying words that were definitely not in English, but which he recognised anyway: spell words like Merlin had learnt from the old magic book Gaius had given him way back when.

For fuck's sake, was everyone around here magic or something?

Nimueh was holding a glass of water, which wouldn't have been strange except no one had fetched her one.  That and the fact that Arthur looked genuinely freaked out for once.  

Merlin pushed the door open. It creaked and Nimueh turned around.

"Oh, hello," Nimueh said, "Are you Arthur's friend?"

Merlin blinked at her.  "I'm Merlin."  He walked further into the room even though Arthur was clearly telling him not to with his eyes.  "What's going on?"

She smiled humourlessly.  "I was just explaining to Arthur how this symbolises life." She stirred her finger through the water at the bottom of the glass. "And that when I drop this glass, he'll die."

Jesus Christ, Merlin was tired of people threatening Arthur's life. "Wait?" he asked, stalling for time, "You're in league with Geoffrey?"

Her laugh was high and genuinely amused. "No," she smiled, "Of course not. Geoffrey was in league with me. Until the idiot tried to kill Morgana and take the throne for himself, anyway. He deserved exactly what she did to him,"

"Morgana didn't do anything to anyone," Arthur lied, eyes fixed on Nimueh's glass.

Nimueh rolled her eyes. "Don't try to lie; I felt it when she killed him." Her smile turned crooked and unnerving. "Delicious."

"Um," Merlin said, edging closer to Arthur. "I'm sorry, but I'm confused. Would you mind explaining?"

"Like a comic book villain?" she asked, "I suppose so. Why not. It's very simple. We want Arthur off the throne and Morgana on it."

"Who's we?" Arthur asked.

Nimueh shook her head. "Others like me. Like Morgana and Morgause and your little friend here. It's nothing personal; I'd always rather hoped that you'd reveal some latent magic talent yourself, but you never have."

"Oh well," Arthur said dryly, "Do forgive me for disappointing you."

Merlin winced. Please don't be sarcastic at the nice lady who can probably kill you he thought, panicked.

"That's quite all right," Nimueh said and dropped the glass.

Merlin flung out his hand and the glass stopped.  Time stopped.  Everything stopped except Merlin and Nimueh.

"Well," Nimueh said, "You are talented.  Too bad you won't be able to hold the world like this for long.  That's a lot of magic for someone who's completely untrained."

Merlin concentrated on not letting his hand wobble.  He wished he'd had breakfast; he could have used the energy.  She was right, this was exhausting.  

"Why didn't you do this all along?" Merlin asked through gritted teeth, hoping to distract her. "What was the point of the shooting and the bombing and everything if you could just do this?"

"Gaius," she told him, not distracted at all, damn it. "He's treated Arthur all his life and he'd be suspicious if Arthur just keeled over and died. The other ways seemed less likely to point back to me. I thought since that little terrorist group was making itself such a nuisance on the Continent, I might make use of them over here too. Too bad they proved so ineffective. Are you getting tired?"

Merlin jumped at the sudden change in conversation. "No," he said, lied, "I'm fine."

"Of course you are," Nimueh said, "Well, I'm very busy and important, so let's get this over with, shall we?"  Her hand shot out toward him.  

Merlin didn't mean to react.  He didn't even know he had until his own hand was rising to try to ward off her attack.  The glass tumbled toward the ground.  He snatched a handful of air, symbolically snatching up the glass, and flung it at her.  

The glass shattered against her dress and the water just... disappeared.  

Time unfroze.

Arthur swayed but stayed on his feet.

"Oh, that is absolutely it," Nimueh snapped, stalking forward.

"Yes," someone said from behind her, "It really is."

Nimueh crumpled to the floor, revealing Gwen standing behind her with a book held high, ready to hit her again.

"Is that the Bible?" Merlin asked, feeling hysterical.

"No," Gwen said very calmly, "Harry Potter."

Nimueh wasn't moving.  After waiting another couple of seconds because Merlin had seen Scream, he approached cautiously.  

Gwen watched impassively while he checked her pulse and it was only when he looked up and said, "She's alive," that Gwen's shoulders relaxed and he realised she'd been shaking.  

"Guinevere," Arthur said, taking the book from her like it was a loaded gun, "Not that I'm not eternally grateful but what are you doing here?"

Gwen looked down at Nimueh and shoved her hands in her pockets.  "She poisoned Lance," she said, "Gaius found him left in an alleyway to die."

Arthur's face closed down.  "Is he all right?"

Gwen blew out a breath; she looked suddenly much closer to tears than Merlin had any idea how to deal with. "He's in hospital.  Gaius thinks he found him in time.  Maybe."  She pulled her phone out of her pocket with hands that only shook a little.  "I should call 999."  She shook her head when Merlin tried to offer to do it for her.

They watched her walk away, Arthur putting his hand on Merlin's shoulder when he tried to follow.

"I think she needs a minute," he said. 

Merlin looked down at Nimueh and nodded.  "Me too," he said and put his hand over Arthur's.

***

Morgause came down the stairs in jeans and one of Hunith's t-shirts just as the ambulance drove away with Nimueh handcuffed in the back.

She looked at the group clustered by the front door and shook her head.  "Please don't tell me someone has tried to kill you again," she said, sweeping past.  "Is there any breakfast?"

Arthur watched her head into the kitchen and sighed.  "It is getting a little ridiculous, isn't it?"

"Hopefully this is an end to it," Gaius told him.  Everything had become just a little calmer when he'd arrived, just ahead of the ambulance. "If Nimueh was the ringleader."  He raised his voice.  "Morgause, my dear, I'd love a cup of tea if you've got the kettle on."

"I can only make coffee," Morgause called back.

"Oh dear," Gaius said and went to join her in the kitchen.

"If," Arthur echoed, because it seemed like an important little word.  

"Don't," Morgana told him sternly.  She'd woken up just before Gaius arrived, running down the stairs sure that something was wrong.  Arthur appreciated her attempt at prescience even if she was a little late.  "You can't live like that."

"Yes," Arthur agreed, "No sense sitting around waiting to be shot, blown up, shot again or killed with a magical glass of water, is there?  I've got a country to run."

Morgana managed a small smile.  "You do remember that they don't actually let you run the country, right?  You're just there to look pretty."

Arthur shrugged.  "Well, yes.  But we don't exactly have a prime minster right now, you'll note.  I'm sure the Government will be thankful for a little guidance."

Morgana rolled her eyes and laughed at him.  "You keep telling yourself that, Arthur," she said.  She glanced toward the living room where Merlin and Gwen were talking softly.  "So, Merlin's nice."

Arthur turned and glared at her.  "Don't," he said warningly.

She pouted.  "Oh, no, please," she said, "I've never had anyone to tease you about.  Don't you remember the fuss you made about George?"

"George was twice your age!  Merlin and I are practically-" He stopped, realising how much he'd just admitted.

Morgana's smile was wide and evil; apparently a good night's sleep had done wonders to restore her to normal.  Arthur thought he was glad about that.  "Firstly," she said, "George was hot and rich and a terribly famous actor.  Secondly, I claim best man status at your eventual wedding."

"Don't think I won't box your ears," Arthur warned, refusing to let his lips twitch.  

Morgana's wide smile softened into something warmer.  "You're just a walking, talking Enid Blyton novel, Arthur, aren't you?" she said fondly.  She reached out and caught his hand, curling it between both of hers.

Surprised, Arthur stayed very still.

"Arthur," Morgana said, "I have to go away for a little while."

Arthur's hand clenched involuntarily around hers.

"Morgause thinks it would be a good idea for me to go somewhere more private to learn about my 'gift' and I agree." Her free hand twitched, making the quotes around gift.  "You'll be fine without me."

"Of course I'll be fine," Arthur said stiffly, even though he privately doubted it.  Since Morgana had come to live with them, she'd been the only constant friend he'd had.  He'd had no one before her.

"Oh Arthur," she said and put her arms around him.  "I will be back," she promised.  

Arthur nodded against her hair and allowed himself to hold on tightly.  He watched Gwen and Merlin in the living room, listened to Morgause and Gaius bicker companionably in the kitchen and thought of how he needed to visit Lance in hospital as soon as he was back in London.  

He would be fine he realised.  Which didn't mean he wouldn't miss her like hell.  He held on tighter.

Epilogue:
 
Really, Merlin thought, the choir of white-robed, pink cheeked children was a little bit much.  Judging by the ever-so-slightly pained expression on Arthur's face, he agreed. But then, it was a coronation; they were supposed to be ostentatious.

Westminster Abbey was incredibly impressive, all vaulted ceilings, hanging candelabras, lords in red velvet capes carrying sceptres and putting on coronets as the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the crown on Arthur's head.

It looked heavy.

"God save the King," everyone around Merlin cried out and he joined in because it seemed like the thing to do. Loudest amongst them were the new Prime Minster and his deputy. Nimueh's party had fallen apart and, in the confusion, the public had accidentally voted in a coalition government. It didn't matter either way to Merlin but Arthur was going scatty trying to deal with them. Not that Merlin suspected he'd have it any other way, not now Geoffrey was gone and he was finally allowed to do his job.

From Merlin's left, Gwen leant over and nudged him in the ribs with her elbow.  "Really, you should be up there with him," she whispered, smiling.
 
Merlin laughed quietly.  "We've only been on five dates, Gwen, I don't think he's ready to rock the establishment for me quite yet."

On Gwen's other side, Lance hid his own laugh in a cough.  He was still pale and skinny, not allowed to go back to work yet, but he was looking better every day and most of the heavy-eyed worry was starting to leave Gwen's face.  

Arthur's security detail had trebled since the summer, even though no one had tried to kill him for months now. Nimueh was in prison and if she'd had any co-conspirators they'd faded into the woodwork, but if the radical magical element had singled Arthur out once they could do it again and Merlin felt better when he around to look out for him.

Not that that was the only reason he felt better when he was around Arthur, obviously.
 
Merlin jumped when his mobile vibrated in his pocket.  Oops, he thought, pretending not to see Gwen's glare when he fished it out and covertly checked the message under cover of the pew in front.

There was a text from earlier from Will which Merlin hadn't noticed arrive, too distracted by how breathtakingly beautiful Arthur looked sitting on his throne with all the lights shining down on him.

yeah, your boyfriend's pretty hot it said nothing on your ex though ;)

Merlin rolled his eyes, smiling. He hadn't moved back into their flat but he and Will met up for coffee at least once a week and Merlin had, at least, managed to persuade Arthur not to have Will beheaded for treason or whatever it was they did to people these days.

He scrolled to the new message, which turned out to be from Morgana:

ffs the idiot's crown is crooked

Merlin looked up.  Morgana was sitting in the Royal Box with Gaius and Morgause.  She widened her eyes meaningfully when she caught his eye.  

Denmark had been good for her; she'd flown home yesterday morning for the coronation and Merlin had only been able to spend half an hour with her but that was enough to tell that she was feeling more relaxed about her magic. Apparently not relaxed enough to try to straighten Arthur's crown in front of an abbey full of people though.
 
Rolling his eyes, Merlin looked up to check on Arthur.  The gleaming, golden crown was slightly wonky on Arthur's gleaming golden head.  Merlin curled his fingers surreptitiously around the arm of his pew and twitched his forefinger gently.  Correspondingly, the crown on Arthur's head moved very slightly until it was completely centred.
 
Arthur went still, but no one else seemed to notice.  His eyes moved until they locked on Merlin's and he smiled, very slightly.  Merlin smiled back.
 
/End