Arthur lifted his arm and tilted it as subtly as he could toward the light of the chandelier until he had a glimpse of the heavy gold watch on his wrist. Half past ten, and if anything, the supposedly intimate reception seemed to have grown into a full-fledged royal shindig.
Across the ballroom, beneath a portrait of Arthur's great-great-great-grandfather, his father stood speaking with the Australian ambassador. Arthur had expected him to retire at least half an hour before, but Uther showed no signs of detaching himself. On the contrary, the conversation seemed unusually intense for what was normally a dry diplomatic event.
And one could not possibly leave before the King, even if one was the Prince of Wales.
He did not sigh as he turned to find the Bulgarian ambassador's chief of staff sidling up to him, the next in the endless train of people eager for a moment with royalty. She smiled, he smiled, a palace photographer snapped their picture. He shook her hand and lifted his other hand to lightly touch her shoulder. As she lit up with joy, he managed one more glimpse at his watch.
Before the next hovering well-wisher could make a move, a slender arm twined through his with a familiarity only family could claim. "Morgana," Arthur greeted through his tight smile. "What are you doing?"
His half-sister continued moving toward the edge of the room, towing him along with little choice in the matter if he didn't want some unflattering photos. Her own smile was easy and unmoving as she spoke through her teeth. "I'm offering you a deal."
"What kind of deal?" Suspicion was a normal and natural part of their relationship, particularly when Morgana approached him for anything. Still, he didn't mind the distraction.
"You tell me who she is, and I'll cover for you with your father for the rest of the night."
His heart thudded once and sent a cold flush through his body. "Exactly what kind of cover do you think I need, Morgana?" He kept his voice and expression genially neutral, the public face they both understood.
"You've looked at your watch at least ten times in the last half hour," she replied, sounding remarkably like his governess when she'd reprimanded him ever so gently for fidgeting in the public view. "And you keep looking at His Majesty the King as though willing him into a sudden fit of narcolepsy."
He did not. Did he? He ground his teeth in anger at himself as the familiar creep of danger, secrecy at all costs, moved up his back, stiffening his spine as it went.
"Don't pretend you're not as bored as I am," he deflected. "Father never stays at parties this late. We're always free to do as we please by half ten at the outside."
"England played Australia at rugby last week."
"Shit." It was a measure of his distraction over the last couple weeks that he had forgotten about the match entirely. He glanced over at his father again, still arguing vehemently with the ambassador. Another man, whom Arthur did not recognize, had joined them. Two discreetly armed guards stood at a few feet away, warding off any interruptions with steely looks.
"Yes. They could be hours yet. Which you should have known." She leaned closer, eyes glittering under chandelier stars. "So who is she?"
His eyes flicked to the side, avoiding hers. He couldn't tell her about a woman; he wouldn't tell her about Merlin.
"Fine, keep your secrets." Her chin lifted. She started to move away, but his hand snapped out to grip her slim wrist.
"Morgana," he said, helpless. It had been nearly two weeks. He would give almost anything for what she was offering--just not what she was asking. "Please."
The word tasted like sawdust, but her eyes widened and softened. "The great Prince Arthur saying please. It must be true love. Well, far be it from me to stand in the way."
His eyes fluttered with relief before he composed himself. "I appreciate the generosity."
"It won't come free, but I'll let you postpone the collection for now." She turned away again, looking back at him over her silk-clad shoulder. "Go on, then. Ask Gwen to get your car; she'll be discreet. I'll tell Uther you stepped out to discuss one of your charities."
He nearly flinched before realizing it was just a lucky hit. Of course, she could not have guessed or her price would have been a great deal higher. "Thank you," he offered, the coin of humility a fair enough price to pay.
Then, while the international elite fluttered around Morgana like gussied-up moths to a disdainful flame, he slipped out into the dim corridors of Buckingham Palace to find Gwen.
He had met Merlin three years ago through charity work. At first glance, in fact, he had assumed Merlin was some kind of charity case himself.
Arthur had been at a loose end since a terrorist threat had brought his military service to an abrupt and humiliating end two months before. He had raged all the way from Kabul to London, but his father had cut him down colder than a sniper's bullet as soon as he was off the plane.
"The benefit of your presence there no longer outweighs the risk to your life or your unit," Uther had said, matter of fact, dismissive. "Your place is here."
"I'm their captain, my place is with my men!" Even as he fired back, he knew he had lost the battle, apparently to be his last.
"You are the future King. That may not mean much to the general populace anymore, but I promise you, it means a great deal to me." Uther looked at him for the first time, pinning him with the full obligation of his ancestry. "You will occupy yourself with royal work. The time has come to put away your playthings."
His men were not playthings; the innocent Afghanis they had been trying to protect were not game pieces to be discarded. Crown Prince Uther had come back from war weighed down with medals for heroic bravery in the defense of his people. That he considered Arthur's service unnecessary, a childish impracticality they could no longer afford to indulge, was the greatest slap in the face Uther had ever given him in a lifetime of casual disregard.
"Your Highness, there are a number of issues which could benefit from your attention," Leon murmured a week into the royal sulk. "Your mother's former projects, for instance."
The Lady Ygraine, in her too-brief reign as queen, had been patron to a number of causes close to her heart. After her death, Uther had bequeathed her patronages to the tiny prince she left behind. As Arthur came to manhood, he had largely ignored the portfolio of charitable and artistic organizations he had inherited, except for the odd appearance or supportive letter. He already had enough of his mother's life to make up for.
But he had never been a man to sit idle. Leon had become Uther's chief of staff while Arthur was in Afghanistan, and they had not met until his return. Even in the short time since, Arthur had learned to listen to the steady presence who also handled the prince's limited affairs of state until Arthur chose to establish his own office.
That had never seemed worth doing, as he had fled into the service before his official coming of age and investiture as Prince of Wales. Now perhaps it was time.
"Quite right," he said and pulled out his cell phone.
His father was skiing with the German Chancellor. Uther answered on the second ring. Even on the Alpine slopes, his Blackberry was never far from his hands.
"I'm establishing a proper office at Clarence House," Arthur told his father without preamble or room for abnegation. "And I'm keeping Leon."
He hung up on Uther's chuckle; this sort of bravado always won Uther's good-natured approval. Leon gave a small smile, not seeming to mind his place as a pawn in royal family politics.
"I've put together extensive files on each of the organizations," he began, but Arthur shook his head.
"I want to meet the people and hear about the work from them. You can't take the measure of something from a file."
"I'll arrange it, sir," Leon replied with a deferential nod that hid the lingering smile. A day later, Leon had taken out a long-term loan on Guinevere Smith, Morgana's chief aide, and the new project had begun.
So Arthur met with a group of grandmothers who had been revolutionizing child care for working mothers in Britain and were now setting their sights on the nutritional content of school lunches. He met with a pair of sallow-faced accountants who were all that was left of the once-militant Parliamentary Financial Accountability Campaign. And he met with a legion of alleged arts groups supporting alleged artists whose work must have meant something to the Lady Ygraine Gorlois, but meant very little to her grown son.
"There's nothing here I can really sink my teeth into," he complained to Leon a few weeks later. "And they don't seem overeager for my input, either. Most of them just seem slightly puzzled as to why I'm suddenly taking a personal interest in what they do."
"We can arrange it so that you needn't trouble them again, sir," Leon agreed, then handed Arthur one last file. "In the meantime, you'll find that we've saved the most promising for last. They'll be here at the end of the week to meet with you."
"Now this might be more like it," Arthur muttered as he skimmed the file. "At least I've heard of MSF."
Though by the end of the week, he was not convinced that they would have any use for him, either. As he strode through Clarence House on the way to meet with the final set of representatives, he wondered if there was any point in hoping for it.
Then he turned the corner and collided with something solid that send him arse over elbow in a shower of papers. He landed with his face planted in the carpet runner. "Oomph," he heard himself saying right before he started to cough. Someone had been overdoing the carpet shampoo.
"Oh, God," said an unfamiliar voice from the vicinity of his knee. It was followed by the sound of papers suffering irreparable damage as someone crawled over them. "I am so sorry, I really am."
More papers crinkled under his palms as Arthur pushed himself up from the carpet. "So am I," he said and bit back a groan as his neck protested. "Really."
The other person was bent over gathering up the scattered papers and stuffing them into a bent file folder. As Arthur got to his feet, all he could see was a suit-clad backside--a rather nice one, despite the ill fit of the suit, though it only partially dampened Arthur's irritation.
"I was rushing because I have a meeting with the prince--Prince Arthur," the man added as though the country had a surplus of princes running about.
"What luck," Arthur muttered, picking up a stray page and looking at the logo with a sigh. So much for the glamour.
"The late queen was one of our first patrons, back when she was still Princess of Wales, and a lot more useful than the current Prince, if you ask me," the man babbled as he straightened up and turned around to face Arthur. "Oh, could you hand me that? Cheers. Anyway, the queen was--"
Arthur looked at him with resigned amusement as the man got his first look at Arthur's face and swallowed hard. Wide blue eyes looked him up and down and back again. He looked less intimidated or mortified and more like someone had just offered him a fine meal--or an excellent pornographic film.
Then Arthur met those eyes directly and felt as if the breath had been knocked from him again. The fine planes of his face and the sensual curve of his lips suddenly came into focus. The man was young, beautiful in an awkward way, and completely wrong for the sensations the sight of him evoked.
Oh, brilliant. This had not been the thing he was looking for. He had left this part of himself behind when he left the safety of his regiment. Arthur had sworn to himself never to think of it again, and this man, this boy, comes here with those eyes and those lips, looking at Arthur like no one ever dared.
He shook himself out of the spell. "Go on," he said, holding out the final missing paper. "The queen was what?"
The man's mouth snapped shut, though he still stared at Arthur. He took the paper with an unsteady hand. "Er, she was--well, apparently your mother."
"Well done," Arthur drawled, sarcasm hiding the discomfort he felt under the frank blue gaze. He realized he had forgotten to let go of the paper and snatched his hand back.
He got a sudden grin for his trouble, completely unabashed. The man stuck his free hand out in an overly familiar manner, as though they were now friends. "Merlin Emrys, MSF-UK."
Arthur looked down at the hand and raised his eyebrows. He had never refused to shake anyone's hand before, no matter how little he cared for their person, but the urge to provoke this Merlin overcame his breeding. "And a scholar in the history of our late queen as well, it seems. Well, let us hope your presentation is better than your introduction if you want to keep her son's support."
He expected fear and an unattractive attempt at pacification. Instead, he saw anger flare up in Merlin's eyes. "I think our reputation and work speak for themselves," Merlin retorted with a heat Arthur had rarely received from anyone not related to him. "How many Nobel prizes has your royal attitude won you lately?"
Arthur gaped in disbelief. Not even the most intimate of his relatives, school friends, or military comrades had ever dared to speak to him that way. A thrill of adrenaline coursed through him, eager to ignite the sparks he had trained himself to smother.
Just as he opened his mouth to return fire, the quick thump-thump of sensible heels over thin carpet made them both turn their heads just as Gwen tore around the same corner that had taken Arthur out.
"There you are," she said when she spotted Merlin. "Why didn't you follow me?"
Arthur cleared his throat again. He was not used to being overlooked twice in the space of five minutes.
As he expected, Gwen's eyes snapped to him, then dropped in automatic obeisance. "Excuse me, Your Highness. I was just bringing Dr. Emrys to the conference room."
Doctor? Somehow it had not occurred to Arthur that this odd creature would hold an actual degree, despite working for an organization with the word in the title. It only made him more attractive, which only made Arthur more frustrated with himself.
"Sorry. I got distracted by that painting with the dog, then I took a wrong turn trying to catch up with you." Merlin offered another of those cheerfully idiotic grins, begging the obvious question of how someone so mentally defective could have obtained a degree in anything. "Might have been a couple of wrong turns, actually."
"You had better be on your way, then," Arthur said with careful neutrality. "I've heard the prince hates to be kept waiting."
Merlin gave him a quizzical look, almost disappointed, but reliable Gwen nodded and motioned Merlin to follow her. "Of course, sir. This way, Doctor."
Arthur kept his face blank until, with a last confused look over his shoulder, Dr. Merlin Emrys vanished through the double doors at the end of the corridor. Then Arthur was free to grimace and rub between his eyes where a headache was looming.
He really should not do this. But damn it all, there would be one part of Arthur’s life that someone else did not control. He would have one thing for himself.
Ten minutes after being mowed down in his own house by a long-limbed tornado, Arthur had recovered his royal aplomb and was sat in his customary leather chair at the head of the gleaming mahogany conference table. Leon sat beside him and Gwen on Leon's other side.
At the other end of the table, Merlin was whispering to a rather scruffy Frenchman who had been introduced as Lancelot du Lac, a close working partner of Dr. Emrys. Arthur was not at all certain that he cared for Frenchmen in general, nor Lancelot du Lac in particular.
"As I'm sure Your Royal Highness is aware," du Lac began, sounding nervous, which grated on Arthur's nerves, "Medicins Sans Frontiers, or in English--"
"Doctors without Borders, yes, I'm aware," Arthur interrupted. He was also aware he sounded peevish, which visibly increased du Lac's anxiety.
Merlin just flashed a brief, triumphant grin down the table at him, then gravely slid his portfolio down to Gwen. She glanced through it briefly with a raised eyebrow and passed it to Leon, who did the same before sliding it in front of Arthur.
He opened the folder of what he assumed had once been an impressive professional presentation before it had been scattered across a floor, trampled, and rather haphazardly reassembled. Arthur glanced up as he flicked over a crumpled page. Merlin offered a tiny shrug. Du Lac looked ill.
Arthur looked down at the size ten and a half shoe print on the next page. He was fairly sure it had not been made by his own custom-made shoes, but it was hard to be certain short of calling in Scotland Yard.
Du Lac cleared his throat. "Of course, Your Highness. And I'm sure you're also aware that MSF was founded in 1971, and the UK office was opened shortly before the Lady Ygraine Gorlois was crowned Princess of Wales."
Arthur flipped a few more pages and stopped on a full-page picture of his mother, smiling and still looking every inch a princess even though she was dusty and surrounded by sweaty relief workers and their patients. "She always wanted to make a difference," he murmured as though it were a dearly held memory rather than something he had been told by a thousand reverent people about a mother he had never met.
"Yes, she was involved in establishing several of our first sites," du Lac offered, looking relieved to be on firmer ground. "She enjoyed taking an active involvement in our work."
"You could do the same," Merlin jumped in, as though anyone not styled His Majesty could tell Arthur what to do. Yet his eyes lit up such that Arthur had to remind himself it was not meant for him personally. Many people glowed in the reflective light of royalty.
Leon made a small, disapproving noise in his throat, and Merlin's face fell. "Right," he said. "I guess you're pretty busy and all."
"I don't see why I couldn't make a visit or two." He would have done it anyway, Arthur told himself even as he spoke. "You work in the field, Merlin?"
"Lance and I have been working in South Africa the last few months," Merlin answered. The light was back in his eyes. "Before that, we were helping to operate a clinic in Kenya, but we were able to cease operations there late last year."
"Cease operations?" Arthur asked.
"As much as possible, the work is done by doctors and nurses from that particular country. Our ultimate goal at every site is to eventually hand over operations to the community." A different kind of light shone in du Lac's eyes, his back stiffening into a posture Arthur recognized.
"You were in the military?" he asked.
Du Lac nodded. "Five years after my medical degree, but I left to begin working with MSF, in France and then through the UK office. I wanted to help the victims of war, not create new ones."
"You didn't consider it part of your military duty to protect the innocent?" Arthur returned, his voice and temper gone sharp. He would find it difficult to work with anyone who had what Arthur had always wanted and walked away from it as though it meant nothing.
"Less so than I wanted it to be," du Lac replied with a quiet that took the wind right out of Arthur's sails. "I found a different way to serve. Please, Your Highness, let us tell you about what we're doing."
As the man continued to speak, Arthur could say nothing more against him. In fact, he was damnably inspiring. Arthur felt it in his bones, the urge to go to war against all the evil of the world, in whatever form he found it. Restoring the health of communities seemed like a worthy battle to give one’s life to.
Lancelot du Lac certainly looked every bit the heroic warrior, but Arthur could not keep his eyes off the man beside him. Merlin looked back at him, curious and intense. There was another conversation happening, another battle as they tried to figure out what to do about each other. A warm flush spread through Arthur’s belly that had nothing to do with charity.
Once, near the end, Merlin turned briefly to interject something into Lancelot’s story, leaving Arthur cold. When he looked back, the heat slotted back into place, and Arthur knew exactly what he was going to do.
When they were done, everyone in the room sat looking at him expectantly. Merlin, Lancelot, and even Guinevere looked hopeful, while Leon looked bemused and resigned. Arthur gave a slow nod, that strange reluctant excitement still sparking in his gut and heating his blood.
"I want to know more. This time you can tell me," he added, inclining his head toward Merlin, who bit his lip to suppress a grin. Lancelot looked relieved to be let off the hook.
"Sir, shall I schedule another briefing?" Leon clicked his Blackberry to bring up Arthur's schedule. "Perhaps week after next we could find half an--"
"No, just clear my evening," Arthur said. Even as he looked toward Merlin, his common sense screamed that this was not at all what he should be doing. He ignored it; nothing about Arthur had ever been common. "Have dinner with me."
"Of course, Your Highness," Merlin answered with an awkward attempt at deference that told Arthur that Merlin was about to cost him a small fortune in steak.
Ten minutes after leaving his father’s reception, Arthur pulled up around the back of Merlin's building, where the car couldn't be seen from the street. As he got out, he looked up: the windows were lit. A thrill went through him as strong as had been the very first time he had gone to Merlin, though then he had crossed continents for the privilege.
He found the key on his key ring without looking, let himself in and jogged up the stairs. Two weeks since he had seen Merlin--one state visit to Japan for Arthur, followed in unfortunate overlap by an international development conference that had stolen Merlin away to Prague for the rest of the very long fortnight.
It had been too long since he had even heard Merlin's voice. After a flurry of giddy phone calls and texts, filled with professional intoxication, he had heard almost nothing from Merlin for the rest of the week. Then this morning: a single text, saying that Merlin was on his way to the airport. Arthur had replied with a smiley face. He was trying not to cling.
Merlin had every right to enjoy himself with his colleagues. Arthur understood that intellectually, even if he did not have many colleagues of his own to compare. Nor would he mind when Merlin came home lit up with excitement from all the people he had met and all the good things they were doing.
He wanted to hear all about the work, but mostly he wanted to hear Merlin's voice and see his face. He wanted to touch Merlin's skin, lose himself deep in Merlin's body, and then he wanted to fall asleep in Merlin's bed where all the troubles of the world could not reach him.
All the lights in the flat were on when Arthur let himself in, welcoming him into the warmth. The trainers kicked off by the door and the jacket flung across the coffee table were the only immediate signs of Merlin's presence. Arthur heard footsteps and rustling from further inside the flat. He smiled to himself and let the door close softly behind him.
His hand slipped briefly into his pocket to feel the weight of the gift he had gotten Merlin in Kyoto. It was a pendant, heavy on a masculine chain, of the sort sold to Western tourists with more cash than taste, which meant there was an even chance Merlin would either love it or hate it.
The reporters had been barred from the shop, but he had smiled into their cameras as he stepped out onto the pavement. As he expected, it wasn’t long before word spread that Prince Arthur had purchased jewellery in the form of the Kanji character for love.
Arthur found Merlin in the bedroom, right where he wanted him. Merlin was walking back and forth between the closet and the open suitcase on the bed, muttering to himself as he unpacked. Arthur folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the door jamb.
He studied the tense line of Merlin's back. It must have been an unpleasant trip, though Arthur had discreetly made sure Merlin was upgraded to first class when he got to the airport.
"What am I doing? Oh, my God," Merlin muttered and carried some trousers back from the closet to the suitcase. He still had not noticed Arthur, and Arthur was tired of that.
"Really, Merlin," he said and smirked as Merlin jumped and spun around to face him. Trouser legs went flying like silly string around him. "Trust you to muck something as simple as unpacking a suitcase. You're doing it backward."
He expected Merlin to light up, or at least to fire back a jibe about how Arthur had never had to pack or unpack anything for himself--which was untrue. But Merlin just stood and gaped at him as though shocked at Arthur's presence in his bedroom even after a love affair of several years.
"Arthur," he said after a few seconds. "I thought you were at your father's party."
Arthur unfolded his arms and spread his hands with a smile. "And yet, here I am."
Merlin returned the smile, but it looked more nervous than happy. Arthur felt a smidgen of uncertainty for the first time. Merlin was still not jumping into Arthur's arms, still not kissing him with two weeks’ worth of pent-up passion, still not pulling him out of his clothes and onto the bed.
He frowned. Merlin's gaze flicked to the suitcase, then back to Arthur, casual in a way that transparently meant the exact opposite. Arthur looked past him, looked closer.
"Merlin," he said slowly, seeing the pile of khaki shorts and t-shirts he knew Merlin had not taken to Prague. "Would you like to explain what's happening here?"
Merlin's shoulders slumped, and he closed his eyes. Arthur remembered the single text message from the morning--no embellishments of affection or anticipation. A ball of ice settled in his gut. He had thought Merlin was just tired.
"My apologies if I've spoilt your plans." There seemed to be a disconnect between the words and Arthur's brain, between him and what he now knew was happening. "I assume I was supposed to find an empty flat and a note?"
Wordlessly, Merlin reached around to his back pocket and pulled out a creased envelope with Arthur's initials on it. He held it out, and Arthur took it.
Then he crumpled it into a ball and threw it as hard as he could at Merlin's head.
Merlin ducked, unfortunately, and held up his hands as if to deflect Arthur's unreasonable temper. "I thought it would be easier. I thought if I saw you again, I wouldn't be able to go."
"Go where?" He sounded helpless and stupid, and he hated himself for it. "What, Africa?"
Merlin's head jerked on his neck in a parody of a nod. His eyes were getting wet, as if he were the one with the right to cry. "I don't want to leave you. I don’t."
In an instant Arthur move forward and seized him by the shoulders. "Then why? You owe me that much."
Merlin looked back at him, so close Arthur could see the damp clumping of his eyelashes. "Because I'm not happy, but I didn't understand why until I went to the conference."
Arthur's fingers were cramping around Merlin's shoulders, but he only tightened his grip. The words hurt more than his fingers. "Because of me."
"No! It's not about you, Arthur." Merlin tried a smile, but it was growing weaker with each attempt. "You're not even a prat anymore. At least eighty percent of the time. Maybe seventy-five."
"If you’re leaving me, then it’s about me." He could certainly go on the internet anytime and read a laundry list of his personal failings. He had never given it much heed before.
Merlin shook his head. "I can't live your life, Arthur."
"I never asked--" he started to protest until Merlin shook his head harder.
"No, you're right. I'm not living your life, I'm living in the shadow of your life. I thought I could be happy with that, but when I talked with all those people who were doing what I used to do... I can't spend the rest of my life being your--your mistress, Arthur."
Ten minutes ago Arthur would have teased with a casual insult and waited for Merlin to laugh himself out of his mood. Now he felt his future hinging on saying exactly what he meant.
"I always meant to--" He stopped himself and started again. "You know I'll marry you right now. We'll wake up a registrar."
"I'll call my father. He won't dare tell me no, and if he does, we'll appeal to Parliament. Who else is there to succeed him?" Arthur felt his mouth tightening in a mad grin. "I've figured it all out, Merlin. I've had a plan for ages now."
"I know you have." Merlin laughed with a distinct edge of hysteria. "That's exactly what I'm terrified of. I know what you were trying to do in Japan."
"Merlin. You're not making any sense. As usual." Arthur frowned in confusion, until he remembered the silk pouch in his pocket and the love token inside.
Merlin drew back, taking a full step away. "I can’t marry you, Arthur. I can’t be your consort and go around pretending I’m royalty. I can’t live that life for the rest of mine. I was never meant to."
"Not your destiny?" His voice sounded sharp, but inside he felt small. I thought I was your destiny, he wanted to say, but never would.
"Whatever you want to call it, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing." He held Arthur’s gaze as he kept shaking his head, panicky but resolute.
"You always say that it’s the local doctors who really run things," he shot back. "They don’t need you. You don’t belong there, Merlin."
Merlin’s face went cold. "And I belong here? At least there I’m useful to someone."
As opposed to Arthur, who served little purpose in the modern world except as an outdated vestige of a historical legacy less and less relevant by the minute. His jaw clenched. Of all people, he had thought Merlin saw him as something more.
"You’re useful here," he persevered. "You raise the money that buys the medicine and equipment they need to do their jobs."
"But I’m not very good at it." Merlin gave a short laugh. "Believe it or not, Arthur, I was damn good at my job before. I built relationships and made commitments that I didn’t have the right to break just because a prince gave me a wink one day."
"I see," Arthur said, because he could think of no other response to hearing the risk he had taken, the devotion he had given, reduced to so little.
Merlin bit his lip and gave him an apologetic look. "I didn't mean it like that. But Arthur, the people I work with there see well-meaning Westerners come and go all the time. Rock stars, politicians, kids on their gap year—yeah, even royalty. They play with the children, they take pictures, they raise some money, and they leave. Don’t get me wrong, it does help."
"Why, thank you," he muttered.
"But the local staff you’re dismissing —- it’s their home, their people. They can’t just get on a plane and forget about it until it’s time to write the next check. And yeah, they do amazing things, but they still need people who will stay and fight with them and not give up when it gets tough. I thought you’d understand that, Captain Pendragon."
The hell of it was, he did. He did not want to listen, because it hurt and made him feel so small that he would still take Merlin away from those people if he could, but he could not pretend he did not understand.
"We could still be together," he started, stubborn to the last against fading hope. "You could still go--"
"No, I couldn’t. It wouldn’t work for either of us, and you know it." Merlin’s breathing was ragged and choked, and Arthur hated him just a little for being the one who could cry. "I love you, Arthur, but we were never meant to have a future together."
Arthur turned away for a moment, unable to look at Merlin as he gathered himself for one last assault. "Merlin—"
"Merlin?" called a voice from the living room, followed by the slam of the front door.
Arthur stiffened and turned to look at Merlin, who ducked his head with a sigh. "Back here, Lance," Merlin called.
A second later Lancelot du Lac appeared in the doorway of Merlin’s bedroom, holding the jacket Merlin had left on the coffee table. "Merlin, are you ready? The flight leaves – oh, excuse me, Your Highness."
Arthur just stared at him. Lancelot du Lac, who felt free to waltz into Merlin’s flat without so much as ringing the bell. Lancelot du Lac, who stood ready to collect his prize, holding Merlin’s coat as though it was his privilege. Arthur had already lost before he even knew there was an enemy to fight.
"Yes, I see," he said and moved toward the door.
"Arthur!" Merlin said sharply. "Arthur, wait."
There seemed to be nothing else to wait for, but he did stop and turn back to Merlin. His hand slid into his pocket and pulled out the silk pouch he had carried from the other side of the world. "I almost forgot," he said. "Brought you this. You can take it with you, if you like."
"Arthur, no," Merlin started. The pain on his face was sweet salve to Arthur’s anger.
Merlin tried to back away, but Arthur seized his hand and lifted it. He pressed the pouch into Merlin’s palm, then one by one, closed his fingers around it. "Really. You deserve it, after everything you’ve been through."
Then he turned and walked away, clapping Lancelot on the shoulder as he passed him at the doorway. "Bon voyage," he said with a casual bonhomie. "I’ll be down there for the Cup next week. Maybe I’ll drop by and take some photos."
He made it back to the car before the hollow feeling in his stomach turned to actual sharp pain. Above him, the lights of Merlin’s flat still shone, even when he squeezed his eyes shut as hard as he could. For the first time, he wished he had not driven himself.
But he could not stay here, with those lights over his head and Merlin coming out the door at any moment. He put the car into gear and drove back to the life Merlin had not been able to bear the thought of joining.
He and Merlin had no future.
Two weeks later, he found out that neither did anyone else.
That first night after the presentation they went to dinner at what Arthur liked to call his local pub. It was actually an exclusive nightclub run by the sons of a Saudi oil magnate. Arthur liked two things about it: they served better food than Uther's own chef, and they had a very comfortable VIP room that could be emptied of VIPs whenever the Prince of Wales wanted a quiet dinner.
Relatively quiet, anyway--the club music provided a distant background throb as Arthur threw his head back and laughed. "You are such a liar, Merlin. There's no way even a Frenchman could run that fast."
"No, it's true," Merlin managed to protest around a mouthful of his second filet mignon. "I swear."
"I've never seen such a thing." Arthur leaned back into the plush padding of the booth, swirling his scotch around the glass and smirking. His jacket was off, his sleeves were rolled up, and he felt good. "And remember, I’ve attended every Olympic Games since I was born."
"Yes, but!" Merlin knocked back his own scotch, coughed a bit, then leaned forward to grin at Arthur. "You've never seen a Frenchman running with a stampeding elephant behind him."
"Now that is a fair point, I grant." Arthur drained his own glass and leaned forward in the same posture. He wanted to get closer to Merlin. This was not close enough, but it was a start. "I’m amazed they let either of you out without a keeper."
"Ector, our chief national physician, said the same thing. In fairness, he did tell us what to do if we met different kinds of animals, but it was a long time before I could keep it all straight."
"And where was your friend Ector while you were bumbling your way around the country?"
"Filming a health bulletin for the television stations. He dropped out of film school to study medicine." Merlin refilled his glass and gulped it down. "Wound up the greatest infectious disease specialist to come of Nairobi in a decade, but put a film camera in his hands and he gets this manic gleam in his eye."
"Actually, the Minister of Education is exactly the same way," Arthur confided. "So you didn’t want to be in the movie?"
"They didn’t need us." Merlin shrugged. "So we figured we’d take some of the new vaccine shipment up to one of our sister sites."
"I hardly dare ask if you made it, or if there’s a very well-vaccinated elephant still roaming the plains."
Merlin grinned at him from inches away, then leaned a little closer, dopey-drunk and happy. It was clear that someone needed to cut him off--probably both of them--but the alcohol made it so much easier to meet across the gulf of society. The throb of the music was getting into Arthur's blood, slow and sexual.
After a moment of looking at Merlin, he saw how Merlin was looking back. He studied Arthur's eyes, then dropped his gaze just enough to trace the outline of Arthur's lips. If Arthur had doubted his instincts, he would have known then that Merlin shared his intentions.
Almost nose to nose with his new friend, Arthur huffed and shook his head to ease the mood. "Who would have thought from looking at you that you’d seen so much action?"
Merlin leaned back slowly, blinking as though making his way back from another place, then shrugged. "Nothing to the action you've seen, I'm sure," he said, not seeming to notice the wince that Arthur was too scotch-slow to repress.
"Yes, well, that's behind me now." Arthur picked up the bottle. His hand was not wobbling yet, so he refilled their glasses again. "Time to move on, or so I've been told."
"All these stories you've been telling me." Merlin waved his glass precariously between them as he chased his words. "You love the service so much. Why would you leave it?"
Arthur stared at him for a long, unblinking moment. "In short: terrorists liked me a bit too much. Don't you read the papers?"
Merlin shifted in his seat, looking almost guilty. "Not really," he mumbled through another mouthful of scotch. "They're pretty out of date by the time we get them. And...well, nothing, never mind."
"And you have better things to do than read about the antics of a bunch of spoiled royals," Arthur finished for him. He was torn between gratitude and annoyance at having found someone for whom Arthur's personal crises were not actual news.
"Yes, exactly," Merlin replied, then gave Arthur a suspicious sidelong glance. "Wait, are you taking the piss?"
"No, merely marvelling at the profound lack of respect you're showing your future sovereign."
Merlin spluttered, then glared. "And here I was trying to be nice to you. That'll be the last of that, let me tell you."
"Should I arrange for the hangman now, or give you a little more rope first?" Arthur took another drink to hide his grin. He had not had this much fun in ages.
"I'm pretty sure you haven't had the authority to execute anyone for quite a few years now," Merlin said, but he gave Arthur another of those sidelong looks as though he was not entirely sure.
Arthur gave a slow, considering nod. "It's true, I am but a private citizen. But a private citizen with a great deal of money and a shocking lack of legal accountability."
"Just when I was thinking you weren't quite as much of a prat as I thought."
"What happened to being nice to me?" The scotch had spread its warmth through his limbs, sensual and unconcerned. He leaned forward again and let himself enjoy looking at Merlin. "Go on, then. Be nice to me."
Merlin returned his gaze, this time with no lack of surety. The moment built until Arthur caught his breath--but Merlin dropped his head before Arthur could do anything more foolish than he already had. Then Merlin's long fingers wrapped around Arthur's wrist. He would have bridled at the impropriety if he were not feeling so tender and if Merlin had not looked up at him with that same tenderness in his gaze.
"It's not like I have any idea what your life is like," Merlin said. "But I know what it's like to have passion for what you do. It's like you're meant to be exactly where you are. Like it's your destiny, yeah?"
"Yeah," Arthur replied after swallowing. "Something like that."
"So I know how I'd feel if someone took that away from me." Merlin gave a shrug and sat back, releasing Arthur’s wrist. "And I may not keep up with the royal gossip, but I know they say you were a fine commander. Your men must have loved you. I think I would."
Arthur drew in a quick breath and hoped the burn in his cheeks was not visible in the low light. "A half hour meeting and three quarters of a bottle of single malt, and you think you're a better judge of my abilities than my father and the Privy Council?"
"Well, it is a very good malt." Merlin tipped his head back with a smile and closed his eyes, the line of his throat curving white and vulnerable. "I know these things. Whatever reasons they had, they weren't good enough. Not as good as you."
The burn in his face spread to his chest; vehemently, he blamed it on the drink. Merlin was clearly a simple fool. Arthur wanted to snap that at him, but so little in his life was simple, he could not bring himself to drive this away. Such simple faith, in him--in Arthur or the prince, it hardly mattered--was something he wanted to keep and jealously guard.
He cleared his throat, reached for Merlin's glass, and pulled it out of his reach. "I think it's obvious that someone has had enough."
Merlin made a playful grab for the rest of the bottle, going along with Arthur's change of subject. "Well more than enough, I think," he admitted when Arthur rescued the bottle. "Gaius always used to say I couldn't even walk past a pub or I'd wind up dancing on the bar."
Arthur ducked his head to hide his delight at that image. He did not entirely hide the snicker in his voice. "Gaius? Uncommon name these days. Who's Gaius?"
"My advisor at Cambridge," Merlin replied, still looking longingly at the bottle Arthur was cradling protectively.
"At--you mean Gaius-- the head of the medical school was your advisor?" Arthur stopped and pointed an accusing finger at Merlin's chest. "Wait, you were at Cambridge? You didn't tell me that."
"You didn't ask for my CV." Merlin tried to brush it off with a show of negligent modesty, but his shoulders straightened and his eyes held a glitter of pride.
"But so was I. We're of an age, you must have been there at the same time as I was."
"Yes, I was. And yes, I knew who you were. Everyone did." Deprived of his glass, Merlin picked up his fork and busied himself scraping the last of the potatoes from his plate. "You'll have to excuse me if I was a bit busy trying not to get thrown out for breaking the lab equipment. I must have forgotten to come swear my fealty."
The idea of Merlin kneeling before him sent a rush of heat through Arthur, though he had to admit he probably would not have taken much notice of someone like Merlin at the time. He had been busy himself, determined to be first in everything, and equally determined not to succumb to any thoughts of extracurricular experimentation. That had not come until later.
"And here I thought you were just a flake who skived off for Africa halfway through your foundation years," he said with a smile.
"I have a perfectly good medical degree," Merlin protested, still licking his fork obscenely. "These potatoes are amazing. What's in them, heroin?"
"Oh, of course." Merlin snorted, but licked the fork one more time. "Anyway, you’re not far off. I was just finishing when I realized I wanted to practice medicine. I just didn't want to do it like that. Then I met Lance."
"And then you met Lance," Arthur repeated with a sour note, though Merlin did not seem to notice.
"He told me all about the work he was doing, in Pakistan at the time, and next thing I knew, I was on a plane. Everyone thought I was mad, but I've never looked back."
Arthur remembered his own training, his own first flight into a bigger world. His fist clenched tighter around the bottle. The strange kinship between them made his heart and his groin ache with separate but inextricable feeling.
"We'd better get you home before you wind up betrothed to that fork," he said. "Where do you live?"
"South Africa." Merlin grinned easily enough that Arthur could not tell if he was disappointed the evening was ending. "But I'm staying in a hotel on the high street. We have a flight back in the morning."
He shook his head slowly, as though saddened by a realization. "Clearly you can’t be left to your own devices or you’ll never make it. I’d best take you home with me, just in case."
Merlin’s grin widened. "That’s very charitable of you, Your Highness. You’re a prince among men."
He nodded and slid out of the booth. "Indeed, I am, Merlin."
When they stumbled back to Clarence House, Arthur avoided the handful of night staff and pulled Merlin straight back to Arthur’s apartments, and then Arthur’s bedroom. The night was hot, and the air clung damp around them, even in the darkened rooms. Arthur had started leaving the air conditioner off after being told off by an energy conservation group. He repressed the urge to apologise; Merlin would probably approve.
They stopped just inside the door, giving Merlin a chance to look around in the dim light. Arthur looked around as well, trying to see it through Merlin’s eyes. It was cozy enough, despite the age and expense of the furnishings. He rarely allowed the domestic servants inside, thus avoiding the over-polished look of the public rooms. Still, he was rather wishing he had moved the pile of laundry before he had left this morning.
Merlin was also examining the pile with a thoughtful look. "I think we had better just get our clothes off now, hadn’t we?" he said after a moment. "I don’t want to end up ripping something I can’t afford to replace."
Arousal flared in Arthur’s body. "Yes," he replied simply. "I think we had better."
Then they stood and looked at each other across the final bit of space between them. Now that he knew he could have this, have Merlin, Arthur felt no need to rush to it. He was enjoying these moments of wanting, knowing that the person he wanted also wanted him. Most people would be surprised at how rare that was for the most eligible bachelor in the world.
"To be honest, I never really saw what the fuss was about you," Merlin said, which was a surprising turn on. "But I might have an inkling now."
"I can only hope to live up to your expectations," Arthur replied, then leaned in to meet his mouth as Merlin stepped into his arms.
One kiss melted into the next as they stood there, getting used to the touch of each other’s hands and mouths, the feel of each other’s embrace. Eventually, Merlin drew Arthur the rest of the way to the bed. They kicked off their shoes and knelt on the mattress as Merlin pulled off first Arthur’s shirt, then his own.
The touch of skin made kissing even better: the rub of Merlin’s chest, the bold caress of his hands on Arthur’s ribs, the warmth of his neck under Arthur’s cradling fingers. They began to sweat where their bodies pressed together, prickly and slick. The night settled around them, hot and sticky, silent except for the soft sounds they tried to muffle.
As good as skin against skin felt, even better was the growing bulge below Merlin’s waist and the way it rubbed him through the layers of cloth remaining. Every rub made him kiss Merlin harder, until at last he needed to lay Merlin down, stretch him out along the bed and pull his trousers from his hips.
The length of Merlin’s cock was clearly visible through his briefs, hard against his belly and the swollen head peeking just above the waistband. Arthur sucked it into his mouth for a moment to make Merlin’s hips arch up before he pulled the briefs down and tossed them aside.
He crawled back up Merlin’s body and settled atop him even as Merlin reached to pull him back down to his mouth. One hand slid under to cradle Merlin’s head as they kissed. The other slipped between them for another feel of Merlin’s cock, long and thick and a perfect match for the hardness still straining Arthur’s trousers.
The head was still damp from Arthur’s mouth, but it was not enough wetness to stroke him properly. He broke away from Merlin’s mouth to kiss his jaw, his ear. "Lube?" Merlin said hopefully. "Lube would feel good."
Arthur kissed Merlin’s cheek and the corner of his lips before sinking back into his mouth with a groan. Merlin’s hands held Arthur’s head in place while he kissed his fill, but finally he let go and gestured impatiently to the nightstand.
Arthur leaned over and rummaged until he came up with the bottle he kept for his personal use. "Can’t wait to get this all over you," he murmured against Merlin’s lips, but Merlin stopped him with a playful tug at his belt.
"Better get the rest off while you still can," he said. "I’m not doing your laundry if you get it all over your trousers."
"And you call yourself a service organization," Arthur pretended to gripe as he sat up long enough to wriggle out of the last of his clothing and kick it away.
When his erection sprang free, he could not help giving himself a few tugs until Merlin protested by shoving the lube bottle back into his hand. "Don’t get distracted."
"Pushy," Arthur scolded, but obediently got his hand nice and slick before settling back into Merlin’s arms. His hand closed around Merlin’s cock to stroke as they kissed. Sometimes he gripped both their cocks together for a few strokes, but always let himself slip free to rest against Merlin’s thigh. He wanted to last well past Merlin’s first orgasm.
Merlin’s hands wandered over Arthur’s back, then stilled in favour of kissing harder as Arthur twisted and rubbed until Merlin cried his name and came in beautiful ropey spurts all over Arthur’s hand and both their bellies. Arthur let go of Merlin’s cock and pressed him down into the mattress, tongue probing to catch every cry of the pleasure Arthur had given him.
It did not last long enough before Merlin calmed enough to caress Arthur instead of clutching at him. They kissed and touched, Merlin’s body languid now under the tension of Arthur’s unrelieved arousal.
"Do you know where else lube would feel good right now?" Merlin whispered into the heavy night air as Arthur sucked at the skin of his shoulder. He lifted one leg around Arthur’s waist as a hint.
Arthur laughed and rolled them until Merlin could lie half-draped over him with his leg hitched up around Arthur’s hip. Plenty of slick remained in the bottle, so Arthur poured it generously over his fingers and into the crease of Merlin’s arse.
Merlin gave him a few more kisses as Arthur played with his arse, but groaned and buried his face into Arthur’s neck as Arthur began toying deeper inside him. Two fingers probed and crooked, chasing away relaxation until Merlin pressed hard again against Arthur’s stomach.
"Please tell me you have condoms." The last word choked off on a groan as Merlin clenched hard around Arthur’s fingers and wrapped his leg around Arthur’s thighs.
Arthur still his fingers before pulling free, feeling his face burn. "I...haven’t ever needed them here."
Merlin opened his eyes and stared at him in disbelief. "What the hell kind of heartthrob are you, anyway?" he demanded and kissed Arthur twice as hard as before.
All logic said he ought to be content with Merlin’s hands and mouth this first time. But with the memory of Merlin’s arse tight and sweet around his fingers, he could not help but push Merlin over onto his back and bear down on him with all his weight to kiss him with clear intent.
"This is insane, we can't," Merlin muttered against his mouth, but he kissed back, wrapping his legs around Arthur's waist. "Bad, bad idea."
"Then tell me to stop," Arthur said before doing his best to sap Merlin's willpower with his mouth and hands, until they were both completely slick and ready.
Merlin's response was to move his legs fully onto Arthur’s shoulders. He fell back against the pillow, panting and looking up at Arthur, waiting for what had to happen next. Arthur kissed his calf as he positioned himself, so grateful that Merlin needed this, too.
He sank into Merlin until there was nothing but flesh and sweat between them. They both groaned at the union, the pain and pleasure of it. Arthur fucked carefully at first, then harder as they found their rhythm.
Merlin writhed beneath him and clutched at Arthur’s skin, the bed, and anything he could reach. He nearly brought down a bedpost on their heads before Arthur finally surrendered to his release and gave Merlin his.
The warmth of the night forced them to sleep with space between them, until they woke and reached for each other again. Arthur came inside Merlin twice more that night, once deep in his body and once spilling into Merlin’s mouth while Arthur was still loose and shivering from Merlin’s own claim upon him.
He woke as the room began to lighten in the dim predawn. Merlin still slept beside him, snuffling a little in his sleep. Arthur smiled and watched him until he could no longer avoid getting up.
By the time Merlin woke, Arthur had washed and finished dressing. Merlin sat up and frowned at him. "Why aren’t you in bed?" was Arthur’s translation of Merlin’s words that were more yawn than actual human speech.
"Time to go," he replied. He wanted to let Merlin see his reluctance, but his public face was taking over, ready to go out and be what someone else wanted him to be once more. "I have a breakfast engagement. Go ahead and sleep a little more if you want. I’ll arrange for a car to take you to the airport later."
Before Merlin could protest again, there was a sharp rap at the door. "One minute," Arthur called.
"Give me a second, I’ll walk out with you," Merlin said, groping around for his pants.
Arthur bit back a grin and shook his head. "Better not. One look at that hair and there won’t be any mystery left as to why you spent the night."
Merlin patted fitfully at his head. "Right. Okay," he said and bit his lip, obviously unsure what he ought to say next. Lovemaking had come so easily to them; there had been no need to talk about it before.
And there was no time to talk about it now. Arthur pulled a small white card from his wallet, of fine stock but with no other distinguishing marks except for a phone number printed in plain black numerals. He handed it to Merlin.
"That’s my personal mobile number. When you make it back to London next, I’d like to talk to you again."
"Right. Talk." Merlin’s lips curled, though his cheeks were glowing red.
Arthur grinned, slid his sunglasses on, and walked back out to what was supposed to be his real life.
After the secret end to their secret relationship, Arthur buried himself for a while in all the charities that had gotten lost in Merlin’s shadow for so long. The crusading grannies, in particular, were a great comfort. At least he was of use to somebody.
When the phone call came from the King’s aide de camp, Arthur was happy enough to agree to an urgent meeting at the palace. Perhaps his father had a new task Arthur could throw himself into. Uther had been looking grey and drawn of late; Arthur would be glad to take whatever burden he could from him.
He got to Buckingham and found Morgana waiting outside Uther’s study. "You had the summons, too?" he said as he sauntered up to stand beside her, careful not to look her in the eye. He had been avoiding her and hoped she had not noticed.
"Yes, but I only came to gather three dimensional proof of your existence," she retorted, then pulled out her phone. "I actually called my service provider yesterday because while my outbox had over a dozen texts with your name on them, my inbox had none at all. Look at that, isn’t it peculiar?"
"Leave it, Morgana," he said and tipped his head back against the wall.
Her shoe made a single click on the marble floor as she stepped into his personal space. He could see her piercing gaze in his peripheral vision, but he kept his own gaze firmly on the ceiling.
"You do not look like a man who's been holed up with his lady love," she said. "She's dumped you, hasn't she? Oh, Arthur, what did you do?"
"Too little, too late, it seems," he said. He had not hid his wince, and he did not care. Part of him wanted to blurt it all out, just to be able to tell someone, anyone, what had happened to him. He wondered what she would say.
The scrape and creak of the door saved him. He and Morgana turned in unison, then Arthur looked in surprise at who was serving as Uther’s doorman.
"Prime Minister." Morgana recovered first with a smile that was at least as genuine as professional. Geoffrey Monmouth had been one of Uther’s closest comrades since before either Morgana or Arthur had been born and long before he became Prime Minister.
"Come in, children," he said, addressing them with a tenderness Arthur had not heard since he actually was a child. "We’re ready for you now."
He stood back to let them precede him into Uther’s study. The King was behind his desk, head bowed and fingers steepled before him as though preparing to give the Christmas address. Arthur’s step faltered as he got a look at Uther’s face. He had seen his father less than a fortnight ago, but Uther looked as he had aged a year for every day.
As they entered, Uther looked up and regarded them with the same strange tenderness that had been in Geoffrey’s voice, though his face was grey and haggard. "Arthur, Morgana," he said gently. "Please sit."
Arthur nodded as he took his usual chair. "Sir," he said, then turned his head and raised his eyebrows at the man standing a few feet away from Uther’s desk, next to a projector and screen that had been set up in front of the bookcases.
It was, he was fairly certain, the same man who had been speaking with Uther and the Australian ambassador at the reception that night. Slight of stature, dark skinned in a dark suit, he looked nearly as tired as the King and Prime Minister, but he smiled and gave a polite nod to Arthur and Morgana.
"This is Dr. Adrian Helmsley," Uther said. "A special scientific advisor to the President of the United States."
"It was he who discovered the... phenomenon we are discussing," the Prime Minister added. "He was kind enough to come and brief us in person about what we are facing."
Next to Arthur, Morgana made a questioning noise in her throat. They exchanged glances; this was dramatic staging, even for Uther. Arthur had thought himself beyond caring about much, but he felt a cold knot settle in his stomach.
Dr. Helmsley gave a short smile. "Actually, a close colleague in India discovered the initial signs last year. Since then, I’ve been leading a commission of the world’s top scientists to develop a fuller picture of what we’re looking at and how to plan for it."
"This is all very intriguing," Morgana said lightly. "But what does a natural phenomenon have to do with us?"
Helmsley smiled again, tighter as he clicked on the projector. "Everything, my lady. The phenomenon is called Earth Crust Displacement."
As Helmsley continued to speak, so calm and scientific, Arthur felt his look of polite interest freezing on his face. His mind froze as well, as though refusing to process what he was hearing would make it untrue.
Earth Crust Displacement: the planet tearing itself apart, continent by continent.
Earthquakes that would level cities and nations. Tsunamis that would send every land mass deep beneath the seas.
The total annihilation of human civilization less than two years hence.
When Helmsley finished his presentation, he clicked the projector off again. The cessation of the noise left them in heavy silence, except for the tiny panicked hitches in Morgana’s breath.
Arthur turned stiffly to his father. "Is this a joke?"
"No, Arthur," Uther said with more gentleness than Arthur had heard from him since his childhood.
It was that, more than all the graphs and numbers, which convinced him. He stiffened his back to keep from swaying in his chair. "How long have you known about this?"
Uther seemed to gather himself. "The Prime Minister informed me as soon as the American government informed him. And now I am informing you, because you will both have important roles in the coming months."
"Yes, you said you were planning for it." Morgana pulled herself straighter in her chair, narrowed gaze locked like a laser on Helmsley. "What is your plan? How are we going to stop this?"
Arthur forced himself to breathe. Of course, there had to be a way to keep this from happening. A missile to the centre of the earth, a sonic vibration, Doctor bloody Who, something. That was always what happened in the cinema, wasn’t it?
"I’m sorry, Lady Morgana. There is no way to stop it." For an instant, Helmsley’s composure fractured, and Arthur caught a glimpse of the fear beneath. "Our goal is only the continuation of our species and civilization."
"The G8 nations have joined together to build a small group of ships which will be capable of surviving the coming onslaught," Geoffrey said. "They are calling them ‘Arks,’ for obvious reasons."
The rest of the explanation washed over Arthur like a dream. The arks would be filled with people carefully selected for their genetics, their skills, or their bankrolls, along with all the great works of art, literature, science, and nature. A microcosm of humanity, a seed in the storm hoping to find somewhere to take root and flower once more.
As for the rest of humanity, the only goal was to keep them ignorant of what was coming for as long as possible.
"We must keep order," Uther said. "Arthur, Morgana, your public presence will be crucial in this effort. You will also have great responsibility in planning the preservation of our own culture and society."
"Culture and society?" Morgana repeated, sounding as dazed as Arthur felt. "What about the people? What happens to them? What do we tell our friends?"
"You tell them nothing," Uther snapped. "Revealing this information to any unauthorized person carries an automatic sentence of death."
Morgana recoiled. Geoffrey stepped over and laid a calming hand on her shoulder. "The young lady has had quite a shock, your majesty."
For the first time in his life, Arthur saw his father look immediately contrite. "Of course. My apologies, my dear. My concern is for your safety above all."
Helmsley gathered up his papers and computer. "I should leave you to discuss this with your family, Your Majesty."
Uther held up a hand. "One moment, Doctor. We have a last item of business before you leave."
"Ah. Yes, of course." Helmsley stepped closer to the desk as Uther pulled out a leather-bound portfolio.
When he opened it, Arthur saw it contained a single sheet of paper. At the top was a simple line in his father’s handwriting: Uther R. Below Uther’s name, in the same hand, Arthur saw his own name, and Morgana’s.
Uther pushed the folder to the front of the desk, facing Arthur and Morgana. He laid his heavy gold pen across the paper. "As a private citizen, I have purchased passage aboard the Commonwealth ark for our family. In addition, you will each choose one person to accompany you."
Arthur and Morgana looked at each other, then stared back at the paper. "Anyone?" Morgana asked, though there could be no suspense about her choice.
"Anyone. I will not question your choice of companion."
Morgana let out a long sigh, stood and moved to the desk. She picked up the pen and bent over the paper, writing with quick, sharp strokes. When she was done, she handed the pen to Arthur, then turned and crossed to stand by the window that looked out into the gardens.
Arthur rose slowly and stepped up to the paper. He felt no surprise at all to see Guinevere Smith written next to Morgana’s name. Nor did he feel any surprise when he bent without hesitation to write Dr. Merlin Emrys next to his own.
Merlin had chosen the world over Arthur, but it made no difference in the end. If Arthur could have only one person in the world, save one person from what was coming, then it was no choice at all. He would pluck Merlin back out of the world whether he liked it or not.
He laid the pen down and stepped back from the desk.
He had always wondered how much his father the King knew of Arthur’s proclivities, of his dabbling during his military service and his more blatant affair with Merlin. Uther had always kept a careful eye on his heir apparent, but had never said a word to him, direct or veiled, about his love life.
Even now, Uther merely looked down at the name, then back at Arthur with an equanimity that neither implied nor denied suspicion. Arthur felt his own paranoia prickling along the back of his neck.
"Merlin’s a doctor working in disaster relief," he said and regretted it instantly.
Morgana turned around to stare at him, and her eyes grew round. Her lips moved silently. Oh, Arthur.
He turned his head away, wanting nothing from her.
Geoffrey came up behind him and squeezed his shoulder. "It’s all right, my dear boy. You’re meant to have a friend with you. You need no other reason for your choice. Everyone knows how close you are to the lad."
That had been the beauty of it, after all. The first photographs of them together had been published the morning after they met and on a regular basis thereafter. The papers had seemed charmed by Arthur’s fast friendship with a common boy. They had fallen over themselves to praise Arthur’s involvement and ongoing support of the mission of MSF. No one had ever thought anything more of it than that.
"Exactly right, Geoffrey," Uther said and reached for the short, precious list. The portfolio closed with a heavy thump as Uther handed it to Helmsley. "You will see this gets to the appropriate people, Doctor?"
"Of course, Your Majesty. Your Highness, my lady, Mr. Prime Minister." Helmsley nodded to each of them, then went out with Geoffrey.
"I understand you will need time to come to terms with this," Uther said when they were alone. "I can give you a day to yourselves, but no more than that. There is so much to be done, and we have so little time."
With that, they were dismissed. Arthur moved like an automaton as he left the King, Morgana close behind him. A day was nothing. Even now, he still felt trapped in a nightmare from which he wanted badly to waken.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Morgana grabbed Arthur’s arm. "What are we going to do?"
He turned and stared at her blankly. "Do?"
"For the people," she said, impatient with his lack of comprehension. "Arthur, we have to do something. The people of this country are our responsibility."
"What do you suggest, Morgana?" As he spoke, he felt the numbness wearing off, leaving him in a haze of amorphous anger. "You heard what they said in there. All we can do is carry out the plan they’ve made."
"I don’t accept that. We have to tell people, at the very least. They have a right to know."
"Keep your voice down," he hissed, seizing her wrist and pulling her further down the corridor. His father’s voice echoed in his mind: automatic sentence of death. "Even if we could, it would only cause mass panic, which wouldn’t help anyone."
"Maybe people could work together and find a way to stop it," she returned. "Maybe if everyone works on nothing else for two years, we can save everyone."
For a moment, he almost believed she could be right. But Arthur had been raised with a ruthlessly practical view of life: what could be done, what should be done, what must be done. There was little room for heroism in the modern monarchy. He was suddenly furious with her for making him feel like he should be capable of more than he could possibly do.
Panic also welled up in his chest alongside the anger. He looked for the numbness again, longing to sink back into it, but it was gone. "I can’t talk to you about this right now," he said and pushed past her, ignoring her call behind him.
Every person he passed in the corridors of the palace inclined their head in respect as he passed. Every person he passed, he wondered, would they get a ticket for the ark? Did they even know? Did this aide know, or that secretary, or the guards at the door?
By the time he reached the nearest exit, he was nearly running. He got off the grounds without anyone stopping him, and he kept going until he was amongst the trees of St. James Park. A few tourists did double takes as he passed, then seemed to decide that he could not be who he obviously was.
All he could think of was the fact that every person he passed was going to die.
He found himself crumpling onto a bench hidden by the trees. In two years’ time, these trees would be gone. The bench would be gone, the park would be gone; the palace and the city would be swallowed by the earth or swept away by the sea.
Arthur’s name and his blood were rooted deep in Great Britain, in the land and stones and continuity of civilization. What part of him did not belong to Britain, he had given to Merlin.
A tiny hiccup of laughter bubbled up in his throat. Merlin had left him to go save the world, not knowing that the world was already scheduled to end. He had left Arthur to go heal people who were going to die anyway. All the guilt and grief, and in the end, none of it would make a shred of difference.
The laughter kept bubbling up until it boiled over. Arthur sat on his hidden bench and laughed himself sick as his doomed subjects walked the paths of their own destinies just beyond the trees.
He had not allowed himself much in the way of emotion for over a year now, lest the terrifying reality render him useless to his country. Morgana still raged at King and Parliament alike on a daily basis. Arthur supposed it was her way of coping. For his part, he was still waiting for Bruce Willis and Dennis Quaid to show up.
Where Morgana argued passionately for finding a way to save more people or telling the public and letting them try to save themselves, Arthur found himself deep in dirtier business: the cold, practical choices of which of his countrymen were worthy of earthly salvation. It had become his job to sift through the reports and recommendations of the secret committees established to examine the genetics, abilities, and finances of all British citizens who might have something to contribute to the eventual rebuilding of the world.
He compiled list after list and sent them on to Parliament to review for what would soon become the most important passenger manifest in the history of the world. In between the various geniuses and national treasures, he subtly inserted names of more ordinary people who meant something to him.
It was simple enough to include Merlin’s mentor Gaius amongst the physicians; he was well respected and had served in the military with the King and Prime Minister. Leon managed to secure a service position aboard the ark, and Arthur had sent him off to the building site in China with his blessing and great relief.
Others were not as lucky. The lists always came back with lines drawn through name after name, and too often those names sent a new stab of pain through Arthur’s heart. Merlin’s mother had been one of those names, but she died of a heart attack before Arthur could do anything about it. He sent a glorious display of lilies to the funeral and tried not to wonder if Merlin needed him.
The one constant every time was Merlin’s name there right under his own. Once, the lists had come back with question marks next to Merlin and Gwen’s names. In a fury, Arthur sent them back with exclamation points, then called the Prime Minister’s private line to make sure that whoever had gotten happy with their pen learned their place very quickly.
Uther had called him in one afternoon on the pretext of discussing the upcoming Olympic Games, slated to be the last in history. Arthur was still on the organizing committee, though where once he had thrown himself into the planning with boyish enthusiasm, it now felt like a stilted puppet show, bread and circuses for the plebes while the patricians made their quiet plans to ditch the sinking ship.
He stood up and turned to go when he was done briefing Uther on the plans for the closing ceremonies. "Arthur," his father called before he reached the door, and he turned around. "I wanted you to know that your unit has been recalled from Afghanistan."
Arthur met his father’s neutral gaze with a surprised look.
"They’ll be briefed into the plan, then placed back under your command for the duration of the... for the duration," Uther said.
Arthur just shook his head. "Why?"
"Because we will need security for the government, and your men are the best."
"How do you even know that?" Arthur challenged, though of course his men were the pride of Britain in his eyes. "You’ve barely met any of them."
Uther gave a weary sigh. "I know because you are their leader. You trained them, and thus there can be no better."
And with those few words, all the months of repression nearly came unravelled then and there. Arthur could only nod, pulling himself to attention for a moment before escaping to compose himself. His men arrived the next week: stolid Pellinor, brave Owain, joyful Gawain, dependable Kay, and Galahad, that manic-depressive bastard.
Not long after that, the lists suddenly became final. A politely detached bureaucrat showed up at Clarence House late one evening, bearing two red passes and two peculiar cell phones. His heart pounded with relief and anxiety.
It was time to go see Merlin again.
When Arthur arrived at the MSF camp, he could see little through the cloud of dust stirred up by the rotors of the helicopter. As it cleared, he saw the cluster of huts and trailers and vehicles, a few more of each than there had been the last time he and Merlin had come for a publicity stop, but still familiar enough to ache if he could allow himself to feel anything.
A few familiar faces gaped up at him as he stepped out of the chopper, leaving Owain and Pellinor to grapple with the boxes of supplies he had brought to explain his presence. He wished he could avoid it altogether. Arthur had become skilled at conversing with people who had no idea that they and everyone they knew were going to be dead in a year’s time, but it gnawed away a little more of his soul every time.
"Prince Arthur, what a fantastic surprise!" Another familiar, though unexpected face emerged from the crowd--Dr. Ector Mburu, whom Arthur had first gotten to know through Merlin’s stories and later in person when Arthur had become more involved with the work.
"Ector, always fantastic to see you, too." He exchanged a back-pounding embrace with Ector, who had always reminded Arthur of a more frenetic, but equally bossy version of Merlin himself. "What are you doing in South Africa? I thought you were in Mali."
"They asked me to come down and consult about a cholera outbreak that’s starting to spread. Nasty business, but I can spare a few minutes if you’ll sit down and talk football with me." Ector pounded Arthur’s back one more time before nodding towards something behind him. "Though I assume you’re here to see Merlin, of course."
He turned to see Merlin and Lancelot coming around the corner of the main hospital tent. He had thought he was prepared to see Merlin again, but when Merlin looked at him with wide eyes and the start of a smile, Arthur realized that was almost absurdly untrue.
It did not matter. He could feel the weight of what he carried in his pocket, and it outweighed the pounding of his heart and every other consideration. He nodded curtly to Lancelot, then addressed Merlin. "I need to talk to you."
"Sure," Merlin replied, his welcoming smile turning to wariness. It stung, even if Arthur knew it was more justified than Merlin could imagine.
"In private," he said.
"Okay," Merlin said slowly. "We could go to my—"
"No." Arthur jerked his head toward the outskirts of the camp, past where the helicopter was idling. "It won’t take long."
Merlin stepped to Arthur’s side. Arthur’s hand automatically came up the back of Merlin’s neck. He left it there past the first shock of contact, using it to steer Merlin out to where they were still in sight of the camp, but well out of earshot.
"What’s going on, Arthur?" Merlin said, though he had long since given up the right to address Arthur by his Christian name.
Nor did he resist Arthur’s touch, letting Arthur pull him firmly against his shoulder in a parody of their old embraces. Merlin’s face was hidden from any observers as Arthur spoke low and careful into his ear, telling him about the earth, the water, and the arks.
He spared nothing; no grim detail of the preparations, making certain Merlin would believe him. He held on tight as Merlin stiffened and tried to jerk away, even after he had finished speaking.
"You cannot tell anyone," he said as Merlin shook against his neck. "Not anyone, on pain of death."
"Then why did you tell me?" Merlin’s voice was rough and choked. "Is this some kind of stupid joke, Arthur? To get me back for how I left?"
Arthur would gladly take such pettiness over the truth. "No. This isn’t a joke. You need to believe that."
"Then why would you tell me?"
"Because I was given the choice to take one person in the entire world with me on the ark, and I am choosing you."
Merlin did pull away at that, and Arthur let him. His mouth opened and closed a few times, and he blinked rapidly. "Of course they give any royal prat a seat. But why me?"
"Don’t worry, I’m not asking for anything from you in return," Arthur said quietly. "It is my own sorry situation that I can’t imagine a world without you in it. So, there it is."
"Arthur," Merlin started to say, stepping in closer again, but Arthur raised a hand to his chest to stop him.
"You’re going to need this." He pulled the cell phone out of his pocket, punched in the code, and handed it to Merlin. "Put your thumb on the pad."
Merlin obeyed, though it took two attempts to still the shaking of his hand. "What is it?"
"It’s a phone, Merlin, what does it look like?" Arthur shook his head in exasperation. "Never, ever let it off your person. There’s nowhere it won’t get a signal, and only your thumbprint can activate it."
"It’s—you’ll call when it’s—" Merlin swallowed hard and closed his eyes before he could speak. "When it’s going to happen."
"When it’s time, it will go off with a text telling you it’s time to board," Arthur said and couldn’t stop himself from reaching out to squeeze Merlin’s shoulders. "That’s when I’ll come for you. The phone will tell me where you are. Be ready, we won’t have much time."
Merlin shook his head. "But what about everyone else? What about Lance and Ector? What about all the people here?"
"I can’t help them, Merlin." His voice was too harsh, making Merlin flinch, but he couldn’t help it. He had known Merlin would ask this, as though the same thoughts had not been eating at Arthur’s every waking moment. "I can only help you. The best way you can help them is to tell them absolutely nothing."
"How can you say that?" Merlin demanded. "How can I just go back and look at them and accept that they’re all going to die?"
"They’ll die a lot sooner if you say anything." Arthur shook him a little, desperate to get the point across. "That’s all you can do for any of them."
Merlin just shook his head. "I won’t say anything now, but we have to do something."
"We?" Arthur repeated in disbelief.
"There’s a cave system not too far from here. I can start moving some food and medical supplies there—don’t worry, I’m sneaky, nobody will see." As Arthur watched in awe, Merlin reached full inspired babble mode, as though everything would be fine now that Merlin had a plan. "Once this thing goes off, I should have enough time to get everyone down there before anything happens. It won’t matter what I tell them then, right? They’ll have a chance, right?"
"Right," Arthur agreed faintly. He supposed they would have as good a chance there as anywhere, and if anyone could bend the laws of nature to his will, it was Merlin.
At the very least, he knew from experience that having something to do might keep Merlin from going mad.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "If you need time to get yourself together, I can take you into town for some supplies. I brought a good supply of some of the vaccines you need, but I know you can always use more."
Merlin turned and looked at the helicopter, where Owain and Pellinor were still unloading crates. He shook his head slowly before turning back to Arthur. "Does it even matter now?"
Arthur had to force himself to answer that question nearly every day. "Yes," he said. "Everything you do from this moment on matters more than anything else you’ve done before."
"Does anyone actually buy that line?" Merin gave a short laugh of disbelief. "Royalty never stops being ridiculous, does it?"
"Wasn’t that why you left me in the first place?"
He regretted the words at once, but Merlin just stepped closer again and gave a little tug to the edges of Arthur’s jacket. "Guess we weren’t meant to make things easy on each other. But... thanks."
Then he leaned forward and brushed his lips softly against Arthur’s. For a moment, Arthur let it happen, caught between shock and bliss. He snapped out of it a second later and took a jerking step back.
"Don’t," he said, voice rasping in his throat. "I told you, I expect nothing from you except your silence."
Merlin took a step back himself, rubbing a hand over his face. "Sorry. I’ve no right anymore, I know. Sorry. God, bad timing, right?"
Arthur shrugged helplessly. End of the world, his soldiers and a slew of people not a hundred yards away—and not to mention damned Lancelot, waiting for Merlin to come back to him.
"When you find good timing, you let me know," he said at last and let himself touch Merlin one more time on the shoulder. "Trust me, take a few minutes before you try to talk to anyone. I’ll be a distraction for a while."
Then he jogged back toward the camp and the promised football chat with Ector Mburu.
The first time he had waited for a phone to ring after seeing Merlin, circumstances had been substantially different. His body had still been humming with satiation, his heart peaceful with the certainty that Merlin would not let too long pass without finding a way to contact him.
He had not been expecting Merlin to show up literally on his doorstep a few weeks after their encounter, but he felt rather smug about it when the guard called to ask about the somewhat odd young man who had turned up at the gate demanding to see the prince. "Send him to me," he said, then spent the next five minutes arranging himself in a nonchalant pose.
"This place is ridiculous," Merlin exclaimed fifteen minutes after that when he burst into Arthur’s private apartments, waving a manila envelope in an agitated manner for emphasis.
Behind him, Leon quirked a smile. "I found him wandering through the portrait hall, sir. I believe his escort misplaced him."
"Again," Merlin added, adorably sour as if the fault was not his for poking around royal residences where he was not supposed to be.
"Thank you, Leon," Arthur said and waited for the door to close behind him before he raised his eyebrows at Merlin. "I admit, I rather expected a phone call first, but you always do surprise me, Merlin."
"I lost your number." When Arthur’s jaw dropped a little, Merlin shrugged. "What, did you think I was going to have it plated in gold? Anyway, I had to come to get this cleared up."
"Get what cleared up?" Arthur did not really care. He prowled toward Merlin, judging the best angle to slide right into kissing.
Instead he found himself with the manila folder planted firmly in his chest and Merlin’s lips scowling at an unacceptable distance from his.
"There," Merlin said as though it were all perfectly self evident and sane. "Those are my test results, full blood panel, completely clean."
Oh. That was what he was on about. Arthur bit back a grin as he peeled the envelope off his chest and tossed it onto his desk. "I wasn’t worried. I had your complete MSF file pulled right after you left, including your full health records."
"What?" Lacking any other envelopes, Merlin poked an accusing finger into Arthur’s chest. "You can’t just go around looking at other people’s health records. There’s such a thing as privacy, you know."
"And yet your employer was strangely fine with giving up your privacy in exchange for my money." Arthur shook his head in mock sadness. "What a world we live in."
Merlin just gave him a dirty look. "I want to see yours, then. Every damn panel you’ve ever had, and I’m sure there have been plenty."
"Sorry, state secret." Arthur stepped forward until he could slip his hands around Merlin’s waist, letting his fingers toy with the waistband of his trousers. "But I promise you, I am perfectly clean and healthy in every respect."
"I just didn’t want you to think I do that kind of thing." Merlin leaned into him almost imperceptibly. "I mean, I hand out HIV meds every day. And condoms, lots of them. I have a whole crate of them back at the site."
"But not with you?" Arthur smiled and pressed his cheek to Merlin’s to feel the heat of his blush. He liked the fact that Merlin did not carry condoms around with him. He liked it very much.
"It’s not like I get a lot of time to pull." Merlin pulled back to frown at Arthur. "But then here we were. And it just didn’t matter."
"No," Arthur agreed, keeping his fingers hooked in Merlin’s belt. "And it still doesn’t. I still don’t have any condoms, either, but I was just wondering whether I should bend you over the desk or take you right to bed."
A quarter hour later, he was pressed against Merlin’s naked back and inside his naked backside, sweaty and sated. Merlin was panting, hands splayed on the desk on either side of his stupid envelope; Arthur had successfully made him come all over it.
"You horrible slag, you," he teased with a kiss to Merlin’s ear.
"You know what they say," Merlin replied, cheerful and breathless. "Great slag equals great shag."
"Nobody says that, Merlin," Arthur scolded, then took Merlin to bed anyway.
After that, there was no question of Merlin going back to Africa. Given his success and newfound friendship with the prince, MSF had been more than happy to give Merlin a London-based fundraising position. Arthur had quietly made sure it paid enough for the Kensington flat that had once belonged to one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting.
They had conducted their affair right under the noses of the palace and the press. Even Uther had commented that his new friendship seemed to have finally settled him. The world could not have been more to Arthur’s liking, and he had every confidence it would go on forever.
As the last year of the world drew near, Arthur stopped sleeping more than a couple of fitful hours each night. There was so much to do in so little time. And the world had so little time left he could hardly bear to miss any of it.
He had just dozed off when the tap came on his bedroom door. Rubbing his eyes, he started to struggle out of the covers—then startled when the door started to open without any word from him. No one ever came into his room, not even—
"Arthur? Are you awake?" Morgana called from the cracked door.
"What?" he said stupidly. They had shared a residence for as long as Arthur had been alive, but she had never been in his bedroom, nor he in hers.
She looked around with an air of bemusement as she came in, studying whatever secrets she found revealed in the faint moonlight. "I’m sorry to wake you, but it’s important."
He managed to sit up and blink at her through gritty eyes. "Morgana? What’s going on?"
She sat down on the edge of his bed and even in the dim light he could see the gleam in her eyes as she looked at him silently for a long moment. She stirred finally, reaching into her jacket and pulling out a thick envelope. "I need you to promise me something, Arthur."
Arthur took the envelope without looking at it, still staring at his sister. "Anything, Moggy," he said with unaccustomed gentleness. "You know that."
Morgana smiled, then reached out and squeezed his hand. "Promise me that you’ll take care of Gwen. Whatever happens to me, make sure she gets on that ark."
He frowned at her in confusion as she stood up again. "Of course, but Morgana, nothing’s—"
Then a sudden fear came over him, and he tore open the envelope. Two red cards and one familiar mobile fell into his hand.
"Morgana!" he yelled, but she was already gone.
It took him two minutes to get trousers, shirt, and shoes on, five more to question the night guard about where Morgana had gone, get in his car and go after her. He knew even as he drove that there was little chance of finding her before she committed whatever act of idiocy she had planned.
After an hour, he had covered most of Westminster and Kensington while trying her phone repeatedly, then finally calling Pellinor and having him roust out the rest of their company to join the search. Desperation finally drove him through the gates of Buckingham Palace, surprising a number of guards—as well as the King.
Uther and Morgana had always had a difficult relationship, exacerbated by their profound differences regarding the global secrecy around coming events. But Uther was the only father Morgana remembered, and he had always had more influence over her than anyone else.
"I’m afraid Morgana is about to do something incredibly stupid," he told a bleary-eyed Uther without preamble as he strode into the royal bedroom. "She isn’t answering her phone, and I can’t find her."
Uther ran his hand through his hair, only making himself look more rumpled. "Arthur, what in the world are you on about?"
Arthur pulled the extra ark pager from his pocket and tossed it onto the coverlet. "She came into my room an hour ago. She made me promise to take care of Guinevere, and she gave me that, along with her boarding pass and Gwen’s."
"Shit." Uther swung his legs out of bed. "I believe I know whom she is with, and I can figure out where they are going. Leave this to me, Arthur."
"Father, I can—"
"Go back to bed, Arthur." Uther stood and gripped his shoulder. "You’ve done well. Leave Morgana to me now."
Arthur nodded reluctantly and left. On the way back to Clarence House, he could only think of how much he and Morgana had not know about each other. She had known nothing about Merlin until the end, and they had never discussed it since. If she had a lover, he had not known it, either.
Nor had he known that Morgana had gone so much deeper into her obsession with disclosing the conspiracy of the arks than Arthur had even guessed. Deep enough that she had given over her boarding pass and best friend to him and disappeared into the night.
He fell into bed and nightmares of fire and water.
Dawn light had just begun to filter into his room when he woke to a pounding on the door. He was still squinting when the door flew open without his leave for an unprecedented second time in one night.
"Your Highness? Arthur, Arthur, wake up, oh, God, wake up."
He could count on his fingers the number of times Gwen had called him Arthur and still have fingers left over for a variety of rude gestures. Nor had he heard that kind of fear in her voice since he had gone with Morgana to break the secret to her. He bolted upright in alarm. "Gwen?"
Gwen was already in the room as Arthur got out of bed, trying to avert her eyes even though he was still fully dressed from earlier. She forgot any thoughts of propriety a second later, distracted by her own distress as she fumbled for the remote control to Arthur’s television.
"—same tunnel that claimed the life of her mother, Queen Ygraine, nearly thirty years ago. The body of BBC investigative journalist Alberto Tauren was also found by the car. There were no eye witnesses to the crash, but Tauren‘s car was stopped several metres behind the wreck, leading to speculation that Tauren had attempted to aid the Lady Morgana and Dr. Alvarr and was himself caught in the conflagration."
Gwen’s hands shook so hard that the remote flew out of her hand, hit one of the bedposts, and thudded to the floor. Instinctively, Arthur wrapped his arms around her and pulled her face against his chest as if he could protect her from the live image of the still-burning wreckage. "Jesus, Mogs," he whispered over Gwen’s curls.
"She was going to tell, wasn’t she?" Gwen said into his shirt. "I begged her not to, but she said it wasn’t right to keep it a secret."
"I know," he said. So it was John Alvarr who was Morgana’s partner, the conspiracy within the conspiracy. A Nobel-winning physicist and the stepdaughter of the King would have made for a compelling and believable interview, if they had made it.
"She said maybe they could figure out how to save more people. Or even if they couldn’t, everyone—" Gwen’s voice caught, and her shoulders began to shake. "Everyone had the right to meet their destiny as they saw fit."
"Like she did," Arthur muttered, thinking of the boarding passes he had locked away with his own and Merlin’s.
He held Gwen as his shirt front soaked hot with her tears, watching the television coverage of his sister’s assassination over Gwen’s head. Tears burned his eyes, but did not fall. Somehow, he thought Morgana would sneer at the notion of grieving so much for one death when there were so many more to come.
But she was his sister.
When Gwen started to sag against him with exhaustion, he lifted her up and laid her in his bed. She was asleep before he had her settled, and she would be safe from any prying eyes here for as long as she needed.
Arthur dressed himself again, this time in a manner befitting a prince. He clicked off the television set and called for a car to take him to the palace.
Though the city was just stirring into another cold November morning, stunned Londoners were already laying flowers and notes outside Clarence House. Arthur watched through the tinted glass as people he had never met wept for his sister, then turned and stared at the car as though they could see him. He jumped when a woman pressed herself against his window, moaning her grief.
"It was the same when your mum died, God rest her soul, Highness," said Lionel from the driver seat. He had certainly been with the family long enough to remember. "And the people loved our poor lass just about as much."
"I don’t think I knew," Arthur murmured, too low for Lionel to hear.
The scene was even worse at Buckingham. Two guards had to come out and clear the flowers before the car could drive through the gate. "Stop at the front entrance, Lionel," Arthur said. "The people need to see me."
Lionel frowned at him in the rear-view mirror, but had known Arthur long enough not to say anything. He stopped the car in full view of the mourners and news cameras, then got out to open Arthur’s door.
Arthur stepped out to the flash of cameras, far off but close enough with their lenses. A ragged cheer went up from the people gathering at the fence with their candles and flowers. He gave a single, grave nod to them and lifted his hand in silent thanks before walking around the car and striding calmly inside.
Once out of public view, he walked faster, not stopping to speak with any of the shocked and horrified staff, but occasionally accepting the touch of their hands on his arms as he passed. He made straight for the private residence and one particular private office.
He slammed the door open without bothering to knock. The television was on, as he had known it would be, but Uther was not watching it. As Arthur stormed in, the King kept his bowed head resting on his clasped hands. The door slammed shut again.
"Did you do this?" Arthur demanded with deadly quiet. The reporter was now describing the picture of Morgana’s body being extracted from the wreckage of her car.
Uther did not react. The television droned on. After a minute, Arthur walked forward, picked up a heavy stone paperweight from his father’s desk, and hurled it through the television screen.
"I said, did you fucking do this?" Arthur yelled as the television sparked and droned down to silence.
His father finally looked up, eyes reddened and desolate. Arthur searched for guilt within the grief, but his own was too strong. "Arthur. Morgana was—"
"I fucking know what she was," Arthur said, then stalked around the desk, seized the arms of Uther’s chair, and slammed him back into the bookcase behind him. "Tell me the truth. Did you have my sister murdered?"
"No! My God, Arthur, how could you think I would do that?" Uther did not fight him, just looked up at his son with a combination of fear and pity that made Arthur feel sick. "I tracked her down, but there was no time. They had already made contact with Tauren, and after that there were only minutes left. There was no time."
Arthur staggered back against the desk. "No time," he mumbled. Time had become the most precious commodity in the world, and it was the one thing he could not give Morgana back. His knees gave out and he slid down to the floor, all his power gone with his fury.
Uther reached out and put his hands on Arthur’s shoulders. "Arthur. Morgana may not have been my blood, but she was my daughter. I would have done anything I could to save her from her madness, no matter how far she had gone."
"They killed her where Mother died." He looked up at his father, feeling like a small child begging for answers.
"It was a message to me. Even royalty is not above the consequences of breaking the trust." Uther bowed his head again. "Arthur, swear to me that you won’t follow her example."
It would be the one fitting tribute he could give to her. He could walk out right now into the sea of lenses outside and tell them everything. They could kill him, but not fast enough. Everyone would hear him, and someone would believe.
But then who would take care of Gwen—and Merlin? With Morgana and Arthur both dead, there would be no reason to let them keep their tickets, and they would die with the rest of the world. Even without his unwitting promise to Morgana, he could not allow that to happen.
"I swear," he said and buried his face against his knees until he stopped shaking. It took a long time.
The end began so much sooner than anyone had anticipated. Arthur had heard vague rumours of potential changes to the schedule due to strange volcanic readings in Yellowstone National Park and the recent earthquake activity in California. But it was not until midday on what would be the final day of the Gregorian calendar that he realized just how awry Dr. Helmsley’s calculations had gone.
He was sitting in the royal box in the Olympic stadium, Gwen and Pellinor beside him, watching a number of women run very quickly in circles. The Games had proved a surprising joy to his heart. After Morgana’s death, with the bulk of his role on the project complete, Arthur had thrown himself into his role on the planning committee, desperate for distraction.
By the time he stood proudly beside his father at the opening ceremonies, the Games had become more to him than one more civilized obligation to sleepwalk through before civilization blinked out of existence. These would, for a certainty, be the last Olympic Games, and London—his city, his birthplace and home—would damn well show the world a glorious spectacle.
"Yes!" he shouted at Otoni Mkabe as she neared the finish line, arms and legs almost a blur. "Come on, Toni, one more for us today!"
She had already won two gold medals earlier in the week, and Arthur had made sure he was there each time to see the flag lifted and hear the anthem sung. Toni, chosen for the ark based on her age and flawless genetic profile, had looked up to the box and met his eyes, sharing the significance of the moment in a way most of the crowd could not imagine.
Today it seemed Britain would have to settle for silver, as Genefa Spencer-Gallimore of Jamaica managed to edge a nose past Toni at the finish line. "Ah well," Arthur said as they stood and applauded all the competitors as they took their cool down lap. "Do we get to include the Commonwealth in the medals count?"
Gwen turned her head enough to frown at him, still applauding. "No, sir, you don’t."
He grinned, still chuffed by the silver. His Blackberry started buzzing in his jacket pocket, but he waited until they all finished clapping and sat down again before he reached for it.
Gwen looked over with idle curiosity as he checked it. She had seamlessly taken over as his chief of staff, and any time his phone went off, it usually meant something for her to do. They both frowned as he checked for messages and found nothing new.
His pocket buzzed again, and this time he heard the faint beeping. He froze as he realized that it was the other phone, that constant menacing weight in his pocket. As he pulled it out, Gwen’s eyes widened in shock and she grabbed for her handbag. On her other side, Pellinor was scrabbling for the pocket of the jacket he had draped over the back of his seat.
Arthur ignored both of them, pressing his thumb to the screen. The screen accepted his identity and cleared, revealing a single blinking word.
"Oh, my God," Gwen whispered. "It can’t be, it’s months too early."
"Schedule changes," Arthur murmured. He still stared at the message, blinking away as though it were trying to hammer through the shock into his brain. It refused his order to change, apologize for the misunderstanding, and go away.
Pellinor was already moving. "Your Highness, I have to get you back to the palace now," he said with calm authority as he gripped Arthur’s arm and pulled him to his feet.
Arthur took one more look out over his beautiful stadium that he would never see again. A scattering of other spectators were also rising from the VIP boxes and making their way with deliberate haste to the exits. If this was real, the Games would be suspended within the hour. He doubted anyone would have the chance to officially cancel them.
Buckingham Palace was a swarm of activity when they arrived. Gwen and Pellinor vanished to other duties as Uther met Arthur at the door of his office. "Is this for real?" Arthur demanded. "Why is this happening now?"
"It seems the Americans’ calculations were a bit off," Uther said, closing the door as Arthur entered. "The coast of California was just destroyed by massive earthquakes. They expect the Yellowstone Cauldron to erupt at any minute."
"A bit off?" Arthur shook his head, letting the moment of exasperation overcome the surreal terror trembling just under his skin.
"I wish we had time to analyse their failings in greater detail." Uther moved around his desk and picked up a courier pouch. "I had one of your men fetch this from your rooms."
Arthur took the pouch, knowing without looking that it contained the four boarding passes he had kept locked away. He felt a pang at realizing he would never again see the house and rooms he had grown up in. "Thank you," he managed to say, closing his eyes briefly.
"The Prime Minister is already in the air along with the remaining national treasures," Uther went on, ignoring his son’s moment of weakness. "I have a few small matters of state to attend to myself, but we should have a few hours before we see any danger here."
"I have to go get Merlin," Arthur reminded his father. The thought of Merlin, always in the back of his mind, abruptly solidified and focused his scattered thoughts. "He’s still in Africa. I should have plenty of time to get him and get to China before the final waves hit."
"Yes, yes, of course," Uther agreed, which might have surprised Arthur if he was not already in disbelief that they were having a dispassionate conversation about the immediate occurrence of the apocalypse. "Your jet should be prepped and loaded by the time you get to the airport. Take Morgana’s girl, that Guinevere, with you as well."
"Of course." Arthur hesitated. It seemed that he should say something else, something of weight for history to record as a great quotation at this moment, assuming history was ever recorded again.
Uther gave him a small smile and clasped his shoulder. "I know this is overwhelming, Arthur. We thought we would have more time to prepare ourselves. Just remember who you are—prince of your people, and a great king to be."
"King of nothing," Arthur answered. He knew the fear showed in his eyes, the bitterness in his voice, but for once he could not bring himself to care.
"That will never be true," Uther returned, fierce and regal as a king should be.
They stood together in silence for a few minutes. Arthur felt torn between the driving urgency to act and the need to have just one more minute of normalcy, here in the office where he had played at his father’s feet as a toddler.
A knock on the door and Pellinor’s voice outside broke the moment. "Go," Uther said. "Get your friend."
Arthur nodded. "I’ll see you in China," he said, and left.
As they had made their way through London with a loud and aggressive police escort, people had already been starting to panic on the streets, hearing the news from California, the rumours from Montana, and wondering what it meant for the rest of the world. The secret was finally getting out, long after it could have done any good.
Yellowstone National Park exploded—quite literally—as Arthur and Gwen boarded the jet and Owain and Pellinor took the controls. Arthur tried not to think about how many more of his terrified subjects his plane could have carried. It did not matter; he could offer them no succour at the end of the voyage.
They were halfway down the length of Africa when the message came that the ash cloud from Yellowstone had reached the eastern seaboard of the United States, taking down the Vice President’s plane. Air Force One had taken off and escaped the cloud, but the President was not on board. He had chosen to stay behind and address his people, telling them the truth as America fell into darkness.
Just as they crossed into Zimbabwean air space, word came that Washington had succumbed to the ash and then the tsunami.
The United States of America was no more.
The tremors spread across the ocean faster than anyone could have calculated. The crust of the earth was shifting. Arthur had not prayed except in church at any point in his life, but now all he could do was pray for his people and selfishly ask that he reach Merlin in time.
"We have the signal, sir." The intercom crackled to life with Owain’s voice, jolting Arthur out of his thoughts. Across the aisle, Gwen beamed at him, and he remembered that she and Merlin had gotten friendly when Merlin was spending so much time at Clarence House.
Arthur touched the intercom button to answer. "Take us down, Owain, but be careful. I very much doubt we can count on the ground being stable."
"Looks all right to me, Captain," Pellinor’s droll voice responded. "Perhaps you should come take a look."
He frowned at Gwen, and they both moved up toward the cockpit. When he looked out the front windscreen, it took a moment to figure out what he was seeing. Beside him, Gwen laughed with delight, and the scene finally resolved in Arthur’s brain.
Merlin was certainly there, waiting near a pair of trucks loaded with supply crates. He had found a long dirt track that could double as a runway. "How considerate," Arthur muttered through gritted teeth.
For next to Merlin stood Lancelot. And behind them stood the entire MSF medical staff from Merlin’s site and at least three others by Arthur’s count. And just to make Arthur’s day, behind them thronged dozens of men, women, and children, most carrying a bag of some kind.
"I can’t believe him," Arthur said louder. "Get this plane down, now."
Even Pellinor and Owain, who had barely met Merlin, were chuckling now, like this was all a wonderful prank. "Yes, sir," Owain said, managing to hide his mirth at Arthur’s ire.
Arthur was off the plane almost before the ramp was lowered. "Merlin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?"
Merlin jogged forward to meet him. "Arthur, thank God you’re here. We’re already getting earthquakes. We got the non-ambulatory into the caves, but I don’t think it’s safe to be out in the open anymore."
Arthur gaped at him, not knowing whether to ask what good caves would do when the entire crust of the earth was moving, or why Merlin had somehow neglected to stow a great many more of his charges. Lancelot he had been halfway expecting, but he had not anticipated that Merlin would press him this far.
"Don’t make me say it, Merlin," he finally said. "I made it clear from the beginning, I can only take you."
"I know, but who could be more useful in an apocalypse than a disaster relief medical team?" Merlin’s jaw was set in a particular way that was all too familiar to Arthur. He had clearly rehearsed his lines. "And Ector has his own ticket for one of the arks, you don’t even have to worry about him."
"Oh. Right." Arthur looked around at the people, many of them clinging to each other for balance as the ground shivered in ominous prelude. "Your medical team is rather more extensive than last I saw it."
"Yes, but we imposed a strict baggage limit." Merlin gave a stiff, hopeful smile. "And you have a big plane. You could stack all of us in a closet and still have room for some brooms."
"That won’t do them any good when we get to China and you just have to leave them all there instead of here."
Merlin’s composure started to break, and he came up to Arthur to speak quiet and fast in his ear as the ground rumbled again. "Arthur, I know you. You can’t leave them here to die any more than I can."
They stared at each other for another minute while the world began to shake apart beneath them. There was no more time to think. But Merlin was still looking at him with steady faith, utterly sure his once-adored prince would make the right decision.
"Sir!" Pellinor shouted from the ramp of the jet. "The tremors are getting worse. We have to go now."
"Damn it." Arthur bowed his head in defeat. "All right, get them on the plane. But Merlin, I can’t promise anything more than that. When we get to China, I don’t have the authority to get them on the arks."
An enormous grin broke over Merlin’s face. He started to throw his arms around Arthur’s shoulders, until Arthur stiffened and stepped back. Merlin bit his lip and nodded. "Thanks."
Arthur gave a curt nod and motioned to start loading people onto the jet. Everyone started moving toward the ramp in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Arthur wondered how much rehearsal time Merlin had put into this.
The first child was halfway up the ramp when they finally ran out of time. Arthur was knocked off his feet as the earth gave a violent shake. Around him, the children began to scream and stampede for the jet.
He stumbled to his feet and ran with Merlin towards the plane, helping the people herd the children in front of them. Pellinor stood at the head of the ramp, grabbing the smaller ones as soon as they got close enough and tossing them in the hatch with brisk efficiency.
The quake got stronger. Behind him, Arthur heard a strange crackling sound. He did not look, but he saw Merlin glance back over his shoulder and go sheer white with horror. "Lance!" he shouted. "Arthur, your pilot—"
He whirled around to see Owain and Lance by the cargo trucks, each struggling to unload a large crate from one of the trucks. On the other side of the trucks, unseen by them, a large fissure was opening in the earth, spreading towards them rapidly.
"Owain!" he shouted. "Leave it! Now!"
Owain turned to look at him, and at that moment, the ground beneath him groaned, shifted, and split beneath his feet. His mouth widened in an "O" just before his arms windmilled, cartoon-like, and he started to tumble back over the edge of a cliff that had not been there a minute before.
Arthur broke away from Merlin and raced toward the trucks. Owain grabbed onto the open door of the nearest truck to get his feet back under him. Arthur was still several metres away when Owain looked up and grinned in relief.
"I’m okay!" he shouted. On top of the other truck, Lancelot cautiously let go of the crate he had been trying to move and began to climb back over the cargo fence.
Then the ground shook again and began to crumble behind the back wheels of the trucks, which groaned and began to slide backwards.
"Get out of there!" Arthur made a lunge for Owain, who looked at him in confusion the instant before the open door of the truck caught him in the chest and dragged him backwards over the edge of the fissure. "Owain!"
"Arthur, stop! It’s not safe," he heard Merlin shouting behind him, but Arthur stumbled forward to the crumbling edge of the crack. Owain might still be there, clinging to the cliff face, like he had done in the mountains that time when he was just a green rookie—
But Owain was gone.
Arthur stumbled back from the precipice. The ground lurched sideways beneath his feet, sending him tumbling in front of the second truck. It creaked above him, and for a moment he thought he was about to be run over.
Behind him, Merlin shouted again, sounding terrified. For an instant Arthur thought that fear was for his own imminent demise. Then he looked up at the truck above him and realized it was inching backwards into the crevasse—and Lancelot was still on it.
He scrambled to his feet and ran up along the side of the truck as close to the edge as he dared. The ground had stopped moving, though judging from the reports from America, Arthur guessed it was the calm before the final storm.
Merlin was running toward him, but Arthur glared at him and pointed back towards the plane. "Go back! I’ll get him, but I need you to get on that plane," he shouted.
For a moment Merlin glared back. He stayed where he was, halfway between plane and truck, at a safe distance if such a thing were possible. Arthur gave him one last stern look for good measure before turning his focus on his mission.
The truck was teetering on the edge of the crack, caught in a mess of brush that was stabilizing it, though probably not for long. And there was Lancelot’s boot, stuck in between the slats of the cargo fence, with the rest of Lancelot dangling outside the fence over the abyss below. Lancelot strained upwards, trying to grab hold of something to pull himself up, but stopped when the truck gave an ominous shudder.
"Stay still," Arthur called to him. "Just stay still until I reach you."
It was clearly idiotic, which he knew damn well even as he took careful hold of the side of the truck cab and lifted himself onto the runner board. As he waited to be sure it was going to bear his weight, he could hear the distant sound of Gwen screaming his name from the plane.
He should be sprinting for the jet now, getting it off the ground before there was no ground left, saving the people he could. But he would be damned if one more person was going to die on his watch if he could do anything about it. Even Lancelot. He could not face Merlin again if he did not try.
The truck seemed stable enough for the time being, so he began to inch himself along the running board. Arthur could see him clearly now, trying to keep his body from swaying and disturbing the balance of the truck. Sweat ran up his neck and across his face.
Another tremor ran through the ground, making the truck shake and sway. Lancelot’s arms flailed out involuntarily, which did not help. Arthur leaned back to put as much of his weight toward the front as he could.
The truck slid another inch backwards, then held steady. A slow popping sound sent a chill through him. One of the bushes holding them steady was giving way under the weight of the truck, ripping out one root at a time.
He took a deep breath, listening to Lancelot’s panicked breathing. "You know, my sister died last year," Arthur said as though in a casual conversation and not on the edge of a gigantic crack in the earth in the midst of the apocalypse.
"Y-yes, I know." Lancelot replied after a confused pause, but sounded slightly calmed by the distraction. "My condolences. Merlin was beside himself when he heard."
"Was he?" He took another cautious step along the side of the truck. He had to go faster; he could feel the ground starting to shake again and knew they did not have much time. "I didn’t know he and Morgana were so close."
"It was you. He wanted to go to you. I told him he should, but he didn’t feel like he could."
Arthur paused and shut his eyes, then blinked and forced himself another step. He was at the end of the running board and ready to manoeuver the last bit along the bed of the truck to Lancelot. "Did Merlin tell you about the arks? Never mind, of course he did. Before she died, Morgana gave me her boarding pass. I want to give it to you."
"What? Merde, be careful!" Lancelot cried as more of the brush gave way and the truck tilted alarmingly. "Why would you do that?"
"Because you’re a noble man. Morgana would have liked you." And Merlin did like him, Merlin who would almost certainly still be watching them if Arthur could spare the concentration to look.
He got himself up on the cargo fence, almost within reach of Lancelot’s boot. "Nearly there. Hang on."
"No--no rush, Your Highness," Lancelot panted. He craned his neck just enough to look up at Arthur.
They looked at each other for one long moment, each judging the angles and possibilities. "This is going to go fast," Arthur said finally, feeling the truck give a little more under his weight. He was just past the balance point at the edge of the crevasse; any further movement was going to tip that balance.
"Right," Lancelot agreed, nodding as best he could upside down.
Arthur stretched his body as far as he could without losing his leverage. "Take my hand. Don’t swing if you can help it."
Lancelot stretched out his arm, groaning at the strain until his fingers caught in Arthur’s.
Arthur secured his grip on both Lancelot and the truck. "All right, on three I’m going to pull you up. Grab onto the truck, get your foot out, and follow me. One. Two. Three."
He pulled hard, dragging Lancelot up until he was bent in two and scrabbling for a hold on the cargo fence. The metal beneath them shrieked and began to tilt. Arthur let go of his hand, then yanked at the laces of Lancelot’s boot.
Lancelot pulled his foot out and they both scrambled up over the cargo fence onto the main body of the truck. "Up!" Arthur yelled as the last of the brush gave way on the edge of the cliff.
The ground crumbled under the wheels. Arthur jumped up onto the roof of the cab, Lancelot at his shoulder. Lancelot’s bare foot slipped, and Arthur grabbed his arm and yanked him up and over the roof.
They landed on the bonnet just as the front tires cleared the edge of the cliff, flipping the truck backwards into the fissure. Arthur took a last jump off the front headlights, pulling Lancelot with him by sheer force of will.
His chest impacted the ground, his legs on the side of the gorge. He immediately started slithering backwards, dragged down by Lancelot’s weight. His free arm scraped frantically at the crumbling ground, but he had no chance.
Then he felt hands on his arm, other hands seizing his shirt collar and dragging him up and over the edge. He kept his death grip on Lancelot until they were both back on solid ground.
Solid ground that was once again shaking and starting to split. He looked up into Merlin’s shock-white face, Gwen peering anxiously over his shoulder. Beside them, Ector was hauling Lance up onto his feet.
"I think we should run." Merlin’s voice was hoarse, and his fingers were still wrapped tight around Arthur’s arm.
"You think?" Arthur cleared his throat and forced his legs to push him up and forward.
They raced to the plane as the crack in the earth widened behind them. "Your other pilot’s dead," Merlin shouted as they ran. "Gwen says you’ll have to fly the plane."
Arthur stopped short at the ramp, staring at the still figure lying under it. "Pellinor?" he said and started to swerve toward his friend.
Merlin dragged him back. "He fell from the ramp and hit his head during the first big shake," he said. "I’m sorry. There wasn’t anything we could do."
He shook his head even as he understood he had no choice. It had been years since he last piloted anything, and he had never flown a cargo jet like this. "I need a co-pilot."
"Lance was in the ALA," Merlin said eagerly. "He can help."
"Er," Lancelot said, obviously experiencing the same misgivings as Arthur about the quality of the French air force.
The earthquake was getting worse, and this time it was not stopping. They were out of time.
"Good enough," Arthur said. "No, leave him, there’s no time. The whole world is a damn graveyard now."
But he stopped and snapped off one of Pellinor’s dog tags before leaving him to the dying world.
The jet got into the air through some piecemeal miracle of aeronautics, luck, and better teamwork than Arthur was comfortable acknowledging. He and Lancelot breathed a unified sigh of relief when the plane finally stabilized above the blackening cloud cover.
Arthur concentrated on the controls, though they had already set the autopilot for China. He fiddled with the video monitor, trying to get the satellite feed back. When it came on, there was no longer any commentary for the footage of Londoners running terrified through the crumbling streets. Arthur stared, compelled to watch in silent, horrified vigil.
After a minute, Lancelot cleared his throat. "I just wanted to say... thank you. For my life. I owe you more than I could ever hope to repay."
"For the truck or the ticket?" His words and tone were ungracious, but he was not sure he was ready for any camaraderie with Lancelot. It was not only the Merlin issue. He had been part of a team for years, and now two of them lay dead in the bleak landscape below. God only knew where the rest of them were.
"I appreciate both a great deal." Lancelot was silent for a moment, watching the image of people clinging to each other and praying in Hyde Park. "And I wanted to say—"
"Oh, please don’t." He had been hoping that Lancelot, as a fellow military man, would understand the benefits of stoic gratitude.
But Lancelot persevered. "If you offered it just to give me hope out there—or for Merlin’s sake—I would understand. There are others more deserving, one of the children, perhaps—"
"My God, is there no end to you?" Arthur stood up and pulled his headset off. "You deserve the ticket and you’ll use it. That is my final word on the subject."
At least the fellow had the human decency to look relieved. "Yes, Your Highness. Thank you. I would not want you to think—"
"I’m going back to check on our many unexpected passengers." Arthur jabbed his finger at the flight displays and then the video screen. "Keep an eye on that and that. Call me if anything goes... worse."
He ducked out of the cockpit without waiting for Lancelot’s acknowledgment. Right outside, Gwen and Merlin were sitting in silence. Merlin sat hunched in on himself while Gwen stared into space.
She blinked up at Arthur as he stepped over to them. "Sir."
"All right, Gwen?"
She blinked again, then nodded. "Yes, sir." She got to her feet. "Excuse me, sir, I should go see if anyone needs anything."
They all looked to be settled well enough from here, sitting further back in the plane. But he did not mind being left alone with Merlin, so he nodded and took her seat.
Merlin stayed hunched over as Arthur sat next to him. He wanted to put his hand on Merlin’s back, both to offer comfort and feel the solid warmth under his fingers.
He did not, and after another minute, Merlin finally straightened up. "I think I could sleep through the rest of Armageddon, if you let me," he said.
Arthur gave a faint smile. "When we make it to China, I promise you’ll have plenty of time to sleep. More than even you could want."
"I’m sure I’ll stay busy. I intend to make myself useful, earn my keep." Merlin tipped his head back and studied the ceiling. "The rest of my staff would be pretty useful, too, you know. Disaster is our specialty."
"I know. I know you’ll do what you can." Which had not been at all what Arthur meant, but Merlin tilted his head toward him with a small smile. "I heard you talking to Lance. Thank you."
Arthur grunted. Merlin was the last person he was going to talk to about his reasons for that. "It was Morgana’s ticket. I don’t think she would argue with my choice on this, though God knows she argued about everything else."
Merlin smiled again, then moved his head back to resume his examination of the ceiling. "Do you think they’re all dead yet?"
He thought about the scenes from home still being broadcast by the news crews who had nothing left to do but their jobs. "No, not yet."
"I don’t know. When the arks go, I suppose. They were built in Tibet so that we’d be the last ones hit by the water. When that happens, there won’t be anyone left anywhere else."
Merlin’s throat worked as he gave a curt nod. They had never talked about any of this. Arthur had not really talked about it with anyone outside of formal, sterile briefings.
"I keep thinking about my year four teacher," Merlin said a few minutes later. "Is that strange? I haven’t seen her since I was nine."
"I don’t think we have any measure of strange for this sort of thing," Arthur replied, tipping his own head to rest against the bulkhead. "But if anyone could set the bar for it, Merlin, I would bet on you."
"It’s not anything in particular," Merlin went on as though Arthur had not spoken. "Just remembering her classroom, the way there was always chalk in the air, so she’d stop instruction to wave papers around and sneeze. Not that it would be like that now anyway."
"Yeah," Arthur said for lack of anything more profound. He understood perfectly, even if he could not put it into words any better than Merlin could.
Merlin stopped trying; Arthur felt it as a relief and a deprivation. He may not have known what to say to Merlin, but the silence was much heavier. Arthur fought not to get lost in it, until Merlin started talking again.
"I’m glad my mother’s dead." He turned his head away from Arthur. "That’s probably the most horrible thing anybody could say, but I’m so glad."
"I would have gotten her on the ships." His own vehemence surprised Arthur. He needed Merlin to believe it, even if Arthur was not certain himself what he could have done.
Merlin turned back to him with a little smile. Behind them, the smaller children were beginning to fuss and play, already bored by the apocalypse. The sound made Arthur’s chest tighten even as it visibly relaxed Merlin.
"I’m just glad she doesn’t have to see this, that she never had to know," Merlin said, then grinned as a shriek echoed in the big plane. "She’d have been great with the kids, though."
They both turned to watch as a little girl shrieked again and hit the boy next to her. Then she picked up the doll in her lap and hit him again. Arthur smiled and thought of Morgana with less pain than usual.
"Speaking of the continuation of the species." Merlin nudged Arthur in the side and nodded toward the open cockpit door. "Looks like someone’s getting a head start."
Arthur frowned and turned to follow the direction of Merlin’s gaze. He had not noticed when Gwen had slipped past them and gone into the cockpit. But there she was, sat sideways in his vacated seat, talking to Lancelot.
He could not see most of Lancelot from this angle—but he could see his hands, folded around Gwen’s. It was meant in comfort and reassurance, no doubt, but Arthur was a man. He knew a man did not touch someone the way Lancelot was touching Gwen unless he had another interest as well.
Next to him, Merlin gave a little chortle, as though seeing Lancelot touching someone else like that was of no consequence to him at all. Arthur whipped around to turn his appalled look on him. The laugh choked off in Merlin’s throat.
"Sorry, it’s too soon, I knew it," he stammered. "You know me, inappropriate. It’s laughter or full blown hysteria."
Arthur was already shaking his head. "That doesn’t bother you?" he demanded, jerking his head toward the cockpit.
Merlin stared at him blankly. "What?"
"That! Him!" Arthur waved an arm in angry emphasis, though he was not sure at whom he was angriest. He had given up the love of his life without a fight because he thought Merlin had found happiness with someone better than him. But Merlin—
Merlin was still looking at him like he had started foaming at the mouth. "What do I care if Lance has an apocalypse affair? Unless you—Gwen—"
"I assure you, I have never had any interest in Guinevere’s romantic life," Arthur snapped. In fact, for most of the time he had known her, he had not even considered the possibility she might have one. She was simply there, a constant in the backdrop of the royal world.
"Then what—wait, what?" Merlin’s puzzled look turned to a glare. "You thought I was cheating on you? With Lance? Really? With Lance?"
Arthur’s entire face was burning. "No. I didn’t think you were unfaithful while we were together."
"You just thought I left you. For Lance." Merlin’s glare turned to a smirk. "Relentlessly heterosexual Lance."
"He didn’t look that heterosexual to me," Arthur muttered, mortification undercut by a peculiar buoyancy.
"Yeah, that royal gaydar is really sharp. When did you have it installed, the Victorian Era?"
He looked away, jaw clenching. "Merlin."
"Arthur." Merlin’s chin brushed Arthur’s shoulder and rested there for a moment. "It was never you that I left."
He did not answer, just swallowed and stared at Lancelot’s hands still cradling Guinevere’s. It occurred to him for the first time that letting Merlin go might have been more stupid than noble. Except that he had never had a choice: Lancelot or no Lancelot, fighting to keep Merlin would have lost him forever, and Arthur had known it even then.
"Though I can’t quite figure how it would be more of a balm to your overstuffed ego to believe I ran off with another man than for my work." Merlin sounded bemused, contemplative.
"It’s different," Arthur said, petulant. It was both better and worse, to think that Merlin had still loved him even as he left. He could not even resent it any longer--he would not have loved Merlin so much without the part that had taken him away from Arthur.
"Royalty’s always a bit different," Merlin said. His voice was still light, but his eyes were closed, and his face held the same pain Arthur had been harbouring for years. It gave him a weird hope to see it. Merlin had loved him then; he might still.
Arthur started to turn his head away, but a gleam of gold caught his eye from Merlin's collar. Merlin never wore jewellery. On impulse, Arthur reached up a hand and pulled the chain out from Merlin's collar. His blood pounded in his ears as his fingers traced the love token he had given Merlin in the last minutes of their relationship.
Gently, he tucked the pendant back under Merlin's shirt without looking at his face.
He sat very still in the silence that followed, listening to Merlin breathe and waiting for him to say something. He might as well have been a little girl, plucking the petals off a daisy. He could not have been more disgusted with himself until Merlin’s fingers squeezed around his hand, damp and bony, and did not let go.
He waited, not moving, until he was sure Merlin was not going to move. "I know I promised you time to sleep when we get to the ark," he said stiffly when Merlin’s hand remained latched to his. "But maybe we could find some time. To talk."
Merlin turned to look at him, oddly exasperated even as he wound his fingers tighter around Arthur’s. Arthur started to smile even as Merlin started to speak.
Both their heads jerked toward the cockpit at Gwen’s cry, and Arthur reflexively pulled his hand away. He felt a fleeting urge to apologize, but his confusion over what he should or should not be doing with Merlin was shunted aside by the distress in Gwen’s voice as she called his name again.
"Your Highness, hurry," Lance’s voice echoed after. "The King is making an address."
Arthur jolted out of his seat at that and was at the cockpit door in three long strides. He had not known that Uther’s plane had the capability of broadcasting from the air, but he should not be surprised Uther had planned to address his people one last time.
Gwen and Lance were hunched over the small video monitor. Arthur bent over their shoulders, Merlin close behind him.
"—test the strength and courage of the British people like nothing in our history," Uther was saying on the monitor. "Of all the eras of history, I fear God has given to us the darkest burden."
His voice was broken up by occasional bursts of static, but the image was clear enough for Arthur to see the familiar bookcases behind his father. He frowned in momentary disorientation at the bust of Caesar that he had found intimidating as a child and ironic as an adult, there just to the right of Uther’s head. The text in the lower third read, "Live from Buckingham Palace," although that obviously could not be true. Uther had to have left hours ago.
"Oh, Arthur," Merlin breathed against his neck, one hand gripping at his waist.
"As we gaze into that darkness, I stand beside you in honour of all who have come before us. And yes, all who will come after us as well." Uther bowed his head for a moment before he looked back into the camera.
As Arthur met his father’s eyes, everything crashed into place. Uther was not on a plane. "No," he said stupidly. "Father!"
"For know that although all hope seems lost, this world and this nation will endure. Many have already given their lives to make sure of this, including my own beloved daughter."
Uther’s image began to shake, not due to the transmission. The king’s composure also looked shaken for a brief, human moment before he regained himself.
"This is not the final hour," he said. "I entrust Britain now to my heir, the only son of my body and heart. To him is given the worse task: to carry on the trust of his people and lead them out of this darkness. Whatever faith you find tonight, put it in him."
Gwen and Lancelot pulled back out of the way as Arthur bent over the monitor, hands gripping either side of it as if he could pull it from the console and pull his father to safety at the same time. "No, you promised," he said, though he was realizing that Uther had done no such thing.
The shaking grew more intense. Uther looked to the side for a moment, then drew a deep breath. "Arthur, my son, forgive me—"
And in the space of that breath, Arthur saw everything he had ever longed to see in his father’s eyes. All the pride, joy, and love Arthur had worked to gain his entire life but never dared to ask for—and then the picture went sideways. The screen went black.
The scream caught and died in his throat without voice. Slowly he straightened up, aware of the eyes on him, though he could not look at them. Merlin’s hand was an anchor on his back until it fell away, leaving him alone in the rarefied cold. He could hear Gwen’s breath hitching with repressed sobs. He could hear them echoed in his own head.
His father was gone. Britain was gone.
"Le roi est mort," Lancelot murmured into the silence.
Arthur wanted to punch him, but it seemed to help Gwen pull herself together. She set her shoulders and her jaw, then slowly pushed herself to her feet. Lance leaned over to offer his hand, but she ignored his help.
"The king is dead," she said with formal deliberation, the closest thing they had to a government official. "Long live the king."
She bowed her head, and Merlin did as well, the best obeisance they could accomplish in the confines of the cockpit. Even Lancelot managed to get a knee up on his seat and give Arthur a respectful nod.
Arthur accepted it with a tiny lift of his chin. Then he gently eased Gwen out of his way so he could take the pilot seat again. As he reached for the headset, Lancelot fiddled with his own headset, then stiffened with surprise.
"Your High—Your Majesty, another plane is hailing us," he said. "It’s a passenger jet out of Jakarta. They’ve seen tsunamis in the Indian Ocean from the air. They don’t know where to go."
Strangely, that was the easiest question of Arthur’s day. He had no subjects, but he was still a king. "Give them the coordinates for Cho Ming," he said. "Tell them to follow me."
By the time they reached Tibet, they had accrued an airborne caravan of lost passenger jets stranded in the air as human civilization was quietly snuffed out below them. Word had spread from the first plane until everyone within radio distance knew that there was someone who knew where to go. With every plane that appeared out of the deceptively blue sky, Arthur’s jaw set a little harder.
As they flew over the Indian coast line, Lancelot let out a strangled gasp. Arthur looked out the front windscreen and saw nothing – until he realized that the coast line was moving inward, keeping pace with them. His insides turned to ice as his eyes focused on the massive tsunami below. This was how Britain had died, and now they were racing the water to the last point of temporary refuge.
"Merlin," he called softly back into the plane.
Merlin appeared at his shoulder. "You need something, Arthur? I couldn’t find any of those little bags of peanuts, but maybe one of the other planes could toss some through the hatch."
Arthur shook his head. "I just need you to keep the children away from the windows for a little while, all right?"
"What—oh, God," Merlin said, looking out before Arthur could tell him not to. His hand clamped down on Arthur’s shoulder, then relaxed as Merlin took a ragged breath. "Right. No windows."
After a while, the water faded into the distance behind them at last. Lancelot breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and Arthur echoed him in his mind. This was not the wave that would end the world, not yet.
They had a little peace and quiet after that, broken only by the drone of the engines and the laughter of the children as Merlin and Gwen kept them distracted. Dusk was falling as they crossed into China, the end of the last day and deceptively peaceful.
Then a flotilla of Chinese military helicopters moved in from the west, joining their course but keeping a fair distance. One of them broke away from the group to buzz the jets until Arthur had identified himself to the pilot’s satisfaction.
A burst of gleeful squeals came from the back of the plane just as the nosy helicopter moved off. A moment later Merlin reappeared in the cockpit. "Arthur, Lance, did you see the helicopters?"
"Yes, we saw them," Arthur said. "I thought I told you to keep them from looking out the windows."
Merlin bent over and pointed so that Arthur had no choice but to look in the direction of Merlin’s finger. "No, I said, did you see the helicopters?" Merlin said low in his ear.
Arthur looked closer at one of the helicopters—and just as Lancelot took a sharp, delighted breath, Arthur saw it, too.
Below the chopper, hanging in a careful sling, was a giraffe.
He looked at the helicopter next to it—an elephant waved its trunk in the wind, trumpeting as though filling in for Gabriel.
"I forgot," he breathed in awe. Of course he had known of the large cadre of scientists that formed the zoological subtask of the project, but that had been far from Arthur’s area of expertise. But they had obviously done their jobs to ensure that humans were not the only species that would continue.
The choppers moved steadily ahead of them until they vanished into the growing darkness of the Himalayas. It was not far now.
They set down at the vast airfield just outside Cho Ming, a few kilometres from the mountain dam where the arks had been built. As Arthur checked in with the other pilots, he watched Chinese soldiers race out to meet the planes, then stare around from jet to jet as confused civilians began stumbling out. He could not help a small grin as his geared-up fight reflexes kicked up his heart rate.
Merlin had already gathered together his flock, which appeared much more reasonable in size when compared to what was gathering outside. Arthur still could not resist stopping in front of Merlin and raising his eyebrows.
In response, Merlin lifted his chin up in stubborn challenge, though his eyes showed only a hint of uncertainty underneath a fair amount of wry amusement. Arthur just shook his head and moved down the ramp, leading the first part of his ragtag band out into the thin, icy air of the Himalayas.
The Chinese soldiers had been joined by a scattering of Western officials, all of them trying to corral the growing crowd of agitated refugees into some kind of order. At the edge of the crowd, Arthur spotted Leon, who had come to meet them but now stood watching the chaos with his usual unflappable aplomb.
Arthur started towards him, but a Chinese colonel stepped in his path with a respectful but harried nod. "Sir. Welcome to Cho Ming. We have been expecting your party." He took a furtive glance over Arthur's shoulder, and his professional demeanour showed a hairline crack. "But who are all these people?"
Soldiers were soldiers the world over. Arthur knew how to deal with them.
"These people are my party," he said. "Have the baggage unloaded from all the planes and bring it to Ark Seven. Work fast, there's no time to waste."
He strode forward without waiting for a response, trailing Merlin, Gwen, Lancelot, and everyone else behind him. The four red boarding cards had once been a reassuring weight, secure in the inside of his jacket. Now they felt insubstantial against the task at hand. He had no intention of pulling them out at all now.
"Your Majesty, thank God you are safe," Leon said as Arthur approached.
"Leon." Arthur clasped his friend's hand, grateful for his presence and the fact that he would not have to be the one to deliver the news of Uther's fate.
"Hi, Leon," Merlin interjected from behind Arthur, out of turn but forgivably chuffed at seeing a friendly face.
Leon nodded to him, then his eyes flicked beyond them. "And thank God, all your... other companions have also arrived safely."
"I think we should get them transported to the mountain as quickly as possible."
"Agreed. I think we’ll need more helicopters."
In the end it took every helicopter they had, in multiple trips, to ferry everyone to the next stage of the journey. Arthur stayed until the last chopper, despite Leon’s unsubtle efforts to get him secured as quickly as possible. It would take a royal bully to get this done, and Arthur was the only one qualified for the job.
Leon had gone ahead of them, and from the air Arthur could see him packing people onto the shuttle trams that would take them the final leg to the ark. In the chaos of thousands of people rushing to each of the arks, no one spared a glance to Leon’s work.
As they stepped out into the industrial cathedral of Cho Ming dam, Arthur captured Merlin’s hand again and kept a firm lock on him. He had read the statistics on how many Chinese workers had fallen to their deaths in the cracks between the great ships and the platforms. He had not gone through all of this just to have Merlin trip and go flailing his way down into the earth now.
"My God," Gwen breathed, distracted and staggered by the vast space. Lancelot nodded in agreement at her shoulder. They could see the arks now, towering in the near distance, humankind’s most important engineering achievement.
Merlin tried to pull his hand free, but Arthur was using it to tow him into the last empty tram car after Gwen and Lancelot. Leon joined them as Arthur pulled Merlin down into the seat next to him. He was finally starting to look mildly harried.
"Everyone is on the way, sir," he said as the tram whirred into motion. "But getting to the ark and getting onto the ark may be very different things."
"Understood," Arthur replied. "Will there be space for them?"
"Space we have," Leon said, with barely a hint of his wish that Arthur had bothered to ask that question before all this. "Although comfort may be lacking, even if people can be prevailed upon to share staterooms."
"Which may be difficult, given what they paid for them," Arthur muttered.
"Why? How much did they pay?" Merlin asked.
"One billion euros per person," Leon responded before Arthur could stop him.
Merlin choked as he turned an incredulous gaze on Arthur. "You paid a billion euros for me?"
"Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin, I don’t have a billion euros," Arthur said and tried not to think about what Uther had done to get four times that sum. "Leon, as long as we can get them on the ark and feed them, people will make room. I’ll give them my stateroom if it’ll help."
Leon cast one brief flicker of a glance down at Arthur’s hand—the hand Arthur had forgotten was still clutching Merlin’s. "Yes, sir," Leon said. "I thought you might lead by example."
"Arthur, what are you doing?" Merlin whispered. It might have sounded like a protest, except for the way Merlin was returning the fierce grip on his hand.
"Beginning my reign the way I mean to continue," Arthur said, for even if he was wrong that Merlin still returned his feelings, Arthur did not intend to begin a new life inside an old lie.
Leon cleared his throat. "Sir, there is still the matter of boarding."
"Yes." As the tram came to a stop in front of Ark Seven, Arthur finally released Merlin’s hand and stood up. "Leave that part to me."
They were milling around in front of the boarding ramp when he stepped out, all of his many people. On the ramp itself stood a single figure, blocking the way. Arthur’s heart sank when he recognized the man’s face: Aredian, an old school chum and military comrade of his father. Arthur had never liked him--and he had forgotten that Uther had gotten Aredian commissioned as captain of the Commonwealth ark.
Aredian drew himself up as Arthur pushed through the crowd. "Your Majesty, welcome to Ark Seven. Please accept my sincere condolences about your father."
"A great loss to us all," Arthur replied stiffly. "Though not the greatest any of us have suffered today."
"Did you have any idea he would do such a thing?" Aredian looked grave, but his mouth curved in a way that made Arthur’s skin crawl.
"My father always did his duty to his people." Arthur took a step closer to Aredian, signalling his intent to move past him. "As shall I."
"And I as well, Your Majesty." Aredian did not move aside, but held up a hand as he surveyed the people behind Arthur. "As part of my duty, of course, I know the ship’s manifest by heart."
"Your Majesty is, of course, welcome to board at your leisure. I assume this young man is Dr. Emrys, who also holds a boarding pass. As does Dr. Mburu and the lovely Miss Smith. I do not know the young man with her, but am I correct in assuming he now holds the ticket of the late Lady Morgana?"
Arthur took another step forward, forcing Aredian to shuffle a step back, though not enough to free the gangway. "He boards at my word. As do the rest of my party."
Aredian looked slightly take aback by the steel in Arthur’s voice and backed up another step. "I’m afraid no one else may board without showing a valid boarding pass. That is the law."
"I am the law," Arthur said with full regal, if not legal, authority. "I am King Arthur, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and this is my ark. If it is my royal prerogative that these people board, then you will board them."
He did not know what Aredian saw in his face, but it made the captain's throat bob. He tried to take another step away, only to realize that Arthur had backed him at an angle to the edge of the ramp. Behind him was only the long drop between ark and rock into the depths of the agitated earth.
"Your Majesty," he said shakily. "Please understand my position."
"I do. Your position seems to be a choice between your life and your manifest," Arthur said conversationally. "I assure you, you do not want to leave the choice to me."
Aredian had been used to dealing with the Prince, not the King. He stared at Arthur for another heartbeat, then finally jerked his head in assent. "Of course, Your Majesty. We will board your party at once."
"Damn right you will," Merlin chimed in from Arthur's right. He had not realized Merlin had come to stand so close at Arthur's side. "And get them some hot towels. And some of those little bags of peanuts."
"Merlin," Arthur said wearily, then shoved Merlin ahead of them onto the ark.
Behind them came Leon, then Gwen and Lancelot and Ector and the rest of the MSF group and the airline passengers. By the time Arthur had reached the back of the long gate area, the refugees had become their own tidal wave that Aredian at his worst could not have stopped, though true to his word, the captain remained on duty at the ramp and saw every one of the unexpected passengers onto the ship.
"I'll get them settled somewhere, sir." Leon eyed the teeming mass of people with equal parts satisfaction and trepidation once they were all finally aboard.
"We'll help," Gwen put in, Lancelot nodding beside her. They looked at Arthur with identical expressions of awe. "That was amazing, sir."
"Very well done, Arthur," Merlin added soft in his ear. Arthur could feel the warmth against the metallic chill of the ship.
Aredian was making his way back toward Arthur when he stopped and put his hand to his ear, listening to something through his earpiece. His expression turned grimmer, and he began pushing his way faster through the crowd.
"Your Majesty, I need to get you to the bridge at once," he said when he reached them. "We’re launching immediately."
"What?" Arthur said, checking his watch. "We should have another hour and a half. What happened?"
"The American scientists discovered a second tsunami heading towards us." Aredian looked at his own watch, which showed the official countdown. "We have no more than a half hour now, probably less. The Chief of Staff recommended weighing anchor at once, and the heads of state aboard all the arks have agreed. Leon, get him up there."
Merlin stayed by his side as Leon led Arthur a few metres down a corridor to a lift that opened when Leon scanned a card. "This will take you up to the bridge," Leon said. "The other heads of state are already there."
"Good." Arthur stepped onto the lift and Merlin stepped in beside him as certainly as if he had been invited. "I wanted to speak with Geoffrey."
That made Leon hesitate and hold the doors open. "I'm sorry, I assumed you had heard. I'm afraid the Prime Minister and the Cabinet did not make it. Their plane went down when Mount Etna erupted."
Leon gave him a gentle look. "It's up to you now to speak for the people of Great Britain, sir."
The lift doors closed before Arthur could protest that nobody had ever voted for him for anything more than Britain's most eligible bachelor. As the lift began to rise, Merlin looked at him with simpleminded confidence. The knot that had started to loosen in his chest tightened up again as the lift doors opened onto the bridge.
The chancellor of Germany, Katrina Tregor, was the first to spot them as they walked toward the knot of European leaders and ark officers gathered around the nerve centre of the ship. She turned to embrace him, kissing each of his cheeks in a rare display of affection, though she had known him for many years. "Arthur, my young king. I'm glad you're here. That Aredian was starting to get unbearable."
"Don't worry, Arthur already put him in his place," Merlin answered for him.
Before Arthur could kick him, Tregor gave him a sharp look. "I like you," she said. "Who are you?"
"Chancellor, this is Dr. Merlin Emrys," Arthur said. "My good friend."
"A doctor," she said, shaking Merlin's hand. "We may need more of those than we had planned. This entire situation has gone completely to hell."
"And about to get worse," the French President, Claude Bayard, muttered as Arthur joined them at the central console. They all looked up at the large digital clock displayed over the navigation consoles, steadily counting down the time left until the water finally went over the roof of the world. Time to impact: twenty minutes.
Tregor put a hand on Arthur's arm. "I am sorry about your father, Arthur. He was a good friend and a good king. We have suffered heavier losses than we dreamed. The Italian Prime Minister also chose to stay with his people, and hundreds of other passengers simply did not make it."
"Does that mean there's extra space?" Merlin said, exchanging a glance with Arthur.
The ship's first officer overhead them. "No, I'm afraid not," she said, pausing on her way to the communications console. "Only four of the eight arks were completed in time, and then we lost Ark Three during the initial crust displacement."
Merlin looked sick. He stepped back and turned away to stare at the smaller monitors that showed each of the arks beginning to close their massive gates and lower the anchor supports that would hold the ships in place against the first impact of the waves.
Arthur turned to speak with the Canadian Prime Minister, Thomas Cenred, who had made his way around to pay his respects. They had just shaken hands when he heard Merlin cry out behind him.
"Arthur! There are people outside, they're rushing the ships!"
Everyone whirled around. "Put it up on the main screens, Lieutenant," Tregor ordered.
The screens flickered back to life, showing the outer view of Ark Four, the American ark, and the flood of people racing for the gate as it lifted. None of them made it.
"It's the people who were supposed to be on Ark Three," Cenred said. "My God, we just left them in the holding area."
"Poor bastards," Tregor muttered under her breath.
Merlin looked to Arthur. "They're right there, why can't they just lower the gate back down and let them on?"
"I don't know." Arthur stared back at him, helpless. They had saved so many, but now many times that number were trapped just outside, and he did not know what to do.
Aredian strode back onto the bridge just as the communications officer turned to look for him. "Captain, Ark Four is hailing us. They are requesting another conference with all world leaders."
The captain nodded, and the view screen switched to showing the bridges of Arks Four and Six. The conflict amongst the Americans was immediately apparent.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Dr. Adrian Helmsley, chief science advisor to the late President Wilson."
"Could you please turn up the volume, Mr. Hoffmann?" Tregor said, staring at the screen where Helmsley and Chief of Staff Anheuser faced each other across the bridge of the American ark.
Helmsley looked earnestly up at them. "I know we've all been forced to make difficult decisions to save our human civilization. But there's nothing human and nothing civilized about what we're doing here."
"Dr. Helmsley's passion is admirable," Anheuser snarled with a distinct lack of sincerity. "But I will remind you that we have very limited resources and extremely limited time."
"Arthur," Merlin whispered again, urgent in his ear.
"I know, Merlin," he hissed back as Helmsley continued his plea for humanity. He reached back and took Merlin's hand again. Fifteen minutes remained on the clock, but he already felt buffeted by crashing waves. He needed an anchor to remind him what was real and important.
"In order to save the human race, we have an obligation to stick to this plan," Anheuser was arguing. "Which every nation on this flotilla signed up for."
The argument devolved into shouting, and Arthur let go of Merlin to go watch the smaller monitors. He looked down at the mass of people weeping and pleading, though no one could hear them but God.
Arthur had no idea who these people were or where they had come from, whether they had paid for their tickets or been chosen by committee. But they were human beings, the last human beings, and for this moment, each of them was Arthur's subject.
He looked back at the screen as a woman stepped forward from behind Helmsley. Arthur recognized her as Laura Wilson, the daughter of the late American President. "If my father were here," she said simply, "he would open the gates."
Tregor turned away from the screen and in unspoken concord, the rest of them gathered around her, only heads of state except for Merlin silent at Arthur's elbow.
"We must let them in," Cenred said at once. "Dr. Helmsley is right. It is our human obligation."
"There is so little time," Bayard said, and Alined, his Spanish counterpart, nodded reluctant agreement. "We also have an obligation to the people already on board. This is a gamble, and if we lose, we lose everything."
Tregor turned to Arthur and raised her eyebrows. "Your Majesty?" she said, and they all turned to him.
He looked up over their heads to the screen where Helmsley and Anheuser waited for the verdict. He looked at Laura Wilson as he started slowly to speak. "If my father were here, he would say no. But whatever reign I have, I will not start it with an act of cruelty. I say yes."
Tregor smiled. "I thought you might say that. We've already managed a few more passengers. What's a few more on top of that?" She looked around at the others. One by one, they each nodded their agreement. Behind him, unseen, Merlin touched his back.
On the second screen, the Russian President was also stepping forward to speak for his ark. "The people of Russia, along with China and Japan, agree to open the gates."
Tregor spoke for them, and Arthur joined the others at her back. "The United Kingdom,
Spain, France, Canada, Germany--and I believe I may also speak for the Italian Prime Minister--we vote to let these people come in."
Helmsley turned away to give the orders. Merlin breathed a gusty sigh against Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur closed his eyes in equal relief. The gates opened again, and the last of humanity came aboard the arks.
"Close the gates," Aredian ordered as soon as the last of the passengers had crammed on board. "Five minutes to impact, people, move fast."
"Green lights across the board, Captain. Anchor supports are secure."
"Now we just wait," Arthur muttered. He stepped back away from the other heads of state to stand next to Merlin. By mutual accord, their fingers tangled together and clutched until it hurt.
"Four minutes," Merlin said. "Then it'll all be over, right?"
"One way or the other."
"Captain, Ark Four is reporting technical difficulties," Lieutenant Hoffmann said. "They can't close their gate."
"If they can't close the gate, they can't start their engines," Aredian said. "They'll be sitting ducks when the waves hit."
They watched in horror as the clock counted down the final minutes of the world. The American ship continued to sit with the gate ajar and engines silent.
"Waves spotted from the south and east," Aredian said quietly when thirty seconds remained. "Brace for impact."
Merlin braced himself against a wall, and Arthur braced himself against Merlin, uncaring what anyone might think of their arms around each other. In the end, after everything they had gone through, there was still no guarantee that any of them would make it past this.
Aredian watched the control displays while the rest of them watched the waves get closer until they loomed over the mountain. "Five," he said. "Four. Three. Two. One."
Then the ship shuddered and groaned with the force of the water crashing into steel and doing its best to rip it apart. The deck surged under their feet. Arthur tightened his arms around Merlin and closed his eyes.
He finally allowed himself to stop counting the seconds, standing in Merlin's embrace as the world came apart around them. Finally the ark stopped shaking.
"We're steady and intact," Aredian reported. "Ark Six reports the same."
Arthur lifted his head and stepped back, looking into Merlin's eyes, wide with the same fear that still pounded through Arthur's veins.
"What of Ark Four?" Tregor asked, only a trace of unsteadiness betraying her own fear.
"Waterborne, and still without engines," Lieutenant Hoffmann reported. "And heading fast toward the rock face."
"Everest," Aredian said darkly. "They won't clear the summit."
And for a horrifying moment, it seemed that Dr. Helmsley would pay too dearly for his compassion. The American ark sped toward the top of Everest. The bow scraped the crest, started to crumple against the rock--and then slowly the great ship pulled back as the engines finally came on.
A ragged cheer went up around the bridge. It was done. The end of the world was finally over.
Once the arks had all set their courses and humanity was as safe as it could be, there was nothing left to be done except let the crew get on with their jobs. The remaining leaders of the remnant world all dispersed to find their families. For only the second time in his life, Arthur had no idea what to do with himself.
So he took Merlin's hand once again, because he could, and no one could stop him except Merlin. Merlin just blinked at him wearily, but did not pull away as they left the bridge in search of Leon.
The corridors of the ark still bustled with people, but no one gave them a second glance. Leon appeared just as Merlin was starting to tug Arthur persistently toward the smell of the galleys.
They followed him to a quiet corner of the ark. "Your stateroom, sir," Leon said as the door opened, then smiled. "I took the liberty of having Dr. Emrys's belongings moved here as well. As you were quite concerned about space earlier."
"Yes, well done," Arthur muttered.
"I have belongings?" Merlin said as Arthur shoved him inside.
Food had been brought and set up on the small table. The last time Arthur had eaten had been a quick breakfast in his rooms at Clarence House, a literal age of the world ago. While Merlin examined the room, Arthur set to and tried not to shovel the food into his mouth.
"I can't believe you sent my books." Merlin touched the medical texts that had been set up next to Arthur's mother's family Bible on the shelves over the small desk alcove.
Arthur forced himself to put his fork down before he consumed Merlin's food as well. "I went through everything you left in storage in London when you left," he said. "I had Leon send the things I thought you'd miss the most."
Merlin bowed his head and did not answer. Arthur got up and went to find his own luggage as Merlin came to sit and finish what was left of their dinner.
He dug out a clean shirt and trousers, then stood there staring at them. The wall of exhaustion had caught up with him at last, and he felt like he was standing with his nose pressed against it. His mind went blank.
His stupor was broken by warm hands on his shoulders, turning him around and tugging off his jacket. "That would be you, by the way," Merlin said, looking only at the buttons.
"What I missed the most when I left." Merlin still did not look at him, and Arthur realized they were no longer talking about the present time. He pulled off Arthur's filthy shirt and tossed it aside. "When I got on the plane, I thought I'd feel free. But I just felt lost."
He closed his eyes and dropped his head as Merlin fumbled with his belt. "If you'd come back, we'd have found a way to work it out." God knew he had thought of a thousand compromises once it was too late.
"Maybe. But I couldn't keep changing my mind." Gently, almost clinically, he tugged Arthur's trousers open and pushed them down. "It wasn’t fair to you."
Arthur offered whatever minimal cooperation was necessary to kick off the trousers, then let Merlin push him towards the bed. He started to sit, but stopped and turned back to face Merlin.
"All right," he said. "Let's be fair to me now."
Merlin stopped halfway through pulling off his own shirt, leaving it draped over one shoulder. "What do you mean?"
"Tell me straight: are you going to stay? Or is this some sort of apocalypse reunion tour?"
"I want you," Merlin said simply. "I don't know what life is going to be like from now on, but I want to live it with you. No matter what happens."
"Even if we find survivors and Lancelot runs off to build hospitals for them?"
Merlin huffed a laugh. "Well, I might go help him build. But I would come back. Is that okay?"
Arthur nodded once, curt, embarrassed and relieved. "So there we are."
"Yeah," Merlin agreed, managing to look both joyful and like he was about to pass out. "Though if you had doubts, maybe you should have said something before you held my hand in front of Leon."
Arthur started to make a cutting retort about which one of them was the idiot in this relationship. Except that Merlin's hands were suddenly on his face, and then Merlin kissed him. It was brief and dry, and Merlin's shirt was still hanging half on and half off, but Arthur felt everything settle into place.
When they separated, Arthur lay down and closed his eyes, dizzy with exhaustion even while supine. Now that everything was done, he craved rest. Merlin finished undressing himself and climbed in beside Arthur as though they had never stopped sharing a bed. Arthur curled around him and gave in to his need for oblivion.
He had suspected he would fall in love with Merlin the second time he woke up beside him. Merlin was sprawled half across him, sound asleep and drooling into Arthur's pillow. He stretched as well as he could without dislodging Merlin, who mumbled something, then stilled. Just like the first time, it should have felt wrong, intrusive for someone who guarded his privacy as jealously as Arthur.
Instead, just like the first time, it felt more like home than ever.
He had dismissed the feeling after their first night together. It had been one last minor rebellion against the shadow of Buckingham. That was all it was and all it could be, though he would cling to it as long as he could.
When Merlin had reappeared on his door step some weeks later, Arthur had not been surprised. The chemistry between them made an affair nearly inevitable. His own liking and growing affection for his new friend was building a consuming infatuation.
Waking up in London, Merlin's leg across his thighs, it did not feel like a secret affair. Merlin did not look out of place here in a royal house, burrowed into sheets that had never touched common flesh. It felt like they both belonged here. It felt like life.
Merlin stirred again just as Arthur was starting to drift off. He lifted his head and smacked his lips, giving Arthur a couple of bleary blinks before his face settled into resignation.
"So," he said. "That happened."
"Oh, yes, it did," Arthur agreed.
Merlin sighed and let his face plant back into the pillow.
Arthur frowned. "Look, I won't claim a great deal of experience with this sort of thing, but that wasn't quite the reaction I was expecting."
"I don't want to go," Merlin mumbled into the pillow.
"No, I wouldn't recommend it, since it's--" Arthur craned his neck to check the dim numbers on his iPod dock. "Half six in the morning."
Merlin mumbled something else. This time, the only bit Arthur caught was "jet plane."
"What was that?" he said and pinched the skin on the side of Merlin's neck. "Come on, articulate like a proper Englishman."
Merlin did lift his head at that, long enough to deliver a glare. "Why should I? You're obviously just going to be a prat about it."
"I won't." Arthur soothed the offended skin with his fingertips. "And if I am, let's face it, you obviously find that attractive."
"You left first thing. Last time." Merlin sighed and rolled onto his back, away from Arthur. "That means it’s my turn to go."
"Honestly, I'd prefer if you didn't." Arthur settled on his back as well and looked carefully up at the ceiling. "Unless you really want to."
He heard the rustle of sheets and pillows as Merlin shifted to look at him. "I don't want to. But it's not like I can be part of your life, is it?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Merlin." Something light and free bubbled up within Arthur. He did not recognize it, but he already knew he would go to great lengths to keep it. "If I want you, then you'll be in my life. It's simple enough even for you."
It was the furthest thing from simple, and they both knew it. But out of the corner of his eye, he could see Merlin starting to grin. "You want me, do you?"
Arthur took a moment to enjoy his triumph, then flipped himself over on top of Merlin. The pillows scattered as he pinned Merlin's wrists and pushed them up over Merlin's head. "I can see we're going to have to go over this again. You obviously didn't get the point last night."
"I remember getting it quite thoroughly." Merlin snickered, then widened his eyes and mouth in that way that made him look completely foolish. "But you know I'm very slow. You may have to make your point quite a lot before it really sinks in."
That stupid face of Merlin's only made Arthur want to kiss the hell out of it. So he did, and by the time the point had sunk in anew, he had made up his mind that his life would contain Merlin for all the years left of it.
He slept fitfully and woke too soon, wrapped tight around Merlin. Arthur fought to lie still, but sleep had gone elsewhere and left him with an aching head and racing brain. The gravity of their situation had reared up and overcome his relief at being safe and having Merlin again.
The strange hum of the ark and his own adrenaline kept Arthur from going back to sleep. When he could no longer stay still, he carefully untangled himself from Merlin and found the clean clothes he had abandoned earlier. He dressed and left Merlin still sleeping.
The corridors were quiet and dim now, a facsimile of night time though Arthur had no idea what time it actually was, wherever they now were. By now, the skies would be filled with ash from the many volcanic eruptions, rendering the distinction of daylight meaningless.
He stopped the first person he saw, a steward with a name badge that read C. Cedric. "Where are the passengers who came aboard with me?" he asked.
"Most of them are below on the mezzanine deck. Would you like me to take you, sir?"
"No, I’ll find it. Thank you." The ship would be home for the foreseeable future; he might as well get to know it.
The mezzanine deck was an open, almost cavernous space, darker than the corridor and stairwell he had just left. Arthur paused to let his eyes adjust, but even after a minute he could not make out anything human shaped in the centre of the room. With the greyness enveloping him, it felt eerily like being the last person on earth.
Then he heard a muffled whimper off to his left, and he realized that people were there, hugging the walls for whatever sense of security and shelter they could find. He took a step toward the sound.
Now that his eyes had something to focus on, his vision quickly improved. He could see the people sitting or lying against the wall. Some of them had luggage; most had nothing.
The sound had come from a Chinese man in a jumpsuit with the Cho Ming project logo on his chest. One of the ark builders, Arthur guessed as he got closer. Sweat beaded on the man’s brow, and he shifted restlessly.
Arthur knelt awkwardly next to him. "Are you all right? Is there anything I can do?"
The man looked up at him, squinting through a fever haze. He said something in Chinese, then groaned. Arthur shook his head helplessly.
"He was not feeling well this morning. He meant to go home at lunch time."
Arthur looked at the man sitting against the wall a couple of feet away and recognized the Chinese colonel he had met at the airfield. "Good thing he didn’t," Arthur said.
The colonel looked up at him, then away. "They would have left us all behind."
"I’ll find him a blanket," Arthur said and stood up quickly so as not to meet the colonel’s eyes. It had never occurred to him to wonder what would happen to all the Chinese soldiers and workers who had built their salvation from nothing.
He jogged back up to his own deck and caught Cedric the steward again. "There’s a sick man downstairs. He needs a blanket and some paracetamol."
Cedric nodded, a little impatiently. "Yes, sir. As soon as I can."
Arthur frowned. "Make that straight away."
"Yes, sir, but the other guests—"
"The other guests have warm beds and room service. These people have nothing."
Cedric’s lips thinned, but he nodded again. "Yes, sir."
"I’ll see you downstairs momentarily, then."
Arthur returned to the mezzanine and stood awkwardly over the sick man, who had quieted. He wondered if he should go wake Merlin, or even Ector. But then Cedric returned with two white tablets and a blanket emblazoned with the ark logo.
"Will there be anything else, Your Majesty?" he simpered.
Arthur arched his eyebrows in an expression of regal frost unmistakable even in this lighting. "Perhaps a glass of water? Or did the other guests drink it all?"
Cedric swallowed and at last began to look properly cowed. Arthur was glad he had not lost his touch. "Of course, sir. Water is no problem."
"And after he's had his medicine, you can start getting water and blankets for everyone else. I'll be asking them if they're hungry, so you'll want to figure out where that's going to come from as well."
A few minutes later, Arthur had a bottle of water and was kneeling at the sick man's head, trying to coax him to take the pills. "Come on," he said as the man tossed his head out of Arthur's grip and groaned again. "You'll feel much better, I promise."
He was about to groan in frustration himself when a pair of hands closed over his, relieving him of water and pills. "Here, let me." Merlin knelt on the other side of the builder and easily got his head up and the pills into his mouth. "There you go. Just a bit of water. All set."
"I had it under control," Arthur protested to hide his relief.
"Of course you did. I'm sure you only would have choked him a little bit. Nothing the Heimlich can't take care of." Merlin rolled his eyes and stood up. "I'm going to have him moved. We should limit any contagion. I want Ector to look at him, too, just in case."
"Go find my new friend Cedric," Arthur said, standing as well. "He's been very helpful."
Merlin shot him a look. "Cedric, is it?" he said. "Glad you've had time to make friends already, Arthur."
Arthur smiled to himself as Merlin moved off to corral Cedric as he staggered in with two cases of water. Then he looked along the length of the room at all the people who still needed help. Getting them here had not been enough.
He moved from person to person, making sure he spoke a few words to each of them as
he tried to ascertain their immediate needs. Some spoke English and some did not, but they all seemed glad enough to hear a friendly voice in the dark.
He had not gone far when Merlin returned to Arthur's side. "Lance and Ector will come when they finished with patients at the makeshift clinic they had set up in one of the lounges," Merlin murmured in Arthur’s ear before bending to check the next person for signs of injury or illness.
"Thank God," Arthur muttered back. "I’m certainly well out of my league."
They finally reached the far corner of the room, where Arthur crouched down next to a woman in what had once been a smart and expensive dress, clutching a bundle against her side. "How are you?" he said by rote now. "Do you need anything?"
She looked up at him, eyes wide and wet and slightly vacant, as though she lived half in nightmare. Her hand gripped his sleeve like a claw as she said something too fast for his rudimentary Italian to follow.
"Sorry." He started to shake his head before a tiny moan drew his gaze to the bundle under her arm. It was a small boy, wrapped in his mother's coat. Arthur touched his shoulder, but flinched back as the boy howled in pain.
"Uh oh, here's a problem." Merlin appeared like magic at Arthur's side. He eased the shivering boy away from this mother just enough to check him. "Oh yes, that is a broken arm, all right. Let's get that stabilized. Arthur?"
It was one of the few things Arthur knew how to do without instruction. He helped in silence, putting his hands where Merlin needed them, leaving Merlin free to babble distracting nonsense to the child.
As Merlin finished up the makeshift splint, Arthur noticed the boy staring up at him. He smiled and ruffled the boy's hair, then realized that the mother was also staring at him, wet eyes spilling over.
"Principe," she mumbled. "Principe Arturo."
Merlin helped the little boy curl back against his mother, splinted arm propped across her stomach. "No," he told her. "Il re."
"Il re," she repeated, touching Arthur's arm much more carefully this time. "Il re Artù."
Day 27, Month 01, Year 0001
He managed a careful nod of respect to each of them before hastening off the bridge, leaving them to follow more sedately through the suddenly brighter corridors of the ark. Arthur knew Merlin would be with the other ark inhabitants, eager to step out onto the decks for their first breath of fresh air from the new world. A breeze skimmed his cheek as he followed the signs to the starboard deck.
Outside, passengers packed the deck. Arthur knew most of them by sight now. They all grinned at him and parted to let him through the crowd. Friendly hands guided him in the right direction until he saw Merlin standing against the rail and chatting to Gwen.
He came up on Merlin's other side and slid his arm around Merlin's waist. The end of the world had proved an excellent time to come out. Arthur had made it clear from day two that Merlin was no servant, nor even friendly companion, but the partner and future consort of the king.
After a few shocked looks and whispers, the gossip had spread fast and died almost as quickly. Arthur was becoming a respected leader, and Merlin had made himself popular throughout the ark on his own merits as well. In the end, most people had much bigger things to worry about than Arthur’s choice of partner.
Merlin turned to him with a happy grin. "Hello, Your Majesty. How kind of you to spare time from your royal duties to join us commoners."
"Stuff it, Your Highness," Arthur returned, enjoying Gwen's giggle and Merlin's vaguely constipated look. People had spontaneously started addressing Merlin that way the second week of the voyage, to Merlin's vehement protests and Arthur's smirking delight. "Where's Lance?"
"He and Ector took two of the nurses over to the American ark." Merlin turned and waved at the other great ship that had rejoined their course, though the people on her deck were barely large enough to see. "Their doctors are short staffed with all their extra passengers, so they volunteered."
"Of course they did."
Merlin grinned at the habitual disgust in Arthur's voice. "I've been meaning to ask you--would you have tried so hard to save Lance if you'd known he wasn't my boyfriend?"
"I'd probably have tried harder," Arthur muttered, half to himself.
The subject of Lancelot held no real heat anymore. In between tending to matters of humanity, he and Merlin had spent most of the last twenty-seven days secluded in their cabin, talking, touching, and figuring out what they would have together now that their destinies were on the same path.
"What did the satellite show?" Gwen asked, her normal deference overcome by her eagerness to hear what their new world looked like.
"Good news," Arthur told her. "The waters are receding much faster than predicted. We're setting course for dry land as we speak."
Gwen cheered, and the sound rapidly spread across the deck as everyone who overheard Arthur's announcement turned to repeat it to their neighbour.
"And you'll never guess where we're going," Arthur said into Merlin's ear. He had kept the last piece of news close so he could share it first with Merlin alone.
Merlin turned his head until they were almost nose to nose. "What? Where?"
"Cape of Good Hope," Arthur said, enjoying the stunned happiness on Merlin's face. "The Drakensberg Mountains are the new roof of the world."
"But--that's so close--" Merlin opened and closed his mouth as though afraid to say anything more.
"Yes," Arthur confirmed. "The whole continent has risen. And Helmsley thinks there's a good chance it never flooded at all."
Merlin crowed and pumped his fist in the air. "I knew it! All the people we had to leave--"
"You know that's a long shot," Arthur interrupted as gently as he could. "There was still enormous seismic activity from the crust displacement."
"They're okay," Merlin said with complete, demented confidence. "I know it."
Arthur shook his head. "We'll see," he said. "We'll look all over for survivors as we go. It'll probably take some time to find a place to settle."
Merlin nudged him in the side. "If you try to colonize anyone, I’m going to hit you."
"Merlin. I have never colonized anyone in my life." Arthur gave him his most withering look.
"We'll see," Merlin mimicked, then leaned on the rail to watch as the American and Eurasian arks made the slow, graceful turn onto the new course.
Arthur leaned beside him, looking out at the ocean that no longer seemed quite so endless. They would go back to the camp, and they would see. They would find a way to survive and prosper and start everything again.
And someday, another satellite image would show that Britain had risen from the waters. Then he would take his people home.
He slung his arm around Merlin and turned to face the world.