Arthur talks himself out of it three different times. There must be another way; maybe his father will see reason; maybe they’ll understand.
What a fucking joke, Arthur thinks, because he can’t even get himself to believe that, much less the entire machine of the British monarchy, so he takes his cell phone out of his pocket instead. He’s not a good photographer but that’s not the point, anyway, and he works fast — two dozen pictures: shaky, too-revealing, badly-lit. He lets himself out of the apartment and wades through the early morning mist to the car, waiting for him, idling on the curb, a stranger at the wheel.
There’s a tiny window here, Arthur knows, to get this done.
He has 20 minutes to burn this across the surface of reality — any longer and Rosa will start working, his father’s people will start working, Clarence House and the Prime Minister and everybody else will pile on and his opportunity will vanish and so will he and Merlin’s chances. Arthur would prefer not to have to resort to this — and knows that this will be another secret he swallows and buries, that he’ll carry somewhere deep and dark — but he’s not above it, not at all.
They’re pulling up the tree-lined avenue toward Buckingham when he suffers an attack of conscience and deletes most of the images — all the most revealing, all the most explicit. He keeps only what’s absolutely necessary to prove a point, and it still burns at him, to know that in less than an hour these will be everywhere and that they’ll never be erased. They’ll live in zeros and ones long after he’s dead, and maybe Merlin will never forgive him for letting his cell phone get stolen, but he’d hate Arthur far, far more if he knew the truth — Merlin always gets caught up in the tangential details. Arthur could explain for hours, days, weeks, but Merlin would never really believe him.
“Sire,” the driver says. “We’re here — sorry about the wrong turn earlier.”
“Not at all,” Arthur allows, and forces himself to stay light. It’d be stupid to tip his hand. The best way to get someone to keep your secret is not to let them know they’re complicit at all. He lets the phone slip out of his pocket as the door of the car is opened and he listens to it clatter against the sidewalk — safely out of the way of the car wheels.
There’re only three photographers out this morning, but it’s enough.
Work holiday parties are universally shitty. The situation is not improved by the fact that Merlin is pissed.
It’s freezing outside, the sort of sharp coldness that had tipped over from being crisp to cutting, and Merlin is drunk enough that it doesn’t bother him — not the weather, not that he’s alone again (sort of), not Howard, one of St. Bart’s pediatric internists, and the way he’s got Merlin shoved up against a dark corner behind the hospital, hands up the back of Merlin’s coat.
Howard is blandly attractive and completely benign, and Merlin can feel something in the back of his head niggling at him, reminding him he shouldn’t be doing this, but he’s cold and Howard is warm and it’s sort of a tradition from him to hook up with someone at St. Bart’s New Year’s party.
“Gwen owes me a fiver,” Howard laughs, into Merlin’s mouth and biting at his lower lip. He’s doing it wrong, Merlin thinks, and before he can process that much more he says:
“What? For what?”
Howard leans forward, taking the time to suck a dark bruise into Merlin’s neck before he mutters, “She bet me money you wouldn’t come out here with me — glad she was wrong, mate.”
Which is fucking ridiculous, because Merlin’s sort of easy, really, and he leans his head back against the cool brick of the hospital building and laughs, loose and drunk and loopy and thinks that of course he’d come out — he’d had four shots and a glass of wine and he’s never been particularly discriminating when he’s lonely and then his phone starts ringing and — and —
“Fuck,” Merlin says, and scrambles to shove Howard off of him, feeling a sudden wall of nausea so strong it nearly knocks him off of his feet. “Fuck — Howard, get off of me.”
His mobile’s still going — it’s the dreamy, starry ringtone Arthur had programmed into Merlin’s phone for himself, bored one afternoon earlier that month, during a rare, snatched moment of privacy — and Merlin’s vision is swimming.
Gwen finds him half an hour later throwing up behind one of the dumpsters and coos at him, stroking his hair away from his face and takes him home. She’s the one who answers Arthur’s third phone call, and she says, “Oh, Arthur — hi! No, no, he’s fine — I found him throwing up behind the hospital after you called me.”
Later, Gwen says, biting her lip, “Oh, Merlin, you have no idea, I was so worried you — “ before she cuts herself off, but Merlin can fill in the blanks himself. It’s hospital tradition, he thinks numbly. “Well, anyway,” she says, fussing with the water and painkillers by his bedside, “I’m glad you were only just throwing up.”
Merlin never really gets up the guts to listen to the voice mail Arthur left him, but he hears a snatch of it, anyway, as he’s frantically deleting it, of Arthur’s voice warm and close in his ear, wishing him a happy New Year, wishing he was there.
He fakes sick, paranoid, and avoids Arthur’s attempts to nurse him, and every morning he inspects the bruise Howard left on his neck and feels as sick as he’s pretending to be. It takes a week to fade, mostly, and the first time he lets Arthur back into his room, his bed, after, is like being baptized by fire.
Howard never tells; neither does Merlin. He can’t.
Everett has no fucking idea how it happens, and he’s going to go to his fucking grave clinging by his teeth and toenails to this story. There’s been an absolute fuckton of booze and an embarrassment of weed and fuck fuck fuck, someone had started laughing and shoving them toward one another, like a dare, and Arthur had only rolled his head against the back of the booth and laughed and laughed like a God damn lunatic.
And anyway that was inside the bar, and now they were outside the bar, in somebody’s downmarket car — seriously, this is a travesty, he cannot believe they’re in this piece of shit, it’s embarrassing — and he’s got Arthur pinned along the backseat, biting savagely at his mouth, licking into him, a hand fisted in Arthur’s straw-gold hair.
And he hates Arthur, has since they met that first day through a series of increasingly vacuous mutual friends during orientation, but Everett is secure enough in his considerable heterosexuality to admit that Arthur’s fucking fit — shoulders and the tight jut of his hips, his fucking thighs in rugby shorts, the way he strips his jersey off and runs round with sweat dripping down the hair on his chest as the girls shriek and tear at each other on the sidelines. Revolting, obviously, Everett spares a minute to think, before Arthur’s drunk-stupid hand has somehow undone the button and zip of his pants — dragged his cock out and started thumbing the head, already wet, dragging the pad of his thumb over the slit.
Everett must say something, probably like, “this is in no way homosexual,” but what he focuses on is biting at Arthur’s neck, fierce, until he sees a half-moon of his teeth and is pleased by that, enough so he can tear at Arthur’s trousers himself, get his dick out — it’s more slender than his own, and fuck, possibly a bit longer and qualitatively speaking, more attractive — and jerk at it rough and greedy and mean.
And when Arthur comes, he’s still laughing, the way he had in the bar, senseless, completely out of his own head. Everett spunks all over Arthur’s stomach, into the wiry hair that trails between Arthur’s naval and disappear below the waist of his khakis.
It turns out — odd — that they are not in the car waiting for someone to drive them home. In fact, when Everett wakes up the next morning, entirely fucked up and beyond saving, head throbbing and his hand numb from where he had pillowed it beneath his cheek and the driver’s window in the front seat of the car, he realizes that the girl to whom the car belongs is actually passed out in a heap just outside the vehicle.
Arthur’s still asleep in the backseat. His pants and trousers are also still sort of a mess and his skin and his mouth and his body are a roadmap of bruises.
“Oh, God,” Everett moans to himself. “Oh God.”
He’s anti-monarchy anyway, so he feels no guilt at all for staggering out of the car and hailing the first cab he sees.
The funny thing is that when Everett does see Prince Fucking Arfur again, there’s a total lack of comprehension in Arthur’s guileless blue eyes.
“You don’t remember anything from that night?” Everett asks, torn between enjoying the chorus of angels in rapturous gratitude and insult, because what the fuck. “Nothing?”
Arthur shrugs, taking another drag off of a water bottle and scrubbing the sweat off his forehead with his arm, looking supremely unbothered.
“Guess Irish whiskey and toxic amounts of pot mix poorly in my system,” he admits, and he rises to his feet, slapping Everett on the shoulder before loping off back onto the field.
“Fuck!” Everett shouts after him. “I fucking hate you, Arthur Pendragon!”
And of course Everett never tells; he’s not an idiot. And anyway he’s not aware of the psychological harm he’s caused until years later when Arthur’s shagging that dark-haired twink of his anyway, and by then it’s entirely too late to apologize for turning him into a pouf.
Hunith loves Arthur like a son, how could she not. He fills in all of the blanks Merlin leaves in his aftermath — remembers to pack things and where the keys are and to help Hunith dry the dishes, long after Merlin’s lost interest in preparing for a trip or where he left them or domestic activities, period. Arthur is nothing like his reputation, but Hunith loves what he is, and who he has become, and the way he holds doors open for Merlin and kisses his children good night.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Arthur says to her, drawing the door to her spare room closed.
It used to belong to Merlin, a hundred thousand years ago, and then for a while it belonged to Merlin and Arthur, and now it is decorated half in ducks and half in fairies and is the province of grandchildren only.
She touches his arm. “Not at all,” she tells him, and hesitating, she asks, “How long?”
Arthur rubs at his face with his hands, one of those obvious tells he only ever shows when he’s worn down to the bone, when there’s nobody else to watch him but family, and Hunith wishes she could do something to help.
“I don’t know,” Arthur admits, and he doesn’t look at Hunith’s face as he says it. “It’s — it’s been a while. It’ll be good for us to go away.”
It’s embarrassing, really, how tremendously awful they both are at lying. Arthur’s car is parked in front of the cottage but Merlin had elected to stay inside of it, staring down the unlit roads of the town, his mouth silent and flat, angry. And Arthur has been careful in the construction of circumstances — they’ve been torn between their duties to the state and the crown and their family and would Hunith mind watching Astrid and Tristan for a few days? While Merlin and Arthur sort themselves out?
“Of course,” she allows, because she knows Arthur won’t appreciate it if she tells him it’s always hard, and that these are the critical moments between two people. It would be hypocrisy, anyway, since she’d never gone looking for Merlin’s father after he’d left them; but Arthur wouldn’t let something like that happen — he’s too loyal, too good, and Merlin loves him too fiercely to ever let him go. Of course, Hunith tells herself.
Arthur and Merlin have abandoned their young with Hunith before, and before, it was always raucous, the children shrieking and entirely too excited to sleep — and her son and Arthur laughing as they dot kisses on her cheeks, chasing one another out the door.
This time Arthur just stands frozen in her upstairs hallway, staring out the gabled window at the faint orange light from his car, still idly in the driveway. Hunith wants to ask what’s gone so wrong, why he looks so tired, what’s Merlin done? What’s Arthur done? She wants to call both of them into her cottage and tell them to sit and sort themselves out where she can watch them, prevent them from doing anything they might regret — but Arthur snaps into action just before she gets up the courage.
“Anyway,” he says, offering her his most politic smile. “Thank you, again. Truly.”
“It’s no problem, Arthur,” she tells him, only this time it’s a lie.
Ten minutes later Arthur is out the door, the taillights of his car blurring down into the dark, and Hunith watches the afterimage of light for long, long moments before she goes back upstairs, lets herself into the children’s room.
Tristan is six, and sound asleep, his golden mop of hair over his sweetly closed eyes; Astrid is nine, and wide awake.
“You should be sleeping,” Hunith whispers to her.
She glances toward the window. “Where did my parents go?”
Hunith sits on her bed, the mattress creaking under her weight, and runs a hand through Astrid’s strawberry blond curls. “I imagine they’re going to the Cotswolds — you know how your Dad loves it out there,” she lies, because while Arthur does, and Merlin loves anything Arthur does, there’s no way they’re having whatever fight they’re having anywhere but on the side of a road, in the dark.
Astrid frowns. “They’re mad at each other,” she confides.
“Well, you know,” Hunith says. “Your father does drive too fast.”
She wrinkles her nose. “He says Dad drives too slow.”
“And that, Astrid, is a domestic we want none of,” Hunith tells her, and seals a kiss over her forehead. “Go to sleep.”
The next day there’s snow, so Hunith bundles her grandchildren into jumpers and coats and hats and scarves and mittens against the bracing wind and sends them off to make snow angels and terrorize the local wildlife with their retinue of security. Heartless, they forget their parents almost immediately.
It’s a week and a half before Merlin and Arthur come back, and her son looks pale and still angry. He may be standing in her kitchen, but Arthur’s gone straight away for the children, with barely a nod for Hunith and politeness sake.
Astrid and Tristan conscript Arthur for their war of mutual aggression involving snowballs containing whatever filth they have managed to dug up underneath the precipitation and Hunith gets a moment alone with Merlin, standing together in the over-warm kitchen of the cottage.
She clutches at her teacup, because framed in the swallowing white of the fresh snow Arthur and Tristan and Astrid are gorgeous, tumbling over one another in the snow — Arthur’s dark peacoat going gray with white flakes, their children climbing all over him.
“Did you sort yourselves out?” she asks, and glances at Merlin.
When he laughs, it’s not a kind sound. “Um, no,” Merlin says.
She hates this. Hates it. “Will you?”
Merlin ducks his head, looks at his feet, and for a horrible, horrible moment she thinks he’s going to say, “No, Mum,” or, “We never should have tried,” but he doesn’t, he just keeps his own counsel for far, far too long, and then looks up, determined, through the window and not at Hunith at all. She watches him looking at Arthur, at probably the length of their years together, stretching out between them, and he says, “Yeah, Mum. Yeah, we’ll sort it out.”
Astrid asks her about it all the time, whether or not anything strange happened when she was nine, about the trip they’d taken in the dead of night, unannounced; Tristan never asks at all, and either way, Hunith never tells.
Astrid hates being fifteen.
She is short and chubby and her hair is frizzy and she doesn’t even know who to blame for her genetics; it is the greatest injustice of her being adopted. Worse, there’s her father, who is objectively gorgeous and apparently growing more stunning with age, if her Dad’s moony-eyed look is any indication. And her brother, who is only twelve, is already the distraction of tween girls the world over — much to his silent horror. And of course there’s Dad, who has probably the loveliest smile in all the world, and sometimes Astrid thinks no one will ever look at her the way her father looks at her dad.
So when Charles Rowland asks her if she’d like to go out with him and a few of his mates on Friday night, she actually says, “Oh my God, really?” before Norah jabs her in the side and she resets enough to say, “Um, yeah, sure, I could go.”
“Now all you have to do is get your father to let you go,” Norah squeals at her, later, and then faltering, says, “Oh, bollocks, now you have to get your father to let you go.”
All the blood drains from Astrid’s face.
Charles Rowland is only the handsomest boy in her class, and his friends are only the most popular people in school, so the war Astrid wages in order to secure permission to go is epic. Merlin, because he says he vowed to do no harm, decides to recuse himself from the entire discussion.
She argues her case with flawless logic, and when her father just rolls his eyes at that to say, “Astrid, I was once a 16 year-old boy myself, and as a result I am determined not to let you anywhere near one,” she resorts to door-slamming. There are a lot of doors to slam in Buckingham Palace and Astrid slams as many of them as she can get away with. Her parents had spent her entire life making sure she was an ordinary teenager, keeping her well-sheltered from her lineage and her more inbred relations — the result has been that Astrid is a normal teenager in all her awkward, lumpy, verbally incontinent glory. Her grandmother swears Merlin grew out of it, so she will, too; Aunt Morgana says Arthur’s been stuck this way since he was twelve; Astrid says she’s doomed.
With only ten hours to go before she’s supposed to meet Charles and his friends, she resorts to extreme measures. It involves the very tears she’s been bottling up inside since her Dad had said, “Well, just order the larger uniform then — no reason to squeeze yourself into something that doesn’t fit,” and planting herself at her father’s desk.
Astrid hates crying almost as much as her father hates her crying, but it’s only almost, so she wins in the end, and Arthur folds her into his arms on the battered couch in his office, stroking her hair. If this was Dad, he’d say something about how Astrid is perfectly lovely and how it’s a tragedy she doesn’t know that; since it’s her father, he doesn’t say anything at all, just brushes apologetic kisses over her temple until:
“Fine — but I’m sending larger-than-usual security personnel with you.”
Norah is excessively excited on her behalf, and there are the usual flurry of panicked text messages since of course now with all that nonsense Astrid only has six hours until she is supposed to meet with Charles Rowland, Handsomest Boy Possibly in the World, and nothing to wear and terrible skin and ten pounds to lose.
“Well it’s impossible to lose ten pounds in five hours,” Norah decides. “So you should probably wear something disguising and worry about it later.”
“Right,” Astrid agrees. “Develop eating disorder soonest. Until then — I must do something about my hair.”
She selects and discards almost everything in her closet at least once while Norah is mocking up a plan of attack for her bangs. Three hours later, Astrid looks exquisitely casual, as if she put no effort into her appearance at all when in fact there’d been minor hysterics about the exact color lip gloss she ought to be using. It’s a small blessing it’s December, and too cold for skintight tank tops and skirts; she has loads of them, from afternoons of baseless optimism spent at TopShop, but she’s never worn any out, and anyway, if her father had his way, she’d wear a habit around town.
“How did that take three hours?” her father asks, and her dad punches him in the side.
“You look very nice, Astrid,” he says to her. “Have a good time.”
“But not too good,” Arthur warns. “Actually, feel free to have a mediocre verging on terrible time and call me to come fetch you.”
Astrid gapes at him, horrified. “Father.”
“I will bring MI-5,” he continues, adjusted his glasses. “And six. And your Dad.”
Her dad smiles at her sweetly.
One time some crazed homophobe had tried to drive a car through a crowd and into Astrid’s father — the driver “accidentally flipped his vehicle.” More than fifty feet into the air, with zero propulsion, and landed in a flaming pile of wreckage. Astrid recognizes the promise of death in her dad’s eyes and swallows hard.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she says, and runs away.
It’s not fine. Six hours later it’s dark and it’s raining and she’s crying in a bus shelter. Charles hadn’t come where he’d said to meet her and she didn’t have anyone’s mobile numbers, and she’d forbidden the guard trailing her to call for her car, to call for her parents, because she doesn’t particularly want to face her father’s knowing expression of overprotective pity or her dad’s sympathy. Charles is the handsomest boy Astrid knows, and he is the most terrible, too. She’d forgotten when he’d told her to come out that he made girls cry, that he’d teased her for her hair and her dimples and her inability to walk in a straight line for many, many years, and this should be no surprise at all.
So instead, Astrid has decided she will sit in this bus shelter and be cold and cry until she can make herself stop, and then she’ll go home and tell her parents she had a wonderful time and no one will be the wiser.
Except the next thing she knows she’s sniveling at a pair of very expensive looking Italian leather shoes and listening to her godfather yell, “What the hell are you doing down there?” He’s clearly furious, red-faced from cold and wearing a dark coat, standing on the curb at the opened door of his idling Maserati, and of course, of course, Astrid would have settled in to weep in front of her godfather’s offices.
Astrid scrubs at her face and tries to say, “Everett, go away!” but what comes out is, “They didn’t even show up,” and some more sobbing.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Everett says, and stuffs her into his car.
He takes her to the OXO Towers restaurant, and they sit by the wide glass windows overlooking London and the Thames at night, because Everett doesn’t actually know how to be a very good godfather.
“Wanker,” Everett says, when she tells him what’s happened.
Astrid rubs at her face one more time. “Yeah,” she agrees.
There’re about two hundred of London’s thinnest and most beautiful women in this restaurant, and most of them are glancing at her at least surreptitiously, if not with outright curiosity. Her father always shouts his loudest, and her dad hides the tabloids, but she knows they call her England’s Ugly Duckling Princess, and shrinks down into her seat.
“Ignore them,” Everett tells her, casual and absolute, handing her a flute of golden-pink champagne, smiling crookedly at her, and says, “There’re not one hundredth of you, your highness.”
Astrid ducks her head to hide the blush, the dark red that’s flared out over her cheeks, and she takes a sip from the glass — it’s her first drink of anything, really, and the champagne is fizzy and sharp on her tongue, a tickle, a sweet nothing, inside her mouth.
“You know,” Everett tells her, smirking, “your father threatened to have me neutered if I ever let you drink on my watch.”
And this time, when Astrid grins at him, it’s wide and genuine and unafraid, because her godfather makes it a habit to be seen in public always with the most gorgeous woman in the room, and she promises, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”
Tristan sometimes thinks that for a family more or less constitutionally incapable of lying to one another, they’re all pretty good liars.
His sister is the easiest, and the first he overhears, almost like the garbled sound of a telephone conversation. And then later, because she dotes on him and showers him with kisses, he gets other flashes, too: of her loathing for crowds and her nauseating moments of self-loathing, the sharp bittersweet happiness of seeing their godfather wait for a woman at the end of a long church aisle. And things that haven’t happened yet, either. How she is in a car accident when she’s twenty, and how dangerous it is, how close. The way that she’ll realize she’s beautiful a few years after everyone else catches on, and Charles Rowland will ask her out for drinks at uni and she will throw a cup of tea right in his face.
(She marries him anyway, eventually. Tristan imagines it’s pointless to beat the shit out of Charles both too late as well as preemptively, though, and it would only get him on the tabloid pages for all the wrong reasons.)
He tries to tell Dad, when he’s very young, about how he overhears things he doesn’t mean to, but sometimes when he’s not careful, he doesn’t just overhear things he doesn’t want to know — Howard still works at the hospital, and once, Tristan saw him and felt sick to his stomach and wouldn’t speak to his dad for a week — but he sees Merlin’s ‘little bit of magic.’ It’s deep and like sinking into light, limitless and huge, an undiscovered ocean on the inside of his dad’s chest, just underneath his skin, behind the blue of his eyes.
Aunt Morgana, when she hugs him at Christmases, feels a bit like looking into a mirror, and Tristan keeps waiting for her to realize, too, but she never does, and so he keeps his own counsel.
Weirdly, he thinks that out of everyone if he tells his father, Arthur would understand, since his father’s entire life is an exercise in managing psychotics anyway, between Tristan’s batty sister and insane godfather and Tristan’s dad, too.
But Tristan doesn’t think his father will handle it very well, this knowing. When he’d been younger he’d tried to change things and it never worked: the baby starlings always died, the cat always got away, the black labs would always tear up the garden beds. His sister will be left sobbing in a bus shelter, his parents will nearly split when he and Astrid are very young — there’s nothing for it.
“Oh God, I hate Trooping the Color,” Astrid bitches, tugging at her blonde curls, her dress, her white gloves in despair. She’s eighteen and still uncomfortable in her own skin, and she thinks that when she grows three more inches or gets thinner she’ll be happier, prettier, and he doesn’t think he should tell her that she’ll stay this way the rest of her life; it’s just going to take a while before she realizes that’s perfect on its own.
“It’s not so bad,” Tristan says to her, and swings his legs.
The suit he’s wearing is starched so heavily it could probably stand up on its own and Troop the fucking color, but he feels genetically incapable of making snotty comment about his royal obligations. He blames surrogacy and the monarchy for demanding a blood heir, when honestly he could have just as easily been fished out of a dumpster like Astrid; she seems to have come out mostly all right.
Tristan knows his parents are proud of her, and he is, too. He loves his father, he loves his dad, he loves his gram and even sometimes Everett, who has given Tristan one of his most scarring revelations to date that one time about his father and a car and ugh.
“Tristan! Astrid! Come on!” his dad calls, and they go, rolling their eyes at each other.
Even at it’s worst, when his father is lecturing him about being the Prince of Wales or giving him completely unsubtle advice about not getting oneself outed in the press — which, hypocrisy, thy name is Arthur Pendragon — Tristan is mostly unbothered.
Oh, he’ll nod and pretend he’s listening, but honestly he’s thinking about other things entirely. Honestly, he has a feeling this king thing isn’t going to work out for him, and anyway, he knows Astrid will be a remarkable queen — he’s seen it already.