Would you mind if I hurt you?
Understand that I need to
Wish that I had other choices
Than to harm the one I love.
Avalon House looks as magnificent today as it did when it was built in the late 17th century. It sits in the landscape, gives it a focus, nestled within the old deer park and surrounded by acres of painstakingly landscaped grounds. Capability Brown had been quoted saying that this was the jewel in his crown. Arthur is inclined to agree. He loves this house; and not just because it's all he has left of his mother.
He sits on an old stone bench on the far side of the park, as old as the house itself, and admires his home. It's cold out, almost winter, but he doesn't notice the chill; he welcomes it. This spot is where he comes when he needs to get away, when he needs to think and when he needs to have a quiet panic away from prying eyes. He feels invisible when he's here.
He's long since made the decision that this is where he will live from now onwards, at least for as much as possible – but the place needs work – Arthur had the family living quarters made habitable again before he moved in, but the rest of the house has been left untouched for over thirty years, since his mother's death.
It's imperative that the rest of the house be re-opened for good, and the decision was made over a year ago, but his new duties kept him from addressing it then. It's time now; he's ready.
The house is in good condition, it just needs something else; it needs life breathing back into it. When his mother died, his father shut the house down and Arthur's certain that was the time he shut himself down as well.
There was no greater modern day love story than that of Uther and Ygraine; they were the Romeo and Juliet of the 1970s, and that Ygraine died tragically young merely served to set the legend into stone.
Arthur barely remembers his mother; in fact, he's certain that the memories he does have of her are false, ones he created as a child from old footage of her. After all, she died before his first birthday.
Yes, Avalon House is all he has left of his mother and he's going to bring it to life again.
Work starts today on demolishing the ill-advised sixties extension that his grandfather commissioned as office space and then promptly died before even seeing what an eyesore he'd created. Luckily it sits at the back of the house. Arthur plans to replace it with a one story Victorian replica conservatory like the one that once stood there before Grandfather weaved his metaphorical sledgehammer.
From where he sits he sees people, like tiny ants, moving around in front of the house and wonders if one of them is him and closes his eyes, wishing things were different.
He's hired the best in the business to oversee the house's transformation back to a home. Gaius Jones is the country's most celebrated expert on houses of this period, and his wife Alice is equally renowned for her knowledge on the subject and is the author of several romantic novels set in the period. Not that Arthur's read any of those, but Olaf's daughter, Vivian assured him that they are 'to die for' when Arthur had dinner with them both last week.
Gaius and Alice did not come alone, and Arthur wonders if anyone ever tells him anything anymore, because he's the last to officially find out. It seems that details are assumed to be too menial to tell him about: this detail may seem tiny to his staff, but to Arthur, it's monumental.
Gaius and Alice arrived yesterday morning. Arthur gave them the recently refurbished gardener's cottage for the duration of their stay. "My apprentice arrives tomorrow," Gaius had said as they enjoyed a pot of tea at the old oak table in the kitchen. Arthur may not always be in the loop when details are being ironed out, but he's hands-on when he can be. "I'm getting on a bit now and my nephew is almost as knowledgeable as I am these days and he's so excited to have the chance to be involved in this project."
"I didn't know you had an apprentice," Arthur had said amiably. The house was going to be invaded by several workmen over the coming months anyway, what was one more person? His people would have made sure whoever it was has had the appropriate checks. "I didn't know you had a nephew either!" Gaius was an old friend of his father's, which was saying something really as his father had trusted very few people – but Gaius was in that select group.
Gaius had sighed. "This young man is actually my great-nephew – his father was my nephew, but he died young and the boy was left with his mother who couldn't look after him properly due to drugs and so forth. I applied for custody but social services said I was too old – I didn't have Alice then – and they took him into care. I lost track of him they moved him so often!" He hung his head, the memory obviously painful. "He found me a couple of years ago. I tell you, Arthur, he's given me a new lease of life!"
The joy on his face when he talked of his nephew was heart-warming and Arthur couldn't help but be sucked in. "I'm happy for you, Gaius," he'd said with a congratulatory hand on Gaius' shoulder.
"Merlin's a good boy," Gaius had continued, oblivious to the bombshell he was about to drop. "Considering the childhood he had he's come out of it remarkably well, managed to get himself a degree and a Masters."
Arthur's heart had stopped. "Merlin? That's an unusual name." Oh God.
"Yes, his parents had a penchant for the unusual, and as he's a Jones as well, I suspect they wanted to give him a name that stood out."
Merlin Jones. There couldn't be two of them, and certainly not with a background like Gaius had described.
Oh – God.
Arthur had ridden out the rest of the conversation in a daze.
This morning, as soon as he woke up and was organised, he gave the house a wide berth and came up here. This is his private place, his own little piece of England that he will never share with the public. He drops his head to his hands and draws in a deep breath. Merlin.
Arthur's got a lot of regrets. He regrets that he had that awful mullet haircut when he was nine, those tight almost sprayed on jeans he wore when he was fifteen that left nothing to the imagination and that cake he ate at uni that time, whoa, he regrets that he lost ten hours of his life. He regrets that he's rarely alone, that even his secrets are known to many, that his life is not his own.
More than anything though, he regrets losing Merlin; if you can call being persuaded to break things off with the person you love to do your duty 'losing'.
It’s five years later and he still misses him; God, the ache inside him has been his constant companion for so long that Arthur can't remember what it feels like to be 'normal', if normal is something he ever could be anyway.
Arthur sometimes thinks it's funny what you remember, how the passing of time warps things. Like the first time Arthur met Merlin, how what really happened bears no resemblance to the way Arthur likes to romanticise it, how it would be if ever he wrote an autobiography and gave Merlin his own chapter.
The real version is that they took one look at one another and it seemed that in an instant, Merlin was on his knees on the kitchen floor with his lips on Arthur's cock, blue eyes locked on Arthur's, his dark hair shining almost blue in the harsh lighting. Shortly after that he was backed up against the door with Arthur's cock in his arse begging him to fuck him harder.
In Arthur's head, years later, the edges are blurred and what happened has a rosy romantic tinge. The truth is though there was nothing romantic about their relationship, not in how it started, and certainly not in how it ended.
He often wishes things were different, but he never regrets shaking off his detail that night and making a short-lived bid for freedom. At least he knows what it's like to feel now, even if all that is left of that feeling is the pain.
He sighs and rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms, circling his neck in a fruitless attempt to iron out the cricks.
It’s Bonfire Night and the last thing Arthur feels like doing is going to a party, even if it is with people he likes. Bonfire Night was the anniversary of the day he met Merlin, and fate has to be fucking with him that it brings Merlin back into his life seven years to the day they first met.
Gaius had said Merlin would be arriving that afternoon. He could be one of the ants Arthur sees now. He doesn't want to go to the party, but he doesn't want to be here either. Besides, he's promised Nate they'll go, and it doesn't do to break a promise to a three year old. They never forget.
"Arthur, what's wrong?" Gwen asks gently when she corners Arthur by the punch, her eight month old daughter anchored on her hip, happily playing with one of her curls and blowing spit bubbles. "You've been hiding all night."
Arthur adores Gwen, he loves coming here, loves the feeling of being part of a larger family, of belonging. She and Lance are practically his family; he's Godfather to their first born and their kids are close. He and Lance grew up together and have been best friends throughout their lives, despite their difference in status. Lance is the son of Uther's now retired head housekeeper.
Yes, he loves them, but neither of them knows about Merlin. Merlin happened when Lance was working in London and trying to convince himself he was cut out for banking; Gwen had been the barista in the coffee shop by his office. No, they don't know about Merlin – there's plenty who do – but other than Leon, none of them are a friend. They know there was someone but they respect Arthur's desires to never talk of it.
He hasn't got many real friends; he's never had the chance. The people he met at uni always had stars in their eyes and he doesn't trust many people. Just Lance and Gwen – Percy, Leon - and Morgana.
Arthur shrugs. "Nothing. It's just Bonfire Night reminds me of someone, that's all."
Gwen's expression softens. "You still miss Morgause?" There had been no love lost between Gwen and Morgause, or for that matter, Morgause and anyone other than Morgana, but he's never told them that he never loved Morgause and that when she left, he was relieved. Marrying her was doing his duty. When she'd been killed in a car driven by her lover, Cenred, Arthur had felt guilty that the tabloids had gone wild with the scandal on behalf of the boys, but never for Morgause; it seemed that her plan had been to live the life of Riley at Arthur's expense all along.
Arthur regrets marrying her, regrets that he let his grief at Merlin's loss push him into something he didn't want so quickly, but then he was doing his duty. It always came down to that word. Duty. Duty to his father, to his family, to his country.
What about his duty to himself?
Still, his marriage brought him the twins, and he doesn't regret them. The twins are his everything.
So, did he still miss Morgause? You don't miss what you never wanted in the first place. "Something like that," he says, not meeting Gwen's eyes. He doesn't want anyone to know what he's been through with Morgause. Morgana knows and that's enough. The twins can't ever know that their mother practically sold them and neither can the British people.
"Come outside anyway, the fireworks are about to start."
Gwen and Lance's farm is on the edge of the Avalon estate, and over the last three years it's become a tradition that they host this party and that the local villagers all attend. Everyone pitches in with money for some fireworks and Gwen lays on a buffet. He follows Gwen outside just as Lance is rounding everyone up.
Behind him, silent but ever present, stand his security detail, forming a barrier between their small party and the villagers. This small fireworks display is probably a security nightmare, but as he watches his children's awed faces, he doesn't care. He wants them to grow up with this extended family; he's not going to let them be lonely like he was.
The fireworks go off and Arthur stands staring sightlessly up at the unfurling display. The kids are safely in his sight, so he moves to stand with his back to the farmhouse wall, drops his head back against and watches, his mind drifting back…
Bonfire Night, Six Years Ago
"Happy anniversary," Merlin says and leans over gingerly to produce a sorry looking cupcake out of the bedside drawer. He proffers it to Arthur on the palm of his hand. "One year since we met."
"Really not thinking about food right now," Arthur complains breathily, his fingers digging into the pale flesh of Merlin's hips as he thrusts up into him, although that changes five seconds later when Merlin scoops buttercream off the top of the cake and leans forward to offer his fingertips to Arthur. Arthur swipes out a greedy tongue, coating it in vanilla flavoured cream and Merlin dips his fingers into his mouth. Arthur sucks them clean, his eyes on Merlin's. Merlin winks and removes his fingers and scoops out more cream. He brings his fingers to his own lips and sucks, his cheeks hollowing. "Fuck, Merlin!" Arthur gasps, his balls tightening at the erotic picture Merlin makes riding his cock with his fingers in his mouth, and explodes.
Merlin tightens himself around Arthur, milking him, and when Arthur relaxes, electric aftershocks shooting through him, Merlin scoops out the last cream from the cake and throws it to the floor. He coats his cock, red and painfully hard against his flat stomach and lifts himself up, scooting forward, offering it to Arthur.
Arthur's never had this, never been with someone and felt so right, so natural. He snakes out his tongue and licks a taste of the cream, before wrapping a firm hand around the base of Merlin's cock. He tips his head just so, slowly lapping the frosting clean. The sounds Merlin's making, soft whimpers and desperate, breathy calls of his name have the ability to get Arthur hard again soon, and as appealing as that is, what he really wants is for them to sit in the window seat together and watch the fireworks going off over the countryside around them. He pushes his tongue insistently beneath the head of Merlin's cock, and Merlin's hands curl into his hair, and it's Arthur's favourite thing, those nails on his scalp, Merlin's knees on either side of his head and- He pulls back, just in time and Merlin's coming, covering Arthur's face in his release as he pulses in Arthur's hand. "Love you," Arthur growls as Merlin licks his face clean and comes to lie down beside him.
Merlin doesn't reply, but then, he never does.
They move to sit in the armchair in the window, Merlin naked on Arthur's lap, Arthur's arms around his slender waist. The sky's exploding before them, tiny dots of coloured lights filling every available piece of sky in silence. They're too far away to hear the whizzing and banging, but the position of the house affords them a view for miles.
Merlin sighs and tips his head back, burrowing into Arthur.
"What's wrong?" Arthur asks, taking one of Merlin's hands in his and threading his fingers through it, squeezing tight.
"I've never been to a fireworks display," Merlin says sadly. Arthur's heart breaks a little. There's so much Merlin hasn't done. There are so many things he deserves and that Arthur wants to give him but doesn't know if he can.
Arthur doesn't say anything, just hugs Merlin tighter. A few minutes pass as they watch the sky changing colour over and over. Finally, Merlin scrambles around, his back to the window and straddles Arthur.
"Thank you for bringing me here, Arthur," he says and dips his head to kiss him. Arthur's fingers curl into Merlin's hair as he kisses him back, something dark unfurling inside him as he holds Merlin close. He doesn't know what it is – fear? Possessiveness?
He's utterly pathetic. He's so scared of losing Merlin. He's never felt like this before – but he knows that this shouldn't be and he worries what the future holds for them – a seventeen year old runaway with a past and a man seven years his senior with heavy expectations on his shoulders.
The trouble is he just can't stay away.
Its three days later and Arthur's still deliberately avoiding the house, which isn't easy when he lives in it. He's waiting for the renovations to be finished on one of the old estate cottages that he's going to live in whilst the work goes on in the house.
He's obliged to go to a state event and is away for a couple of days, the boys accompanying him with their nanny, George. It's almost worse though, being away from Avalon and wondering if Merlin's tried to find him yet, if he even wants to. Arthur knows he hurt him, badly. Merlin hates him now, Arthur knows it; after all, Merlin's parting words had confirmed as much.
When he gets back from London, he still avoids the office he allocated to Gaius. He's being a coward and he's not proud of it. It's a game of chance, and he feels sick, because deep down he knows that he wants to see Merlin. He fears it, but he needs it.
He knows Gwen and Lance invited Gaius, Alice and Merlin over for dinner the night before, because he declined his own invite with relief that he would be away. There is no way he can sit around a dinner table making pleasant chit chat with Merlin there. He's not ready.
So it happens when he's least expecting it. He's walking in the grounds with the twins, Nate running ahead collecting conkers and hazelnuts in his pockets, Edward clinging onto his gloved hand. Nate's fearless, the polar opposite of Edward who is afraid of his own shadow; if they weren't both identical – two mini Arthurs - it would be hard to believe they were brothers, let alone twins. The two of them adore one another though, Nate fiercely protective of his twin, Edward the trusting soul who lets him.
Arthur's crouching down with Edward, explaining to him which trees the different leaves were from, when Nate calls, "Daddy, who's that man with Uncle Lance?" and Arthur's head jerks up to see Lance approaching, merely feet away now, and he's not alone. Merlin is with him. It's like being doused with icy cold water, and he stands, lifting Edward into his arms to watch their approach.
"Hello, Arthur," Lance says as they come to a standstill in front of Arthur. "I'm just giving Merlin here a tour of the grounds. Have you two met yet?"
Arthur lifts his gaze to meet Merlin's, feeling sick, meeting the cold blue stare with a feeling of inevitability. Well, what does he expect? That Merlin's going to fling himself into his arms and tell Arthur's he's missed him? It was Arthur who fucked it all up; if anyone's flinging themselves anywhere, it's going to be him. Not that he does, of course. He nods at Merlin as though he's a total stranger, responding to the blank look that Merlin is now offering him, one that says, 'I've never seen this person before'.
"I – we are acquainted," he says formally, almost choking on his tongue.
"We did meet once," Merlin says, breaking their gaze and staring at the floor. "I'm surprised you remember me, Your Majesty."
So that's how it's going to be. The ache in Arthur's chest wakes up, slicing through him with the never forgotten pain that it once was. It's on the tip of his tongue to say, 'Call me Arthur,' as he would to anyone who was introduced to him by Lance but he's interrupted.
"Daddy." A tiny fist yanks on Arthur's coat hem and he looks down at Nate who is pouting, not liking being ignored. "Who’s the man?"
Ah, the curiosity of a three year old. "This is Merlin. He's helping make the house ready for us to live in properly." Nate's wide blue eyes fixate on Merlin in awe. "Why don't you introduce yourself and your brother?"
Nate walks over to Merlin, who's staring down at him now, and there's something in his eyes, on his face- Curiosity? Arthur's lips quirk involuntarily when Nate holds his hand out and says, "I'm Nathaniel William Pendragon. I'm three."
Merlin crouches and takes his hand with a wry smile. "Hello, Nathaniel."
"Daddy calls me Nate," Nate tells him sincerely. He pulls his hand free of Merlin's and points at his twin. "That's my little brother, Edward Uther Pendragon."
Edward burrows his face in Arthur's neck. "Ed's very shy," Arthur explains as if it wasn't obvious.
"Pleased to meet you both," Merlin says and Arthur gasps when Merlin's eyes lock with his again briefly before he's looking away and saying to Lance, "Shall we keep moving? It's too chilly to be standing around."
"See you later, Arthur," Lance says as they leave, but Arthur barely hears him. He's watching Merlin's retreating figure, mentally cataloguing the changes the years have brought him. There's none, not really. Merlin's filled out a little, lost some his sharper angles, but the rest of him is the same; except, those eyes that used to shine with amusement as he teased Arthur only look upon him with indifference now.
"You know you're welcome to stay with me until the cottage is ready, Arthur," Morgana tells him and he's glad she's miles away on the other end of the phone and not in the room with him because this way she can't see the look in his face at the suggestion. "I'd love to spend some time with the boys."
Arthur does love his half-sister, he does, but it's hard work being in her company for prolonged periods. The twins adore her though, and to her credit, she's a wonderful aunt.
"You do realise that I have several palaces and castles at my disposal should I require somewhere to stay?" Arthur swears he hears her roll her eyes.
"I'm perfectly aware of that, but none of those are home are they?" Morgana, more than anyone, understands Arthur's desire to put down roots in one place. Both of them grew up with so many 'homes' that they never felt settled anywhere.
"I want to be close by in case anything goes wrong," he replies, and it's not as though that's a lie. It's almost killed him as it is to hand over the reins to Gaius Jones, because when Arthur's honest with himself, he knows he can be a bit of a control freak. The only reason he's not managing the project himself is because if he does he'll never see the kids, and because the King of England simply doesn't do a hard hat and muck in, not unless it's for a publicity shot. His advisers would go berserk – it's bad enough that he's taken up residence in a home that isn't traditionally a royal residence.
"You're coming up this weekend anyway aren't you?"
"Yes, about that – I suppose I have to tell you that you're having a little party on Saturday night."
"Morgana, what are you up to?" Arthur groans. The last time Arthur attended one of Morgana's parties he'd found himself engaged to Morgause two months later. He's avoided them ever since.
"It's just been a long time since we did anything like this. It's too late anyway, everything is planned."
Arthur sighs. "As long as you play hostess."
"But of course."
He encounters Merlin several times that week. Each time Merlin is unfailingly polite and utterly impersonal, as though he's never known Arthur before this, as though they weren't together for years. They're never alone, though, so Arthur never says anything out of turn.
On Thursday night he calls his ex-mother-in-law, Elaine, and asks her to take the twins for the weekend. Arthur has a surprisingly decent relationship with her, and as long as Morgause's name stays out of the conversation, Arthur's certain it will stay that way. She loves her grandsons and Arthur knows it's important for them to spend time with her. He never had that growing up and he's never going to come between his kids and their grandparent. It's better that the children go to her than stay here under their nanny's care when the party is on. Having a nanny is something he cannot avoid in his position, but he's very careful to ensure the children know they have a family who love them as well.
"You be good for your Grandma, okay?" Arthur tells them, hunkering down in front of them and checking their coat buttons are done up properly.
"Can you come with us, Daddy?" Edward asks solemnly, his huge blue eyes filling with tears and his lower lip trembling.
"Don't be silly, Eddy," Nate scolds. "There's nowhere at Granny's for Daddy to sleep."
"Daddy can sleep in my bed with me," Edward argues.
Arthur stands up and scoops them up, one under each arm, walking to the sofa and sitting down, one twin on either side. "Sometimes Daddy needs a couple of days on his own so he can do grown-up things," Arthur says gently. "I'll still be here when you get back on Sunday. Remember Aunty Morgana is coming to visit, so Grandma's bringing you home early."
Morgana's someone else who surprised him. Despite her adamant declaration that she will never have children, her relationship with the twins is one of mutual admiration.
Elaine arrives just as Arthur's getting the car seats out of his Range Rover. He helps her strap them both into her car and then they're disappearing up the long tree lined drive, closely followed by security, mitten clad hands waving goodbye until he can't see them anymore. He sighs. They're such hard work, but he wouldn't be without them.
"They're both adorable," comes Merlin's voice from behind him where Arthur stands staring at the vacant space where the car last was. He takes a deep breath before turning towards him.
"Thank you, I think so too."
"I'm glad you got what you wanted."
"Merlin-" The look on Merlin's face stalls him; he's staring at the floor, digging one toe into the gravel, his hands in his pockets and Arthur's brain sends him back seven years to the first time he saw Merlin. He'd known he was it for him. He'd known, yet he'd still fucked it all up; but no matter how many times he's played it out in his head, there is no other outcome for them. He's the King of England. Sure, at the time he'd merely been first in line to the throne, but still-
Merlin had been it for him, is still it for him. Seeing him here, now, he looks so young again, but he's not that boy anymore, he's a near twenty-four year old man and he's a stranger to Arthur now. He doesn't know what he's been doing in the last five years other than titbits gathered from Gaius, and he wants to ask, but his throat feels as though it's sealed over.
Merlin looks up then, the deep blue of his eyes showing Arthur a flash of pain before the indifference is back. Neither of them says anything, Arthur's still tongue-tied, and Merlin, well, Arthur has no idea what's going on in his head. Once he'd been able to read him so well. He's older now and that naivety of countenance has gone.
Arthur's ability to speak resurfaces, which is good, because perhaps now he can ask Merlin about the last few years, find out where he's been, what he's been doing, who he's been doing it with…
"What can I do for you?" Arthur asks, trying for polite and ending up with abrupt. He turns and walks back towards the house, expecting Merlin to follow.
"I was wondering if you have the original plans of the house from when it was first built." Merlin's following behind and Arthur stops when they reach the hallway. The house is deadly silent, especially without the children. Gaius and his small team aren't in there today, it's just him and Merlin, and the stillness in the air hits Arthur suddenly. He's alone with Merlin.
It's been five years.
The awareness of Merlin's proximity almost swallows him up and he's got to scramble his brain into action. "The original plans are locked away in the library. The cabinet keys are in my study."
He has an office for official estate business, which Gaius and the crew have taken over, and a personal study in the family living quarters. Arthur's just pondering whether it's best to ask Merlin to wait here or to come with him when Merlin says, quiet, "Lead the way."
Bonfire Night, Five years ago
"I don't need your money, Arthur," Merlin protests angrily, slamming the door closed behind him and throwing his rucksack on the floor rather than hang it on the coat stand. "It's bad enough that you keep me here like I'm your fucking mistress and refuse to let me pay any rent!"
Arthur doesn't know how to pull this back, make it right. Merlin's been withdrawing from him for months, ever since he began university and started making new friends, his first since he left his job at the café and that dank squat he was living in and moved in with Arthur eighteen months earlier, during which time he'd home studied and passed every exam he took.
Arthur was ridiculously proud.
"Merlin, I don't need your money-"
"Do you know I have to lie to all my friends? How can I tell them the truth? Who knows what they think of me, Arthur, because I can't just be myself around them." He sweeps his arm, gesturing at the room. "How do I excuse that I live here? Not that I can ever invite them round, Jesus, look at this place!"
Arthur swallows guiltily, silently admitting that this plush flat isn't exactly typical student accommodation. Merlin lives here with him, but this isn’t Arthur's 'official' residence, no, that's on the other side of the City. That's somewhere Arthur rarely goes unless he's on official state business.
Merlin spins round to face Arthur, his eyes damp from a clear effort not to cry. Arthur goes to him, his arms itching to pull Merlin into their protective circle, his heart pounding in his chest in fear. He hates this. He just wants Merlin to be happy.
"I don't know how much longer I can do this," Merlin whispers into Arthur's neck. Arthur feels like he's fallen on his sword as pain sears through him so sharply that he cries out from the force of it. Merlin sobs, sucking in breaths too quickly. His long fingers bunch in Arthur's coat, still damp from the light drizzle outside. Arthur doesn't move as Merlin gathers himself to say, "I feel trapped."
Arthur recoils, stepping away from Merlin, towards the window where the city is laid out beneath him, the wet tarmac glowing orange under street lights and car headlights, people carrying their day to day lives whilst Arthur's falls apart.
"I'm not forcing you to stay, Merlin," he says and he rubs his eyes and tries to resist the urge to watch Merlin as he says this. "You're free to leave at any time." Perhaps it would be for the best for all concerned, it's not like they have a future. This obsession he has for Merlin is eating him up inside and he's clinging on to it for as long as he can because he knows that when it's over he's never going to feel like this ever again.
"You'd love that, wouldn't you?"
The blade inside Arthur twists, contorting, and Arthur stifles a gasp.
"Fuck this," Merlin says after a painful silence as Arthur struggles to find the words. He's been brought up to know what to say in any occasion, except this one. "I'm going to Gwaine's. Don't wait up."
Arthur closes his eyes and waits for the door to slam, but it doesn't and he hopes- He turns, but no, Merlin has gone. Arthur's plans to surprise him with a trip to the local fireworks display go up in smoke.
Thirty seconds later there's a knock on the door. "Sir, is everything alright?"
For fuck's sake, can't he even be left alone in his misery?
"Everything's fine, Ethan, thank you."
"Very good, Sir," Ethan replies.
Arthur wonders what his bodyguards really think of him. The future king and his secret live-in toy boy. Fuck.
Arthur's in bed when Merlin stumbles home in the middle of the night. Arthur's not sure why he's even still there. His father's rung him three times demanding to know why he's skipped out on his annual Guy Fawkes party, and Arthur's let all of the messages go to voicemail, but the truth is, he's older now and there are more expectations upon him; people notice when he's not at functions like a good prince should be. He's got responsibilities.
Yet he's here, wide awake in the early hours, waiting for his stroppy, stubborn eighteen year old lover to deign to grace him with his presence. It's like Merlin's invented a new form of torture, just for Arthur to enjoy, because that's what this is. It's hell.
He understands Merlin's frustrations, at least he hopes he does; Arthur's had restrictions on him his whole life, ones he can't just break free of without repercussions, and as such the world can't know about Merlin. He's been raised to expect limits on his lifestyle, he knows his place, but Merlin– Merlin grew up in foster care and broke free of his own constraints at fifteen.
All Arthur wants to do is look after him, give him the home he's never had and make sure he's taken care of – because he loves him. Sometimes he loves him so much he forgets to breathe. He's not even sure how or why this happened; they met on a fluke, but Arthur can't break away. He doesn't want to.
He listens as Merlin goes to the loo and comes into the bedroom, strips off his clothes and climbs in beside him. He smells of alcohol and cigarette smoke and- Merlin.
"Are you awake?" he whispers.
Arthur considers pretending that he is asleep, but he betrays himself and replies, "No, I couldn't sleep."
Merlin shuffles closer, the long warm length of his body presses against Arthur's. "Can we forget last night happened?"
Something within Arthur twists. Is that it? He's been here all night, sick with this, waiting for Merlin and he doesn't even get a 'sorry'. It's like a red flag. Arthur rolls, pinning Merlin beneath him. "That's it? You walk out on me and go to bloody Gwaine-" Arthur's never met Gwaine but he hates him for being someone Merlin spends time with, "-and when you finally bother to come home, all I get is 'can we forget'?"
Arthur can barely see Merlin in the dark, but he feels him- how his breath hitches and his cock fills with blood at Arthur's proximity and Arthur's follows. Merlin's heart is pounding as fast as Arthur's is, and really, Arthur's such a pushover for Merlin, because that's all it takes, and he's angry but words don't cut it, Merlin's already past words, and even without the benefit of alcohol in his bloodstream, Arthur is too.
Merlin lifts his legs and clamps them around Arthur, and before Arthur's caught up with himself, Merlin's bucking into him, asking Arthur to fuck him, and who is he to refuse Merlin anything?
Merlin's the only person who doesn't give a fuck that Arthur's the Prince of sodding Wales; he talks to him how he likes, goads him like there's no tomorrow, fucks him like a whore. He's the only person other than his father Arthur ever defers to.
As Merlin reaches out for the lube he flips on the lamp to fill the room with a dim glow. Arthur snatches the tube and has his fingers in Merlin's hole swiftly. He's so fucking angry, desperate to be inside Merlin, to assuage this terrible pain that's been with him all night.
"Come on, Arthur," Merlin whines and grabs hold of Arthur's buttocks to pull him in. "Don't make me wait."
Despite his fury, it's like it always is as he slides into Merlin, like they can't get enough of each other, like they're the only people in the world. It's good, it has been right from the start, and Merlin's clawing at his back with one hand and breaching his hole with the other, chanting Arthur's name like he's never going to use it again.
It's not enough this time, Arthur's fired up blood wants more control, and he pulls out, ignoring Merlin's protests. He sits back on his feet, gives his cock a couple of strokes and yanks Merlin by his legs, pulling him over his lap as he grabs a pillow. Merlin bucks up and Arthur slides the pillow into place, and Arthur steadies him, lifts him and thrusts up into him.
From there he takes control of Merlin's cock. Merlin makes a keening noise in the back of his throat and Arthur's almost done for. When Merlin comes first it's all Arthur can do to hold back and strip him bare before he allows himself the same luxury.
Arthur crawls up the bed and flops down on his back beside Merlin. Merlin burrows into his side and his breath puffs the side of Arthur's neck. He wraps an arm around him and pulls him close. There's no more talking. Arthur closes his eyes and sleep takes him, but not before he stifles down the unease that's creeping through him.
Arthur rummages in his bottom desk drawer for the library cabinet keys and finds them exactly where they should be. He snags them with a forefinger and stands up straight, holding them up to show Merlin who is leaning back against the edge of the desk to Arthur's left, arms folded, watching him.
The half-smile falls off Arthur's face at Merlin's expression. He's looking at Arthur like he's water in a desert. Arthur lowers his hand and slides the keys onto the desk, his eyes locked with Merlin's. Merlin licks his lips, unfolding his arms and pushing himself away from the desk. Arthur follows his movements; drinking him in as though this is the last time he's ever going to see him. Who knows, it could be. It's not like has any control over him.
Merlin steps closer to him, grabs the loose material of his t-shirt and yanks Arthur towards him, his other hand wrapping around Arthur's neck and mashing their lips together.
It's like time falls away and they haven't been apart for five years. In a clash of teeth and a scrape of nails on his scalp, Arthur's in love again – as though he hasn't realised this all along – Merlin's scent, Merlin soft moans, Merlin's fingers on the top button of his jeans.
He doesn't know where the condom and lube comes from; he suspects the lube is hand cream off his desk, but he's mesmerised by Merlin as he's pushed back on the sofa, straddled and ridden wildly, both of them still fully clothed with only exposed cocks, their hands exploring under t-shirts.
God, he wants- Behind the desk the eighteenth century portrait of the house crashes to the floor and the bulb in the desk lamp explodes. Arthur blinks – reminiscent of their first time together in that café kitchen when a shelf had fallen down and scattered the tiled floor with broken crockery – and instantly the thought goes as Merlin says, "Harder, my king, harder!" It's a flash of the old Merlin and Arthur's lost again, coming inside him, his vision blurring from the intensity. The inkwell falls off the desk behind and Arthur doesn't notice because Merlin's coming too, his fingers gripping his shoulders tightly.
He collapses against the back of the sofa, sated and warm. Merlin's face is in his neck; Arthur feels his breath coming in pants against his skin. His fingers are still tightly gripping Merlin's hipbones like he's scared to let go. All this time and it's still like this between them; like there's nothing else but each other, no one else that can ever matter.
He groans in protest when Merlin sits up and leans back. Their eyes meet, Merlin's cool gaze twisting in Arthur's gut. Merlin smiles, small and tight and lifts himself off Arthur to stand, swaying slightly.
Arthur watches as Merlin grabs his jeans off the floor and hauls them on. He's not looking at Arthur when he says, "Thanks, I needed that, I haven't been laid in weeks."
He's still not looking at Arthur as he reaches for the door and lets himself out of the room. The door clicks closed behind him and Arthur's left staring at empty space, still half naked, his limp cock resting against his thigh as a reminder that a few minutes before he'd been inside Merlin again for the first time since- since Merlin walked out of his life and never looked back.
I haven't been laid in weeks.
Until now, Arthur hasn't been laid since about three weeks after he married Morgause.
Bonfire Night, Four Years Ago
It's cold and Arthur sees his breath curling in the air before him as he stands in the brisk November air. One gloved hand is shoved firmly in the pocket of his long wool coat, the other entwined with a warm hand that belongs to the equally warm body that is leaning into his side.
Arthur takes a tiny step away, aiming for some distance and stares up at the fireworks, blinking back the tears in his eyes. The colours blur before him, red and green merging, the sounds of the gunpowder overhead hurting his ears. He flutters his eyelids and wills them away. No point in pretending that he's got something in his eye or it’s the cold, not to himself anyway; he's the only person he can be honest with.
Hampton Court Palace is the perfect backdrop for this display and the locals are out en masse, watching the display his father has laid on for them, full of excitement at the announcement he and Morgause made to the world earlier that day.
All these people here ostensibly to celebrate his engagement. He feels like such a fraud.
"This time next year I hope we'll be celebrating our first pregnancy," Morgause whispers in his ear and tightens the vice-like grip of her fingers around his. "I can't wait to be the Princess of Wales."
No, 'I can't wait to be your wife.' Arthur forces a smile and bends down to kiss her cheek. The wedding is in March. Less than four months from today. He's getting married. How did this happen? This time last year-
No, he doesn't need reminding of Merlin. Merlin's gone and Arthur's never going to see him again and actually, it's for the best. Arthur's always known he's expected to marry and produce at least one heir and now he's finally done his duty. He and Merlin could never have been anything more than secret lovers.
He's always known Merlin deserved better than to be someone's dirty little secret; but this doesn’t help this empty feeling that's made itself at home inside him.
Morgana arrives on Saturday morning like a whirlwind in a cloud of floral perfume. She takes one look at Arthur's face and she's sitting him down at the kitchen table and pouring him a measure of the emergency brandy Arthur hides in the top cupboard out of reach of the twins.
Arthur takes a deep breath and a huge swig of brandy. He shakes his head. She cares, he knows that, but he's not sure she's ever going to understand about Merlin. Hell, he's not sure he does. Leon and Morgana were the only ones who knew then; she's his sister and she knows everything.
"Nothing. I've just had a lot on, that's all."
She stares at him, and he gives back as good as he gets because it's the only way to respond, his gaze steady, belying how he feels on the inside. It's a long while before he blinks and says, "Merlin's here. He's Gaius' nephew."
He glances back at her face and it's clear this is not news to her, that she wanted him to tell her himself before she said anything.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Of course." She nods. "Well, we're all set for tonight. I've got the approved caterers coming in to do the food and the security briefed. Leave it all to me."
"I love how you say that like you're doing me a favour," Arthur says with a roll of his eyes. "You're the one wanting to throw a party!"
"I'm trying to cheer you up," she says, softer than Arthur expected. "Now, where are my favourite nephews?"
"Your only nephews are with Elaine, they'll be back tomorrow."
A scowl immediately mars Morgana's flawless complexion but she says nothing. Morgana hates Elaine and Arthur's never been certain exactly why. Elaine is Morgana's mother's older sister. Morgana's three years older than Arthur, her mother was Uther's first wife, the one he married for duty, who killed herself shortly after Morgana's birth.
"At least that means we don't have to worry about them tonight." She stands and kisses his cheek. "Why don't you take yourself for one of your walks? I'll make this place pretty for tonight."
Arthur walks, and walks and walks, stopping at the village pub for a pint and a sandwich mid-afternoon, letting Clarissa the barmaid enjoy her usual flirtation with him because it's what they do and despite himself, he enjoys it. He takes pity on Ethan and Owen and buys them a pub lunch too – it can't be much fun trailing around after him all day when he decides to leave the house grounds. He pretends he doesn't see the other security, the ones that aren't his personal guards who loiter further back, ever present. Ethan and Owen are his friends, as much as they can be with him being the king and them being his bodyguards – but then, they've been with him a long time. They saw him fall apart when he ended things with Merlin. They're loyal and Arthur sometimes likes to believe that if he wasn't King they would be genuine friends.
He is King though, and things are not different.
When he gets back to the house it's getting dark and the lights are on, shining out in welcome at Arthur's arrival, screaming out 'home' to him. Avalon House has been in his family on his mother's side since it was built, and the land even longer than that. His mother had grown up here.
Arthur barely saw this place as he grew up; the house was locked away for years, his father keeping staff to maintain the place but nothing more. It's belonged to Arthur since he was seven months old, but he's never lived here until now.
Despite the homely feel at his approach, Arthur doesn't feel as though this is his home yet. He's lived here since shortly after his father's death, the media's attention on his life prompting his retreat to somewhere uncharted. He loves this place, wants his kids to grow up here, wants it to feel like home. He hasn't felt that anywhere was really home since he lived with Merlin all those years ago.
When he steps inside, Morgana has the old dining and drawing rooms in the main house sparkling like it hasn't only been a few hours since she arrived. The dining room has high ceilings and long almost floor length windows that look out over the estate's rolling landscape. Its furniture is period – various periods – but nothing is newer than Victorian. Morgana has strung fairy lights around the old fireplace and the lighting is subdued and intimate. It's warm and welcoming and it stings Arthur with such a stab of sadness that for a moment it's all he can do to stand there and let it all sink in.
"There you are, Arthur," Morgana says, sweeping into the room with a uniformed man at her heels. "This is John, he's here to make sure everything runs smoothly."
John tips his head in some kind of bow, and Morgana's lips twitch.
"What time does this thing start?"
"Seven-thirty. Plenty of time for you to shower and make yourself gorgeous."
Arthur nods and heads towards the family wing.
"Oh, and Arthur – its smart casual."
Arthur relaxes a little. He hates being all buttoned up in a suit. Hurray for small mercies.
Morgana's invited everyone she knows, or at least it seems that way to Arthur. Even Leon's there and he's supposed to be in America! Of course, this means that Gaius and Alice are invited, as is Merlin. Arthur navigates the room cautiously, taking care to avoid Merlin, yet he's permanently aware of exactly where he is at all times.
"How do you feel about that?" Leon asks when he's cornered Arthur. He nods his head in Merlin's direction. Merlin's wearing a beaming grin and his eyes are twinkling as he talks to a pretty dark haired woman that Arthur's never seen before.
"It's fine," Arthur lies, the knot in his stomach reminding him otherwise. "Merlin can talk to whoever he wants."
"That wasn't quite what I meant," Leon says. "I meant how do you feel about seeing him again?"
Arthur drops his gaze to his shoes. Leon knows how he was when Merlin left, or rather when Arthur sent him away. He'd been a wreck. He'd got together with Morgause on the rebound when he should have taken the time to give the matter more thought, the harsh words of his father still ringing in his ears- 'You're a Pendragon, Arthur. You have to marry; you have to sire an heir. This foolish notion that you can live happily ever after with this boy is just that – foolish. You've had your fun, but now it's time to do your duty.' He hears the words like it was yesterday. He also hears his eventual reply, 'You're right, Father. I have been foolish and I'll be sure to rectify the situation.'
Arthur's head had been full of Merlin's declaration from two days previous, that he felt trapped, that he didn't think he could do it for much longer and the revelation that his father knew about Merlin and had done from the start; so much for his detail being discreet. Apparently he had not intervened sooner because of Arthur's discretion in 'keeping the boy a secret', not to forget Uther's subsequent revelation that he'd had a similar affair in his youth, one that had had to end because of his position and duty.
"It's been hell," Arthur says quietly, thinking of Merlin yesterday, riding him – how Arthur had thought that it meant something, that perhaps they could have each other again, and Merlin's subsequent withdrawal, his parting shot piercing his heart. He feels small and insignificant, like since Merlin left his own life has gone to hell, but Merlin's has flourished. He's got a career, he's found family. Arthur's a widowed, single father of two – albeit a rich and royal one - and yes, he loves those children, Christ knows he does, but he's still that wreck Leon comforted all those years ago underneath. An empty person with the rest of his life stretching out before him, of ceremonial banquets and diplomatic visits and nothing, nothing, nothing – just his duty.
He can't help himself when he glances back up again, finding Merlin's gaze on him. Arthur stills, a rabbit in the headlights. Merlin blinks, smiles, and takes the dark haired woman's hand. It's a familiar gesture, and the woman leans up to peck him on the cheek.
Arthur shakes his head. He can't be here. "I have to get out of here," he whispers, eyeing the service door at the far end of the room thinking of escape.
Leon's hand is firm and steady on his arm when he says, "Arthur, stay. Do you really want to incur Morgana's wrath by leaving so early?"
Arthur glances over at Morgana where she's chatting with Gwen and Lance and feels a surge of love. Family is important; he should never forget that. This party means a lot to Morgana, she wants to cheer him up, and perhaps he needs to man up and not show her exactly how little he wants to be here.
He forces a smile and says, "Point me in the direction of the whisky. If I'm mingling, I'm not doing it dry."
It's unavoidable really; he has to talk to Merlin at some point. He's with Gwen and Lance now, his female companion resting a small hand in the crook of his arm.
"Arthur, this is Freya," Lance says sunnily, oblivious to the undercurrent of tension that's screaming to Arthur. "Merlin never told us he had such a lovely girlfriend tucked away."
"Hardly tucked away, Lance, although it has been a few weeks since we last had time to spend together," Merlin replies. He glances at Arthur and looks away quickly. "Freya has a job in London and can't be following me around the country all the time."
Freya laughs, a melodious tinkle that sound like nails on a chalkboard to Arthur. To him she says, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty," and smiles before turning to Merlin and saying, "You'd be horrified if I followed you around! You're far too independent." She nudges Merlin with an elbow affectionately.
Merlin glances at Arthur, challenging, "I just believe in being my own person. I would never let anyone tell me what to do."
Arthur looks away.
The next morning Morgana hides in Arthur's study when Elaine brings the twins back. Arthur doesn't say anything. It's been years since Morgana and Elaine even spoke and it's none of his business.
When Elaine's gone, he helps the boys out of their hats and coats and after giving them both a kiss and a hug, he says, "Aunty Morgana is playing hide and seek – why don't you see if you can find her?" and watches affectionately as they barrel around family quarters, looking under the sofa and behind the curtains, giggling furiously and squealing in delight when they find Morgana hiding under Arthur's desk. Arthur hopes she heard him telling the kids she was hiding and that she's not been under there trying to avoid Elaine.
They spend the day together, just the four of them, walking around the estate. They stop for a rest on the edge of a small copse in the middle of the estate, the children running wild and throwing leaves at each other with the boundless energy only three year olds that will sleep well that night can muster.
Arthur discovers that he was meant to hit it off with at least three of the guests last night, ones that Morgana had invited in the hope of tempting him out of his shell.
"No offence, Sis," he says, one eye on the boys, the other on Morgana. "But your last attempt at matchmaking brought Morgause into my life."
Morgana pales. "I know. But I hadn't seen her for years. How was I supposed to know that the girl I was so close to in my teens had become such a- cold person?"
Arthur glances at his boys, intense expressions of concentration furrowing their brows as they examine an oak leaf that Edward holds aloft on his palm. "I wouldn't change it, Morgana. Morgause was a class A selfish wh- person, but it's not like I was honest with her either. I married her knowing full well I was in love with someone else. She was in the right place at the right time. Still, without her, I wouldn't have them."
He's got a lot to be grateful for.
When they fall into silence he hears a twig snap behind them and when he turns to investigate, he sees Merlin backing away.
"Sorry," Merlin says hastily. "I was just out for a walk, I didn't know you were here." He smiles at Morgana, shoots Arthur a loaded stare and about-turns.
"He's an intriguing character," Morgana says when Merlin's out of earshot, her shrewd eyes watching him almost run back towards the house. "I can see what you saw in him."
"Mmm," Arthur replies, distracted, as he wonders how much of this conversation with Morgana Merlin's overheard. In a way, he hopes he heard it all.
"So, Sis – are you ever going to put poor Leon out of his misery?"
The next few weeks are surreal. Arthur and the twins move into the cottage so that Arthur doesn't have to worry about one of the boys hurting themselves amidst the chaos at the house. He has to go up to London a couple of times a week; a diplomatic meeting with President Obama, various boring state visits, lunch with the Prime Minister and his Deputy – a visit to the Children's Hospice which leaves him saddened as such visits always do; a reality check that his life is privileged, and if he's lonely, he ought to get the hell over it.
When he's home, he spends a lot of time with Gwen, Lance and their two kids. They have befriended Merlin and Arthur finds himself socialising with him a lot more than is comfortable. He tries to avoid going over there as much as he might have if Merlin hadn't jumped back into his life, but it's impossible to avoid their Friday night get-togethers whereby the 'regulars' all take their turns to cook, even Arthur, who hopes that he's improving with practice.
It's awkward, but it feels as though he and Merlin are the only ones who notice. Lance and Gwen are so in love with one another that they have no awareness of discord within others. Arthur and Merlin only talk to one another when it's 'pass the gravy'. Some weeks Gwen's brother Elyan joins them with his girlfriend Sophie, and this somehow makes it feel more obvious that he and Merlin never converse. Sophie notices and calls him on it, saying, under her breath in his ear, "What's with you two?"
Sophie's always been a little close to the mark with her familiarity with him, but Arthur lets it go because, well, he kind of likes it when people talk to him like he's just a normal man and not Arthur Pendragon, King of England. She startles Arthur out of his daze where he's been watching Merlin cooking, his first turn since he's been doing the Friday thing. "What?"
"You both watch each other when you think the other's not looking. You don't talk. Is something going on?" Whoa, she's got a nerve! Yet- she's astute, and at least she's being discreet.
"No," Arthur says quietly. "No, there's not." It's not a lie. If she'd asked if something had gone on then- It's been weeks since that time in his office. Arthur's surrounded by company but he's never felt lonelier. He can't help it when his attention returns to Merlin; he's stirring a huge pot of something or other and balancing Arthur's shy timid traitor of a son on his hip, and Edward's looking at him adoringly as Merlin talks to him in a low voice, letting Ed wrap his tiny fist around the handle of the spoon and covering it with his own as they stir.
There's a lump in Arthur's throat at the sight, something warm in his chest; when he sees Merlin like this, he hopes, and in his head he makes plans. There's no obligation on him anymore. He has an heir - and a spare! He and Merlin-
He wonders if he's ever going to pluck up the nerve tell Merlin he's sorry.
Then he remembers that Merlin has a girlfriend and it all goes to dust. He's already heard Merlin telling Gwen that Freya is visiting next week and he can't face it.
"I won't make it next week," he announces, relieved to have an excuse not to come that doesn't involve lying. "I'm taking the kids to Port Eynon to see an old friend for the weekend." Percival is his old flatmate from uni. Arthur had been supposed to have the three bedroomed flat with the sea view to himself, but when he'd heard two of the students in class talking about the slum they were living in, Arthur had offered. Uther had hit the roof, but Leon and Percy's security checks came back clean and they'd moved in.
"Where's Port Eynon?" Sophie asks, leaning forward with her chin propped on her hand.
"It's in Wales," Merlin says from the other side of the room. He hoists Edward up higher into his arms and brings him over for Arthur to take, the little boy holding his arms out for his father. "The beach there is beautiful." His eyes are on Arthur but Arthur refuses to give in and look at him. Arthur took Merlin there one summer for a long weekend and they'd sat in the dunes on that beach and eaten ice cream, watching the waves crash over the shoreline. Merlin loves the sea.
Edward wriggles in Arthur's arms. "I wan make sandcastles, Daddy!" he claims as Arthur sets him to his feet where he runs to join his brother and Gwen and Lance's kids where they're playing in the corner.
This sets off a chorus of children wanting to make sandcastles and see the sea and Lance says, "I don't know why we don't just come with you next weekend-" And there it was. Arthur's escape becomes a group excursion, with Gwen, Lance, Elyan, Sophie, Merlin and bloody Freya even though she's not even here to acquiesce! He doesn't want this, and he knows he could refuse them, but the children are excited and he knows he's going to have to lump it.
Worse still, the following day Gwen phones Morgana, who apparently says she'd love a weekend by the sea and Morgana invites Leon.
Arthur rings Percy and hopes he'll save him somehow with a legitimate excuse, but sometimes Arthur forgets that although his friend is quiet, he loves company. He tells Arthur he's got room for everyone – the advantages of running a guesthouse when it's out of season.
Arthur gives up and informs his security of this plan. He's never going to get out of this now he's set things in motion.
Making sandcastles on a beach in November is more fun than Arthur would have anticipated. This time Merlin's got Nate following him around like a stray puppy, and the two of them are crouching in their wellies and waterproofs, their faces deep in concentration as they add the finishing touches to a castle that could rival Windsor.
Arthur sighs and concentrates on the sandcastle he's helping Edward and the oldest DuLac child, Henry, build. It's only Friday afternoon and already, he feels exhausted. This was supposed to be some time to relax away from everything. He feels invaded and he can't help but feel resentful for that.
Freya's deep in conversation with Percy and Arthur suspects she's hearing the tale of the traitorous Nimueh, the woman who persuaded Percy to move to this quiet village in Wales to run a guesthouse, swore undying love to him and then left him after a couple of months saying that she wasn't cut out for 'drudgery', leaving Percy with a huge mortgage and twelve bedroomed guesthouse to run on his own. To his credit, the business is thriving under Percy’s hands and during the winter, when business is slower, Percy concentrates on his carpentry. No one else has to know that Arthur's invested in the guesthouse so that Percy can keep it; his friend loves it here, and as far as Arthur's concerned, it's money he never wants back.
Percy is also still broken up about Nimueh leaving and the recent news that she's met someone else and is now happily residing in the centre of Birmingham, as far from the sea as it's possible to get in England. So much for life by the sea being her 'dream'.
Arthur knows how Percy feels, what it's like to miss someone so much that it takes over your life. He wouldn't wish the feeling on his worst enemy.
Bonfire Night, Three Years Ago
"You don't mind, do you, Arthur?" Morgause asks, like she hasn't already got her coat on and a car waiting outside. "Marnie's put the twins down for the night and she'll be here if either wakes."
Arthur shrugs, feigning nonchalance when every fibre of his consciousness is screaming for her to leave now so he can have some space. She air-kisses his cheek and breezes out. As soon as the door closes Arthur heads for his sons' bedroom, stopping first to pop his head in the ante-chamber that Marnie and the other nanny uses as a sitting room when the babies are sleeping.
"Marnie, take the night off – go to the fireworks display with your boyfriend."
She shakes her head, a smile already forming. "Arthur, your wife-"
"I'd like to spend some time with my sons, even if they are asleep," Arthur says firmly. "There's no point in both of us being here."
"If you're sure?"
But Arthur's already opening the door to the nursery and entering the room. He stares down at his sleeping sons and his heart blooms with love. He hadn't expected this level of feeling ever again. He'd been so sure he'd stay ambivalent towards these children. He doesn't love their mother, hell, he doesn't even like her – but from the moment he first held his sons, none of that mattered.
Nathanial and Edward are a few months old and they're Arthur's world.
"Goodnight, Arthur," Marnie says gently from behind him, and Arthur turns to smile at her before turning his eyes back to the infants.
"You'll both probably grow up and break my heart one day, won't you, little ones?"
Edward snuffles in his sleep by way of an answer. Arthur folds himself up in the armchair next to the cot and watches the babies through the bars.
In the back of his mind his thoughts slip. Four years ago today he'd met Merlin. God, he'd been a different person then. He'd been reckless. What had he been thinking, taking up with someone like him? He's the first in line for the throne and he'd got no place behaving as he had and thinking it was going to end any other way.
Yet, even accepting that, the ache never goes away. He wonders where Merlin is tonight. What is he doing? Who is he with? Is he happy? Arthur hopes he's happy, he deserves that; Merlin's had an appalling life, passed from one home to the next until he'd broken free. He never turned to crime, just worked hard and paid his way as best he could.
Arthur's been on official visits to homeless shelters and met kids Merlin's age who made the wrong choices, ones that would have been open to Merlin if he'd been a different person. Arthur's so proud of Merlin, but he can't tell him that ever again, not now.
Nate stirs and Arthur's there, lifting his son into his arms, stroking his hair, kissing his talc-scented forehead. At least he has his children now, a focus in life, something to live for. For all he didn't want to marry Morgause, Edward and Nate make it all worthwhile.
"Well, Nate's the one who's going to be king one day, he's the one burdened-" Arthur stops and shakes his head. He's saying too much. He feels guilty that his first born child will have the expectations laid upon him that he'd suffered.
When the conversation at dinner takes this turn, Arthur's out of his comfort zone.
"I can't say I envy him," Morgana says and all eyes turn to her curiously. "If the law weren't so out-dated, I would be Queen now and Arthur the spare. I'm ashamed to say that I'm pleased it's not me." She reaches out and lays a hand over Arthur's, giving it a squeeze. "God knows Arthur's got his work cut out with the boys being twins – being first in line due to a two minute age difference. Who knows what resentments may manifest in the future?"
Something Arthur has been trying not to worry about unless it happens.
"What would happen if you hadn't had children?" Merlin asks.
"If I hadn't had any children then Morgana would be next in line and thus any children she has-"
"No, that's not what I meant; I mean if your wife had died before you'd had children, would you have married again?"
Everyone is staring at him now, awaiting his answer, but Arthur only sees Merlin. He takes a gulp of wine and says, "Yes. I briefly convinced myself I had more feelings for my wife than I did at the time, but essentially, I married for duty. My father was unwell and I felt pressured." Their eyes are locked together and as far as Arthur is concerned, there is only him and Merlin in the room. "So if we hadn't had the twins I would have married again, another suitable Royal wife."
Silence falls around them as they duel with their eyes.
"How easily you replace people, Your Majesty," Merlin says eventually, and the air turns thick with tension.
Percy breaks the spell when he comes out of the kitchen holding aloft a huge trifle in a huge glass dish. "Who wants pudding?"
Merlin breaks eye contact and joins in with the chorus of, 'Me please'.
Arthur doesn't speak, he's lost his appetite.
On Saturday morning they go to Rhossili beach. It's cold and windy and as a result, the beach is almost empty. Percy's brought his kite with him and is teaching Edward and Henry how to fly it, keeping a deft hold of the string above where their tiny hands are holding the handle.
Morgana and Leon walk ahead, their heads close together as they talk and Arthur hopes that finally they might be putting aside who they are and admitting they have feelings for one another. He's jealous that they can do that.
Lance and Gwen are holding hands, sappy smiles on their face as they watch over Nate and push their youngest in her pushchair. Last night they announced that they were having another. They're sickeningly in love. Arthur's jealous of that too.
Elyan and Sophie had told them the night before that they intended to have a lie in today, the implication behind that perfectly clear. Arthur's jealous of that as well.
He's envious of everyone at the moment.
He'd lain awake for most of last night, the twins asleep in the adjoining room, trying not to think about Merlin and Freya in their room down the hall. The mission was not successful. Merlin was all he could think of; thoughts of him making love with Freya making Arthur want to vomit. He'd wanted to storm down there and rip them apart, but he's got no claim on Merlin. He's feels so possessive he can't breathe.
When Freya slips on the rocks and knocks herself out, Arthur feels guilty, as though it's happened because of the malevolent thought's Arthur's been having towards her. Merlin's at her side in an instant, brushing her hair back from her face as she comes round, his relief evident in his smile.
"How do you feel?" he asks in concern.
"What matter with the lady?" Nate asks, coming up beside Arthur as he watches the events unfold, standing back.
"She slipped over, Nate," Arthur replied and picks the little boy. "I think she's hurt her leg." Merlin's tenderly touching Freya's ankle and asking her where else hurts.
"Ow!" she yelps as Merlin pressed on her foreleg. "Bollocks!"
"We'd better get her to A&E," Merlin announces, looking forlornly at the long winding steps leading back up to the car park and groaning.
"I've got it," Percy says and crouches beside Freya, gently lifting her and striding off purposefully in the direction of the steps.
Everyone else follows, Arthur and Nate trailing at the back.
"Daddy," Nate says. "What's bollocks?"
Everyone goes back to the guest house with the exception of Merlin and Percy who drive Freya to the A&E in Llanelli. It starts to rain so Sophie organises a game of Twister to keep the older children entertained as the rain hammers down loudly outside.
His bodyguards station themselves in the kitchen with a pot of tea and pack of cards and Arthur's glad of the rain then, it's nice to see them relaxing a little.
He tries to throw himself into the game, tickling the kids' feet and making them fall down and letting them all dive bomb him, giggling wildly.
Percy and Freya return four hours later without Merlin. Freya's leg is in a cast and she's got crutches.
"Merlin had a phone call and had to go, so I waited with Freya," Percy tells them as he settles Freya on the sofa and puts a stool under her leg. "The doctor told Freya not put any weight on the leg for a week and to rest for two. I've said she can stay here while she recovers as she lives in a third floor flat in London with no lift."
"My hero," Freya croaks jokingly and everyone laughs. Percy blushes a fierce red and goes to put the kettle on.
Merlin doesn't return to Wales, and when they go back to Avalon House, there's no sign of him for several weeks. Christmas comes and goes in a blink of an eye, Arthur's pre-recorded Christmas Day speech full of optimism he doesn't even feel. When he eventually cracks after Christmas and asks Gaius where Merlin is, he says that he's staying in London for a while looking after a sick friend – bloody Gwaine - and he won't be back for some time, if at all during this job.
Arthur can't help it, he calls Percy who tells him that Freya went back to London after a fortnight and was staying at Gwaine's where Merlin was looking after her as well.
Arthur feels his absence like a hammer to the heart. He hadn't realised how much he'd gotten used to his presence again, even though it was a case of so near yet so far. Now Merlin's gone, he misses him; the old pain returning with a vengeance.
When his long planned tour of Australia comes around, Arthur has the staff from Buckingham Palace pack his formal clothes and orders in a selection of appropriate clothes for the twins to wear. It's their first visit to Australia, and though he knows they won't remember much of it, he's looking forward to them enjoying some fun on a beach where it's warm enough for them to go in the sea.
The trip is orchestrated like a military operation, and Arthur's months of relative relaxation at Avalon are over. In an instant, he's King Arthur: all polite smiles and diplomatic patter. He's shaking hands with the Australian public, being trailed around by the press and he's glad of it, because if nothing else, these duties are cathartic.
When he calls home to see how developments at the house are coming along three weeks into his visit, he can't help it when he asks, "Has Merlin come back yet?"
The line is crackly, the perils of increased security in the wake of the phone tapping scandals of recent years, and all he hears in reply is, "…excited about the wedding. I think they're rushing into it but…crackle…Merlin's assured me that…crackle…"
"I have to go," Arthur whispers to the crackle and hangs up. He stares at the phone mutely for a minute and then lobs it at the wall, not caring that it's smashed the ugly vase on the mantle, or that stories of his destruction might reach the tabloids. He picks up a paperweight off the bedside table and hurls it at the television, watching with satisfaction as it cracks the glass. Who cares? He can afford a billion more televisions! It's not even using tax payers' money either; Arthur's money isn't from the state, even if it is mostly inherited.
He sinks to the floor, his back to the bed and sobs into his knees. Merlin's getting married. Even though he supposes this would have happened even if he hadn't come back into Arthur's life, Arthur wouldn't know about it and it wouldn't hurt this much. He wants Merlin to be happy; it's what he's always wanted.
It's just- he wants Merlin to be happy with him.
When he gets back to England the main house is ready. It's cleaned up, the furniture is in the right rooms, the décor is of the correct period, the library has been organised and it's warm and welcoming.
It still doesn't feel like home and Arthur's afraid it never will. Still, the house is as it was when his mother was growing up here, and Arthur's happy with that for now. If he's unable to feel at home here, Arthur doesn't know where else will be more successful.
Gaius is now going to work on the family quarters and return those rooms to something sympathetic with the period of the main house, but with more contemporary furniture. Arthur and the twins will stay in the cottage in the meantime.
A couple of days after his return, he leaves the children with the nanny and goes to London by himself and calls a meeting with his advisers. "Spin this how you like," he tells them. "You all know about my relationship with Merlin Jones?"
There was a series of nods and murmurs.
"Well, I-" Wait – they knew about him and Merlin, yet they still cleared Merlin to work in close proximity of him at Avalon. Why would they do that when they knew what kind of a scandal it would cause if the press ever got wind of Merlin? "Why did you clear him?"
Geoffrey, Arthur's most senior adviser and Uther's old right hand man, coughs and mumbles something that sounds like, 'unnatural,' causing Olaf to say, "Be quiet, Geoff – you're offending everyone else with your bigotry!"
Arthur glances around the assembled group at all six of them. Geoffrey looks affronted and Olaf's glaring at him but Matthew and Isaac are nodding in agreement whilst the remaining two looked utterly baffled.
"Arthur," Olaf says. "Uther and I- when we were younger we-" He pauses, his cheeks flushed pink.
Realisation dawns. "Oh – you're the one?"
"Your father told you?"
"He said there was someone."
Olaf shrugs. "Yes, well, it burnt out quite quickly. We both knew that Uther would have to marry, I had no expectations otherwise."
"What are you trying to tell me?"
"You were in love with Merlin Jones."
Arthur nods. "Very much so."
Olaf smiles warmly. "After you broke it off with him you nearly killed yourself with grief; we could all see it, even Uther said he regretted it had to be that way-"
"He said that?" Arthur has always thought his father was black and white when it came to duty, and he supposes that he had been, but to say something like that…
"Uther knew what it was to lose someone he loved – when your mother died – well, he never came back from that. He never cared for Jane, that first marriage was all about duty, but when he met your mother, the daughter of his oldest rival – well, let's just say nothing could have kept them apart. Her death nearly finished him."
"But you and he-?"
Olaf holds his gaze. "Uther and I resumed a…friendship…in recent years, but we were never in love."
"When his name came in on the list as approved, we could have stopped it going through. We decided that wouldn't be in your best interests-"
"You decided!" Geoffrey spits, slamming his palms flat onto the table in his anger.
"Shut up!" Arthur and the other five men all shout simultaneously.
Geoffrey stands and stalks from the room. "Don't worry about him, Arthur. I think he's more annoyed that he didn't know about Uther and I."
"So, you were saying?"
"We decided to pass Merlin. We hoped that you might find some happiness again. You're so unhappy, Arthur. We've known you since you were in nappies and we care about you – not just as our king."
"I know you do," Arthur says, glancing around at the assembled men fondly. "Well, I appreciate that you care about my love life, but Merlin's getting married to his girlfriend soon, so-"
"Girlfriend? There was nothing about a girlfriend when the checks were done."
"Well there's a girlfriend now, so-" Arthur takes a deep breath. "That's not what I came to discuss. I want to end this and make a statement and confess that I'm bisexual. I don't want to hide anymore. I won't have my boys growing up thinking that they can't be themselves or be with who they want to be with because they're tied to duty. It's too late for me and Merlin, but- I need to do this and nothing you can say will dissuade me."
He's thought about doing this ever since he heard about Merlin's wedding. Too little too late, but he has do this; he owes it to himself and his children.
He pauses for breath and they're all staring at him with admiration, and Arthur's not expecting it. He's expecting a fight, and when he doesn't get it, he deflates.
Olaf grips his shoulder and says, "How do you want to handle this then?"
Arthur asks Morgana to throw a party to celebrate Avalon House being restored to its former glory, a task which she grabs with both hands and runs with.
Percy takes Arthur to one side after before the speeches and says, "I've got something important to ask you."
Arthur's scanning the room for Merlin. He knows Morgana's invited him and Freya as he's seen the guest list. He reins himself in and looks up at Percy. "Shoot."
"I'd be really honoured, Arthur, if you'd be my best man."
Arthur glances down into his glass – yes, it's just the same Champagne he's been nursing all evening, he's not drunk and he's not hearing things – is he? "Best man? Have you and Nim-"
"No! God, Arthur, where's your head these days?" Percy's tone is affectionate. "I thought I'd told you – Freya?"
Arthur forces himself not to scowl at the F-name. "What about her?"
"I'm marrying her, you dolt."
Arthur's jaw drops. "But – Freya, she…Merlin?" he stammers.
Percy colours a bit. "Well, that has been a bit awkward, but he's okay with it, I think. They were only ever casual anyway and they did have separate rooms in that weekend you all stayed."
Arthur's head is reeling, but he's the King and he's got manners in there somewhere, even if he does have to draw deep. "Well, congratulations, my friend. Am I to assume that you fell in love over the plaster cast?"
"I suppose you could say that. I mean, nothing happened when she was there, but when she went back to London I missed her far more than I'd ever missed Nimueh! So – I went after her."
All Arthur can think is two revolving thoughts; 'Poor Merlin' and 'Merlin's not getting married'. Percy has stolen Merlin's girlfriend –and Arthur's angry on his behalf, but then – Percy's marrying the damned girl and Merlin's not, and that's…wonderful.
"It'd be an honour to be your best man," Arthur says and hugs his old friend, scanning the crowd over his shoulder looking for Merlin and coming up blank.
What's he expecting anyway? He's about to come out to the whole world – he's filmed an exclusive interview with David Dimbleby that airs tonight. In fact he's got to make the announcement to everyone here first, he's not going to let them hear that news second hand.
He's not even nervous; he just wants it over with. All of his close friends know he's bisexual anyway; he knows they'll stand by him during the fallout.
He leaves Percy to find Freya and gravitates towards the fireplace where there's a microphone set up for his speech. Five more minutes. He turns to put his glass down and bumps into someone approaching from his left.
"Sorry, I– Merlin!"
"Er-" Smooth, Arthur, smooth. "How are you?"
Merlin swallows and licks his lips. "Fine. Thank you. You?"
Arthur feels the air thin around them. "Very well, thank you, Merlin."
They stare at one another wordlessly for a long minute before Merlin says, "Arthur, about the other week, when we-"
"Arthur – you're up now," Morgana appears at his side with a pointed glance at the fireplace and the waiting microphone. "Hello, Merlin."
"Morgana." Merlin's expression closes off. Morgana doesn't notice, she's on a mission. She curls a determined hand around his elbow and steers Arthur away.
Arthur turns back to Merlin and mouths, "Sorry."
Merlin's retained the blank expression and at Arthur's apology, he turns away and heads for the door. Arthur wants to yell, 'no – stay!' but he is too much his father's son to cause a scene like that. So he lets himself be led to the microphone and takes a deep breath.
From today forwards, he's living a life true to himself.
Bonfire Night, Two Years ago
Arthur's been king for a week. Uther succumbed to the cancer and Arthur spent the last few weeks at his father's side, stoic as they always were. The day he died, Uther told him he was proud of him and that he wanted him to be the kind of king he never was. When Arthur asked what he meant by that, Uther just smiled and the morphine started talking about how Morgana had used to push Arthur round in his pram and play dress up with him.
Morgana had taken up residence on the other side of Uther's bed. "Arthur's still as much of a girl now as he was when I made him wear pink dresses!"
Uther had laughed and Arthur and Morgana had taken a hand each and held on tight until Uther passed.
Earlier this year, Morgause had been killed in the accident, and Arthur's only regret is that he doesn't feel anything other than sorrow on behalf of the children who will now grow up motherless.
This year is the first year Arthur's not spent wallowing about how much he misses Merlin on their anniversary.
Morgana's set up a television in one of the small drawing rooms off the entrance hall for people to watch his interview with David Dimbleby if they want to. Arthur sidles in the back, unable to see the screen but hearing his own voice saying, "Yes, there was someone, and I gave him up because it seemed that all he could ever be was a secret, no matter how much I loved him, and he deserved better than that."
Arthur didn't have to see the screen to know that David had widened his eyes at that revelation.
"You've made the enormous step of coming out now. Do you not wish you had done it then?"
"At the time I thought of little else, David. But my father became unwell and I had to make a choice. I know I hurt this man very much and I have to live with that guilt every day."
"Was your marriage to Morgause a genuine love match?"
"It was a whirlwind rebound romance, and before the dust could settle the twins were on their way. We soon realised we weren’t compatible." He refrained from mentioning the huge scandal that had preluded Morgause's death. The worst is over. "She's the mother of my children and I'll always love her for that."
"And now? Is there anyone in your life now?"
"No, there is not. I met the love of my life and lost him. I think I'm done." He hears himself cough before he adds. "Of course, David, I never say never; but at the moment my priority is my children."
David goes on to ask him why he's coming out now when there's no one in his life and he tells him it's because he wants to be honest with the people, and he wants his children to grow up without prejudice.
The credits roll, and his party guests pass him by, clapping him on the back and making positive comments, but Arthur's only got eyes for the still figure in the corner. They're both frozen, staring at each other through the small dispersing crowd. Merlin's pale, his lips a stark red in contrast, and he's chewing his lower lip nervously.
Finally, the room is clear and Arthur's at the door, clicking it shut and leaning back against it.
Arthur speaks first. "What were you going to say earlier, about when we-?"
Merlin scratches the back of his neck and walks forwards so that he's in the middle of the room and Arthur see that his hands are shaking. He wants to close the distance and pull him into his arms but he doesn't – this could be the moment that changes everything.
He hopes so, more than anything.
"Is that true, what you said in the interview?"
"Yes, apart from the part about Morgause, I pretty much hated her the whole time."
"You believe I was the love of your life?"
"I know it." Arthur pushes back from the door and places himself in front of Merlin.
"Don't mess me around, Arthur, I can't take it. Not from you."
"What do you want me to say? That I still love you and that it killed me to let you go? Then you've got me – I'm still in love with you."
Merlin takes a step closer. "You broke my heart. I always knew that we couldn't last because of who you are, and when we moved in together I told myself that it was just another temporary home, after all, what was one more after all the 'homes' I had? I tried so hard not to fall for you." He reaches up and brushes a strand of hair off Arthur's face and huffs out a short laugh. "I was just kidding myself; I was lost when you walked in the café door that first night, before I even realised who you were."
"Are you still lost?" Arthur wraps an arm around Merlin's waist and crowds into him.
"Apparently. I thought I hated you, no, I did hate you and I hated that I still wanted you. That one time was supposed to be a test, I was convinced that I was just romanticising you. That failed miserably."
"I'm sorry Freya's marrying Percy," Arthur says without thinking.
"I'm not." Merlin's scanning Arthur's eyes now, perhaps looking for answers, Arthur doesn't know. "She's a nice girl but- it was nothing serious. If it was, I wouldn't have done what I did with you."
Something unclenches in Arthur's chest and he feels like he's breathing properly for the first time in years.
When Merlin's lips find his, Arthur sinks into him, letting Merlin take the lead as he opens for him. Merlin's hands weave into his hair and his nails scrape against his scalp; Arthur gasps between kisses, "Merlin, God I've missed you."
Merlin responds by wrapping an arm under Arthur's buttocks and with a squeeze pulls him in-
"Arthur, your- Oh!" Morgana opens the door, takes one look at them and closes it quickly behind her. "Wow."
Arthur jerks back from Merlin. "I- We- Um-"
"Eloquent as ever, brother dearest," she drawls with a smirk. She turns to Merlin and winks. "Hello, Merlin."
"So are you two giving it another go?"
Merlin flushes and glances at Arthur questioningly. Yes, Arthur wants to say, yes, yes, yes.
"Anyway – as lovely as this is – George called and asked me to fetch you. Edward's worked himself into a state about something."
Arthur's half way out of the door before he turns to Merlin and says, "Come with me."
Bonfire Night, One Year Ago
It's a night for celebrating, there's a party in his honour still on-going, but Arthur's really not in the mood and has taken his leave as soon as is polite.
The boys are back in England with their grandmother and Arthur's alone in a ridiculously expensive hotel suite in Washington DC. It's another state visit, another thousand hands to shake and pleasantries to exchange with strangers whose faces he won't remember.
It's good to be here though. In America November the fifth is just another day. There are no firework displays and no bonfires burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. No reminders of what he left behind.
He closes the curtains, loosens his tie and flips on the television, wanting to lose himself in some mindless American CSI style drama for a while.
He tries, but the ache is always more acute on this day.
The old English rhyme ricochets around his head: 'Remember remember the fifth of November.'
He falls asleep on the sofa, the television blaring in the background, thinking that this is a date he's never going to forget if he lives to be one-hundred.
Edward's a screaming red squirming ball of angst when Arthur reaches the twins' bedroom at the cottage. When he sees Arthur and Merlin in the doorway he stops crying and snuffles noisily, flicking his curious gaze between the two of them. George hands him to Arthur when he approaches and Edward snuggles into him, instantly content. He glances at the other bed and surprisingly Nate is fast asleep.
"George, could you let them know at the main house that I won't be returning and that I'm with the children? Then take the rest of the night off."
"Yes, Sir," George says, nodding at Arthur and smiling at Merlin before backing out of the room.
"I bet she's already heard about the interview," Arthur says with a sigh.
"Arthur, I expect they've heard about it on the International Space Station!"
"Want M'lin," Edward says into Arthur's neck, wriggling in his arms. Arthur's inclined to agree with his son.
"Here, he's asking for you," Arthur says and Merlin automatically reaches out for Edward.
Arthur sits down in one of the armchairs by the fireplace and looks up at Merlin. "Do you think you can handle this?" He makes a sweeping gesture encompassing the room.
"What? The twins? I'd like the chance, you know I adore them, how could I not when they're so like you?"
"Not just them, though they are a huge part of it obviously – I mean this – being under the telescope, being chased by the press, being an inevitable hate figure for corrupting me, having your past delved into-"
"I've got nothing to hide. So, I had a shit childhood; that's hardly unique and I've never done anything I'm ashamed of. Let them dig."
"So to quote Morgana, are we giving this another go?"
Merlin perches on the arm of Arthur's chair, Edward starting to doze in his arms. "We're giving this another go."
The warm bubbling feeling that's been fuzzing in Arthur's lower belly explodes and he pulls Merlin down onto his lap. This is the feeling, the one that has been eluding him for so long. Home.
Bonfire Night, Later That Year
"So much for staying up until midnight!" Merlin whispers as they gently close the bedroom door behind the sleeping twins who just an hour before had been certain they could stay awake that late. He checks his watch and laughs. "It's not even ten yet!"
"Terrible shame," Arthur deadpans and swoops. Merlin's over his shoulder, laughing, pretending to fight. Arthur shoulders into their bedroom and drops Merlin onto the bed, following him down and straddling him.
Merlin stops laughing and says, "Happy Anniversary, Arthur."
Arthur stares down at him and asks, "Any regrets?"
It's not been easy. The public's reaction to Arthur's announcement had been divided, and then they threw Merlin into the mix a few months later, making no secret that he was Arthur's lost love. Merlin had been unsure but Arthur wanted the world to know Merlin was his and here to stay.
Merlin shakes his head. "None. Apart from accepting your proposal; I'm not sure I want to change my name to Pendragon and be referred to as a 'consort'…"
"Shut up, idiot." Arthur presses a kiss to Merlin's lips and reaches for his waistband.
"Hurry up, prat, before the kids wake-up and cockblock us again." He waves a hand and the door lock slides into place.
"Fuck," Arthur says, feeling the magic tingle over his skin. "I can't believe you never trusted me enough to tell me about this before."
"I can't believe you were so thick you never wondered why things tended to explode around me," Merlin teases. "Now, get on with it!"
King Arthur does as he's told.