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The Lonely King

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The call came into Buckingham Palace at 0217 GMT. At 0219, a frantic scatter of lights went on across the palace, and by 0230, half of London was lit like daylight--10 Downing Street, the BBC, every newspaper of any or no legitimacy, and everyone who had heard from someone and then called someone else.

After blinking away sleep and the initial shock, everyone asked the same question: does Arthur know yet? To whom will fall the task of telling the Prince--no, the King--that his father is dead?

The matter would have been easier, and handled already, if the Prince of Wales had been living at Kensington Palace or Clarence House or any of the numerous royal residences where he belonged. What on earth had possessed him to move to Cardiff, and what had possessed King Uther--God rest his soul--to let him?

At 0300 precisely, a protection officer answered his ringing mobile.

Some weeks earlier

Merlin had just resigned himself to shutting his laptop and bidding a reluctant farewell to the internet for the night when his mailbox pinged with a new Google alert. He only caught the words "Avalon Project" before two more copies of the alert piled into his inbox as forwards from Will and Freya.

Freya's landed on top, and he could read her note in the preview pane: OMG, getting back together with you RIGHT now so I can move back there and visit you at work EVERY DAY.

Bemused, he poked the down arrow to get to Will's message: I EXPECT YOU TO RESIGN IN PROTEST IMMEDIATELY.

It was hardly the first time his ex-girlfriend and best friend had disagreed about something. He was tempted to just ignore them both and go to bed like a sane person, but whatever this was, it seemed to have something to do with Merlin's workplace. And tomorrow, tragically, was Monday.

He clicked on the original alert email and opened it:

Avalon Project Set to Transform Welsh Village School

The Prince of Wales begins work Monday at Taliesen Architectural Partnership, a Cardiff-based firm where Prince Arthur has signed on for two years to finish his professional qualifications in architecture. Arthur will be heading his own project, a full-scale renovation of a Welsh school. On Sunday, the Prince and Council unveiled the long-secret choice of school to be the Avalon Primary School in Ealdor, Wales.

"Our goal is to create a model for complete environmental sustainability and energy self-sufficiency," Arthur said in an address to the Cardiff Council. "When the Avalon School is finished, we should see the costs of the renovation more than recouped by the long-term savings to the people of Cardiff."

The renovation will take approximately one year and will be funded by a partnership between the Cardiff Council and The Prince of Wales' Trust for Tomorrow grant scheme.

Merlin stared at the words until he had to blink, but they made no more sense than before. The Prince of Wales wanted to renovate Merlin's school into some eco palace showroom? But...why? Ealdor was just a small village of no particular note on the outskirts of Cardiff, and the Avalon school barely registered with the county council, let alone the media.

Don't buy your plane tickets yet, he typed back to Freya. I'm sure it's just a typo.

Bugger that, he wrote to Will. I need my job. You gonna support my porn habit in my old age?

After he hit send, there was a significant pause before the reply popped up. We'll talk.

Yeah, he was sure it wouldn't take long before Will had plans involving the prince, their website, and probably significant embarrassment for Merlin.

Assuming any of this was even real.

Just before he logged off, one more email popped into his box. It was from Dr. Gaius, the Avalon head teacher, and the body was empty. The subject line said simply: Staff Meeting Tomorrow.

Merlin snorted. Yes, he would imagine.

The Prince of Wales at his school. He was sure it was all just a very bad joke.

Arthur woke Monday morning to the smell of toast and the suspicious lack of a housemate. Gwaine's absence was suspicious because today was Arthur's first official day as an associate at the Taliesen Architectural Partnership, where Gwaine had been a partner for two years, and Gwaine was his ride to work.

He grumbled about unreliable twats as he dressed himself. One piece of hair had gone askew as he slept and refused to be flattened. Arthur blew out a whistle of frustration. There were sure to be photographers.

Gwaine had left a cheerful—and completely illegible—note next to the electric kettle. The top two words were shaped vaguely like "Your Royal Arseness," but Arthur could not even begin to guess at the rest. He crumpled and binned the note without trying.

Fucking Gwaine. He hadn't even left any toast.

The Jaguar was in the shop until the weekend. Resigned to driving himself in his beloved Saab Phoenix --even more beloved to the paparazzi for its recognizability—Arthur left the haven of their cozy little house. On the front steps, he faced the blank-faced smirks of his protection officers. "Yes, yes," he grunted. "Come on, I'm not even late yet, no thanks to my lunkhead of a housemate."

"Good morning, Your Highness," Elyan said and handed Arthur his car keys. He and Percival had been with Arthur since his uni days, and technically they had no facial expressions to speak of. But he knew they were mocking him inside. He knew.

As expected, photographers clustered outside the city centre building where the firm had three floors of suites. Arthur gave them a wide berth as he pulled into the private car park attached to the building. If he did not roll down the window, surely they would not see his hair, and then he would not get a pointed email from George, his private secretary, advising him about the organic styling products he had taken the liberty of having sent to Arthur's house. Really, if Arthur had any interest in hair care, he already did live with Gwaine.

He pulled up to the car park attendant and took a quick glance in the mirrors before rolling down his window, just to make sure no reporters had slipped in behind him.

"Permit in the window, please." The attendant barely spared enough of a glance to remind Arthur to pull out his shiny new parking permit.

"Right, sorry." He felt in his suit pocket and tamped down a frisson of panic when the permit failed to appear. "Hang on, I know I grabbed it before I left. Sorry, it's my first day and my damn housemate was supposed to give me a lift this morning."

At the sound of his voice, the attendant's head jerked around to stare at Arthur with wide, horrified eyes. "Your Highness! I'm so sorry, I didn't see it was you. Please, go right ahead."

"No, I have it." Arthur gave up on his pockets and dug into his work satchel. "I just got it last week." He had even filled out the cheque and posted it himself, to George's distress but his own pride.

"Please, Your Highness, I wouldn't dream of delaying you—"

"Ha! Here it is!" Arthur brandished the permit to both their reliefs. He would like to at least get through the door of his new job without needing any kind of special accommodations.

He did make it through the door, and Gwaine redeemed himself a very small amount when he was waiting outside the lift when it opened. "Good morning," Gwaine chirped and shoved a paper cup of steaming tea into his hand. "Drink up, you're going to need it."

"Where the hell have you been?" Arthur hissed, though he took the tea.

"Doing you a favour." Gwaine gave him a thump on the back just as he was taking a sip. "I had a nightmare that they tried to give you a ceremonial procession into the building with trumpets and shit. So I figured I better get to the office early, just in case."

"And were there trumpets?"

"Champagne and an omelet bar. Yes, I will accept your apologies and accolades. I think there are still scones, though. You'll probably have to eat one to be polite."

He did not have time to eat any scones, though he would rather have liked one. But the only other thing Gwaine had been unable to get rid of were the partners, senior associates, junior associates, and other staff members Arthur never did identify, all of whom wanted to personally welcome him to the Taliesin Partnership. He had expected that, though he had not realized that even the senior partners from the London office were coming for the occasion.

"Very pleased to have you aboard, Arthur," Olaf boomed with the familiarity allowed him by his long friendship with Arthur's father.

"Indeed." Alined shook his hand vigourously. "Your project is revolutionizing the way we think about restoration and the future of British architecture."

Arthur smiled easily. "I appreciate the sentiment, but why don't we see how the first day goes before we start the revolution?"

"Ambitious, but prudent." Olaf looked ready to launch into one of his monologues about his own triumphs when Gwaine appeared at Arthur's shoulder.

"Speaking of getting started, let me introduce you to your new colleague." Ignoring Olaf's annoyed frown, Gwaine pulled Arthur away. "Arthur, this is Lancelot du Lac. He'll be your right hand on the Avalon project. Lance, may I present His Royal Highness Arthur, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, blah blah blah."

It was a testament to Arthur's distraction that he, self-trained to pay equal attention to everyone in his immediate orbit, had not noticed this man standing just behind Gwaine's shoulder.

"Mr. Du Lac, it's a pleasure," he said and meant it because Lancelot du Lac was bloody gorgeous. "Forgive me, but I don't recall meeting you on my previous visits to the firm."

Du Lac smiled and yes, Arthur would be hard pressed to forget a smile like that, all Gallic heat and melting dark eyes. Not to mention the man filled out his suit quite nicely indeed. "No, Your Highness. I only started a fortnight past, and I've spent most of my time getting up to date with the project."

"We hired him specially for you, Arthur," Gwaine jumped in. "Remember, we promised you a qualified lieutenant."

Ah, yes. Now Arthur remembered reading the man's CV. Gwaine had outdone himself, on a number of levels.

"It sounds like we'll be seeing quite a lot of each other." He offered his hand and Lancelot shook it warmly. "You must call me Arthur."

"I will try, Your Highness," Lancelot replied with a mischievous quirk to his mouth. "But I still slip up with Gwaine, so it might take some time."

The Duke of Clarence slung an arm around Lancelot's shoulders. "You should have heard what we called him back in school. Remember the term you discovered the joys of bean burritos, Arthur?"

Thus having eradicated all the goodwill he had earned by hiring Lancelot in the first place, Gwaine let go of Lancelot to steer Arthur out of the conference room. As they walked down the corridor, Arthur noted plates of hastily piled scones stuck on every flat surface. A faint aroma of omelet wafted past his nose.

"Here's your office. Settle in." Gwaine gave him a little shove into an office at the end of the hall. "Lance and I will go get the files and blueprints."

Arthur nodded and closed the door until it was just ajar before turning to survey his new domain. The office was a fair size and sunny, with a computer desk and a drafting table by the large window. He walked over to the desk and unpacked his laptop into its place.

He sat down with a sigh, finally giving in to the fluttering of excitement in his stomach. At last, he had done it. His dream job, won on his own ideas and abilities. A real job, with a pay statement and tax deductions, like no one on his father's side of the family had ever had. If he could manage not to muck it up for two years, he could sit for his final qualifications and then this could all be permanent.

Someone had left a sheet of instructions for logging onto the network. He started up his laptop and managed to log into his work email—work email! There were a number of messages already in his inbox, mostly welcome messages from the people who had just welcomed him in the conference room, along with a string of messages from Lancelot du Lac about the Avalon Project.

He wanted to dive right into them, but one message caught his eye from the middle of the list, the only one from outside the firm. The subject line read simply: Your First Day.

The flutters flared in his belly when he clicked on it. Arthur, it read. I am exceedingly proud of you. I look forward to your continued accomplishments on behalf of Great Britain. UR.

He blinked rapidly to clear his eyes, then slammed the lid shut as Gwaine and Lancelot shouldered open the door, arms filled with blueprints. "Watching porn at work already, Arthur?" Gwaine guffawed, but Lancelot, at least, was polite enough not to chuckle until Arthur did.

"Stuff it, Duke of Ballsack," Arthur replied on the theory that Lancelot might as well get used to their working style now. "All right, Avalon Primary School. Who has the plumbing schematics?"

Merlin was at least five times as confused when the staff meeting ended as before it had begun.

Next to him, Elena, his teaching assistant, sighed a squeaky little sigh. "Can you believe it? Prince Arthur at our school! Such a shame that we'll all be somewhere else while they're working here, but we'll catch a glimpse or two, don't you think?"

"I sure hope so," he lied and patted her hand. "In fact, I think I'll go ask Dr. Gaius about that right now."

"Oh, good. He's always liked you the best."

"For another five minutes he likes me," Merlin muttered as he got up to chase after his head teacher. "Gaius! Gaius, could I have a word with you?"

Gaius did not turn around, but slowed his already-slow gait until Merlin caught up. "You may have two words, my boy, as long as neither of them are ‘royal' or ‘wedding.' I shall be hearing quite enough of that in the weeks to come."

"I honestly can't imagine anything more horrifying," Merlin told him.

He really was being honest, but Gaius shot him an arched eyebrow anyway. Gaius was one of only three people who knew that Merlin was bisexual, though like Will and his mum, his boss seemed to view it as a purely theoretical orientation that Merlin had mostly gotten over when he had started dating Freya.

Apparently it was impossible to believe that anyone with even a passing interest in cock could resist the glorious Prince Arthur Pendragon. Merlin struggled to keep from rolling his eyes as he followed Gaius into his office.

"I'm just wondering if you've thought this through." As Gaius settled behind his desk, Merlin perched in the guest chair and tried to look wise and persuasive. "Because this doesn't seem like a very good idea to me."

"I have thought about this as little as I possibly could, which unfortunately, was still considerably more than I would have liked. However, the decision was a long time in the making and ultimately was not mine to make. The county council has chosen Avalon Primary as the recipient of the Taliesin grant, and it was both my obligation and privilege to accept."

"So you're in favour of this? Throwing us all out on the street for a year while Prince Arthur rips apart our school for his vanity project? Throwing the children out on the street--the children, Gaius."

Gaius pushed his spectacles up his nose and began gathering the papers scattered across his desk. "The children will continue learning elsewhere. In fact, this should be quite a learning experience for all of us. Particularly you, Merlin."

Merlin stared at the papers Gaius was extending toward him. "Oh, no. No, I want nothing to do with this. I'm going to be much too busy making sure my students aren't freezing to death in those bloody caravans we'll be calling classrooms."

"As of this morning, they are no longer your students. They are Elena's students."

From the cold shock that went through Merlin's chest, Gaius might as well have stabbed him with an icicle. "What? You're sacking me? Gaius, no, this is my life. Please, forget I said anything. Let the prince have his bloody playtime, I won't say another word!"

"I'm not sacking you, Merlin. In fact, I am putting you in charge of this project from here on out. Your job will be to work with Prince Arthur and his people as the Avalon representative. Think of yourself as the prince's partner in whatever capacity he needs you."

"Gaius. I am very possibly the least appropriate person for this job." Merlin waved away the stack of papers again as though he could make them vanish from existence if he refused to acknowledge them.

"On the contrary. Who is it who shapes our sustainable development lessons?"

"That's hardly—"

"And who runs all of our design and technology special projects?"

And who had run a highly opinionated anti-monarchy blog with his best friend since they were schoolboys themselves? "Gaius, that's not—"

"And no, Prince Arthur does not have the constitutional power to execute you for mouthing off to him." Finally, Gaius's mouth started to twitch. "I already made several calls to check. Although I advise you to show him more respect than you do me."

Merlin slumped in his seat, defeated. "This is all happening so fast."

Gaius's look softened. "I know, and I'm sorry. I was meant to serve as the liaison myself. It seemed a good way to transition into my retirement and leave an extraordinary legacy."

"Retirement?" Merlin's head snapped back up. "Gaius, no."

"Don't fuss, my boy. We all have to go sooner or later. Dr. Muirden was meant to replace me as head teacher during the transition, and then permanently thereafter. However, it seems my services will still be needed after all, especially while the school is in such a tumultuous state."

Merlin winced. Edwin Muirden had seemed like a nice enough assistant head teacher for the half-term he'd lasted before being sacked for a truly shocking criminal background that had somehow evaded detection before last month.

"Elena is qualified to teach on her own now," he conceded.

"Indeed. In fact, it's past time for her to stand on her own. I have the utmost confidence in both of you."

Dragging his head into a reluctant nod, Merlin finally took the papers. "What do I do?"

"The Taliesin architects and engineers arrive next Monday to begin surveying and conducting their preliminary work. You have the rest of this week to get up to speed with the project and transition your lesson plans to Elena. After that, your main job will probably be to keep people out of the way until we move the classrooms at the end of term."

"I really don't want to do this."

"So noted." Gaius shooed him away and turned to his email.

Dismissed, Merlin rose and left the office, pulling out his mobile as he went. As he slowly walked back to the classroom that was no longer his, he called up a blank text message on his phone.

My life is over, he typed and then sent it to everyone he knew.

"You're sure they're ready for us?" Arthur asked again as the cars whisked the Taliesin team out of downtown Cardiff on their way to the sleepy town of Ealdor, which had become the focus of Arthur's every waking minute.

"They are." Lancelot reached over and tapped one of the folders Arthur held. "There is a new staff liaison, but they assured me he's been fully briefed."

Arthur flipped open the folder to what was clearly a school picture, though without the accompanying CV, he wouldn't have been sure if it was a student or teacher. The man—Emrys, Year 6 teacher—looked around twelve himself, with a dopey grin and a terrible haircut that did nothing to ameliorate his unfortunate ear situation.

Oh well. Arthur was working with him, not dating him, and the education and awards listed on the CV seemed promising enough.

His phone buzzed on the seat next to him and lit up with an incoming text. It was from Mithian: Do try not to fuck up, darling. Remember I may have to live in Wales someday.

He snorted with laughter and Lancelot gave him a mildly questioning look. "Encouraging words from my girlfriend." The last word brought the usual sickly mix of unhappiness and pride, another brick successfully mortared in the wall he had built to protect the nation from his true nature.

A flash of surprise showed on Lancelot's face before he nodded. "Ah, yes, the beautiful Princess Mithian. You are a lucky man, my friend."

"Yes." He had been lucky, lucky to find a friend of impeccably royal pedigree with the same inconvenient nature, willing to be his companion and public shield. Someday, she might even be his Queen. If he was lucky.

When Avalon Primary School came into view around the corner, they found a welcoming committee lined up in order of size starting with the teensy tiny nursery class. Each age group waved a hand-painted sign welcoming Taliesin—and Prince Arthur—to Avalon with varying degrees of artistic sophistication. They started jumping up and down as the cars pulled up in front of the school despite the quelling looks of their teachers.

"Sorry." Lancelot peered out the window with a grimace. "I know we told them no ceremony."

Arthur smiled and looked out as they passed a gaggle of 7-year-old girls clutching at each other in excitement. Despite the inevitable cadre of photographers and video cameras, it was a delightful scene. "It's all right. This is the kind of ceremony I don't mind."

Vivian, Olaf's daughter and their chief design engineer, was already cooing over the nursery and reception pupils. Arthur started with the Year 1s and worked his way up, making a point to greet and thank each of the pupils by name. "Are you all right?" he asked when he reached the Year 6 teacher at the very end of the line, a pretty blonde girl who seemed to be swaying dangerously in the light breeze.

"Yes," she squeaked. "Your Highness. It's just that I was told not to move an inch lest I do something to make a fool of myself."

Arthur tried very hard not to roll his eyes. "Oh, do come here." He got a grip on her upper arm and tugged her forward until she took a couple of steps forward, hopping to get her feet to stay under her. "There. Now nobody needs to feel foolish."

She grinned at him and started to say something, but interrupted herself with a hiccup—that turned into a belch as she tried to suppress it. "Oh, bugger, now I'm sacked for sure. And they only just promoted me."

He burst into a loud laugh. "You remind me of my girlfriend."

"Oh!" She clapped her hand over her mouth. "But she's so beautiful."

"I'm sure she'll be pleased you think so, Elena." The head teacher appeared to rescue them. "Your Highness, welcome to Avalon."

"Thank you, Dr. Gaius." Arthur shook hands with the head teacher and smiled for the cameras. He rather hoped that they had caught his exchange with Elena; Mithian would love it. "It's a pleasure to see you again."

"It's a pleasure to have you here, and as you can see, we are all tremendously excited about the project. We've set up an office space for you inside. If you would follow me, I'll introduce you to the staff member who will be your assistant during your time at Avalon."

Arthur fell into step next to Dr. Gaius, ambling along slowly past the cheering children to give the cameras as much opportunity as they needed. He had agreed to their unobstructed presence and a few sound bites today in exchange for their absence for the rest of the project.

"Ah, yes, Mr. Emrys, isn't it? I had hoped to meet him at once." In fact, it was a little strange that the man had not been present to greet him, but perhaps he had been busy behind the scenes.

Dr. Gaius cleared his throat and reached for the door. Arthur quickly grabbed it and held it for him to enter. "Thank you, Your Highness. Mr. Emrys had... a few things to take care of before your arrival. He was our Year 6 teacher before Miss Gawant, whom you just met, took over for him last week."

"I see." The corridors of the school echoed with their footsteps, quiet now that a door separated them from the hubbub continuing outside. "I hope his new role hasn't inconvenienced the school."

"Not at all. But you'll find...." Gaius hesitated just as they reached the door at the end of the corridor. "Well, I'm afraid he's a bit of anti-monarchist and isn't best pleased with either your project or his role on it. You may find him a little standoffish at first, but don't worry, he's a good lad and he'll be a great help to you once you get to know each other."

That didn't exactly sound promising, but Arthur had no time to ask anything further before Gaius tapped on the door. "Merlin?"

When the man came forward to greet them, he looked nothing like his picture. His hair had grown out shaggy over the tips of his ears. His face was a little thinner, just enough to allow his blue eyes to dominate. Aside from the mad gleam of his eyes over a manic grin, Merlin Emrys was tremendously, if unconventionally, attractive.

And when Arthur met those eyes, the most powerful surge of attraction he had ever known dropped through him, settling low in his belly. He had never felt anything like it, and for a moment he saw the gleam of the man's eyes turn from madness to desire, and when the man stepped towards him, Arthur thought that perhaps one had misjudged the situation in quite a delightful way.

But it was instantly clear that Emrys was, indeed, quite mad after all. "Hello, Arthur," he exclaimed and came forward to shake Arthur's hand with completely inappropriate vigour. "It's terribly nice to finally meet you. I'm sure we'll be great friends."

"Merlin!" Gaius hissed. "A spot of decorum, if you will."

"Oh, right, sorry," replied the madman, still shaking Arthur's hand. "Would you prefer ‘Mr. Pendragon,' then, at least until we get to know each other?"

It startled a laugh from Arthur as he extricated his hand. "I've always encouraged informality, but I must say, I don't think I've ever seen it taken with such enthusiastic liberty before."

"I imagine there's quite a bit of normal life that a distinguished individual such as yourself hasn't seen. Do you get out of the palace much, Arthur?"

"Merlin! Your Highness, I must apologize—"

"Not at all, Gaius." Arthur met those blue eyes with bemused wonder. "You may certainly call me Arthur, if I may call you Merlin."

He caught the flash of surprise in the other man's eyes only because he was looking so closely. Interesting. So, not mad necessarily, but obviously not impressed with Arthur and definitely trying to goad him. That was fine: Arthur had grown up with Gwaine.

"All right, then," Merlin said slowly. "I guess that's a place to start."

"Yes, well, let's hope you take your job more seriously than you take me." Arthur gave him a pointed look. This Emrys chap was intriguing, and not hard to look at, but if he did anything idiotic that hurt the project, then so help him, Arthur was going to demonstrate every hereditary power he had left to make Merlin's life miserable. Those powers were less than they had been a century ago, but he knew how to work them.

Gaius cleared his throat. "Merlin, why don't you show His Royal Highness around the workspace?"

Merlin raised his eyebrows at his boss before he turned back to Arthur with a deadpan look. He extended his arm and shuffled around in a slow, tight circle, showing off the plain wooden desk, two chairs, and metal filing cabinet that had been crammed into the office. The room was so small, Merlin had to pull his arm at the last second to keep from smacking into the filing cabinet.

Arthur nodded slowly, keeping his face as blank as Merlin's. Their eyes met, and an unexpected note of humour flashed between them. All the Taliesin people would never fit in here, though neither of them would say it.

It was an absurd situation. In fact, this entire enterprise was absurd, which made Arthur's heart sing with a primal battle-joy. He loved nothing more than triumphing where he had no business even trying.

Gaius cleared his throat again; he was starting to sound somewhat consumptive. "Is there anything we can get you, sir?"

"Some water, perhaps?" Arthur realized his mistake a second too late when Gaius nodded at Merlin.

But Merlin merely gave a sardonic, surprisingly graceful bow. "My lord," he said at Arthur and then escaped the room just before the rest of the Taliesin crew tried to cram inside.

Merlin stole yet another glimpse of Arthur out of the corner of his eye as he and Lancelot bent over their papers. The plans were precariously stacked on the rickety old desk that had been the absolute best option Merlin could find--he swore!--to furnish the little office. They would have more space next week after the kids left at the end of term, but for now, it would be tight quarters. At least most of the royal retinue had left after the initial tour of the school, leaving only Arthur and Lancelot--and Merlin, of course, who was not allowed to leave until they did.

He liked Lancelot, and not just because the man was almost freakishly good looking. When Merlin had met him last week, they had gotten on at once. There was something warm and steady about Lancelot that seemed nobler than any of the actual aristocrats he had met today.

Though Arthur, Arthur was something unique in nature. Nothing had prepared Merlin for coming face to face with him and having his preconceptions cut right out from under him. Merlin had no particular love for either the man or the institution that had bred Prince Arthur, but unlike Will, who used their blog to bash anything and anyone vaguely aristocratic with the passion of a hobbyist, Merlin tried to consider every individual and event as it fit into the bigger picture of Britain as Merlin believed it could be.

Arthur as a person, though he had lived in the public eye since the day of his birth, remained something of an enigma. He'd spent half his youth partying as hard as he physically could with his aristocratic peers and their socialite hangers-on. The other half he'd spent performing his royal duties with almost grim determination.

After uni, he'd had almost three years of active service in the Royal Navy before settling back in Cardiff for graduate studies in environmental architecture. When he spoke in public, it was usually about his pet project of bringing British architecture into a new age of style and environmentalism. Pretentious or admirable? Merlin was less sure about that than he used to be.

One thing he did feel sure (and somewhat aggrieved) about: Prince Arthur was bloody beautiful. The smile that looked so posh and practiced on the television had, when experienced in person, melted right through Merlin with its bright warmth. He would have to work hard not to let that show--at least he'd gotten in his fair share of commentary today to let Arthur know exactly where he stood.

"Merlin." A set of royal fingers snapped in front of his nose, making him jerk his head back. He looked up into Arthur's amused face. "We're done for the day. You can stop drooling into the files now."

Merlin slammed the file drawer shut and swiped the back of his hand over his mouth, just in case. Though he was not drooling, obviously.

Lancelot gave Merlin a conspiratorial grin as he rolled up the last set of blueprints. Walking over to join them took two steps. "Yes, we had best head back. Looks like it's going to rain. We wouldn't want the royal skin to get dampened."

"Hold on now," Arthur protested. "Until about five seconds ago, I thought you were on my side."

"I heard that princes are actually made from spun sugar." Merlin ignored the indignant prince in question--or at least pretended to--and looked at Lancelot, inquisitive and innocent. "Is it true?"

"Yes, and rainbows shoot out of my arse whenever I take a shit," Arthur snapped, and Merlin did a double take at the bright red flush staining his face, unexpected and sexy. "In fact, I don't think there's room in the car for anything besides my chauffeur and my enormous head. Better hope Merlin will give you a lift, Lancelot, or you'll be walking home."

Merlin hesitated, torn between the undeniable entertainment factor and the worry of what Gaius would do to him if Arthur was genuinely peeved. But Lancelot only chuckled. "I feared this day might come. How about it, Merlin?"

"Afraid I can't offer a lift," Merlin answered. "But you're welcome to walk home with me."

More than welcome, actually. He had not since Freya had left him, let alone male company, which was mostly a thing of myth and legend to Merlin. Though if he were more honest than he wanted to be, Lancelot was not the one he wanted to imagine in his bed.

But Lancelot was still chuckling, even when Arthur turned to Merlin with a frown. "You haven't got a car?"

"No." Merlin shrugged and resented the hint of embarrassment he felt at Arthur's surprise. Most people in Ealdor didn't have cars. "I have a bicycle, but I walk to school since it's just up the road a bit."

"Let us give you a ride, then."

Merlin gaped, running through resentment, amusement, and a softer pleasure he did not like at all. "Er, thanks. That's surprisingly considerate of you, but I'll be fine."

"You heard Lancelot. It's going to pour any minute."

Merlin inched around the prince to get to the tiny window behind the desk. He craned his neck to see the sky, which did look ominous. "Nah. It'll hold off until I run home. No worries, I have long legs."

He heard something behind him, a catch of breath. When he turned around, Arthur looked surprised. Perhaps he was unused to people turning down his generosity.

"It's not out of our way," Lancelot put in.

"Actually, it is. Cardiff is that way." Merlin jerked his chin in the direction of town. He reached for his knapsack, but then stopped. " I have to wait to be dismissed or something?"

Arthur's mouth quirked. "If you had any manners, yes. But I can't expect miracles on the first day. Here, at least take my umbrella."

"Thanks, but--"

"Take the fucking umbrella, Merlin."

Merlin found himself gaping again. "Really, I had no idea you lot were allowed to curse."

"Please. You should hear my father at Ascot." Arthur grinned and for a moment looked boyish, just another young man around Merlin's age, the kind he had crushed over in uni. "Stop being an idiot and just take the brolly, would you? I want to go home."

"You just ruined a very nice moment we were having," Merlin informed him. But he took the umbrella and hid his grin until he was safely out the door.

Halfway home, it started bucketing rain.

"You're going to be so smug about this tomorrow, aren't you?" he muttered to an imaginary prince as he opened the umbrella. It was, he had to admit, nicer than the umbrella he had forgotten at home this morning.

Gaius had made him turn off his mobile before the royal procession had arrived. He turned it back on as he walked over to his answering machine. No surprise that both had blown up with messages over the course of the day.

Merlin was too exhausted to answer more than two of them.

"Well?" Will did not bother with greetings even on a good day. "On a scale from one to absolute twit, how pretentious was he?"

"There was a bit of twittishness." Merlin would rather focus on that, in fact, but as he shook out the umbrella, he felt compelled to honesty. "He wasn't completely horrible, though. He tried to give me a ride home and then insisted I take his umbrella."

The line fell silent for a moment. "Seriously? You have his umbrella?"

Merlin shrugged. "Yes. It's just a plain black umbrella. Nice. Kind of old fashioned. Not monogrammed or anything."

"Still." Will's voice lowered as though he were about to deliver the evening news. "You realize what you have to do, don't you?"


"Get on your computer and fire up eBay, my lad."

Merlin stood for a moment with the umbrella in his hand, stunned. "My God. You are a genius."

"Oh, I'm aware."

Merlin raced over to the kitchen table where his laptop sat and logged onto eBay. "Okay, I'm on. Sell item. Category: Collectables, Royalty, oh look, he has his own subcategory."

"Good enough. Title."

"Personal umbrella of Arthur, Prince of Wales." Merlin typed with relish. "Proceeds go to charity?"

"But of course."

"Starting bid?"

"Oh, I'd say you shouldn't take any less than a pound fifty for it."

He snapped a photo of the damp umbrella and while it uploaded, he googled a perfectly twit-like picture of a smiling Arthur, looking nothing like the gorgeous man Merlin had spent the day trying not to stare at. "Right. I think we can shell out a little extra for some listing upgrades, don't you?"

"I wouldn't hear of anything less for such an important item."

"And...we're up. God, I hope he surfs eBay in his spare time." Merlin fell back in his chair, giddily imagining the look on Arthur's handsome face when he found out. Dimly, he was aware that this was his way of pulling Arthur's pigtails, like a schoolboy with a crush, but he would rather think of it as an act of republican rebellion.

"Oh, speaking of things I hope he sees, I did a great blog post this morning. Brilliant, if I do say so myself. I called it 'Prince of Wales vanity project sidelines Welsh school children.'"

"Will! What the fuck, are you trying to get me sacked?" Slagging Arthur online seemed rather tawdry now that Merlin had met the real man.

"Untwist your knickers, Merlin. It's not like anyone knows it's our blog."

Which was true, but Merlin still hung up on him.

He called his mother back next. "Hi, Mum. Don't go on the internet tonight, okay?"

"Merlin! Oh, tell me everything. What was Prince Arthur like?"

"He was perfectly nice." Unlike Will, his mum had no interest in the less nice parts of following the Prince of Wales around all day. Nor could he bring himself to tell her how Arthur was warm and bright, with a sharp wit that cut Merlin in such a way that made him crave more.

"Oh, I knew he would be. See, didn't I tell you to give him a chance?"

"Yes, yes." Merlin smiled. "He even offered me a ride home, and then he gave me his umbrella."

"What a lovely gesture. And on your first day together."

"It was nice of him," Merlin allowed. "Will and I just put it up on eBay."

The silence gave him time for his stupidity to catch up with him before his mother spoke again. "Merlin."

He winced and put his hand over his eyes as if it could protect him from her outrage. "It's for charity?"


"Love you, Mum, long day tomorrow, g'night." He hung up and sighed. Right, so perhaps it had been a little rude to auction Arthur's umbrella, but he had a feeling it would made Arthur laugh, and Merlin liked it a bit too much when Arthur laughed.

If this was day one with royalty, he was not sure how many more he could take.

"So how'd it go?" Gwaine called from the kitchen.

"Well enough." Arthur rested his head on his hand as he paged down through his email. Most of the messages were from George, keeping him abreast of important royal issues about which Arthur did not give a shit. The only thing of use was the copy of his father's itinerary; Uther was on a state visit to Australia and could never keep the time difference straight in his head when he phoned.

"Did the new liaison work out all right? I wasn't thrilled having someone besides the head teacher, and at the last minute, but he insisted that this Emrys fellow would be up for it."

"He was...interesting." Arthur's gaze drifted from the computer screen as he remembered the appealing bundle of contradictions that was Merlin. "Sharp enough, but none too pleased with me before he even met me and not afraid to let me know it."

"Wish I'd been there to see that, but you know how Lord Olaf always finds something else for me to do whenever Vivian's at a site." Gwaine dropped a plate of beans and toast at his elbow.

"Just be glad he never found out that you fucked her in the Camsteeple Suite during the Savoy renovations." Arthur focused on the email and hit delete and delete and blah blah blah. "Last time I ever pick you up from work."

"Hey, I said I'd be your wingman if you want to pick up a luscious young lad for the night. I'll even carry the non-disclosure agreements."

Arthur grunted and jabbed the delete key harder. The whole idea was distasteful. Not the idea of sex, but of everything that would have to surround it for Arthur. Just as well that he seemed to have imagined that moment of mutual attraction with Merlin.

"I mean it. Chastity isn't healthy. And we both know your arrangement with Mithian doesn't include any blowjobs."

Arthur choked on his first mouthful of toast. "Jesus, Gwaine, don't talk about her like that."

"Hell, I'd blow you, if you want. Just friendly-like."

Arthur choked on his second mouthful of toast. "Gwaine. Go away. Also, you are never, ever coming to the school."

Gwaine bent over the back of the chair and gave Arthur a sloppy, affectionate, and thoroughly irritating hug around the neck. "Aw, come on, the kids will be gone in a couple weeks. I want to meet this new fellow, he sounds like my kind of guy."

"Never." Arthur's reply was firm and he ignored Gwaine until his friend wandered off again. He would be mortified if Gwaine said those kinds of things around Merlin, a realization that distracted him almost as much as the earlier realization that Merlin did have long legs and a surprisingly graceful body line, when he was not stumbling around.

It was clear that Merlin had little use for the Prince of Wales, but why on earth did Arthur care so much what Merlin thought of him as a person? Was he so used to being universally loved, at least to his face, that his ego could not bear a dissenting opinion? God, he hoped not. That was one way he had never tried to emulate his father.

His email pinged. He winced instinctively, peering at it with one eye while the other squinched shut in self-defence.

He relaxed when he saw it was not from his private secretary this time. It was just a Google alert, the one he had set to capture any mention of the Avalon Project. Google, unlike George, informed about the things in which he actually had an interest.

Opening the email, he grunted in surprise at the link within. He knew that web address well: it was his favourite anti-monarchy blog, a fact he had occasionally been tempted to announce in public, just to imagine the blog owners weeping in dismay.

His friend Leon liked to say that the blog was run by a bunch of nutters. And Leon was right, as Leon tended to be. But there was something about one of the writers that occasionally seemed almost…intelligent. His or her posts, while disapproving of Arthur's entire existence, family, and larger circle of acquaintances, held a surprising amount of wisdom about the evolution of Britain and how Arthur's hereditary privileges and responsibilities fit into a modern democracy.

He had found the blog back in university, during a long, black night when he had felt the pressure of his birth bearing down and threatening to stamp out everything else about who Arthur was. He could never live up to his father's expectations, the nation's expectations, or worst of all, his own expectations.

The internet search box was never his friend on nights like that. He brushed aside all the PR-shined articles about the golden prince and wallowed in the comments about his uselessness. A particularly virulent comment came from someone with a link to an obvious republican blog next to their name.

That had not been a good night. He was halfway through a blog post when he closed the browser—that post was the first one that was calm, rational, and all the more painful for the truth he saw in it. The next morning, he had shaken himself off as he always did and got on with things.

But he went back a few days later when he was feeling better, because he did not like to leave things unfinished. He read the rest of that post and then figured out how to find the rest of the entries by that same username.

Over the years, those writings had become a secret advisor of sorts. He found more sense in them than most of what he heard from his father's people, his own people, the politicians, the media, or the people he met while doing the royal rounds.

Whoever wrote them was also maddeningly obtuse, frustratingly naïve, and had a clear lack of appreciation for history and tradition. Arthur had considered commenting to inform the writer of his or her failings, but he was not one for hiding behind anonymity, and doing something like that under his own name was clearly out of the question. His father would have made sure he never saw the internet again, even if the entire nation of Wales had to lose access along with him.

He clicked through to the site and could tell within five words that this was not the writer he favoured. Arthur clicked the back button after the second paragraph, disappointed. If the blogger could not be arsed to understand the true purpose of the Avalon Project, Arthur could not be arsed to consider their objections to it. Arsehole.

He was about to call it a night and go slouch in front of the telly with Gwaine when another alert popped up in his mail. The link in this one surprised him even more. "eBay?" he muttered. "What the fuck?"

Fifteen seconds later, he buried his head in his arms, torn between laughter and irritation. Merlin. Of course.

There had to be legal recourse for when one found one's possessions being auctioned off online without one's permission. But Arthur sighed and shut down the computer before Merlin could throw any more spanners into his day.

Merlin was damn lucky he was cute.

The rain was still coming down the next morning, though at least it restrained itself to a steady patter rather than the downpour of yesterday. Merlin trudged along the road to the school, huddled under his old, crap umbrella that he had always meant to replace except that he never thought about it until it was already raining. He clutched his travel mug of coffee to his chest and spared a wistful thought back to the royal brolly sitting on his kitchen table. Will had forbidden him to use it again on the grounds that Arthur might take it back.

"I would offer you a ride," called a familiar posh voice, almost shouting to be heard over the rain. "But I'm worried that you might put my car up on eBay."

Merlin grinned as he turned his head toward the sporty-looking black car that had prowled up beside him. Arthur leaned on the open window, getting his jacket sleeve wet in his attempt to look casual.

"It was up to almost a hundred pounds when I left the house," Merlin called back with glee he made no effort to conceal. "A hundred pounds for an umbrella, just because you touched it. Can you believe it?"

"My God. Maybe by this afternoon, the bids will approach what I paid for it in the first place. Why aren't you using it, by the way?"

The water running down his neck was starting to give him a chill, but Merlin still grinned as he squelched along with Arthur rolling along beside him. "Well, once it went up on the auction block, I felt like it wasn't really mine anymore."

"It wasn't yours to begin with!" Arthur sped up a little, then idled until Merlin caught up again.

"It belongs to the people now, my friend." Merlin hiked his knapsack up to cover his neck better. "Well, I suppose it did before, too, right?"

Even through the rain, he could see Arthur bristle, more like a wet cat than a wet prince. "I'll have you know that I've paid for everything I own with my own money."

"Even that car?"

"That was a special arrangement, but it hardly came out of your meagre tax contribution, Merlin."

Merlin had a comeback ready to volley, a quip about the source of Arthur's ancestral money, with barbs about burning abbeys and the oppression of the peasantry ready for follow up. But Arthur accelerated again and covered the remaining hundred metres to the entrance of the school. By the time Merlin reached it, the prince had already disappeared inside.

Merlin supposed it was just as well. He could wait until Arthur dried off, and cooled off, before offering to let him choose the charity.

By late on the following Friday, everyone had gone except for Merlin and Arthur himself. At dismissal time, a steady stream of small girls had brought him notes and tiny bouquets of wildflowers to say their shy good-byes. He had given them all kisses and piled their gifts on top of Merlin.

Merlin sat at the desk now, surrounded by wilting flowers, head lowered to Mihelcic and Zimmerman's text on environmental engineering, which Arthur had brought in from his reference collection at home. Arthur perched on the arm of the extra chair by the window, mentally reviewing the progress of the last fortnight and planning for the new effort about to begin.

He turned away from the window, and when he moved, the light fell on Merlin's face. It illuminated his skin, shadowed his cheekbones, darkened the sweep of his eyelashes over his downcast eyes as he read. Arthur's stomach did a slow, warm somersault as he realized that Merlin was not just attractive, but very beautiful.

Despite his attraction to Merlin in the beginning and the warmth that had built between them as they worked together, he was unprepared for the revelation. His gaze was still tracing the lines of Merlin's face with stunned curiosity when Merlin looked up and asked: "Why are you here, Arthur?"

Arthur opened his mouth, but nothing came out at first. "What?"

Merlin ought to have made fun of him for that, but instead he looked up at Arthur, utterly serious. "What are you doing here? I think I misjudged your intentions, but I want to hear them from you."

"I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before."

"Yeah, and that's a problem, don't you think?"

He had never thought so before, but when Merlin looked at him, the world tended to go askew. Arthur lowered himself down into the seat of the chair. For the first time, he felt like Merlin was actually taking him seriously. "You've read the plans. I think it's clear what we're trying to accomplish."

"Yes, I get it. I teach environmental sustainability to my kids--or I used to, back when I was allowed to actually teach."

Arthur tried not to roll his eyes at the jibe. "Yes, terribly sorry for the inconvenience."

"Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of having the greenest school in the UK, not to mention all the new spaces and bells and whistles you're adding on. But why Avalon School? Why not a shiny office building in London, or one of your estates? What's the point of coming to Ealdor, of all places?"

Arthur leaned back and let his gaze drift up over Merlin's head. "On a philosophical level, I wanted to do this in Wales because Wales is special to me. You'll take the piss, I'm sure, but when I was invested as Prince of Wales, I took that seriously."

He paused for the mockery, but Merlin just shook his head. "I won't take the piss. I asked the question, remember?"

"We chose Ealdor, and Avalon, for a number of logistical reasons, but the fact that it is small and humble is part of the answer you're looking for. With just some modest grant money and an investment from the county council, we'll not only see Avalon thrive, but we'll see the investment returned to the community."

"I have to admit, I thought you were just here because tiny Welsh school children look good on camera."

Arthur laughed. "The cameras have their uses. The model we're using can be replicated all over the country once people see the benefits it brings to one tiny school in one tiny village. Office buildings or estates would end up little more than a novelty, a rich man's whimsy. They've been done."

"By you?"

"Gwaine--my housemate, you haven't met him yet--and I worked on a brand new office building in London while doing our postgraduate programmes. As I started working on my qualifications, I invited Taliesin to help me completely rebuild my mother's ancestral estate in Cornwall. It was how I got my foot in the door with them."

Merlin made a soft huff of surprise. "Funny to think of you needing an in somewhere."

"Gwaine was my in, actually. He was already working there while I went off for my stint in the Navy." He grinned at the thought of how well Merlin and Gwaine would get on. "But it's hard getting people to actually take me seriously, despite my qualifications. Even so, I have to say, you've been a special challenge."

To his surprise, Merlin looked slightly abashed. "I should apologize for that. I believe in judging people on their own merits. You deserve that as much as anyone else."

Arthur started to reply, but the sudden thickness in his throat threatened to make him croak around it. Damn. If only he had never noticed how lovely Merlin was, surely that admission would never have hit his heart this way. Idiotic, both of them.

"I suppose," he conceded and wished he sounded less stiff, "that my coming here must have been a dreadful inconvenience for all of you."

Merlin's brow creased with annoyance, but then he shrugged it off with a little smile. "Not as bad as I thought, to be perfectly honest. The kids were thrilled, and let's face it, they never learn anything the last couple weeks of the term anyway."

The grin that spread across his face was completely beyond Arthur's control. "Aw, Merlin, you like me! Admit it, you love having me here so you can bask in my glory."

"I do not!" Merlin squawked and hit his knees on the underside of the desk as he tried to sit up straighter to give Arthur a proper dirty look. "I don't like you in the least. I'm merely having less trouble tolerating your presence than I'd anticipated."

Arthur pushed himself to his feet and shifted over to sit on the corner of the desk nearest Merlin. "I'm sorry to hear that, Merlin, because I do like you."

He bent down to look closer at his new friend, and it was a power game and it was flirting and it all sent a giddy rush through Arthur's head. He never got to flirt, not properly, not the real kind that made one tingle with the possibilities.

Merlin looked up at him through those lashes and then cleared his throat and looked to the side. "Anyway, the only real issue was that my ex-girlfriend wanted to get back together with me as soon as she heard you were going to be mucking about the place."

His ex...girlfriend. Arthur felt his face freeze and then burn. For a brief moment, he had forgotten the way the world worked and the promises he had made. Message received.

"That must have been awkward." He got words out through his shame-tight throat. "Do I need to double up on my security detail?"

"You're fine with the goons you have. Freya went home to Norway after she dumped me and airfare's gone up a lot lately."

"Pining for the fjords, was she?" Arthur joked and died inside at his own words. He congratulated himself on finding the least sexy comeback possible. Good thing that nothing could ever have happened anyway.

"Something like that. It was fine. She was a little fierce for me. You definitely couldn't handle her."

"My girlfriend is from Sweden. Those Scandinavian women, eh?" Arthur hated himself before the false jocularity even cleared his lips. Faux-heterosexual bonhomie--now there was a low that he had never thought to sink to. "Right. I should let you get home. Enjoy your weekend."

He grabbed his satchel and fled before he could say or think anything else that would disrupt the fragile truces that comprised his life.

Lancelot was waiting for him outside, idly chitchatting with Ewan and Owain. "I thought you'd gone," Arthur called to him. "Don't you need to be getting home?"

"Nothing to get home to tonight." Lancelot turned to him with his usual warm smile. "I thought I'd see if you wanted to get a drink."

And there it was again, that illusion of possibility. Arthur returned the smile, though his felt tight, bitter, and weary to the bone. "Why the hell not?" he said.

Will was glaring at him over the table at Sunday dinner. His mum was pretending not to notice, serenely eating her potatoes. Merlin was trying to pretend not to notice, but he was starting to twitch.

It finally burst out of him, almost choking him on his broccoli. "What? For God's sake, what?"

"You like him!" The words burst out of Will almost before Merlin finished. "That ridiculous oaf. You've completely fallen for Prince Charming."

"I don't! I have not!" Merlin's chest tightened. Fucking Arthur with his pretty eyes and chiseled face, his big heart and big dreams, and his fucking Swedish princess.

"All you'll talk about is how nice he is to everyone and his vision for the future of Britain and how he's really not much of a twit at all. It's like you're in love with him or something."

And there it was, the elephant in the room that nobody could see but Merlin.

"William. Perhaps you should be as open minded about Prince Arthur and his project as Merlin has been." Hunith put more potatoes on Will's plate to soften the chiding words.

"With all due respect, Mrs. Emrys, you're--"

"I don't think you should finish that sentence, do you, William?"

As they bickered back and forth, Merlin put his head down, glad for the reprieve so he could go back to the thoughts that kept trying to pull him back in as they had all weekend. He stared at his potatoes, but he only saw Arthur, bending close to him, smiling.

Arthur could never have meant to seem like he was chatting Merlin up. The fact that Merlin had responded so instinctively as if he had, that was all on Merlin, and damned if he knew where that came from. It could only have been the intimacy of the conversation, combined with Arthur's undeniable presence, combined with Merlin's undesirable celibacy.

Only a deeper instinct had protected him from making an irrevocable fool of himself--the instinct to hide the other side of his orientation. Nobody needed to know about those feelings, not in the real life of a village school teacher. And if he did decide to explore them, the bloody Prince of Wales was just about the worst choice he could make for a discreet partner.

No, it was nothing. He did like Arthur, unexpectedly. It was confusing his whole mental state; that's all it was.

Merlin would have a good wank or two tonight, and tomorrow morning, he would go back to sniping at Arthur like nature intended. It would all be very professional.

The call came into Buckingham Palace at 0217 GMT. At 0219, a frantic scatter of lights went on across the palace, and by 0230, half of London was lit like daylight -- 10 Downing Street, the BBC, every newspaper of any or no legitimacy, and everyone who had heard from someone and then called someone else.

After blinking away sleep and the initial shock, everyone asked the same question: does Arthur know yet? To whom will fall the task of telling the Prince--no, the King--that his father is dead?

The matter would have been easier, and handled already, if the Prince of Wales had been living at Kensington Palace or Clarence House or any of the numerous royal residences where he belonged. What on earth had possessed him to move to Cardiff, and what had possessed King Uther--God rest his soul--to let him?

At 0300 precisely, Elyan answered his ringing mobile.

Arthur woke when the pounding on the front door began. He lifted his head to squint at the clock before burying his head back into the pillow with a groan. He had only gotten to bed two hours ago after talking to his father in Australia and then finishing the agenda for the site meeting tomorrow. He had meant to email to ask Merlin to look over it for him, but Merlin was surely asleep by then.

"Hold your bloody horses," he heard Gwaine growling as he stomped past Arthur's door. "Motherfucking fuckball cunt munchers. If the paps got past security again, I swear to God I'm setting them on fire."

Arthur, being in favour of that plan, burrowed down further under the covers. Good old Gwaine. He always saved the day. Alcohol had long since pickled his inbred noble brain enough to make him impervious to any public or private crisis of Arthur's.

"A little late, boys, don't you think?" Gwaine bellowed from the front door. Arthur snorted into his pillow; a few years ago, their party would still have been in full swing at this hour.

The answer came as a muted rumble. Gwaine's voice dropped to a deeper rumble in response. Arthur let the sound soothe him back into a comfortable doze.

Gwaine's shout pulled him back. "No, I'll be the one tell him, you insensitive pricks." The slamming of the door jolted Arthur the rest of the way awake.

Tell me what? he wondered just before a soft tap on his bedroom door. "Arthur? You awake?"

He sat up and rubbed his hand over his brow. "Evidently."

A sliver of light fell across the floor, widening and then breaking under Gwaine's shadow. "Don't suppose you heard any of that?"

"Just you yelling." Arthur squinted up at the looming shape of his friend. "What's going on? We haven't raised a scandal lately, have we?"

"Not that I remember, but that's not saying much." Gwaine smirked, but sobered as he dropped onto the edge of the bed. "Look, there's no point in sugar coating it. Your dad's dead."

He had been expecting a state crisis: an invasion, a resignation, Morgana on another bender. "No, you're wrong. I just talked to him. They were heading back to Canberra."

"The helicopter crashed as they entered New South Wales. No survivors." Gwaine gave a great gusty sigh and wrapped his arm around Arthur's neck. "Come here, mate. Go on, cry it out."

"No, wait." Shock dulled his reaction time so that his nose hit Gwaine's shoulder before he could pull back.

Gwaine let him move away, but kept his hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Arthur, my lad, there are men outside who are waiting to make you King. This is the last chance you'll get to be your father's son for a long time."

He should weep; he should mourn, but the part of him that loved his father was quiet and numb. All he could think about was everything else he had just lost. The Avalon Project was finished, at least for Arthur. He would probably never see Merlin or Lancelot again, except in passing, if he was lucky.

"My life is over." He bent over onto his knees, overwhelmed. "Fuck, Gwaine. My life is over."

Gwaine gripped him harder and shook him. "No, his life is over. Yours is just beginning, and now you're the one with the power to decide what to do with it."

A little defiance glimmered in his chest before fading into the numbness. Arthur had contemplated such things before, but the possibility had never seemed real enough to matter. And now nothing seemed real at all.

He didn't cry, but he sat in the dark with Gwaine for a long time, watching his once-distant future rush towards him like an oncoming train.

"Merlin. Merlin. Fuck's sake, Merlin, wake up."

Merlin groaned. He kept as still as he could, but his bed kept shaking. "Go away."


"Will." Merlin flopped over onto his back, but kept his eyes squeezed shut. "I gave you that key for an emergency. An emergency, Will."

"This is a bloody emergency, Merlin. Uther Pendragon is dead."

"Yeah, long live the king." He flipped over again; half of him slid off the mattress, but it was worth it to hide even half his vision from the cruel light trying to stab through the sleep-grit into his brain. Will could rant to the back of his head as easily as the front of it. With any luck, Merlin could just drift off again and Will would never notice the difference.

"No, you don't get it." Will shook him; then he grunted and kicked him until Merlin had to cling to the edge of the mattress. "Uther was in a helicopter. In Australia. No survivors. Get. Up."

Merlin stiffened when the words sifted in. "Fuck," he groaned and let himself slide over the edge onto the floor. Jesus. Arthur. Oh, Arthur. "Fuck."

"Yeah, right?" Will settled cross legged into the warm groove Merlin had been forced to vacate, laptop already open in front of him. "It's just about to hit the wires. Kanen called me. We gotta jump on this."

Merlin pulled his limbs into a sitting position, crammed into the space between the bed and the wall under the window. "Jump on what?" He really didn't feel up to doing any jumping. All he really wanted to do was talk to Arthur and see if he was all right, but he had no way to do that.

A pause, and then Will's face frowned down at him from over a hill of crumpled quilt. "You're kidding me, right? The Pendragons live fucking forever. We thought it'd be decades before there was a regime change. The monarchy is vulnerable during the transition, and we have to lead the people in saying enough is enough! I know you've developed a soft spot for the prat, but come on, let's not crown yet another useless figurehead who grew up suckling at the public teat."

Will had to pause again, this time for breath, and Merlin jumped into the breach while he could. "Will, he might not even know yet. Seems a little crass, doesn't it?"

"There are many things in this world I find crass, Merlin. For example, the seventy million pounds spent on Uther Pendragon's coronation and the fifty million pounds spent on his wedding. You wanna wait around and see what the next one is going to drain out of our pockets? In this economy?"

"Yeah, I get it," Merlin said, and he did, but he'd also got a worm of sorrow and remorse squirming in his gut. "But the coronation won't be for months. I'm just thinking, poor Arthur."

He knew that was a mistake the instant before Will's face loomed large in his vision. "Poor Arthur? Seriously? Christ, I knew it. Working with the bloke has ruined your edge."

"What, you have a problem with basic human decency now? I don't need him as my king, but he just lost his dad." Merlin paused, swallowed, and shifted his gaze to the side, down the long canyon between bed and wall. "Maybe you forgot what that feels like, but I haven't."

He figured on fifty-fifty odds whether Will would blow his lid or let his better nature prevail. The irritated huff over his head told the tale, and Merlin sighed with relief.

"Fine," Will said after his head thudded against the headboard a few times. "We'll do it your way."

"I knew you had a heart down in there somewhere--ow."

"Your way, your words, you do the work. Get typing, mate. I'm not giving up this scoop."

Merlin fumbled to balance the laptop that had just smacked, somewhat painfully, onto his kneecaps. A cursor blinked in the empty update box, ready to post directly onto their website.

Will had already typed in a title: The King Is Dead...Let Him Stay That Way. Merlin backspaced it away without comment. He wasn't sure yet what he wanted to write, but that wasn't it. He didn't want to talk about Uther at all. Whatever beef he'd had with the king was over now; Uther was the past, Arthur the future.

And it meant that the Avalon Project was probably finished, and Merlin would never see Arthur again. That should have been a relief, but instead, Merlin felt a keen disappointment. Whatever Will thought, Merlin liked Arthur, so very much.

Arthur was special – not because he was born the only son of a king, but because he was Arthur. The throne would put an end to the real good Arthur Pendragon could have done with his life.

A pillow hit him in the head. "Wake up. You're on the clock now, you are."

"Yeah, yeah." Merlin shook the cobwebs out of his head and focused on the blank space and the relentless blinking cursor.

If he were really Arthur's friend, he would know what to say right now. If he were really Arthur's friend, he would be able to say it to him directly and not to an empty blog screen that Arthur would never see.

Maybe it was better this way; he could say what he felt in his heart and still be able to look Arthur in the eye, if they ever met again.

Dear Arthur, he typed into the subject line and kept typing for the rest of the night.

Arthur jumped when Gwaine's hand landed on his shoulder.

"I'm heading back to Cardiff." Gwaine's hand tightened, because Gwaine had a hard time not touching people when he was having feelings. "Are you sure you're all right by yourself?"

"Of course." Arthur smiled, though he could not quite meet Gwaine's concerned gaze. "Mithian said she would come by later. In the meantime, I should catch up with some work. Start closing things down."

Gwaine's mouth tightened. Arthur half-wished he would start the argument over Arthur's future again, but Gwaine only sighed. "All right. I'll phone you tomorrow."

"Take good care of our baby. And give my best to Merlin. Tell him... I'm sorry I couldn't prove him wrong."

Gwaine snorted and whapped Arthur on the back of the head. "Convey your own regrets. I have work to do, since you're fucking off to wave at people for the rest of your life."

That fucking hurt. Gwaine hesitated as though he knew it, but then turned and left without apologizing.

Arthur sighed, starting a little at how loud it sounded in the evening quiet of the palace. He never appreciated how loud Gwaine was, how much space he took up, until he left Arthur alone somewhere like this.

He had always hated Buckingham Palace, even when he had been growing up in these same rooms. The smaller houses suited him better: Clarence House (for which Gwaine always tried to charge him rent), even St. James, or their ancestral homes at Camelot and Tintagel. Everywhere seemed warmer than here; even the most haunted of their houses would be less full of ghosts.

At least Gwaine had brought him his laptop. He cast a glance at the door, considering his father's office or reception parlour. No, he had spent enough time there so far, holding audiences with the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Lord This and Lord That who all came to kiss his arse even though every one of them held more real power than he did.

He set the computer on a side table and looked for a plug. Of course, there was nothing. He could call George and ask where one was, but then he would have to actually talk to George. One more minute of that stiff upper lip and they would be lucky to get Arthur to stop screaming before the coronation, let alone the funeral.

His email provided little distraction. His personal email was almost non-existent, except for a few dirty joke forwards from Mithian, bless her. The emptiness of his work email hurt more: the steady rush of emails about Avalon had ceased abruptly on Monday morning. He had been cut out of the loop with brutal precision.

To add insult to injury, his Google alert for the Avalon Project had only generated a single email. Obviously, either no one thought Arthur's absence would make any difference to the project, or no one gave a shit in the first place.

"Oh, I should have known," he growled when he saw the link. "Those vultures are probably planning a fucking festival for his funeral."

He had no desire to hear those bloggers, who had no respect for his father or anything his father had given to this country, had to say. But after another minute of futile seething, he clicked on the link to the blog, desperate for a solid target for his anger.

"Dear Arthur, my arse," he muttered.

And then he kept reading.

Dear Arthur,

I just heard that your father died. I'm so sorry. If you read this site at all (and of course you don't), you know that I haven't always been a fan of your father's public role. But he was your father. I lost my father a few years ago, so I understand a little bit of how you must be feeling right now. I hope you're surrounded by people who love you.

You're going to be king soon--well, I suppose you already are now. You probably wouldn't believe it, but I appreciate the tradition of the monarchy and how it's shaped our history and culture. Every new king and queen has had to choose what they wanted to make of their reign, how they would use their power and what they wanted their country to look like when they were gone.

You won't have the absolute power that Vortigern or Aurelius wielded (no offence, but I think we're all happy about that), but you have the power to decide what the monarchy will look like and what purpose you want it to serve, within the limits of the constitution. It's not exactly the divine right of kings, but it is wholly your prerogative. No one can tell you what to do.

Your father chose to be a symbol of stability and consistency, setting a steady and conservative path. But we don't need someone to smile and wave and tell us to keep calm and carry on. We need a leader with a vision for the future who won't be swayed by profits, politics, and approval ratings. Cara Nimueh sure doesn't fit the bill. If the monarchy has any purpose left to it, let it be that inspiration.

Before the Avalon Project, I thought you were just another pretentious prat. But now I suspect you have much more courage, creativity, and vision than you ever let us see before. You can be more than a figurehead. You can be the real deal in your own way.

Show us who you really are. And don't be that prat.

He reached up to touch his face and to his wonder, found it wet. Strange, he didn't remember starting to cry. Fuck, it hurt.

When he had been younger, about to start uni, he had an elaborate fantasy of what he would do when he was king. He would stand up in front of his nation, a handsome consort at his side (preferably a glamorous football player or movie star), and inspire everyone to join him in building a new golden age of unity, harmony, and productivity.

He had whispered his speech to himself in the darkness of his room.

Then he had told his father all about it.

Uther had smiled. That had been the worst part of it.

His sovereign had given him commands, and Arthur was bound by ancient law and loyalty to obey them. But Uther was gone now, and all the desperate, clawing need Arthur felt to talk to him again would not make him walk through the door. What then of his commands?

Arthur stood up, feeling like his head was clearing of fog for the first time since he had woken to the pounding on the door. He was the King now. All the rest of the family were still bound by Uther's word—unless Arthur commanded differently.

He walked out into the quiet corridors of the palace and down the main staircase until he came upon the larger than life portrait of Uther at the end of a line of Arthur's ancestors. Uther looked just over the top of his head, in death as in life.

Arthur watched him for a little while, then looked at the empty space next to him where Arthur's portrait would soon hang.

"Not while you lived, we said, Father," he murmured. "I kept my word."

Merlin wound up wandering around, feeling like a lost tourist at his own school. He had gone down on Monday morning just to make sure no loutish types were trying vandalize the deserted site or nick some morbid souvenir of Arthur's brief residency. He went again the next day, just to have something to do with himself.

On Wednesday, he was shocked to find the school bustling with builders and Taliesin staff. In the midst of his confusion, he honed in on the flash of gold hair that identified the so-called Lady Vivian and made a beeline for the one familiar, if not exactly comforting, face.

"Didn't you get Lancelot's email? The project must carry on," she told him after the third time he asked what the hell was going on.

He had stopped checking his email and phone around noon on Monday, tired of everyone he had ever met messaging him to ask about the King. As if Merlin could know anything more than they did.

"We already lost two days because Gwaine insisted on a bloody mourning period, and the partners went along with it because he's a stupid duke. Personally, I think Arthur would rather we not lose sight of the timeline."

That did sound like Arthur. "How is he?" Merlin tried not to sound eager, but she was the first person he could actually ask who might know something more than what was on the television.

She shrugged and shoved her empty paper cup into his hand. "I need more caffeine to deal with your endless questions. Go fetch me some, hm?"

"Excuse me?" He stared down at the empty cup, feeling like its existence somehow did not make sense.

"And be sure you go get it from Coffee #1. I can't bear the lukewarm swill you have here."

By the time the red cleared from his vision, the cup had crumpled in his fist. Vivian failed to notice until it hit her in the side of the head. By the time her outraged shriek faded, Merlin had regained his power of speech.

"I am not your skivvy and I barely tolerated this crap from Arthur. If you want coffee, get your over-privileged arse down to whatever shop you prefer and get in line for it yourself."

He stood his ground against the ensuing tantrum until she finally ran out of steam and empty threats. When she finally stormed away, Merlin heard a chuckle behind him.

"Well. You can only be Merlin Emrys, I imagine."

Merlin turned to see a man dressed somewhere between formal and builder, handsome in an almost stereotypically rakish way. He looked amused, and also very tired.

"That's me." Merlin gestured off toward the cloud of fury disappearing around the corner of the main building. "If you'd like to sack me, too, I think you'll have to take it up with that one. I'm pretty sure you can only do it once."

"Think outside the box, Merlin. We could always rehire you just to fire you again. In fact, I'm pretty sure Arthur contemplated that a couple of times." The man grinned and stuck out his hand. "And I would know—I'm Gwaine, his coworker and housemate."

There was not the slightest bit of pretentiousness about Gwaine, nor any mention of his noble title; Merlin liked him instantly and even liked Arthur that much better in that moment for his choice of friends. His answering grin faded as he dropped Gwaine's hand. "How is he? I mean, how is he really doing?"

Gwaine bit his lip and nodded his head for a second like he was agreeing with a voice in his head. Then he grabbed Merlin and pulled him into a fierce embrace.

"Er." After a few moments, Merlin returned the hug and patted Gwaine's shoulder. He supposed anyone who had lived with Arthur for so long must be at least partially insane. "It's nice to meet you, too."

Gwaine just pounded him on the back with manful emotion. When he finally let go, he was still nodding, but smiling again. "Give me your phone."


"Your phone." Gwaine made an impatient gimme gesture with his fingers. "Give it to me."

"You know, there's a phone in the office if you need to make a—okay, then." His phone was already out of his hand and into Gwaine's, barely having cleared his pocket.

Gwaine's thumbs flew over the keyboard with impressive dexterity. He handed it back with a solemn air. "There. Now you can ask him yourself."

Merlin stared down at the display. "Arthur" it read simply over the number.

"That's his private mobile, obviously. Not the one the Prime Minister has."

"Oh. Right, of course." He looked again at the King of Britain's mobile number in his contact list. Despite his general lack of awe at anyone's title, even Arthur's, it was a little surreal to have a bloke just walk up and insist on giving him the King's mobile number.

Gwaine's smile had grown sadder by the time Merlin looked up again. "You're the only one who's asked. Asked for real, I mean."

His throat clogged up a little and this time he was the one who kept nodding like he was daft. "Okay. So. Are you taking over here?"

"For now. I'd owe it to him even if I didn't care as much about the project as he does." Gwaine shifted from foot to foot as though suddenly embarrassed by his emotions. "I have to go talk to Vivian about something—and don't get your hopes up, she can't actually sack you—but stay where I can find you. Arthur said I could depend on you."

Arthur? Arthur said that? Maybe they were talking about two different Arthurs, which would explain the phone number thing. Or maybe Gwaine really was just a nutter.

Merlin took refuge in the tiny office. Lancelot's briefcase was sat on the desk, but otherwise it was as empty as it had been these last few days. For once, he was glad.

He pulled out his phone and stared at Arthur's number again. Ringing him would clearly be a poor choice—with Merlin's luck, he would interrupt him in the middle of an audience with the Lord Chancellor or some such.

A text, one simple text, that would be fine, he thought. He opened a message. Hi. Just wanted to see if you were all right.

He hit send before he could think about it. A moment later, he realized he really should have thought about it. I mean, of course I know you're not all right, since you lost your dad. I didn't mean I expect you to be all chuffed about it or anything.

No, no, that was terrible. He went to erase it, but some kind of text message muscle memory took over for a brief, horrifying instant. "Oh, shit, why did I hit send?" he yelped. "Oh, bloody buggering bollocks."

I didn't mean to send that last one. Don't worry, I realized it was stupid. And then I sent it anyway, apparently.

Oh it's Merlin btw. You may have guessed from the idiocy.

"Oh my God, oh my God, stop texting." The phone clattered onto the desk as Merlin stuck his hands under his legs before he typed something else.

He stared at the phone. In his imagination, it looked exactly like an adder, poised to deliver a fatal strike.

Nothing happened. Slowly, he began to relax. Gwaine was probably a snobby douchebag after all and had given Merlin a fake number. Arthur never needed to know how much Merlin had just lost the plot.

Then the phone buzzed and Merlin jumped. He eyed it with distrust again before his hand whipped out to snatch it up.


Merlin forced himself to relax. He should just dash off an apology to whatever poor sod had found himself stuck in this prank.

The phone buzzed again in his hand. I see Gwaine must have found you.

Merlin closed his eyes. On the bright side, it was hardly the worst thing he had ever said to Arthur, and the other things had been deliberate.

I'm fine. Would rather be there, though. How is everything?

He smiled and this time pressed the keys calmly. No clue. Who would win in a death match, Gwaine or Vivian?

A long pause followed. Then, Sorry the lord chancellor just arrived. See you soon.

"Right," Merlin said aloud as he slowly put the phone back on the table. "Of course he did."

"There you are." Gwaine appeared in the doorway, giving him a chiding look as though Merlin had been hiding from him. "Come along, it's lunch time. I think it's time you and I got to know each other."

His wicked grin should have provoked dread, but Merlin found himself standing up and grinning back while feeling like that was a very good idea.

Still there?



Gwaine tock me our to lunch. Can't freely my node.

Or your fingers, apparently.

How's the lc?

Similar experience. He's on the parlour table now, singing.


No, you idiot. Go home. Don't want you setting the school on fire. And you're not allowed to talk to Gwaine anymore.

"Does that cover everything, Prime Minister?" Arthur tried not to shift in his chair and let on how very much he did not want to be in it. It was his father's chair in his father's office, and the only place he wanted to be less was the place he had to be next -- behind his father's coffin.

"Yes, I believe so, sir." Cara Nimueh hesitated just long enough for Arthur's last nerve to start ringing in his ear. "The only other thing I wanted to mention is that we still haven't seen a copy of your address."

"That's because there is no copy." Arthur leaned back in his chair and allowed himself one sharp moment to enjoy the look of consternation on her face. His father would have enjoyed that, too. "I'm going to wing it."

She opened her mouth, closed it again, and then smiled a practiced, controlled smile. Arthur knew it well from every meeting she had ever had with Uther. "I certainly understand your reluctance to plan for it, but I think you'll find it's much easier with planned remarks. My office would be happy to assist you with some general themes and language -- shall I have someone get in contact with your private secretary?"

"That's very kind of you." And more to the point, it would get quite a few people to shut up, none of whom would realize that he was not using their carefully crafted, politically unobjectionable speech until it was too late to do a damn thing about it.

Nimueh hesitated again. "God knows your father and I had our differences," she said, which was putting it quite mildly for anyone who had ever been in a room with the two of them at the same time, "but I'm sorry he was taken from you so soon. He was a good father."

"He did his best." Arthur rose with a practiced smile of his own. Merlin's awkward condolences had been much more sincere and comforting. "Perhaps better than I ever did for him."

She gave him a small nod of sympathy and stood as well, just as his private secretary tapped lightly on the door.

"Your Majesty." George was as placid as he had ever been, with no discernible discomfort after unexpectedly finding himself managing the affairs of a King rather than a Prince. "The Princess Royal is waiting in the drawing room. You have exactly eighteen minutes before the procession sets out again."

"Thank you, George. Please see the Prime Minister to her car." Arthur shook Nimueh's hand again; as the door closed again behind them, he shook himself all over and jumped up and down a few times.

He felt, periodically, like his mind was flying to pieces, unraveling him from the top down. He did not imagine that Morgana was going to improve that feeling. The only respite he had allowed himself were the occasional text messages from Merlin.

Arthur gave himself one more minute to sit in silence, since silence was something he was unlikely to find again in the near future. He sat back down behind his father's desk and tried to feel like he belonged there. A king; a statesman; a crowned head; a figurehead.

After a moment he felt his lungs tightening and realized he was holding his breath. He blew it out slowly, and his gaze drifted once again to the single framed photograph on his father's desk.

Arthur picked it up, heavy in its gilt frame. He had seen the back of it his whole life, but never the front, never having dared to venture into the sacred space behind Uther's desk. He had always assumed it was a photograph of his mother, an assumption so strong that he had never thought to wonder otherwise.

It was not Igraine. Or rather, it was Igraine in absentia -- the Queen present only in the sliver of her coffin visible at the edge of the frame. At the centre of the photograph was Uther himself, marching grimfaced behind the gun carriage that bore his Queen to her grave. He wore full military uniform and a tiny boy wrapped around his neck.

Arthur did not remember being that tiny boy, too exhausted to walk any further, not understanding where his mother had gone or why so many people were staring at him and weeping. But he had heard the story hundreds of times of how he had tugged at Uther's hand until the King had scooped up his son and cradled Arthur against his chest for the rest of the long march to the chapel.

He wished he had seen this picture before, so that he could have asked Uther why, out of all the photographs in the world, even out of all the photographs of the two of them, he had chosen this one to look at every day for the rest of his life.

Though he supposed he would not have asked, even if he had the opportunity. There was a reason, after all, why he had never seen this side of the desk, or this side of his father.

The sound of a clearing throat, obnoxiously loud, made him jump and almost drop the picture. He had not even heard the door open again.

"Excuse me, Your Most Royal and Magnificent Majesty, but literally the entire world is waiting on your presence, so if you think you could move your most exalted arse toward the door, we would be ever so grateful."

The voice sounded like it was talking through a mouthful of marbles, but he recognized it even before his eyes focused on the intruder. "Jesus, Mithian, you startled me. Are you trying to bury two Kings in one day?"

"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty." She sauntered forward, immaculately if soberly dressed, though there was something a bit off about her look. When she grinned at him, he realized what it was.

"What on earth is in your mouth?"

"Teef." She grinned harder, enormous buck teeth jutting out of her mouth in ragged, discoloured glory. A string of saliva dripped down over her lower lip.

Arthur stared at her until he could not stand it another second and burst into snorts of laughter. If Merlin met Mithian, he would have to eat every word he ever said about royalty being stuck up and pretentious.

"Oh, thank fuck." She pulled the false teeth out of her mouth and smacked her lips with relief. "I thought I was going start drooling all over myself if I had to keep those in another minute."

"You already did," Arthur said and laughed harder.

Mithian dropped the teeth on the desk and swiped the back of her hand across her mouth. "It was worth it. Do you feel kingly now?"

"Oh, decidedly." His arms circled her easily as she slipped onto his lap, and he buried his face against her neck. "Thank you, Mitzi."

"Anything for you, Arthur." Her hand stroked over his hair. "You know that."

They sat in silence for a moment. Arthur could feel his small parcel of time ticking away, but he could not bring himself to move. Just another minute.

"You have to go," she said at last when another minute and another minute after that had passed. "Don't worry, I won't be far if you need me."

"You never are."

He felt her shift, and then her hand gripped his. "You don't want me next to you at the funeral."


"Are you sure?"

"What would be the point?" He gathered himself, ready to dump her off his lap if he needed to. Mithian might be the one person in the world who could change his mind, so he would rather not risk her trying.

She cupped his face in her free hand and forced him to look up at her. "So you really mean to go through with this?"

"I really do. It's now or never. We both deserve better than never, don't you think?"

Mithian smiled with a sadness that would have panged guilt in Arthur for the promises he was breaking, except that her relief shone stronger through it. "I will always be your friend." She dropped a soft kiss on his lips. "And I would have been honoured to be your Queen."

"Thank you." His emotions already ran on such a frayed edge that it was hard not to get choked up -- until she sighed and brushed herself off as she stood up.

"But now you'll go be someone else's queen. Pretty boy like you, it was inevitable, I suppose."

She snorted with laughter as he smacked her arse and chased her out of the room.

"I see there's little mourning going on here." Morgana's cold voice stopped him dead as he emerged into the parlour. "Should I have worn a brighter colour for the occasion?"

George, standing ramrod straight across the room, cleared his throat with as much admonishment as apology. "The Princess Royal, sir. I believe I mentioned she was waiting for you."

"Yes, thank you, George." Arthur tried not to snap, or flush under his half-sister's flinty gaze. "Please go and tell them that we're on our way down."

George nodded, and Mithian touched his arm one more time before following George from the parlour.

"I'm grateful you've come prepared to at least feign grief for our father," Arthur said as soon as the door closed. Taking the offensive was the only defence against Morgana when emotions ran high. "I'm sure you must be leaping with joy inside."

"Hardly." Morgana reached up and adjusted the black netting that came down from her modest but elegant hat to cover her face. "It's just one more way the old bastard screwed me over. It's going to be twice as hard to supplant you once they crown you."

Arthur allowed himself a tiny smile of malice. "Yes. I imagine it will. I'm rather popular, you know."

"So am I." The malice of her own smile smoothed into a placid expression of melancholy, suitable for public viewing, as she reached for his arm. "Shall we go say our farewells to the man who ruined both our lives, dear brother?"

Arthur had already said his farewells in the chapel last night as he kept a private vigil with the coffin holding what they had managed to reassemble of his father. He had said nothing and asked for nothing, but somewhere in the darkest part of the night, he had made a fragile peace with his father's memory, as fragile as the peace they had brokered in life.

He had, he hoped, made a stronger peace with himself. Only time would tell if he was strong enough to carry it through.

"He did love you, you know. No matter what you said or did." He felt her stiffen on his arm and knew she would take his words as an affront, as she always took any gesture from him.

Then they went down to join the procession that would bear their father to his funeral, and then to his final resting place. It would be the last thing Arthur did because his father expected it of him.

"Thank you for not bringing Will today. You know I love him like he was mine, but--"

Merlin handed his mum her mug of tea with a wry smile as she tried to find a way to finish her sentence. "It's all right, Mum. We're not always joined at the hip, you know."

"It's just that this is such a solemn occasion." She smiled, with the appropriate overlay of solemnity, and they both knew what she really meant: Will would be watching the funeral with popcorn and an arsenal of sarcasm.

"I know, Mum." If he were honest, Merlin would have to admit that he would rather be watching it with neither of them, alone. Hunith, who still had the commemorative china from Uther's wedding to Lady Igraine almost thirty years ago, viewed the House of Pendragon with a sentimental reverence that Merlin could only explain by her being female and slightly old.

Most of the time, he was happy to let her know of the errors in her thinking, backed up with solid logic and historical data. However, today he was merely there to offer her tea and tissues as she mourned their nation's greatest loss since Igraine had passed, sealing a perfect royal romance into unbreakable history and leaving her little boy alone with his grief-stricken father.

For his own part, Merlin only found himself feeling uncomfortable at the prospect of watching his friend have to mourn his father under the mawkish gaze of the entire Commonwealth and beyond. He knew Arthur well enough now to know that he took no satisfaction in the display. Merlin wished there were something more he could do than just watch.

"You can bring Will on Sunday for the speech, if you like. He can't miss Sunday dinner. Oh, look, here comes the first company of soldiers. That was the King's old regiment, you know."

Merlin, who could read the discreet scroll at the bottom of the screen as well as she could, hummed in vague agreement and sipped his tea. The procession continued with horses and soldiers and various important people, until finally the gun carriage bearing Uther's casket emerged from the palace gates. He held out the box of tissues before his mum could even ask.

She took one just as the first sniffle welled up. "I still can't quite believe it. Such a tragedy. Don't you think so?"

He'd already rehearsed a diplomatic answer for this one, having gotten into trouble once already when she had phoned him the day the news had broken about Uther's death. "Yes. It's always a tragedy when someone dies so young."

Being his mother, she could read his subtext easily enough and slanted him a chiding look. "It's different when it's a King, Merlin. This is history."

"I know," he conceded. And it was Arthur's father, which seemed more important to note than what the deceased had done for a living.

"Oh, look at the Prince and Princess. Well, I suppose we have to call him the King now, don't we? Have you spoken with him?"

"No," he replied, which was mostly true, though they had been texting several times a day. He suspected Arthur needed that small hint of normalcy, and Merlin needed...well, what he needed remained just out of his conscious grasp.

"So young to have lost both their parents. They look so sad."

He could not help thinking that Will had been orphaned much younger than that. He never looked sad, though; grief only fueled his fury at the unjust world.

It was the first time he had seen Arthur since that last afternoon at the school, save for a brief shot of him acknowledging the crowds of mourners at the palace gates. Arthur's face looked drawn tight around his bones, as though someone had tried to embalm him along with his father. He walked next to his half-sister, steady and dignified, nothing left of the sarcastic prat Merlin had grown so fond of over the last few weeks.

Princess Morgana did not look particularly sad to Merlin's eye. "I think she looks more grim," he said to his mother.

"I wonder if she ever made her peace with her father," his mum mused. "That tell-all book by her mother's butler said that she was enraged when she found out her true parentage."

"Can't blame her." He elbowed his mother playfully. "I wouldn't have taken it well, either, if I found out you were stepping out on Dad and that's how you got me."

She gave him a playful smack in return that ended in a fond squeeze of his arm. "Well, I hope they reconciled by the end. We always think we have so much time, but then it runs out."

Morgana looked like she had a fuck-ton of regrets, but somehow, Merlin doubted that it had much to do with wishing she had repaired her relationship with her biological father. She never made a secret out of her desire to supplant her half-brother as heir apparent. Parliament had been making noises for decades about changing the Acts of Succession, at least when it came to male primogeniture, but there'd been no urgency about it once Arthur was born.

Merlin would have liked to see that debate as at least a first step in acknowledging how ridiculous and outdated the monarchy was. He had some small suspicion that Arthur would not have objected to it. But even if they had done it, Morgana would still have been screwed, from her birth if not her gender.

He shrugged and reached for a biscuit. It was just an empty title—the only thing worth noting was what Arthur was about to sacrifice to it. As far as Merlin was concerned, Morgana could have it if it meant Merlin got to have Arthur back.

"They are nearly ready for you, sir." George came most of the way through the door to the study, closing it discreetly to a crack. He gasped in disapproval as the door was wrenched out of his grasp from the other side and Leon barged through it.

"We're all here," he announced as he closed the door again, with George on the other side. "Gwaine even dressed appropriately for a change."

Arthur finally looked up from his phone with a smile. "Who had to wrestle him into the waistcoat?"

Leon made a gesture expansive of the entire palace, though they both knew Gwaine was capable of making a good show on his own—when he wanted to. "Got your speech ready? One of the PM's mice is scurrying around out there wanting to see your edits."

He patted his chest right over the empty breast pocket. "All set. No edits." Not hard, since he had not even looked at the pages that 10 Downing had sent over.

His oldest friend and companion, the Earl of Sussex, dropped down onto the settee next to him. "Reviewing it now, are you?"

His eyes back on his phone, Arthur made a vaguely affirmative noise.

"Let's see it, then." Leon snapped the phone out of his hands before Arthur realized his danger. "Oh, for God's sake, Arthur. Not that nonsense again."

"It isn't nonsense to listen to the voices of the people." Arthur made a half-hearted grab for the phone, but Leon had turned his whole body to the side to hunch over it as he read.

"This isn't the people. This is a couple of nutters with a grudge against the world and obviously no sex lives." Leon stood up. "I'm going to leave you to collect your thoughts now. No, I'm taking this with me. This is the last thing you need to be filling your head with right now."

"Give me my phone, Leon. I'm the King, I command you." Arthur held out his hand imperiously, but Leon just pocketed the phone and headed for the door.

"It's for your own good, Your Majesty." Leon exited, elbowing George aside from the door as it opened.

Arthur sat in the stifling silence for a few more minutes. The silence had been soothing before because he'd had the company of his phone. Reading the blog again had been inspirational, but mostly a way to kill time while waiting for Merlin to text another reply. His bumbling irreverence and growing affection had been just what Arthur needed to put himself in the proper mindset for this night.

Arthur closed his eyes and tried to remember the words he had wanted to read again before he went on the air; he had read them often enough already, after all. They had gone to his heart, an exhortation to seize his chance to break out of his father's shadow and use his reign to make changes that were long overdue.

But the sense of connection was gone. Arthur would have to do this on his own.

He stood up and smoothed his suit, though half a dozen people would be smoothing him repeatedly before the camera started rolling.

Then he left his father's study for what he was determined would be the last time.

Will showed up at the house not long after Merlin arrived, bearing a moderately-priced bottle of wine and a brave smile. "Thank you for having me, Mrs. Emrys."

She smiled and kissed his cheek, taking the bottle. "I'm so glad you're here. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the speech."

She's not, Merlin mouthed at Will over his mother's shoulder. Once he had sidled past Merlin's mother, Will rolled his eyes and gave Merlin a rough jostle with his shoulder. Merlin jostled him back, throwing in a few light punches. They roughhoused in the tiny foyer until Merlin's mother was the one rolling her eyes as she shooed them into the house.

"The lamb is outstanding as ever, Mrs. Emrys," Will said over dinner, after they had all chewed in silence for a few minutes.

"Thank you, Will." Merlin's mother slid another helping onto his plate without being asked. "I do hope you boys will give our new King a fair chance before you start writing horrible things about him on that awful website of yours."

Merlin and Will choked on their lamb in unison. "What?" Merlin gasped in between gulping the glass of wine his mother calmly pushed closer to him.

"I understand that Uther wasn't exactly a King for the young people, even when he was young himself. But I really think you should keep an open mind about Arthur. After all, Merlin, you liked him a great deal when you were working with him."

"Yes, Mum," he mumbled. Gwaine had even invited him to London to watch Arthur give his speech in person, but as much as he wanted to see Arthur again, he could not imagine anywhere he would be more out of place.

Will scratched the back of his head and looked abashed, a rare expression for him. "I have nothing against Arthur, Mrs. Emrys. It's the institution I dislike. Not just the monarchy, but all the aristocracy: a useless burden on public funds and the public attention."

She put her hand over his. "I understand your feelings, Will," she said. "But the royal family still means something to a lot of us. And Arthur is your generation. Promise me you'll listen to what he has to say tonight before you condemn him."

"I wasn't going to condemn anybody," Will grumbled and let her pat his hand.

"Come on," Merlin's mother said with the cheeriness of victory. "Let's carry in our puddings. I think it's time for the broadcast to start."

Merlin let himself be herded into the sitting room with no protest. He did not like any of this nonsense, but he had to admit, part of him was still eager to hear what Arthur had to say.

By the time Arthur arrived at the makeshift TV studio set up in the White Drawing Room, affectionately known amongst the Pendragons as the Great Hall, he was surrounded on all sides by people he barely knew. He could identify three staffers from the Beeb, two of his father's senior staff, and one of the PM's lackeys. George's stolid presence at his back proved an unlikely source of comfort.

He was still being brushed and fluffed and wittered at (no one had ever wittered at Uther) when he spotted the people he did know. Leon stood with Gwaine and Mithian and—to Arthur's surprised delight—Lancelot along the back wall behind the camera. Arthur broke away from his small army of helpfulness and veered over to join them.

Gwaine grinned as easily as he always did and clapped him on the arm. "Like the cufflinks? I had them hauled out of the vault just for your special moment."

"Someone's going to report them stolen by morning. No one will believe you're actually wearing them." Arthur smirked.

Gwaine dropped his voice. "Merlin sends his best. I tried to bring him, but he said he was allergic to television cameras. He promised to watch on telly, though."

"He's probably waiting with popcorn, the bastard." Arthur perversely enjoyed that image, though he felt a pang of disappointment that Merlin was not here to see the show in person. He would have liked to see Merlin's face.

The producer appeared at Arthur's shoulder. "Three minutes until air time, Your Majesty. If you would be so kind, we need to do the final checks."

"Of course." Arthur had only ever given an address of his own once, upon his investiture as Prince of Wales and heir apparent, but he had watched his father every Christmas for his entire life.

They smoothed and dusted him one more time after he sat down at the ornate desk from which his grandfather had first addressed the nation on television. He stared at the camera as if it were a foe on the battlefield while they tweaked the lighting one last time. For one brief, heart-sinking moment, he wished his father were there to tell him he was doing the right thing.

Except, of course, that if Uther were here, Arthur would not be doing this at all.

The director caught his attention and started counting down from ten. He had that many seconds left to come to his senses and stop this nonsense.

But it was already too late. He had not printed out Nimueh's speech for a reason. No Plan B; no excuses.

"Three...two...and we're live."

Arthur looked into the black lens, at his people, his erstwhile subjects, and felt like he was falling into a black abyss. His mouth was moving on autopilot and he hoped to God that intelligible sound was coming out of it. It was difficult to tell through the buzzing in his ears.

"...of course, my family has taken great comfort in all the ways you have let us know that you share in our grief." As his mind cleared enough to catch up with his mouth, he noticed in his peripheral vision that Morgana had slipped in. "My sister Morgana, in particular, wishes to express her gratitude for your support in this difficult time."

One might interpret that as an olive branch; Arthur rather suspected it would prove more a red flag in front of a bull. He could not see her reaction, but either way, Arthur felt he would get something out of it.

"My father raised us with the belief that our duty to the British people is paramount. My commitment to you that I made upon becoming the Prince of Wales has not wavered. Please hold that in your hearts through the rest of what I have to say."

Arthur paused long enough to feel the sharp rise of tension in the room as people caught on that something unexpected was about to happen. He fancied he could feel the attention of the entire nation focusing on him with actual interest for the first time in his life.

"My father and I agreed on many principles of statesmanship, the chief of which was that a monarch should be of use to his people, striving ever for their protection, prosperity, and the betterment of the nation. In my studies, my military service, and my choice of career, I have sought to serve you however God intended."

Are you listening, Merlin? he wondered as he took a breath. This is what I was trying to tell you, that day.

"I had imagined that when I was called to become King, many years from now, I would leave these things behind and enter a different kind of service. However, after a great deal of thought and counsel, it became apparent to me that I am already on the path I was intended to take."

Across the room, he heard at least three separate phones start to buzz. The sound invigorated him at the thought of how many people he was terrifying right now.

"When the remaining obligations of my succession are settled, I intend to return to my work in advancing municipal architecture to the next level of environmental modernity. Rest assured that I will still fulfill my formal obligations as King. I will entertain state visitors; I will open Parliament; I expect I will be bringing a thoughtful message into your homes at Christmas time. But for the rest of the year, I will work at my vocation like any other citizen."

He took another breath and smiled. There was the easy part done.

"I have one other matter to bring to you, my people. I cannot offer you my service without my honesty. Along with many of you, I intend someday to marry and start a family. However, my spouse, my consort, will not be a woman. I am a gay man and although I recognize that the world still has a great ways to go in peaceful acceptance of difference, I feel I can trust the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth with the truth of my heart."

When he paused again, he felt dizzy with terror and relief. It was done; he could not take it back.

"I sense the words 'constitutional crisis' looming in some of your minds as I speak. It is true that matters of succession will need to be carefully examined and modernized, a process long overdue. However it turns out, should I die without an heir of my body, I will hardly be the first King to do so. The monarchy will go on."

Sorry about that part, Merlin, he thought and wished he dared look over at Morgana's face.

"But that is for the future. For the present, I will begin my reign by mourning the tragically early loss of my father, as is necessary and appropriate for me to do. I will go back to work alongside the hard-working people of this Commonwealth of Nations. Together, as always, we shall go forward. I give you my most humble thanks for your support, your compassion, and your prayers."

He had to look pointedly at the stunned director and camera operator before they hastily cut the broadcast.

Well, at least they had probably already forgotten the part about keeping his job.

"What the fuck?" Will asked after a moment of stunned silence.

"Goodness," Merlin's mother said faintly in response.

Merlin realized he had stood up at some point during the speech. He sat down on the sofa with a thud. "Well, fuck me," he said.

When the camera light finally went off, the room was dead silent. At last Arthur could look over at Morgana and see that she looked like a cat with a canary at her mercy, which was about what he had expected. With every ounce of dignity bred and practiced, Arthur rose and tugged his jacket straight.

Ignoring the gaping shock and wondering grins, Arthur walked across the room and stopped in front of Lancelot. "Hi. Would you like to have dinner with me?"

Lancelot opened his mouth, had to close it again to swallow, and then smiled. "I would be honoured, Arthur."

He looked at Arthur with admiration bordering on reverence. It was not quite drop dead sexual attraction, nor was it as sweet a victory as if Lancelot had had blue eyes and a sharp tongue. But given the rest of his track record to date, Arthur thought it was a fine place to start.

"Can he do this?" Leon was complaining. "I really don't think he can do this."

"Fuck yeah, he can," Gwaine interrupted, and Mithian finished: "He's the fucking King. He can do anything."

Arthur grinned and gestured at Leon to give his damn phone back. He could not wait to tell Merlin.

Arthur was coming back.

Arthur was coming out.

Merlin looked down at his hands. They trembled, a fine tremor until he clenched his fists.

Arthur was gay. Then when he had seemed to be attracted to Merlin--he actually had been. And Merlin had shut him down completely.

Compulsively, he picked up his phone again. The text message was still on the screen.

Asked Lancelot out. He said yes. Radical enough for you?

On the third try, he got his thumbs to work. Impressed. R u really coming back?

Arthur must still have his phone out, because the answer came seconds later. Sorry to disappoint you.

Not disappointed, he typed and hit send before he could think better of it.

He should be disappointed. He was disappointed, but the reasons were nothing he had ever anticipated.

Arthur had been brilliant. Merlin admitted it freely and with joy. Even Will had not been able to summon up any invective.

He looked over at the kitchen table where Will still sat, motionless, staring at the blank update box on the blog. A faint sound of distress drifted across the room.

Arthur had been brilliant, brave, beautiful, and none of it had anything to do with all the titles around his name. No, that was not quite honest--Arthur was King. His station had helped shape who he was, and he had just chosen to elevate that station rather than allowing it to confine him.

"He asked Lancelot out," he said aloud. It must have been the first thing he chose to do with his new freedom.

Will glanced up. "The bloke at work? He doesn't waste time. Here, what do you think of this? Just as a start."

Still clutching the phone, Merlin went to read over Will's shoulder. He only got few lines in before anger flared through him.

"No." He reached around Will and slammed his fingers down on the delete key.

"Oi! What the fuck?" Will knocked his hand away. "What's wrong with you?"

"You don't get to use his sexuality against him like that. Anything you feel about the monarchy, it's nothing to do with that." He picked up the laptop and closed it, still seething.

Will stared at him like he was a family pet that had started foaming at the mouth, just a tad. "You know it's not about you, right? I mean, it doesn't bother me that you're half poofter. I forget about it most of the time anyway."

"Thanks." Merlin slumped into a chair. Everyone forgot; it was the way Merlin had engineered it, unconsciously at first, but then as a protective mechanism. When he had been with Freya, his bisexuality had been a non-issue. He would never stray from her, so his orientation was more of a private party trick that let him check out guys with her and contemplate celebrity threesomes.

By the time Freya left, he was already at Avalon where everyone, on account of Freya, assumed he was straight. He had never bothered correcting them before, and then it seemed safer just to keep his mouth shut. He worked at a primary school in a very small community; all it would take was one nervous bigot overreacting and he would lose the job he loved and probably have to move.

"Hey." Will dragged his chair over to Merlin's and kicked at his trainer until Merlin looked up at him. Will's brow creased with worry. "I'm sorry. You're right, it's out of line to say shit like this. Doesn't even make sense, does it? I mean he's right, plenty of kings and queens didn't have kids to follow them. Some of them were probably even gay. It's nothing to do with wanting the monarchy itself gone. Saying something like that just tears down my own argument, doesn't it? I mean—"

Merlin finally kicked him back with a small grin. "Stop babbling. I forgive you."

A broad grin of relief spread over Will's face, but then it creased back into worry. "You really have feelings for him, don't you?"

He could find no reason to lie about it anymore, to himself or to Will. "Yeah. I really do. How stupid is that, right?"

"No, he's stupid for not trying pull you in the first place." If Merlin had ever needed to know how much Will loved him, he would have proof now in Will's sudden fury that the King of Great Britain and a number of other places had not asked Merlin out. "You said he was intelligent, but he must be right daft if he passed you up for some rich old frog."

"Lancelot's not rich. He went to Oxford on scholarship. And he's young and quite fit."

Will stared at him as though he were the one who was daft, which was probably true. "That is not the point, Merlin."

"Look, we had sort of a moment, right before he left. I panicked, started throwing around Freya like some kind of hetero club card. I had no reason to think he was gay then; I just didn't want him to think I was."

Will nodded thoughtfully for a moment, then reached over and smacked the back of Merlin's head. As Merlin yelped in protest, Will got up and went to rummage through Merlin's refrigerator. "Never mind. I'm on his side now. That's what it's come to, my friend. I am siding with the symbol of everything I loathe about our society."

Merlin rolled his eyes, but accepted a beer as a peace offering. "Does that mean you'll give him a chance before you pillory him online?"

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves." Will made a cranky harrumphing sound as he headed for the back door. "We'll see."

Left alone, Merlin reached for his phone again to check for new messages. It was a shame he could never explain to Arthur what a tremendous victory he had just won.

"All right. This is the very last item of clothing that I own that isn't currently in Wales. How does it look?" Arthur turned toward his housemate, holding his arms out to the sides expectantly.

Gwaine lounged in a stiff-backed chair, looking as comfy as though he were on the couch in their flat. "Oh, fuck no. You look like the Little Dutch Boy right before he plugged the dike."

Arthur gritted his teeth. "Not exactly the impression I'm going for. Okay, that's it. I have no more clothing. It is too late to have anything made. It is too late to even run out to the high street and buy something. What the hell am I supposed to wear?"

"This one." Gwaine reached over and snagged a blue shirt that had been flung over the arm of the chair next to him. "You looked the best in this one."

He caught the shirt and frowned down at it. "This was the first thing I tried on."

"Yep. Great instincts. I should have known you were gay from the start. Oh, wait, I did."

Three hours wasted. He had made George send for his old uni clothes, still in storage at Clarence House. "You said I looked like a Smurf."

"Oh, I was lying. Just wanted to give you something to do for a few hours so you wouldn't get nerv—augh!"

Arthur had the legs of the nearest pair of jeans (the fourteenth pair he had tried, the ones Gwaine said made him look like an American hoodlum) wrapped around Gwaine's neck. "I'll give you something to do, you idiotic—"


They both froze and turned their heads to see George standing in the doorway, eyeing them with his normal placid disapproval. Arthur whipped the jeans from Gwaine's throat and hurriedly straightened up. "Yes, George?"

"Sir, I regret to inform you that the car is waiting. Do you need help dressing? The late King's valet has been dismissed, but I'm sure I could—"

"Bugger that." Arthur stripped off his rugby shirt and pulled on the blue shirt. Gwaine held out a pair of trousers and Arthur clambered into them without question. "Damn, my hair is a mess. I need to—"

"Just leave it." Gwaine grabbed his wrists and pulled them away from his head. "Trust me, just leave it. Come on, lover boy, let's get you to your first date."

Gwaine switched his grip to the back of Arthur's neck and steered him out the door. As they walked down the stairs, Arthur felt the nerves starting to creep back and grudgingly (silently) admitted that Gwaine had been right. "You know, I was actually kind of surprised that Lancelot said yes."

"You and me both. Not that I didn't know he liked you well enough. Still, it surprised me more that he was the one you asked. To be honest, I thought you had more of a fancy for a Welsh school teacher of our acquaintance."

Arthur felt strangely reluctant to answer him. What he had begun feeling for Merlin, strange and impossible, seemed too private and perhaps a little humiliating. "It wouldn't matter if I did. You know he wouldn't be interested."

"Oh, bah. Don't take all that republican flag waving of his to heart. He's got just as attached to you as you are to him."

"Regardless: he's straight."

"Really? I wouldn't have thought that. Did he tell you that?"

"Not in so many words, but I figured it out fast enough when he started talking about his ex-girlfriend."

"Yeah? Did you talk about yours, too?" Gwaine grinned and gave Arthur's shoulders a squeeze as they emerged under the portico where the car was waiting. "Have a good time, Your Majesty. Remember, details only if they're profoundly embarrassing or something I can use to horrify Leon."


Arthur would have preferred to drive himself, just as he would have preferred to go somewhere less intimidating than the Sans Merci, but the owners had been accommodating in shutting down the restaurant for the royal party. Before he met Merlin, he would not have thought twice about it, but now taking up an entire restaurant for himself discomfited him.

Lancelot was already waiting at the table. He smiled when he saw Arthur and started to stand up, but then hesitated as if unsure what to do.

Arthur felt the same way. When he went out with Mithian in public, he kissed her cheek and held her chair for her. He had no idea if that would be appropriate with Lancelot, but he suspected not.

In the end, Lancelot settled awkwardly back in his chair and Arthur did the same. They grinned at each other ruefully.

"How are you?" Arthur asked. "Did you find the place all right?"

"Yes, thanks. There was a bit of a harrowing moment at King's Cross when I got trapped behind a woman with a double-wide pram, but I persevered."

Arthur chuckled politely while two possible responses tripped over his tongue. He knew how to make polite public conversation and he knew how to joke with his friends. He had no idea what this was.

"I suppose it shows that I haven't done this very much." Arthur motioned for wine and the menus; that, at least, he knew how to do. "At least, not like this."

"Neither have I, actually." Lancelot nodded to the silent shadow of a server, though she automatically offered the bottle to Arthur. "But we already know each other, so surely we can find something to talk about, yes?"

Arthur seized the opening. "Yes, tell me how things are back at Avalon. I feel completely out of touch."

Lancelot brightened and launched into stories of all the events Arthur had missed at Avalon, every other one of which seemed to involve Merlin getting himself into trouble. Those were Arthur's favourites.

"I think I'm going to have to recreate the position of court jester, just for him," Arthur remarked after the tale of Merlin's latest encounter with Vivian, involving a pair of Chanel sunglasses and what sounded like a great deal of pigeon shit.

"I'd enjoy that, but I'm afraid he'd be wasted there." Lancelot chuckled and swirled his third glass of wine around his glass. "He really has been a great benefit to the project. After all, he understands what the school needs better than any of us, and he has a keen mind for sustainability."

Arthur put his own glass down with a laugh and took another bite of the excellent beef. The wine spread warmth through his belly and legs, relaxing him all the more because the food portions were so very small. "Just don't tell him that. I'm fairly sure he's already gunning for my job."

"Which one?" Lancelot retorted and they both laughed before Lancelot leaned back and sighed. "I have to admit, if I'd had time to think about it, I would have expected you to seek out his company before mine."

"Am I really the only person who knew that Merlin was straight?" That was an internal thought, but the wine gave it voice. "I thought I had terrible gaydar, but perhaps I was underestimating myself."

An odd tension came over Lancelot, though he said nothing as he focused on his food with an intensity that seemed too much even for the superb scallops.

"I'm sorry, that was rude of me." Arthur felt a sudden, desperate certainty that he was fucking this up. "And I certainly didn't mean to imply that I would rather be here with him than you."

Not that Merlin would ever set foot in a place like this. He would probably burst into flames.

"No, of course." Lancelot let out a short sigh and prodded a scallop with his fork. "Though perhaps it would be better if you were."

Something was wrong. Lancelot seemed nervous and still avoided Arthur's eyes. "I'm sorry, I never asked. Are you even out?"

Lancelot tensed even more. "Well," he said, more hesitant that Arthur had ever seen him or even suspected possible. "That's something that...."

Alarm bells were blaring in Arthur's head now, underscored by a creeping dread when Lancelot did not finish his sentence. "Lancelot." He tried to find an appropriately delicate way to phrase it, and failed. "Are you even gay?"

Lancelot finally met his gaze, looking up with a rueful smile and shaking his head.

"Bi?" Arthur grasped at straws, though his heart was already sinking into his stomach. "There's nothing wrong with being bi. I don't have any prejudices about that."

Lancelot bit his lip, then finally shook his head again.

Arthur realized he had been leaning forward and fell back in his chair with a thump. "I don't understand." He felt stupid and humiliated but—how could it not have been clear that he was asking Lancelot on a date? A sudden horror rushed over him. "Wait, please tell me you didn't say yes because of work. Or because—because of who I am?"

"No!" Lancelot straightened up, looking at him directly now. With a slight relief, Arthur found he could not doubt the sincerity of that. "I wanted to say yes. You were so courageous, and I was so flattered that you asked me."

"I appreciate that." Arthur tilted his head back and closed his eyes so he would not have to look at Lancelot's all-too-sincere face anymore. "But that's a not a very good reason to date someone."

"I know. I knew I should tell you, but it didn't seem like a bad thing to go to dinner. And Gwen thought it was a lovely idea."

"Who's—oh, God, Gwen is your girlfriend, isn't she?"

"My fiancée, actually. She said you looked so lonely and sad, it would be good for you to have company. And Gwaine thought it might be nice for your first date to be a friend. Someone safe."

"Oh my God. This is a pity date." Arthur buried his face in his hands because he could not bear to look at Lancelot again. "The King of Great Britain is on a pity date."

"No, Arthur, it's not—"

"I was voted the World's Most Eligible Bachelor six times—six times!—and all I could get was a pity date."

"Arthur, please don't think—"

"When were you going to tell me, Lancelot? On the second date? The third? When I tried to kiss you good night? What would your Gwen think of that?"

Lancelot stopped answering. When Arthur finally uncovered his face, Lancelot was staring down at the table, looking guilty and miserable. Arthur's embarrassment turned to unwelcome shame.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "You're a good friend, Lance. I'm still glad for the chance to get to talk to you more. Even if you are straight."

Relief overcame his humiliation when Lancelot looked up and smiled broadly, radiating a relief even greater than Arthur felt. "I'm glad, too. I do like you, Arthur, very much, and it would be nice to know you outside of our jobs, too."

"Good. Obviously that's necessary, since I didn't even know you had a fiancée." Arthur liked to think he was better than that with people; he could only plead the distraction of the project and Merlin. "So tell me all about your Gwen."

Lancelot beamed and launched into a reverent description of his bride to be and how they had met. Arthur actually found himself enjoying it, despite the burn of embarrassment in his gut that overlaid the fear that he would never find someone who felt something so powerful for him.

It was Monday, again, in that unfair way that Mondays had. It was also raining, because it was Wales and the Welsh sky always knew when it was Monday.

Merlin clutched his coffee mug to his chest, drew himself tighter in under the umbrella, and tried to trudge a little faster. He heard the sound of a car behind him and braced himself to get splashed.

"Really, Merlin. I am commanding you to buy a sensible pair of galoshes. You're going to squelch all day and distract everyone."

He was grinning before he even lifted his head to see what snotty git was taunting him from the road. "Oh, it's you again. Didn't expect to see you around these parts again."

"You mean, aside from the three text messages I sent you telling you I'd be back today? Or the email Gwaine sent to everyone? Or the second email Lancelot sent to everyone? Or, I don't know, the announcement I made on the BBC?"

"Well." Merlin sauntered forward. His grin was starting to hurt. "You're the King now, and kings are notoriously fickle."

Arthur rolled his eyes and jerked his head toward the passenger seat. "Just get in."

Merlin gave a cheerful wave to the two protection officers who had stopped their car a discreet distance behind Arthur's car. He splashed around to the passenger side, juggling his coffee between his arms and his chest as he tried to close the umbrella. With a bit of contortion he managed to get his arse into the seat and pulled the rest of him in after. "Thanks." The coffee teetered somewhere between his elbow and his knee. "It's really bucketing—oh, shit."

"What—Merlin!" Arthur started yanking Merlin's arms and legs aside as though trying to pull him away from the coffee now splattered all over Merlin and the dashboard.

"Don't worry, it's not that hot. I'm fine. Ow!"

"Sod it all, it's everywhere. Merlin, you oaf, do you have the slightest idea what kind of car this is?"

"A black one?" Merlin gave him an incredulous scowl. "If you were interested, my delicate porcelain skin is unharmed."

"I'm sincerely interested in your skin, Merlin, I promise, but I'm much more interested in the coffee currently soaking into my upholstery." Arthur draped over him now, delving down between Merlin's legs to daub at the drips and splotches with—was that an actual handkerchief?

Between the sudden presence of Arthur in his personal space and Arthur's declared interest in Merlin's skin, Merlin found it hard to worry about a little spilled coffee. "I'll help you get it up when we get to school. Everything in here is black or brown anyway."

"The smell will be in here for weeks. Why don't you drink tea like a proper person?" Arthur kept up his mopping, though at this point, Merlin was sure that he was only smearing the coffee around.

"Look, I didn't want to say anything, but this looks like it's a pretty old car and it's kind of weird looking. I mean, it doesn't even have a back seat. Maybe this is a sign that you should consider trading it in for a newer model. Surely you can afford something better?"

Arthur stopped his mopping and turned his head sideways to face Merlin. He was a little below him and very near; his eyes up close looked wide and blue and rather mad. "Merlin. This is a 1969 Jaguar E-Type. It is the best car ever made, not just in Britain, but anywhere. There is no such thing as something better."

Merlin stared back at him. He had been afraid Arthur was going to say something like that. "I think we have some Febreze in the staff room?"

Arthur closed his eyes and slowly straightened up, moving back into his own seat. Then he opened his eyes enough to give Merlin a sidelong smile. "You're fortunate that I am moderately happy to see you. Is that my umbrella, by the way?"

He looked down: the umbrella soaking through his trouser leg had barely registered after the coffee. "Yes."

"Did you not get a good enough offer for it?"

The bids had gone up to a staggering sum, actually, but an hour before the auction was due to end, Merlin had taken it down, unable to think of parting with it.

"Nah, nobody wanted a used umbrella." He extended it to Arthur. "You want it back?"

Arthur looked down: not at the umbrella, but at his lap where, Merlin belatedly realized, the umbrella was dripping a mixture of cold rainwater and lukewarm coffee onto his thigh. When he looked up and met Merlin's eyes again, Merlin merely nodded and withdrew the umbrella back to his own lap.

With a sigh, Arthur put the car in gear and started back down the wet road. "On the way home, Merlin, we are working on your car manners. It's like training a puppy, I swear to God."

Merlin turned his head to look out the window and hide his smile.

All day he had the urge to talk to Merlin, though he was never sure what he wanted to talk about or why. Thankfully, Merlin stuck close to him all day, always smiling. They worked hard all day, even through lunch; Arthur had not felt so relaxed since the night an invisible crown had settled on his head.

"We should be ready for the wrecking ball by the weekend, right on schedule," he said with relish when they were back in the tiny office at the end of the day.

Merlin winced. "Are you sure that's necessary? Can't you just...add on?"

"We're not remodeling your mother's kitchen, Merlin. This is a full-scale revolution."

"A revolution, eh? And how well do those generally work out for you people?"

"You have to clear out the old before you can build the new," he answered, and just like that, he remembered his father. The grief hit him in the stomach, doubling him over with a long wheeze. It physically hurt, this mad notion that he would never see his father again.

He finally managed to draw in a deeper breath and opened his eyes. The world wavered around him until he realized that he was not bent over after all. He had not even cried out, he thought, since Merlin was looking him only with mild curiosity, not concern.

"All right, Arthur?"

"Yeah. Get your things and we can leave." Arthur slung his own bag around his shoulders and headed out the door. "Don't forget the People's Umbrella. It's still raining."

The car still reeked of coffee when they got in. Arthur said nothing; Merlin carefully did not look at him.

They stayed quiet as they pulled away from the school. After about a minute, Merlin shifted next to him and turned his head toward Arthur. "I realized that I never got the chance to actually tell you that I'm sorry about your father."

Arthur braced himself for the pain to return, but instead, the words salved a little of the remaining soreness. "Thank you. I wish you could have met him."

Merlin gave a small snort. "Somehow, I don't think that would have gone very well."

"Oh, I know. That's exactly why I wish I could have seen it."

"I would have been polite! He was your father, after all."

"You're barely polite to me." The turn-off for Merlin's house approached on the left, but Merlin was facing him, prickling with indignant humour.

Arthur pressed the accelerator and kept going as Merlin protested. "I'm not polite to you because you're just a king. But I'm always polite to people's dads. Hey, you missed the turn. That was my driveway."

"Well, you just kept talking, so I didn't want to interrupt you. See, that's how polite I am." He smiled, making it as smug as he knew how, which he had been assured was a considerable amount.

"You'll have to circle around by the post office. It's going to be really out of your way now." Merlin slouched down into his seat, and when Arthur looked at him out of the corner of his eye, did not look all that unhappy about it.

Good. Arthur liked spending time with Merlin, even if he was unavailable to him in all the ways Arthur would have liked. If the disaster with Lancelot had taught him anything, it was to not turn up his nose at real friendship in hell-bent pursuit of imaginary romance. And Merlin eased the hollowness still lingering in his chest.

The memory of his foolish date made him huff a little with laughter. He had not yet told Merlin about it, and he could just imagine how much Merlin was going to enjoy every humiliating second.

"What?" Merlin turned to look at him.

"You never did ask how my date with Lancelot went."

Merlin made some kind of face, though Arthur could not take his eyes off the road long enough to try to interpret it. He really hoped Merlin was not the sort of straight person who found even the mention of gay relationships distasteful.

"I was hoping you made a total fool out of yourself, but it seemed kind of mean to say it since I actually like Lance," Merlin said and Arthur relaxed.

"As it happens, I fulfilled your every wild hope and dream on that count." Arthur grinned, the sting of his embarrassment fading under the anticipation of telling Merlin about it. "And don't worry, Lancelot is just fine."

Merlin sat up straight and turned his whole upper body toward Arthur. "Well, in that case, do go on."

By that time, Arthur had circled around the village centre and was passing the school again. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow, I'm afraid. Here's your house coming up."

"Oh, no, you're not getting away that easily. Just park the car right there next to my bike. I'll make us some tea."

Merlin's home was a cottage, an incredibly small cottage that bore little resemblance to the summer cottages Arthur had known growing up. "One crack about hobbit holes, and you're out the door," Merlin informed him as he dumped his knapsack and keys on the kitchen table.

Arthur smiled as he left his belongings next to Merlin's and started to walk around. "It looks charming."

"I realize that's a polite way of saying ‘small,' but thank you. My mother did most of the decorating, as you probably guessed."

"Our place is a little bigger," Arthur admitted. "But then there's two of us, and you do not want to be in close quarters with Gwaine when the moon is full."

Merlin snorted and started to clatter around the tiny kitchen as he put the kettle on. Arthur kept wandering.

Being in Merlin's home felt terribly intimate. He perused the bookshelves, which were filled with more novels than Arthur had probably read in his life. The walls stood empty except for a landscape undoubtedly of Mrs. Emrys's choosing and a small group of framed photos. There was a beaming Merlin with various groups of children; with an older woman who must have been his mother; a young man who could only be the notorious Will; and an older man Arthur could not place from any of Merlin's stories.

"Is this your father?" he called.

Merlin looked over his shoulder at the sink. "Yeah. He passed away a few years ago."

"I'm sorry. That's very young. May I ask how he died?"

"Eaten by a komodo dragon, or at least that's our best guess. They never did find his body."

Arthur opened his mouth, but all his public relations experience could not come up with a suitable reply for that. Merlin might be taking the piss just to see what Arthur would do, but one could not politely cast doubt on that sort of statement.

"Well," he finally said. "I suppose we both have rather dramatic family histories, then."

Merlin set the teapot on the table, with two mugs and a package of digestives—chocolate covered, Arthur was pleased to see. "Come on, sit. Don't think you're going to distract me. I want to hear all about you making a fool of yourself."

They drank tea and ate biscuits, and Arthur told the tale of Lancelot and the Counterproductive Gay Date. He expected Merlin to be doubled over laughing by the time he got to the revelation of Lancelot's heterosexual engagement, but Merlin set his mug down much harder than necessary and frowned.

"I'm sorry, but I think that's horrible. I know he was probably startled when you asked him, but he should have told you the truth afterwards, before you went out."

Arthur paused with his biscuit halfway to his mouth. "Well, perhaps, but he meant well. Come on, Merlin, you must see the humour better than anyone. A pity date—me! Do you know how many times I've been named most eligible bachelor in the world?"

"Six. Gwaine told me." Merlin got up and took the packet of biscuits back to the cupboard, though Arthur had been reaching for another one. "I just don't think it was right for him to pretend to be something he's not."

"What, like I pretended to be straight all these years?" Arthur felt compelled to acknowledge the double standard, even though Merlin's indignation on his behalf gave him a purring rush of pleasure.

For some reason, Merlin froze and looked stricken at that. "Different thing," he insisted. "There are reasons for someone to pretend to be straight when they have to live a certain kind of life. We can't all just come out on the BBC, you know."

Arthur started to retort, but stopped—at first because he had got confused whether he was defending Lancelot or himself. And then, because the word "we" had jammed into the gearbox of his brain. "When you say 'we,'" he started carefully, so carefully, "are you speaking with a general humanist empathy, or on behalf of a hypothetical group of closeted queer persons which includes yourself?"

Merlin just stared at him, mouth gaping open and eyes panicked like Arthur's headlamps had startled him in the midst of crossing the roadway. That was an answer by itself, one that made Arthur's heart clench.

"Merlin, are you gay?"

Slowly, Merlin shook his head.

"Are you bisexual?"

Merlin swallowed. Arthur watched the movement of his throat, the rapid flutter of his eyelids. Then he nodded.

Arthur sat back in his chair. He did not remember leaning forward. Once again, he felt like he had in front of the camera, like he was about to leap off a cliff with only a vague idea of what waited below.

"Had I known that," he said, "I would never have asked Lancelot in the first place."

They looked at each other, the sound of their breathing abnormally loud in the silence. Then Merlin crossed the kitchen in three steps, bent over Arthur's chair, and kissed him.

A shock of bliss jolted through him at the touch of Merlin's lips. He reached up to grip Merlin's shoulders, hands awkward and clumsy. Arthur could count the number of times he had been kissed in his life on one hand; not a single one had made his breath catch and his groin tighten like this.

Merlin pulled back, lips lingering, clinging to Arthur's bottom lip until all he could feel was Merlin's breath and Merlin's eyes were all he could see. "Is this all right?" Merlin asked.

"Very," he answered. His hands slid from Merlin's shoulder to his waist and pulled him down until Merlin straddled his lap. "Very all right."

Merlin held Arthur's face between his hands and looked at him. He looked at him, solemn and wondering, until a beautiful, idiotic grin spread across his face. He was still grinning when he bent his head to Arthur's for another kiss.

Arthur closed his eyes and let Merlin take the lead. His awkwardness, his worry about his inexperience melted away with the first touch of Merlin's tongue against his. They kissed in soft touches, not hesitant but not hurried.

He wrapped his arms around Merlin and tried to pull him tighter against his body. Merlin slipped a little on his lap and laughed as their mouths broke apart.

Grinning, he got back onto his feet and held out his hand to Arthur. "Sofa?"

His gaze lingered over the full curve of Merlin's lips. His bottom lip glistened; Arthur wondered which one of them had made it wet, and smiled at the question. "You're smarter than you look."

Merlin rolled his eyes and pulled him to his feet. Their hands stayed linked as Merlin guided him into the next room, skin brushing on skin.

The couch was actually a loveseat. They had to curl around each other to kiss, which brought their bodies together in an awkward, intimate tangle. Arousal melted through Arthur's limbs, honey-slow and sweet.

His tongue was prodding against Merlin's, an experimental tease, when his phone buzzed in his pocket. Merlin started laughing, giddy. "So kinky already?"

Arthur nipped at his chin in affectionate punishment. He had to work his hand from under Merlin's back and then back under Merlin's knee to get to the phone in his pocket. Merlin made no effort to assist the process.

He meant to toss the phone to the side once he freed it from his pocket, but habit made him glance at the screen. The buzzing had come from a text message from Gwaine, wanting to know where the hell he was.

That made him look at the time and sigh. "I should go."

Merlin stroked his thumb along Arthur's jaw before kissing him again. "That sounds like a terrible idea."

"The paps have been following me everywhere except the school, trying to figure out whom I'm seeing. If you don't want them to know it's you, I can't stay too late."

Merlin stiffened at that, sensual pliability gone in an instant.

"It's all right." Arthur smoothed a hand over the back of Merlin's head and kissed him. "I don't really want them intruding, either."

Merlin relaxed and grinned in embarrassment. "So I'm seeing you now, am I?"

"Do you want to be?"

In answer, Merlin pressed in to kiss him, and Arthur almost lost track of the time again. It was Merlin who pulled away and started to untangle them. "All right, get out of here before you ruin my life. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Dramatic," Arthur teased as he straightened his clothes and hair. It was hard to imagine that anything could ruin how he felt right now.

When he made it back to his car he texted Gwaine that he was on his way. Then he sat behind the wheel for a minute. His lips still felt like they were being kissed, tender, almost sore. He looked down at his hands, where Merlin's fingers had curled into his.

If his father could see how happy he was in this moment, surely now he would understand and support Arthur's choice. He tried to imagine his father giving PFLAG his royal patronage; the image made him snicker like the giddy schoolboy he was turning into.

Still snickering, he turned the ignition and drove off, followed by the ever-patient Elyan and Percival, now late for their shift change.

When he got home he found Gwaine and Lancelot sitting in the front with beers and blueprints. They looked up, and Gwaine started to say something. He stopped with a startled look when Arthur beamed at him.

He walked over and put his hand on Lancelot's shoulder. "Thank you so much for being straight."

"You're...welcome," Lancelot answered.

Arthur laughed, gave him another squeeze, and went off to his room. He pretended not to hear Gwaine calling his name after him, and he locked (and Gwaine-proofed) the door behind him. After a thousand of Gwaine's infatuations, it was Arthur's turn to be the barmy one.

Merlin had to poke at his face with his fingers as he walked out the door the next morning to make sure he had not started grinning like a hyena—again. He recognized this blissful headiness, this floating infatuation. It was something not yet love, but already more than a crush.

He started his trudge down the road to school. At any moment he expected to hear the growl of an outdated motor behind him; he looked over his shoulder a few times before catching himself with a roll of his eyes.

By the time Arthur showed up, Merlin was just walking past the climbing frame on the edge of the schoolyard. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling and kept walking.

"Good morning," Arthur called from just behind him. "Need a lift?"

Merlin stopped and turned to face him. Fuck, Arthur was even more beautiful than he remembered, now that he was letting himself really look. His smile brightened his face and made his eyes crinkle at the corners; sunlight lit up his hair and his shirt stretched across his shoulders as he leaned out the window.

With an effort, Merlin kept his face neutral and raised his eyebrows. He looked pointedly between Arthur and the school, now less than fifty meters away.

Arthur shrugged. "I got ambushed this morning. Apparently Gwaine isn't used to seeing me happy. It freaked him out."

Merlin finally let himself grin and strolled along beside the car towards the school. "Oh, so I make you happy, do I?"

"Don't flatter yourself so much. I'm just pleased to be proven right about your orientation."

"You weren't right about anything. It took you three guesses!"

"Still won a prize, didn't I?" Arthur said and his grin made Merlin stumble a little because his legs were melting Dali-style.

He thought it would be difficult to work beside Arthur all day and stay professional, but there was so much to do and working beside Arthur felt natural and right. Lancelot gave him a few inquisitive looks over the course of the day. Merlin just smiled and Lancelot did not press.

Around lunchtime he did consider pulling Arthur into one of the many empty rooms for some private time. However, the thought of snogging in any room where either Dr. Gaius or any of his young pupils had entered gave him the creeps. That eliminated everything but the broom closet, and even Merlin had more dignity than that.

Arthur came up behind him late in the afternoon. "Are you ready to head home?"

Merlin looked at him over his shoulder. "Bit early, isn't it?" Not that he would complain about the idea, if Arthur intended to come with him.

A light touch on his side said that he did, and it sent a tiny shiver through Merlin's chest. "Actually, I thought perhaps you wouldn't mind if I came with you and did a little more work over dinner. The pupils start back for summer term in a couple of weeks, and I was hoping you'd help me plan a surprise to make up for the inconvenience."

"Fantastic idea," Vivian chirped as she walked by with a group of workmen. "You can both get out of my way so I can get something done."

"Your professional enthusiasm is always inspiring, Viv," Arthur said.

Merlin just flipped her the bird behind Arthur's back as they left.

When they got into the car, they were alone for the first time. Merlin took a deep, shaky breath, and when he exhaled, heat flooded down into his legs.

Arthur exhaled, too. He started the car; once they were moving, Arthur took his hand off the gear lever and, without looking at Merlin, held it palm up between them.

Merlin twined his fingers into Arthur's without hesitation. The heat of their connected skin made his whole body hot. Disengaging their hands when the car parked left him cold—he jumped out and strode for the door, intent on getting to privacy.

Arthur caught up with him as he got the door unlocked and open. Merlin walked the few feet into the kitchen and waited. Arthur closed the door behind him and then stood in the middle of the foyer, looking uncertain.

He could understand Arthur's hesitation. Neither of them had much experience with this, Arthur almost none. This thing between them felt so strong, but its newness brought with it a certain fragility.

Good thing one of them was not fussed about niceties.

Once he took the first step, momentum carried him right into Arthur's body. He pinned Arthur against the door with his chest and kissed him with his mouth open and straining.

Arthur gave way to Merlin's kiss, body relaxing against the door. His arms countered the surrender, tightening around Merlin and pulling him tight against him.

They kissed clumsy, wet, and hot. Merlin surged up against Arthur; it was the first time he had felt the full length of Arthur's body pressed flush against him, hard and male.

Arthur surged against him in return. His kiss had more confidence than it had the night before, which might have something to do with the way Merlin was moaning into his mouth.

At some point Merlin managed to extract his tongue long enough to speak. "Did you really want to work?" he asked with a gasp.

"Fuck no." Arthur shook his head and Merlin had to kiss him all over his dazed, stupid face.

And then he could not resist. "So you never intended to do anything nice for the children?"

Arthur gaped at him, dumbfounded. "No, I just—I thought—"

The snicker broke through his façade. "Relax, I'm just fucking with you."

Dumbfounded turned to annoyed in an instant. Merlin took Arthur's hand and pulled him into the sitting room before Arthur could work up any indignation that might get in the way of making out. Screw the kids; they were already getting a shiny new school out of the deal.

Merlin distracted Arthur with kisses until they were safely curled up together on the loveseat once more. They did not have enough room to stretch out and press their bodies together again. Merlin would have liked to take Arthur to his bed for that, but that seemed a bit too forward less than twenty-four hours after their first kiss.

And the smaller space gave him an excuse to sling his leg over Arthur's hip. Arthur obliged with a caress up his thigh; his hand stopped just below Merlin's arse. Merlin's breath caught, which made Arthur press deeper into Merlin's mouth.

Arthur filled his world and all his senses: the feel of him under Merlin's hands and lips; the warm scent of him and the sweet taste of his mouth; the tiny hitches and moans that he was sure no one on earth had ever heard before Merlin. Sometimes he had to pull back just to see Arthur flushed and glazed with arousal.

Blood flushed Merlin's cheeks and pulsed between his legs as well. Last night his arousal had slow-burned with their new exploration and growing intimacy. Tonight it just burned.

Merlin's hands tightened on him as Arthur mouthed over his throat. "Can I touch you?" he blurted.

Arthur lifted his head and his eyebrows. "There are very few parts of you that aren't touching me."

Except for a couple of really key parts. Merlin wormed his hand underneath the tangle of their limbs. "No, I mean can I touch you?"

His hand rubbed over the bulge in Arthur's trousers. Arthur's mouth went round with surprise, a tantalizing opening. "Oh." He visibly struggled to keep his cool, though his ragged breath belied the effort. "If you like."

Merlin was unbuckling Arthur's belt before he got the words all the way out. Arthur gave a shaky laugh and moved his arms and legs out of Merlin's way.

Having open access to Arthur's groin made new excitement bubble up through Merlin's body. He pulled the belt free and got the zip open, and then he got Arthur's cock out. Arthur had already hardened enough to fill Merlin's hand with firm flesh.

He had snogged other men before, usually in dark clubs or back at uni parties, but he had never got off with any of them. When he fantasized about it, he imagined that touching another cock would feel pretty much the same as touching himself.

When he closed his hand around Arthur's cock, he realized how completely wrong he was. Touching Arthur felt nothing like the time he had spent with his own cock just last night. He could not feel the warmth and pressure of his hand—but he could feel the response in Arthur's cock as he stroked.

Arthur stiffened rapidly until he was tight and red in Merlin's grip. The awkward upstroke squeezed a trickle of precome from under the foreskin—Merlin felt it wet his fingers, but his eyes had locked on Arthur's face.

As soon as Merlin touched him, Arthur's gaze had gone fuzzy. He stared down at Merlin's hand moving over his cock. His breath hitched whenever Merlin's palm rubbed over the head.

Arthur tipped his head back as his cock swelled into true rigidity. His eyes stayed open; as he blinked, Merlin could see they were wet. "Holy shit," Arthur breathed. "I'm—it's almost—fuck."

Merlin leaned into him and pressed soft kisses to the line of his jaw. "Go on. No need to wait if you want to come."

"Of course I want—" Arthur stopped in mid-sentence, mouth hanging open. His hips jerked as though the mere thought of attaining orgasm had set off the inevitable.

Come spurted from his cock. Merlin tightened his hand, trying to feel the pulse as it released. It smelled different than Merlin's come usually did, and his mouth started to water as he imagined having Arthur's cock in his mouth while it erupted.

When the pulses stopped, Arthur started laughing. He lifted his head to look at Merlin, eyes still wet but shining with happiness over his grin. "That was fantastic. Amazing. Merlin, I—"

"I should have known that the only way to get a word of praise out of you was through sexual favours."

Arthur huffed and then hauled Merlin back into his arms to kiss him hard.

Their kisses stayed hard—and so did Merlin. Soon, though not soon enough, Arthur's hand slid between Merlin's legs and massaged the bulge of his cock. The pressure seemed like a relief at first, until the ache increased.

"I want to touch you, too," Arthur mumbled against his lips.

"Was hoping you'd say that." Merlin started fumbling for his belt. Arthur tried to help; they ended up wrestling in an unstable tangle.

Merlin wound up lying across Arthur's lap, his back resting on one arm of the loveseat while propping his feet (bare at last after squirming trousers and pants off, no thanks to Arthur's help) on the other arm.

Arthur curled one arm around Merlin's shoulders, staring down at the stiff cock jutting up from Merlin's groin. "Spread your legs," he said and the roughness in his voice made Merlin desperate to comply.

He bent his outer leg and tucked his ankle under his other thigh, opening himself as much as he could. His cock swayed, skimming his belly; he waited for Arthur's hand to close around it, wondering if it would feel amazing or just spectacular.

But Arthur's fingers trailed along his hip, teased the inside of his thigh, and then stroked his balls. It felt good in the way that made him feel crazed with urgency. He made an encouraging, almost pleading noise in the back of his throat.

Arthur only cupped his balls in a gentle grip and rolled them between his palm and fingers. When one finger stroked gently behind them, Merlin realized: Arthur was exploring, getting to know the first body that was not his own.

Merlin drew in a sharp breath. He could have come right then, just from the thought of this scrutiny, but now he wanted to hold on and let Arthur have his fill.

As Arthur explored and caressed his genitals, Merlin let out a slow sigh and turned to rest his head against Arthur's. They breathed together in ragged counterpoint, heads together, watching Arthur's hand move between Merlin's legs.

Finally Arthur lifted his head and his hand and licked his palm in broad stripes. He turned and kissed Merlin deeply. When their mouths locked together, he wrapped his hand around Merlin's cock and started jerking him.

Merlin was half lost in kissing Arthur when he came. The orgasm was softer than he had expected after such sharp arousal, but it rolled through him in strong waves.

When it was over, Arthur rested his hand on Merlin's stomach, under his rumpled shirt. They leaned their heads together again as their breathing eased. Arthur's flies were still spread open; Merlin could feel the softness of his spent cock against his hip.

He felt drowsy and content and started to contemplate a bit of a nap. Surely he could coax Arthur into bed now, just for a little sleep.

Something started to beep. Merlin's muzzy head could not place the sound at first, but his hindbrain associated the tiny beep beeps with something unpleasant. When Arthur's lap shifted underneath him as Arthur tried to get into his pocket, Merlin realized what it was.

"You set an alarm? Really?"

"I had a feeling I might get distracted." Arthur pushed a teasing kiss into the corner of Merlin's mouth, but then grimaced when he looked at his phone. "I have to go."

"What? But it's so early." His vision of a comfortable snooze, maybe followed by getting to suck Arthur's cock, dissipated into a haze of disappointment.

Merlin grabbed Arthur's phone to check the time for himself and had to look at it for several seconds before the numbers made sense. He thought they had been together for less than an hour, but suddenly the clock showed late evening.

Arthur poked him in the side until Merlin shifted off him. "May I use your toilet? I had better clean up a bit."

"Sure. Past the kitchen, second door. If you run into the wall, you've gone too far."

Merlin curled back into the warm space Arthur left when he stood up. He no longer wanted to doze, lest he miss the last few minutes he could spend with Arthur, even if Arthur was in a different room. He listened to the water running in the bathroom. It was a comforting sound; a relationship sound.

Arthur returned, looking remarkably fresh and put together. He sat on the edge of the loveseat, kissed Merlin and ran his fingers through Merlin's hair. "I love this," he murmured. "I love being with you."

Merlin smiled up at him, dopey with contentment. "It's almost the weekend, you know. We'll have plenty of time, if we're sneaky."

Arthur shook his head. "Can't."

"Why not? Everyone knows you're a workaholic. They won't think it's strange that you're out here on the weekend."

"I have to go to London this weekend. Still playing catch-up on some of the kingly duties, you know."

"Oh, yes." Merlin fluttered a hand in the air with a regal air. "I find it so tiresome myself, all that reigning over everything and waving at people."

Arthur gave him a haughty frown. "You're making it surprisingly easy to leave you."

Merlin dropped his hand and grinned up at him. "You're lying."

"Maybe." Arthur grinned back and kissed him again before leaving.

Although it had only happened twice, Arthur found he did not enjoy his workday as much when he knew he could not go home with Merlin afterwards. He did give Merlin a ride home, just for a few more minutes of semi-privacy, and endured Merlin's woebegone look as he disappeared into his homely little house, alone.

Arthur drove himself back to London, alone, and had not had a moment of solitude since.

"This is the last set, sir." George placed the small stack of letters on the blotter in front of him.

Arthur put his phone down on the desk, face down to hide any incoming texts from Merlin, which were likely to be deliciously dirty. The heavy pen he picked up in its stead felt like a poor substitute for his—boyfriend? Lover? Paramour?

Well, whatever Merlin was.

He focused on the letters, which offered his royal congratulations on fiftieth wedding anniversaries and hundredth birthdays. Arthur could not imagine being one hundred years old. "Good for you, Mary Collins," he murmured as he carefully penned his new signature onto the thick royal letterhead. "Good for you, old girl."

And what would it be like to be married to someone for a half century? If he were able to wed, if he wed Merlin, would they still be in love after fifty years? What kind of life would they have had together?

He brushed those thoughts aside with impatience. His country and his church would not allow him to marry—not yet, anyway. And it was much too early to think about love, though he could already feel the inevitability of it closing around him, joyful and terrifying.

Things would change; he had confidence in that. He blotted the final signature, waited for George to sweep them off the desk, and then reached for the stack of newspapers George had accumulated for him while he was away.

During his time in Wales, he had avoided the press as much as he could. At first he had just wanted to concentrate on his work, and then he had a hard time concentrating on anything but Merlin. Let the world talk about him as much as it wanted; he had better things to do.

He dug into the newspapers, magazines, and printouts of the major online outlets. The headlines read as he expected: "KING DELIVERS STUNNING PERSONAL NEWS;" "KING ARTHUR KEEPING JOB, DITCHING WOMEN;" "QUEEN ARTHUR DECLARES WAR ON CHURCH OF ENGLAND."

"Duel at dawn, Geoffrey." Arthur snickered, imagining the Archbishop of Canterbury facing him at twenty paces, some kind of doublet straining over his belly. The PM would probably agree to be his second.

Of course, in actuality, Arthur had already met with both the Archbishops of Canterbury and York as part of the normal process of his succession. They had both been gracious and deferential and very careful not to mention their opinions on Arthur's revelations or what effect they might have on his position as Head of the Church. Those conversations would happen later, after everything had settled and everyone had a chance to think.

But they would happen. And if anyone wanted to call it a war, Arthur was happy to go into battle.

The articles, despite the sensational headlines, stayed mostly respectful and kind toward him; Arthur had built up a great deal of good will as a young Prince. Only a handful took serious moral issue with a gay man's ability to lead the Commonwealth and be a role model for impressionable children, although Arthur suspected those opinions were louder and wider spread than his staff wanted him to have to hear.

The more serious publications were already delving into the succession issue with a sideline into his role in the Church of England. Arthur forced himself to read those parts carefully to gauge the mood of the nation.

Of course, every single one of them had to speculate as to whether he had a boyfriend, and if so, whom it might be. He saw pictures of himself with Gwaine, with Leon, even—he shuddered inside—with George.

Fortunately, no one seemed to have caught wind yet of his fast friendship with a certain Welsh school teacher. Of course, he wanted Merlin by his side and could hardly wait to watch him squirm on camera.

But more than that, he wanted a real shot at making it work with Merlin for as long as he could. Arthur, like anyone who had picked up a copy of Hello! in their lives, knew that a media frenzy levied an almost certain death sentence on a new relationship.

However, the most important thing was that not a single report seemed to know anything about his pathetic pseudo-date with Lancelot.

"Reading your own press, Arthur? Though I have to say, you still haven't caused as much of a scandal as when Uther acknowledged me."

His back tensed up at the sound of Morgana's voice, yanking him out of a fleeting memory of being warm and alone with Merlin. "What are you doing here, Morgana?"

She stepped the rest of the way into his study and looked around. "What are you doing here? I went to three palaces looking for you, but here you are."

"I can work wherever I please. Clarence House is a royal residence."

Morgana's jaw tightened. "Do you even want to be King?"

"If this is leading into a joke about queens and my sexuality, I should tell you that I just read six variations of that in several fine online publications." Arthur held up a stack of printouts. "You'll have to work hard to come up with something original."

Surprise and an odd remorse flashed over her face. As she approached his desk, emotions flickered in her expression, from anger to hope to fear, like she was some kind of cybernetic holograph whose circuitry was on the fritz.

He really had to stop letting Gwaine choose the movies.

"Why are you here?" he asked again.

"I need to ask something of my sovereign." She sat down with a delicate dignity; he could only imagine what the words were costing her. "I wish to marry."

He stared at her, stunned. "What?"

"I want to get married," she repeated. "And since you are now the King and head of the family, I need your permission."

How that must be burning her, though she did not look as disgruntled as he would have thought. "Who on earth—oh God." It hit him in a nauseating blow. "No. That's insane."

"Yes," she answered with calm satisfaction.

"No. Stop. I forbid you to speak." He buried his face in his arms on the top of the desk. "If you say it, I'll have to picture it."

"I wish to marry Agravaine du Bois."

And there went his brain in a puff of oily smoke. "Argh. No. That's disgusting. He's my uncle."

"He's no relation to me. Yet."

He banged his head once on the desk blotter before straightening up. "Why now? You've had your creepy little affair going on for years. Is this some kind of test to see what I'll let you get away with?"

"In a sense. Uther forbade it a long time ago. Over his dead body, he said."

"That sounds familiar," Arthur muttered.

"I thought it might." She tilted her head slightly, studying him. "But you've chosen to follow your heart, with no deference to tradition or our father's mandates. So I thought you might understand."

Arthur understood very well. After his little declaration to the nation, if he denied Morgana the match of her choice, he would be the worst sort of hypocrite and she would not hesitate to let everyone know it. She had him over a barrel, and they both knew it. "Do you love him?"

Her face gave nothing away. "I want to marry him. My feelings are my own concern."

He sighed. "Very well. You have my permission. I'll give you away myself if that's what you want. But not until after the coronation."

"That's acceptable." She gave a gracious nod and rose as if she were the monarch and he the supplicant. "Thank you, Arthur."

Arthur studied her another moment. Her face flickered again; he felt if he could just reach into her brain at the exact right second, he could get through to the sister he wanted to love. "We used to be friends. Do you remember that?"

A sad look, almost apologetic. "That was before I was your sister."

He held her gaze, then nodded once, dismissing her. She gave a small, ironic curtsey and left.

George caught the door before it closed behind her. "Sir, Prime Minister Bayard's office sent a proposed agenda for your tour of Australia. Just in time for you to review it before you leave for Cardiff again."

He said "Cardiff" with the same intonation he would use to discuss a pile of unsightly clutter. Combined with the reminder of a dozen memorials he had no wish to endure, it piled up on the heels of Morgana's departure until Arthur's brain called a halt to the entire proceeding.

"Actually, that will have to wait." Arthur grabbed his phone from the desk and tapped out a message to Merlin. "I'm leaving immediately."

"Without answering the Prime Minister?" George sounded like Arthur had just asked him to hide the Australian Prime Minister's murdered corpse.

"The Prime Minister who serves at my pleasure." Arthur stood up and gathered the handful of news items he wanted to show either Gwaine or Merlin. "You can answer him. Tell him it's at the top of my to do list."

"Sir?" Now George sounded like Arthur had just asked him to insult the Prime Minister's mother, and while George would never dream of refusing his King's command, he was deeply puzzled and disturbed by it.

Arthur decided that was the best he was likely to get. It was time to head home.

Merlin had just tucked the bottle of wine into his knapsack and slung it over his shoulder when he heard the rapping at the door. He checked his phone in surprise, but time was still progressing at its normal rate. Arthur could not have got here from London that fast unless he had found a fighter jet to take him. Even given Arthur's status and how eager he had sounded to get out of London, Merlin doubted he had mustered the RAF.

When he opened the door, he was no less surprised to find Gwaine on the other side. "Hello, Merlin." Gwaine gave him a toothy grin and stalked forward until Merlin had to back up and let him in the door. "I've come for a chat."

"I was actually just leaving for dinner at my mum's." And he needed all the time he could get to think of a way to break it to his mother that the King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland might be dropping by in time for dessert.

"Don't you worry, it won't take long." Gwaine settled himself in Merlin's favourite seat at the kitchen table and made an elaborate and emphatic gesture for Merlin to join him.

Merlin stood by the open door, wavering. He and Gwaine had become great friends already from working together, but something about Gwaine's predatory manner made him worry that this might make him later for dinner. "I have to cycle all the way across town."

"Town is about five minutes from end to end, Merlin. Stop fussing. I'll drop you off." Gwaine patted the table next to him. "Have a seat, my friend."

He gave up, let the door close, and joined Gwaine at the table. "All right, but you're explaining it to my mum if you make me late."

"Fair enough."

"So what's so important that you drove all the way out here on a Sunday night?"

Gwaine leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers with a Poirotvian air. "I have, of late, noticed a change in my housemate."

Merlin mimicked his steepled fingers, but held them over his head in the shape of a crown. "Shiny thing on head, weight of history on shoulders, general expression of expectant melancholy?"

"Nah, that's what passes for normal." Gwaine waved a dismissive hand. "And I was expecting it to get worse, given the circumstances. Except that suddenly he's all smiles, coming home late without a word of explanation, won't tell me—me!—a damn thing."

"Yeah?" Merlin tried hard, really hard, to bite back the grin trying to spread across his face. "How odd."

"You know what's really odd?" Gwaine leaned forward and fixed Merlin with a hard look. "For weeks, every other word out of his mouth was your name. Merlin doesn't like me and I don't understand why, Merlin spilled curry on my blueprints, Merlin had a surprisingly good idea today, Merlin Merlin Merlin Merlin."

"That does sound pretty odd." Merlin made his face a perfect blank, revealing only a mild interest. He was usually good at that, after many years of moderating Sunday dinners with his mum and Will. "I would never have thought he'd admit I had a good idea."

"Oh, that's not the odd part." Gwaine grinned a toothsome grin. "The odd part is that in the last few days he has not mentioned your name even once."

"Not once?" That was somewhat disappointing, although Merlin had long since stopped mentioning Arthur to Will or his mother as much as possible for his own sanity.

"I would have thought he was just distracted by other, more pressing current events, but I couldn't help but notice that he also changes the subject whenever your name is mentioned at all. So peculiar, yes?"

"Maybe he finally realized that I'm beneath his notice?"

"Or alternatively, he's finally fucking you."

Merlin started coughing over thin air. He had felt so secure in their secret that despite all the build-up, he had never suspected Gwaine was anywhere close to the truth. "What?"

"Are you fucking the King, Merlin?"

Merlin had no idea what to say. He had not even begun to think about coming out to anyone about his bisexuality, let alone his fledgling relationship with Arthur. " such a specific word."

"I didn't suspect until Arthur came home with a certain post-coital glow Thursday night." Gwaine leaned back in his chair, managing to sound both stern and smug. "Even then, it took me a couple of days to figure out what it was, since I've never seen Arthur with post-coital anything before."

A pang went through him that Gwaine had seen that at all, that Merlin had to share that with anyone instead of basking in that glow himself, alone with Arthur. He sighed. "What do you want me to tell you, Gwaine? I'm not talking about Arthur with anyone, not even you."

To his surprise, Gwaine smiled at that. "Glad to hear it, actually. And you don't have to talk. I just want to make sure that you know that Arthur is my friend, and I take his happiness very seriously."

Merlin met his gaze blankly for a moment. "Are you giving me the ‘if you break his heart, I'll break your legs' speech?"

"Shush." Gwaine held up his index finger with an air of cultivated gravity. "I've never had the chance to do this before. This is really fun for me."

"Oh." Merlin relaxed and mirrored the grin tugging at the corner of Gwaine's mouth. "By all means."

"He may seem very important and powerful, but he's really very vulnerable."

Merlin, who thought Arthur's importance was mostly in his own head with some unhealthy validation from people like Merlin's mum, tried not to yawn.

"And he has pretty much no relationship experience at all. I mean, zero. Zilch. He is a blind man in a snake pit."

"Okay, Arthur's actually doing fine so far, but I'm starting to worry about your girlfriends."

"Sure, everything's rosy now, you've only been shagging for a few days. But Arthur takes everything really seriously. He may be a professional flirt, but he's not one for flings. I don't think he's ever had one at all, despite my best efforts."

"I think I'm in love with him." As soon as the words left his lips, Merlin clamped his hand over his mouth in a futile attempt to stop them. Well, shit. He had no clue where that had come from and wished he had not said it out loud, but he could not bear to take it back.

Gwaine stared back at him, momentarily speechless. "Well," he finally said, "the Pendragons always were an all-or-nothing kind of bunch."

"Guess I fit right in after all." Merlin let out a long breath and slumped in his chair. He had fallen in love with Freya the day he met her as well.

Gwaine echoed his sigh, and then grinned and slung an arm around Merlin's shoulders. "Dinner at Mum's, you said? Then I guess it's time I meet the family."

And that was how Merlin wound up introducing his gobsmacked mother to the Duke of Clarence.

"Mum, this is Gwaine—er, do you even have a last name?"

"It's ‘Duke of Clarence.'" Gwaine took Merlin's mum's hand and kissed it. "But you must call me Gwaine."

His mother stared at her hand, still clasped in his, as though it had sprouted new fingers. "Your Grace—"

"Please, the only person who calls me that is my butler, and I hate him." Gwaine smiled and let her hand go only to present her with a small bunch of flowers. Merlin had no idea where they had come from. "And a lady as beautiful as you can only be a queen in disguise, exiled far from your kingdom."

"I do rule my employees with an iron fist at times." His mum beamed up at him from under her eyelashes as she sniffed the flowers.

"In a velvet glove, I don't doubt."

"Is he chatting up my mum?" Merlin whispered to Will, who snickered. "Seriously, he's chatting up my mum."

"I can't decide if that's brilliant, or if I should be punching him in the face," Will answered.

Merlin gave him a sidelong look. "That's unexpectedly mellow of you."

Will shrugged and leaned on his shoulder. "You running around with the aristocracy has taken all the fun out of my proletariat ranting. I think I'm going to have to find a new hobby."

Merlin silently agreed that was probably for the best, all things considered.

Arthur pulled up in front of the address Merlin had texted to him. The little house looked warm, windows glowing with light in the deepening dusk. He liked it immediately; he wanted to feel at home here.

At the moment, all he felt was nervous. He had met a thousand mums in his life, but never his boyfriend's. Not, he imagined, that Mrs. Emrys knew he was seeing her son, unless Merlin had suddenly become as much of a chatterbox about their relationship as he was about everything else.

He picked up the bottle of wine from the passenger seat, hoping it was of sufficient quality without being uncomfortably expensive. When he had met Mithian's mother, he had brought her a horse to add to her breeding stable. He doubted that would be normal courting behaviour in Merlin's eyes.

Girding his loins and reminding himself of his glorious ancestry, he got out of the car and strode up the walk. He heard laughter and voices from inside the—was that Gwaine?

Arthur knocked on the door. A burst of laughter drifted from inside the house, and yes, there was no mistaking Gwaine's voice. Apparently they were all too busy being entertained by him because no one came to the door.

He knocked again. This time he heard Merlin: "Oh, shit," and then the thump of feet running to the door.

"Always nice to be noticed," Arthur sniped when the door opened.

"You don't get noticed enough?" Merlin sniped back, but he smiled and looked abashed enough to mollify Arthur's nervous strop. "Come on, there's still plenty of food."

He pulled Arthur inside. When the door shut, they were alone in the dim light of the small foyer. Merlin hesitated, looked over his shoulder, and then pressed up against Arthur with a kiss that lingered for touch after touch.

"Merlin? Who is it?" a female voice called from within the house.

They both started, and Merlin winced. "If she loses her mind, just remember that I'm about seventy-five percent sure that it's not hereditary."

"You did tell her I was coming, didn't you?" Arthur followed Merlin into the light of the house. "Didn't you? Merlin!"

Around the dinner table, everyone froze as they entered. Gwaine was in mid-tussle with a young man across the table over a depleted bottle of wine. Arthur recognized the other two from the photographs in Merlin's home, although the pictures were missing the slack jaws and stunned eyes that faced him now.

"Arthur!" Gwaine took advantage of the distraction to liberate the wine bottle from the grasp of the man who could only be Will. "Sorry for horning in on your date. I just dropped by to ask Merlin about his intentions, and now here I am."

The focus shifted from Arthur to Gwaine for an instant, and then back to Arthur. He took a deep breath, put on his most charming smile, and turned to Merlin's mother. "Good evening, Mrs. Emrys. It's such a pleasure to finally meet you."

She wobbled to her feet and took his extended hand. "Your Majesty. I—it's a pleasure to meet you, too. Merlin has not told us nearly enough about you."

"He's told me a great number of wonderful things about you." He squeezed her hand in both of his, and then looked over at Will, calculating his approach. "You, on the other hand, not so much."

That startled a snort of laughter out of Merlin's friend, and everyone else joined in. It sounded mostly genuine, so Arthur relaxed a little, though it was Merlin's uninhibited grin that pleased him the most.

"Please, Your Majesty, join us," Mrs. Emrys said. "I'll get you a plate."

Gwaine saved his own arse by immediately hopping up to let Arthur have the seat between Merlin and his mother, liberating Arthur's wine bottle on the way.

"Please, call me Arthur." Arthur settled into the chair next to Merlin.

She looked dubious, but smiled as she set the plate in front of him and started filling it with food before he could stop her. "I promise to try, as long as you call me Hunith."

"What a beautiful name." He tucked into the food, suddenly starving and eager to experience home cooking by a real mum, as opposed to Gwaine's.

Merlin found it surreal at first to have Arthur here at his mum's dinner table, but after a few minutes, it was easy to forget that this was not a normal Sunday night.

"At least he's not hitting on your mam," Will muttered to Merlin with a sidelong look at Gwaine, who had taken the empty chair next to him.

Gwaine seemed unfazed as he savored the (much better) bottle of wine that Arthur had brought. "She's a beautiful woman."

Merlin confiscated the wine long enough to get some down his own throat; if anyone needed to drink tonight, he should have first dibs. Then he turned towards Arthur and his mother, prepared to find a way to facilitate a conversation.

He was less prepared to see Arthur leaning away from him, sitting bent towards Merlin's mum. She had her hand over his hand, and they were talking in soft voices. Merlin caught enough scraps of the conversation to know they were talking about Australia and Arthur's upcoming tour; he turned away, uncomfortable with eavesdropping.

Will watched them as well. "If your mam is looking to adopt another orphaned wanker, I just want it clearly understood that I was here first, I was."

Merlin grinned and held up his wine glass in a toast. "Cheers to that, mate!"

The wine and food had long gone by the time Merlin gave Arthur's shoulder an affectionate jostle. Arthur looked up from his chat with Merlin's mum with bright, happy eyes. "Hello. Oh, it's late. We should help Hunith clean up."

"Already done." Merlin grinned at his embarrassment. "No worries, but someone has to give me a lift home since I wasn't allowed to bring my bike."

"I told you, I'll drive you back," Gwaine hollered from the kitchen.

"No, he won't," Arthur retorted with a regal authority that made Merlin's mum beam. It made Merlin stir in his jeans, a fact he wanted none of the people in the house to ever figure out.

Will appeared at the door between the kitchen and dining room. "Actually, I think you're going to have to take them both. I just tossed that one's keys in the freezer for his own good."

Arthur rolled his eyes at an angle only Merlin could see. He stood up and leaned in close to Merlin's ear. "Damn Gwaine."

Merlin could only nod without words. The missed opportunity hit him--as far as anyone knew, Arthur was still in London. No one would be watching for him to come home. No one would have noticed if he went home with Merlin instead.

"Merlin love, why don't you just sleep here tonight?" his mother said. "You shouldn't inconvenience Arthur."

"It's not the slightest inconvenience." Arthur gripped Merlin's upper arm as though she were about to steal him away.

"But you don't even have a backseat." Merlin tried to convince himself it was fine; if he had to part from Arthur, it hardly mattered whether it was here or five minutes from now at Merlin's house.

"We'll take Gwaine's. Get the keys out of the freezer, Merlin. I'll deal with Gwaine."

Will snorted in disbelief. "Good thing I can walk," he said before kissing Merlin's mum's cheek, punching Merlin in the arm, and heading out the back door.

Arthur dealt with Gwaine by marching him out to the car in an unrelenting hold and shoving him into the back seat as if he were under arrest.

"Oh God, I'm cockblocking you," Gwaine moaned from the back as Merlin slid into the passenger seat. "I can't believe this."

"No, you're not." Merlin's voice sounded not just unconvincing, but outright pathetic even to his own ears.

"Yes, he is." Arthur got behind the wheel and slammed the door hard enough to make the whole car shake. "He knows the score, don't you, Gwaine?"

"All these years I spent trying to get you laid, and here you are, not getting laid because of me."

Merlin could almost feel sorry for him if he was not also failing to get laid on account of Gwaine.

Arthur sighed. "It's not like it's the first time I've had to drag your plastered arse home."

He got the car onto the road and then reached for Merlin's hand, holding it as if defying either one of them to deny him. Merlin twined their fingers and stared down at their hands, acutely aware of Gwaine just behind them. He thought he liked this, having someone else know how he felt about Arthur and how Arthur felt about him. It made it feel real.

"Sorry the night turned into a clusterfuck," he said when they pulled into Merlin's driveway. "So much for a relaxing taste of normalcy."

Arthur's grim face suddenly brightened into a smile. "No, it was brilliant. I love your family."

Merlin grinned back, relieved. "We love you, too."

And because it was dark and Gwaine had started softly snoring in the backseat, he dared to lean toward Arthur and kiss him.

He felt no need to hurry, and Arthur matched the slow linger of his kisses. Stolen moments were always the sweetest—at least in the beginning. What could they do with an entire stolen night?

"Come in," he whispered when Arthur started to pull back. "Just leave him in the car. He deserves it."

Arthur huffed with laughter and kissed him again. "He does. But I think there are laws about leaving pets and children in the car overnight."

"Pets get fed better," Gwaine mumbled behind them. "Don't mind me. Go on snogging."

At least that made it easier to get out of the car. "Don't be too hard on him; he meant well. See you tomorrow?"

"Of course." Arthur gave him a little wave as Gwaine heaved himself into the passenger seat.

Merlin went inside, but looked out the window until the taillights disappeared around the bend. He wondered how on earth they were ever going to make this work.

"I really did mean well." Gwaine stood in the doorway, looking like the offspring of a kicked puppy and a well-scolded schoolboy. He held out a cup of tea as a peace offering. Of course, now he was perfectly sober.

Arthur sighed and accepted the tea. "Did you really go out there to ask Merlin's intentions?"

"Someone had to look out for your innocence. You don't even know what a long-term relationship is, and you're skipping right off a cliff into one before you've even had a proper date."

"I tried the proper date thing. Went really well, don't you think?"

"You're meant to have more than one, Arthur!"

"I know. I've been watching you have plenty of them for years. Where's your long-term relationship, Gwaine? I can't see that my way leaves me any worse off."

Genuine hurt flashed over Gwaine's face. "It's different with you, Arthur. Don't let's pretend that it's not."

"Yes, it is different." Arthur sagged into his chair and stared down into the tea. "Where am I supposed to meet people, Gwaine? I don't want to go pull blokes in clubs. I just want to find one person I like, and who wants to date me because they like me, too, not because I'm the bloody King."

"And you had already found Merlin. I get it. Honestly, if I had to pick out one person for you, I'd pick him. But you know he's not out, right?"

"Of course. We've talked about it. He has his reasons." Arthur rather thought that dating someone with a natural sense of discretion should be lauded, not criticized.

"I'm not judging. But you're the most out gay man in the world right now. Even Elton John has a few doubters compared to you. At some point, that's going to be a problem."

"Why do I have to think about that now?" Arthur demanded. "Why can't I just have sex and enjoy his company, like any other new relationship in the world?"

Gwaine actually looked amused at that. "All right. If you can look me in the eye and tell me that you've never had a fantasy about Merlin involving Westminster Abbey, I'll let it go."

Arthur stared at him, trying to project indignant dignity. "Poets' Corner is very romantic."

"That's what I thought." Gwaine grabbed his head and kissed him on the top of it with his usual rough affection. "I hope you do end up in the Abbey with him someday. Just make sure you're on the same page about that."

After he heard Gwaine's door slam shut, Arthur fidgeted and looked down at his watch. It was not even midnight; he had a long time to wait before he could reasonably expect to see Merlin again.

Or did he? No one lurked outside, and he could take Gwaine's car again. Was that not the kind of gesture that those newly in love made? At least in the movies, but surely Merlin watched movies (all the girliest ones, no doubt) and would find it more romantic than creepy if Arthur turned up on his doorstep in the middle of the night, overcome by passion.

Before he could think himself out of it, Arthur went to reclaim Gwaine's keys.

Almost no traffic got in his way at this hour. He rang Merlin's doorbell at a quarter past twelve. When Merlin opened the door and gaped at him, Arthur waggled his wrist and said, "It's tomorrow."

Merlin said nothing. He just grabbed a handful of Arthur's shirt and hauled him inside. Arthur's watch disappeared after that, and his shirt, and every other stitch of clothing not long after. Arthur was too busy getting under Merlin's pyjama bottoms to care where anything went.

They fell into Merlin's bed. Arthur tumbled naked into sheets still warm from Merlin's body, and then Merlin's naked skin blanketed him from above.

"Arthur." Merlin moaned into Arthur's neck. His stiffening cock rubbed into the crease of Arthur's thigh with small jerks of his hips.

Arthur jerked up into him in reflexive response. "You feel so good. Fuck, I don't even know all the things I want to do with you."

"Do whatever you want. Anything." Merlin scraped his teeth over Arthur's shoulder. "Just stay."

He started to promise he would, but Merlin's lips pulled his mouth open and that was the end of talking. Their bodies moved together in small flexes, awkward in trying to find how they fit together. Their mouths did better; they knew each other now.

Arthur felt an urgency in his skin, his limbs, his gut. He flipped Merlin onto his back, rolling on top of him. Merlin looked up at him, eyes glazed until they focused sharp on Arthur's face.

"I'm going to stay tonight." Arthur lifted himself up so that only their ankles and knees brushed. "I don't want to rush."

"Me, neither." Merlin arched up to bump his cock against Arthur's hip. "Within reason."

"Agreed." He lowered himself until his thighs pressed against Merlin's thighs. "I've never been naked with someone before."

"Really?" Merlin shifted so that their thighs rubbed together, scratchy and smooth, the hardness of muscle under the give of flesh. "Did you have a private little prince's room at school, or were you excused from games altogether?"

"I love sport, and that's not what I meant." He bent and brushed his lips over Merlin's just to feel the heat of his breath. "I've seen naked men. Hell, it can be hard to get Gwaine to put some damn clothes on around the house."

"I'm not sure I want you talking about other naked men right now." Merlin clamped his hand around the back of Arthur's neck and kissed him harder.

"Fair enough." Arthur trembled as he lowered his hips until his cock rubbed against Merlin's cock.

"Oh, fuck." Merlin kept his grip on Arthur's neck, ran the other hand down Arthur's back and pressed himself up against him. "I've never been naked with a man, either. I've never felt anything like your body."

They started kissing again. Merlin fumbled toward the bedside table until Arthur shifted with him enough for him to reach the drawer. He dragged out a bottle of lubricant. "Here. I'm sure we both know how to use this."

He drizzled the cool liquid liberally over both their cocks and balls. "Merlin," Arthur protested when it began to run messily over Merlin's stomach and thighs.

"Don't care, just--ahh." Merlin pushed up against Arthur's body, and now their skin rubbed in a wet slide.

When Merlin's arms wrapped around his back, Arthur gave up any attempt to control what was happening to them. He buried his face in Merlin's neck and ground into him. "Merlin. It feels so good. It makes me want...."

Merlin's hips met his thrusts in a steady, primal rhythm. "Do you want to be inside me?"

"Fuck." Arthur groaned, his cock surging out of control at the thought. "Yes. Would you want that?"

"Yeah. Always have. Wanked about it for years." Merlin gripped his arse and pulled him in as if to tighten the grind of their bodies. They fit together perfectly now, belly to belly, like they were made for this. "Well, not you specifically."

Arthur undulated a bit to feel the tickle of Merlin's chest hair on his nipples. "But I'll do?"

"Yeah." Merlin giggled in the midst of a groan. "Next time. When we have all night to build up to it."

And the thought of preparing Merlin for sex, preparing his arse to accept the intrusion of Arthur's cock, was more than enough to make his balls and body tighten as the climax hit him. His come spurted onto Merlin's stomach, smearing between their undulating bodies.

He relaxed just enough that when Merlin rubbed hard against him and came, he could hold him and savour the wonder of how Merlin tensed and flexed and released in his arms.

They rested, kissing and touching until they hardened again. This time, when they grew ready to finish, Merlin turned onto his stomach and let Arthur's cock rub into his arse. Arthur's come pooled in the hollow at the small of Merlin's back; as he helped Merlin finish, he imagined it pooling in a condom deep inside Merlin.

The fantasy faded as his body cooled. Merlin curled against his back and dropped into sleep with a sigh. Arthur stayed awake, unused to sleeping with the heat of another body against him. He had never shared a bed before.

Slowly, the lassitude of his body and the warmth surrounding him lulled him. He drifted into another fantasy: a bed somewhere indistinct, but large and royal, with Merlin held tight against him like they both belonged there.

Merlin woke up a few minutes before his alarm was set to go off, which was not his habit at all. He felt vexed at the lost minutes of sleep until he felt the heavy weight on his chest and stirred himself to nuzzle into blond hair.

It had been a few years since he had woken up with someone. He had missed the intimate heat of sharing sleep with another person. Now he was sorry that he had not woken earlier so he could burrow down with Arthur and soak up his drowsy warmth.

Arthur stirred and tilted his head to meet Merlin's nuzzle. "Mm, morning." Unlike Freya, who had always curled up in a neat ball tucked against his side, Arthur's heavier limbs draped across his body.

"Morning." Merlin kissed Arthur, lazy and sweet. He was about to slide down to wrap himself around Arthur in a more satisfying way when his alarm started to beep. "Dammit. Call off sick?"

Arthur's eyes lit up with unholy glee. "Demolition contractor comes today. You don't want to miss that, do you?"

Actually, he would not mind missing that at all. "My poor school."

"She'll be better than ever, just you wait." Arthur grinned, then looked down at himself with a wrinkle of his nose. "I need a shower."

Merlin reached down and trailed his forefinger down Arthur's filthy stomach. "Yeah, you do."

Arthur bit his lip, almost shy as Merlin's finger dipped into his navel. "Is there time for both of us?"

"Well." Merlin bit his lip as well, but it was to hide his grin. "Only if we share."

"Believe it or not, I'm quite good at sharing." Arthur was still biting his lip, but he no longer looked shy.

The sacrifice of Arthur sleepy and warm was worth it once he had Arthur wet and slippery in the shower. They soaped each other much more than necessary for hygiene, pausing to kiss, heedless of the spray sending rivulets down their faces.

That ended with Arthur sputtering and tossing his wet fringe out of his face. At first Merlin laughed because Arthur had obviously picked up that gesture from Gwaine.

And then he saw Arthur with his eyes closed, head tilted back, water streaming down his face. A picture flashed from his memory, something from a magazine that he did not even remember seeing in the first place: Arthur on holiday somewhere sunny and expensive, emerging from the sea.

And then he started laughing much, much harder.

"What?" Arthur opened his eyes and stared at him.

Merlin gestured that he needed a moment and doubled over. The giggles welled up sharp and uncontrollable until he sank down to sit on the shower floor.

"Merlin! What?" When Merlin peered up at him, Arthur looked puzzled and a little hurt, his erection flagging.

"Sorry,"" he managed to get out in between giggles. "It just suddenly hit me that I have the King of Great Britain in my shower."

Which was the most absurd, hilarious thing Merlin had ever heard. Arthur did not seem so amused. His face closed off and he reached for a towel.

"No, wait, I didn't mean it like that." Merlin grabbed at his thighs to hold him still. "Wait. I love having you in my shower. Let me show you."

Arthur frowned, but he dropped the towel on the floor. Merlin kissed his hip, his thigh, all around his groin, until his erection firmed and bumped against Merlin's face.

When he took Arthur's cock in his mouth, it felt bigger than it looked; it tasted clean with a tang of salt. He had no fucking clue what he was doing, but given that Arthur would not know the difference, he just went for it.

When Arthur's knees buckled and his come hit the back of Merlin's throat, Merlin savored every drop in victory.

Not bad for a first blowjob. He supposed bisexuality just came naturally to some people.

The demolition crew had already arrived on site when Arthur and Merlin pulled up by the school. Arthur disliked any failings of punctuality, but he had gone to exchange Gwaine's car for his own at Merlin's mother's house. Of course, it had been necessary to say good morning to Hunith and have a cup of tea while they were there.

They had invited the local press to come witness the demolition, as it seemed like a good way to keep Avalon in the news (and Arthur wanted video of it to watch later). The small bunch of reporters and camera crews stood neatly cordoned off in the designated safe area.

As they walked over to join the Taliesin crew who were chatting with the demolition men, Arthur caught a flash of lens out of the corner of his practiced eye. Ah, one of the hounds had slipped its leash to find some more unique shots—Arthur did not think it was too egotistical to assume he was the intended prey.

He held up his hand in a casual but particular gesture. In a second, Percival appeared at his side. "Sir?"

Merlin jumped. "Shit. I always forget you guys are there."

Percival gave a solemn nod of appreciation for the compliment. Arthur smiled for a moment, but then inclined his head toward the shrubbery where he had seen the camera pop out. "Take care of that, would you?"

"Sir." Percival veered in the indicated direction as Arthur continued on.

"Take care of what?" Merlin watched Percival go with a frown before hopping to catch up with Arthur.

"I'm not fond of reporters being where they shouldn't, not when I'm at work." Arthur put his hand on Merlin's shoulder to steer him on. "Don't worry about it."

But Merlin still craned his head around to look.

Gwaine stood with Vivian, Lancelot, and the others from Taliesin. When he spotted them, he stalked out to meet them with a scowl. "You couldn't leave a note?"

Arthur raised his eyebrows. "You couldn't figure out where I went?"

"Where you went in my bloody car! I had to get a ride down with Vivian this morning. Vivian! I had to agree to dinner with her tonight in exchange. Do you understand what that means?"

"It means you're probably going to have sex with her tonight." Arthur shrugged. "I don't really see the problem."

"Well, that is a silver lining, that's true. But it's also not the point, Your Majesty."

"Relax. Hunith has your keys. All you have to do is go and let her feed you crumpets. You can bear it."

Merlin gave him a look. "You're not insulting my mother's cooking, are you?"

"It's considerably better than Gwaine's," Arthur answered with absolute if incomplete honesty.

He sensed he had not avoided suspicion, but he was saved by a dozen mid-sized humans who swarmed around them--no, around Merlin. Even the kids too young to be in Merlin's class called his name amidst babble about the school and the King, ignoring Arthur who was standing right there.

Arthur could not help grinning. He grinned harder when he spotted the bumbling blond teacher he had met that first day, mere minutes before he had met Merlin. She huffed and puffed as she caught up with the kids, a camera around her neck and five more dangling from her fingers.

"Excuse me, Your Majesty?"

He looked around, and then down. A girl half the size of her classmates looked up at him. "Hello, down there."

"I just wanted to say I'm sorry about your dad." She held up a handful of dandelions, wilting and a little dirty.

"These are the loveliest flowers I've ever been given." He took them and tucked them carefully in his lapel, heedless of the dirt on the stems and ducking his head to hide the sudden wetness in his eyes. "Thank you."

A warm hand rubbed over his back. He glanced up to meet Merlin's smile. "Elena's brought our top pupils from each year to watch. They're going to write essays on watching the school they've loved and grown up in get razed to the ground."

Arthur rolled his eyes at Merlin's cheek. "And rebuilt into a glorious palace of learning and fun, is how Mr. Emrys meant to finish that sentence."

"We teach our pupils not to rush to conclusions before all the evidence is in."

He had to make an effort not to grab the back of Merlin's neck and pull him into an affectionate embrace. Catching a glimpse of Gwaine horsing around with one of Elena's cameras, making her giggle and snort, provided a perfect distraction, both for Arthur and the more professional cameras that were always watching.

Merlin stretched out over his wrinkled sheets, body still humming with pleasure. Arthur kissed the inside of his thigh, smug grin smeared with Merlin's come.

"Guess you're not the only fast learner." Arthur wiped the corners of his mouth with a finger, and then hauled himself up the bed to flop down next to Merlin. "If we had more time, I think I could reach perfection tonight."

"We've plenty of time." Merlin reached over and patted Arthur's cheek before burrowing against his side. "You're absolutely staying the night."

Arthur snorted even as he kissed the top of Merlin's head. "I realize that you don't have a great deal of respect for my position, but you really don't get to give me orders."

"Get used to it. I always suspected I'd be a pushy bottom." Merlin propped himself on his elbow and looked down at Arthur's flushed face; his heart thumped out of rhythm just at the sight of him. "You're a little bit wrong, anyway," he said to cover his embarrassment.

Arthur grinned up at him and pulled at his arm until their chests pressed together. "That seems rather unlikely."

"No, I do respect you," he insisted. "Crown and all. Everything you've been doing."

"Really?" Arthur looked so surprised that Merlin's heart thumped so hard he thought Arthur must be able to feel it.

"You really care about people, and you're brave and willing to stick your neck out for what you believe in no matter what people think." Babbling, he was babbling praise for King Arthur, and he would probably never live this down, even if Arthur let him. "And it helps that you believe in the same things I do, of course."

"Well, we wouldn't want you to have to open your mind too far all at once." Arthur dipped upward to kiss him.

"Might all fall out, and you know I can't spare any," Merlin agreed and returned the kiss.

They went back and forth with the kisses until Merlin was melting over Arthur's chest, pursuing his lips so they would not have to part. Then Arthur pushed at his shoulder until he lifted his head. "Tell me more about how amazing I am."

That was Merlin's cue to take the piss, but Arthur's eyes were so bright and happy that when Merlin opened his mouth, sincerity came pouring out instead. "I do think you're amazing. I mean, I never thought that Britain needed a King anymore. But maybe we do need you."

Arthur blinked up at him, and Merlin did not recognize this new expression on his face. For a moment he thought Arthur was getting ready to say something, but Arthur just reached up, took hold of Merlin's face, and then did his best to snog it right off.

Merlin started to lose himself in Arthur's mouth and skin again. Arthur was making little movements as though getting ready to put Merlin on his back and cover him. Merlin felt wholly in favour of that idea.

Arthur's phone beeped three times and Merlin groaned. "Fuck your alarms."

"That's not the alarm." Arthur made his move, rolling Merlin onto his back and surging their hips together in a luxurious slide. "Just the text alert. Ignore it."

"I was going to ignore it even if it was the alarm." Merlin dug his fingers into the lush muscle of Arthur's arse and pushed up into his kiss.

Then it beeped again--and again, an astounding number of times until they had to stop kissing to stare at the phone on the night table. "It's probably just Gwaine drunk texting again," Arthur said.

"On a Monday?" Merlin wiggled out from under him and sat up. "Just check it and then turn it off."

Arthur huffed, but flopped over and reached for the phone. "Yeah, it's Gwaine." Abruptly, he sat bolt upright. "Where's your laptop?"

"In the kitchen, on the table, where it always is. Why? Wait, why are you getting out of bed?"

Arthur pulled on his briefs and left the room without answering. Merlin scrambled out of bed, grabbed his boxers off the corner of the mattress and carried them with him as he followed Arthur through his own house.

He found him hunched over the laptop, glaring at it like a vulture waiting for a particularly stubborn gazelle to die. "Shit. Shit."

Merlin came around to bend over his shoulder. "Why are you reading the Trickler Report? I'd think you'd be the last person interested in trashy celebrity--oh, bloody hell."

Arthur had angled the screen enough for Merlin to see the picture and headline: "KING FINDS LOVE IN AVALON?" it read over a photograph of Arthur with Merlin getting out of Arthur's car at the school. Merlin recognized the shirt he had been wearing just that morning.

Merlin reached around Arthur's arm to hit the page down button. He scrolled past more pictures of them at the school today, standing close together with casual, affectionate touches, smiling to the point of besotted lunacy. Everything about it seemed exactly the opposite of how published photos of Arthur usually looked, with his formal bearing and personal space boundaries.

"Bloody fucking shitballs," he said. His heart pounded in his chest, making him lightheaded. His boss would see this; Will probably already had. Someone at work would show his mother, his postman, his next door neighbour.

"Breathe, Merlin." Arthur steadied him with a hand on his hip. "It's not that bad. I know how to deal with these sorts of things."

"Right. Of course you do." Merlin took the chair to Arthur's right. "Nothing to worry about, yeah?"

"No, but...."


Arthur gave him an uncertain look. "Would it be so bad? If people knew about us. We wouldn't have to sneak around, at least."

"I want that. I really do." And if it was just their family and friends, like any normal gay couple, he could have worked himself up to it in no time. But Arthur's family and friends included the entire fucking world. "I'm just not ready yet. Is that okay, or do you think I'm a sniveling coward?"

"It's all right. I didn't come out until my father was dead, so I can hardly judge you." Arthur closed the laptop and pushed his chair back. The few inches of distance hurt. "It just means we'll have to cool things down for a while until interest dies down, or you're ready to take the leap."

That Arthur was right just made Merlin feel worse. "I'll figure it out. I promise. I'm not going to ask you to go back in the closet forever."

"I don't think I could if I tried." Arthur grinned, rueful. "But that's different. We haven't even been together for that long. It's not fair to ask you to make a life-changing move when we might not eve—what?"

Merlin kept shaking his head. "No. That's not the reason. I don't have any doubts about what I feel for you, even if who you are is fucking inconvenient."

Happiness lit Arthur's face, with that smile that had doomed Merlin from the beginning. "I don't have any doubts, either. I suppose it sounds foolish, but I've known for a while. My father was a terrible womanizer, but the minute he set eyes on my mother, he never looked at another woman again in his life."

"My mum was the same way. A week after she met my dad, she quit her job in London and moved to Cardiff with him."

Arthur leaned over and kissed him. "Don't worry. I won't make you move just yet."

"I can't really see my couch fitting into the décor at Buckingham Palace." Real doubt lurked beneath the joke. He could not imagine ever fitting into the royal image. Even now, people probably expected Arthur to find a lord or film actor or at least someone's polo instructor. Merlin would work much better behind the scenes.

"I've never fit in there, either." Arthur's gaze went hazy with thought. "I was thinking I might just open the entire palace to the public, even the private levels. For tours, of course, and our charities could use it for functions."

"Seriously?" Merlin tried to sound casual. The things he was not prepared to come out about included the long post he had written—

"I mean, I don't actually own the place. Why shouldn't the people who pay for it have use of it? And the admission fees should go a long way to helping pay for the upkeep, which is considerable, believe me."

--that he had written on exactly that topic. "I couldn't agree more."

"Maybe I'll take apartments over in St. James, where my offices still are, for when I need to be in residence on state business. Or maybe I'll just buy a new house in town."

"With Gwaine again?"

Arthur lifted his eyebrows and leaned close to Merlin's face. "Actually, I was rather hoping it wouldn't be with Gwaine this time."

Merlin grinned and started to close the tiny bit of distance between them. It was easier to imagine a future with Arthur when they talked about houses, not palaces.

Then Arthur's phone started beeping again. This time it was the alarm, and the reality of their situation crashed right through his inchoate images of the future.

Arthur's smile lost its joy. "Still want me to stay?"

"Yes," Merlin answered as firmly as he could, because he did, so much. "Of course I do."

"But it wouldn't be a good idea," Arthur finished for him. "I know, I know."

He got up and went to retrieve his clothes from the bedroom. Merlin stayed at the table, still clutching his boxers, until Arthur reappeared. As always, he looked better groomed than any normal man could after rolling around in a bed for hours.

"That's the only thing that makes me wonder if you really aren't somehow above us mortal men." Merlin stood up and swiped his hand over Arthur's hair. "It's like an invisible angelic valet follows you around."

"You should hire one. Would do you a world of good." Arthur rubbed his thumbs over the scruff on Merlin's cheeks. "Take a few days off and google some grooming tips."

"Days off?" Normally Merlin lived for the school holidays, but the only thing that made this discretion bearable was that he would still spend the days with Arthur in a perfectly legitimate setting.

"There's nothing to do at the school while the demolition is going on, and I need to be in the office. I would have brought you to the office in the meantime, but better to take the opportunity to not be seen together for a while."

"And what's a while, in royal PR-speak?"

"It'll be a few weeks before we're back at the school, but we'll see how well I can do damage control." Arthur pinched his side. "You shouldn't complain so much about some days off, or I'll make sure it never happens again."

"Right." Merlin tried to match his tone, but his banter gear seemed to be out of commission tonight. "It's just that I'll miss you."

"Yeah." Arthur kissed him, running his hand down Merlin's back and brushing his fingers over his arse in a wistful caress. "Call me tomorrow?"

"Yeah." Merlin stood back from the door as Arthur let himself out. If any enterprising paparazzi had concealed themselves in the shrubs, he was not keen on giving them a glimpse of him starkers.

His world had just become very weird.

"So I take it that it's time for another leak from the Anonymous Palace Insider?"

"If you wouldn't mind rearing your ugly head. Sorry, Gwaine."

"That's all right. Sophie D'Aulfric owes me a drink anyway."

"I just can't believe I was that stupid. I knew they'd be watching me."

"Yeah, the stupidity is what tipped me off that it was true love."


"Nah. You're that stupid most of the time, actually."

The Google alert pinged his inbox, interrupting Merlin's aimless morning internet surfing as he tried to figure out what to do with himself all day. It was his Avalon alert; he winced at the thought of more speculation about him and Arthur, but clicked anyway in the hopes of a good vid of the wrecking ball going through the window of Gaius's office.

Instead he found a new post from his own website, which he had mostly forgotten since discovering the more personal joys of royalty. He certainly had not written anything, which meant—Will.

The timing made Merlin suspicious. He had already thought it strange that he had heard nothing from Will last night or this morning, even though he knew Will at least scanned The Trickler every night, and had Google alerts of his own.

He suppressed his trepidation and clicked. The post read like any of Will's rants, except completely different.

It's a ridiculous consequence of our celebrity-obsessed culture that some guy doing something perfectly normal like making a new friend at work or offering a coworker a lift home is pounced on and ripped apart for any hope that it could be a secret affair.

But let's say it's true that Arthur fancies this dirt poor, common, completely unattractive school teacher.

"Hey," Merlin said out loud.

I'd say that it's the most normal, human thing he's ever done in his life. Can you imagine Uther ever lowering himself like that? Or allowing his son to slum it for more than a casual fling?

Inasmuch as I care about his love life, which isn't much, I have to say I approve. Maybe all the noises he's making about being a different sort of king aren't just smoke up our collective arses—or maybe not.

Either way, I think he's earned the chance to sink or swim without the likes of me harping in his ear. I suspect my esteemed colleague and co-writer will agree with me. From now on, I'll leave the social critique to the professionals and focus on my new passion for hydroponic gardening. Peace out.

Merlin stared at the last two paragraphs until he had to blink and realized that some sort of dampness had invaded his eyes. He reached for his phone, typed in all but one digit of Will's number, but then stopped.

Instead he pulled up a text message and typed: Do I even want to know what you're growing in your fictional hydroponic garden?

He sent it and waited, knowing Will would have his phone at hand at work today. Sure enough, it buzzed a few seconds later.

You really don't. :-P

And no more needed to be said between them than that.

Arthur found the alert in his email over lunch as he tried to tune out Gwaine and Vivian sniping at each other at his conference table. Why they had to do this in his office, he had no idea; if anyone should be acting out one's sexual frustration, one really felt it should be him.

He almost deleted the email without clicking. If the post had anything to with the Merlin rumours, wisdom suggested not risking it. But the small part of him that still felt attached to the counsel of his mystery blogger moved his mouse hand without his consent.

His mystery blogger had not written this post; he knew that within the first sentence. It was the other guy, and it was about Merlin, but he kept reading anyway.

At the end, he shook his head. "Crazy bugger," he muttered, but couldn't help a little smile.

All too soon Merlin had gone so stir crazy that he showed up bright and early at Avalon's temporary campus-within-a-campus at Mercia Primary. "Miss me?" he inquired with a flourish as he stepped into the caravan housing his former class.

"Merlin! I mean, Mr. Emrys!" Elena tripped over two book bags in her haste to come throw her arms around his neck.

For his pupils, he had only been gone a short while, since they had been on holiday for most of his time with Taliesin. But within seconds he had his arms full of shrieking girls and oofed as the grinning boys came to pound at his back.

"I thought you'd still be with the King." Elena's face went through several contortions, as though she could not decide whether she wanted Merlin to take over again or not.

"I am, but he gave me a few days off while we destroy the old school." Merlin paused to let the kids alternately boo and cheer. "But why would I want to have time to watch telly or go to the pub when I could be here helping Miss Gawant try to cram some knowledge into you lot?"

They all cheered at that, allowing Merlin to talk to Elena quietly for a moment. "They're still your class. I just needed to get out of my house. Can I be your assistant?"

She nodded with vigour and shoved the lesson plan for the day into his hands. "Oh yes. Thank God you're here."

As she shooed the pupils back to their seats, Anna Lisanor sidled up beside him and took his arm in a conspiratorial gesture. "So is it true, Mr. Emrys?"

"Hm?" He scanned the lesson plan with most of his attention; he could do these science activities in his sleep, which would give Elena a little extra planning time, if she wanted it. "Is what true, Anna?"

"Are you with the King?" She bumped him with her hip in the way of an eleven-year-old girl pretending she was sixteen. "Like, with him with him?"

Merlin froze. How on earth had he not seen this coming? Of course his kids would have heard the rumours by now. They were probably hooked into the internet in their sleep.

He arched his eyebrows, trying to play it cool and not let his palms get sweaty. "And where did you hear that?"

"On the internet," she replied with a distinct tone of duh. "So, are you?"

"That, my darling girl, is a very inappropriate question. Off with you." He steered her towards her seat and went to hide behind Elena's desk to grade papers, hoping that he could stop blushing before anyone had reason to look at him again.

Once they settled into their work, the morning flew by, and his time with Arthur seemed almost distant and unreal enough to dull the ache of missing him. No one else asked him about Arthur. He knew they were still whispering and wondering, but at least he did not have to think up any lies yet.

When Elena dismissed them to queue up for lunch, a few of them eyed him and tried to veer his way. They stopped and veered away again when the door opened and the head teacher stepped in. He gave them an avuncular nod and motioned for them to process out the door.

"Hello, Dr. Gaius." The ragged chorus went on until the last pupil had passed him and left.

After a look from Gaius, Elena followed them out. Merlin wove through the desks to meet his head teacher. "Er, surprise?"

Gaius's mouth twitched even as he tried to give Merlin a stern look. "Skiving off from your new post already, Merlin?"

"Not skiving," Merlin protested. "Actually, if I were skiving by showing up here, I think I'd be doing it wrong."

"That is a fair point." Gaius pushed open the door. "Come along. I'll buy you lunch and you can tell me all about how the project is going. Mr. du Lac has been gracious enough to send me regular reports on the progress, but of course, it's hardly the same as being there."

Merlin followed him down the steps. "It's going fine, as near as I can tell. They're ripping up the old building now, so it doesn't really look like progress, as such."

"Is that why they gave you the week off? Or did you finally insult His Majesty one too many times?"

Under the sardonic threat of Gaius's eyebrows, Merlin hemmed. "Yeah, nothing really for me to do at the moment. Arthur said he might want me at their office next week, though."

Gaius nodded and they walked in silence until they reached the road. "Good. I had hoped it wasn't to do with what's been in the papers this week."

Merlin jumped a little. "It's made the papers already?" He knew damn well Gaius had never so much as heard of Trickler.

"Of course it has, my boy. Many people are quite interested in any hint of King Arthur's romantic prospects, although I realize you are not among them—at least, I hope you aren't."

The words and the tone raised a tiny alarm. "We've become friends. Why shouldn't I be interested?"

"The company of royalty can be a heady thing, and normally you could only benefit from the association." Gaius hesitated.

Merlin could feel him picking delicately through the minefield of potential words, and that made Merlin bristle. "What are you trying to say, Gaius?"

"Nothing, nothing. Only that King Arthur brings a... particular sort of scrutiny onto his friends now. As you've seen, assumptions can be made."

"Assumptions?" He tried to control his voice, but it started tightening with anger. "Why should I care what anyone assumes about Arthur or me?"

"You're not so naïve as that, Merlin." The sharp tone made Merlin angrier at first, but then Gaius sighed and patted his shoulder. "I only say any of this because I care about you."

"I know," Merlin replied, and he did know, even if the concern infuriated him for too many reasons he could not discuss with his oldest friend and mentor.

"Someday Arthur is going to go back to London, and you'll still be here. I just don't want to see you get mixed up in anything that's going to hurt you in the long run. Now, let me tell you how well Elena has been doing with the children."

As they ducked into the village café, a cold, hollow feeling that had nothing to do with hunger settled into Merlin's belly. And Arthur wondered, Merlin thought with a hint of bitterness, why he was not open about his sexuality here. Some things really were different for the simple folk.

Arthur dragged himself home Friday evening, sluggish from the summer heat, ready to shed all his responsibilities and spend the night on the phone with Merlin. He ached to see him in person, but they had already risked a couple of ill-advised trysts this week and dared not press their luck.

Maybe tonight he would finally ask if Merlin would talk dirty with him while they got off – the thought made him blush and hurry to unlock the door. Gwaine had disappeared from work early and his car was not in the drive, which probably meant Arthur had the house to himself for the night.

Or so he thought until he walked in and found Mithian, dressed for going out, lounging about in the sitting room. "Mitzi? What on earth are you doing here?"

She waved to him from the couch. "Hello, darling. Vivi's in the toilet, she'll be back in a titch."

He could see his evening of long-distance privacy with Merlin evaporating and felt himself getting crankier. "That's not an answer. What are you doing on my couch, and what is Vivian doing in my toilet?"

"Ah, I see Gwaine didn't bother telling you about our plan." Mithian nodded slowly, as though Gwaine's negligence had solved one of the mysteries of the universe for her. "We've decided it's time for your boyfriend to meet the family."

A noise came out of his throat without any intention or coherence. "What?" he tried again. "That's—I—"

"I have to say that you're handling this about as well as your adorable little commoner, based on Gwaine's last text."

Arthur was wincing at what Merlin's reaction must have been when Vivian emerged from the toilet, looking quite different than she had when Arthur had seen her at the office half an hour ago. "Arthur! You sly thing." She stalked over to him and whapped him on the chest with her Gucci clutch. "If I'd had any idea you fancied that Merlin boy, I wouldn't have been nearly so hard on him."

"You're always gracious like that, Viv." He rubbed his chest in exaggerated pain while she gave a pleased laugh.

"We decided he might as well get used to the entirety of our special little coterie, warts and all," Mithian said in a dry tone. "Now, go change. Gwaine's gone to get your boy, and Leon's already on his way to the Rising Sun with Lancelot."

"Lancelot as well?" Arthur's curiosity was mostly on autopilot, since most of his brain stayed occupied with the information that Merlin was going to be here, in his house, very soon. His fingers had already started undoing his tie as he moved toward the staircase.

"Big group of your friends and work colleagues out to dinner; what could be suspicious about that?" Mithian waved him off with a little smile that let him know whose idea it had been and that she would be accepting his thanks in a tangible material fashion at some point in the future.

He had no idea what to wear. He scolded himself for being ridiculous, but Merlin had only ever seen him in business clothing or naked. Going out on a Friday night for the first time, he could not shake the need to astonish Merlin with how good looking he was.

But when he heard the door slam shut downstairs and Gwaine's familiar guffaw, he grabbed the dark grey shirt he had just taken off and pulled it back on before heading back to the stairs. He was halfway down them when he realized he had forgotten to comb his hair. It did not make him feel any less like one of the debutantes at the balls his gran used to throw as he descended the stairs and saw Merlin look up at him from across the sitting room.

Merlin had been talking to Mithian, looking like someone had hit him over the head, but when he saw Arthur, his face lit up with joy and relief, and he walked away from her like he had forgotten she existed. "Hello, stranger."

Arthur grinned back until his cheeks hurt. He felt like he had not seen Merlin in weeks instead of just days. "Hello. Am I astonishing you with how good looking I am in this?"

Merlin's eyes crinkled and he ran his hands across Arthur's shoulders, smoothing the soft fabric. "Absolutely," he murmured and then wrapped his arms around Arthur and hung on.

Arthur closed his eyes and returned the embrace. Merlin's hugs were warm, enveloping comfort, thick with the simple joy of being together. He stood with his face tucked against Merlin's neck, until their breathing fell into the same, slow rhythm.

"Bloody hell, you weren't joking," Mithian hollered at Gwaine, unnecessarily loud given that they were standing less than a yard apart.

Arthur groaned into Merlin's shoulder, but took the hint and forced himself to straighten up. The air around him felt chilly when he stepped back from Merlin's arms. "Are you staying?" he whispered as the others came towards them. "Please stay."

Merlin looked back at him, wide eyed with the same realization Arthur had just had: now that they were all here, there was no reason this little social camouflage could not keep Merlin here all weekend. "I don't have any clothes."

Arthur grinned and kissed his cheek. "You won't need any," he promised into Merlin's ear.

He was sending Gwaine home with Vivian tonight. He wished he could send them all away right now and have Merlin alone in his arms and his bed. Blissful solitude hovered just out of reach, and the presence of his friends grated on his nerves, as grateful as he was for what they were doing for him.

At the restaurant, Leon waited outside with Lancelot and his fiancée. None of them ever waited outside for anything, but tonight they lingered over their greetings, letting the couple of paps who always lurked outside the Sun snap their fill.

Arthur greeted Lancelot with a handshake and embrace and kissed Guinevere's cheek. "I understand I have you to thank for one of the more interesting evenings I've ever had." He would have felt bad for the way she gasped and tried to stammer out an apology, if the tiniest bit of humiliation had not still lingered in the back of his ego.

Over dinner, he spent most of his time watching Merlin, who had gotten over his initial shock at being thrown into the shark pool of Arthur's inner circle and was chattering cheerfully away between Mithian and Lancelot. Arthur looked between Lancelot and Merlin as they talked, and wondered how he could ever have found Lancelot attractive at all.

Merlin fit into their group as though he had been born into it as much as the rest of them had. Gwaine had clearly harried him into what Arthur suspected were the nicest shirts and trousers Merlin owned, but he doubted the clothes made much difference. Merlin had a way of talking to people as though everyone he met was no more or less important than he was. It honestly made no difference to Merlin that he was dining with a King, a Princess, a Duke, an Earl, and a future Duchess.

Arthur suspected that quality was part of what made Merlin such a popular teacher. And it would also make him....

He finally let himself think the word that he had tried to keep out of his mind: consort. It would make Merlin an excellent consort, able to connect with every level of the British public.

Assuming he could get Merlin to stand still long enough to get a crown on his head.

Now that he had a relationship, the source of his resistance to Gwaine's attempts at arranging hook-ups for him over the years clarified in his mind. He had no desire for a casual relationship. Now that he had Merlin, he very much wanted to keep him.

Merlin looked over at him at that moment, and the smile he had been directing at Lancelot softened. Arthur held his gaze for as long as he could, aching in his hands and his cock to reach across the table and touch him, any part of him.

After dinner, they did not go back out the front door. A flurry of vehicle exchanges later, Arthur started his own car as Merlin slid into the passenger seat and shut the door.

They sat for a moment, in silence except for their breathing and the purr of the motor. Arthur shut his eyes, savoring this first moment of being alone with Merlin.

Then Merlin's hand settled on his thigh, caressing him up and down. "Do you have condoms at home?" Merlin asked. "Or do we need to stop somewhere?"

Blood pounded between his legs at the question and its meaning. He had wanted to fuck Merlin, properly fuck him, since the first time they had kissed. He knew Merlin wanted to be fucked. They had just never had enough time to do it right.

"Yes." He managed to sound nearly as calm as Merlin did, though his voice had roughened. "I asked Gwaine if I could borrow a couple of his, just in case. He went rather pale and then went out and bought me my own box."

Merlin gave a high-pitched giggle that belied his calm veneer. "Guess he didn't want you running through his supply."

The idea of using up an entire box of condoms with Merlin—preferably all this weekend—made him a little crazy. Merlin's fingers kept rubbing his thigh. Sex was all he could think about all the way home; the people of Cardiff probably would have preferred him to think about the laws of the road, but he was only human.

By the time he pulled into the driveway and up to the house, he was so hard he could not bear to touch Merlin as they got out of the car. He waved a quick good night to the overnight protection detail, grateful for the erection-concealing shadows, and ushered Merlin into the house.

"Did Gwaine give you the tour earlier?" Arthur took pride in the steadiness of his voice as he locked the door and set the alarm.

"He sort of waved around at stuff when we walked in." Merlin waited in the shadows by the staircase. "After that, Vivian was too busy kissing my arse for me to get a look at anything."

"Do you want me to show you around?" Even as the words left his mouth, Arthur gaped at himself in horrified amazement. What was he doing? Why would he say that? What if Merlin actually took him up on it?

"To be honest," Merlin said, stepping forward and catching his hand, "I'm really only interested in your bed."

They were kissing hard before they made it upstairs, stumbling over the last few steps. Arthur was determined not to let go of Merlin again; undressing took some manhandling on both their parts.

Once they were in bed, they spent a long time kissing and touching, as they always did. The urgency had not faded, but Arthur let it simmer while he reacquainted himself with Merlin's body and let Merlin do the same. He never tired of the way Merlin's tongue curled against his tongue, or the way his skin pebbled when Arthur's fingers brushed it just so.

Eventually, he reached for the lube that until now he had only used on himself. Quite a bit of this bottle had gone to thoughts of Merlin, but enough remained for Merlin now.

Merlin rolled his head to watch Arthur wetting his fingers, already half-blissed out the way he usually got by the time they needed to slick their cocks. He spread his legs wide; Arthur reached between them and felt the heat on his fingers before he even touched Merlin's skin. He had played a bit with Merlin's arse before while they made love, but he had not been trying to open him up the way everyone said to do before fucking. Merlin had clung warm around his fingertip--now he felt even tighter as Arthur's well-lubed finger pushed deeper.

"Can't quite get the angle," he grunted when his knuckle caught awkwardly. "Could you--?"

"Yeah. Not that I was complaining, mind."

They had to try a few positions. Merlin kneed Arthur in the face twice and Arthur nearly sprained his wrist before they got it right. He knew they had it when two of his fingers slid into Merlin and made him let out the right kind of groan.

"I guess that's the prostate." He tried to remember the diagrams he had studied online.

"No shit, Sher--oh, yeah, there it is again. Yeah, you definitely got it." Merlin's cock twitched, heavy against his belly, as Arthur crooked his fingers to massage the tender spot. "Ah, fuck. Just get in me, would you?"

"I think it's too soon." A couple of the gay sex for dummies websites had scared the bollocks off him with descriptions of what could happen to his partner if he was too tight or dry when Arthur entered him. "I want to get you wet and relaxed first."

A high-pitched snort of laughter burst out above his head. "Relaxation is not really an option here, trust me. I'm fine. I've stuck things up there before, you know."

He squirmed off Arthur's fingers, making it clear he was done with preparation. That was just as well, since the image of Merlin working some vague object into himself nearly finished Arthur.

His hands lost their coordination as he opened the box of condoms, nearly scattering them across the bed. Lube made his fingers too slippery to open the packet; he had to use a corner of the bed sheet to tear it.

The condom slipped out into his palm. He had never put one on before. He had never even had a sex ed class. Fuck, he had no idea what he was doing, at his age, and Merlin--

A warm hand closed over his palm and swept the condom from his hand. He looked up, startled, into Merlin's smiling eyes.

"Let me," Merlin said. "I want to put it on you."

Merlin moved Arthur's foreskin back gently and put the condom to the tip of Arthur's cock, pinching the tip to create a reservoir for his come. He used his fingertips to roll it down his shaft and stroked the length of him a few times.

Arthur took a ragged breath as he watched Merlin's work. Then Merlin cupped his jaw to lift his face.

"I love you," he said.

Warmth washed through him, a happiness separate from the erection jutting between them. He swayed into Merlin and kissed him.

They kissed until Merlin pushed him onto his back and straddled his hips. He lifted himself up over Arthur's cock. Arthur gripped the base on instinct and fit the tip to Merlin's entrance.

He held it steady as Merlin pressed down. It slipped a couple times until the head pushed through into Merlin.

"Oh, God." He fumbled for Merlin's hips to hold him steady. "It feels so good."

"Yeah." Merlin put his hands over Arthur's and closed his eyes as he sank down another inch. "Feels amazing, having you inside me."

He could not help pushing up a little further into Merlin, to get just a little more of Merlin around him. "Is that all right?"

"Oh yeah. More of that, please." Merlin pushed down to meet his thrust until Merlin's balls pressed snug into the hair at the base of Arthur's cock.

Merlin lifted himself up just enough to get some friction. Arthur echoed his groan. He did not know how he had lived his whole life without this. The condom provided just enough remove from the sensation to keep him from embarrassing himself--but his brain wanted orgasm.

"I'm not going to last long," he admitted after they had rocked together a few times. Pleasure was already tugging at his balls, tingling from his cock deeper into his groin, calling for him to come.

Merlin nodded without breaking his rhythm. He moved one hand to his cock and pumped himself in time with their fucking. "I want to come, too. It feels so good."

Arthur's fingers dug into the grooves of Merlin's hips as he ground up into him. He was not sure Merlin understood just how much Arthur wanted to come, but he would not do it, he would not, not until his partner had his pleasure.

Then Merlin choked out something unintelligible and a jet of come hit Arthur's chest. The hot splash sent a bolt of pure pleasure through his groin, tumbling him out of control for good.

He felt nothing but the pulses of his climax, confined within the clenching grip of Merlin's flesh. Nothing in his life had ever felt this good.

The orgasm faded out and left him buzzing with contentment and heavy with the need for sleep. He grinned up at Merlin, swaying above him, through his lassitude.

Merlin grinned back, then winced as he lifted himself off Arthur's softening cock. Arthur started to slide the condom off; Merlin caught his hand and showed him how to pull it free and tie it off without making a mess.

As Merlin reached for a handful of tissues to clean them up, a memory hit Arthur through his sleepy haze. "Damn." He pushed himself up on his elbows. "Where are my manners?"

Merlin looked at him with amusement. "I don't mind cleaning up this time. I'll make you cook me breakfast in the morning if you want to make it up to me."

"No." He reached out and caught Merlin around the back of his neck. "You said you loved me. I didn't say anything back."

Merlin's expression turned uncertain. "I didn't think anything of it. Well, not until just now. You don't have to say anything."

"But I do. Because I do love you." He stroked along Merlin's jaw, let his fingers play in the soft hair at the nape of his neck. "That's not something I'm used to saying to anyone. But I think I'm going to like saying it to you."

This time it was Merlin who looked at him with no words. Then he stretched out on top of Arthur and kissed him.

The only thought Arthur had left to spare for the rest of the night was gratitude that Gwaine had bought the large box of condoms.

Cool autumn air wafted in the window. Merlin drifted into a dim awareness of the chill on his skin seconds before the alarm started beeping. He made a small, unhappy sound and refused to move from the comfy spot he had made for himself in the crook of Arthur's shoulder. Just one more minute.

Arthur stirred with an unhappy sound of his own and pulled the duvet back over them. "Stupid bloody alarm. Sod it."

"Keep telling you," Merlin mumbled. The new warmth made it even harder to contemplate rising. He hated Mondays. Every weekend spent with Arthur made each Monday more fundamentally loathsome than the last.

"Just stay. Gwaine will cook breakfast. I'll drop you at Avalon. No one will notice, just this once."

He was probably right. After spending the entire summer accepted as part of Arthur's social set, Arthur dropping him off would not seem so noteworthy anymore. The paps had finally given up on them in exasperation.

But if he broke the routine this once, let himself pretend that they were just a normal couple getting ready for work, he would do it again and again and again until even the least interested media outlet would be forced to report the obvious.

He no longer cared what people assumed about his sexuality. Arthur fit into Merlin's life like he had always been there, and Merlin felt perfectly at home at Arthur's side.

Arthur's side. He was not so sure about the King's.

Eyelids and every limb heavy with reluctance, Merlin pulled himself from Arthur's arms and crawled out from under the covers. Once he was on his feet, he bent to kiss Arthur's hair. "Coming for Monday night dinner?"

Arthur kept his eyes closed, but his mouth curved in a faint smile. "Has your mum forgiven me yet for stealing your Sundays?"

"She never minded and you know it." Merlin had never told his mother outright that he was seeing Arthur, but after more than three months, she must have had her suspicions.

"Wish I could come, but I have to head back to London this afternoon."

"So soon? But your flight to Sydney isn't until tomorrow morning."

"Dinner with the ambassador tonight to go over the itinerary. They're a little nervous."

"I suppose they would be, given--" Merlin winced. "Shit. Sorry."

"Remind me not to send you on the diplomatic missions. Ever."

Merlin pulled his clothes on as slowly as possible, conscious of Arthur's gaze on him from the bed and conscious that this was the last time they would spend any time together for nearly two weeks. "You'll call. Don't mind the time difference."

"As much as I can. My schedule will be pretty packed. You could still come along for the ride, you know. Go play with the koalas while I'm shaking hands and making speeches."

He looked over and smiled as he buttoned his shirt. "Never trust those fuzzy buggers. I hear they have sharp claws and piss on you when you try to give them a cuddle."

"Well, you've known Will for so long, I suppose I'll have to bow to your expertise."

"Ha bloody ha." Merlin stuck out his tongue and Arthur laughed.

"If you're going to leave that thing out, bring it over here."

Merlin complied. The snooze alarm interrupted them just in time to save Merlin's clothes from coming off again. Merlin pulled back with a sigh. "Got to go, or I'll miss my ride."

"Right. Go." Arthur turned his head to face the wall, looking like Merlin had just stolen his puppy.

Merlin sighed again. "What?"

"Nothing. I just don't like the idea of not seeing you for two weeks."

"You're the one leaving," Merlin pointed out. "You think I'm happy about it, either?"

"Then come with me. You have the time free. There's no reason not to."

Merlin stared at him, feeling helpless and panicked. In the past couple of weeks, this had started becoming more and more of a problem, every time Arthur had to go someplace where Merlin couldn't accompany him. "You know the reason."

"I'm not sure I do anymore." Arthur sat up and scowled at him.

"I can't just--"

"I swore I wouldn't push you before you were ready, but it's been months. How do you plan on having a relationship with me if we can't ever be seen alone together?" Arthur paused for a long moment, then looked away. "Or do you plan on having a relationship with me?"

"What?" Merlin stared at him, aghast. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Well, if nobody ever knows about us, no harm done when you get tired of me and--"

His words ended in a muffled groan as Merlin tackled him back down to the mattress and shut him up with his mouth. "Don't ever say anything like that again," Merlin muttered between kisses. "I love you."

"I know," Arthur muttered back, reluctantly, though he returned Merlin's kisses with fervour. "I'm sorry."

"Just... let me think about it while you're gone. All right?" He kissed Arthur's cheek and started to slide off the bed again.

"Yeah. All right. Love you."

"Be safe." He had to kiss Arthur one more time, just to make sure they were all right, before he grabbed his knapsack and holdall and headed downstairs.

"Ah, Merlin, just in time." Percival gave him a nod as he emerged from the side door. "I was about to leave without you."

"Sorry!" Merlin waved to the rest of Arthur's security detail. "Five in the morning is pretty brutal from this side. Morning, guys."

He got restrained nods from the day shift, and a cup of coffee from Elyan, who was going off duty along with Percival. "Still not coming down under with us, then, Merlin?"

"Wish I could." A twinge of regret made him look away as he headed to the car. Watching all the preparations for the trip had made him realize that he would never get to have a holiday with Arthur, not a proper one. "You lot keep him safe for me, yeah?"

They all sobered for a moment as the ghost of the old king, who had never come back from his last trip, loomed unspoken. "That's our job," Elyan answered.

Merlin nodded and threw his bags in the back before climbing in after. Percival and Elyan got in the front and Percival started the car.

"We're going to miss you, Merlin." Percival looked back with a grin as he eased the car down the driveway in near silence to avoid disturbing the still-sleeping neighbourhood.

"His Majesty the King has been in a remarkably contented mood for the last few months," Elyan said.

"Odd, considering the added burden of his new position," Percival added.

"I suppose the kingship agrees with him."

"I suppose it does."

Merlin rolled his eyes as soon as Elyan glanced in the rearview mirror. Arthur insisted that his protection officers were all humourless automatons, but that was because he never saw them off duty. It turned out Percival was an old friend of Lancelot's, which was how Lancelot's CV had come to Gwaine's attention. Elyan was soon to be Lancelot's brother-in-law. Both demonstrated a constant, fierce devotion to Arthur.

"So the only question that remains is: when are you going to make an honest man out of His Majesty Our Boss?" Percival grinned into the mirror again.

"When he makes it legal," Merlin retorted on autopilot. Out of self-defence, he had developed sarcastic stock answers for whenever he got these kinds of semi-teasing questions from Arthur's friends. Why they were in such a hurry to see him come out now, when they had protected Arthur's secrets for years, he had no idea.

"Aw, just get unionized. That's what my brother did. He's a modern King; screw the Church. Elyan, show him the article."

Elyan handed Merlin a folded newspaper, creased so precisely to the relevant article that they must have either just finished reading it or had been setting him up for this the whole time. "It's from this morning's paper. I expect His Majesty will probably read it on the trip back to the city."

Merlin started to read, but after a second decided to skip to the paragraph they had helpfully circled for him.

For company, The King brings only his half-sister, The Princess Royal, and uncle, Lord Agravaine, who are themselves rumoured to be linked in a non-genetic but perceptually incestuous relationship.

That would seem to take the pressure off His Majesty to reveal the partner of his choice to the nation, but he has given no indication that he means to do so. The salivating press has dubbed him "The Lonely King" even as they strive to link him with every male acquaintance seen more than once in his company. Since a brief flurry of excitement over a Welsh schoolteacher whom The King befriended during work on the Avalon School construction, no other hint of romance has emerged. In matters of the heart, it seems Arthur truly is a lonely King.

"I just hope His Majesty doesn't end up alone for the rest of his life like his father," Elyan murmured as though to himself, though he pitched it perfectly to reach Merlin's ears.

"Now there was a cranky old bugger." Percival gave a slow, and somehow not disrespectful nod. "God rest his soul."

Merlin opened his mouth to scoff. Of course Arthur was not alone. He had Merlin, body and heart. They were living the royal romance the public wanted to see, though Merlin felt no need to make a public performance out of it. Everything was fine.

But the words felt hollow and his voice refused to fill them. He sat back and said little more until they dropped him off near his house and drove off to wherever royal protection officers went when they were not protecting someone.

Arthur strode through the airport corridor that the police had cleared just for Arthur and his entourage. The emptiness felt strange; having an entourage again also felt strange after his months of casual work and play in Cardiff.

One lone newspaper stand remained open for Arthur's pleasure. The proprietor, an older gentleman, stood stiff-backed at the till.

"Good morning, Harold." Arthur picked up his usual selection of broadsheets, plus a couple of the tabloids because it was a long fucking flight to Sydney and he still wasn't used to being able to surf the internet on the plane.

"Good morning, Your Majesty." Harold did not move to ring up the newspapers Arthur had placed on the narrow counter next to the till; someone would reimburse him for his merchandise and trouble later.

"How is your son?" On impulse, Arthur added a packet of Minstrels to his purchases. Merlin had been eating them in bed yesterday. "Did he select a university at last?"

"Yes, sir." Harold shook open a bag and began to slide the papers inside. "East Anglia, sir. He started there last week."

"Excellent choice. Congratulations." Arthur started to walk on, trusting George to take the bag for him.

And wouldn't Merlin laugh at how quickly Arthur had reverted to that behaviour?

He turned back and pulled his wallet out of his pocket. Behind him, his security detail nearly collided with his private secretary as they tried to figure out what he was doing.

"Sorry, nearly forgot." He offered Harold a self-deprecating smile as he pulled out a twenty-pound note, making sure his father's portrait was face down as he held it out. "Will this cover it?"

For a moment they all stood there as Harold stared at the money. The back of Arthur's neck prickled – was it not enough to cover the bill? Was he really that out of touch with real life?

Then Harold nodded a stiff, reluctant nod and took the note. He rang everything up and then slowly, methodically counted out Arthur's change into his palm.

On the way to the plane, he texted Merlin. You'd be proud of how well I can fake normalcy.

By the time he reached the aeroplane steps, he had a response. I'm prouder when you're abnormal. But I love you either way.

He boarded the plane and came face to face with his uncle and sister with a beaming smile. Morgana looked startled, but Agravaine smiled back and rose to embrace him. "Arthur. I haven't seen you since the funeral. You're looking very well."

"You as well, Uncle." The munificence of his mood spilled over, and he gave his uncle a conspiratorial grin. "Love agrees with you, I see."

To his surprise, Agravaine actually blushed before giving Arthur a sly grin of his own. "And with you, perhaps? Or have none of the rumours held any truth?"

Before he could deny it, his hand tightened around his phone. Agravaine's gaze dropped to Arthur's fingers; he looked up and tapped the side of his nose, but thankfully did not press.

"So it's true, then?" Morgana had not bothered getting up to greet him, and stared at him now with a hard, but puzzled look. "I know it's not Gwaine or Leon, so which is it? That French architect? The Welsh school teacher?"

His ebullient mood soured at her demands. "Guess what, Morgana? I don't answer to you."

He expected her face to harden further, as it always did these days, but instead her lips tightened with a weird vulnerability. "I was only asking."

"I think we're past the point of sharing familial concerns, don't you? You gave up that right when you tried to disinherit me, when you rejected me as your brother, and when you attacked me the day we buried our father."

Agravaine cleared his throat and buckled himself back into his seat before hiding behind his newspaper. Arthur glared at the masthead of the Times and mouthed "coward" at him.

Morgana's lips quirked, another of those disconcerting echoes of their old accord. Arthur wavered, wondering whether to press, but then George cleared his throat from his seat across the aisle from where Arthur was supposed to be sitting. He realized that of course, the plane could not depart until he took his seat, and nobody would overtly ask him to do so.

He sat, across from Morgana, refusing to give any ground. As the jet engines revved into a roar, he leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes.

"I never wanted it to be this way between us." Her voice sounded small, so that he almost thought he had imagined the words.

"You were my sister until the day we found out who your father was." Arthur kept his eyes closed, but allowed himself a bitter smile. "Good thing we're British; we know how to do irony."

"He stole my father from me. He stole my mother from me. He stole my brother from me. How can you blame me for hating him?" Her words stung as they drifted over him.

He couldn't blame her, really. There were still days he hated Uther himself--hated him for his faults of compassion, for Morgana, for dying. He just didn't see why hating Uther meant she had to hate Arthur as well.

His fingers tightened around his phone, his connection to Merlin. But as the plane lifted into the sky and his phone became useless, the connection slipped away, leaving him empty and alone.

"Arthur's trip to Australia is so exciting, don't you think?" His mum set the bowl of greens on the table, halfway between Merlin and Will. "Though I'm sorry he had to miss dinner again."

"Yeah, I'm sure he's devastated, isn't he?" Will chewed on a bite of roast, but never took his eyes off Merlin.

"Australia is so beautiful. Is Arthur seeing any of the sights while he's there?" His mum took her seat at the head of the table and reached for her drink. "I read all the articles in the paper, but of course they don't say much about his free time."

"I think he's going to go cuddle some kangaroos." Merlin buttered a roll, drifting in and out of thoughts of Arthur and the last time he had called from Canberra. "No, wait, that's what he wanted me to do, if I came."

The sudden silence alerted him to his mistake. His mum put her fork down on the table with a creamy gob of salad still impaled on it. "He asked you to go with him?"

"Mum, watch the salad." Merlin gestured to her fork, under which salad cream had begun soaking into her table cloth.

She ignored it and him. "Merlin. Did he really ask you?"

He looked down at his own salad, feeling their eyes boring into the top of his ducked head. He wanted to tell them. He couldn't tell them. He needed to tell them. "Yeah. It's no big deal. He asks all his friends."

"Merlin." His mother shook her head, sounding lost for words, which she almost never was.

Will heaved a frustrated sigh and let his own fork clatter down onto his plate. "Bullshit."

"Will," Merlin hissed. Nobody swore in front of Merlin's mother--and he would really prefer Will to stop talking altogether right now.

"He doesn't invite his mates on official tours. That's ridiculous."

"Well, they don't go to the stuff on camera, do they? So how would you know? Besides, I never said he invited me anywhere."

"But he did, didn't he?" Will's jaw could have cut glass as it twitched. "Come on, Merlin. We've had Sunday dinners on Monday for months now because you spend every minute of the weekend shacked up with him. How stupid did you think I was?"

They had pleaded work and royal duties, and Merlin had counted on his mother's pleasure at having royalty at her dinner table to help gloss over the explanations. As he looked at her now, biting her lip and looking back at him with steady concern, he realized he had been the oblivious one after all.

"I know you're not stupid, either of you," he said quietly. "And I know I've been spending a lot of time with Arthur. But--"

His mouth snapped shut on the lie already forming in his brain. No. He couldn't do it. Not mentioning something, having a secret was one thing, but he couldn't lie to his family.

"But," he resumed, drawing a steadying breath, "there's something I need to tell you. I've been wanting to tell you for a while now."

"Should I go?" Will's voice stayed even as he spoke, but Merlin could see the hurt simmering in his eyes.

"No. I want to tell you both. You're my family." He paused again to delay the inevitable. Plenty of people already knew about his involvement with Arthur, but they were all Arthur's people. Why did it feel different to tell the two people in the world who'd loved him best and longest?

Will heaved another sigh. "Let me help you. I can understand why you'd find this difficult to admit, after all. You're fucking him."

"William!" Merlin's mum snapped her head around to glare at Will. "Don't be crude."

As Will mumbled an apology, Merlin slumped back in his chair. Well, there it was. His entire head lightened to the point of floating, buoyed by the long overdue honesty. He imagined it was a small fraction of the fear and relief Arthur had felt when he confessed to the entire Commonwealth at once – but Merlin was happy to start small and work his way up.

"Yes," he said and finally let them see the joy that always wanted to well out into his smile every time he thought about Arthur. "Sorry, I mean, but yes, we've been seeing each other for a while now."

Will crossed his arms over his chest. Merlin's mum put her hand on Will's arm as though to either comfort or restrain him, but she still had her lips pressed into a tight line as she turned back to Merlin.

His ebullience dimmed a little more with every moment that passed without them saying a word. "I really wanted to tell you," he tried again. "But I didn't want to jump the gun. It seemed easier to just keep it quiet until I was sure it's serious."

"Oh, great, so it's serious now. How can that even happen?"

"Will," Merlin's mum said quietly, patting Will's hand but not taking her eyes off Merlin. "Perhaps you should take a plate home. I need to speak with Merlin and it might take a while."

Will agreed too quickly. He didn't even bother with the plate, grabbing a drumstick off the chicken and avoiding Merlin's gaze as he kissed Merlin's mum on his way out the door. The weird silence resumed in his wake.

"I really thought you'd be over the moon," Merlin said when he couldn't stand it anymore. "Aren't you such the fan of royal romance?"

"But Merlin, that's not real life." She shifted her chair to sit closer to him and hooked her ankle around his the way they had done when he was small. "We watch it on television, but living it is something very, very different."

"He's been coming to dinner since May, Mum. How is that not real life?" Arthur had never seemed anything less than overwhelmingly real to him since the day they met. Peculiar as hell, sure, but Arthur's world had its own reality that never showed on the telly.

"I think Arthur is a lovely person. I've never had any doubts about the strength of your friendship." She put her hand over his, and the warmth of it suddenly made him feel like a small child again. "But no matter how down to earth he seems, he's not an ordinary man, and whoever becomes his partner will never have an ordinary life."

"I know." He had tried not to think about it. Arthur had kept his public and private lives separate for so long now that Merlin had let himself believe it could stay that way forever.

But he had also known from the beginning that it couldn't.

"Is that really what you want for your life?" his mother pressed. "To become part of an institution you've always disliked?"

"No," Merlin had to answer. "That's not what I ever would have wanted for myself."

Her smile turned thoughtful, drifting past him. "I've always known you were meant for extraordinary things, but I want you to be happy above anything else."

"I am happy with him. I love him." Something in his chest relaxed as he thought the words as he said them. "I wouldn't have chosen this situation, but I love him. Whatever he needs from me, I'll find a way to give it to him."

Her smiled warmed again and her hand tightened over his. "That's all I needed to hear."

"Do you think I could actually do it, Mum? If we did have to come out?" A hundred highly disturbing images flit through his inner vision: crowns and castles and silly waves. He had got used to Arthur's place at the centre of all that, but had a harder time picturing himself anywhere near it. "I'm not sure I'd make very good royalty. And no queen jokes, please."

"I'll leave those to Will, I think. I'm not worried about you, Merlin. I'm much more concerned that I have nothing to wear to a royal wedding."

He laughed as they finished dinner, though his stomach still tightened with all the ill-defined expectations he felt looming, but still couldn't figure out.

Arthur probably imagined the slight hesitance he heard in the steady chop of the rotor blades, a note of caution as the helicopter circled the crash site. Beside him, Morgana clenched her fists and ignored Agravaine's awkward pats of comfort as they finally landed.

No memorial yet marked the site where Arthur's father had lost his life, except for a large, long rock that had resided in that spot for thousands, if not millions of years before they had shown up. The heat from the crash had hastened the job of smoothing the surface, and on that surface the names of the dead had been engraved.

His father's name came first, underneath the stark date of the crash: a simple, unassuming Uther Pendragon. Arthur traced the letters, then brushed his fingers over the names of the helicopter pilot, his father's protection officers, and his private secretary of over thirty years. Silently, he thanked them for their service. Even inside his own head, it didn't sound like enough.

He touched Uther's name again and wondered if his father had known what was happening, if he'd had time to be scared.

The wash of tears behind his eyes startled him. He shoved his sunglasses harder into place and inhaled through the sudden congestion in his nose.

Thank God he had insisted on a private visit without so much as a camera phone within a hundred kilometres. He could feel himself falling apart more and more by the second, as the horrible reality of his father's death melted down his emotional walls into a suffocating slag heap in his chest.

Morgana looked as shaken as Arthur felt. She walked a few steps away and buried her face in Agravaine's neck.

Seeing Agravaine's arms encircle her, Arthur ached with need for Merlin. He made a sharp gesture that brought George to his side in an instant. "Someone must have a phone that can make calls out here," he told him. "Find it and get it to me."

With a mere nod, George vanished and Arthur fixed his gaze on an indeterminate spot on the horizon until George reappeared with a bulky satellite phone. "To whom should I place the call, sir?"

"No one. Just give it to me. Please."

Arthur took the phone and walked out as far as he could get away with before Percival and Elyan started to twitch. The line rang five times before Merlin's sleepy voice answered.

"Did I wake you? Shit, I can't believe I forgot the time difference."

"I told you to forget the time difference, didn't I? You sound strange."

"It's just this satellite phone," Arthur lied.

"You're out at the crash site, aren't you? You should have told me when you were going. I would have waited up. Are you all right?"

"No." Hearing Merlin's voice undid him the rest of the way. "I'm afraid I'm not all right."

Then he was crying in small, choked sobs, clinging to the soft sounds of comfort Merlin made over the crackling line. It helped, but it wasn't enough. He wanted Merlin: wanted Merlin's arms around him, to bury his face in the crook of his strong neck and let Merlin make him feel safe, understood, and loved.

Comfort hovered just out of his grasp, but anger burned through his grief like fierce sun through a fog. Uther's legacy still oppressed him--only Arthur was denied the right to have the one he loved by his side. "I really need you."

"God, Arthur, I wish I was there with you."

Arthur always wished Merlin was with him. He always wanted more from Merlin than Merlin was ready to give. Most days he could deal with that and feel it a price worth paying for everything else they had together--but today, he had no patience left, no fortitude, nothing but need and grief for what he couldn't have.

"You could have been," Arthur said and hung up.

Merlin stared at the phone in his hand for a long time after Arthur disconnected from half a world away. Lying down to sleep again seemed like an absurd fantasy; not like he didn't wake up reaching for Arthur in the empty bed anyway.

He supposed that should have told him something in the first place. His relationship with Arthur was no schoolboy fantasy, even if he'd been inclined to pine after handsome princes as a schoolboy. They had a tangible reality together that had already begun shaping both their lives around it.

Only he had never wanted to admit what a real relationship would eventually require--that Merlin would have to bend his life to fit Arthur's with everything that meant. Arthur was the King. He would never live a normal life. The fucking national anthem was about him. That fact could never be changed or escaped.

And Arthur needed a partner who wasn't afraid or ashamed to stand by his side. He deserved that. Everyone expected him to find a worthy partner, someone glamourous, a rich aristocrat or movie star, someone willing to out himself for the sake of loving a King.

As for Merlin, he had envisioned a future with Freya, or at least someone very like her, who accepted his bisexuality with security and appreciation. He could have kept his queer identity a private matter forever, safe in the outward appearance of heterosexuality.

"God, what bullshit," he muttered into the darkness.

Arthur could have lived that same kind of half-life with Mithian by his side, but he had chosen to be himself at any cost. Merlin knew that the slurs, both veiled and brutally blunt, from certain factions of the press, the government, the Church, the Commonwealth, the common people, all cut Arthur and left myriad tiny scars. The guilt that lingered from the shade of King Uther's dictates burned like salt in the wounds.

Merlin considered calling Will, but what the hell could he say? Remember when I mentioned I was dating the King? I know you're still kind of angry at me for that, but what do you think I should do about this row we had? Should we break up?

He stuck his pillow over his face and groaned into it. Will would punch him. And Merlin would deserve it, because he already knew the answers to all of his questions.

It was time to stop pretending they could go on like this forever. Merlin couldn't be a boyfriend to Arthur from the shadows. He either had to step up, or let Arthur go.

"Was that your boyfriend?" Morgana asked out of nowhere somewhere over Dubai.

Arthur looked up from his magazine and stared at her stupidly for a moment. "What?"

"On the phone. When you were crying." She had been staring at him like this, quizzical and hungry, ever since that day at the crash site. "Were you talking to your boyfriend?"

Agravaine looked from his nephew to his fiancee, and then got up with no attempt at subtlety. "I think I'll go see if the Captain will show me how the radar works. Er, again."

Morgana did not acknowledge his departure. Arthur's incomprehension rapidly gave way to the usual mix of anger and sadness he felt around his sister. "Do you really think you have any right to ask me those sorts of questions anymore?"

"Yes." Her eyes burned onto his face, but he saw the slight ripple in her throat as she swallowed. "I need to know who he is."

"His name is Merlin." He hadn't planned to say it, but the moment he did, he felt a rush of mingled relief and fear.

"The school teacher."

"Yes. Our liaison from Avalon Primary. You know damn well who he is. And before you start judging me, I'm not actually his boss. I can't even fire him, more's the pity."

She nodded slowly and then broke eye contact to look out the window. "Why all the secrecy, then? I thought you meant to be out and proud."

"I am, but Merlin's not. I can't push him. It's too much to ask, given who I am." He had to bite his lip to slow his babbling. He had never talked about this with anyone, not even Gwaine, but he needed to, and the memories of their old confidences returned too easily.

"But you love him."

"Yes." That he couldn't deny. Let her use it against him if she dared.

"And you're waiting for him."

He paused just a breath before answering. "Yes. Though we've had a bit of a row. I don't know that I've anything to wait for now."

She broke into a bizarre giggle. "Jesus, Arthur. You sound almost like a real person, albeit a bit of a drama queen."

"He's off limits, Morgana."

Her eyebrows lifted. "I can't meet my future brother in law?"

"I mean it. If you even think about outing him or harassing him or looking at him funny, I'll strip you of everything you have that I have the power to take from you." He scanned a mental list of Morgana's titles, holdings, and privileges. "And that is actually everything you have."

He braced himself for the inevitable lash out. She disconcerted him again when she gave him a wondering look. "You really do love him, don't you?"

"Yes," he answered again, and then threw his hands up when she suddenly began to cry. "Oh, for fuck's sake. I give up. Take the crown, take the country, because I can't even figure you out."

Morgana started to giggle again and he found himself mesmerized by her eyes, glittering with tears and mirth. He hadn't seen her so open to him in years.

On impulse, he unbuckled his seatbelt and held out his arms to her. He said nothing, having had enough conversation about his feelings for one day, but he kept his arms out as he watched her weigh him and struggle within herself.

Then she was in his arms, half in his lap, pressed to him in an embrace as exhilarating as it was awkward. He breathed in the old, familiar scent of her hair and didn't dare say a word.

She stilled against his shoulder as though she was just as afraid of speaking. "I thought you were just like him," she said at last. "Cold and smug and incapable of love."

He had never thought of their father that way. In truth, he had never been sure if Uther really loved him, but surely he could have if Arthur had been just a little better, a little more normal, the way a prince was supposed to be. Either way, he wasn't ready to discuss that with anyone but Merlin.

"I loved him and I love you," he said.

"I want to believe you. I want to believe that if you can be so devoted to some common boy, you might even be able to still love me."

"Well, I can give it a try, if you'll stop being a cow. Do you really want the throne that badly?"

"No. I just didn't want you to have it." She was quiet for a moment. "I just didn't want him to have it."

"He's gone. Nothing you do can do anything to him anymore. That's what I realized; why I did what I did. Why should we waste our lives trying to hurt or please him when he'll never even know?"

"Perhaps. It was more satisfying before I started to suspect that you might be a good King despite your parentage."

"Now you really do sound like Merlin."

"I knew he must be the reason you suddenly seem a more attractive prospect."

He tugged at her hair, like he had when they were children, though not as hard. "Admittedly, putting up with Merlin is proof of a very noble disposition."

"I hope he leaves you for someone much better."

Her tone had no venom, but the words still sent a chill up his back. He had been trying not to think about it, but he worried that Merlin was about to do exactly that.

The chill remained through the rest of the flight and the interminable drive back to Clarence House. He didn't even want to go back, but there were always debriefings and documents and a million tiny duties to fulfill before he could go back to what he had started to think of as his real life.

Assuming he could go back. He had heard nothing from Merlin since Arthur had snapped and hung up on him. And Arthur kept finding excuses not to call back, pride and righteous indignation covering for his nerves.

Merlin had chosen not to be there for him. He could take the first step back.

Unless he had decided to walk away.

Arthur checked his phone again. Maybe his voicemail just wasn't getting through yet after the international trip.

"This way, sir," George said, taking over again now that they were back in his natural habitat. "The Prime Minister--"

"I'm not sure I'm in the mood for the Prime Minister." Arthur let George usher him into one of the smaller drawing rooms where the stacks of informational briefs usually waited to bombard him with everything that had happened in the Commonwealth while he had been occupied elsewhere. At least he could catch up with his reading while whatever lackey the Prime Minister had sent nattered on.

"Nonetheless, sir, I'm afraid you must--"

"It's not your job to tell me what I must do or not do," Arthur growled, though that was often exactly what George's job was.

"So that's how you talk to the servants when you think no one's around?"

Arthur jumped and spun around to see Merlin standing in the corner of the room, shifting awkwardly next to the chair Arthur favoured. "Merlin?"

Merlin offered a hesitant smile. "Hi."

Arthur opened his mouth, then just shook his head. "How on Earth did you get here?"

"The train. They run regularly, you know, for those of us without Jaguars."

Joking was usually a good sign with Merlin. "No, I mean, how did you get in? And if you tell me you paid for a tour, so help me--"

"Gwaine got me in. I told him I really needed to talk to you in person, as soon as you got back."

"Oh." Arthur deflated a little. That did not sound so promising. "Well, I'm glad. I really wanted to see you, too."

Merlin's brow creased and his mouth tightened. "All right, but could you let me talk first?"

"All right." Arthur set his upper lip to stiff. His relationship experience consisted mostly of the last few months with Merlin, but he knew as well as anyone that a serious talk out of the blue rarely ended in smiles.

It might be for the best, if they ended this impossible thing between them now before it got public and any messier in Arthur's heart. Parting as friends--he could live with that, if he must. Perhaps.

Merlin looked at a point just past Arthur's head. Great, he couldn't even meet Arthur's eyes. Even friendship seemed less likely as the seconds ticked past.

Finally, Merlin cleared his throat in an awkward cough. "Excuse me," he said, "but do you think you could give us a few minutes?"

Arthur had completely forgotten George still lurked behind his shoulder. Great, two weeks away, and he had already assimilated his entourage. If there had been any chance Merlin wasn't about to break up with him, that probably drove in the final nail.

"Sir--" George began, and Arthur sensed something about the Prime Minister coming.

"Oh my God, would you just get out?" Merlin shouted, waving his hands in the air like he was shooing away a swarm of gnats.

"Sir," George yelped, and Arthur had a feeling he wasn't the one being addressed this time as George skittered out the door like the floor was burning his feet.

"Huh," Merlin said as though realizing his own power.

And with that, Arthur felt himself sink another two notches deeper in love with him.

"All right," he said, heavy with resignation. "Just do it fast, would you?"

Merlin looked at him with confusion and a little annoyance, but shook his head and held up a hand. "Just give me a chance, yeah? I'm not exactly great at talking about my feelings."

Arthur couldn't help but laugh; some days Merlin didn't do anything else. "Merlin, I just spent three hours of flight time with my sister weeping into my collar and telling me she loves me. After that emotional insanity, there's nothing you can say that's going to surprise me."

"You patched things up with Morgana?" Merlin's face lit up. "Arthur, that's amazing. What happened?"

Merlin had happened, but Arthur wasn't about to give that up right now. "Never mind what happened. For God's sake, Merlin, what are you here to say?"

His mouth twisted; Merlin still wouldn't look at him directly. "Right. So I thought a lot about what you said. You're right, and to be honest, I've always known it would come to that. You deserve someone who can be there for you in every part of your life."

If that someone wasn't Merlin, Arthur wasn't sure it would matter. "Or I could just keep you."

Merlin shook his head. "Don't do that, Arthur. Don't settle for just what you think you can have. You're going to be an amazing King. You should have someone amazing at your side, someone who appreciates how extraordinary you are."

Arthur shook his head harder than Merlin had, as if to overrule him. "Stop it, Merlin. I was having a bad moment. I never meant--"

"It's really lucky for you that I'm an amazing person, and no one could appreciate your handful of good qualities more fully than I do." Merlin stepped forward, finally meeting Arthur's stunned gaze. "That's why I'm asking you out."

"You--" Arthur tried to breathe in while trying to get words out, and the result was a strangled wheeze. "You're asking me out."

Merlin nodded, very solemn. "On a date."

Arthur returned his nod, slowly, until he felt like a mechanical toy. Right. A date. He could work with that. "We can be discreet. There's a private little--"

"I got tickets to the premiere of the new Green Knight movie."

"Premiere?" Arthur sputtered.

"Yes. You know, with the red carpet and the cameras and people waving. I've never had to wave at cameras before, but you've been doing it since you could walk, so it can't be that hard."

"Merlin," was all Arthur could say for a long moment. "Are you sure?"

"Yes." Merlin met his gaze steadily, all evidence of nerves gone. "I mean, I'm quite sure I'll never measure up to what people expect, but I'm sure I want to be with you, and I'm sure I'm ready to let everyone know that."

"I stopped caring what people expect a while ago." Arthur grinned, started to step closer to Merlin, but then stopped as a thought occurred to him. "Wait, how the hell did you get tickets to the Green Knight premiere? Gwaine's going, and he practically had to prostitute himself for the tickets."

"Gwaine gave them to me."

"Are you serious?" The Green Knight had been Gwaine's favourite superhero since they were kids; Gwaine had been talking about this movie for years. "Well, I guess I don't have to ask if we have his blessing."

Merlin grinned. "He did weep a little when he handed them over."

Arthur grinned back and stepped forward again, full of joy, ready to pull Merlin into his arms. He stopped when Merlin put a hand up to his chest. "What?"

"Before you say yes or no, there's something else I need you to know." Merlin turned and moved back to the corner of the room where his knapsack sat on the floor next to Arthur's favourite chair.

Arthur had forgotten that he hadn't said yes, as if he could say anything else. Nor did he particularly care about whatever new secret Merlin had decided needed disclosure, though his curiosity piqued a tad when Merlin pulled out his laptop and started to set it up on the side table. "Wait. You're not in a porno, are you?"

Merlin looked over his shoulder, exasperated. "What porno do you think I'd be in?"

"One could see you as a hobbit in The Lord of Peens or some such thing. I'll be very supportive. I'll even pretend to be shocked, if you like."

"I'd be a sexy elf, and you'd be so turned on, you couldn't stand it." Merlin finished tapping at the computer and stood back. "There. That's what I wanted to show you."

It took Arthur a second to recognize the website, having grown used to accessing it on the small screen of his phone. But it hadn't changed its layout since Arthur was at uni; Arthur huffed a fond laugh. "You read an anti-monarchical blog? Merlin, I'm stunned, really."

Merlin just shook his head and motioned for him to look closer. Arthur walked up and bent over the screen. Close up, he finally noticed that it wasn't the website, not exactly. It was an update screen for the blog, into which Merlin had logged himself. Merlin--

He straightened up, mind spinning. He opened his mouth to ask, urgently, which one are you? But the question stuck in his throat because he didn't need to ask. Of course, he knew. He couldn't believe he hadn't always known that voice in the back of his mind, that he hadn't recognized him immediately.

On the down side, he would probably still have to deal with Will for family dinners for the rest of his life.

Merlin was starting to turn pale, even a little green, waiting for his response.

"I should have known, you wanker," Arthur murmured. And then, because Merlin seemed to be turning even greener in misunderstanding, Arthur clarified by grabbing Merlin's face between his hands and kissing him as hard as he could.

He could feel Merlin figuring some of it out; felt the pull around his waist as Merlin seized handfuls of his shirt. "Will and I agreed to nuke the whole site," Merlin mumbled into his mouth between kisses. "It'll be like it never existed."

"Don't you dare," Arthur returned and kissed him harder to keep him from saying anything else stupid like that. Someday he would tell Merlin--and Will--exactly what he knew and thought of their blog, but for now, he'd rather show his opinion without words.

He heard the door open, but he didn't care until he heard the Prime Minister's voice. "Oh! Excuse me, Your Majesty."

Arthur took his time disengaging from Merlin's face, helped along by Merlin breaking into wheezy chortles. He turned and raised an eyebrow at George, who stood behind Cara Nimueh, looking nonplussed.

"As I tried to tell you, sir: The Prime Minister."

"Indeed." He turned his most charming smile on Nimueh. "Forgive me, Prime Minister, but I'm afraid we're going to have to reschedule. I have a date."

Merlin had planned the most normal date he could imagine: dinner and a movie. He thought he had done rather well on both counts. Dinner was at Pizza Express, because that was what Merlin could afford and who didn't like pizza? He'd found one in a quiet neighbourhood with a semi-private alcove that he managed to book for the night.

Arthur beamed at the front door, at the excited wait staff, at their flabbergasted fellow patrons as they were led to their seats. Percival and Elyan took the other table in the alcove between them and the steps leading up to it. They could be seen, but not heard, which Merlin decided was a life compromise he was prepared to make.

Once they were seated, Arthur continued surveying their surroundings with delight. "This is perfect. I love this."

Merlin raised his eyebrows with amusement. "If this gets you so excited, I can't wait to take you to Wagamama, Pret, and Nando's."

"I'm for it. Gwaine brings takeaway from all these places, but I've never actually been inside." Arthur laughed, then looked up at the server who approached them with a steady, professional smile. Merlin wondered if assignment to their table had been made as a punishment or a reward.

"Welcome to Pizza Express, Your Majesty. Sir." She nodded to both of them. "I'm Mary and I'll be serving you this evening. Can I get you any drinks or starters while you look at the menu?"

"How do you do, Mary?" Arthur picked up the menu. "Could I see your wine list? Oh, no, here it is."

Mary grew visibly nervous as Arthur frowned down at the short list of available wines. "Is everything all right, sir? If you don't see something you like--"

"He's fine," Merlin interrupted with a grin. "He wanted to show off his vast knowledge of fine wines and world culture, only he's just realized that he doesn't recognize anything on your menu."

Arthur lifted his head enough to glare daggers across the table at Merlin, but Merlin could see his lips twitching. "Actually, I thought I would ask our lovely Mary to recommend something."

"Oh, I would be happy to. Let's see." Mary bent over the menu with Arthur, looking happy to be back on solid professional ground. "We have a wonderful new Shiraz from Australia, perhaps in honour of your recent--"

She stopped cold, frozen in obvious remembrance of the reason why Australia had been Arthur's first royal trip. How easy it was, Merlin reflected, to forget Uther entirely with Arthur so bright in the public eye. Easy for everyone but Arthur, at least.

Arthur only smiled gently. "Yes, I remember I had a spectacular Shiraz while I was down under. I'm sure this will be just as good. Merlin?"

"Sounds good," Merlin agreed, though he hated Shiraz. "And some dough balls."

"Dough balls," Arthur exclaimed. "Yes, let's have some of those. And some bruschetta please. I'm famished."

"Dough balls for those two ominous-looking blokes as well." Merlin nodded toward Elyan and Percival, looking stern at their table. "Better make it two orders. I mean, really, look at them."

Arthur looked surprised as Mary nodded and headed off. "I don't think I've ever seen them eat before."

"That's because they won't unless you offer them something," Merlin said. "And I just saw Percival staring at someone's pizza like it might make a sudden attempt on your life."

Arthur just smiled and caught one of Merlin's feet between both of his. When the dough balls arrived, Percival and Elyan looked over at them in surprise. Merlin gave them an enthusiastic thumbs up, but they waited until Arthur looked over his shoulder and nodded before Percival shoved two in his mouth at the same time.

Merlin had just stuffed one in his own mouth when he noticed a woman out on the main floor aiming a cell phone camera at him, trying and failing to be discreet about it. He made sure his cheeks were well stuffed with dough before he smiled and waved at her and watched her jump and scurry away.

Arthur stiffened a little, but didn't look. "You're handling this with remarkable good humour."

"I decided to cope by treating the whole circus like the farce that it is." Merlin dipped another dough ball in garlic butter. "It really is silly that everyone gets that excited over who you're dating, don't you think?"

"I know. It's like I'm royalty or something." Arthur caught Merlin's hand when he tried to inch the garlic butter out of Arthur's reach.

Merlin laughed and turned his hand over so that Arthur's fingertips stroked over his palm. Their fingers, greasy and garlicky, caught together over the tablecloth so no one could doubt that this was more than just a friendly meal. Merlin's nerves kept trying to jangle with the implications of what they were doing, but every time he looked up at Arthur, the happiness in his smile disarmed him.

"This really is perfect," Arthur said. "Exactly what a date ought to be."

"Yes, well." Merlin tightened his fingers around Arthur's. Arthur seemed so polished in every other social interaction, Merlin found it easy to forget that this was his first real date, the first that had meant anything. The thought abashed and exhilarated him.

The pizza came, forcing them to separate their hands. Mary looked at them like she was trying to suppress a giggle as she set their food down.

"So tell me what happened with Morgana." Merlin inhaled a satisfying glob of mozzarella.

Arthur toyed with his terrifying slice of prosciutto and goat cheese and shook his head with an air of disbelief. "To make a very long story short, my crazy sister has apparently decided that fucking you is enough proof that I'm nothing like my father."

Merlin tried not to snicker. "Well, that's a good point. I don't think your father would ever have fucked me."

"I should hope not."

The tiny grimace of distaste on Arthur's face was too adorable for Merlin to resist. "Although, your father was quite fit, as I recall."

Slowly, Arthur put his pizza down and picked his napkin up. He dabbed at his mouth, which did nothing to conceal his nauseated expression. A second later, his foot kicked Merlin's shin hard under the table. "I hope that was worth the trauma to my brain."

"It was," Merlin assured him. "But seriously, tell me everything."

As Arthur described his conversations with Morgana, Merlin forgot all about his own stress. Merlin couldn't do anything without his own family and it had hurt his heart to see Arthur so hopelessly alone when his father had died. "That's fantastic," he said when Arthur finished. "I can't wait to meet her."

"She's just as excited to meet you, which to be honest, rather terrifies me." Arthur finally picked up his pizza again, attacking it with a hum of contentment. "And after that, if the world doesn't end, I just have to get through my own coronation, then get Morgana married to my uncle--"

"Seriously, you can eat while thinking about that?"

"--and then reform the entire Church of England, even if I have to drag old Geoffrey and the entire synod into this century with my bare hands."

Most of his encounters with Arthur's royal powers had been somewhat localized. The thought of what Arthur could do for the entire country left Merlin a little breathless. "You're quite sexy when you get power crazed," he joked. "Though I'd worry first about the civil laws being equal. Does the Church's opinion really matter than much anymore?"

"It matters to me."

"Well, I suppose you are the Head of it, after all. But still."

Arthur shook his head. "It's not that."

"Then why?"

"Because someday I expect that I'll ask you to marry me." Arthur leaned forward, making Merlin's breath stop with his gaze. "And when I get married, I'm going to do it in Westminster Abbey, after a lavish procession, with the entire world watching as the Archbishop of Canterbury performs the ceremony."

"That sounds like the most horrible thing I can imagine," Merlin told him, which was mostly true, although he couldn't deny that something about the image appealed to him on a primal level. Maybe it was just the thought of marrying Arthur, sealed to him for the rest of their lives.

A grin flashed through Arthur's intensity. "And that alone is a brilliant reason to do it," he said. "But I want my wedding to be exactly like my father's, my grandfather's, my great-grandmother's. No one, for the rest of history, will ever be able to say that my marriage meant any less than theirs. That we were worth less."

Merlin had to break away and look down at the table, chest tight. This was what his mother had meant by history, that it was different for kings, even in this day and age. "Well, all right. I'm in."

"Are you sure?" Arthur kicked at him again playfully. "I mean, if you're not keen on challenging the system and changing the world, I suppose I could marry someone else."

"Oh, no, you couldn't." Somewhere in the back of Merlin's mind, he felt the creeping awareness that he had just tacitly agreed to marry the King of Great Britain. He shoved it aside to deal with later. "Who else would go along with your mad ways?"

"Well, there was this hobo outside the--ow!"

They kept kicking at each other while they finished their pizza. It was the best dinner Merlin had ever had.

The movie proved a different matter.

"All right, remember, I'll get out first and give them a little wave and then you get out behind me," Arthur instructed as they pulled up in front of the Odeon after a quick clothing change back in Arthur's apartments.

"Right." Merlin rubbed his palms on his thighs. It was the first time he'd ever ridden in a chauffeured car, and the first time he'd seen a red carpet that wasn't on the television. Everything seemed much more real than it had in their cosy corner over dinner.

Arthur squeezed his knee in what might have been reassurance, except for the gleam of battle-light in his eyes. "Don't fret, Merlin. This is going to be fun."

"You betcha," Merlin managed to get out with the last of the air in his chest as the driver opened the car door on Arthur's side.

The noise hit him first, a din of cameras and shouts and babble. The shouts and the camera clicks swelled into a roar as Arthur got out and the assembled fans and press clued into the unexpected arrival of royalty.

Merlin slowly slid himself over to the seat Arthur had just left and sat, trying to steady his breathing. Then he sat some more, until Arthur reached back into the car and grabbed his arm to haul him out.

"Smile!" Arthur hissed as he slid his arm around Merlin's waist and waved seemingly at random to either side of them. Percival and Elyan already flanked them, and Merlin vowed never to think of them as a waste of taxpayer money again.

He stared for a long, vision-bending moment at the red carpet under his feet. Then Arthur pulled him into motion and Merlin's head jerked up and his lips stretched into the broad smile Arthur had made him practice in the car.

Step by step, he made it up the red carpet until they could finally slip inside the theatre. People swarmed around them, but Merlin ignored them, knowing they wouldn't talk to Arthur unless invited to do so. Idiotic royal protocol had some uses, at least.

"All right?" Arthur asked softly as an unfazed PR person came to show them to their seats, clearly chosen to keep Arthur in a position where Percival and Elyan could get to him at all times.

Merlin inhaled and tried not to look around with what he suspected was a bad case of the crazy eyes. "At least it's done. Everyone in the whole world is talking about how I'm sleeping with you now."

"Oh, no, not yet." Arthur slung an arm around his shoulders as they followed their usher down the aisle. "It'll take a little time for it to hit the internet. Then you have to give all the vultures time to tweet it up and spread it around, and there are the time zones, of course."

"Great," Merlin sighed.

Because he damn well was not coming out again, he held Arthur's hand all the way through the previews.

The Green Knight was chasing the Lady up to the top of Tower Bridge, having destroyed most of the motorway in the process. Merlin had just managed to forget all the eyes he could feel watching them as much as the film when Arthur leaned over to whisper in his ear.

"Now," he said.


"Right now. This is the moment when everyone in the Western world is thinking about you and how you're sleeping with me."

"Thanks," Merlin whispered back. "And fuck you."

Arthur chortled and around them, everyone within three rows of them also laughed, even though nothing funny had happened on the screen.

They left through the back, like usual. Arthur could see that Merlin had had enough of the public eye for one night, and frankly, Arthur had as well.

"Back to Clarence, sir?" his driver asked as they pulled away from the theatre.

"No, to Buckingham, please, Ranulf."

Merlin had started to lay his head down on Arthur's shoulder, but straightened in surprise. "Buckingham? Why? I swear to God, Arthur, if you tell me you have work to do--"

"Not work," Arthur promised. "Just something I want to do. Bring your bag in."

One very specific thing that he had only just thought of during the film, but which was now, as Gwaine would say, burning a hole in his pants.

Although Ranulf said nothing, he must have made a call after Arthur shut the partition, because the head housekeeper was waiting for them at the private entrance. "Welcome, Your Majesty," she said, keeping her eyes on Arthur, though they kept twitching curiously towards Merlin. "This is a lovely surprise."

"Sorry for the lack of warning, but I decided I wanted to sleep in my rooms here tonight," he said. "I trust that won't be a problem?"

"Of course not, sir. We keep them ready for you at all times." She hesitated, clearly wanting to ask more. "If you need assistance, I can call for--"

"No. We won't need anything. Thank you." He nodded and took Merlin's hand, pulling him toward the stairs.

"Wait, I'm pretty sure I'm going to need things," Merlin protested, almost falling into him as he craned his neck to look around.

Arthur didn't answer until they were alone in the King's suite. He had not been in these rooms since he was a small child; the dim glow of the lamplight brought no memories. Nothing of his father remained. Everything here was now his own.

"We won't need anything, because I'm assuming you brought condoms and lube," he finally said when the door was closed and locked behind them.

"What? Why would you assume that? What kind of tart do you think I am?"

Arthur merely raised his eyebrows with a small smirk.

Sheepishly, Merlin unzipped his knapsack and pulled out a box of condoms and a brand new bottle of lube. "I'm still insulted that you just assumed that I'd put out on the first date."

Arthur grinned and paced forward, backing Merlin into the bedroom. "I'm claiming my royal privileges."

"You have no royal privileges with my arse," Merlin informed him, but with a grin that promised otherwise. "I thought you said you never wanted to live here, by the way. You're not suddenly going to revert to royal prat now that you've got me where you want me, are you?""

"I don't want to live here." Arthur pressed his hand against Merlin's chest, waiting until Merlin's knees hit the bed before pushing him down onto the bedspread. "But I do want to fuck you in the royal bed. Just this once. That is my privilege and I'm going to take it."

Merlin betrayed himself with a moan. After that, it was easy to remind Merlin that this wasn't their first date at all--that Arthur knew how to rid him of his new clothes, how to kiss and tease him into trembling arousal, how to part his thighs, prepare his body, slide inside him and rock them both into orgasm.

Once he came, he felt mind and body relax as though he'd accomplished a great task long outstanding. He curled into Merlin's chest with a jaw-cracking yawn. "Now you're mine," he mumbled. "And nobody can ever take you from me."

Merlin woke sprawled across the King's bed, with his King sprawled over him, chest pressed to Merlin's back. Mid-morning light filled the room, or what little he could see of it. Although tourists undoubtedly already tromped through the public rooms below, quiet prevailed here. No alarms, no obligations; nothing but Arthur's warm breath and body.

All the discomfort of the night before, all the discomfort he would face in the future--all of it was worth it just to have this.

Arthur stirred against him, finding his skin with kisses little more than a brush of drowsy lips. Merlin pressed back against him, arousal seeping into him like sunlight.

They moved as little as possible, just enough to get a condom into place before Arthur pressed inside him. The slow, easy fucking let Merlin drift through sleepy pleasure until it crested to a sticky finish over his fingers.

Arthur shivered to climax inside him, then hummed as he ran his hand over Merlin's body. "Good morning."

"Good morning." He kissed Arthur's fingertips when they brushed over his lips. "I think I hear someone outside."

"Someone probably broke in with breakfast. Don't worry, they'll just leave it out there for whenever we're ready." Arthur yawned and started to wrap himself around Merlin again, but the mention of breakfast woke Merlin up the rest of the way.

He detached himself with a kiss and pulled his boxers on. "I'll just go scout it out," he said, leaving Arthur to free himself from the condom and bedcovers.

Merlin padded toward the door beyond which he had heard the clink of china and cutlery. He couldn't wait to see what constituted breakfast fit for a King. He really hoped there was toast.

The door opened onto what looked like some antique version of a lounge, filled with light and the smell of eggs and bacon. Merlin had not had much of a look at the place last night, with Arthur dragging him through the dim rooms.

And he didn't get to look at it now, because right in front of him was a sight he had never expected to see in his life: his best friend having breakfast and an animated chat with the Princess Royal. "Will?"

"Oh, there you are." Will managed to tear his gaze away from Morgana to look at Merlin with surprise, as though he were the one unexpected and out of place. "Have you met Princess Morgana?"

Morgana rose from her seat with a giggle, as though Will had made the funniest joke. Will stood at the same moment, like the gentleman he most certainly was not.

"I am so confused right now," Merlin complained.

Morgana laughed again and came to stand right in front of him. "Hello, Merlin," she said.

Up close, she looked more like Uther than Arthur ever had--but both of them had those piercing blue Pendragon eyes. Merlin stood stunned under her gaze, hideously aware of his state of unshowered undress. "Hello," he answered and started to extend his hand before he remembered that he really didn't want to touch Arthur's sister with the hand Arthur had just made him come all over.

She smirked a little, but it wasn't the bitter, angry smirk that she had worn for years as she tore her way through Europe and America, causing as much havoc and embarrassment as possible. When she leaned toward him, her eyes offered a conspiratorial glint. "I found your friend trying to get himself arrested outside Clarence House."

"I was trying to keep you from making the worst mistake of your life," Will said, sitting down again and reaching for the toast. Merlin's toast. "But that was before I met Her Royal Highness. Now I'm all for it."

"Her Royal Highness? Seriously?" Arthur emerged from the bedroom behind them, stretching his arms over his head. He was also still in his boxers, but he had taken the time to wash up and also pilfer Merlin's spare t-shirt from his knapsack. "I can barely get ‘hey, you' out of him, and she gets ‘Her Royal Highness?'"

"She's a princess," Will and Merlin answered in unison, then looked at each other and shrugged. They might not want to fund her lifestyle, but Merlin dared any man to meet a beautiful princess in person and not feel a little awestruck.

"She's a witch with evil powers, is what she is." Arthur shambled over to take Morgana's seat at the little table and started buttering the last piece of toast. "I can't believe her children might actually be my heirs someday."

Losing the last piece of toast was worth seeing the look that flashed across Morgana's face, almost too quick to catch, at Arthur's words. If Merlin had not been standing so close, he would have missed the tiny catch of her breath. He knew enough of royal politics and her situation to understand the promise Arthur had just offered her – not just inheritance, but legitimacy.

"How did you even know where we were?" Arthur added before taking out half the buttered slice in one bite.

Will gave him a withering look across the table. "The flag was up."

Arthur froze, eyes wide as though he had momentarily forgotten who he was. "Ah. Right."

Will shook his head and then got up and heaved a sigh. As he stalked across the room towards him, Merlin braced himself for whatever punch or admonishment he had coming.

Instead, Will threw his arms around Merlin and clamped him tight against his chest. "You're a damn fool," he muttered into Merlin's neck. "But if this is what you want, I'll be with you until the guillotines come."

"Oh, thanks." Merlin meant to sound bitchy, but it came out more as a snuffle against Will's cheek.

They hung on for another minute, while Arthur and Morgana pretended to ignore them over the clink of china and their own halting attempts to relearn casual conversation with each other. Finally, Will let go and rubbed Merlin's back. "Go put a shirt on. I saved you some toast under my napkin."

Merlin brightened and hurried to make himself decent. The toast was slightly burnt, but he still protested when Arthur tried to nick the second piece and then Morgana succeeded. He was all right with it, he supposed – it was just a normal family breakfast.

Epilogue – some months later

The choir swelled as Arthur paced, step by measured step, toward the altar, where the Archbishop waited. Thousands of people sat crammed into Westminster Abbey, kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, all of them a blur as he concentrated on moving in a straight line in time with the pages bearing the enormous coronation robe that stretched out behind him like a carpet.

Even Will had been muscled into attending, installed somewhere in the back and no doubt breaking out in hives at the sheer amount of pomp currently oppressing him. The thought made Arthur feel much lighter under his heavy state robes.

Of all the people in the Abbey, only the ones at the front truly mattered. Gwaine and Leon waited in their robes with rest of the peers; Mithian sat with her parents and all the other visiting heads of state up in the royal gallery.

And on the aisle, just a few metres from the Coronation Theatre, Merlin sat with Morgana. He had gifted Morgana a coronet in the style meant for the sovereign's siblings, which she held between her gloved hands on her lap. Sadly, until they married, he couldn't force Merlin into robes or a coronet of any kind.

The anthem peaked and the sudden roar of "Vivat Rex! Vivat! Vivat!" shocked him back into the moment. He felt his knees tremble as he mounted the steps onto the dais where his throne awaited. Arthur knelt by the chair, carefully, and felt the hush of the abbey wash over him as he closed his eyes to pray.

He had intended to pray for strength, courage, and wisdom, but instead he found himself reaching out for some echo of his father. Please be proud of me, Father. Forgive me as I keep trying to forgive you.

The melancholy of his thoughts lingered through the procession of the Regalia, as he turned to present himself to the four corners of the Abbey while Geoffrey proclaimed him and the trumpets sounded. As he finally settled into the coronation chair, he let his mind clear to focus on the oath he was about to take.

"Sir," Geoffrey said, moving in front of him. "Is your Majesty willing to take the Oath?"

"I am willing," Arthur answered.

"Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and of your Possessions and other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?"

"I solemnly promise so to do."

"Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?"

"I will."

"Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you maintain and preserve inviolable the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England?" Unseen to anyone but Arthur, Geoffrey raised his eyebrows.

"All this I promise to do." Arthur returned the slightest smile. His promise was sincere: changing the Church was God's work, and he would devote himself to it with all the sacred obligation he had just incurred.

He accepted the anointing, with the same oil that had anointed his father and grandfather, with peace in his heart.

After that, the investiture began, beginning with the lesser regalia. As Arthur accepted sword and spurs, ring and orb, he could feel the crown looming from the altar, already weighing heavy on his brow.

They put the sceptre in his hand, and then the rod, and then he bowed his head. The crown was heavy, so heavy, though he had worn it around the house for weeks (and prepared for it all his life).

The moment it rested on his head and the Archbishop stepped away, the abbey erupted into a roar. "God save the King! God save the King!"

At last he had a clear view of the congregation. All the peers were putting on their coronets. He saw Morgana doing the same, and next to her, Merlin stood, silent, and watched him with wide, solemn eyes. As their eyes met, Merlin's lips curved in a brilliant smile, and then he was shouting with the rest of them, God save the King.

Merlin couldn't stop grinning even when the shouting stopped and the homage began. After all, it was pretty awesome to see the Archbishop of Canterbury kneeling in front of Arthur, pledging his fealty to his gay King. Who knew a coronation could be so subversive?

Morgana squeezed his hand when it was her turn to go and pay homage to her brother. It was the first time she had let go of him since four o'clock that morning; apparently Arthur thought he might be a flight risk. As if Merlin would miss this.

She knelt at his feet, taking off her coronet, and murmured her oath too low for anyone but Arthur to hear. He could tell Arthur wanted to touch her, but the sceptre, rod, and crown prevented any unplanned gestures of affection. She touched his crown and kissed his cheek as she rose.

Hearing the oath wasn't a problem when the Duke of Clarence knelt in her place. "I, Gwaine, Duke of Clarence, do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth will I bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God."

Merlin's grin grew wider as Gwaine kissed Arthur's hand. Nobody could mean that oath more than Gwaine.

Agravaine went next, though he was not the lord of their family duchy. Arthur's uncle Tristan had sent his regrets from somewhere in Romania. Arthur had not got over that one for days--who the hell sent regrets to a bloody coronation?

Even more astounding was the sheer number of people he suddenly knew of sufficient rank to need to pledge their fealty to the new King. He saw Vivian's father kneel, and finally after Leon, Earl of Sussex, swore his faith, Merlin felt he could finally relax and just concentrate on keeping himself awake for the rest of the ceremony.

Breakfast the morning after his first public date with Arthur had been the last moment of peace and quiet they had enjoyed. The appearance of an actual partner had brought Arthur's theoretical sexuality into substantive focus, and Merlin still had difficulty comprehending how many people seemed to have an opinion about it. Combined with the whirlwind preparations for the coronation, Merlin had endured a fiery baptism into royal life.

And he had his own problems that he had not wanted to even mention to Arthur. Avalon was almost ready to reopen, but Merlin had not heard anything about what was to become of him. Elena had been offered a permanent placement in Year 6, which left Merlin without a position. Every time he called about it, Gaius only made vague noises about something being worked out.

On the bright side, Arthur had been wearing St. Edward's Crown to bed every night, which Merlin found delightfully kinky.

Arthur had disappeared into the inner chapel; he emerged at last, back in the Imperial Crown and purple velvet. Merlin gave silent thanks. From the endless rehearsals, he knew the ceremony was almost over.

Everyone around the dais stirred, ready to take their places in the procession as soon as the Archbishop and King departed. Morgana touched his arm again; they were to depart behind the gentlemen-at-arms and regalia bearers and ahead of the clergy, in the traditional place of the Royal Family. Merlin had no official business in the procession at all, but Arthur had insisted.

Arthur stepped down from the throne, taking the steps only slightly less cautiously than he had on the way up. At the bottom of the steps, he paused for a moment next to them. Morgana sank into a curtsey to her sovereign. Merlin froze; he had never actually bowed to Arthur before.

But Arthur was beautiful, regal, and just for that moment, Merlin could fully believe that some divine hand had chosen him to stand here. He bowed deeply, and gladly.

He rose to Arthur's beautiful smile, so beautiful that Merlin refused to hold himself responsible for what he did next. He stepped forward, dug his fingers into ermine, and kissed Arthur soundly in front of God and the entire world.

Arthur stiffened, but then laughed and kissed him back, swathing him in heavy velvet. "Merlin," he murmured.

"My King," Merlin whispered back and reached up to steady Arthur's crown before it slid off the back of his head.

The picture made all the newspapers, the websites, and the history books as well.


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