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For Worse or For Better (Proposal!AU)

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Arthur strode calmly through the lobby, the crowd of early morning traffic parting before him. He paused briefly to scan his ID card and made his way to the elevator bank. Everyone gave him a wide berth, even inside the elevator, and he was just fine with that.

Arthur Pendragon, editor-in-chief at Camelot House Publishing, was not a popular man. In fact, he was fairly certain he'd heard the words "slave driver" tossed around in conjunction with his name on more than one occasion. He was known for being merciless with his competitors, his colleagues, and his staff. But it got the job done--that was the bottom line.

At 30, he was the youngest editor-in-chief in CHP's history. His father had started the company in England long before he was born, and Arthur inherited the American subsidiary when he was only 25 years old, after his father's untimely death. It had been floundering when Arthur took over, but he'd moved to New York and slowly built it up, taking apart anyone who stood in his way. Now it was the top publishing house in the country, and it was all thanks to Arthur.

It was the least he could do to honor his father's memory.

He got off the lift and walked toward his office, ignoring the way his employees scrambled to get out of his way. He also ignored the hateful glares thrown in his direction. Five years ago it would've bothered him. Now, he'd be happy to show any one of them the door, daring them to go elsewhere, to try and find something better, knowing full well that they couldn't. So they stayed. And hated him.

Arthur tossed his bag onto the sofa by the window. Ignoring the flashing message light, he rang Mary, the receptionist.

"Has Merlin arrived yet?"

"Not yet, Mr. Pendragon. Would you like me to call him for you?"

"No, I'll do it, thank you."

Right on cue, his Blackberry buzzed in its holster on his belt, signaling the arrival of a new text message:

On my way, getting coffee. SO SORRY.

Arthur sighed, punching a quick reply:

You're completely useless. Don't forget the cinnamon this time.

Merlin quickly shot back:

Yes Sire.

Arthur had gone through fourteen different assistants in his first two years in New York. They'd all started out eager, hoping that getting in good with Arthur would get them somewhere in the company. But Arthur was moody, and demanding, and sometimes mean, so none had been able to take it for more than two months. Until Merlin came along.

He'd wound up in Arthur's office literally by accident. He'd just moved to New York and was doing temp work, reporting for the first day of his first job--only he'd written the address down wrong and had come to CHP instead of the building next door, where he was supposed to be.

Arthur should've taken it for the sign that it so obviously was, but instead he'd hired Merlin on the spot. Another assistant had just quit, and Merlin was English. His accent was a bit washed out because he'd lived in the states since he was a teenager, but it was familiar enough that it had made Arthur's chest ache with homesickness.

The similarities between them ended there, however. Merlin was clumsy, inept, and utterly hopeless. But where others had run screaming, Merlin had persevered, and three years later, Arthur almost had him trained.

The door to his office banged open and Merlin hurtled in, a mess of dark hair, skinny limbs, and ridiculously large ears. Arthur arched an eyebrow as Merlin rushed over, placing Arthur's coffee on his desk.

"Jesus, I'm so sorry," he said, setting down his own coffee and shrugging off his coat. "Bloody power went out again and knocked out the alarm."

"Perhaps you should pay your electric bill," Arthur suggested, taking a sip of his coffee.

"Perhaps you should give me a raise," Merlin shot back, snatching up the phone as it started to ring. "Arthur Pendragon's office."

Arthur hid a slight smile behind the rim of his coffee cup. In addition to all his other faults, Merlin was extremely insolent. Arthur put up with it because sometimes, on very rare occasions, it was amusing.

"He's not in yet, may I take a message?" Merlin was asking, uncapping a pen with his teeth. "No, Ms. Stuart, I don't know what time he'll be in." He listened for a while longer and then rolled his eyes. "Well, perhaps if you'd submitted your manuscript on time, he'd be more inclined to return your calls right away. But I'll give him the message," he finished, hanging up before she could say another word.

"Is that any way to talk to one of our writers, Merlin?" Arthur asked, flipping through the latest sales figures that had come up from accounting.

"Here are your messages from Friday afternoon," Merlin said, completely ignoring the question and handing him a small stack of slips. "Morgana called. Again. She said it's very important and that she'll be calling every ten minutes today until you speak with her."

"Put her off," Arthur said. He didn't feel like dealing with his sister. Besides, he paid her a huge amount of money to take care of things without bothering him.

"But-"

"Just do it, Merlin. Oh," he added when Merlin turned to leave the office, "I'll need you to come in this weekend to help me go through some of the archived manuscripts. It's time to take inventory and make sure we're all up to date, legally speaking."

Merlin's face fell. "This weekend?"

"Is that a problem?" Arthur asked, not really interested in the answer. Merlin would wind up giving in, as always.

"It's just that it's my uncle's 75th birthday this weekend. I was going to go home for his big party. I told you last week."

Arthur vaguely remembered something like that. "Yes, well, it's come to my attention that some of our rights are expiring soon. If I have to sit here all weekend with dusty old papers, I don't see why you should get out of it."

A flash of anger crossed Merlin's face. "Fine," he said through his teeth, "I'll cancel."

Merlin turned and practically stomped out of the room to his desk, located right outside Arthur's office. Arthur had wanted him in the same room--there was plenty of space--but Merlin had refused, not wanting to be cut off from the rest of the staff. He was one of them after all; wildly popular with his co-workers in spite of whom he worked for. Or perhaps because of it: it probably garnered him a lot of pity.

It was quiet for the next few hours, Merlin holding all his calls while Arthur finished reading the first draft of a manuscript before assigning it to an editor. He toyed briefly with the idea of giving it to Merlin, knowing that he aspired to being an editor. He'd be good at it; Arthur knew that much from the feedback he'd gotten from Merlin on various things over the years. But if Arthur made him an editor, he'd lose him as an assistant.

Arthur assigned it to someone else.

It was close to lunchtime when Merlin poked his head in. "Tristan wants to see you in his office immediately." He sounded a bit sullen, but nowhere near as angry as he had been.

Arthur groaned. Though Arthur owned a majority of the shares in the company, he preferred to be involved with the publishing rather than the administration, so his uncle was the CEO. A summons to his office was never pleasant. They had a like-hate relationship--sometimes he thought that Tristan secretly blamed him for Igraine's death, though how Arthur was supposed to have prevented his mother from dying after giving birth to him, he had no idea.

"All right," he said, pushing his chair away from his desk and standing up. "Give it ten minutes and then come get me."

Merlin waved his hand in acknowledgment. Arthur took the elevator up to the floor where the executive offices were located, squashing the nerves that tried to wreak havoc on his composure. He knocked once before opening the door.

"Arthur," his uncle said, "come in, come in."

Arthur came fully into the office and shut the door. His uncle was seated at his desk, and behind him, leaning against the windowsill with her arms crossed, was Morgana. Arthur blinked in surprise.

"Morgana. I didn't know you were coming in, Merlin said-"

"Yes, I know," she interrupted, "but if I called, you'd just ignore me, so I figured this was the best way."

"Okay," Arthur said, confused. Morgana was his immigration attorney. She rarely had dealings with the company itself.

"I invited Morgana," Tristan said, looking at him ruefully. Like Arthur's, her temper was legendary in the family. "It's about your visa, Arthur."

"Oh," he said, relieved. "Is that all? I thought that--"

"Your renewal application has been denied." Morgana's voice was flat, without inflection. Arthur stared at her, convinced he'd misheard.

"Sorry?"

She stood and leant over Tristan's desk, bracing herself on her hands. "The United States government has denied your visa application."

"But why?"

"Apparently they didn't like the fact that you ran off to Paris in January. I told you that you weren't allowed to leave the country while your application was pending," she said, glaring at him.

"I had to! Bayard was having a complete meltdown and wouldn't do any promotional appearances without me. It would've cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars if he'd canceled!"

"Unfortunately, they don't care," Tristan said. "As it stands, you're looking at deportation."

"Depor-" Arthur stopped, unable to believe what he was hearing. "Isn't that a bit extreme? I'm English! We're allies!"

"This isn't war we're talking about, Arthur," his sister said, rubbing her eyes. "You didn't even fill out your paperwork."

"I'll do it now. Can't we just reapply?"

"Yes," she said, "but not for a year, and you have to leave the country for at least that long."

Arthur plunked into one of the seats in front of his uncle's desk. He had to leave for a year. There was no way he could do his job from London. It was simply too far away.

"I was thinking of making Valiant interim editor-in-chief, just while you're gone," his uncle said. Arthur's head snapped up.

"Valiant?"

"He's the only one with anywhere close to enough experience."

He was also a complete snake in the grass. Years ago, Arthur's father had been interested in acquiring a small publishing house owned by Valiant's father. Unfortunately, news of the potential buyout had leaked and caused the stock prices to plummet, essentially forcing Valiant's father to sell to Uther in an effort to recoup some of his losses. Valiant had been adamant that Uther had leaked news of the buyout purposely and had sworn revenge.

Then, suddenly, two years ago he'd had a change of heart and had come looking for a job at CHP. Tristan had hired him immediately. It would show that there were no hard feelings, he'd said. Except Arthur was convinced he was a spy of some sort, working for a competitor, trying to figure out a way to bring the company down.

Arthur couldn't leave CHP in his hands.

"Listen, Arthur," his uncle said gently, "you've built this company up from nothing. We would love it if you could stay. Believe me when I say that if there was any way, any way at all, we would do it."

There was a knock at the door. Everyone turned to look as Merlin stepped in, holding the door open. Right, Arthur thought miserably, his knight in shining fucking armor. "I'm so sorry to interrupt," Merlin said, stopping short when he saw Morgana. "Morgana. Hi."

"Hi Merlin," she said warmly. She'd always had a bit of a soft spot for the clod.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Can we help you?" Tristan cut in. "We're in the middle of an important meeting."

"Right, sorry." Merlin shook himself and looked at Arthur. "Bayard's on the phone--he's called twice already since you left and insists on speaking with you now."

"It's all right," Arthur said, waving his hand at Merlin, trying to convey that there was no need for excuses anymore.

"Tell Mr. Mercia that Arthur is otherwise engaged," Tristan snapped.

Engaged. Arthur whipped around in his chair and looked at his assistant. He vaguely remembered Merlin not having a visa when he started- something about his grandparents and parents being citizens. Which made Merlin a citizen. And if Arthur were to get his papers some other way--say, by marrying a citizen--he'd be able to stay in the country and keep the company out of Valiant's grubby little hands.

Perhaps Merlin was his knight in shining armor after all.

He was starting to look very flustered under Tristan's withering gaze, so Arthur quickly made his mind up. He strode over to the door, taking Merlin by the hand and pulling him into the room until they were standing next to each other in front of Tristan's desk. Merlin looked down at their joined hands, blinking.

"Well, I had hoped to do this another way," Arthur started, gripping Merlin's hand tighter when he tried to pull away, "but given the circumstances, I don't think we have a choice but to go public."

"With what?" Tristan asked, looking between the two of them.

Arthur took a deep breath. "We're getting married."

"Who's getting married?" Merlin asked, sounding utterly confused.

"You and I, silly. Stop being coy," he said, giving Merlin a warning nudge with his elbow. "We don't have to hide it anymore."

Merlin fell silent, apparently too stunned to say anything else. Morgana had no such problem. "You have got to be kidding me."

"No, not at all," Arthur said, letting go of Merlin's hand and slinging an arm around his shoulder, preventing him from escaping. "We've been dating secretly for months."

"Secretly," Tristan said, skeptical.

"Yes, I didn't think it'd be appropriate to say anything until we were sure, him being my assistant and all."

"And now you're sure," Morgana said.

"Of course."

"Merlin?" she asked, giving him a hard look. "Is this true?"

He whimpered, and Arthur reached a hand up to awkwardly pet his hair. "Don't let her intimidate you," Arthur said. He cleared his throat. "Just tell her that it's true."

Merlin made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a sob, but Arthur chose to take it as confirmation. "See?" he said triumphantly to his sister.

"Wait, I'm sorry," Tristan said. "How would marrying Merlin help?"

"Oh, he's a citizen," Arthur said proudly, thumping Merlin on the back. "So are we all set here, then?"

Morgana opened her mouth, but their uncle cut her off. "Whatever you say, Arthur. Just make it legal, and we'll take care of the rest."

"Legal, right." He grabbed Merlin by the arm and started towing him out of the office. "We'll get right on that. Very exciting!" he called out as the door closed behind them. Once they were in the elevator, he slumped against the wall in relief. Merlin stood ramrod straight, staring at the doors until they opened on their floor. He followed Arthur into his office and shut the door.

"What the bloody hell was that?"

"Watch your tone," Arthur warned as he sat down, picking up the manuscript he'd been reading earlier.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Merlin said, "but I thought I heard you tell Morgana and your uncle that you and I are getting married."

"I did, yes," Arthur said absently, scribbling some notes in the margin.

"I am not marrying you."

"Yes, you are," Arthur said, "because if you don't, all your dreams of becoming an editor will be over. Your career will be ruined, and you will have wasted the last three years of your life catering to my every whim for nothing."

"You'd fire me?" Merlin asked, outraged. Arthur sighed, putting down his pen.

"Of course not. I don't like this any more than you do. But if I get deported, they're going to make Valiant editor-in-chief. He'd never trust you; you're too close to me. He'd fire you the moment I was gone. "

Merlin let Arthur's words sink in. "Oh God," he finally said, covering his face with his hands. "Oh God."

"Stop being so melodramatic," Arthur said. "It's only for a couple of years, and then we get a divorce and carry on with our lives. But until then, we're stuck with each other."

"I don't want-"

There was a knock at the door. Morgana let herself in, glaring at Arthur. "Merlin, give us a minute, would you?"

Merlin nodded, shuffling out of the room.

"What do you think you're doing?" she asked, hands on her hips.

"I don't know what you mean."

"This isn't a bloody joke, Arthur. There could be serious consequences."

"To marriage? I never knew you were such a pessimist," he said, smirking.

"Don't bullshit me. It's fraud. I know you're lying. And God, poor Merlin."

"Poor Merlin?" He was a little offended at the implication that being married to him would make Merlin a "poor" anything.

"He's a good boy Arthur; I'm not going to let you do this to him."

"It's not for you to let me do anything. You work for me, remember."

"You're such a bastard. How can you-"

"Just do the paperwork, Morgana," he said. "I'll take care of Merlin."

"Yes, because you've done such a bang up job of that already," she hissed, knocking a stack of his papers to the floor and storming out of the room. He sighed. For someone so worried about Merlin, she didn't seem to mind making more work for him. He pressed the intercom button on his phone.

"Merlin, I need you."

 

++++

 

"What the bloody hell is taking so long?"

Merlin shot him a bored look and then went back to typing furiously on his BlackBerry. "We've only been here ten minutes. Calm down."

Arthur sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. They were at the Homeland Security office downtown, waiting for their interview. "I just don't see why we have to wait so long for an interview. Shouldn't they be more worried about important things, like apprehending terrorists? Why do we even need an interview anyway?"

"So they can make sure we're not lying. Which," Merlin continued, dropping his voice to a whisper, "by the way we are."

Arthur rolled his eyes. Really, Merlin was being ridiculously dramatic about the whole thing. He'd been alternating between sulking and ignoring Arthur for the past two days. Add that to the poisonous emails and phone calls he'd gotten from Morgana and Arthur was starting to get a bit annoyed.

"Look," he said, trying to remain calm, "it's not a big deal. Just stick to the story, and we'll be out of here in no time. I really don't see what there is to be so upset about." He laughed. "What, were you saving yourself for someone special?"

Merlin pulled a face, but didn't reply. Arthur was struck with a terrible thought--did Merlin already have a significant other? Is that what this was all about?

"Wait, are you seeing someone?" he asked, sounding genuinely surprised. It's not that Merlin was unattractive, per se, he'd just never thought about it.

"What? No," Merlin said. "No. But yes, as it happens, I was saving myself."

Arthur cocked his head, amused. "Are you a virgin, Merlin?"

"You are a complete tosser."

Arthur paused. "Are you?"

Arthur's voice carried across the office, and Merlin cleared his throat as people looked their way. "Shut up, Arthur. And no, I'm not, don't be ridiculous."

"So then for whom were you saving yourself?"

"Oh, I don't know, perhaps I wanted to marry someone I loved or something. Hell, at this point I'd settle for liking them."

Arthur sat back in his chair. Merlin's words stung. They'd never had a good relationship, but he'd never thought Merlin actually disliked him. He wasn't sure why, though--why would Merlin be any different from the rest of his employees?

His lack of response must've unnerved his assistant. "Arthur?"

"Forget I said anything. Let's just try and get through this."

"I'm sorry," Merlin finally said, quietly. "That was a horrible thing to say."

"At least it was honest."

Merlin bit his lip and looked like he was about to say something else, but just then their names were called. They were led to a small, cramped office and left to squeeze into the two chairs in front of the tiny desk. He looked at the nameplate on the desk: Nimueh Dumond.

He looked around the room, anywhere but at Merlin, trying to ignore the sick feeling that was crawling into his stomach. Why was this happening now? If he was going to have an attack of conscience--if that's what this was, Arthur didn't have much experience with them--did it have to happen right before the interview with the one person who could blow this all to hell and back?

"Arthur-" Merlin ventured, but once again he was saved. The door opened again and a pretty woman stepped in, tall with dark hair and strikingly blue eyes, dressed in a sharp suit. The whole effect reminded him disturbingly of Morgana.

"Mr. Pendragon?" she asked Merlin hesitantly, eying them both.

"That's me," he said, standing and offering his hand. "Arthur."

"Pleased to meet you. And so you must be Mr. Emrys," she said, smiling at Merlin and shaking his hand as well. "I'm Ms. Dumond, I've been assigned to your case." She walked around to the back of the desk. "I'm sorry about the mess; it's been one of those mornings."

Arthur exchanged a glance with Merlin. She didn't seem quite so bad. She sat down, smiling at him prettily. Come to think of it, Arthur thought generously, she was actually quite beautiful.

"Just to clear one thing up before we start," she said, opening the file in front of her. "You two wouldn't happen to be committing fraud because Mr. Pendragon's visa application was denied and he's facing deportation, would you?"

On second thought, perhaps she was a bit of a toad.

"What?" Arthur spluttered, indignant as though he had the right to be. "Who told you that?"

"Well, obviously, you're facing quite the predicament, Mr. Pendragon. You can hardly keep your position at the company if you're deported," she said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the desk. "I've heard about you, you know. Arrogant, think you're God's gift to everything--I wouldn't put it past you to bully your assistant into doing this."

Definitely a toad. She turned to Merlin, her face softening a bit. "Am I right, Merlin? Is he forcing you to do this?" Merlin hesitated and, sensing weakness, Nimueh pressed harder. "Don't you want to tell me the truth, Merlin?"

"The truth-" Merlin started, his voice faltering, "the truth is that Arthur and I-" he shot a quick glance at Arthur, who smiled in a way he hoped was encouraging and not at all threatening. "We're in love," Merlin said finally. "Only we didn't want to tell anyone because Arthur felt it would be inappropriate. With my promotion coming up and all."

"Promotion?" Nimueh and Arthur asked simultaneously. Merlin smiled at him and reached over to squeeze his hand where it sat on the arm of the chair.

"It's all right," he said to Arthur, "she has to know." Turning back to Nimueh, he said, "Arthur's promoting me. To editor. But we thought that if it came out that we were seeing each other, people would question his motivation."

Arthur stared at him. The little weasel. Nimueh frowned, thrown off by the legitimate excuse.

"Does your family know about the wedding?"

"My family's dead," Arthur said, "aside from my sister, and she's aware of it."

"Merlin?"

"We were going to tell them this weekend," Arthur said quickly. Two could play at this game. "It's Merlin's uncle's 75th birthday and there's going to be a huge party. We thought we'd do it there, surprise everyone. Right, honey?" he asked Merlin, smiling triumphantly. Merlin's eyes narrowed, but he didn't deny it.

"And where is this party going to be?"

"Merlin's parents' house."

"And where is that, exactly?"

Arthur paused, scrambling for the answer. Oh God--he didn't know where Merlin's parents lived. How could he not know?

"Ealdor," Merlin said, sounding far too serene. "Alaska."

"Alaska. Alaska?" Arthur asked, the image of himself being mauled by a polar bear or possibly harpooned by an Eskimo coming terrifyingly to mind. Merlin just smiled.

Nimueh watched them for a long moment. "Well," she finally said, "let me tell you how this is going to go. You're going to come back here Monday morning. I'm going to separate you and ask you everything--all the things a real couple would know about each other. Then I'm going to talk to your families, your neighbors, your co-workers."

Merlin made a strangled sound. Nimueh eyed him briefly before continuing.

"If, at any point, anything indicates to me that this is fraudulent," she paused for dramatic effect before turning to Arthur, "you will be on a plane to England, never allowed to return again, and you, Mr. Emrys, will be guilty of a felony, carrying with it a $250,000 fine and a sentence of five years in federal prison. Got it?"

Merlin blanched, and Arthur stood up, grabbing him by the arm and hauling him out of his chair. "Thank you. We'll just be out of your way, then."

 

++++

 

Arthur shoved open the doors that led to the sidewalk. "All right, so you need to make our flight reservations, and reserve a hotel while you're at it--they do have hotels there, yeah? And for heaven's sake, Merlin--Alaska? Really? Why couldn't your family settle in New York, or Los Angeles, like normal people?"

Merlin turned on him, angry, bringing him up short. "Shut up, Arthur."

"What's with you?"

"Me?" Merlin spluttered, "what's with me? Were you not in there just now?"

"Of course I was, don't be stupid. And speaking of stupid, what was all that rubbish about being promoted?"

"Oh, I'm getting that promotion," Merlin said, hands on his hips.

"Promote you to editor? Not a chance."

"Fine," Merlin said with a shrug, turning and walking away, "I quit. Have a nice trip back to England."

Panic flared up in Arthur's chest. "Wait a minute!" He ran to catch up and grabbed Merlin's elbow, bringing him round so they were face to face.

"No," Merlin snapped, snatching his arm away. "Things have changed. I could go to prison for this. Promote me, or I'm out."

Arthur ran his hand through his hair, at a loss. "All right, fine. If you go through the whole thing, the weekend with your family, the interview, the wedding, I'll promote you."

"Effective immediately," Merlin added. "And I want a raise, obviously. A big one."

"Now wait just a minute-"

"No!" Merlin shouted, drawing attention to them. Arthur took a step back, surprised. "If I have to do this to save your arse," he said, jabbing a finger at Arthur's chest, "then I am damn well getting something out of it."

"All right, all right," Arthur said, raising his hands in surrender. "Calm down."

Merlin relented, smoothing down the front of his jumper. "That's better. Now, ask me nicely."

Arthur eyed him warily. "Ask you what?"

"To marry you."

"...you're joking."

"No. Go on then, down on one knee."

Arthur stared at him, but Merlin only crossed his arms and waited, eyebrow arched. He looked around--the plaza was full of people, darting here and there, streaming in and out of the building. "Here?" he asked, a little desperate.

"Right here."

Arthur cursed under his breath. Reluctantly, he got down onto one knee and peered up at his assistant, who was watching him with a smug smile.

"Willyoumarryme?" he mumbled, feeling his cheeks start to burn. This was humiliating; people were staring. Merlin just touched a finger to his ear.

"Sorry, what was that?"

"Will you marry me?" Arthur repeated, clearer this time.

"Like you mean it."

"Fine," Arthur snapped, squaring his shoulders. "Merlin Emrys, will you do me the proud honor of becoming my husband? Pretty please?"

Merlin cocked his head, considering. "That'll do." He turned and started walking away from Arthur. "See you tomorrow at the airport," he threw back over his shoulder and then he disappeared into the crowd, leaving Arthur kneeling on the filthy sidewalk.

 

___________________________

 

 

"All right," Merlin said, flipping through the booklet of questions they'd received from Nimueh. "We have four days to learn all this about one another."

Eying the thickness of the booklet, Arthur said, "She's going to ask all that?"

"Possibly," Merlin said, frowning as he read through the questions. "Sad thing is, I already know all of this about you." He smiled, tossing the book onto Arthur's lap. "Looks like you've got the most work to do."

Arthur scanned a few of the pages. The range of information the questions covered was mind-boggling. "You know all this about me," he said, disbelievingly.

"Mmhmm."

"What's my favorite color?" Arthur asked, reading off the paper.

"Red."

"Where did I go to school?"

"You went to public school as a child, and then to Eton and Oxford," Merlin recited without thinking. Of course he'd know all that rubbish, he'd written Arthur's bio for CHP's website.

"My favorite movie?"

"You don't watch movies because sitting idle for two hours is highly inefficient and a complete waste of-" Merlin had to stop, laughingly shielding himself when Arthur smacked him in the face with the booklet.

"Idiot," Arthur said, turning back to the questions. "Ah, nervous habits. Answer that, I dare you."

"That's easy."

"Impossible," Arthur said, victorious. He didn't have any nervous habits.

"You bite your nails."

"I most certainly do not."

Merlin sighed, grabbing Arthur's hand and lifting it up, displaying the stubby evidence for all to see. Merlin's hand was warm curled around his, and Arthur blinked at it for a moment before sliding it out of his grasp.

"You know," he said, "I'm wondering if I should start worrying about how you know all this about me. You're like a stalker."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "You're the one that calls me every two minutes when I'm out of your sight, remember?"

"You'll be rid of me soon enough," Arthur said. "With your new promotion and all." He was still a little bitter about the whole thing.

Merlin blinked. "You're right," he said, sounding slightly awed, as though he'd never thought of it. As though that wasn't one of the main reasons he'd sought the promotion.

He felt his stomach drop, and told himself it was because they'd started their descent into Juneau.

 

++++

 

It took another short (and bumpy) plane ride plus a boat ride to reach the house where Merlin's mother lived with his uncle. Merlin had booked them into the one hotel in Ealdor, but Hunith had canceled the reservation, claiming that she simply couldn't allow family to stay at a hotel.

She was a warm woman, if a bit standoffish toward Arthur. He wasn't surprised--he couldn't imagine Merlin had told her anything nice about him. He'd hung back awkwardly during their reunion, not wanting to intrude on her obvious delight at seeing her son. It'd been the same with Merlin's uncle Gaius. He'd heartily greeted his nephew and then extended his hand to Arthur, giving him an once-over that made Arthur decide that Gaius wasn't someone he wanted to piss off. Ever.

They wouldn't be telling him about the sham wedding, then.

Now Arthur stood in the foyer, looking around. The house was, to put it plainly, fucking beautiful. And it was big, bigger even than the summer home his father--no, Arthur--owned in Kent, which had always seemed so huge to him. The outside was ordinary enough, with a porch that wrapped around the entire house. But the inside was warm and inviting, the walls paneled with dark wood, the furniture of a high quality but worn. It was all very homey.

He was surprised, frankly, looking over at Merlin when he stopped next to him. His assistant didn't strike him as someone who came from money.

"You didn't tell me you were rich."

"I'm not," Merlin said. "My family is."

Arthur rolled his eyes, stepping to the side to avoid a group of screaming children as they ran by.

"I'm sorry about all this," Merlin said, indicating all the people milling about. "I didn't know she'd invite the whole town to welcome me home."

"She's happy to see you," Arthur said plainly. It wasn't ideal, but he wasn't exactly eager to be stuck alone with Merlin's family either. "I guess we'll have to wait to tell them."

"Yeah, about that--I should probably tell my mother on my own, first. It's going to come as a bit of a shock."

"But-"

"I might have to do some damage control, and believe me, I'd rather do it alone."

"Fine," Arthur said with a sigh, already bored with the conversation. "Anything else?"

"Yes. We're supposed to be in love, remember? We have to act as though we at least like each other."

"Should be difficult for you," Arthur said. Merlin's words from before the interview yesterday still rankled.

"I told you I didn't mean that."

Actually, what he'd said was that it'd been a horrible thing to say, which was not at all the same thing. "Whatever, it's fine. I can play the doting boyfriend for a few days and then everything can go back to normal."

"Is that what you want?" Merlin asked quietly. Arthur looked at him.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I've been thinking-"

"Merlin!!"

They both turned to see a short, plump woman coming toward them, dragging a man about Merlin's age behind her. Arthur felt Merlin tense beside him.

"Mrs. Simmons," he said warmly to the woman, and then a slightly terser, "Will. So good to see you."

"And you too, dear," Mrs. Simmons said, giving Merlin a hug. She turned to him. "And you must be...Arthur, is it?" she asked, extending her hand. Arthur took it.

"That's right, pleased to meet you."

"This is my son, Will."

Arthur shook his hand as well. "Pleasure," Will said, eying Arthur speculatively. He withdrew, turning toward Will's mother as she started speaking.

"How are you enjoying New York, Merlin?"

"It's wonderful, thanks." Merlin smiled, but it went nowhere near his eyes.

"So," she continued, "tell me--I've always been curious, what exactly does a book editor do?"

Merlin hesitated a moment. "Well-"

"Actually, mother," Will said, "I believe that Arthur here is the editor. Merlin's just his assistant. Isn't that right?" he asked, smiling smugly at Merlin. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin's ears pink.

"Oh my," she said, eyes widening as she looked at Arthur, "so you're-"

"Merlin's boss," Will finished triumphantly. Next to him, Merlin was practically radiating embarrassment. Arthur turned a charming smile on Will's mother.

"Not for much longer, I'm afraid," Arthur said, closing a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "He's just been promoted to editor himself." He was pleased to see Will deflate a bit.

"That's wonderful, dear," she said to Merlin. "Congratulations. And welcome home."

"Thank you," he said, smiling at her. Arthur watched them leave, Merlin and Will exchanging one more hateful look.

"Charming," Arthur said, his hand slipping from Merlin's shoulder.

"We've never got on," Merlin said, "not since the day we met. Thanks, by the way," he added.

"No worries."

"There you two are," came Hunith's voice from behind them. She looked down at Arthur's hands. "You're not drinking anything. Why aren't you drinking anything?" she asked, looking accusingly at her son.

"I'll get you something," Merlin said quickly, leading his mother away. "Be right back," he said, rolling his eyes behind her turned back. Arthur let out a small chuckle, turning toward the hall, where he was immediately confronted by a petite girl with dark blond hair. She stuck a tray under his nose.

"Crab cake?" she asked brightly, her eyes sparkling. She was quite pretty, he noticed absently, if a little young looking.

"Um, no thank you." He started to step around her, but she quickly moved to block his path.

"Are you sure? You should really give them a try. I made them myself!"

"And I'm sure they're wonderful...Sophia," he said, reading off her name tag. "But I don't eat shellfish."

"Just one bite," she persisted, lifting one of the cakes off the tray.

"Really, I don't-"

She stuffed the cake into his mouth, cutting off his protest. Shocked at her gall, he started to splutter, which drew a few odd looks in his direction. Not wanted to make a scene, he chewed slowly, trying not to gag. He would not embarrass himself, no matter how vile it was.

Suddenly, a shriek pierced the air.

"YOU'RE GETTING MARRIED?"

Arthur promptly spit the crab cake all over the front of Sophia's shirt.

"Oh my God, I'm so sorry," he said, horrified. He grabbed a napkin off her tray and wiped his mouth, reaching for another to help clean her off. She waved him away.

"It's fine, really," she said. "Don't worry about it."

Arthur wanted to protest, but Merlin appeared next to him suddenly. He looked a bit wild--his face was flushed, his eyes wide. Arthur forgot all about Sophia and her crab cakes.

"What the bloody hell-" he started, but stopped when Hunith appeared in the doorway, her eyes sparkling.

"Oh, there you are," she said, rushing over and throwing her arms around Arthur, her earlier reserve forgotten. He patted her back awkwardly, looking at Merlin for help. All he offered was a shrug. Hunith pulled away and smiled up at him.

"Come," she said, grabbing both their hands, "this calls for some champagne."

Arthur leaned close as they were dragged to the middle of the large den. "So much for needing damage control."

"Shut up."

Champagne flutes were shoved into their hands and everyone toasted them. "I thought you were going to wait," Arthur said when the tide of well-wishers receded a bit. "What did you do, just blurt it out?"

Merlin shifted uncomfortably, suggesting that yes, indeed, he probably had just blurted it out. Arthur was about to mock him for his lack of finesse when there was yet another voice behind them.

"Merlin?"

Merlin spun around, his face going slack with shock. "Lancelot?"

He flung himself at the--admittedly handsome--intruder with appalling eagerness, grabbing him up in a bone-crushing hug. Lancelot laughed and returned the hug, his arms fitting immediately around Merlin in a way that suggested this was far from the first time they'd embraced. Arthur looked down at his glass, watching a bubble rise slowly from the bottom, bursting open when it hit the surface. It was quite fascinating, really.

"What are you doing here?" Merlin asked after he'd managed to detach himself. "I thought you left."

"I did for a while, but I'm back," Lancelot said. "Your mother probably wanted it to be a surprise."

"Wow, yeah," came the reply. Apparently Merlin was so stunned he'd forgotten how to put a sentence together. He'd certainly forgotten that Arthur was even there.

"I'm sorry, we're being rude," Lancelot said, turning toward Arthur.

"Right," Merlin said, flustered. "This is Arthur. And this is Lancelot, my ex...um-"

Merlin's brain apparently caught up with the awkwardness of the situation, because he blushed bright red and returned to Arthur's side. Lancelot smiled, revealing a mouth full of ridiculously perfect teeth. He shook Arthur's hand.

"Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise," Arthur said politely. They stood there for a moment looking at each other, and then Lancelot rubbed his hands together.

"So, what's this I hear?" he asked, turning a mischievous smile on Merlin. "You're getting married?"

"Yeah. Yes," Merlin said. "We are."

"Well, congratulations, both of you." He sounded sincere enough, Arthur supposed. "I hope I haven't missed the story."

"Story?" they asked simultaneously.

"Of how you got engaged."

"Oh, I would love to hear the story," Hunith cut in, guiding them toward the center of the room again.

"The way a man proposes says a lot about his character," Gaius said sagely, sitting down next to his sister. "Do tell us."

A hush fell around the room. Arthur looked around and realized that they were suddenly the center of attention. He looked at Merlin, who looked as panicked as Arthur felt. They'd come up with a story for their "relationship," but neither of them had thought about the actual proposal.

"Um, well," Merlin said, running a hand through his hair, "we- uh-." His face suddenly melted into a sweet smile. "You know," he continued, making Arthur immediately wary, "Arthur just loves to tell the story, so I think I'll let him tell you."

Everyone turned expectantly to him. "Wow," he said, looking around at all the faces, "uh- wow...where to start?" He stalled, thinking frantically, trying to come up with something on the spot. Merlin sat on the arm of the sofa next to his mother, hand covering his mouth to hide his smile. Little prick. Once this was all over, he was inviting Will to New York for an extended stay.

Maybe he'd even give him Merlin's old job just to piss him off.

Well, no reason he couldn't have a bit of fun as well. "Well," he started, rubbing his hands together, "we'd been seeing each other for a while, but we never spoke about anything more serious. Then a few months ago, I noticed that Merlin was getting a bit..." Arthur paused, looking for the right word. "...restless."

"He started dropping hints here and there--some subtle, some not so much. I mean really," he said to Merlin, who was no longer smiling, "stuffing that brochure about the perfect honeymoon destination into my bag?"

That got a chuckle out of everyone but Merlin, who said, "You neglected to mention that such things were necessary on my part because you're too thick-headed to make decisions like that on your own."

"I'm telling a story here, do you mind?" Arthur asked sweetly.

"Yeah, Merlin, let the man tell his story," Lancelot said, grinning.

"Traitor," Merlin hissed. Lancelot ignored him, indicating that Arthur should continue.

"Thank you." Arthur felt much more warmly toward the man. "Anyway, I set about planning the perfect evening--a romantic dinner, a nice hotel, perhaps a carriage ride in the park."

Merlin rolled his eyes at the wistful sighs from all the women in the room. Even Hunith looked a little glassy-eyed.

"I booked the hotel, made the reservations--had the entire evening set. We went to Merlin's favorite restaurant, sat at a nice, romantic table in the back." Arthur stopped, thinking for a moment. "I'd originally planned to wait until after dinner, but I was just too excited," he said, ignoring the gagging sound that came vaguely from Merlin's direction. "So about ten minutes after we sat down, I told him that I had something very important to ask."

Everyone other than Merlin leaned forward, waiting for the big moment.

"Before I could even get the question out, I noticed that Merlin was sniffling. I looked closer, and what did I see? Tears in his eyes," Arthur said, making a fond face at Merlin, who made a rude--but hidden--gesture with his fingers.

"Tears of joy?" Sophia asked dreamily.

"That's what I thought at first," Arthur said. "That he'd figured out what I was going to ask and couldn't contain his euphoria. But no, no--that wasn't it."

"Well, what was it?"

"Walnut," Arthur said sadly, looking sympathetically at Merlin, who was turning an attractive shade of purple. Excellent. "Turns out they were in the dinner rolls. You know how he is, allergic to everything."

Everyone murmured their agreement. "Only you could ruin a marriage proposal with an allergy attack, Merlin," someone said, much to Arthur's delight.

"Come now," Hunith said, laughing as she patted her son on the back. "He can't help it; he's always been that way."

"Do you remember that huge party we had for his 21st birthday?" Gaius asked. He looked at Arthur. "Rented out the big hall in town, had food catered in--everything. We had to cancel all of it at the last minute because Merlin couldn't wait and snuck some of the pastries. Got a wayward hazelnut. Or was it an almond?" he asked, frowning.

"I think it was a cashew, actually," Lancelot offered helpfully. Arthur laughed along with everyone, genuinely amused. "So what happened then?"

"Well, I had to get him to the hospital, so dinner and the carriage ride were out. We were at the hospital with him pumped full of medication before he finally remembered and asked about it. I told him it wasn't important, that we'd talk about it when he felt better, but he insisted."

"So," Arthur said with a sigh, "I wound up proposing right there on the hospital bed, over his tray of jello."

There was a chorus of "awwwws" and some applause before someone called out laughingly, "Did he cry for real then?"

"Well," Merlin said loudly before everyone started in on him again, "I think that's enough, then." He got up and walked over to Arthur, glaring the entire way. That'd teach him to put Arthur on the spot.

"That was a wonderful story," Hunith said. "Another toast for the happy couple?" she asked the room.

"You're a complete prat and I hate you," Merlin said to him as they waited for all the glasses to be refilled.

"You deserved it."

Merlin made a non-committal noise. "I can't believe you remembered I was allergic to nuts."

Arthur shrugged. Despite what Merlin thought, he did listen to him occasionally. They all raised their glasses for the toast, and with the attention finally off him, Arthur relaxed.

"How about a kiss for luck?" someone called out.

Arthur froze. There were shouts of agreement around the room, along with the sound of forks and spoons clinking against the glassware. Next to him, Merlin was looking a bit gray. "No, really--" he started, but was cut off by his own mother.

"Go on then," she said merrily. "Get in some practice for the wedding."

"And the wedding night!" someone shouted. Arthur blushed at the thought of it. Of course none of them knew it was a sham--that there'd be no real kisses, or any shagging on their wedding night. Looking around the room at all the cheerful faces, especially Hunith's and Gaius's, Arthur was struck for the first time by how many people they were lying to.

Merlin grabbed his arm, distracting him. Looking almost apologetic, he gave Arthur a quick peck on the cheek; a pathetic attempt to appease the masses. Which of course, it didn't. A chorus of good-natured boos, which led to another peck, on the lips this time, so quick it barely registered.

"Merlin Emrys," Hunith said sternly, "you kiss him like you mean it. Don't be so shy."

That was the trouble. Merlin didn't mean it. Neither of them did. But no one could find that out.

Merlin turned to him again, hesitant. "It's fine," Arthur whispered, wrapping his hand around the back of Merlin's neck. He pulled him forward and pressed their lips firmly together.

Merlin made a surprised noise, putting a hand on Arthur's chest to steady himself. He relaxed after a moment, tilting his head to change the angle and better fit their mouths together, and Arthur reacted automatically.

He hadn't kissed anyone in a long time. It was...nice. More than nice. Merlin's lips were soft against his, giving. His hair felt silky where it brushed Arthur's fingertips on his neck. And this close, Arthur could smell him, a sweet, earthy smell that was familiar and comforting, yet he'd never realized that it was Merlin.

Arthur pulled away carefully, a bit reluctantly, at the sound of cat calls and more applause. Merlin took a moment longer to open his eyes, but when he finally did there was surprise in them, and a touch of confusion as he stared at Arthur. He couldn't do anything but stare back, his hand still on Merlin's neck.

For a split second he thought they might actually kiss again, and his heart started beating a bit faster, but then they were suddenly surrounded by revelers. The moment broken, Arthur released Merlin to his family and friends, letting them lead him away. He looked back over his shoulder at Arthur, his expression questioning. Arthur gave him a weak smile before heading off to find himself a nice, strong drink.

 

++++

 

Hours later, after everyone was gone, Hunith led them upstairs to a guest bedroom. It was nice, like the rest of the house, with a large, very comfortable looking bed.

"Here's your room," she said, turning to them. "I hope it's all right."

"It's wonderful, thank you," Arthur said, already thinking about how good it'd feel to slide between the cool sheets. He looked at Merlin. "You'll be staying in your old room, I take it?"

Merlin started to agree, but Hunith laughed. "Don't be silly. We're not under any illusions that you two don't share a bed. You'll stay in here together. Besides, we converted Merlin's room ages ago."

"Mum," Merlin complained, outraged.

"What? It's not as though you use it. You haven't been here in years." She walked over to Arthur, giving his arm a squeeze. "Thank you for bringing him home again."

Arthur nodded, ignoring the tightness in his chest. He did not feel guilty that, most likely, Merlin hadn't been back in a long time because of him, or that the only reason he was even here this weekend was because Arthur needed him to lie to his family and friends so he could stay in the country.

No, not guilty at all.

Hunith kissed Merlin goodnight and left the room. The silence that followed was awkward, so Arthur went into his bag and pulled out his sleep pants, ducking into the bathroom to prepare for bed.

When he was done, he found Merlin in bed already, flipping through that stupid DHS booklet again. He stopped short, hands on his hips.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Reading?"

"No, I mean--" Arthur gestured at the bed. "You can't sleep there."

Merlin set the booklet down slowly. "And where am I supposed to sleep?"

Arthur glanced at the floor, drawing a disbelieving sound out of Merlin. "Oh no. I am not sleeping on the floor in my own house. You feel free, though, if it makes you so uncomfortable."

"I am not sleeping on the floor."

"I guess we're sharing, then," he said, going back to the booklet. Arthur actually contemplated taking the floor, albeit briefly. He wasn't entirely comfortable sharing. It was so...intimate.

But another look at the large, inviting bed decided him. He pulled his shirt off, turning to chuck it onto his bag. He paused to look out the large window. Their room overlooked the water, and though it was late, near midnight, it was still light out. There was something almost magical about it. He turned back to the bed to find Merlin watching him.

"What?"

Merlin jumped, and then blushed. "Nothing."

Arthur pulled back the covers on his side of the bed. Unlike Merlin, he preferred to sleep shirtless, and he let out a groan of approval as the soft, cool sheets embraced him.

"This is bloody fantastic," he purred, stuffing a pillow under his head. Merlin huffed his agreement, tossing aside the booklet. He clicked a remote on his side of the bed, drawing shut the curtains, leaving them in the darkness.

It'd been a long day, and Arthur felt his eyelids start to droop. Before he could fall off into sleep, he said, "Your family is really nice."

A moment, and then, "Yeah, they are."

His voice was fond, mixed with a touch of regret.

 

__________________________________

 

Somewhere, a phone was ringing. Arthur groaned and covered his head in an attempt to block it out.

"Arthur," he heard from the other side of the bed. Merlin? He bolted upright as he remembered where he was. Shit. It was his mobile that was ringing. He looked blearily for it on the bedside table.

"Where the bloody hell is it?" he hissed, fumbling.

"In your bag," Merlin muttered, kicking at Arthur's back until he managed to push him right off the bed. Arthur landed on the floor with a thump, tangled in the bed linens and cursing. From up above, he heard a sleepy chuckle.

The bags were on the floor on the other side of the room. Arthur got up and back onto the bed, crawling over Merlin and making sure to shove a knee into the small of his back. Merlin smacked him with a pillow as he dove for his bag, yanking the phone out. Looking at the screen, he was surprised to see that it was near eleven.

"Hello? Hello?"

"Arthur?" It was Morgana.

"Yeah." She said something, but her voice cut in and out so badly he didn't catch any of it. "Hello?" he called again. "Morgana? I have terrible reception!"

Another pillow hit him, this time in the back of the head. "Shut up, you wanker," Merlin said. Arthur turned to shoot him a glare as he snatched a robe off a nearby chair, pulling it on.

"Well, aren't you a fucking beast in the morning," he snapped, stalking out of the room and down the stairs. "Morgana? Are you still there?"

"Yes," she said, sounding dubious. "Was that Merlin I heard?"

"He was getting violent, so I've come downstairs."

Silence. Then, "You're sleeping in the same room?"

"We can't very well sleep separately without raising suspicion, can we?"

"Same bed?"

Arthur grabbed a pair of rubber boots and hopped around while he struggled to pull them on. "Was there a reason you called, Morgana, or did you just want to twat at me?"

"I can't believe you're sleeping in the same bed," she crowed, jubilant.

Arthur walked down the sloping lawn away from the house. "I'm hanging up in five seconds."

"All right, all right. I just wanted to warn you."

Arthur stopped and looked out over the water. "About?"

"Your nutty DHS agent. She called asking questions."

"You knew she would."

"I know, but she's going to be contacting people up there as well."

Arthur sighed. "They won't be able to tell her anything. They only found out about us yesterday."

"What's his family like?" she asked, abruptly changing the subject.

"They seem all right," he said cautiously. "I haven't spent much time with them."

"I'm sure they're lovely. Look how Merlin turned out, after all."

"Oh yes, he's just wonderful. Anything else?" he asked, trying to divert her from the guilt trip she was no doubt trying to send him on. He didn't need to be reminded that he was lying to some very nice people. Or that he was forcing Merlin to lie to them.

"She did say one more thing--she said that if you decide before your follow-up interview Monday to call it off, there won't be any negative repercussions."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that they'll overlook the fact that you're both committing fraud and you won't be punished."

"But I'll still have to leave."

"And you'll be able to come back in a year," she said, sounding frustrated. "Your reapplication process will go smoothly, and Merlin won't go to jail."

"We already told them about the engagement," he said, starting to feel a bit queasy.

"Arthur, you need to think about this. I know it's a foreign concept for you to put other people's interests ahead of your own, but this would ruin Merlin's life."

Arthur looked toward the house and saw Merlin coming down off the porch toward him. He was wrapped up in a large coat, his hair blowing every which way. He gave Arthur a hesitant smile. Something in his chest tightened. "I have to go."

"Fine. But think about it. You have until Monday morning."

Arthur disconnected the call just as Merlin got to him. "Was that Morgana?"

"Yeah," Arthur said, ignoring the sharp cut of Merlin's cheekbones and the way his eyes were ridiculously blue in the morning light.

"She say anything interesting?"

"I wasn't really listening," he said, smiling a smile he didn't feel. He briefly considered telling Merlin about the offer, but decided against it. No doubt he'd want to take it, and they were in too deep already. Nothing for it now but to plough on.

"Well, in that case, you need to get ready."

"For what?"

"You're going out with the boys."

Arthur blinked. "Sorry?"

"Gaius and some of the others want to take you out. I tried to talk him out of it, but he won't be budged. Said bonding is important."

"I don't want to bond. I hate bonding," Arthur protested, not wanting to be left alone with Gaius. "Why aren't you coming?"

"I'm staying to spend time with my mum. It'll just be you and the guys," Merlin said, putting on a terrible American accent and clapping him on the shoulder.

"But--"

"You have to go; they'll think it odd if you don't."

"But I--"

Merlin stepped closer, into Arthur's personal space. "Stop. They're going to know we're arguing. Just go out with them for a few hours, be your usual charming self, and it'll be fine."

Arthur looked up at the house and saw Hunith and Gaius in a window. "Charming?" he said, his brain catching up with the conversation. "You think I'm charming?" For whatever reason, he was ridiculously pleased by the thought.

"No, you're a complete prat," Merlin said, but his cheeks pinked a little. "But I know you know how to charm people. So," he said, straightening and holding his arms out, "give us a hug and then off you go."

"A what?"

Merlin rolled his eyes. "A hug, Arthur. You have been hugged before, yes? It's what people do when they like each other. And they're still watching."

He grabbed the front of Arthur's robe and pulled him closer, sliding his arms around Arthur's shoulders. Arthur was reminded of their kiss yesterday, and he found himself pressing his face into Merlin's shoulder. He tentatively put his hands on Merlin's hips, inhaling deeply and smelling that smell again, that Merlin smell he hadn't known he was so fond of.

Merlin hesitated and then leaned into Arthur. He felt the tentative brush of fingers in the hair on the back of his neck, and with it, the tension that'd built up during his conversation with Morgana drained out of him. Before he could even start to think about what that meant, he heard someone approaching.

"All right you two lovebirds, that's enough for now," Hunith said, her smile evident in her voice. "Busy day today!"

Arthur pulled back, embarrassed. Merlin was watching him again, that same inscrutable expression from yesterday, after they'd kissed. Probably wondering what the bloody hell was going on. Arthur wasn't so sure himself.

Hunith slipped her arm through Merlin's. "Just for a few hours. But don't you worry," she said, "Gaius has some real fun planned for you."

The way she said "real fun" combined with the look she gave Gaius--was that a leer?-- set him on guard. Gaius stepped forward as Hunith turned Merlin back toward the house.

"Come, my boy. Adventure awaits."

 

++++

 

Adventure turned out to be the name of a pub on the island. Arthur relaxed. He knew pubs--he could socialize at a pub for a few hours. They sat at a large table off to the side: Gaius, Arthur and a group of men he vaguely remembered from the day before, including Lancelot. That threw him a bit at first, but Lancelot had just clapped him on the back and greeted him heartily.

He took a drink of his beer, taking a moment to study the other man. Olive skinned with dark brown hair, he was handsome. Shorter than Arthur, and much less broad, but definitely handsome.

They made conversation, Arthur mostly with Gaius. When they were ready for another round, Lancelot motioned to someone behind Arthur.

"I think we're ready," he called, smiling.

Arthur turned around to see Sophia approaching with a tray of drinks, smiling at him. He felt immediately awkward, remembering their meeting from the day before.

"Hello again," she said, setting her tray down and distributing the drinks.

"You work here as well?" Arthur asked lamely, uncomfortable.

"Only sometimes," she said, winking at Lancelot. Arthur frowned. Was there something going on between them? That'd be...interesting. "So I hear you're celebrating today," she said, turning back to him.

"Oh. I suppose we are, yes."

"Well," she said, running a hand through his hair and smiling wickedly. "I think that calls for something special, then, don't you?"

"I...guess?" Arthur ventured, but was quickly drowned out by a loud chorus of agreement from the other men at the table.

He jumped when she suddenly shouted, "Does anyone here want to have a good time?"

Cheers from the entire bar, and then the lights went out. What the-

A spotlight came on, shining onto a small stage next to them that Arthur hadn't even noticed. Loud rock music blared out over the loudspeakers, and then the curtains were flung open. Arthur looked up to see Sophia holding them open, wearing significantly less than she had been just a moment earlier. He hadn't even seen her leave.

He was immediately filled with dread. A strip show?

Lancelot must've noticed his face, because he leaned over, laughing. "I know she's probably not exactly your taste, given you're marrying Merlin, but she's the only exotic dancer we've got on the island."

"Dear God," Arthur said as she started prancing around the stage to the music. Everyone around him was cheering her on, enjoying themselves immensely. Not wanting to give away his embarrassment over the whole thing, he plastered a smile on his face and kept drinking his beer. No harm in watching and pretending to have a good time, none at all.

Except, true to form, Sophia soon zeroed in on him and beckoned with her finger to join her on stage.

"Oh, no," he called, shaking his head, "I'm fine right here. Really."

The spotlight switched to him suddenly, blinding him. He put his hands up to block it out, so he didn't see Sophia approaching until she was practically on top of him, pulling at his arm. He resisted--there was no way he was getting on that stage.

"Oh, go on," Lancelot called, giving him a light shove. Arthur looked to Gaius for support, but he was smiling and clapping along with the music like everyone else. Sophia gave him another tug, harder this time. Everyone was looking at him, waiting, and he briefly flashed forward to everyone going home and gossiping about what a boring prude Merlin was marrying.

"...alright."

He let her drag him up onto the stage and shove him into a chair. Blinded by the light, he couldn't see the crowd, but he could hear shouts of encouragement. Mortified, he tried to avoid looking at her as she danced around him. He mostly succeeded, until she flung herself onto his lap and he was forced to grab onto her to keep her from falling.

Her skin was slick, slippery with oil, and he quickly let go, hearing a round of laughter from the crowd. Of course it was funny--he must look ridiculous to them, shying away from her like a blushing virgin. It wasn't even her--she was attractive enough--he just didn't like being the center of attention.

Still, he had to look like he was having a good time, for appearance's sake. He forced himself to relax and tried smiling up at Sophia as she wiggled around him. She took it as encouragement, because she moved around behind him and started unbuttoning his shirt.

"No, no," he spluttered, lifting her hands away. She wouldn't be deterred, sliding her hands down his chest to tug his shirt out of his trousers. "Oh for heaven's sake," Arthur said, squirming away, trying to laugh it off. He tried to escape, but she draped herself over his lap, face down this time. He blinked down at her.

"Smack her ass!" a voice called sounding suspiciously like Gauis's called out.

"Wait...what?" Arthur asked, flustered, leaning away as she wiggled her rump.

"Come on, spank her!"

"In for a penny, I suppose," he muttered, rolling a sleeve back. That drew a chorus of cheers. He wondered vaguely how often any of these people actually got out. He hesitated with his hand in the air, unable to believe he was actually considering this, but then he brought it down with a sharp crack. A loud cheer erupted.

Sophia jumped, climbing off him laughing and waggling his finger at him, as though he'd been a naughty boy.

"Can I get down now?" he asked hopefully.

She bent down to kiss him on the cheek, lingering a bit longer than he was comfortable with. He saw Gaius motioning him back to the table, so he scrambled off the chair and back down to his seat. When everyone swarmed around him, friendly and laughing, he thought the whole ordeal might've been worth the humiliation after all.

 

Arthur decided it was time for some air when Gaius got up onto the stage with Sophia. He stepped out onto the dock, chuckling when he caught a glimpse of Merlin's uncle appropriating her pink feather boa.

He leaned his elbows on the railing and looked out over the water. It was so quiet here--different from anywhere else he'd ever been. He took a deep breath, suddenly glad to be somewhere that wasn't the office, or his large, empty flat. Everything seemed much simpler here; no one really wanted anything from him, other than company. He was surprised to find that he liked it.

Behind him, the music briefly got louder as the door opened and shut.

"Needed a break?"

Arthur looked over his shoulder to see Lancelot standing there with fresh beers.

"Yeah, just wanted some air," he replied, taking one of the bottles. "Thanks."

"It can get a bit intense in there," Lancelot agreed. "Sophia really knows how to work a crowd."

"I noticed," Arthur said. "She was very..encouraging when I met her at the party yesterday."

"Got you with the crab cakes, did she?"

Arthur was surprised into laughing. "She did."

"Best on the island," Lancelot said.

They were silent for a while before Arthur said, "So, you and Merlin used to date?" He wasn't entirely sure why he was asking. Maybe he wanted to know what kind of person Merlin was actually interested in.

"Yeah, for about six years."

"Wow, that long." He hadn't been expecting that. "What happened? If you don't mind me asking."

"No secret," Lancelot replied with a shrug. "He wanted to go to New York."

"And you didn't."

"Not really. That was always his thing, not mine. He probably would've left sooner if it weren't for me."

Arthur studied the other man's profile. "So you just let him go. After all that."

Another shrug. "It was what he wanted. You know the old saying--if you love someone, set them free," he said with a rueful smile.

"Must have been difficult for you."

"It was. But I figured it if was meant to be, it would be."

Arthur turned his gaze back to the water. He couldn't imagine anyone being that selfless--yet Lancelot had sacrificed his own happiness so that Merlin could have his. He thought back to Merlin's enthusiasm at seeing him again, and to their conversation at the DHS office, where Merlin had told him that he was waiting to marry for love. Maybe it was Lancelot he'd been saving himself for.

Lancelot, who had loved Merlin and set him free; and now Arthur was keeping Merlin from coming back to him.

For no reason other than Arthur's own convenience.

He set his beer down on the railing, a lump forming in his throat. How could he have not realized how much he was taking away from Merlin? Lancelot put a hand on his shoulder.

"You all right? You're looking a bit green around the gills."

"Yeah, fine," he managed. Lancelot frowned.

"Did I make you uncomfortable?" Arthur didn't answer. "Shit, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. I'm happy for you, I really am. Merlin chose you, and he's happy. That's all that matters."

Except Merlin hadn't, and he wasn't, and Arthur hadn't given two shits about either until now.

"It's fine," Arthur said. "I'm still trying to adjust to all this. Meeting everyone. It's a lot to take in."

"Ah," Lancelot said, smiling. "They can be a bit much. But they're good people, and they love Merlin. He's worth it," he said decisively, and then looked at Arthur with a smile. "But you already knew that."

He hadn't, actually, but he was starting to find out.

 

++++

 

Gaius was humming under his breath as they approached the house. Arthur tried not to smile, recognizing one of the songs that Sophia had danced to. It was evening already, and he was surprised to find that he'd actually enjoyed himself.

"I hope we didn't frighten you," Gaius said amiably as they walked up the steps to the porch.

"No, not at all. It was very...diverting. I could've done without the spotlight though, to be honest."

Gaius chuckled. "I'm afraid you're destined to be the center of attention from now on," he said. "Our Merlin getting married is a very big deal."

So he was gathering. He offered Gaius a weak smile. "Well, thank you for today, I had a good time. I think I'll go upstairs and wash this glitter off."

Gaius nodded and sent him on his way. Arthur headed for the staircase. As he approached, he heard voices coming from one of the rooms toward the back of the house. Merlin and his mother.

"...responsibilities," Hunith was saying. "I know you like it there, but we're not getting any younger. Your uncle is almost ready to retire."

"So find someone else," Merlin said. "Shouldn't be difficult, everyone around here loves you."

Arthur knew he shouldn't listen, but something about Merlin's tone caught his attention.

"How long are you planning on staying away, exactly?" Hunith asked. "You said you'd try it for a while and then see."

"I don't have a time limit, mother. I told you that I just got promoted. And now with Arthur, it's not as simple anymore."

Arthur frowned. Had Merlin planned on coming back here?

"We miss you, Merlin. I can't go three years without seeing you."

"Mum, please. We've been going 'round about this for hours. You know how I feel, there's nothing more to discuss."

"You know, sometimes you are so stubborn, just like your father," Hunith said angrily.

Merlin was silent for a moment, and then, "I am nothing like him."

Arthur was surprised at the venom in Merlin's voice. While he often got annoyed at Arthur, he was generally pretty mild mannered. He heard Hunith calling after Merlin, and then a door slammed.

"Hunith, what did you do?" Gaius asked after a moment.

Arthur decided that it was time to go upstairs. He was as quiet as possible until he got to their room. Out the window, he saw Merlin headed down toward the dock, the angry set to his shoulders obvious.

As he showered, he mulled over what he'd heard. He'd been mildly surprised to meet only Hunith and Gaius, but thinking back, he couldn't remember Merlin ever mentioning his father. Then again, he'd never really been interested in Merlin's personal life. Unsurprisingly, he found himself curious about it now. He wanted to know why Merlin and Hunith were arguing, and what had happened with Merlin's father that Merlin had been so incensed at Hunith's comparison. Arthur wished that they had the sort of relationship where he could ask, and where Merlin wouldn't hesitate to tell him.

He wished that Merlin trusted him.

Sighing, he turned off the water and pushed his wet hair back from his face. He reached for a towel as he stepped out of the shower, only to realize he'd forgotten to bring one in with him.

"Shit," he muttered, looking around for something else to use. There was a small washcloth, which he used to blot the water off his face, but nothing else. It didn't matter, he supposed, the towels were in a cupboard in the bedroom, not far from the bathroom door. Merlin was off somewhere sulking, and Hunith and Gaius wouldn't come in uninvited.

He had nothing to cover himself with, so he opened the door and peeked out. As suspected, the room was empty. Satisfied that he'd hear Merlin approaching in time to cover up, he tiptoed to the cupboard, trying not to get water all over the floor. He made a cursory pass over his body before draping the towel over his head and vigorously rubbing at his hair.

"Ummm..."

Arthur froze. Praying that he'd just been hearing things, he pulled the towel off his head to find Merlin standing by the balcony doors gaping at him.

After a brief period of stunned silence, they both reacted at the same time. Merlin spun around as Arthur fumbled the towel around his waist, cursing.

"What the bloody hell are you doing here?" he asked. He could tell Merlin was blushing--his ears and the back of his neck were bright red. He wasn't the only one; Arthur's own cheeks were hot.

"Why the bloody hell are you wandering around starkers?" Merlin snapped back.

"I didn't know you were there!"

"It didn't occur to you to check first? Christ, my mother could've been in here!"

"I did check!" Arthur said, running a hand through his damp hair. "How was I to know you were skulking about on the balcony?"

"Skulking? I--whatever," Merlin said, headed for the door. "I actually came back to see how your day was, but forget it."

Knowing it wasn't really him Merlin was angry at, he wanted to call after him, but the door slammed behind him before he had a chance. Frustrated, Arthur flung himself face down on the bed, damp towel and all.

 

++++

 

Supper was quiet, between Merlin's tension with his mother and his awkwardness with Arthur. Hunith retired early, and after a quick nightcap with Gaius, Merlin and Arthur did the same. Now they were in bed, lying on their backs staring up at the ceiling, as much distance between them as possible. Arthur hated it.

Trying to ease the tension, he said, "Did you know that waitress was a stripper?"

"What waitress?"

"The one from yesterday. With the crab cakes."

"Oh," Merlin said, "Sophia. Yes, I hear she has many talents."

"She molested me today," Arthur said morosely, knowing Merlin would find his suffering funny.

"They took you to the strip show?" Merlin asked, incredulous.

"Yes. She made me get up on stage and everything. It was awful."

Merlin didn't answer, and Arthur wondered briefly if he'd been wrong, until the bed started to shake with Merlin's silent laughter.

"You're a complete arse," Arthur said, though he was pleased. Merlin snorted, and the silence they fell into was much more comfortable. He thought back to the conversation he'd overheard.

"Merlin?" he asked. "Where's your father?"

Merlin went unnaturally still. "Why?"

Arthur debated what to say. Deciding that honesty was best, he said, "I heard you and your mother talking this afternoon."

"You were eavesdropping?"

"Not on purpose," Arthur said defensively. "We'd just gotten back and I was on my way up here." Merlin didn't answer, and Arthur finally said, "So?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

There it was, that edge of hostility again. "Don't you think I should know? I mean, if Nimueh were to ask..."

"I said no, Arthur," came the reply, angry. Merlin turned onto his side, giving Arthur his back, in further confirmation that the topic was closed. Cursing himself silently for breaking their fragile truce, Arthur scrambled to find a way to fix it. And dammit, he still wanted to know.

Changing tactics, he said, "My father died five years ago. Heart attack, right in the middle of a staff meeting. No one saw it coming."

Arthur certainly hadn't. He'd been devastated to lose the only parent he'd ever known. But there hadn't been any time to mourn; there was too much to do, including his own move to New York.

"I'm sorry," Merlin said quietly. "I mean, I'd heard, around the office, but--;"

"Yeah," Arthur said, lost in his own thoughts.

"What about your mother?" Merlin asked.

"Died when I was born. I never knew her." Arthur never spoke about his family as a general rule. It was too personal, and he hadn't ever wanted anyone to think he was too soft to follow in his father's footsteps.

After his father died, the Board had wanted to shut down CHP's American operations. Arthur had fought them vehemently, and had they seen him as the heartbroken, grieving son he'd actually been, he never would've convinced them. He'd had no choice but to become as ruthless as the rest of them, to show them that yes, he was Uther Pendragon's son, and that no one was going to destroy what his father had worked so hard for. Ever.

Arthur blinked, his eyes stinging. He hadn't thought about any of this in a long time.

"My father left when I was fourteen," Merlin said, distracting him. "No reason, no excuse, just left. It broke my mother's heart. It's why she wanted to come here, to try to forget."

Arthur made a sympathetic noise. He'd not known his mother, and his father had been far from perfect, but neither of them had left him voluntarily.

"If it's any consolation," he said, "I don't think you're anything like your father." He would know--after all the abuse he'd suffered at Arthur's hands these past three years, Merlin still hadn't left.

Merlin turned back over to face him. "Thanks."

Arthur nodded. Not knowing what else to say, he stared up at the ceiling. He felt awkward, vulnerable in a way he hadn't felt since his father died, when he'd resolved never to let his guard down around anyone ever again.

"So," Merlin said, his tone light, "anything else I should know about you? Breathe fire? Eat the souls of little children while they sleep?"

Arthur smiled, grateful for the attempt to lighten the mood. "I hate it when people fuss over me," he said, thinking back to that afternoon, "because it reminds me of when my father died." He'd hated the attention, everyone looking at him as though he'd break at any second.

Steering himself away from more depressing thoughts of his father, he tried thinking of random quirks that Merlin might not know. "Ummm--I don't like bugs. I've never owned a pet. I like Cadbury's, but I hate that it tastes different here than it does back home." He found that once he started, it was difficult to stop. He kind of liked the idea of Merlin knowing things about him that no one else did.

"I've only ever had one long-term relationship," he continued, "and none since my father died. In fact, my most serious relationship ever is probably with you," he finished, laughing at the thought.

Merlin mulled it all over for a bit, and then, "So, does that mean you haven't had sex in five years?"

Arthur rolled his eyes. "Honestly, of everything I just said, that's what you picked up on?"

Merlin laughed. "Does that mean you haven't?"

"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, feeling his cheeks grow warm. Dammit, he didn't have time for sex.

"Okay, okay," Merlin said, relenting. "I'm just surprised, is all."

"I don't see why," Arthur said. It wasn't like Merlin hadn't known Arthur's schedule better than he had for the past three years.

"I don't know. You're not exactly...hard on the eyes or anything," he answered, sounding a bit flustered. Arthur raised himself up onto his elbows and looked over at him.

"Was that a compliment, Merlin?" he asked. "Do you think I'm handsome?"

"No," Merlin said, far too quickly for it be the truth. "You're just...not repulsive, or anything."

"You do!" Arthur crowed. "You think I'm handsome! You probably lust after me secretly, don't you? Is that why you were sneaking about this afternoon trying to see me naked?"

"Oh my God, you are such a prat," Merlin said, smacking at him with a pillow. "Take that big ego of yours and stuff it."

Arthur laughed, putting his arm up to defend himself. "All right, all right," he said. "I won't mention your secret crush on me ever again."

"I hate you," Merlin said, without bite, hitting him one more time for good measure before turning his back on Arthur again. "Good night, prat."

Arthur flopped back onto the bed and closed his eyes. He smiled, happy for the first time since this whole mess had started.

 

__________________________________

 

Arthur woke slowly, fighting consciousness every step of the way. He was incredibly warm and comfortable. Burrowing down deeper into his pillow, he took a deep breath, content.

The bed shifted next to him. He opened his eyes slowly and found himself face-to-face with a sleeping Merlin. Unlike the first night, where they'd kept strictly to their respective sides of the bed, they'd gravitated toward each other this time. Merlin was close enough to touch.

Rousing further, he studied his sleeping assistant. No, not his assistant anymore.

Merlin had always had a kind of boyish charm to him. It rarely came out in Arthur's presence, but he'd seen it when Merlin was joking with his co-workers, the way his wide, happy grin completely captivated everyone around him.

He'd never thought of Merlin as anything other than his annoying, yet oddly endearing, assistant. He'd only noticed the extremes: his ears, his clumsiness, how thin he was. But now there were other things--the dark line of his eyelashes against his pale skin, the faint freckles scattered across his nose. His lips, full, looking every bit as soft as they'd felt that first afternoon when they'd kissed, parted softly as he slept. He wondered what it'd be like if he were allowed to kiss Merlin whenever he wanted; or to wake up like this every day and be able to reach over and touch him, just because he wanted to.

The thought filled him with such want that it rendered him temporarily breathless.

It didn't stop there. He wanted to know what it'd be like to have Merlin smile at him the way he smiled at everyone else, to have Merlin greet him with the same enthusiasm and affection he'd shown Lancelot.

God help him, he wanted all of it.

He lifted his hand, reaching cautiously toward Merlin's face, wanting just to brush aside the hair that'd fallen across his forehead while he slept. Before he could, there was a sharp knock at the door.

Arthur snatched his hand back as he heard Hunith's voice through the door.

"Merlin? Arthur? We've brought you some breakfast."

"Uh, just a minute," Arthur called, giving Merlin a shake.

"Wha--?" Merlin snuffled, burying his face in his pillow.

"You mum and Gaius are at the door with breakfast," Arthur said, pulling himself up to sit against the headboard. He dragged the comforter up around his waist.

"They are? Right," Merlin said groggily. He yawned as he sat up, hair adorably askew. Then, to Arthur's surprise, he sagged back against Arthur, drawing one of his arms around his shoulder. Arthur immediately tensed--sleep-warm and solid, Merlin felt incredibly good pressed up against him.

Merlin felt it, because he tensed as well and said, "Just for show, yeah?"

"Right, of course," Arthur croaked as Merlin called for his family to enter. To Merlin, it was all still a show. It didn't matter what was going on in Arthur's head.

No, they just needed to get through this so that Arthur could get his head on straight. All of this enforced intimacy and talk of family and weddings was just messing about with his head. One more day--they just had to get through Gaius's party tomorrow, then they could go back to New York and everything would be normal again.

"Good morning," Hunith said cheerily, carrying a plate of delicious-looking sweet rolls. Gaius followed her with the tea tray.

"What's going on, mum?" Merlin asked, still sounding half asleep. His head dropped back onto Arthur's shoulder, like it was too heavy for him to hold up any longer. Arthur resisted the urge to stick his face in Merlin's hair and inhale deeply.

Yes, they definitely needed to get out of here.

"Your mother and I were talking," Gaius said as they set down their trays, "and we've come up with an idea. We-"

"We want you to get married here tomorrow," Hunith blurted, unable to contain herself.

Arthur's heart slammed against his rib cage. Married? Tomorrow?

"What?" Merlin asked, equally stunned. "No, mum, you don't have to-"

"We want to," she insisted.

"We don't want to intrude on your big day," Arthur said to Gaius, his heart still doing a strange dance inside him.

"Please," Gaius said dismissively, "I've had plenty of birthdays and God willing, many more. But how many times will I get to see my favorite nephew get married?"

A stab of guilt tore through Arthur. "I'm your only nephew," Merlin said weakly. Gaius sat on the bed and rested a hand on Merlin's leg over the duvet.

"Merlin, you're like a son to me. You know that. It would me a lot to me and to your mother."

Arthur felt it the moment Merlin gave in. "Okay, Gaius," he said, putting his hand over his uncle's, "we'll do it here."

Hunith let out a happy yell. "Oh, this is wonderful. You don't have to worry; we'll take care of everything!" She dragged Gaius up off the bed. "Come on, then, lots to do!"

Arthur watched them go, feeling hollow and utterly helpless.

As soon as the door closed, Merlin sat forward and covered his face with his hands. "Oh God. Oh God. What are we doing? They're so happy. When they find out, it's going to kill them. Oh God."

"It'll be fine," Arthur said with a confidence he didn't feel. "They won't find out."

Merlin made a strangled sound into his hands. Without thinking, Arthur scooted forward and slipped an arm around Merlin, rubbing his hand up and down Merlin's arm soothingly.

"Come on," he said, lightly gripping Merlin's other arm. "This doesn't change anything. We were going to have to go through with it anyway. They won't find out," he repeated. He rested his chin on Merlin's shoulder and closed his eyes. He felt like such an ass comforting Merlin over a situation he'd practically forced him into.

Merlin's head drooped until it was resting against Arthur's, and he took a deep breath. "You're right," he said, fingers coming up to toy with Arthur's where they were wrapped around his arm. "We can still stick to the plan and be fine."

Arthur was too distracted by Merlin's proximity to reply. That and the fact that rather than pushing him away, or being angry at Arthur for having them here in the first place, he seemed to be welcoming the comfort. Merlin seemed to realize the same thing, for he lifted his head and looked at Arthur, his brow wrinkling.

Feeling suddenly awkward, Arthur pulled away carefully--reluctantly.

"Want some tea?" he asked, clearing his throat when his voice broke.

Merlin nodded. Arthur slid off the bed and went to the tray, busying himself preparing and then pouring the tea. He kept his eyes trained on what he was doing, but he could feel Merlin watching him.

"Thanks," Merlin said when Arthur passed him his tea. Arthur poured some for himself and sat on the edge of the bed. The rolls smelled wonderful, but his stomach was too knotted up to eat.

"I was thinking of going to town to pick up some things," Merlin said. "Do you want to come?" When Arthur arched an eyebrow at him, he shrugged. "We haven't spent much time together since we got here."

"That's good, though, right?" he joked weakly, thinking it an odd thing for Merlin to say. Merlin didn't answer, staring into his mug for a long while before Arthur finally said, "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to keep up appearances."

"Right," Merlin agreed, an odd note to his voice.

 

++++

 

Their first stop was Ealdor's general store. Merlin made a beeline for the lone rack of books while Arthur stopped to look around. The store was empty aside from them and the clerk behind the register. Arthur's eyes widened.

Sophia.

"Bugger," he hissed, ducking behind a large display of galoshes. Was there anywhere in this bloody town than she didn't work?

He knew it was ridiculous, hiding from that tiny slip of a woman, but given their previous encounters, he wanted nothing to do with her.

"Arthur?" he heard from behind him. He turned to see Merlin standing there with a book, looking puzzled.

"Shhh," he said, motioning toward Sophia.

Merlin cocked his head. "Are you hiding?"

"Shut up," he hissed. "You'll blow my cover." Merlin smiled at that, a mischievous gleam in his eye that set bells off in Arthur's head. "Don't you dare."

"Sophia!" Merlin called, waving enthusiastically. He heard her return the greeting, hoping that would be it, only to have that hope dashed when he heard her footsteps approaching.

Cursing Merlin silently, he stood up just as she came into sight. Her face lit up when she saw him.

"Arthur! I didn't see you there behind the display."

"I was just, err, tying my shoe," he said lamely, motioning at the floor. She looked down at his brown loafers and frowned. "Well, fixing them. There was a rock. You know what I mean." Merlin had hidden himself behind Arthur, and he could feel the bastard laughing. "So how are you?" he asked, trying to divert her attention.

"Fine, thank you. Is there anything I can help you find?" she asked, looking eager.

"Oh, no, I'm just tagging along with Merlin. I think he's almost done, actually. Aren't you?" He turned to Merlin, who'd composed himself, and gave him a pleading look.

Merlin looked for a moment as though he might give in, but then he tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Weren't you telling me yesterday that there was something you needed?"

"I don't remember," Arthur answered through clenched teeth. "I'm sure it wasn't important."

"I know!" Merlin said, putting a finger up to indicate he'd just had a brilliant idea. "Let's take a few turns about the shop--maybe that would help you remember."

"That's a wonderful idea," Sophia said. "In fact, I've some new things that I'd like to show you."

Merlin grinned when she turned her back. Arthur took a swing at him, but he danced laughingly away and went to catch up with Sophia. Feeling extremely sorry for himself, Arthur had no choice but to follow.

 

++++

 

"You know, after we're married, I'm going to beat that mischievous streak right out of you," Arthur said once they'd left the shop safely behind. Sophia had nattered on for almost an hour.

Merlin laughed. "You think?" he asked, his voice taking on a teasing tone. "I'm not so sure--I think I might just loosen you up a bit instead."

"Don't count on it," Arthur said, bumping him with his shoulder. He wasn't really annoyed with Merlin. It felt too good to laugh with him about it. It felt natural, almost like they were friends. Arthur liked it. A lot.

He spotted a cafe advertising internet access. "Would you mind if we stopped for a minute? I'd love to check my email--I'm sure Bayard's terrorizing someone somewhere."

"Sure."

Merlin went and got them some tea while Arthur got settled at a computer. He pulled up CHP's website and logged into his email, whimpering at the number of new messages.

"Here you go," Merlin said, setting down the cup. "Listen, while you do this, I'm going to run outside, all right?"

Arthur waved him away, smiling at he took a sip of his tea. Perhaps they weren't doomed to bicker all the time after all.

He spent a good while clearing his inbox, finally looking up once the last email was sent. Merlin still wasn't back, so Arthur signed off and got up, gathering his things. As he looked for somewhere to throw his trash, he glanced out the window front and saw Merlin talking to Lancelot. They were leaning against the hood of a truck. Merlin was laughing at something the other man said, and they were sharing Merlin's tea between them.

Arthur looked down at his own cup, feeling like he'd been doused with ice water. His chest tight, he crumpled the cup in his hand, tossing it on the table. How could he have forgotten? Even if they could manage to not argue the whole time, this was nothing more than a business arrangement for Merlin. Watching him with Lancelot, he was quite certain that Merlin would never look that happy with him.

Because Merlin wanted someone he loved, and he didn't love Arthur.

"Cute couple, aren't they?"

Arthur started at the voice next to him. Stunned, he turned to look at Nimueh.

"What are you doing here?"

"My job," she said brightly. "I've been making friends with all the locals--they're all quite nice. Very chatty." She gave him a suggestive smile. "You two are the talk of the town."

Arthur was too angry to reply. How dare she come here and harass everyone.

"Give it up," she said to him. "I know your attorney told you about the deal I offered. Take it." Her voice softened. "Do you really want him to go to jail because of you?"

All his anger crumpled under the weight of his guilt, the guilt that had wormed its way into him the minute he'd met Merlin's family and had been growing ever since. She was right. He finally let himself acknowledge what Morgana had been trying to tell him. It wasn't just Merlin's freedom--it was his family, his reputation, his friends. All because Arthur had been selfish.

Seeing the look on his face, Nimueh smiled triumphantly. She tucked a card into the breast pocket of his shirt. "My number where I'm staying. I promised to give you until Monday, and I will. But if you leave here with me before then, it'll be much easier."

"What the hell is going on?"

They turned to see Merlin standing behind them. Arthur had been so preoccupied that he hadn't noticed Lancelot leave. Merlin took one look at his face and then narrowed his eyes at Nimueh. "What are you doing? What did you say to him?"

The small part of Arthur's brain that wasn't completely wracked with guilt noted that Merlin sounded angry. Nimueh smiled at him. "We were just having a chat. Weren't we, Arthur?" she asked, reaching to pat him on the arm. Suddenly, Merlin was there, putting himself between her and Arthur.

"Leave him alone," he snapped, surprising Arthur into looking up. Nimueh arched an eyebrow, looking curiously back and forth between them.

"I just want the truth, Mr. Emrys."

"The truth? Here's the truth."

"Merlin-" Arthur started, grabbing for his arm. Merlin brushed him off.

"I started working for Arthur three years ago. A year ago, we started dating, we fell in love, and he proposed," Merlin said, sticking to their story. "We're getting married tomorrow. And I'd better not see you anywhere near my family's property."

She blinked at the threat, looking more amused than anything. Merlin grabbed Arthur's wrist. "Come on, Arthur."

Nimueh looked meaningfully at him as Merlin towed him toward the door.

"That absolute cunt," Merlin exploded once they'd gotten clear of the cafe;. "I can't believe she came here. What's she going to do, stalk us for the next two years?"

Arthur was a little surprised at the level of Merlin's anger. "Probably," he said, her words still niggling at him. "She's been talking to people around town, you know."

Merlin shrugged. "They won't be able to tell her anything."

Arthur hummed in reply. Merlin peered at him. "What?"

"Nothing."

Merlin grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to a stop. "Don't 'nothing' me. I know that look, I can tell something's up."

The vision of Merlin and Lancelot still fresh in his mind, he said, "I'm just starting to have my doubts, is all."

"Doubts? What doubts?"

"It's just..." Arthur trailed off. How did he explain that he only now understood the full extent of what he'd done? That he didn't want to hurt Merlin or his family? That he actually cared, when he hadn't before? "Are you really sure you want to go through with this?"

Merlin blinked. "It's a bit late to be asking, don't you think?"

Arthur sighed. "I don't want anyone to get hurt."

"No one's going to get hurt."

"How do you know?"

"You said it yourself this morning. They won't find out."

"What about Lancelot?" Arthur asked suddenly, looking Merlin dead in the face.

"Lancelot?" Merlin repeated, completely taken aback. "What-"

"There you two are!"

Hunith popped up beside them, seemingly out of nowhere. Merlin stared at his mother, looking extremely put out.

"What are you two doing here?" Arthur asked, smiling at the way Hunith was shuffling Gaius along.

"We need to borrow you," she said, taking him by the arm. "You can have him back in a little while," she told Merlin when he started to protest. "Run along."

Secretly glad they'd interrupted the conversation, he gave Merlin a helpless shrug and let them drag him away. They wound up at a small store that looked like it sold formal wear.

"I already know Merlin's size," Hunith explained, half hidden in a cabinet, "but I need your measurements. For your tuxedo tomorrow."

"Oh, right," Arthur said, uneasy. He stood still, letting Hunith rearrange his limbs as she worked. Gaius watched from the side, handing her things as she needed them.

"Hmm," she said after a while. "You know, I think there might be something here that would fit you already."

She disappeared, re-emerging with a garment bag. "We've been storing this here," she said, unzipping it to reveal an elegant, old-fashioned tuxedo. "It was my father's. I'd always intended for Merlin to wear it, but he's not broad enough. I think you are."

Arthur's stomach dropped. "Oh no, I couldn't possibly-"

"Of course you could," she said, shoving it at him. "Go try it on."

He took it reluctantly into the dressing room and started to change. The fact that she was willing to share this with him touched him deeply, even though he knew he didn't deserve it. He wished that he was the person she thought him to be.

The tuxedo actually fit him quite well. The pants would need to be taken in, but overall it was almost a perfect fit. He stepped out of the room, and Hunith made a delighted sound.

"Oh, look how well it fits. Almost as though it were made for him."

Gaius stood and adjusted Arthur's collar. The paternal gesture warmed him. "Yes, it is quite nice, isn't it?"

Hunith busied herself with the few alterations he'd need. "You know," she said after a while, "I was thinking that we could come and visit you and Merlin for the holidays this year."

Arthur looked at himself in the mirror, smoothing down the lapels. "New York is lovely around the holidays," he said absently. "Of course, we could always come see you as well."

She didn't answer right away. "That would be nice," she said, her voice wavering. Arthur turned to see her eyes brimming with tears. "I would actually like that very much," she said, covering her face with her hands as she burst into tears. Gaius shook his head apologetically at Arthur.

"For heaven's sake, woman," he said fondly, "pull yourself together. Go get yourself some tea." He steered her toward the back of the shop. Arthur watched her go, bewildered, feeling oddly compelled to comfort her.

"Should I--?" he asked, indicating the direction in which Hunith had gone. Gaius shook his head, smiling.

"No, she'll be all right. She's just over excited. The wedding is very important to her. To both of us, actually."

He didn't even know what to say to that, so he just nodded.

"She's been through so much, the poor thing," Gaius continued. "All she ever wanted was for Merlin to find someone and settle down. Someone to be happy with. And here you are," Gaius said, grabbing him by the arms and giving him an affectionate shake. "I know you'll take good care of him."

It'd been a long time since Arthur had felt a part of anything special, and here these people were, trusting, welcoming him into their family without a second thought. Treating him like he belonged with them. He wanted to belong with them, with these warm, caring, giving people.

Hunith returned, looking much more composed. "Forgive me," she said, "I'm not normally this hysterical."

"It's all right," he said, quick to reassure her. "Honestly, I'd be worried if you weren't making a fuss."

She smiled at him warmly, coming over and placing her hand on his chest. "You're a good man, Arthur. Merlin is lucky to have you." Arthur looked down into her warm, trusting eyes. She couldn't possibly know how wrong she was.

On both counts.

 

++++

 

Later, back in the room, Arthur stared out the window as he contemplated what to do.

He'd never really cared what anyone other than his father thought of him. He always just did what he needed or wanted and then just expected everyone to fall in line behind him. Those that didn't fall in line, or those that didn't like him, ceased to matter. He wasn't sure what it was about this place that changed that. It was the complete opposite of everything he was used to: quiet when he knew nothing but noise, warm when he'd gotten used to being cold. And here he was, riddled with guilt and completely sick over what they'd think of him if they ever found out--or worse, if he got Merlin landed in jail.

He didn't know how they'd gotten under his skin when he was so used to keeping people away.

Behind him, the door opened and Merlin poked his head in.

"There you are," he said. "You disappeared after we got back."

"Just took a walk," he answered. Truthfully, he'd been hiding, though from whom he couldn't say. Merlin crossed the room and stood next to him, looking out at the view.

"Nice, isn't it?" he asked.

"It is," Arthur agreed. "More than nice."

They were quiet for a few more minutes before Merlin ventured, "Are you ready for tomorrow?"

"Are you?"

Merlin shrugged. "Yeah, I think so. I mean, I was upset at first. But I guess it makes sense. Things won't change all that much, and we're both getting something out of it, right?"

There was something about the way he asked that suggested there was more to the question than there appeared, but Arthur wasn't brave enough to deal with it at the moment. He just hoped that when the time came, he'd be brave enough to do the right thing.

Whatever that might be.

 

__________________________________

 

Arthur fiddled with his tie in front of the mirror, trying to get the knot right. He hadn't slept much, so he was tired and his fingers were clumsy.

He still hadn't decided what to do. After his short conversation with Merlin, they'd spent the rest of the day helping Hunith and Gaius. Arthur had grown quieter and quieter as the day progressed, leading Hunith to make cracks about nerves and cold feet. Merlin had just kept looking at him, sidelong glances every now and then, as though he knew Arthur was wavering and was trying to suss out what he was thinking. He knew that given the chance, Merlin would try and press the issue. So he avoided him until Hunith ushered them off to bed early for a good night's rest.

Thankfully, she insisted that Merlin and Arthur sleep separately the night before the wedding. He didn't think he could spend another night in bed with Merlin without blurting out everything he was feeling, and the last thing he wanted to do was let Merlin know how much all of this had affected him. But the time alone hadn't done him any good.

He knew that Merlin wanted to see it through for appearance's sake. He'd said as much. It was probably the smartest thing to do--they were already in so deep. But it all felt so wrong now.

The door opened behind him, Hunith and Gaius ushering Merlin in. He was in his tux as well, laughing and batting at his mother's hand as she fussed with his hair. "You're so pushy," he joked, stopping when he saw Arthur.

"Oh, don't you two look wonderful," she said happily, looking between them.

Arthur took in the sight of Merlin in his tailored tux, all clean cut and slim and beautiful, and, all his doubts aside, he wanted this. He wanted to marry Merlin just so that no one else could have him. He wanted it to be real so he could take Merlin upstairs after and peel him out of his clothes.

Blushing at the thought, he tore his eyes away from Merlin to look at Gaius, who was approaching him with a smile.

"I'm going to go get everyone seated," he said. "Since it isn't a traditional wedding, Hunith will walk you both down the aisle."

Arthur nodded dumbly. He was so distracted by Merlin at that point that Gaius could've told him to strip naked and jump off the pier and he probably would've agreed. Hunith did some last minute fussing, finally fixing Arthur's tie. He was grateful for her presence, because had he been alone with Merlin, he probably would've done something stupid, like pin him up against the wall and kiss him in a way that was entirely real and not at all for show.

Oh, if only he could.

Hunith finished with him, smiling up at him so brightly that it almost broke him. "Ready?" she asked, taking both their arms and leading them outside, where the barn had been done up for the ceremony. It was a smallish, cozy building, packed to the brim with people. Arthur's heart started to pound as everyone turned to look at them walk down the aisle. They sat Hunith down, and when Arthur turned to the altar and saw the minister standing there, his nerves slammed into the pit of his stomach full force.

The minister smiled at them before beginning. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the love between these two men..."

Arthur listened, his jaw clenched so tight that it was making his head hurt. He could feel Merlin next to him, and wanted to pull him aside to ask him just one more time if he was sure about this, if he actually wanted to go through with this. He'd said so yesterday, but-

"But what is love?" the minister was asking, and Arthur barely kept from rolling his eyes. Of course he would have to torture him with a dissertation on the topic. "It is happiness, of course, but it is also pain, and honesty, and sacrifice. No one can truly say they've loved if they've never put their partner's needs ahead of theirs, for it is through the selfless actions, through the sacrifices that one makes, that his love for the other truly becomes known."

Sacrifice. The only things Arthur had sacrificed in his relationship with Merlin were things that didn't belong to him--Merlin's time, his energy, his wishes, and now probably his happiness. It wasn't fair, no matter how badly Arthur wanted to stay. Merlin deserved to be happy, to be able to be honest with his family about everything, instead of being forced to lie for Arthur's sake.

He couldn't do this.

His blood roaring in his ears, he raised his hand, lifting a finger to indicate that the minister should stop. He blinked at Arthur, surprised.

"Umm, yes?"

"Sorry," he said, clearing his throat. "I just--there's something that I need to say."

"Oh. Go on, then."

"Arthur, what are you doing?" Merlin whispered sharply. He probably knew what Arthur was about to do. It would hurt his family, Arthur knew, but Merlin could start making it up to them much quicker if he wasn't in jail. Decided, Arthur turned to the guests.

"Hello," he said, wavering briefly when he saw Hunith and Gaius looking at him, confused. "As you all know," he said, pressing on, "Merlin's been working for me in New York these past few years. I'm sure you've all heard the stories." He paused for the chuckles, gathering his courage. "But what you don't know is that recently, my work visa expired and my application to renew was denied."

"Arthur," Merlin said, sounding well and truly panicked now. Arthur ignored him.

"I love my job," Arthur said. "But they were going to make me leave for a year unless I could figure out another way to stay. So, knowing that Merlin was a citizen, I blackmailed him into marrying me."

A shocked murmur went through the crowd. This time, he avoided looking at Merlin's family.

"You see, Merlin's incredibly motivated. I knew how badly he wanted to be an editor, so I knew that if I threatened his career, he would do anything I asked. So I made him come here and lie to all of you."

All right, so it hadn't happened exactly that way, but it was better that all the blame fell on Arthur. Perhaps they wouldn't be so hard on Merlin if they thought he'd had no choice.

"So," he continued, "we came here, and I met all of you, and now I find that I can't do this. I thought I would do anything to stay, but it turns out that it's not so easy ruining someone's life after you find out how wonderful they are."

He was met with complete silence, which was fine, given that he'd completely exhausted his nerve. Without another glance at Merlin, he stepped down off the dais. He stopped next to Hunith and crouched down, taking her hands into his. "You have a wonderful family," he said to her and Gaius. "I wish I deserved everything you've given me. Please don't blame Merlin for this. This was my fault. I am so sorry."

He stood up and strode down the aisle, not looking at anyone and ignoring the chatter that burst out on all sides. He got to the house and ran upstairs, changing out of his tuxedo, grabbing the bag he'd packed. He was counting on everyone's shock to buy him enough time to get away without being seen.

He took one last look at the room and then left. As he'd predicted, no one had left the barn. He rushed down to the pier, grabbing one of the water taxis the guests had used to come over for the ceremony. His heart heavy as the boat pulled away, he opened his phone and dialed the number he'd memorized last night.

"Nimueh Dumond's room, please."

 

"So what happens now?" Arthur asked as he buckled his seat belt on the small plane that would take them to Juneau.

"Well, now that you're coming along of your own accord, there won't be any problems," she said happily. "Once we get back to New York, you have 24 hours to get on a flight to London."

"And nothing happens to Merlin."

"No."

He looked at her. "I want your word that you won't go after him once I'm gone."

She smiled. "You have my word, as an agent of the United States government, that Merlin will not in any way be punished."

Good enough. Arthur sat back and waited for the plane to take off.

 

++++

 

"Are you taking these?" Morgana asked, indicating a stack of manuscripts she'd unearthed in Arthur's study.

"No, have Merlin-" he grimaced as he caught himself. "Have one of the editorial assistants catalog and archive them."

It was early afternoon the day after the almost-wedding. They were at Arthur's flat, packing up the things he'd take with him and setting everything else aside for Morgana to deal with after he'd gone. He had a late flight to London that night. Morgana looked around at the disarray. "Do you really need to do this?" she asked. "I mean, you're coming back eventually."

"I'll find a new flat. I've always thought this one was too big for one person anyway."

She flipped idly through the largest of the manuscripts. "I don't suppose it'd be too big for two, though."

He frowned at her. "What?"

"I'm just saying. It wouldn't be too big if someone--say Merlin, for example--lived here with you."

He ignored the vague ache in his chest at the reminder. Had he not backed out, they'd probably be moving Merlin's things in right now instead of moving Arthur out.

"Don't be ridiculous, Morgana. Why on earth would Merlin live here?" he asked, glaring at the glassware he couldn't quite get into the box he was packing.

"He would if you were married."

"But we're not married," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. He really wasn't in the mood for one of Morgana's cryptic fits. "What are you on about, anyway?"

She took a deep breath. "I think you're making a mistake."

He sat back on his heels, incredulous. "I'm sorry, wasn't this your advice? You were the one saying what a horrible person I was for making him do it in the first place."

"That was before I knew you were capable of actual human emotion," she said loftily, tossing the manuscript aside. "And before I knew how you felt about him."

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said automatically, turning his attention back to the box.

"You love him."

"No, I don't."

"Then why didn't you go through with it?"

"I didn't want him to go to jail," he said. It was a good, emotionless reason. Plus, it was actually true.

"Bollocks," she said. "Well, I'm sure you didn't want him to go to jail," she amended when he glared at her, "but you're also in love with him."

He sighed, hating her inability to drop the subject. "It was three days, Morgana. You can't fall in love with someone in three days."

"No, it's been three years. You're just too stupid and repressed to realize it."

Ignoring the insults, he stopped to think about what she said. Was that really possible? He thought back on all the things he tolerated from Merlin that he'd never take from anyone else, the way Merlin's opinion always seemed to matter, even when Arthur pretended that it didn't--the way he'd harassed Merlin late at night and on the weekends because he'd hated it when Merlin wasn't with him.

Huh. Interesting.

Either way, it didn't matter anymore. Arthur was going back to London and Merlin was free to be with whomever he wanted.

"I don't have time to argue with you, Morgana. If you're going to sit there and insult me, go home."

Thankfully, she didn't say anything else, just looked at him sadly. They packed for a while longer before the buzzer rang.

"Must be the takeaway," Morgana said. "I'll get it."

Arthur had given up on the glassware by the time she returned, takeaway in hand. And Merlin in tow.

Shit.

Arthur's stupid, stupid heart skipped a beat. Merlin was holding the bag he'd taken to Ealdor and wearing the clothes he'd traveled in the first day. He was a bit disheveled, looking every bit like he'd just gotten off the plane from Alaska and come straight here.

He also looked very, very angry.

Morgana set down the takeaway bag, barely managing to keep the smile off her face. "I'm just going to, um--go over there. Somewhere," she said, heading quickly toward the door. Bloody deserter. Merlin waited until he heard the door to the spare bedroom close before turning on Arthur.

"What are you doing?" he demanded, hands on his hips. Oh yes, definitely angry.

"Packing. I would think that'd be obvious, even to someone of your limited intelligence," Arthur said dryly, falling back onto the familiar territory of insulting Merlin. Only it didn't feel quite as comfortable as he remembered. And Merlin was having none of it.

"You," he said, pointing accusingly at Arthur, "do not get to leave me at the altar and then insult me."

Arthur held his hands up in a placating gesture. "All right."

"Arthur, what were you thinking? Do you realize that when Nimueh finds out about this, I could go to jail?"

"You're not going to jail. I'm serious," he said at Merlin's disbelieving look. "I made a deal with her."

That got Merlin's attention. "What sort of deal?"

"If I admitted to the whole thing and left quietly, she'd not bother with you."

"When the hell did this happen?"

Arthur got up, brushing the dust off his sweatpants. "Morgana told me about it first, but we discussed it at the coffee shop."

Merlin crossed his arms over his chest. "And you didn't think it important to tell me?"

"I didn't think you'd have any objections, considering you never wanted to do it in the first place. Look," he said, "I really need to finish up here. I have to leave in a few hours."

"You're leaving tonight?"

"Yes, so if you don't mind..."

"Oh, I mind," Merlin said. "So you're telling me that you're willing to leave for a year just so I won't go to jail?"

"Yes."

"Why now?" Merlin asked. "You weren't willing to do that three days ago."

Arthur looked away. He was not telling Merlin anything about his newly discovered feelings. The last thing he needed was for Merlin to feel sorry for him. Merlin shook his head, smiling. "Apparently your communication skills are something else we're going to have to work on once we're married."

Arthur blinked. "Sorry?"

"We had a deal," Merlin said, "and I'm going to make sure you stick to it."

"I've already seen to your promotion."

"All of it."

Merlin was practically on top of him now. Arthur took another few steps back, putting distance between them so he could think. "What, you're saying you want to get married now?"

"I didn't fly all the way from Alaska and then rush over here for the promotion, Arthur."

His heart started to race. "Then why?"

Thankfully, Merlin stopped his approach. "And you call my intelligence limited?"

He didn't dare hope. "I do," he said, trying for levity, "quite often, actually."

That got him a chuckle. "You're a complete prat, you know that?" he asked, resuming his prowl toward Arthur. "Marry me."

"You don't even like me," he said, feeling the need to resist further.

"Sometimes," Merlin agreed, "but I think I might possibly love you."

Arthur's heart actually stopped beating for a moment. If he survived this without having a heart attack, it'd be a miracle. "Really?"

"Yes," Merlin said, taking that final step that backed Arthur up against the wall. "So you see why it doesn't really work for me to have you piss off to London for a year."

Arthur cleared his throat, trying to reign in his wildly careening emotions. "I guess I see how that might be a problem, y-"

Merlin cut him off with an eager kiss, a proper one, pressing him back against the wall. Arthur responded enthusiastically, finally able to wrap his arms around Merlin and pull him close like he'd been wanting to. Merlin curled his hands in Arthur's hair, holding him still while he licked into Arthur's mouth.

Arthur's head was spinning, unable to grasp that this was real after everything that had happened since yesterday morning. He pulled back suddenly, horrified as a thought struck him. "Oh God," he said, "your mother. Gaius. They must hate me."

Merlin laughed, curling into Arthur's embrace and resting his head on his shoulder. "Not really. I suspect you'll get the same lecture I got on honesty, though."

"I'm really sorry, Merlin," Arthur said, pressing his face into Merlin's hair. Knowing what he did now, he was truly ashamed of his behavior. "I never should've forced you into any of this."

Merlin lifted his head. "I could've said no, you know. It would've sucked for me having to quit, but ultimately it was my choice."

"Why didn't you?" he asked, curious, running his hands up and down Merlin's back, because he could.

"You need me," Merlin said, grinning as he slung his arms around Arthur's shoulders. "You haven't had sex in five years."

Arthur choked out a laugh, feeling his face grow warm, though not entirely from embarrassment. "Just trying to get in my pants, were you?"

Merlin nuzzled at his face, brushing their lips together, sending a shiver down Arthur's spine. "Maybe a little," he said, though Arthur could feel him smiling.

"Just for that, you're not getting any until we're married," Arthur declared, though the press of Merlin's body against his was going to make a liar of him soon if he wasn't careful.

Merlin straightened up and looked at him, wide-eyed. "You're not serious."

"I assure you, I am."

"We are going to City Hall first thing in the morning," Merlin said with conviction. "As soon as we take care of the whole you not getting deported thing."

Arthur laughed. "Whatever you want."

It couldn't be soon enough for him.

 

END.