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The Student Prince

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They had eaten their own bodyweight in prawns and turkey and potatoes and roast vegetables, and Merlin had complained loudly about the brussel sprouts, as was traditional, and they had drunk a bottle of wine between them, and they had sat in front of the tree opening presents one at a time and giggling, and drinking sherry, and now they were sharing the box of Quality Street that Santa had left for Hunith, and fighting over the green triangles and the purple ones with the hazelnuts in the middle.

"Right," said Hunith, unwrapping a green triangle victoriously. "Let's see what your future father-in-law has to say for himself. "

Merlin inhaled his mouthful of sherry and made helpless wheezing sounds for a few minutes, whilst his mother thumped him on the back. When he'd got his breath back he rounded on her with watering eyes and gasped: "Don't say things like that!"

Hunith grinned at him. "I thought you told me it was serious? I mean, it looks pretty serious, if he's outing himself before the nation for you, cariad."

That wasn't for me," Merlin objected, with a scowl.

"Whatever you say, my lad," said Hunith, her eyes twinkling. "Whatever you say. Tell you what, though – His Nibs must be in a right old mood, to go stomping off to ITV instead of letting them broadcast the speech on the BBC!"

Merlin winced. "Yeah," he said unhappily. "Yeah. That – doesn't really bode well, does it?"

"Oh, I'm sure you'll be able to charm the pants off him when you finally meet him in person," Hunith said cheerfully, taking another swig of sherry. She frowned. "Well, not the actual pants, obviously – he's a handsome man, but I don't think your boyfriend would be too thrilled about that."

"Mum!" spluttered Merlin again, scandalised, as the ITN announcer explained in a grave tone that this year's Royal Address was being broadcast live from Buckingham Palace.

On the screen, to the strains of 'God Save The King', Buckingham Palace looked like an elaborate doll's house encrusted with snow as thick as the hard white icing that layered the Christmas cake on the kitchen table. Merlin tried to wrap his head around the notion that this was Arthur's house. In fact, just one of Arthur's houses, really. He tried quite hard, but it still felt a bit too ridiculous to take seriously. The image on the screen cut to a picture of the royal standard fluttering gamely against a bright blue sky, each gust of wind hiding or revealing the curves of the red dragon of Wales who seemed to be roaring at the three English lions all frozen mid-pounce, while below them the red lion of Scotland was rearing up as if about to start playing upon the Irish harp. The sky looked unfeasibly blue behind the flag, and Merlin wondered whether it was a stock photograph, and he was unsurprised when it was followed a moment later by a sequence of clips of King Uther opening parliament; inspecting the guard; watching a group of Maoris performing the haka; helping feed a cross-looking baby orangutan; nodding earnestly whilst listening to representatives of the Women's Institute; shaking hands with various members of the public.

"He's been keeping himself busy," Hunith observed, topping up her sherry glass.

And then the screen cut again to show Uther Pendragon standing in front of a Christmas tree. The room behind him was decorated like a gilt-edged wedding cake, and Merlin would have been ready to bet that they didn't use pins or bluetack to stick up the Christmas cards they received every year. He bit his lip, looking at the face familiar from stamps and coins and the TV news, and tried to see traces of Arthur in his father's features. He looked tired, Merlin thought, surprised by a sudden moment of sympathy. Tired, and older than he was in Merlin's head, but he stood up straight and stiff-necked, and looked right at the camera as if he were facing a firing squad.

"This is not the speech that I expected to broadcast on Christmas Day, but it is one of the most important ones I have ever made." He gave a rather tense smile. "Two thousand and ten has been a year of many changes for Britain. We have a new government in place, a coalition of two different parties, working together to overcome differences in the name of the greater public good. I have had many meetings with Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, and feel confident that together they will help Britain to move forward into a brighter tomorrow. Earlier this year I attended a meeting in Trinidad and Tobago along with the Heads of all the Commonwealth countries, and I had the great good fortune to meet some of the young people from these different nations: young men and women of myriad different faiths and philosophies, living in different economic circumstances, but all united in their hope for a better future, a future which will bring peace and stability for themselves and their families.

"I am sure that you join me in hoping and praying for a swift and peaceful resolution to the troubles in Afghanistan, even as we honour our servicemen and women from Great Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth – well over thirteen thousand of them, from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore – for their great courage, and dignity, and resolve." He looked down at his hands for a moment in a gesture that reminded Merlin almost painfully of Arthur, and then looked back at the camera. "And it is of courage, and dignity, and resolve that I must speak now."

Merlin's knuckles were white around his empty sherry glass. He set it down on the carpet a little shakily, and pulled his knees up in front of his chest, wrapping his arms around them. On the screen, the king pushed his shoulders back and looked directly out of the screen once more.

"In two thousand and ten, I am proud to say that Great Britain is a far more tolerant and liberal-minded country than it was when I was a child. The world has changed around us in many ways, and things that were once unthinkable are now unremarkable. Britain has always been an amalgamation of different cultures and traditions, and modern Britain is more multicultural than ever before. Today our armed forces welcome gay and lesbian volunteers, and honour them for their courage and resolve in being prepared to fight for the country they hold dear. Earlier this year Dr Jeffrey John, a clergyman of great integrity and compassion, became Britain's first openly gay bishop, when he was ordained to the diocese of Southwark. He has received great support from some corners of the community, and has handled the criticism of his opponents with courtesy and aplomb. Meanwhile, overseas, Iceland last year elected the first openly gay head of state of the modern age, Ms Johanna Sigurdardottir." His mouth twitched into another tight smile. "Astonishingly, the world did not come to an end. She continues to lead her country with integrity and wisdom, and earlier this year she married her long time partner, Jónína Leósdóttir, in a ceremony which I was fortunate enough to attend."

He drew a deep breath, and then continued: "And as I am sure you are aware, yesterday the BBC aired its recent interview with my son, the Prince of Wales, in which he revealed that he is gay."

"Here we go!" said Hunith, putting down the box of Quality Street and rubbing her hands together. Merlin buried his face in his knees, and then looked up again, biting his lip.

"...an interview in which he comported himself with unquestionable courage, dignity and resolve," continued Uther. "It does not surprise me that the substance of this interview has given rise to much speculation and debate, since naturally it has implications for the line of succession, as well as for the future king's role within the Church of England. To my people, and to the men and women of the rest of the Commonwealth, I say this: the Prince of Wales is a young man of deep integrity, who takes his duties as a leader and as a role model very much to heart. He is a young man of considerable intelligence, as evidenced by the fact that he was able to earn his own way onto a rigorous degree course at one of the country's oldest and most reputable centres of learning. He is a young man of great bravery, as I have long known from his earnest wish to serve in the armed forces, and as I am now seeing afresh, as he steps forward in the knowledge that simple honesty will cause some people to treat him with contempt and hatred.

"Are you sure he was throwing crockery at David Cameron?" Hunith asked, looking over at Merlin with raised eyebrows.

"Shut up, Mum!" said Merlin, waving a hand vaguely at her in a vague hushing motion, while trying to concentrate on what King Uther was saying on the screen before them.

"Let me make this absolutely clear: Arthur is, and will remain, the heir to the throne. Whether the Church of England finds the prospect of him eventually becoming Head of the Church of England to be tenable or not is of course a matter for the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues to discuss, and it is possible that when he succeeds me as king he will not succeed me as Head of the Church." Uther's voice dropped lower, and his expression grew sterner. "But succeed me he most certainly will."

"Woohoo!" said Hunith, bouncing in her chair. "Looks like your boyfriend still has a job with the family business!"

"Oh, thank God!" said Merlin, shaking his head. "I thought – I was afraid – oh, thank God!"

"Certainly my life, and no doubt his own, would have been simpler if he were able to fall in love with a suitable young lady and provide me with half a dozen grandchildren, as I, and no doubt you, have long expected to be the case," Uther continued. "I feel sure that in previous generations, there would have been no question of being honest with the public in this way; but I am very proud indeed that I have raised a son who would scorn to live a lie, however inconvenient the truth might be." He ducked his head slightly, his mouth quirking up into another brief smile. "On a purely personal note, I have not given up all hope of one day having grandchildren, but I accept that if I am to become a grandfather, it will not be by the traditional method. In terms of the succession, however, I am secure in the knowledge that my niece, the Duchess of Edinburgh, is in excellent health – and although the immediate circle of Pendragons is rather thin on the ground, the House of Pendragon was so-named only in 1917. We have many cousins in Europe who belong to our extended family of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and I am confident that regardless of whether or not my son raises a family of his own, the line of succession will be perfectly secure.

"Christmas is a time for family, a time for supporting and accepting our loved ones and renewing the ties that bind us together. Our families may surprise us, and they may not always grow in the way that we wish or expect, but they remain family, first and foremost. I hope that we can all honour the spirit of Christmas as a nation, and within the greater family of the Commonwealth, and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."

The strains of 'God Save The King' filled the air once more, and the camera panned over to the Christmas tree.

"Ooh, no," said Hunith, shaking her head in disapproval. "I don't know about importing random Germans to be king! No, no, you'll have to sort something out with a surrogate mother, or adopt a Romanian orphan or something."

"Mum, I'm eighteen!" said Merlin. "I don't want to start a family yet! And neither does Arthur! And I wish you'd stop acting like we're getting married, because, you know – he's just my boyfriend." He found himself grinning in the middle of his complaint, though, at being able to say that out loud.

"Well, we'll see," she said, grinning. "I thought that went quite well."

Merlin nodded, almost trembling with relief. "Surprisingly well," he agreed.

* * *

Are you sure he was throwing vases? He seemed really cool about it all!

Bloody minded is more like it. And, yes, 3 vases.

How's Arthur?

Whisked off to Balmoral in secret yesterday, to try to get him out of the way of the press – I've hardly seen him at all.

Balmoral??!!?

Merlin closed his eyes. "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!" he yelled, and Hunith popped her head around the doorway and looked at him quizzically. "Sorry, sorry – I'm fine," he said, blushing. "Just texting Morgana." He bent his head back down to the phone and typed quickly.

Damn it, Morgana, if I don't get to speak to him soon I'm going to end up forcibly kidnapping him by magic, and then we'll all be in trouble!

Can you do that?

I'm very good at improvising. I'll come up with something.

Contrary to public opinion, the king is still VERY PISSED OFF. Gaius and Nimueh and various others managed to calm him down and get him to see it as brave and kingly kind of gesture, but still – pissed off.

Merlin stared at the telephone screen miserably. But I miss him! LOTS! he typed. How can he not have a phone? He's the Prince of Wales! Everyone has a phone!

Everyone doesn't have the king pissed off with them. But he did leave you a message.

OMG!!! What???

It's all cloak and dagger. Idiot doesn't even trust me, which is VERY ANNOYING. He says he'll see you for Hogmanay, though, if you want to meet him. Think he's planning some kind of gaol break. Because his father isn't cross enough right now.

WHERE???

I quote: "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning. Another stupid adventure. Come and be king of the world?" Does that make any sense to you?

Merlin screwed up his face, and then broke into a grin.

Yes!

* * *

On Boxing Day, after they got back from Mrs Skorzelski's place, and after Merlin had stopped having mini heart attacks every five minutes out of worrying that Hunith was on the brink of announcing that the Prince of Wales was now her sort-of son-in-law, and after they'd told the carol singers looming on their doorstep that two lines of 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' didn't count as a whole carol, and they weren't getting any money unless they sang at least two actual Christmas carols all the way through, and the carol singers had made some rather pointed remarks about the number of windows in their house, and the ready availability of bricks, and Merlin had abused his magical powers just a tiny bit, but not to turn them into frogs or erase their memories, so it didn't really count as abuse, and was surely acceptable, since now they were all in such good moods and feeling so helpful and generous that they were busy shoveling snow out of old Mrs Thomas's driveway – after all of that, Merlin retired to his bedroom, and made himself a magical door.

He realised belatedly, as the dragon blinked and stretched on the white paintwork of his bedroom door,
that he hadn't quite thought this one through properly; in all honesty, there were times that a person wanted to have a little privacy in their bedroom, particularly if they were pining frustratedly for their absent boyfriend, and having nonstop observation and commentary from their door was not, actually, ideal.

He smacked his forehead with his open palm. "I am an idiot," he said.

"Well," said the dragon. "I wouldn't go that far. Although at times I do wonder. I take it that you're responsible for all the furore about Prince Martha?"

"Oh, don't you start!" Merlin said, glowering.

The dragon gave an elegant shrug, its wings flaring out behind its back. "You never let him do anything quite this publicly rash before," it said. "Still, the times they are evidently a-changing. Have you got anywhere with my iPod yet, by the way?"

"Oh!" Merlin pulled a guilty face. "No, sorry, not yet – but I know that Gaius ordered it! It's on the way. Um. Are you sure about Justin Bieber?"

The dragon settled back on its two dimensional haunches and started to lick carefully between its claws. Which was odd, because Merlin really couldn't think of any way that it could need to groom itself – but perhaps it was a reflex. "Actually, I'm over Justin Bieber," it said. "But I really want to download the Rolling Stones' back catalogue. And the Sex Pistols – I think I really like the Sex Pistols.
And Iggy Pop. Have you heard 'The Passenger'? Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant."

"Oh!" Merlin perked up. "Well, that's good. I'll nag Gaius for you – sorry I don't have it right now."

The dragon gave a long-suffering sigh. "I gather you've been rather busy. The peasants really are revolting these days, aren't they? All this 'Ponce Charming' business – Uther would have had them hanged, drawn and quartered, back in the old days. If they were lucky."

"Oi," said Merlin, feeling vaguely that he'd been insulted. "Peasant, thank you, sitting right here!"

"Oh, well, I suppose you are, technically. Still, you're Bee Eff Effs with the prince, aren't you? You're his secret squeeze?"

"Oh my God! what have you been listening to?" demanded Merlin, aghast.

"Everything. More or less everything," said the dragon, smiling. "It's marvellous. Very thought provoking. The number of phone-in shows quadrupled overnight, you know, after 'Arthurgate' – I've had some fabulous arguments with stupid people. Very exhilarating. I made one woman sob like a baby! It was almost as invigorating as breathing flames all over a screaming maiden."

"Don't joke about that kind of thing!" said Merlin.

"Who's joking?" asked the dragon, cocking its head to one side and regarding Merlin through narrowed eyes. "You really did throw the cat among the pigeons, didn't you? Or, well, your prince did, with his Ellen DeGeneres moment. Speaking of Ellen, I understand that she's supporting him on Twitter like crazy, as is a gentleman called Stephen Fry. The top hashtags on Twitter are currently 'Gay Prince', 'Prince Arthur ftw'."

Merlin found himself unequal to the task of responding to this. He sat down carefully on the edge of his bed.

"Eff Tee Doubleyou stands for 'For the win', which is apparently a term of approbation," the dragon added, helpfully. There was a little pause. "I'm still not entirely sure what Twitter is, though," it admitted, with some reluctance. "Or hashtags. But it certainly seems to be getting people quite excited."

"I've created a monster, haven't I?" said Merlin, staring at the animated figure incredulously.

"I think that, technically, I was already a monster," the dragon replied. "Now I am a monster with social networking skills. Or I would be, if I had a Twitter account. And possibly a Facebook. Do I want a Facebook? Is it a book of faces? Is it the same as MySpace? Which of course begs the question: what is MySpace?"

Merlin swallowed. "I think – I think for now we should stick to the iPod. We can maybe work up to getting you a Twitter account later. Somehow. I don't know how you'd access it – but I'm getting the feeling that you'd find a way."

"I'm very resourceful," the dragon agreed, happily. "And I definitely think that I want to get onto the internet. It sounds like precisely the kind of brave new world that I should be exploring. I understand there are trolls? And you can flame people? I do like the Twenty First Century!"

Merlin swallowed. "Well, be that as it may, it will have to wait until next term."

The dragon made a noise that sounded suspiciously like Gwen did when she blew a raspberry at him. "You are no fun, do you know that?"

"I'm starting to get that, yes," Merlin said. "Anyway, I just wanted to make sure I could do this, because I'm going to need safe passage to St Andrews in a couple of days' time. Not right now, though."

The dragon looked at him in silence for a moment. "So you don't want to go anywhere?"

"Well – no. Not really."

"Hmm."

There was an awkward pause, as Merlin realised that he had basically just created a roommate for himself. One who didn't sleep.

"Fancy a round of 'I Spy', then? Or perhaps 'Mornington Crescent'?" suggested the dragon.

* * *

New Year's Eve was bitterly cold in St Andrews, and Arthur was clearly the biggest idiot in the history of idiots to go suggesting the top of St Rule's Tower as a remotely sensible place for them to meet. Quite how the devil Arthur had been planning to break in without tokens, Merlin hadn't a clue. As he'd made his way down the road from Sallies, listening to music and laughter and shouting pouring from pub after pub, and from window after window, he'd turned this over in his head and considered turning the little barrier and the token machine into dust, but that seemed very rude when it didn't belong to him and he wasn't at all sure he could fix it. And besides, the prospect of tromping up all those steps and then pacing around at the top of the tower in the freezing cold was about as appealing as a not-very-appealing thing, so once he'd sneaked inside the cathedral grounds Merlin hovered around the tower for a bit, in the snow – just long enough to establish that Arthur wasn't there already - and then scampered back to the gateway on North Street through which he thought Arthur was most likely to be entering.

And that's why Merlin was standing invisibly in the shadow of the war memorial, shivering and stamping his feet, when the Bentley came roaring down to the deserted end of North Street and drew up outside the cathedral gates. Merlin's jaw dropped. Arthur came bounding out of the passenger door and then turned around to open one of the back doors. He was bending over, reaching inside to get something or other, when Merlin dropped the shroud of spells keeping him hidden and marched up, torn between being overjoyed and thoroughly indignant.

"My God, don't you learn anything?" he snapped, and Arthur jumped and banged his head on the door, then spun around, wide eyed – at which point Merlin's rant about discretion and safety and the Provisional IRA and really really obvious cars with royal standards displayed on them for all the world to see was suddenly derailed by the sight of Arthur right there, with his blue eyes startled and his mouth falling open, and Merlin had to put his diatribe on hold so he could lunge forward and shove Arthur back against the car and kiss the living crap out of him. Arthur made a startled sound as his spine was arched back against the Bentley, but his arms were around Merlin at once, one hand around the base of his neck and another grabbing his arse and pulling him in tight, and their noses were bumping together awkwardly for a moment, and Merlin was laughing against Arthur's skin, adrenaline fizzing through his veins, and then his mouth was on Arthur's and they were kissing like it was the most important thing in the world. Like it mattered more than breathing. And, oh, God, Merlin had missed this so much, and had worried and worried that he had lost this, that the warmth of Arthur's lips and the hard familiar line of Arthur's hips and belly and ribcage smashed up against him was all going to be nothing but a memory – had worried, in the back of his head, even after Arthur outed himself on television, even after Morgana's text messages, because real life wasn't a fairy tale, after all, and surely he wasn't going to get to have this? To keep this? But Arthur was here, now, holding on to him with bruising force and kissing him hungrily, frantic and half-clumsy, and it wasn't the romantic reunion at the top of the tower that Arthur had apparently planned, but it was better, it was perfect, it was Arthur in his arms again, alive and warm and his, and Merlin was never planning on letting go.

In practice, though, they had to come up for air eventually. Arthur broke the kiss first, laughing breathlessly against Merlin's cheekbone. He had one leg hooked around Merlin's thigh, and there was absolutely no question in Merlin's mind that Arthur was happy to see him.

"I missed you," Arthur said, his breath puffing warm against Merlin's skin. "Oh, God, I really did miss you."

There were probably some more things that needed saying at this point, but Merlin had to go back to kissing Arthur again rather desperately, and doing some very serious grinding, and in fact he was just wondering whether perhaps a little bit of invisibility would be in order, so the grinding could progress in a more satisfactory fashion, when there was an embarrassed coughing sound, and it occurred to Merlin that Arthur had stepped out of the passenger door, not the driver's door. His head jerked up, and he looked across the top of the Bentley to see Ewan peering awkwardly over in the direction of the Castle Tavern.

"Oh," said Merlin, blushing. "Um. Hi?"

"Merry Christmas, sir," said Ewan, sounding amused. He met Merlin's eyes. "And thank you. For the thing with the bullet."

"Oh! Oh, God – sorry, are you okay?" Merlin asked, feeling like a complete bastard for not asking sooner.

"I'm better than ever," Ewan said, with a smile. "Which is down to you. So – thank you."

Merlin looked back at Arthur, still leaning his weight onto him and enjoying the press of Arthur's familiar body against his. "I can't believe you dragged Ewan into this," he said, disapprovingly. "He's going to be in masses of trouble, you know! I mean, I know you like stupid adventures, but this one really takes the biscuit. Rushing off in the middle of the night with only one bodyguard, in a completely obvious car, on the busiest night of the year, when anybody..."

Arthur rolled his eyes, and let his head fall back. "Oh my God, it's like having a nanny all over again," he said, but he wasn't doing a very good job of sounding irritated, with the smile still tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Don't be such a fishwife! It's fine! It's all fine! Probably. Morgana spelled the car to be – not invisible, but something like that? Unremarkable?"

Merlin blinked. "But I can see it perfectly well. It looks the same as ever."

"Well, you were looking for it, you great numbskull!" Arthur said impatiently. "Honestly, she was unbearable – nagging and nagging and refusing to give me a moment to myself because she was convinced I was going to do something stupid, and in the end I had to explain my plan, and then she insisted that she was going to let the cat out of the bag if I didn't let her help." His eyes narrowed. "Did you know that she was a wizard?"

"Um," said Merlin, guiltily. "Yes?"

Arthur closed his eyes. "Are there any other things I need to know?" he asked, in a level voice. Merlin was reassured by the fact that he sounded rueful and amused, rather than infuriated.

"Er – no?" he said, after a moment's consideration. "Well – I don't really play World of Warcraft – that's just the code word Morgana came up with to explain about how we knew one another. Um. The Great Dragon wants a Twitter account. My mum thinks you're a lovely boy. Gwen wants to be my bridesmaid. And – I'm in love with you. I think that's it."

"Right, then," said Arthur, and went back to kissing Merlin. "I did have a plan, you realise, which you've gone and ruined," he added a little later. "I had champagne, and you were supposed to be waiting at the top of the tower, and it was going to be very romantic, and we were going to watch the fireworks. But of course that was supposing that you could follow orders, which was obviously a bit over optimistic of me."

"It was a stupid plan," said Merlin. "You've obviously watched too many soppy movies. The top of the tower is freezing, and there are about a million steps, and I don't need silly romantic gestures." He swallowed. "Well, that is – I mean, you know, you're probably not going to be able to top the one you already made." He felt suddenly shy. "That was – that was amazing, by the way. You're amazing. God, I love you."

Arthur's mouth curved into a smile. "Well – good," he said, both hands tight around Merlin's waist. "Because it would have been really, really rubbish if this had given you second thoughts. I did worry that maybe..."

"Are you certifiably insane?" interrupted Merlin, smacking the top of his head. "What, I'm going to dump you after that? I don't think so!"

Arthur beamed at him, and then looked down for a moment. "That's – that's a relief," he said, half-laughing at himself. "But you know – it's going to be pretty intense. Pater's being rather amazing, all things considered – I mean, he's ready to strangle me, but he'll pretty much behead anyone else who says anything disparaging. But, um – there are already lots of angry people demanding to know who "turned me gay". As if I was perfectly straight, and then somebody pressed a button and broke me. Idiots. Some people have been really brilliant, but some people – some people haven't."

Merlin glowered. "Do you honestly think I give a crap about what stupid people think? They can all fuck right off!"

Arthur gave a startled snort of laughter. "We're going to have to do something about teaching you diplomacy, I see," he said, grinning.

"And anyway, most people don't have their knickers in a twist about it, really. The Sun did that poll yesterday, asking for people's opinions, and 76% of their readers didn't care whether you were gay, and 6% thought it was a good thing! And that's The Sun!"

Arthur pressed a kiss onto the corner of Merlin's mouth. "It's definitely getting better – although apparently I've been getting a steady stream of hate mail too. But a lot of people on TV have been really supportive, and some of the papers have been pretty good, actually, once they got over the reflexive urge to make snide puns. And there have been a lot of letters and phonecalls in support too, which have been pretty amazing – kids, especially, but older people too, saying how much it meant to them. A lot of people have been coming out as a direct result of my speech, which is – God, it's all a bit unbelievable, really. It's a big responsibility. But – it's rather wonderful too. It mattered It was the right thing to do." He swallowed hard. "What I'm saying is that if – you know, if you're going to be with me, publicly, I mean – well, it's going to be a lot of pressure. And not just on you – on your family too. It's – it's a pretty big ask, really."

Merlin spluttered with laughter. "Arthur, have you met me? My God, seriously – can you think of anybody on the planet who's better suited to looking after themselves, and their family? Who's better suited to looking after you right now, and keeping you safe? Bring it the fuck on! Seriously!"

There was a pause, where neither of them mentioned the bullets turning into bees, or Val's body lying in the cold sand. Arthur looked torn between worry and delight. "You do realise that you aren't allowed to go turning people into frogs if they insult me, don't you?" he said, cautiously. "I mean – there's a lot of smiling and waving and smiling and waving and gritting your teeth and being polite."

"I can do that!" Merlin said, staunchly. "I'm not stupid."

Arthur closed his eyes. "Oh, God," he said, his voice quivering with suppressed laughter. "This is going to be a nightmare, isn't it?"

"Oi!" said Merlin, pinching him. "Oh ye of little faith! It's going to be brilliant! We're going to be brilliant!"

Arthur opened his eyes and looked over at Merlin, smiling like he was never going to stop. "Right then. In that case, how do you feel about coming back to Balmoral and meeting the pater?"

Merlin swallowed. "Oh God," he said, faintly. "Meeting – seriously?"

"Seriously." Arthur was smiling, but there was an edge of tentativeness to his expression that undid Merlin entirely – as though he were more than half expecting Merlin to back out of it all even now.

"I'd love to," Merlin said, in a firm voice, and Arthur's smile lit up the whole street.

FINIS