Camelot was a sprawling, grey stone building in the middle of the Gloucestershire countryside. Merlin had never driven around so much of the country as he had in the last couple of days.
They left the car at the gate, not wanting to let anyone know they were there, and set off at a run down the driveway. Merlin had never been much of a runner, but a summer spent rushing around Buckingham Palace all day had apparently made him much fitter, because he only reached the front door a second or two after Morgause.
"You go through here, I'm going around the back," Morgause told him and melted back into the shrubbery, disappearing from sight.
"Right," Merlin muttered to himself, "I'll just alohomora this right open."
He pressed his hand to the door, thought open really firmly and only just managed to stop himself cheering when it swung forward under his hands.
The house was eerily quiet, like a horror film or Beast's castle before Belle turned up and made the teacups dance. Merlin stood at the bottom of the stairs and tried to listen for anyone moving about with regicidal intent.
Crap. Okay. Deep breath, he told himself. "Where's Arthur?" he asked the room.
"He's in the wine cellar," a deep, bored voice told him.
Merlin spun around. The Monmouth coat of arms was ridiculously elaborate and there, in the middle, a painted wooden dragon was fluttering its wings and talking to him.
"The wine cellar?" Merlin asked, because he'd given up on questioning the impossible.
The dragon flapped its tiny wings slightly. "Must I do everything? Through the kitchen and down the stairs. You won't miss it; there's an idiot with a gun about to shoot the last hope this country has." A pause. "Although I did hear a rather large crash a short while ago, so I suppose it's possible he already has."
Merlin didn't stop to listen to the end of the sentence, just took off running down the hallway. He had no idea where the kitchen was but that didn't seem to be stopping his feet which took him through the third door on the left into an enormous, old fashioned kitchen.
There was a trap-door in the centre of the floor which had to lead down to the cellar. He took the steps two at a time and nearly fell and broke his neck when the floor became ceiling and he could see into the room. Arthur and Morgana were curled together on the floor and Geoffrey Monmouth was looking really rather dead under a pile of rubble beside them.
"Um," he said and Arthur leapt away from Morgana, reaching for a gun lying abandoned on the floor before he saw Merlin and stopped.
"Yeah," Merlin said, approaching cautiously. "I promise I don't want to kill you." He held his hands up in surrender.
Arthur looked terrible, blood and grey plaster dust matting his hair, eyes wide and shocky and his pupils different sizes. He reached out a hand to Merlin and Merlin took it automatically, dragging Arthur back down onto the ground with him.
"Are you okay?" he asked, squeezing Arthur's hand, not wanting to let go. Adrenaline was buzzing in his ears; he'd been all prepared for a dramatic rescue but apparently someone else had already had that covered.
Arthur shot a quick, worried look at Morgana. "We need to get out of here," he said. He either didn't notice or didn't mind that Merlin was still clutching his hand. "Did you bring the police?"
"Oh," Merlin said, "No? I brought Morgause."
Morgana's head snapped up at that, eyes tracking to Merlin a beat too slowly. Shock, he thought, wishing he knew what to do for her.
"She'll probably be here in a minute?" Merlin tried, wondering where she was.
Morgana nodded. Her eyes kept straying back to Geoffrey's body.
"How did you find us?" Arthur asked, before Merlin could ask what had happened.
Luckily, Merlin was spared from having to explain the whole a portrait of your mother told us she was murdered here so we thought it was a good place to start thing, by a shout from upstairs.
"Here!" Morgana called back immediately and, ten seconds later, Morgause came running down the stairs.
Her hair was pulled half free from her long plait and there were scratches on her cheek. "There was a man conjuring fire at the back of the house," she said, wiping her hands on her trousers. "There isn't now."
She took in the scene in the cellar then looked at Merlin. "Did you do this?"
Merlin shook his head.
"Right," she said and slid to her knees next to Morgana. She pushed Morgana's hair out of her face and cupped her cheek. "I was wondering if you ever would," she said softly, stroking her thumb along Morgana's cheekbone. "It's all right."
Morgana drew her breath in on a long shudder. "It's not," she said, reaching up and clutching Morgause's wrists. "It's not. I killed him."
"Wait," Merlin said, "You made the roof fall down? How?"
Morgause turned around and glared at him. Right, he thought, was everyone around here magic?
"Yes, how?" Arthur repeated.
Merlin looked at the girls; they were concentrating on each other, not on answering Arthur. "Let's talk about it later, yeah?" he said. "Can you two walk? We should probably get out of here."
"And go where?" Morgause asked.
Merlin shrugged. "Back to the Palace?"
The look she gave him was much less forgiving than it had been in the car. He had the feeling she was more freaked out by Morgana using her powers than she was trying to let on.
"Do you know who they can trust?" she asked, "Because I don't. I very much doubt Monmouth was working on his own."
"You're right," Arthur agreed. He scratched around the dried blood in his hair. He sighed; he looked exhausted. "But we can't stay here."
There was silence.
"Another castle?" Morgause suggested.
Arthur shook his head. "Too obvious." He looked at Merlin suddenly, eyes focusing slowly. "Ealdor," he said.
Merlin took a moment to imagine his mum's face if he turned up on her doorstep with the King, Lady Morgana, and a random Danish princess.
"Yes, okay," he said. It wasn't like they had any other choices.
The journey to Ealdor was bumpy and tense and did nothing for Arthur's headache. He curled up in the front passenger seat and spent roughly half the journey watching Morgana and Morgause whisper to each other in the backseat and the other half watching Merlin drive.
The look of concentration on his face was a little alarming, as was the fixed position of his hands at ten and two on the steering wheel and the way he carefully kept exactly to the speed limit. Arthur hadn't done that since he was learning to drive.
"Merlin," Arthur asked, because he wanted to talk about something more normal than people trying to kill him and no one would answer any of the five hundred questions he had about what had happened today, "How long have you had your driving licence?"
"Oh, um," Merlin said and executed a perfect mirror-signal-manoeuvre. "My instructor thinks I'll be ready for my test in November?"
"Good god," Arthur said and double checked his seatbelt. Forget about Geoffrey; maybe Merlin was trying to kill him.
Actually, that thought wasn't very funny.
"Are you okay?" Merlin asked. "You just went really pale."
"Look at the road!" Arthur snapped, not actually answering him.
They drove in silence for a while, no sound in the front of the car except for the annoying drone of the GPS.
"What's wrong with just reading a map?" Arthur asked eventually. His head hurt and it was making him grumpy.
"I don't know," Merlin said, "How are your map reading skills?"
"Excellent actually," Arthur told him, giving him a look.
"Shh, both of you," Morgause hissed from the backseat. Glancing in the rearview mirror, Arthur saw that Morgana had fallen asleep, her head resting on Morgause's shoulder, her hair hiding her face from the world.
Arthur watched her until he felt a hand on his thigh. Looking over, he saw that Merlin was obediently watching the road.
"Hand on the wheel, please," Arthur said but he gave it a quick squeeze before Merlin could move it.
"Yes sir," Merlin agreed. He was smiling softly. Arthur couldn't quite manage a smile yet but his insides felt a little lighter.
“Did Lance tell you we were missing?” Arthur asked when he couldn’t stand the silence anymore. “Actually, where is he?”
“Oh.” They swerved into and out of their lane. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s mobile off the dashboard before Merlin could finish his faint, “I don’t know.”
Merlin didn’t have Lance in his address book but he did have Gwen and experience had taught Arthur that that was the next best thing.
“Merlin, oh my god,” was how Gwen answered the phone, “Where are you? Have you seen the news?”
“Guinevere,” Arthur said, interrupting, “It’s Arthur.”
“Arthur,” Gwen said, using his name for the first time since they were nine and his father informed that their friendship was inappropriate. “Are you all right? Where’s Lance? I couldn’t get hold of anyone.”
Arthur felt his heart sink. “Lance isn’t - ? He hasn’t called you?”
“No,” Gwen said slowly, “Why? What’s going on?”
I really don’t know, Arthur thought helplessly. “Everything’s fine,” he said heartily, “I’m sure he’ll call you soon. When he does, could you please ask him to call me on Merlin’s mobile? Thank you, Guinevere, take care.” He hung up on her protests and sent the call to voicemail when she phoned him straight back.
The pounding in his head that hadn’t really died down came back full force.
“Merlin,” he said hoarsely, “Pull over.”
“What?” Merlin glanced over at Arthur and whatever he saw on his face had him pulling up onto the hard shoulder.
Arthur fumbled the door open with shaking hands and managed to vomit on the gravel shoulder rather than the inside of the car.
“Arthur?” Merlin asked, touching Arthur’s back.
Arthur let his head drop forward and didn’t answer. He heard the click of a door opening and then Merlin was crouching in front on him. He put his hands on Arthur’s knees and Arthur stared at them, unused to Merlin’s easy way of touching him.
“He killed my parents,” Arthur said, feeling stupid for the young, lost timbre to his voice. He’d come to terms with having been orphaned early, but it felt different now, knowing it could have been avoided, that his parents could have been alive right now, that he could have just graduated from Durham with decades to go until it was his turn to be King.
“I know,” Merlin said. He squeezed Arthur’s knees before Arthur could ask how he knew; apparently this was another thing no one wanted to tell him. “Doesn’t Gwen know where Lance is?”
Arthur shook his head. If Geoffrey had killed him too, Arthur would-- Well, there was nothing left that Arthur could do to him but he might spit on his grave.
He sighed, feeling impotent and embarrassed at his loss of control. “I’m fine, Merlin,” he promised. He waved a hand in the direction of his head. “Just the probable concussion.”
Merlin looked at him like he didn’t believe him, but he stood up anyway, getting back into the car and driving them in silence the rest of the way to Ealdor.
Hunith's expression was about what Merlin had expected it to be when she opened the front door and saw them all standing there.
"Oh," she said faintly.
"Sorry, we need to get inside," Merlin said, waving the others in quickly. If any of the neighbours looked out of their windows and saw them all there, they'd be on the phone to the papers before Merlin could say curtain twitcher.
"Yes, of course." Hunith still sounded faint. She snapped out of it when she got a good look at Morgana and Arthur's cuts and bumps. "Merlin, take them into the living room, I'll get plasters."
The house had never seemed particularly small to Merlin before, but seeing Arthur standing awkwardly in the kitchen doorway made him see how narrow the hallway was, how the paint was peeling off the banisters.
"Living room?" Arthur asked. To be fair, he didn't seem particularly appalled.
"Just, uh. Just through there." Merlin pointed to the first door on the right and told himself not to be so stupid.
They drew the curtains in the living room so no one looking in would see them (of course, Mrs Brown from over the road would probably ask Hunith about that the next time she saw her, but Merlin trusted his mum's ability to improvise).
Arthur and Morgana sat stiffly on the sofa, Morgause stood with her back to the window and Merlin hovered uncertainly between them. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something else to happen.
"All right," Hunith said, coming back into the room with her arms full of boxes of plasters, TCP and cotton wool balls. She set them on the coffee table. "Can the three of you see to yourselves? I need to speak to Merlin in the kitchen. Merlin?"
There really wasn’t any arguing with Hunith when she used that tone and Merlin knew better than to even try.
He followed her out into the kitchen, holding up his hands before she could say anything. “I know, I know, it’s weird.”
“The King is in my sitting room, Merlin,” Hunith whispered shrilly, “That’s far beyond weird. Do you realise that the entire country is looking for them? It’s all over the news; they’ve disappeared. People think they’re dead.” She took a deep breath, glancing over her shoulder. “Are they okay?”
Merlin thought about making something up, but this was his mum, who hadn’t freaked out when he started using magic at two years old or kissing boys at thirteen or moved to London at eighteen and constantly forgot to call home.
“Lord Monmouth tried to kill Arthur and Morgana,” he said. “We don’t know where they can go that’s safe, so I brought them here. I’m sorry, I know you don’t need this, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
It wasn’t until he finished that he realised he was actually sort of terrified, not that his mum wouldn’t help, because of course she would, but that there was no help to give, really. If Geoffrey had been working with anyone else, they’d be able to find Arthur and Morgana eventually; they weren’t exactly inconspicuous.
“Oh Merlin,” Hunith said and curled her arm around his shoulders. “Of course they can stay. I’m just worried, that’s all. They can’t stay here forever. We don’t have enough bedrooms for a start.”
Merlin bit his lip around a smile at her practicality.
“We’ll leave if it’s too much trouble, Mrs Emrys,” Arthur said from the doorway and Merlin took a half step away from his mum so Arthur wouldn’t see him getting a cuddle.
“It’s Hunith, Your Majesty,” she said, still with that worried, disbelieving look on her face, “And you’re welcome to stay, of course.”
Merlin could see Arthur trying to overcome his conditioning, but finally he managed, “Arthur. You may call me Arthur.”
Hunith blushed; it was sort of hilarious. “Oh,” she said softly, then pulled herself together. “Tea? Has Merlin offered you any tea? Merlin, really, see to your guests.”
“You dragged me in here before I could,” Merlin protested, not that tea had really been at the top of his agenda anyway.
“I’ll help,” Arthur offered, stepping into the room. He smiled charmingly at Hunith before she could protest. “I think Morgana might need a little help in the other room, if you don’t mind?”
He had this way of making a polite request as compelling as an order. Merlin was going to have to teach his mum how to resist that if she was going to be spending much time with Arthur.
Not that she’d be spending much time with Arthur. Obviously. Because he’d leave here soon and never come back. That was how things worked.
“Merlin,” Arthur said as soon as they were alone.
Merlin had taken the kettle over to the sink to fill from the tap. Arthur’s voice saying his name made him jump and almost drop the kettle.
“Careful,” Arthur murmured, stepping up behind him and taking it from him. He set it on the stand and turned it on.
“There’s too much water in there,” Merlin protested, because Arthur was warm against his back and it was making his mind go crazy, “It’ll take forever.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said firmly, “Fuck the tea.”
Merlin turned around. Their chests pressed together and he wound his arms around Arthur’s neck with no input from his higher brain functions. “You can’t say that,” he argued feebly, “They’ll take away your right to be King if you say things like that.”
“Right now, I feel like that wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” Arthur told him and closed the distance between them, pressing his lips softly against Merlin’s cheek.
Merlin made a sound and clutched at Arthur’s hair. The edge of the counter was digging into his back, his mum was only one room away, this was still such a bad idea but Arthur was dragging his mouth over Merlin’s face, kisses wet and desperate, and Merlin couldn’t resist that.
He spread his legs, letting Arthur crowd up between them. Arthur was hard against him – adrenaline, Merlin thought vaguely, it had to be that – and he bit at Merlin’s throat, clutched at his back like a lifeline.
Merlin turned his face into Arthur’s when he couldn’t resist any longer, kissing Arthur’s jaw, the smooth skin below his ear. “Shh,” he whispered, wondering if trying to offer comfort was going to put Arthur on the defensive, “Shh, come on, it’s okay.”
“It is anything but okay,” Arthur told him, but he relaxed his death grip slightly, smoothing his hands up and down Merlin’s spine apologetically.
They stood like that while the kettle roared to their right and the soft sounds of Hunith talking to Morgana and Morgause drifted down the corridor.
“Merlin,” Arthur said eventually. He pulled back and ran his thumb along Merlin’s bottom lip, staring at Merlin’s mouth like he wanted to kiss him there too; Merlin wished he would. “I don’t know what this is, exactly. But I do, um.” He cleared his throat. “I do feel it.”
Merlin’s heart skittered wildly. “Me too,” he said even though he shouldn’t; it was too soon after Will. But he looked at Arthur and couldn’t imagine him being anyone’s rebound, especially not Merlin’s.
Arthur was too tense for his smile to be really convincing but Merlin pressed his mouth to it because it was there.
They stayed pressed together until the kettle boiled and Arthur would probably have stayed longer if Merlin hadn’t pushed him gently away.
“Cups are on the mug tree,” he said, pointing to the windowsill, “Can you grab some?”
“I don’t grab,” Arthur said with dignity but he went where Merlin pointed, taking down mugs and examining them before he put them on the work surface. “Mighty Mouse?” he asked, “Lucky Charms.”
“Shut up,” Merlin muttered, “The Lucky Charms one used to sing when you turned it upside-down.”
“Why would you turn a mug upside-down?” Arthur asked, finally smiling convincingly, “You’d get tea in your lap.”
“Shut up,” Merlin said again and threw the box of teabags at him.
Arthur wasn’t sure what it said about him that making tea with Merlin in Merlin’s mother’s kitchen was the highlight not only of his day but probably of his month.
It was definitely better than sitting around the dining table once everyone was suitably supplied with caffeine, trying to work out exactly what they were going to do next.
“Is there anyone you trust implicitly?” Morgause asked. She seemed to have taken charge even though, as far as Arthur knew, this was her first attempt at escaping from murderers too.
“Yes,” Arthur said, “But we can talk about that later. I would like some other answers first. Morgana?”
Morgana had been staring into her tea cup, now she looked up at him. “I don’t know,” she said, without him needed to clarify exactly what he was asking about. Which was good, since he didn’t know exactly what he was asking about. “I was shot and then I wasn’t and then the ceiling was falling down.”
“I fell down the stairs,” Merlin said, and Arthur was about to tell him that as interesting an anecdote as that was, it didn’t really explain anything, when Merlin went on, “I was nearly two. My mum thought I’d broken my neck but I sat up and I was fine. After that, I started being able to do things like this.”
He shot a quick look at Arthur then clicked his fingers. The room went dark. He clicked them again and the lights back went on.
“Holy shit,” Arthur breathed.
Morgana was staring at Merlin too. Morgause just smiled.
From the other room, Hunith called, “Not when I’m on the phone, Merlin!”
“Sudden trauma is often the reason it starts,” Morgause said, looking at Morgana now.
“What starts?” Arthur asked even though he thought he knew. He couldn’t know, of course, because it was impossible, but nothing else made sense.
“Magic,” Merlin said, with another look at Arthur. This time, Arthur could identify his expression; it was apprehensive.
“You can do magic,” Arthur said, not a question, “And you,” looking at Morgana. He looked at Morgause. “And you?”
“I didn’t know,” Morgana said quietly. “I knew Morgause could, but not me.” She stared down at her hands like they’d betrayed her.
“It’s all right,” Morgause told her and shot Arthur a look.
“Oh,” Arthur said, “Yes. Yes, of course it’s all right.”
“Thank you so much for the spontaneous validation,” Morgana said archly and yes, that was better. That was more like his Morgana.
“Okay,” said Hunith, walking back into the room with a cordless phone in her hand. “I’ve spoken to Gaius, Merlin, and he’s worried sick. Will one of you please call him?”
“Gaius?” Arthur asked, “My doctor Gaius?”
“And my godfather,” Merlin said, “He’s how I got the job at the Palace.” He hesitated. “I think I trust him. Do you?”
Arthur’s strongest memory of Gaius was of him being one of the very few people to hug Arthur when his father died. He’d also been the only person apart from Morgana who actually stood up to Uther. Geoffrey hadn’t done either of those things.
“Yes,” Arthur decided, “I trust Gaius.”
“I’ll call him,” Merlin said, taking the phone from his mother.
“Wait,” Arthur said, stopping him with his palm on Merlin’s wrist. Merlin didn’t pull away and Arthur had to fight not to curl his fingers around it, not with Merlin’s mother in the room. “We all need to agree.”
It was probably stupid but they had to work as a team right now.
“I agree,” Morgana said. She looked at Morgause.
Morgause shrugged. “I don’t know him,” she said, “But I trust your judgement.”
Arthur had no doubt that she was talking to Morgana exclusively there.
They waited in silence while Merlin called Gaius. Merlin’s end of the conversation consisted of a lot of, yes, and I know, and it seemed like a good idea at the time? but he was smiling when he hung up.
“Okay,” he said, “He’ll be here soon.”
It was strange waiting around in Hunith’s house for Gaius to show up. After all the activity of the last couple of days, Arthur felt like he should be doing something, moving or fighting or trying not to die, but instead he was sitting on the sofa next to Merlin, watching Deal or No Deal.
“I don’t understand this game at all,” Morgause complained, watching another box get opened and the audience groan. “Why do they not take the first offer and leave?”
“Because then there’d be no show,” Merlin told her, in a tone which Arthur was fairly sure meant, Shhh.
Experimentally, Arthur reached over and put his hand on Merlin’s where it rested on the cushion in between them.
Merlin didn’t look away from the TV but he did curl his fingers around Arthur’s. Arthur tried not to feel too ridiculously pleased, but probably failed. When he looked up, Morgana was watching them with a curious, soft expression.
Arthur told himself firmly not to pull his hand away. He must have ended up squeezing too hard instead because Merlin wriggled his hand free, putting it over Arthur’s instead. He rubbed his thumb back and forth over Arthur’s knuckles and Arthur forgot that anyone was watching.
“Look up,” Gaius said, shining the little torch into Arthur’s eyes, “And down. Good.”
Merlin kept out of the way while Gaius checked if Arthur really did have a concussion. Merlin hoped not; apart from the obvious reasons why concussions were bad, it probably wasn’t ideal if their first real kisses happened while Arthur had a brain injury.
“I’m fine, Gaius,” Arthur complained, looking straight ahead when Gaius told him to. “I hardly even have a headache anymore.” His eyes locked on Merlin and he smiled.
Feeling ridiculous, Merlin smiled back.
“Yes,” Gaius said, stepping back and turning off the torch. “I think you’ll be fine. If the headache comes back or you experience any nausea--.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll tell you straight away.” Arthur was fidgeting in his chair, apparently unable to sit still for this long when he didn’t have to. “Could you please check on Morgana? She’s the one who got shot.”
They’d told Gaius about Morgana’s magical healing as soon as he arrived. He’d always known about Merlin’s magic and, if they were going to trust him, they needed to be able to trust him with everything.
“I’ve already seen Morgana, Arthur,” Gaius said, “You and Merlin were watching Relocation, Relocation, I believe.”
“Oh,” Arthur said and Merlin smiled. Watching TV with Arthur was surprisingly relaxing.
Once Gaius had finished cleaning up the bump on Arthur’s head, he sat them all down in the living room and looked at them seriously.
“This is going to be difficult,” he said, “For all we know, there are more people out there who wish you harm.”
Arthur scoffed. “Of course there are,” he said, “The people who tried to blow me up, for one.”
“Aren’t those the same people?” Merlin asked. He’d been sort of hoping they were and that now Geoffrey was dead, they might give up.
Gaius shook his head. “We can’t be sure of that. Geoffrey may have hoped to take advantage of the situation to put himself on the throne, but I doubt he orchestrated it. If he’s been biding his time since he killed your father-” Gaius winced; Arthur stared stoically ahead -- “I can’t see him escalating into shootings and bombings which implies there’s another traitor in the Palace.”
They looked at each other hopelessly.
“The shooter?” Merlin asked, “Um, Valiant.” He felt sick but he had to say this; it wouldn’t help anyone to waste time hunting for a traitor who might not exist. “Would it help if I told you that I know a little bit about him?”
Everyone turned to stare at him.
“Yes,” Arthur said. “It would have helped even more last week.”
Merlin drew his legs up onto the sofa and told himself that honesty was important. Arthur wanted them to be a team, and Merlin couldn’t think of another way for them to survive this.
“Will told him where your sitting room is,” he said, hating himself.
“What?” said Hunith.
“Pardon,” said Gaius.
Arthur just stared at him.
“He didn’t mean— I don’t think he wanted anything bad to happen to you. He was just mad that I didn’t tell him we’d been spending time together and Valiant knew he knew me so he asked.”
“And Will told him,” Hunith said slowly. She shook her head. “No, he wouldn’t.”
“I know,” Merlin said, looking at her helplessly. “But he did.”
“And you’ve known since it happened?” Arthur asked, “That’s why you broke up with him?”
“Yes,” Merlin said, not liking Arthur’s tone. “I would have told you sooner but I really don’t think he knows anything helpful and he is my boyfriend.” Arthur’s face shut down. “Best friend. I meant, he’s my best friend. Obviously, he’s not my boyfriend anymore.”
“Obviously,” Arthur repeated but flatly, like it wasn’t obvious at all.
“Arthur,” Merlin tried.
“So,” Arthur interrupted, “Where does Will live? Still in your flat? I think someone should have a word with him.”
“I will,” Gaius said, looking between Merlin and Arthur like he didn’t know what was going on and was rather glad about that. “I’ll head back to London now, talk to a few people I know I can trust and report back to you tomorrow. You’ll be fine here?”
“Of course they will,” Hunith said, standing up to see Gaius out. “A little squashed maybe, but if anyone tries to get to them in here I’ll give them what for.”
“She will, too,” Merlin said, trying to catch Arthur’s eye to make him share the smile.
“Gaius, could you try to find Lance?” Arthur asked, ignoring Merlin.
Oh, shit. Merlin had forgotten all about Lance.
“I’ll see Gaius out, Mum,” he said, bouncing to his feet and following Gaius to the door.
“Well?” Gaius asked when they were at the front door, out of everyone’s earshot. “What do you need to tell me?”
“Nothing,” Merlin said quickly. “Just. I think Lance was maybe kind of suspicious of Will when he found out I’d shown him around Arthur’s room? What if he’s been investigating him and someone who was working with Valiant got worried that Lance was too close to something?”
Gaius nodded. “You think he might be dead?”
“No,” said Merlin quickly. Then, “I hope not. It would break Arthur’s heart.”
“Yes,” Gaius agreed somewhat elliptically, “You do seem rather concerned by Arthur’s heart.”
Merlin didn't really know how to respond to that.
Hunith's house had three bedrooms: hers, Merlin's, and a spare. She tried to give Morgana her room, then Arthur once Morgana refused. Finally, in desperation, she turned to Morgause.
"Mum," Merlin said gently, "Give it up. No one's going to put you out of your bed."
Arthur tried not to look like he was listening but couldn't help smiling when Hunith hissed, "Your grandmother would turn in her grave if she knew I was making the King sleep on the settee."
"Gran's not dead," Merlin said, "And, um. I don't think anyone will be sleeping on the settee."
He looked across at Arthur from under his eyelashes. Arthur tried not to react. He was still angry about Will, of course he was. It was just. Well. With the rate people were trying to kill him, he might die tomorrow and that made it harder to hold on to his anger right now.
"No, no one will," he said.
"Morgause and I will take the spare room, if that's okay?" Morgana said, which distracted Hunith enough that Merlin was able to grab Arthur's wrist and lead him into Merlin's bedroom.
He pressed Arthur up against the door before Arthur could say anything.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said, kissing Arthur's temple, "I'm so sorry. I couldn't. I can't just betray Will though."
"He betrayed you first." It didn't come out very strident because Arthur was too busy tipping his head back against the wall. It had been so long since he'd had someone who would touch him.
"Mm," Merlin whispered, "And I'm so angry with him." Kiss. "And I am on your side." Another kiss, creeping closer to Arthur's mouth.
Arthur heard himself make an involuntary sound.
"We can't do this here," he said, "Your mother is next door."
"Nah," Merlin breathed, cool air on Arthur's kiss-wet throat, "She's two doors down. Morgana's next door."
Arthur made a face. "That's really not very reassuring, Merlin."
"Shh," Merlin said and slid his hands up under the back of Arthur's hoodie.
Waking up sprawled across Arthur for the second morning running should probably have felt more embarrassing than it did.
Arthur was wearing a pair of Merlin's pyjamas bottoms but no shirt because nothing of Merlin's would fit across his chest, so Merlin's cheek was resting on bare skin.
"Good morning," Arthur said. He was tracing shapes along Merlin's spine through his t-shirt. No, not shapes, Merlin realised, letters.
"What are you writing on me?" Merlin asked, his tongue feeling heavy from too much sleep.
"Nothing," Arthur said, "Secrets."
Merlin grinned. "Don't be ridiculous," he said, secretly liking it.
"It's hardly my fault if you make me ridiculous." Arthur ruined his snitty tone by pulling Merlin up so he could kiss him.
They hadn't done anything but kiss last night - well, okay, a little bit of sleepy groping too - but everything with Arthur still felt so easy, like they'd been together for years, like it had with Will but with added passion.
"This is really stupid, isn't it?" Merlin asked, resting his head on Arthur's shoulder. "I mean, you're--"
"Don't say the King," Arthur begged, "I'm tired of people telling me that things can't happen or must happen because I'm the King. Who says a king can't have a scrawny, magic boyfriend if he wants one?"
“Oi," Merlin said, punching him. "Also, um, everyone?"
Arthur hugged him hard. "I'll find a way," he said, "If you ask me to."
Merlin tried very hard not to ask him to right now. "How about we go on a couple of dates first?" he asked. "You might go off me, you know."
"Yes," Arthur agreed solemnly, "That does seem very likely."
Merlin smacked at him again.
Arthur grabbed his hands. "Hey," he said, "No attacking your King, Merlin." He rolled Merlin over, fingertips going to Merlin's ribs.
"Merlin," Hunith called, before Merlin could dissolve into any embarrassing flailing and shrieking, "There's someone at the door."
Merlin groaned as Arthur snatched his hands back. "Who?" he asked.
"Well." Hunith's voice was suddenly much nearer the door, "It's the Prime Minster, actually."
"Shit," Arthur snapped and rolled out of bed.
Merlin watched through the crack in the dining room door while Arthur paced and Nimueh talked.
Merlin couldn’t tell what she was saying to him and he really, really wanted to know.
"Drink your coffee and stop eavesdropping," Hunith told him and Merlin looked away guiltily.
"I just want to know what they're saying," he protested then realised that oh, wait, that was the definition of eavesdropping.
"I'm sure whatever they're talking about is fascinating but it's none of your business," Hunith said. "Gaius said he'd only talk to the people he trusts so it must be fine."
"Yeah," Merlin agreed, nodding. He only realised he'd tipped his chair back to see through the crack again when Hunith smacked him on the knee.
"Merlin," she said and Merlin thought he was going to get another lesson in manners until he dropped his chair back onto four legs and saw her serious expression. "Sweetheart. It's none of my business, but are you sleeping with King Arthur?"
"No," Merlin said automatically, because he wasn't or, rather, he hadn't. Except, it wasn't like he didn't want to. "We're going to go on a date when this is all over."
"Oh Merlin," Hunith said and Merlin winced; he really didn't want to hear it. "Don't you think it's too soon after Will?"
Merlin blinked. "I thought you were going to say it was hopeless because he's the King and this isn't a fairytale."
Hunith rolled her eyes. "Really?" she asked. "You could do magic before you could talk but you think catching yourself a Prince Charming is out of the question? No, I've seen how he is with you. Just don't rush anything, all right?"
"All right, Mum," Merlin agreed and didn't duck away when she kissed his cheek.
Merlin was still picking at his cornflakes and trying to sneak peeks at Arthur when his phone rang. He'd left it on the table because he was waiting for Gaius to call and the buzz of the ringtone against the wooden tabletop made him jump and splash milk onto his bare knee.
"Hi?" he asked without checking the screen, mopping up the milk with the hem of his t-shirt.
"Look," Will said quickly, "I know you don't want to talk to me, but Gaius was here and are you okay?"
Shit, he wasn't ready to talk to Will yet. Merlin had never actually hung up on anyone in his life though.
"Yes," he said, trying not to sound too inviting, "Everything's fine." He leant back in his chair again, watching Arthur get more agitated and missed whatever Will said next. "I'm sorry, what?"
Will's sigh made static crackle in Merlin's ear. "I said, are you ever coming home?"
Oh. "Will..." Merlin sighed.
"I know," Will interrupted, "I know we're over, that's pretty clear. But I. Fuck, I miss you, okay?"
Oh god, Merlin didn't need this right now. He started to tell Will that, that they could talk about it later, but Will ploughed on.
"Look, I'll move into the spare room, just-- It's really shitty not getting to hang out with you; you're my best friend and stuff, right?"
Merlin couldn't help smiling a little. Will trying to talk about feelings was always entertaining, even when Merlin was pissed at him. "Oh, your best friend and stuff?" Merlin asked and he hadn't realised that he was teasing until Will laughed, soft and relieved.
"Just come home?" Will asked.
Merlin thought about it. It would be a pain to have to find a new place and, damn it, he missed Will too. He wondered how Arthur would feel about him moving back in with Will. Probably not good. "I'm seeing someone," he said.
There was silence on the other end of the line, then, "Oh,” Will said faintly, “Right."
Merlin winced and concentrated all his attention on the call for the first time. "Maybe we should talk when I get back to London?" He hated the fact that he felt guilty; Will had fucked them up, not him but, still, Merlin felt like crap.
All of a sudden, he wanted everything to be okay. He wanted to slot Will back into his best friend box and to keep Arthur in the boyfriend box and for everything to work out. He wanted an awful lot really, and that was dangerous.
"Yeah,” Will said, “Okay.”
"Okay," Merlin echoed. He stopped, realising that Arthur and Nimueh had stopped arguing. The silence felt ominous. He leant back to check up on them; neither of them were moving. "I'll call you soon, okay," he said to Will and ended the call.
Merlin wasn't great at moving around silently, but he managed it just this once, creeping to the door and pressing his ear against it.
Nimueh was saying words that were definitely not in English, but which he recognised anyway: spell words like Merlin had learnt from the old magic book Gaius had given him way back when.
For fuck’s sake, was everyone around here magic or something?
Nimueh was holding a glass of water, which wouldn't have been strange except no one had fetched her one. That and the fact that Arthur looked genuinely freaked out for once.
Merlin pushed the door open. It creaked and Nimueh turned around.
"Oh, hello," Nimueh said, "Are you Arthur's friend?"
Merlin blinked at her. "I'm Merlin." He walked further into the room even though Arthur was clearly telling him not to with his eyes. "What's going on?"
She smiled humourlessly. "I was just explaining to Arthur how this symbolises life.“ She stirred her finger through the water at the bottom of the glass. “And that when I drop this glass, he'll die.”
Jesus Christ, Merlin was tired of people threatening Arthur’s life. “Wait?” he asked, stalling for time, “You’re in league with Geoffrey?”
Her laugh was high and genuinely amused. “No,” she smiled, “Of course not. Geoffrey was in league with me. Until the idiot tried to kill Morgana and take the throne for himself, anyway. He deserved exactly what she did to him,”
“Morgana didn’t do anything to anyone,” Arthur lied, eyes fixed on Nimueh’s glass.
Nimueh rolled her eyes. “Don’t try to lie; I felt it when she killed him.” Her smile turned crooked and unnerving. “Delicious.”
“Um,” Merlin said, edging closer to Arthur. “I’m sorry, but I’m confused. Would you mind explaining?”
“Like a comic book villain?” she asked, “I suppose so. Why not. It’s very simple. We want Arthur off the throne and Morgana on it.”
“Who’s we?” Arthur asked.
Nimueh shook her head. “Others like me. Like Morgana and Morgause and your little friend here. It’s nothing personal; I’d always rather hoped that you’d reveal some latent magic talent yourself, but you never have.”
“Oh well,” Arthur said dryly, “Do forgive me for disappointing you.”
Merlin winced. Please don’t be sarcastic at the nice lady who can probably kill you he thought, panicked.
“That’s quite all right,” Nimueh said and dropped the glass.
Merlin flung out his hand and the glass stopped. Time stopped. Everything stopped except Merlin and Nimueh.
"Well,” Nimueh said, "You are talented. Too bad you won't be able to hold the world like this for long. That's a lot of magic for someone who’s completely untrained."
Merlin concentrated on not letting his hand wobble. He wished he'd had breakfast; he could have used the energy. She was right, this was exhausting.
“Why didn’t you do this all along?” Merlin asked through gritted teeth, hoping to distract her. “What was the point of the shooting and the bombing and everything if you could just do this?”
“Gaius,” she told him, not distracted at all, damn it. “He’s treated Arthur all his life and he’d be suspicious if Arthur just keeled over and died. The other ways seemed less likely to point back to me. I thought since that little terrorist group was making itself such a nuisance on the Continent, I might make use of them over here too. Too bad they proved so ineffective. Are you getting tired?”
Merlin jumped at the sudden change in conversation. “No,” he said, lied, “I’m fine.”
“Of course you are,” Nimueh said, “Well, I’m very busy and important, so let’s get this over with, shall we?” Her hand shot out toward him.
Merlin didn't mean to react. He didn't even know he had until his own hand was rising to try to ward off her attack. The glass tumbled toward the ground. He snatched a handful of air, symbolically snatching up the glass, and flung it at her.
The glass shattered against her dress and the water just... disappeared.
Arthur swayed but stayed on his feet.
"Oh, that is absolutely it," Nimueh snapped, stalking forward.
"Yes," someone said from behind her, "It really is."
Nimueh crumpled to the floor, revealing Gwen standing behind her with a book held high, ready to hit her again.
"Is that the Bible?" Merlin asked, feeling hysterical.
"No," Gwen said very calmly, "Harry Potter."
Nimueh wasn't moving. After waiting another couple of seconds because Merlin had seen Scream, he approached cautiously.
Gwen watched impassively while he checked her pulse and it was only when he looked up and said, "She's alive," that Gwen's shoulders relaxed and he realised she'd been shaking.
"Guinevere," Arthur said, taking the book from her like it was a loaded gun, "Not that I'm not eternally grateful but what are you doing here?"
Gwen looked down at Nimueh and shoved her hands in her pockets. "She poisoned Lance," she said, "Gaius found him left in an alleyway to die."
Arthur's face closed down. "Is he all right?"
Gwen blew out a breath; she looked suddenly much closer to tears than Merlin had any idea how to deal with. "He's in hospital. Gaius thinks he found him in time. Maybe." She pulled her phone out of her pocket with hands that only shook a little. "I should call 999." She shook her head when Merlin tried to offer to do it for her.
They watched her walk away, Arthur putting his hand on Merlin's shoulder when he tried to follow.
"I think she needs a minute," he said.
Merlin looked down at Nimueh and nodded. "Me too," he said and put his hand over Arthur's.
Morgause came down the stairs in jeans and one of Hunith's t-shirts just as the ambulance drove away with Nimueh handcuffed in the back.
She looked at the group clustered by the front door and shook her head. "Please don't tell me someone has tried to kill you again," she said, sweeping past. "Is there any breakfast?"
Arthur watched her head into the kitchen and sighed. "It is getting a little ridiculous, isn't it?"
"Hopefully this is an end to it," Gaius told him. Everything had become just a little calmer when he’d arrived, just ahead of the ambulance. "If Nimueh was the ringleader." He raised his voice. "Morgause, my dear, I'd love a cup of tea if you've got the kettle on."
"I can only make coffee," Morgause called back.
"Oh dear," Gaius said and went to join her in the kitchen.
"If," Arthur echoed, because it seemed like an important little word.
"Don't," Morgana told him sternly. She'd woken up just before Gaius arrived, running down the stairs sure that something was wrong. Arthur appreciated her attempt at prescience even if she was a little late. "You can't live like that."
"Yes," Arthur agreed, "No sense sitting around waiting to be shot, blown up, shot again or killed with a magical glass of water, is there? I've got a country to run."
Morgana managed a small smile. "You do remember that they don't actually let you run the country, right? You're just there to look pretty."
Arthur shrugged. "Well, yes. But we don't exactly have a prime minster right now, you'll note. I'm sure the Government will be thankful for a little guidance."
Morgana rolled her eyes and laughed at him. "You keep telling yourself that, Arthur," she said. She glanced toward the living room where Merlin and Gwen were talking softly. "So, Merlin's nice."
Arthur turned and glared at her. "Don't," he said warningly.
She pouted. "Oh, no, please," she said, "I've never had anyone to tease you about. Don't you remember the fuss you made about George?"
"George was twice your age! Merlin and I are practically-" He stopped, realising how much he'd just admitted.
Morgana's smile was wide and evil; apparently a good night's sleep had done wonders to restore her to normal. Arthur thought he was glad about that. "Firstly," she said, "George was hot and rich and a terribly famous actor. Secondly, I claim best man status at your eventual wedding."
"Don't think I won't box your ears," Arthur warned, refusing to let his lips twitch.
Morgana's wide smile softened into something warmer. "You're just a walking, talking Enid Blyton novel, Arthur, aren't you?" she said fondly. She reached out and caught his hand, curling it between both of hers.
Surprised, Arthur stayed very still.
"Arthur," Morgana said, "I have to go away for a little while."
Arthur's hand clenched involuntarily around hers.
"Morgause thinks it would be a good idea for me to go somewhere more private to learn about my 'gift' and I agree." Her free hand twitched, making the quotes around gift. "You'll be fine without me."
"Of course I'll be fine," Arthur said stiffly, even though he privately doubted it. Since Morgana had come to live with them, she'd been the only constant friend he'd had. He'd had no one before her.
"Oh Arthur," she said and put her arms around him. "I will be back," she promised.
Arthur nodded against her hair and allowed himself to hold on tightly. He watched Gwen and Merlin in the living room, listened to Morgause and Gaius bicker companionably in the kitchen and thought of how he needed to visit Lance in hospital as soon as he was back in London.
He would be fine he realised. Which didn't mean he wouldn't miss her like hell. He held on tighter.
Really, Merlin thought, the choir of white-robed, pink cheeked children was a little bit much. Judging by the ever-so-slightly pained expression on Arthur's face, he agreed. But then, it was a coronation; they were supposed to be ostentatious.
Westminster Abbey was incredibly impressive, all vaulted ceilings, hanging candelabras, lords in red velvet capes carrying sceptres and putting on coronets as the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the crown on Arthur's head.
It looked heavy.
"God save the King," everyone around Merlin cried out and he joined in because it seemed like the thing to do. Loudest amongst them were the new Prime Minster and his deputy. Nimueh’s party had fallen apart and, in the confusion, the public had accidentally voted in a coalition government. It didn’t matter either way to Merlin but Arthur was going scatty trying to deal with them. Not that Merlin suspected he’d have it any other way, not now Geoffrey was gone and he was finally allowed to do his job.
From Merlin's left, Gwen leant over and nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. "Really, you should be up there with him," she whispered, smiling.
Merlin laughed quietly. "We've only been on five dates, Gwen, I don't think he's ready to rock the establishment for me quite yet."
On Gwen's other side, Lance hid his own laugh in a cough. He was still pale and skinny, not allowed to go back to work yet, but he was looking better every day and most of the heavy-eyed worry was starting to leave Gwen's face.
Arthur’s security detail had trebled since the summer, even though no one had tried to kill him for months now. Nimueh was in prison and if she’d had any co-conspirators they’d faded into the woodwork, but if the radical magical element had singled Arthur out once they could do it again and Merlin felt better when he around to look out for him.
Not that that was the only reason he felt better when he was around Arthur, obviously.
Merlin jumped when his mobile vibrated in his pocket. Oops, he thought, pretending not to see Gwen's glare when he fished it out and covertly checked the message under cover of the pew in front.
There was a text from earlier from Will which Merlin hadn't noticed arrive, too distracted by how breathtakingly beautiful Arthur looked sitting on his throne with all the lights shining down on him.
yeah, your boyfriend's pretty hot it said nothing on your ex though ;)
Merlin rolled his eyes, smiling. He hadn’t moved back into their flat but he and Will met up for coffee at least once a week and Merlin had, at least, managed to persuade Arthur not to have Will beheaded for treason or whatever it was they did to people these days.
He scrolled to the new message, which turned out to be from Morgana:
ffs the idiot's crown is crooked
Merlin looked up. Morgana was sitting in the Royal Box with Gaius and Morgause. She widened her eyes meaningfully when she caught his eye.
Denmark had been good for her; she'd flown home yesterday morning for the coronation and Merlin had only been able to spend half an hour with her but that was enough to tell that she was feeling more relaxed about her magic. Apparently not relaxed enough to try to straighten Arthur's crown in front of an abbey full of people though.
Rolling his eyes, Merlin looked up to check on Arthur. The gleaming, golden crown was slightly wonky on Arthur’s gleaming golden head. Merlin curled his fingers surreptitiously around the arm of his pew and twitched his forefinger gently. Correspondingly, the crown on Arthur’s head moved very slightly until it was completely centred.
Arthur went still, but no one else seemed to notice. His eyes moved until they locked on Merlin’s and he smiled, very slightly. Merlin smiled back.
Thank you for reading ♥