The second half of July passed in a haze of garden parties, none of which were interesting enough to stick in Arthur's memory for long after they were over. He made sure to appear bright and engaged and interested though, as he was introduced to one worthy person after another and even Geoffrey couldn't fault his charm.
The only interesting thing that happened was the decision to invite the leader of the British National Party, followed shortly by the decision to uninvite him, and Arthur hadn't even been allowed to be part of those discussions.
On the first day of August, it started to rain heavily and the flower show Arthur had been scheduled to attend was cancelled. Thank god, he thought privately; of all the mindless royal engagements Arthur found himself involved in, flower shows had to be the least enjoyable. He could barely tell a rose from a rhododendron and finding something intelligent to say about row after row of gerberas always proved a challenge.
With rain lashing down against the windows, muting the sound of traffic on The Mall, Arthur curled up on the settee, comfortable in his softest jeans and his grey St Andrew's hoodie, pulled the agenda for tomorrow's event into his lap and switched on the television. His father would not have approved of the multitasking but, then, his father wasn't around to complain.
"... killed while six others remain in a critical condition," Maxine Mawhinney was saying on the BBC news.
Arthur frowned; Doctors was supposed to be on. He'd developed a rather embarrassing addiction while at university and hadn't tried very hard to shake it. Then he focused on the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen and was suddenly on his feet, papers falling in forgotten flurries around his feet.
Breaking: Three members of Dutch Royal Family killed and twelve injured after bomb blast at parade.
"Lance," Arthur shouted, pulling up Morgana's number on his mobile. "Lancelot!"
The door crashed open and Lance came striding in, hand pressed to his earpiece. He held up a hand apologetically to Arthur and continued talking in a low, worried voice. He was very pale.
Arthur listened to Morgana's phone ring and ring and tried not to panic.
Finally, there was a click and then, "I already know," Morgana said tersely. "We're on our way back."
Arthur closed his eyes. It wasn't as if there was any reason to worry about Morgana particularly, but he'd feel better once she was back at the Palace.
"Hurry," he said then hated himself for sounding worried.
For once, Morgana didn't tease him. "Five minutes," she said and hung up.
Arthur put the phone back in his pocket and turned to Lance.
Lance was watching him closely, the little light no longer glowing in his earpiece.
"Morgana's on her way home," Arthur told him and Lance nodded. "Which you knew."
"Yes." Lance folded his hands behind his back. "Take a seat, sir."
Arthur hesitated, but it was mostly just for show. He sat down.
Lance sat next to him. "There have been rumours for the last few months about a terrorist group planning to target European monarchies," he paused and passed a hand over his face, "And if you tell anyone I've told you, I'm probably going to lose my job. Monmouth doesn’t want you to know."
"Monmouth’s an idiot,” Arthur snapped, then stopped, pinching the bridge of his nose. It wasn’t Lance’s fault that Geoffrey still thought Arthur was a child. “What kind of group?" he said instead, trying to ignore the sudden clamminess of his palms and the too-fast beating of his heart. It all felt too close to fear and Arthur had been taught that Pendragons didn’t do fear.
Lance shook his head. "I honestly haven't been told any more than that. Only to be on high alert."
"And you couldn't have told me this earlier?" Arthur demanded, with what he thought was justified anger.
"I don't think anyone was taking it seriously until today," Lance told him, looking at him steadily.
"The fire at Gråsten," Arthur argued.
Lance shook his head. "There's still no proof that was anything but accidental.”
Arthur didn't feel particularly reassured. "What now?"
"You carry on as you have been, letting us worry about your safety," Lance told him, with a look that said he knew Arthur hadn't been doing anything of the sort.
"It's not just me," Arthur tried to argue. "It's Morgana and Morgause."
Lance held up a hand. "Who also have security detail," he said firmly. His hand flew to his ear. "They've arrived."
"Excellent," Arthur snapped, striding past Lance then stopping with a sigh when Lance's hand on his arm held him back.
He watched Lance leave the room and folded his arms firmly over chest. His heart was still beating too fast, and no matter how reassuring Lance tried to be, Arthur knew he wasn't going to stop worrying.
It was almost time for Merlin's lunch break when Gwen appeared behind him and cleared her throat.
"Hi," Merlin said brightly, because he really liked Gwen and he was hoping she was going to tell him he could take his lunch early.
"Yes, hi," Gwen agreed. She was frowning and uh-oh, what had he done?
"Everything okay?" Merlin asked hopefully, because he couldn't think of anything he'd done wrong. Well, he had banished a can of Coke from this reality when the toddler holding it had come too close a priceless antique rug, but he hadn't done anything that could be traced back to him. Hopefully. And at least he hadn’t banished the toddler too.
"I-. Yes?" Gwen shook her head. "King Arthur's head of security just told me that Arthur-- That the King wants to see you. Merlin, what on Earth?"
Oh. Merlin hoped he wasn't blushing. "I, um."
"You know Arthur?" she asked, voice rising.
"No!" Merlin said quickly. "I mean, we've only met a couple of times. Do you know him?" he added, thinking of how she always defaulted to calling him Arthur not the King.
"No," and now Gwen was blushing, which hopefully cancelled out the heat in Merlin's cheeks. "We spent some time together when we were younger. Children, I mean. When we were children. Um. You should go to him, since he's asked for you."
"Right." Merlin thought that he should probably feel nervous, but he didn't. Arthur was strangely easy to be around, even though most of the time he was a defensive prat. He looked around. "Where?"
Gwen nodded at the doorway where a tall (hot) guy with longish dark hair and a dark suit stood watching them. He smiled and Gwen ducked her head.
"That's Lance," she said. "Go with him." She turned away quickly and Merlin shook his head before walking over to join this Lance person. If he’d had someone that hot smiling at him, he wouldn't have run away.
Well, except for how Will would kill him, so maybe he'd have to.
"Hi," Merlin said, trying to focus on Lance's face rather than the stretch of his white shirt over his very nicely muscled arms. Merlin really liked men with muscles. "I'm Merlin Emrys?"
Lance gave him a long, appraising look. Not a come on, more an assessment of threat. "Lance DuLac," he said with a nod. "King Arthur would like to see you if you can spare some time." He waited as though Merlin actually had a choice.
"Is it optional?" Merlin asked doubtfully, "King Arthur doesn't really seem like the kind of man who gives optional orders."
Lance smiled. It was a genuine smile, not a grimace or anything. "Don't let him fool you," he said, "He's not a tyrant."
"Hm," Merlin said doubtfully, but he followed Lance across the state apartments and through the door which led to the Royal Family's private rooms.
He would have loved to take a minute to look around, because even a quick glance showed him that these rooms were much simpler, less elaborate than the state rooms. In fact, the walls were almost shockingly bare, a state which was explained a minute later, when they stepped through a doorway into what looked like a sitting room and found King Arthur standing on a chair, trying to take down a painting in a heavy, gilt frame.
"Didn't we just talk about this, sir?" Lance asked, rushing forward and putting two hands on the back of the chair, steadying it.
"Did we?" Arthur asked, using the same kind of tone that Gaius used when he knew damn well that they had, but he didn't want to talk about it. He moved to hand the painting to Lance then stopped when he saw Merlin. "Oh, excellent. Come here and take this, would you."
"Um," Merlin said but he stepped closer to the chair anyway, trying to ignore how much nearer that brought his face to Arthur's whole groin-hip-arse area. "Should I-?"
He broke off with a startled groan when Arthur dropped the painting into his arms and had to struggle not to pitch forward face first. It was really, really heavy.
"All right?" Arthur asked, but he'd turned away before Merlin could wheeze out an answer. "Put it over in that corner."
He hooked his thumb in the direction of a corner that, of course, happened to be all the way across the room. Wondering if this was really in his job description, Merlin did as he was told, trying not to pant too obviously.
"Sir?" Lance said. "Can I ask why you're taking down paintings of your father?"
Startled, Merlin looked down. Staring up at him was, yes, King Uther. The old King looked sour and annoyed, the same as he always had when Merlin saw him on TV. And, like when Merlin saw him on TV, his eyes were moving.
For the second time in as many minutes, Merlin nearly dropped the painting.
"Do be careful," said King Uther. King Uther who was a) dead and b) a painting.
"I-" Merlin stammered. "What?"
Uther stared at him for a minute then rolled his eyes and looked away. "And they say you are my son's last hope."
Merlin stopped walking. "What? Who says that? What?"
Uther stared forward out of dead, painted eyes, resolutely silent.
"Uh, Merlin?" Lance asked and Merlin looked up, wincing. "Everything okay?"
"What?" Merlin asked, trying not to look like he'd just been yelling at a painting. "Yes, fine, fine." He put the painting in its assigned corner, trying to ignore the shaking in his hands, the words my son's last hope rolling around in his head like some cryptic, impossible omen.
"Are you sure he's all right in the head?" Merlin heard Arthur ask with no attempt at lowering his voice.
"I don't know, sir," Lance said dryly, "He's your friend."
"He most certainly is not," Arthur sniffed. "Merlin, come here and take this one too." He waved a small painting of a blonde woman who Merlin was fairly certain was Queen Igraine. "And do try not to shout at her, all right?"
Merlin took the painting him numb hands. It wasn't as if strange things didn't happen around him all the time, but he'd never actually had a dead king talk to him before. He looked at Queen Igraine suspiciously while he carried her, but she didn't offer up any conversation, snooty of otherwise.
Relieved, he bent down to set her against the wall, next to Uther.
With a shake of his head, he stuck his hands in his pockets and decided to deal with this later.
"Why are you redecorating?" he asked, wandering back to Arthur.
Lance's eyebrows shot up but Arthur didn't tell Merlin to use his title. Which was kind of a shame actually, Merlin thought, realising that he'd been relying on that to take his mind off the whole talking painting thing.
Arthur jumped down from the chair and up onto another. Lance sighed and moved to follow him.
"Please tell me how that is any of your business," Arthur said, but it was more distracted than cutting.
"Well, if I'm helping," Merlin said, swinging his arms. "I mean, since you asked so nicely and all."
Arthur turned around on the chair, causing it to tilt and Lance to pale. He stared at Merlin for a handful of seconds then hopped down, landing with a little thud in front of him. Merlin refused to jump.
"Merlin," Arthur said, rolling the name off his tongue like honey - forget about jumping, Merlin had to work not to shiver. "Would you do me the great honour of doing what I tell you when I tell you to do it? Or, in other words, of doing your job?"
Merlin bit his lip. He didn't know why he found Arthur so amusing, knew he should find him a hopeless prat. Which he was, he just also made Merlin want to laugh rather a lot.
"Sir, yes, sir," Merlin agreed with a half-arsed attempt at a salute.
Arthur nodded curtly, the very corner of his (full, pink) lips curling up before he turned away.
Will was in bed by the time Merlin got home feeling sore and dusty.
"So," Merlin said, sitting next to Will and propping his chin on his knees.
Will didn't stir, so Merlin kicked him.
"So," he said pointedly, ignoring Will's sleepy flailing. "A painting of King Uther talked to me today."
"Hm?" Will asked. "Dude, it's the middle of the night.” He rolled onto his side and blinked at Merlin blearily. “Wait, did you just say a painting talked to you? What are you, Harry Potter?"
Merlin shrugged. "It was weird. He told me I was like, Arthur's last hope or something." He scratched the dry skin between his toes. He was tired but his brain was whirring.
"Arthur?" Will asked. He propped himself up on his elbows and frowned at Merlin, eyelids heavy, but not in a good, sexy way. "King Arthur? Since when do you work for his security team?"
"Don't be stupid, I was just--" Merlin said, then stopped, realising that he still hadn't actually told Will that he'd met Arthur. There'd just never been the right moment to look up from his dinner and say, oh, and did I mention I've been hanging out with the King a little bit?"
Will sat all the way upright, leaning into Merlin's shoulder and rubbing his eyes. He looked like he had when he was ten and they were trying to stay awake past midnight, sure that that was when the best adventures started.
"Mm," Will hummed encouragingly.
Merlin put his hand on Will’s knee automatically. "I met the King the other day," he said, softly like it was a bedtime story and didn't matter at all. "He asked for my help redecorating today. That's all."
Will's back went stiff and he shoved Merlin's hand off, staring at him. "The King asked for your help redecorating?" he repeated. "Because you met him the other day?"
"Yes," Merlin said slowly, not totally sure why he was being glared at.
"And you didn't tell me?" Will wasn't yelling, yelling Merlin was fine with; Will had always been kind of vocal about stuff that pissed him off. But this, this was quiet and measured and just slightly shrill.
"It's not like it was a secret," Merlin tried. He wished they could just skip whatever fight was about to come and go to sleep. Maybe even have sex first; they hadn't done that in a while.
"Bloody hell," Will exploded, "You don't even understand why that might be a problem, do you?"
"No," Merlin said, spreading his hands and starting to get a little bit mad himself; he wanted Will to tell him that paintings talking to him wasn't a sign of impending doom, not shout at him for no reason. "I have no clue what you're talking about. Why would you mind that I'm making a new friend?"
Not that Arthur was Merlin's friend, not really, but Merlin enjoyed him anyway.
There was silence for several long moments while Will just stared at him, hands clenched together. "Because you didn't tell me," he said quietly. "It's the kind of thing you tell your boyfriend. If, you know, he really is your boyfriend."
"Will." Merlin scooted closer to him, close enough that their thighs pressed together. "Will, come on, don't." They’d be on and off and on again for a while during Years 11 and 12, mostly Merlin’s fault, and he knew Will was still sensitive about it.
Will laughed. It was harsh and shaky and it set off a dull ache above Merlin's right eye. He patted Merlin's leg and stood up. "Don't worry about it," he said, tugging on his boxers until they sat straight on his hips. "Go to sleep."
"Will," Merlin said again, helpless. His stomach felt all twisted up. He hated it when their fights made it feel like Will was slipping out of Merlin's reach.
He sat on the bed and listened to Will slam around in the living room then the sound on the TV coming on. Eventually, he flopped back on the mattress and stared up at the ceiling, no closer to an answer about the paintings, but now feeling like crap.
Arthur didn't mean to notice that Merlin was moping and he certainly didn't intend to ask him about it. But, well, Lance had forbidden Arthur from wandering unsupervised around the Palace so Arthur was bored and it gave him more opportunity to notice that Merlin wasn't eating the lunch the kitchens had made them.
"Oh, no, I'm fine," Merlin said, which was clearly a lie. "I mean. I'm not really hungry." Also probably a lie; he’d been helping to make Arthur’s rooms more liveable all morning and Arthur was hungry just from watching him.
Arthur felt it was important to point out, even to the inside of his own head, that he did not mean that sentence in a euphemistic way.
"I will not have you fainting away while in my employment," Arthur said curtly, waving him quiet and continued to spread the sandwiches across two plates. He didn't know where this need to feed Merlin was coming from and he didn't like it. "Just think what The Sun would make of that."
Merlin laughed, the first smile Arthur had seen from him all day skating across his mouth. He sat down at the table and accepted the plate.
"Oh well, if--" he started to say, obviously intending to say something flippant and annoying, but he trailed off, frowning. He looked up at Arthur from under his stupidly floppy dark hair. "Sorry, I'm terrible company today."
Arthur rolled his eyes and sat down opposite him. "Trust me, Merlin, I'm not keeping you around for your conversation." He reached for the milk jug and poured a splash more into his tea. The kitchens never made his tea exactly how he liked.
"Why are you keeping me around?" Merlin asked and there was something far too serious and genuinely curious about the question.
Arthur cleared his throat. "You make a useful pack donkey," he said. That was definitely one reason, anyway.
"Right." Merlin's lips quirked into another smile, but he didn't look happy.
Arthur watched him pick the crusts off his sandwich for another five minutes before frowning and throwing a sugar cube at him.
"What's the matter?" he asked crossly.
Merlin stared at the sugar cube where it had landed on the table after bouncing off his forehead. Arthur's aim was perfect. "Nothing," he said, crumbling off the corner with the edge of his thumb nail.
"Of course not," Arthur said, not bothering to hide his disbelief.
Merlin sighed. "Just. Okay, just because you're dating someone it doesn't mean you have to tell them everything, right?"
"Who on Earth is dating you?" Arthur asked, refusing to acknowledge any emotion other than incredulity.
Merlin glared at him. That was better. "My boyfriend is dating me," he said, tipping his chin up a little on the word boyfriend, like he thought Arthur might have a problem with it. Arthur tried very hard not to feel a pang at the irony. Merlin deflated. "Or, at least, he was. We had a fight last night."
Arthur snorted. "What did you do?"
"Why do you assume I did anything?" Merlin asked, sounding half way between resigned and stung. Arthur didn't have much experience in the dating people department but he knew that that tone meant he had done something.
Arthur drank some of his tea. He wasn't actually Merlin's friend, he reminded himself, there was no need for him to try to offer any advice. If only Merlin's hangdog expression weren't quite to pathetic. "All right," he said reluctantly, "What happened?"
For some reason, Merlin blushed. Arthur really hoped he was going to confess to something deeply humiliating which would stop Arthur thinking things about him ever again.
"I didn't tell him that I'd met you," Merlin mumbled, almost too quietly for Arthur to hear.
Arthur frowned. "What?" That couldn't be right. Merlin and his boyfriend couldn't have been fighting about him. He cleared his throat. "Pardon?"
"Apparently meeting the King is a big deal and keeping it a secret is fairly unforgivable." Merlin shrugged.
The King. Right. Arthur felt something heavy settle in his chest and he sat back, feeling stupid, so stupid for thinking he could have a simple chat about Merlin's love life, that Merlin might see him as a friend not a monarch.
"I suppose it is rather a big deal," he said shortly, "I wouldn't know."
Merlin's posture had been getting loose as they talked but now it tightened, shoulders stiffening. He blushed again. "Of course," he said, standing up. "Sorry. You don't want to hear about my problems. He waved a hand over his shoulder, long fingers fluttering. "I'll get back to work."
"Merlin," Arthur said but he didn't put any command into it and Merlin ignored him.
Damn, Arthur thought, staring at the lunch that Merlin hadn't touched. Fucking damn. He'd ballsed that up completely.
When Merlin got home from work that evening, there was a Post It note taped to the kettle.
gone fishing - it said - back in a couple of days. W.
Merlin stared at the note. "Fishing?" he asked aloud. Never in all the time he'd known him had Will gone fishing which meant that, unless Will had been a keen angler before he started playgroup, Will had never gone fishing before.
Merlin pulled out his mobile. There was a text message waiting on screen.
yes fishin. prob no rcption talk whn im bck
Right, Merlin thought, how convenient.
Too depressed even for Deal or No Deal, Merlin went into the bedroom and flopped down on the bed. He found himself calling his mum with absolutely no input from his higher brain functions.
"What's wrong?" his mum asked, bypassing hello.
"Um," Merlin said.
Hunith tsked crossly. "I've had Helena 'round this afternoon complaining that Will sounded 'off', so don't um me."
Right, so it was a very special lack of phone reception, then. The kind that let Will talk to his mum but not to Merlin.
"Sorry," Merlin said because his mum and Will's mum only voluntarily spoke to each other at Christmas. Helena still hadn’t forgiven Hunith for refusing to help her break up Will and Merlin as soon as it became obvious there was something to break up, and Hunith still hadn’t forgiven Helena for wanting to try.
"Merlin," Hunith said. It was her don't try to distract me with how much I hate that woman tone. Merlin's mum had very specific tones.
"Will's fine," Merlin lied, "He's gone fishing, that's all."
"Fishing?" A pause. "I didn't know he fished."
"Yeah, first time," Merlin told her. His ceiling was really interesting; how had he never noticed before?
"And you didn't want to go?"
"Can't, got my new job, remember?" Merlin said, latching on to that with all his might. "Oh, and speaking of, you'll never guess what I've been doing."
Better to tell him mum about Arthur and listen to her formulate a plan to get him a knighthood than tell her that things maybe weren’t okay with Will.
"Will that be all, Your Majesty?" Merlin asked, mid-afternoon on Monday. "Only, I've got some things to do for Gwen."
He didn't say for my real job or anything snide at all in fact, and Arthur tried to hide his frown, but probably failed.
"I hate it when you do that," Arthur heard himself say. His voice had been quiet but probably still loud enough for Merlin to hear. Shit.
"Do what?" Merlin asked, stopping
Double shit. Well, in for a penny, he thought resignedly. "Speak to me correctly. The one thing I can rely on from you is a certain lack of respect usually; are you ill?"
Merlin frowned at Arthur as though he simply could not understand him. "I thought it was the correct way to address you," he said slowly. The you weirdo was implied but, stupidly, made Arthur feel a little better.
"It is," Arthur said, pained. He cleared his throat. “Look, I’m-- If I said anything that offended you the other day then I. I apologise.” For some reason apologise was a much easier word to say than sorry.
Merlin’s eyes widened and he stared at Arthur for so long that Arthur had to force himself not to fidget.
“Merlin?” he snapped. “Did you suffer a stroke?”
“No,” Merlin said, smiling slowly. He sat back down in the chair he’d been perched on for most of the morning, finally sprawling rather than sitting stiffly. “I had a really fucking terrible weekend. Can I tell you about it?”
“No,” Arthur said firmly, but he didn’t actually try to stop Merlin when he started to prattle on.
Merlin felt sort of ridiculous, but the truth was that he really didn’t like living alone. The flat felt bigger and too empty without Will there, and noises that Merlin had never heard before kept making him wake up in the night, sure that there were burglars in the bathroom.
He hadn’t slept well since Will left and he’d been half asleep all morning at work, which was why it took him a minute to realise he was actually awake when he turned around and saw Will standing next to him, leaning against a pillar that was really not designed for leaning.
Will raised his eyebrows. "Lunch?" he said.
"Y-yes," Merlin said. They hadn't seen each other for nearly a week. Apart from the holiday Will's family took to Crete in Year 10, they'd never gone that long without seeing each other before.
"What?" Will demanded. "You look like a goldfish with your mouth open like that." He waved a Pret bag, something that sounded like soup sloshing worryingly inside. "Lunch."
"Yeah, okay." Merlin looked at his watch. It wasn’t quite time for him to take his lunch yet, but Gwen would forgive him.
He looked around, but no one was paying them any attention, so he pressed his palm to the trick panel below the mirror that concealed the secret passage, the one Arthur had used the first time they’d met. There was security at the entrance other people knew about and they knew Merlin by now but he didn’t think they’d let Will through. “Come through here,” he said and waved Will along the narrow corridor and into Arthur’s sitting room.
Arthur was away on Official Business all day, and Merlin was sure he wouldn’t mind. Well, okay. Merlin was sure Arthur would mind, but hopefully he’d never find out. Merlin just wanted somewhere he could be alone with Will and it was raining outside.
Will’s eyebrows climbed up and up. “Um,” he said, staring around. “Where are we exactly?”
“The King’s private rooms,” Merlin told him then froze, wondering if this had been a bad idea. Talking about Arthur last time had made Will storm off on a bloody fishing trip.
But, “Blimey,” was all Will said. “That’s pretty fucking. Wow.”
He wandered over to the 50 inch, HD-enabled TV in the corner and Merlin winced.
“Weird to think of the King like, watching TV,” Will said, shaking his head.
“Yeah,” Merlin agreed even though it wasn’t, not anymore.
Will moved on from the TV (thankfully) and drifted over to the window. “Good view,” he said, leaning out. After a minute, he turned around, offering Merlin a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. “Does he spend a lot of time in here, then?”
“Yeah,” said Merlin again. He wished Will would stop talking about Arthur. “Does it matter?”
Will hesitated but, “Nah,” he said, “I guess not.” He nodded at the room. “Got himself a nice pad, your Arthur.”
Merlin shrugged. “I guess. But he’s not my Arthur.” He had no idea what Will was getting at, but he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. He crossed the room in four strides and grabbed Will by the shoulder. “Hi,” he said and kissed him hard.
“Hey,” Will said when they broke apart. He touched his mouth and smiled slightly. “What was that for?”
“Nothing, just-.” He shrugged. “Just wanted to.” The love of your life shouldn’t ask why you kissed him, said a voice in his head. The fact that it sounded like Arthur’s was just another sign that Merlin was losing it.
“C’mon,” Will said, patting the sofa, “Sit down.”
Merlin sat. He didn’t know how okay they were, but he pressed his knee against Will’s anyway.
Will smiled at him slightly, but didn’t say anything.
“This is great, thanks,” Merlin said, taking the cup of miso soup Will handed him.
“Don’t get used to it,” Will said, “You’re doing dinner tonight,” but he put his hand on Merlin’s thigh for a minute and Merlin let himself relax and believe they were going to be all right.
Merlin was barely through the door that night before Will was on him, biting his mouth and scrabbling with his belt buckle.
“Woah, wait,” Merlin said, because he had Indian takeaway in his hands.
Will grabbed the boxes and dropped them on the table. “Problem?” he asked.
Merlin swallowed. “Um,” he said, “No,” and that was pretty much the last intelligible thing he said for a couple of hours.
After, Merlin lay flopped in the middle of the bed, a well-fucked puddle of his former self and asked dazedly, “So was it the fish or the palace that made you horny?”
“Shut up,” Will said, slapping at him weakly. He rolled onto his far side, hesitated, then rolled back toward Merlin.
Merlin watched him and smiled sleepily. “Are we cuddling?” he asked. The trickiest thing about dating your best friend was that you still had to tease him when he ended up doing something sappy.
“No, we’re fucking not,” Will assured him, but he spread his hand over Merlin’s ribs anyway and tucked himself close enough that Merlin could feel his body heat.
He wondered, still watching the ceiling, if one of them should have apologised by now. No sense in reminding Will that he’d been pissed off though, he decided, and kept quiet.
On the train to work the next morning, Merlin bounced his leg and tried not to smile too widely. He’d missed having sex; it was amazing what it did for his mood.
His phone buzzed and he pulled it out, rolling his eyes when it turned out to be a Facebook notification. He didn’t even like Facebook but Will had insisted, so he had one.
It turned out that one of Will's friends had tagged Will in a couple of pictures from their fishing trip. Curious despite himself, Merlin started scrolling through, ashamed at how relieved he felt on seeing the proof that Will actually had gone fishing.
He grinned at the pictures of Will, mud-covered and triumphant, holding up fish so tiny that Merlin had to squint to see them. There were a couple of pictures of the blokes Will had gone with, Martin and Dean from school, and some guy Merlin didn’t recognise was tucked into the corner of one photo.
Valiant Mellor the Facebook tags told him.
Merlin made a face at Mr Valiant Mellor, who looked like an incredibly grumpy git, ducking out of the photo and scowling. He hoped Will wasn’t going to invite him over anytime soon.
“Your smile is incredibly annoying,” Arthur told Merlin bluntly.
Merlin bit his bottom lip but he was fairly certain it didn’t help at all. “Sorry?” he said. “I’ll try to be unhappier in your presence in future.”
Arthur sniffed. “See that you do,” he agreed.
Merlin grinned and reached into his bag. “Crisp?” he asked, holding out his packet of Monster Munch.
“What are you, eight?” Arthur asked, but he leant forward to take a crisp anyway.
There was a sound like breaking glass that Merlin couldn’t place and Arthur froze for a millisecond, before leaping forward in an unexpected flurry of movement, throwing himself on top of Merlin, pushing him out of his chair and down onto the floor.
The floor was hard, knocking the wind out of him, and the old carpet scraped his back where his t-shirt rode up.
“Ow,” Merlin said, far too late, scrabbling half-heartedly to get away from under Arthur’s weight. “What?”
“Shut up,” Arthur snapped, pinning him down against the floor.
Before Merlin could complain, the door burst open, Lance followed by a guy Merlin didn’t know rushing in and Merlin scrambled backwards out of the way while they swarmed around Arthur.
Merlin stared blankly at the window behind where Arthur had been sitting, at the spiders-web cracks leaching out from around a perfectly circular hole in the windowpane and listened to Arthur repeat, “I’m all right, I’m fine,” over and over.
“Of course it’s connected,” Arthur shouted. He could hear his voice getting shrill and he cleared his throat. His hands had finally stopped shaking and he’d be damned if he let his voice betray him now.
“There’s no evidence of that,” Lance told him gently. He lay his hand on Arthur’s arm and Arthur twitched, unintentionally brushing him off.
He stared moodily at the walls of the safe room. They were stark, boring, windowless and Arthur had already been in here for three hours. If Arthur was going to make a habit at being shot at, perhaps he should think about putting a television in here.
Lance watched him for a minute then sighed. “The Dutch authorities are sure they got the people who planted the bomb in Utrecht. The fire at Gråsten was ruled an accident. This arsehole today was more than likely working alone.”
“Has he said that?” Arthur demanded. He wished he was allowed to get the shooter alone; he’d find out whether he was telling the truth.
Lance shook his head. “He’s in hospital. The guards shot him in the head and chest but the bastard’s still alive somehow.” Arthur had never heard Lance swear before and now he’d done it twice in two minutes. “Look, I promised I’d tell you if there was any reason to worry and I will.”
Arthur laughed harshly. “Reason to worry?” he repeated. “Lance, someone shot at me today. If Merlin hadn’t offered me--” He froze, thinking of Merlin and a packet of Monster Munch crunching between them. “Merlin? Was Merlin hurt?”
Lance shook his head. “No, Merlin’s fine. He’s around somewhere still, actually. He wanted to make sure you were all right and I think Morgana’s adopted him.”
Good god, that was a horrible image. “Okay,” Arthur said, standing up. “Now I definitely need to get out of this room.”
“In a minute.” Lance pressed lightly on Arthur’s shoulder and Arthur sat back down. “Do you have lunch with Merlin every day?”
There was nothing insinuating about his tone but Arthur still felt uncomfortable. “Well, not every day,” he hedged.
“Hm,” Lance said.
“He doesn't work every day,” Arthur heard himself rattling on and wished he’d shut up. He met Lance’s widening eyes and sighed. “Don't, all right? Be quiet. I've been shot at, you have to be nice to me.”
Lance’s mouth curled up into a smile, despite his serious eyes. “I didn’t say a word, sir.” They’d been friends at Durham, back when Arthur was only a prince and Lance was only one of his many bodyguards. Arthur had rather wished for something more than friends once, but obviously that had been impossible for a dozen different reasons.
“Right. Of course you didn’t.” Arthur stood up again and this time Lance didn’t try to stop him but he did trail Arthur out of the safe room, along the corridor to Morgana’s half of their private wing.
Arthur found Morgana, Morgause and Merlin sitting curled in Morgana’s hideously expensive leather armchairs playing Uno.
It was not the most incongruous thing Arthur had seen, but it was definitely on the list.
Merlin jumped to his feet when Arthur walked into the room then blushed and sat back down. Arthur’s hands twitched to squeeze his shoulder or in some other way check he was unhurt, but he couldn’t do that, especially not in front of Morgana, who would tease him forever.
“This looks like a lovely party,” he said instead.
“Yes, we’re having a marvellous time,” Morgana assured him, but she caught his hand and squeezed it as he passed her chair to get to the other end of the settee.
“Are you all right?” he asked Merlin, settling next to Morgause and turning to the armchair on his right to look Merlin over.
Merlin shrugged. “Kind of bruised. You’re pretty heavy, you know.”
Arthur scowled. “Oh, I do apologise,” he snapped, “Next time, I’ll just leave you to get shot, shall I?”
“They weren’t shooting at Merlin,” Morgause said mildly, the same way she said everything. She stood up. “Would you like some tea, Arthur?”
“Coffee, please,” Arthur said, because the adrenaline had started to wear off and he was suddenly exhausted. He waited for her to move out of earshot then added, “And thank you for that terribly encouraging interjection.”
Morgana threw a cushion at him. “She’s right. They were shooting at you; don’t act like they weren’t.”
Arthur glared and wondered exactly how she’d like him to be acting. Would some hysterical tears please her? He was spared from having to ask by Lance moving into the room and squatting down beside Merlin.
“I need to ask you a few questions,” he said quietly and all of Arthur’s attention snapped around to them.
“Oh, uh, someone else already did that,” Merlin said uncertainly.
Lance nodded. “I know,” he said, “I’m just thorough.” Merlin laughed and Arthur’s jaw clenched. “Have you told anyone when and where you and Arthur usually have lunch together?”
Arthur wished Lance hadn't phrased it quite like that. He was acutely aware of Morgana’s interested stare zeroing in on him but he ignored her.
“No,” Merlin said quickly then shook his head. “Only my boyfriend.” He shot Arthur a guilty look. “I showed him around the room. I guess someone might have seen us from the window?”
“You brought your boyfriend into my private rooms?” Arthur demanded, ignoring exactly why that hurt.
Merlin winced. “Just once, just--. You were out anyway.”
“When was that?” Lance asked, interrupting their argument before it could start.
Merlin folded his arms stubbornly. “Yesterday. Do you want me to ask him if he saw anyone creepy hanging around?”
“Yes,” Lance said slowly, writing something in the notebook that Arthur knew for a fact he usually ended up using for song lyrics. “Please. That would be very helpful.” He pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it over. “Ask him to call me if he has any information.”
Merlin nodded. His gaze slid over Arthur. “I suppose I should go,” he said, standing up. There was enough of a question in his tone that Arthur knew he could ask him to stay. But Arthur was exhausted and feeling stupidly betrayed right now.
“I suppose you should,” he agreed, glancing at the clock. It was only four p.m.; it felt much later.
“Right, I’ll-.” Merlin stood up then shifted his weight.
“I’ll see you out,” Lance said when Arthur didn’t move.
“Bye,” Merlin said.
“Yes, goodbye,” Arthur agreed without turning around.
Before the door had even closed behind them, Morgana was out of her seat and smacking Arthur on the arm. “That was so rude,” she told him, “He waited all afternoon to see you.”
“No one asked him to,” Arthur told her, standing up. He ignored her disbelieving stare and walked into the kitchen.
Morgause stood by the fridge, a coffee mug in her hand.
“Is that for me?” he asked, reaching out.
“Yes.” Morgause handed it over. “I didn’t want to bring it out in case Morgana decided to throw it at you.”
Arthur sighed. He was in no mood to be lectured by someone who, if given half the chance, would like nothing more than to take Morgana away from him.
“Very thoughtful of you, thank you,” he said and walked toward his own rooms, anxious the get to his bedroom where he could lock out the rest of the world, even if only briefly.
Standing in the middle of the concourse at Victoria Station felt surreal.
Five hours ago, Merlin had been having lunch with Arthur, four and a half hours ago, Arthur had been on top of him, pressing him into the carpet and saving him from bullets. And now he was here, getting bumped on all sides by commuters while he stared up at the departure boards, waiting for his platform to be announced.
On the right hand side on the boards, the huge TV screen was showing nothing but assassination attempt: latest.
Merlin rolled his eyes and was about to look away when something caught his eye. Well, not just something; a blurry, camera phone picture and the words Suspected Shooter: Valiant Mellor.
Merlin’s ears started to ring.
Merlin stood in the hallway, Will’s arms around him, Will’s face pressed into Merlin’s neck. “Oh my god, oh my god,” he was whispering. “Are you okay?”
“Don’t,” Merlin said, not really recognising his own voice. He unpeeled himself and stepped back.
“Merlin?” Will asked slowly.
Merlin shoved past him into the kitchen. Stopped. Stared blankly at the washing up still sitting in the sink. He didn’t turn around. “Your friend Valiant is a piss poor shot.”
There was a sound like Will had walked into a cupboard, then he was grabbing Merlin’s arms, forcing him to turn around. “How did you--,” he started. His face was grey-white. “I swear to god I had no idea what he--. I didn't know you'd be there.”
“What difference does it make that I was there?” Merlin shouted.
A cup on the draining board exploded, shards exploding around it. Will flinched but Merlin didn’t.
“I didn’t know--” Will said again, helplessly. “He said. He said he was some like, peaceful anarchist thing? And that he just wanted to get a message to the King? I only told him where he had lunch, I didn’t know, I swear I didn’t know that he had a gun. When he found out where you worked, he said he just needed a bit of information.”
Merlin was so angry his hands were shaking. He could feel his magic burning up through his veins, more power than he’d ever tried to contain at once before.
“You need to get out of here,” he said, voice low and serious.
Will, if possible, went even paler. Merlin couldn’t work out how to care about that right now. “Merlin,” he said, reaching out to touch him.
Merlin knocked his hand away without touching him. “You need to get out of here or I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he repeated.
Will looked from him to the crockery quivering on the work surfaces and back. “I--” he said.
“Really, really go,” Merlin told him through gritted teeth.
As soon as the door shut behind him, the fight drained out of Merlin and he found himself sitting on the cold lino floor, the whole day catching up with him all that once.
Once again, his phone called his mother with no consultation from him.
“Mum,” he said, hating the way the shake in his voice betrayed him.
“Come home for the weekend,” Hunith said and Merlin could only nod, even though she couldn’t see him.
Master Post | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four