Not In This Land Alone
Merlin was lost. This wasn't surprising or even unusual but today he'd had plans that specifically involved not being lost. In exactly seventeen minutes he was starting his summer job at Buckingham Palace and being late would probably not make the best first impression.
Hell, being late was probably a treasonable offence. Merlin really didn't want to be put in the Tower of London; he'd gone there on a school trip once and the ravens had terrified him.
Behind Merlin, Victoria Station stood large and comforting. If worse came to worst, he could just jump on a train back home and pretend it was some other Merlin Emrys who was supposed to be reporting for work today. He was sure it was a very common name.
Except, if Merlin did that, Will would laugh at him. And, even worse, Merlin would be stuck picking plants, watering and spreading manure on his Uncle Gaius's allotment for fifty quid a week for another summer. It was Gaius who had suggested he apply for this job; Gaius had been the royal physician for decades and, not being above a little nepotism, Merlin had willingly applied.
Gaius, in turn, hadn’t seemed particularly sad that Merlin wouldn’t be around to help out this summer. In fact, Merlin was fairly sure he was planning a party for his cucumbers to celebrate. The cucumbers always died when Merlin went near them; it wasn’t his fault.
He regretted that decision now. Now he was lost and had – great -- thirteen minutes left. Probably, he should have printed himself directions from Google Maps but it was a palace, in the middle of London; he'd assumed it would be pretty well visible. He'd assumed wrong.
In desperation, prepared to withstand the mocking, he phoned Will.
"What, have they sacked you already?" was how Will answered the phone because Will was a terrible boyfriend.
"No," Merlin said, jumping quickly out of the way of a group of Japanese tourists who were clearly on a mission. He wondered if he should follow them; they might be heading to the Palace. "I'm lost."
Will burst out laughing and Merlin took another couple of steps after the Japanese tour party, trying not to look like he was following them.
"Merlin, that is priceless. I'm buying you one of those handheld GPS things for your birthday. Or maybe just a lead." A moment's contemplative silence. "Hm, that'd be kinky. What do you think?"
"I think you're an arsehole," Merlin told him. "Now please, please go on the internet and tell me where the fuck I'm supposed to be going."
"Calm down," Will said, still laughing, "What do you think I'm doing."
Okay, so maybe Will wasn’t the worst boyfriend.
"Hmm. Do you see a Buckingham Palace Road?"
Merlin looked around. "Nope." Even he would have made that connection.
Will laughed. Merlin liked Will's laugh, even when it was directed at him. It reminded him of being five years old and hiding together under his bed. It was soothing.
“What can you see?”
Merlin looked around. Mostly he could see a lot of roadworks and theatres. “Billy Elliot?” he tried. “Wicked? Hey, you should meet me up here one evening so we can go and see that.”
Will snorted. “In your dreams,” he said because he didn’t fully appreciate the importance of Merlin’s crush on Lee Mead. “Okay, stand so Victoria Station’s behind you, Wicked’s on your left and Billy Elliot’s in front of you.”
Merlin twisted around, trying to line himself up like Will instructed. It was like playing Google Maps Twister of something. “Okay,” he said, feeling like he’d achieved one thing at least.
“Got it? Turn left then right then keep walking.” Will made a sound that was his spoken equivalent of a wince. “And dude? You’ve got seven minutes.”
“Shit,” Merlin said and started to run.
By magic, Merlin managed to get to the Palace with one minute to spare. And when he said by magic, he actually meant by magic. (Making a couple of traffic lights go his way wasn’t the worst use of magic ever and his mum probably wouldn’t yell too much if she ever found out.)
He had to go through a checkpoint manned by actual soldiers to be allowed into the Palace grounds, which was equal parts terrifying and kind of hot. The solider on duty didn’t smile at Merlin, but he also didn’t laugh Merlin away from the gate either so Merlin counted that as a win.
The fact that Merlin was wearing his uniform (white shirt, navy blue trousers, waistcoat and a blazer with gold buttons and red trim) probably helped - which was good, considering he’d felt like a complete twat wearing it on the Tube, like the only kid at school who didn’t realise it was mufti day.
Until he was actually inside, he wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t a really bad joke on Gaius’ part. Seriously, who let Merlin work in Buckingham Palace?
There was a girl waiting for him on the other side of the gate and she raised her eyebrows when he sidled up to her trying to look like someone who wasn’t really-very-nearly late.
“Merlin Emrys?” she asked. She looked doubtful but not mean or anything and to be fair Merlin probably wasn’t giving the best first impression.
“Yes, hi,” Merlin said breathlessly. “Um, I mean, yes. I’m Merlin. Sorry I’m late.”
The girl smiled like she was considering not writing him off as an idiot, which was nice. She was holding a clipboard and wearing a blouse and a long, dark blue skirt; Merlin wondered if she was someone important.
“That’s all right,” she told him, marking something on her clipboard. “I’m the person you need to report to and I won’t tell anyone.” She held out her hand and he wiped his palm on his trousers before taking it. “I’m Gwen. I’m your supervisor.”
“Hi, nice to meet you,” Merlin said, remembering what Gaius had said about making sure his handshake was firm but not too tight.
"I'm Gwen," Gwen said again then, "Oh no, wait, I've already said that, haven't I?" She flushed. "Sorry. This is my first summer as a supervisor, so if I make a hash of it, please tell me."
"Okay," Merlin said, feeling better about his own nerves now. "I won't hold it against you."
Gwen laugh was unexpectedly bright. "I think you're supposed to tell me that I won't make a hash of it," she said. She was still blushing, but she didn't seem to mind. "Come on. I have to take you to HR for your induction, then I’ll get you started on some actual work."
"Right," Merlin said, turning to follow her across the pale, gravelled courtyard towards the entryway. His stomach started to knot up with apprehension. Buckingham Palace, wow. The poshest place he'd worked up 'til now was Waterstone's last Christmas.
Outside, the weather was bright, just bordering on too hot, but as soon as they stepped inside the palace Merlin was hit by cool air, like the heavy stone walls were refusing to let in the summer heat.
"All right?" Gwen asked, hunching her shoulders a little. "This is the cloakroom; it's always freezing in here. You can leave your things in here." She looked over at him. “Except you don’t have any things. Come with me then."
Merlin stopped himself from reassuring her that he really did have possessions, he just hadn’t brought anything with him, and followed her through the cloakroom and along a white-walled corridor with square, boxy windows and into a fairly nondescript office with four desks pushed together into a pod in the middle.
There was only one person in the room, a girl not much older than Merlin who smiled and stood up, shaking his hand and waving him into a seat.
“I’m Freya,” she said, “Have a seat.”
Merlin sat and nodded at fire regulations, disciplinary procedures and signed data protection forms, confidentiality and security forms until his hand felt like it might fall off.
Apparently he really might end up in the Tower if he wasn’t careful.
Once Gwen and Freya were suitably satisfied that he’d been inducted to within an inch of his life and possibly signed away his soul, Gwen swept him out of the room and back along the corridor until they stepped out into what was obviously a public area, judging by the ridiculously huge, double-staircase, which glittered and shone like something out of Titanic.
Half way up the stairs, Gwen stopped and curtsied.
Merlin straightened automatically, but when he looked around, he couldn't see anyone.
"Um, Gwen?" he asked.
"It's silly really," she said, offering him an embarrassed smile. "We all do it, it's tradition." She nodded her head at the painting directly in front of them and oh, right, Merlin got it.
The painting was huge, a large, dark square inside a heavy, golden frame; King Uther standing in front of a window somewhere, dressed in a smart black morning suit with a golden labrador at his feet.
"Did you know him?" Merlin asked, automatically lowering his voice. King Uther had been dead for nearly a year now, but he was still the person who came to mind when Merlin heard someone mention the King.
Gwen looked at the painting for another moment then turned back to Merlin. "No, of course not. I mean, I met him a couple of times when I was a kid; my dad's worked at the Mews all my life. He got the MBE last year."
"Cool," Merlin said, not really sure what else to say.
Gwen nodded awkwardly for a second then started up the stairs again.
Merlin followed her and told himself he shouldn't ask her anything else, except he’d always been nosy and really bad at controlling it. "Do you know the new king?" he asked.
"Hmm?" Gwen asked, pushing through a door at the top of the stairs and heading down another corridor. The further through the palace they went, the more elaborate the wallpaper and paintwork became. "Oh, yes. I mean, only a little."
Merlin forced himself not to ask anything else. It wasn't like King Arthur was actually going to be at Buckingham Palace this summer anyway and he really had no excuse for being curious about him.
Arthur was the youngest monarch since Queen Victoria. It had only been nine months since King Uther’s heart attack and Merlin still remembered everyone’s shock, Arthur looking stoic and beautiful and devastated behind the coffin.
Arthur had been twenty and just starting his final year at university. He’d come home for the funeral and never gone back; apparently a degree in Politics wasn’t as important as the actual politics of being King.
Still, Will and half the national newspapers were convinced that King Arthur did little more than sit around looking handsome on stamps while advisers like Lord Monmouth and the Prime Minister told him where to go and what to say. Merlin didn't really care one way or the other, but it was strange to have a king who was barely older than him and it made him a little bit curious.
"Where are we going?" he asked Gwen instead. They stepped through an open doorway and Merlin stopped, feeling his eyes grow wide. They were in a massive, dome-ceilinged room with wood-panelled floors, dark blue marbled columns against each wall and heavy red curtains over the many long windows. There was a piano toward one end and a couple of sofas towards the other but otherwise the room was completely empty.
"Wow," Merlin said before he remembered that he'd been planning to play it cool.
"I know, right?" Gwen said, catching his eye. "This is the Music Room. I'm going to give you a tour of the public rooms first, okay?”
"Okay," Merlin agreed. That sounded pretty cool. "Then what?"
Gwen laughed. It was the sort of laugh his mum gave him just before she told him ominously that he'd see. "Then I’m going to give you some work to do."
"All right," Merlin repeated, feeling slightly more dubious now.
Gwen patted him on the shoulder. "You'll be fine. Now, follow me.”
She took him on a whistle-stop tour of all the rooms that were open to the public, rattling off enough facts and figures and history that Merlin’s head started to spin. By the time they’d made their way around to the top of the staircase above the visitor’s entrance, Merlin felt like he knew more about Buckingham Palace than he’d known for any of his A-levels even.
Gwen grinned at his probably fairly dazed expression. “I’m going to send you home with an information guide,” she told him in what was probably supposed to be a reassuring voice. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you take anyone on a tour until you can quote it from cover to cover.”
Merlin just nodded. It looked like his nights were going to be busy for a while; hopefully Will wouldn’t mind entertaining himself.
Gwen waved her hand in front of his face. “Have I killed you?” she asked, half teasing, half worried.
Merlin shook his head and found a smile from somewhere. “Just a bit overwhelmed,” he told her.
“Okay, well, see this booth?” It was more a desk than a booth, pushed toward one wall out of the way of the stairs, “This is where we give out the audio guides. It’s a nice and easy way to get you started. Just stand here and give people a guide in the right language, okay?”
Once she’d got him set up and fairly confident that he knew what he was doing, she patted him on the shoulder and told him she had to go and see to the rest of his team. Apparently he had a team. That was nice.
Gwen took a couple of steps back, still smiling at him encouragingly. Half way out of the room, she stuck her head back in. "Oh, I forgot. If any of the tourists ask you about anything like what King Arthur wears to bed, be polite but don’t answer them. He hates it when they ask that."
Merlin blinked at her. "Wait, what?" he asked, but she'd already walked away, her heels clacking on the floorboards. "Gwen?" he called again, louder. He was probably going to bring down the monarchy singlehandedly, shit.
Arthur was dreaming about bananas when someone started shaking his arm and shouting in his ear. Normally, he wouldn't mind being woken up but the bananas were being peeled by the new Doctor Who and it was very, very obvious that banana represented something else entirely to Arthur's subconscious.
"Go away," Arthur muttered and rolled over onto his stomach. He wrapped an arm around his pillow and tried to drown out the yelling.
Wait, yelling? He opened his eyes.
Morgana was standing over him, her hair a mess and her eyes huge.
"Arthur," she snapped, shaking him again.
He slapped at her, but he was mostly asleep and distracted by phallic symbolism so he missed. "Eugh, go away," he said. "I'm sure I told Lance to shoot you on sight."
Morgana stepped back and planted her hands on her hips. It looked ridiculous since she was wearing pyjama shorts, a strappy top and the ugly fluffy bear slippers Arthur's father had bought her the Christmas before last.
"You are going to regret that joke in a minute," Morgana told him and Arthur was just about to assure her that no, he really wasn't, when he registered the slight tremor in her voice.
"What's going on?" he asked, sitting up and swinging his legs out of bed. Belatedly, he realised that he was only wearing boxers and he ignored Morgana's eye roll when he reached down to the foot of the bed for his dressing gown. Modesty was a good thing.
"There was a fire at Gråsten Castle," Morgana told him.
Arthur blinked. That wasn't what he had expected her to say. He went days at a time without thinking about the Danish monarchy -- which was probably a little shameful considering he was related to half of them.
"Fuck," Arthur said, sitting back down on the bed. "Is the Queen okay? And Morgause?" he added because he knew who Morgana would be most worried about.
Morgana nodded. She pulled her hair out of its ponytail then tied it up again, hair scraped back tightly. "Aunt Margrethe is in hospital but apparently that’s just a precaution." She sat on the bed next to Arthur and pulled her feet up onto the duvet. "Morgause sounded--" She laughed. "Well, you know Morgause. She sounded like she would be scared if she weren't, you know, Morgause."
Arthur nodded. He knew. Morgana's cousin was scary in ways that Morgana only wished she could be. But he knew Morgana adored her, so he didn't have to think before he said, "Feel free to invite her to visit if she needs to get away."
Morgana slanted a smile at him. "I already have," she said. Of course, she had. "But thank you, Arthur."
Arthur shrugged. It wasn't as if he could fly to Denmark and help them rebuild their castle; inviting one of their random princesses over to England was the most help he could offer.
He watched her leave the room, message delivered, and wondered if he should possibly say something reassuring. Morgana cared about people in ways that Arthur only understood abstractly; she was probably more upset about her aunt being in hospital than she was letting on.
He let her go though, because he had no what she could possibly want him to say.
Later, after he'd showered and dressed and deliberated for a while between Cornflakes and Cheerios for breakfast (Arthur had insisted he be allowed his own kitchen when he moved into Buckingham Palace because, even with hoards of kitchen staff, they still succeeded in making his breakfast incorrectly), Geoffrey Monmouth bustled his way into Arthur's kitchen.
"Your Majesty," he said with a formal little bow. Arthur wished he wouldn't do that; he'd known Geoffrey since before he could talk. "I assume the Lady Morgana has told you the news."
"About Gråsten?" Arthur asked, nodding his head at the coffee maker on the kitchen counter. Geoffrey, of course, ignored it. He never ate or drank in front of Arthur; it was as if he wanted Arthur to believe he was a robot.
Geoffrey shook his head. "Terrible, terrible. It reminds me of our own fire. Your father was simply distraught."
"Of course," Arthur agreed blandly. He'd been three years old when Windsor Castle had come close to burning down and he remembered very little about it. He definitely had no memory of his father being distraught. Disdainful , possibly, that someone had left a spotlight shining on a curtain and nearly destroyed a thousand year old castle, but that was all. Of course, Geoffrey's memories of Uther always tended toward the poetic.
"You'll need to issue a formal statement, of course," Geoffrey told him, "And offer any help we can give."
"Yes, of course," Arthur said, refraining from rolling his eyes. Sometimes he wondered if Geoffrey honestly thought Arthur was as clueless as he seemed to. "Morgana informs me that Princess Morgause may pay us a visit."
"I see." Geoffrey's lips pursed, but he didn't say what he really thought. Not that Arthur needed to push him. Geoffrey's thoughts on Morgause were simple: she was too liberal, too progressive, that the Danish monarchy would fall if left to her. Arthur had heard it a dozen times from his father while Morgana quietly seethed at the other end of the dining table; he had no desire to hear it from Geoffrey as well.
"Is that all, Geoffrey?" Arthur asked, flipping open his copy of The Times and spreading it across the breakfast table.
There was a pause and then, "Yes, sir, that's all."
Arthur kept his eyes on the newspaper, not taking in a word until Geoffrey had left, closing the door a touch too loudly behind himself, then he blew out a breath and stood up.
"It's all right, he's gone," Arthur told the room.
A moment later, the long portrait of Random Noblewoman on Horse, whose name Arthur didn’t know but to whom he was probably related in some distant way, that hung beside the fireplace swung back and Morgana stepped back into the room.
Buckingham Palace didn’t have as many secret passages as some of the older castles but it did have more than a few nooks and crannies and false walls which only few people knew about. Arthur wasn't sure if he and Morgana had discovered them all but they'd been looking on and off throughout their lives.
"Thank god for that," Morgana said fervently, brushing dust off her jumper. "I can't stand that man."
"Morgana," Arthur said because they'd had this argument nearly every day and all it achieved was to make Arthur tired and Morgana disheartened. "I'm not sacking him."
Morgana opened then closed her mouth, derailed by Arthur jumping straight to point five of her argument instead of following the usual pattern. "He treats you as if you're five years old."
Arthur shrugged. "Yes, but he knows what he's doing. He was my father's advisor for forty years. He knows much more about the King’s duties than I do."
Morgana just stared at him. "Bullshit," she said finally, slowly, like she couldn't believe what she'd just heard. "That is absolute bullshit." She held up her hand before Arthur could try to argue. "No, don't speak to me until you've come to your senses."
Arthur watched, bemused, as she dropped down onto the sofa at the far end of the room, picked her book up off the coffee table and started to pointedly ignore him.
Arthur sighed. He was the King for goodness sake, surely someone should at least pretend to like him.
Overall, Merlin's first day at work did not go too horribly.
After he'd finished handing out audio guides, there’d been the job of collecting them all back in again. Half of them were handed in covered in chocolate, chewing gum or with the headphone cords contorted into amazing, improbable shapes (it had taken him a good hour to sort them out, but Gwen's smile had been so apologetic and genuine that he hadn't really minded).
Then there had been a lot of standing around, pointing lost tourists in the right direction (and then checking with someone who had worked there longer that it actually was the right direction) and an incredible amount of being approachable and friendly.
Merlin had never had a problem with being friendly and he found he rather enjoyed it.
Still, he was completely exhausted by the time six o'clock rolled around and Gwen told him and the other wardens that they were free to go.
“We usually head to the pub after work,” Gwen said, falling into step beside him, “Do you fancy it?” She stopped, looking at him closely.
Merlin hesitated. He felt like he should, but he couldn’t stop yawning. “Maybe next time?” he said, “I think my boyfriend’s expecting me home.” Better to blame Will than his own pathetic ability to work a nine hour day.
“Oh,” Gwen said then, brightly, "Coming back tomorrow?"
Merlin rolled his shoulders. He'd done a lot of stooping today and his back hurt. He flashed Gwen a grin. "It takes much more than that to put me off," he said.
"Excellent," she said enthusiastically. She clapped her hands then blushed and stuck them in her pockets. "Sorry. I was just-- I was really worried that I might scare you off, you know? I've never been responsible for anyone else's employment happiness before. Not that I thought you were some kind of wilting flower or anything. Um."
Merlin couldn't help laughing. He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth in the vague hope that she wouldn't notice. "I was worried that I might screw something up and bring about the downfall of the monarchy," he offered.
It was Gwen's turn to laugh. She bumped her shoulder lightly against his arm. "I think we're both going to be fine," she said. They'd reached the door and she stopped. "Now go home, you look dead on your feet."
Will was sprawled on his stomach across the sofa when Merlin let himself into their flat. He had a newspaper spread out on the carpet and was leaning down to read it, making faces at whatever he was reading.
He twisted around when he heard Merlin come in, asking, "So how was it?" in a tone that implied he was expecting Merlin to say he'd nearly been beheaded by Beefeaters or something.
"Good," Merlin told him. The Tube had been gross and too hot on the journey home and his uniform was sticking to him. He started peeling it off, laying each piece over the back of the sofa until he was only wearing his boxers and a t-shirt. Much better.
Will tipped his head back so far he nearly fell off the sofa. "Promising," he mused.
Merlin flipped him off and flopped down in the ratty arm chair that sat at right angles to the sofa. There wasn't really enough room in their living room for a sofa and an armchair, but Will liked to take up all the sofa and Merlin had argued that he deserved somewhere to sit too.
"That's a no then?" Will asked, sounding like he was laughing.
Merlin cracked open one eye. "Hmm?" He felt his eyes start to close again and didn't fight it.
"You stripped for me but you're not putting out. That is so sad."
Merlin felt something tug at his feet and he kicked out automatically, but it was only Will, pulling off Merlin's socks.
"Later?" Merlin asked, smiling in what he hoped was roughly the right direction. "Or you could make me dinner."
Will sighed. "Is this how it's going to be now that you're a working man? Coming home and expecting me to have your dinner on the table?"
"Mm," Merlin agreed, letting his head drop back against the chair and falling asleep to Will's grumbling.
He woke up in time to have some reheated Chinese takeaway, which didn't count as Will cooking him dinner no matter what Will insisted, then rubbed at his eyes and tried to wake up a little more.
"Sorry," he said, dragging himself to the kitchen where Will was throwing their takeaway containers into the bin, "I'm being boring, aren't I?"
Will shrugged and flicked a cardboard lid in Merlin's direction. "You're just not used to working for a living," said Will, with all the worldliness of someone who'd worked part-time at KFC since sixth form and was now spending the summer making telemarketing calls from their flat.
Merlin leant back against the work surface and tried to decide if he had the energy to argue that he'd worked for his living before - which he absolutely had, Gaius was a hard taskmaster - when his gaze fell on the piece of paper they'd torn out of the local paper and stuck on the fridge. Cinema listings. Shit. They'd been planning all week to go and see Toy Story 3 tonight.
"We could still go to the cinema," he said, feeling guilty and trying to sound like he hadn’t forgotten all about it.
Will just rolled his eyes. "Yeah, everyone else in the cinema would love trying to listen over the sounds of you snoring." He glared which, weirdly, made Merlin feel better. Will's glares normally meant he was teasing. It was when his face closed down completely that Merlin knew he was in trouble.
He shuffled over to Will on his bare feet and propped his chin on Will's shoulder, trying to look contrite.
Will shrugged but not hard enough to knock him off. "You're useless, you know that?"
"Yes?" Merlin said, trying to get out of Will's bad books by not even defending himself.
Will sighed and poked Merlin in the side. "Come on then, your highness, the royal chambers are this way."
Merlin tried to smack Will's arm, but missed. He let himself be poked and prodded into their tiny bathroom to clean his teeth then on into the bedroom where he collapsed face first onto his side of the bed. The bed felt wonderful; he really was stupidly tired. He made grabby hand motions at Will because he was too tired to ask if he was coming to bed yet.
The mattress dipped as Will climbed under the other side of the duvet. He reached over and put his hand on Merlin's chest. They never really snuggled, but it was nice to know there was someone else there.
"So useless," Will said again.
Merlin smiled, secure in the knowledge that Will didn't really mind.
Morgause called Morgana at ten in the morning, three days after the fire, to let her know she'd be arriving in London that evening. Morgana practically bounced out of her chair and Arthur smiled; he hadn't seen Morgana that animated about anything in a while.
At least that meant she wouldn’t miss him at all this summer, Arthur thought feeling his smile fade, leaving Morgana to her conversation and retiring to his study to read the latest plans for his royal tour of Australia and New Zealand.
It would be Arthur's first royal trip since he came to the throne and there had been some talk that it should wait until his coronation but Arthur had been King for nine months now and he and the Prime Minister had agreed that people expected to see him out and about. (It was so rare for anyone to actually agree with Arthur that he’d half expected there must be some catch. So far, none had shown up.)
As far as Arthur was concerned, the trip couldn't come quickly enough; the official court mourning period for King Uther had lasted six months, but unofficially it was dragging on and on. Arthur needed to get away, be somewhere where every other word out of people's mouths wasn't, "Your father," or "tragically young," or "terrible accident".
Arthur shook his head, trying not to think about that. He forced himself to concentrate on the happy cadence of Morgana's voice coming through the open doorway.
"Morgana," Arthur called toward the living room. "What are the chances that when I get back, you and Morgause will have staged a coup and taken the throne for yourselves?"
Morgana popped her head around the doorframe, her mobile still against her ear. He smile was slow and not at all reassuring. "Oh, I'd say about fifty-fifty," she said breezily.
Arthur nodded to himself, pulling the first file out of his in tray. That was about what he had expected.
He flipped the file open, blinked and smacked it closed again.
"Arthur?" Morgana asked, adding, "I'll call you back," into the phone and flipping it closed, stepping forward. "Arthur, what?"
"They cancelled the fucking trip," Arthur said and reached for his desk phone.
Speed dial one would give him Geoffrey, speed dial two would give him the Prime Minister, speed dials three to infinity would give him any number of advisors, politicians and PR people, none of whom had bothered to inform him that they'd gone behind his back to cancel the one thing he'd been looking forward to in months.
He slammed the phone back into its cradle and picked up his mobile instead.
"Lance," he snapped when his call was answered on the second ring. "Come to the study. Now."
He hung up before Lance could answer because Lance was the only person who worked for Arthur who Arthur could actually trust to do as he was asked.
"Arthur," Morgana said again. She'd stolen the folder off his desk and was now watching him closely over the top of it. "No one warned you about this?"
The door to Arthur's private rooms slammed open and Arthur listened to feet pound down the carpeted hallway.
"Arthur?" Lance asked then pulled up short, hand falling from the Glock at his hip. He cleared his throat. "Your Majesty. My Lady."
Morgana laughed. "‘My Lady’, Lance, seriously?" she asked. "And don't worry about Arthur, he's just being pissy."
Arthur opened his mouth to protest that. Morgana had seemed rattled on his behalf less than a minute ago. Then he saw the look in her eyes and realised she was protecting him. It seemed ridiculous to try to protect his reputation from Lance, who had been on his security detail since he’d started at Durham, nearly two years ago now.
"Yes, I'm sorry," Arthur said, standing up. He took the folder from Morgana and handed it to Lance. "Read this."
Lance's eyes barely skimmed over it, which told Arthur all he needed to know.
"You already knew," he said.
Lance held the folder in front of himself like a floppy, manila shield. "It was mentioned at the security briefing this morning," he agreed. "I didn't realise you didn't know."
Arthur made a wordless noise of frustration. "No, well." He bit his tongue before he could snap that he was only the King around here, why should he know what was going on. "You wouldn't happen to know why, would you?" he asked in the calmest, most measured tone he could manage.
Since Lance's worried frown didn't abate, Arthur reckoned his most measured tone was probably not all that reassuring.
"There are security concerns," Lance told him, dragging the words out like he didn't really want to say them.
"Security concerns?" Arthur scoffed. "We're talking Australia here, not Afghanistan."
Lance didn't smile.
Arthur frowned. "Is something going on?"
Lance's, "No, of course not," came too quickly and too jovially. Lance was a terrible liar; mostly because he didn't believe in lying.
Arthur planted his hands on his hips. "Lancelot," he said sternly, drawing himself up so he could take advantage of the half an inch he had on Lance. "Let me repeat: is something going on?"
"Ooh, very kingly," Morgana said lightly, bursting Arthur's bubble somewhat. She drifted further into the room and sat down at Arthur's desk, waving a hand between them. "Why don't you tie him to the rack? I've heard that works wonders."
Arthur glared at her before switching his glare back to Lance. "If something is happening, I need to be aware of it."
"Of course," Lance agreed, "And I promise to make you aware of anything you need to know about," which was not at all the same thing, but Arthur suspected it was as good as he was going to get.
"Fine," he said crossly. He hated having to back down, but he had such little leverage that he had to pick his battles with great care and, as much as he wanted to take this trip, it probably wasn't a battle worth winning if it meant losing a more important one in the future. Arthur smiled ruefully to himself; his father would have been so proud if he'd been alive to see Arthur learn that lesson.
"Is that all?" Lance asked awkwardly. Normally, he'd stay for a cup of coffee but Arthur didn't feel like inviting him and Lance clearly wanted to get back to his desk outside Arthur's rooms.
Arthur sighed and sat down on the window-seat. "Yes, that's all," he said because as much as he wanted to pin Lance down and demand that he tell Arthur the truth, Lance was one of the few people around him who he genuinely trusted and he didn't want to ruin that.
Lance hesitated as if he wanted to say more, but eventually he left without another word.
Once the door had closed behind him, Arthur looked up and caught Morgana's eye.
"Something's going on," he said.
She nodded. "Yes." She kicked her foot idly against the leg of Arthur's desk. "But then there's often something going on, isn't there? It's probably just another death threat."
"Well thank you, Morgana," Arthur said archly. "I feel so much better now."
"Hm, yes," Morgana hummed, "It does rather put a dampener on your holiday plans, doesn't it?" Arthur suspected that she was deliberately missing his point but he was distracted by the realisation that he now had no idea what to do for the next three months.
He forced himself to put his anger and frustration out of his mind for now. "I suppose we could go to Balmoral," he said slowly, not exactly enamoured by that idea. His father had always summered at their castle in Scotland but Arthur's interest in hunting and fishing was very low. Which was to say, zero.
Morgana shook her head at him. "No, Arthur. Your father spent his summers there because he hated hot weather. And people," she said, not too unkindly. "You're young. You should be spending your summer with people, not holed away in Scotland, failing to hunt any deer and contemplating smoking a pipe."
"I was not going to--"
"Oh, please," she interrupted, "Every year we go up there, you get bored after a fortnight and start following the ghillie around like you want to mug them for their pipes and sporrans."
"I have never mugged a man for his sporran," Arthur said indignantly. Then he stopped and rewound that sentence. "Is it me, or does that sound terribly dirty?"
Morgana's laugh rippled loudly around the room, and Arthur felt something unclench inside; at least he was good for something even if he apparently couldn't be trusted to know why he couldn't go to Australia.
By the end of Merlin's first week at Buckingham Palace, he felt more confident in what he was doing and Gwen was pleased enough with his progress that she was letting him branch out into some of the other roles, like ticket collecting and welcoming visitors. Plus he'd stopped falling asleep the second he got home, which was a relief for him and Will.
Now it was Friday night, just before six p.m. and Merlin was looking forward to the weekend. He had one more mirror to polish and a quick glance around showed that he was alone in the room.
He flicked his fingers and the duster floated up from the table and started to polish the tall mirror that was screwed to the wall above it a lot more thoroughly than Merlin would have managed.
He smiled and turned to put the can of polish back into his bag. A soft creaking sound stopped him and he straightened with a jerk, prepared to grab the duster and swear blind that he'd been holding it all along. But it wasn't Gwen come to check up on him, it was the whole wall, antique table, massive glass mirror and all, swinging out toward him.
Horrified, Merlin dived to catch it, not sure how the tiny little cleaning spell he was using could have gone so disastrously wrong. Except--
The wall kept swinging outward, revealing a dark, shadowy passageway behind it and King Arthur staring at Merlin in surprise.
Merlin wondered dizzily what had been in that can of polish.
"Oh," said Merlin's King Arthur hallucination, "Hello. I didn't realise anyone would still be here."
Merlin continued to stare, possibly open-mouthed, at the King Arthur hallucination, which he was beginning to suspect might not be a hallucination at all.
The King Arthur hallu- oh, who was he kidding? King Arthur (King fucking Arthur) frowned at him. "Can you speak?"
"Um," Merlin squeaked. "Yes?"
"Your Majesty," King Arthur said.
"Uh, what?" Had he mistaken Merlin for someone else? That would be embarrassing.
"You address me as Your Majesty the first time you speak to me during a conversation and as 'sir' from then on."
"Oh, okay, right." Merlin shifted, feeling kind of stupid but really, it wasn't like anyone had taught him that at school or anything and Gwen had assured him there was no chance of him actually running into anyone royal. King Arthur raised his eyebrows and great, now Merlin was blushing. "Your Majesty," he added quickly.
King Arthur nodded. "Better." He stepped forward, and took a seat on the windowsill, staring intently out into the grounds. Merlin tamped down a ridiculous impulse to tell him he wasn't allowed to sit there; this place belonged to him, he could probably sit on the windowsill if he wanted to.
He was wearing smart black jeans and a neatly pressed white polo shirt and he looked so much like a regular - albeit incredibly handsome - guy that Merlin really didn't know what to do.
Merlin stayed on the safe side of the thick, red rope which kept the plebs off the lush, expensive carpets, not quite sure if he should go or stay. He had a feeling that he needed to be dismissed, but maybe that was only in the olden days?
"You're hovering," King Arthur said without looking up at Merlin.
"Yes," Merlin said, "Uh, no? Sir?"
King Arthur sighed. "Do go away."
Merlin still felt dazed by the time he arrived home. He could feel himself blinking stupidly but couldn't work out how to stop. He kept pinching himself, but all he got from that was a nice line of reddish bruises: he was definitely awake and he'd definitely had a -- rather awkward -- conversation with King Arthur.
"Are you okay, there?" Will asked, kicking Merlin's ankle under the table. He clicked his fingers in front of Merlin's face. "Hey!"
Merlin jumped. "What? Sorry?"
Will sighed and shook his head. "Come on, we're going to the pub. You look like you need it."
Merlin looked at him. Alcohol, yes, that was what he needed. "Yes," he agreed, grabbing Will's arm desperately enough that Will laughed at him most of the way to the pub.
After Merlin's unexpected – and slightly mentally scarring – meeting with King Arthur, he took to peering cautiously into rooms before entering them. This earned him a lot of funny looks from the other staff and led to a couple of the tourists mimicking him, presumably thinking it was some kind of tradition (which was wrong, but also hilarious).
This went on for four full days, but by the time Friday rolled around again, Merlin had grown confident that there would be no more unexpected kings in his future and started walking into rooms the normal way again.
Which explained why Merlin was completely unprepared to enter the Ballroom after the last of the tourists had left for the day and find King Arthur leaning comfortably against one of the plush, red seats lining the room, reading a book and tapping a pencil against it.
Merlin was very proud of himself for not jumping this time. Now, if he could just avoid stuttering or falling over his shoelaces or anything, he'd be doing fine.
"Good evening," he said politely, adding in what he hoped was a casual, not at all delighted-to-have-remembered way, "Your Majesty."
King Arthur turned to face him very slowly. He fixed Merlin with an expressionless stare. His eyes were very blue, and not at all warm or reassuring.
Merlin raised a hand and waved awkwardly. "Hi?"
King Arthur sighed gustily and put down his book. "What was your name?" he asked, standing up and walking down to floor level, stopping about five feet away from Merlin. Five feet was still rather close for someone who Merlin was used to seeing exclusively on his TV.
"Merlin, sir." He was totally getting this right.
King Arthur's lips quirked. "Well, Merlin. Allow me to give you a lesson in protocol. Or should that be another lesson in protocol?"
Right, Merlin thought, so it turned out that King Arthur was kind of a prat. That was nice to know. He wondered if he could tell the Daily Mirror and make a fortune.
"You do not speak to me first; you wait for me to acknowledge you. Assuming that I choose to acknowledge you at all, of course." His lips stretched wider into a mocking smile. "All right?"
"So if you don't speak to me I have to what? Just ignore you?" Merlin was tired of adding 'sirs' to everything; he wasn't a serf and he didn't have any forelocks to tug.
"No," King Arthur said, like he was talking to an idiot. "If I do not acknowledge you, you leave the room quickly and quietly and you stop disturbing me."
"Um," Merlin said. Was it okay to argue with a King? Did Merlin actually care? "I sort of need to be in here? For my job?"
"Were those questions or statements?" King Prat asked.
"Are you deliberately trying to be an arsehole?" Merlin asked then bit his tongue. Oops, okay, that had been maybe ruder than he'd meant to be. "Um, I mean-."
Arthur's expression was somewhere between stunned and bemused. "You mean-?" he prompted.
"Nothing," Merlin said. He really didn't want to lose this job.
Arthur nodded. "Quite right," he agreed. "Now if you'll excuse me." He walked back up to his previous seat, hooked his long legs over the chair in front and went back to reading his book.
Merlin stood staring up at him for a couple of minutes, dumbfounded. He wasn't sure if he'd won that round or not. Still, Arthur had acknowledged him, even if it was just to talk down to him and be a bastard so under the crazy rules he lived by, that probably meant that Merlin was allowed to get on with tidying the room. Probably. Possibly. He decided to do it anyway, because Gwen hadn't told him what to do if he happened to chance upon the bloody King but she had told him to dust the Ballroom.
"I'll just be--" he said, pointing across the room.
Arthur ignored him.
Right, Merlin thought, charming. He knelt down on the thick red carpet and started to chip chewing gum off one of the cornices - it was completely disgusting and Merlin didn’t know what went on in some people’s brains to make them think that was okay. Still, it was coming off fairly easily. Obviously, it would have been even easier if he could have used magic, but that probably wasn't the best idea, what with Arthur sitting ten metres away.
Someone cleared their throat right above him.
Or, shit, with Arthur standing two feet away.
"Um, hi," Merlin said, swivelling around. He was vaguely sure that he should stand up and that somewhere his mother was having a fit at his lack of protocol, but he'd just sat down and Arthur hadn't actually done anything to make Merlin want to show him any respect.
Arthur just looked at him for a minute. "Your scraping is very loud," he said, "I'm trying to concentrate."
"On what?" Merlin asked. His eyes fell on the book Arthur was holding against his thigh. "The Strange History of Buckingham Palace?" he read, frowning. "Shouldn't you know all that already?"
Arthur twitched and the book disappeared behind his back. "I'm researching," he said then his jaw set crossly, like he hadn't meant to answer Merlin at all. "And your insolence is not charming."
"Everything about me is charming," Merlin told him with his brightest grin, because it wasn't as if Arthur didn't already dislike him.
"Oh for goodness' sake," Arthur said, rolling his eyes and stomping away. Merlin was secretly delighted; he'd got an eye roll and a stomp, that was definitely an achievement.
"Honestly," Arthur said, storming back into his private rooms. "Where do we find our employees these days?"
There was no one in the room, so no one replied.
Arthur sighed and dropped down onto the sofa. "Lance?" he called.
Lance stuck his head around the doorway. "Your Majesty?"
"Where are Morgana and Morgause?" Morgause had been in England for a week and he'd barely seen Morgana.
Lance's hand lifted toward the radio in his pocket. "I could find out," he offered, meaning he could radio Morgana's security.
Arthur shook his head. "God, no, don't do that. I don't want her to think I'm checking up on her." Aglain, the detective in charge of Morgana's security, told her everything.
Lance sucked in his cheeks like he was biting them to keep from laughing. Arthur hated him. "I hate you," he said.
Lance nodded. "I know."
Arthur sighed. "You’re terrible. All my staff are terrible. There's a boy rubbing holes in the wall in the Ballroom because he hasn't mastered the basic skill of dusting and he didn't show me any respect at all when I went over to helpfully point this out."
Morgana would have laughed at him and normally so would Lance. Arthur wasn't very good at making friends, but he could make people laugh if he was pompous enough.
Lance didn't laugh though. In fact, his face set into the most serious expression Arthur had even seen on it -- which was saying something since Lance was almost always serious.
"Why were you in the Ballroom?" he asked and there was an edge to his tone that made Arthur sit up straight.
"Because I wanted to be?" Arthur said slowly, since he could hardly say I was seeing how many ways a terrorist could get in to try to kill me. Well, he could say that, but he didn't want to just yet.
"For fuck's sake, Arthur," and now Lance was genuinely angry. Arthur had never seen that. "You can't just go wandering off around the public rooms. You know better than that."
"It was after hours," Arthur said, automatically objecting to being treated like a child, “And you know how carefully palace security checks that all the tourists are gone. There was no danger."
"How do you know?" Lance snapped. His voice rose at the end of the sentence and he stepped back, took a deep breath and visibly calmed himself. "Sorry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shouted." He sat down on the sofa beside Arthur. "This guy who you met, do you know anything about him? He could have been anyone."
"They do security checks on all employees," Arthur said stubbornly. He frowned. "You do security checks on all employees."
Lance's mouth twitched, just a little, like he might be contemplating smiling. "Point," he admitted. He sighed and turned until he was facing Arthur more fully. "Please be more careful."
Arthur nodded. It was a strange feeling, to have someone this worried about him. Of course, Lance was probably mostly worried about the repercussions to his career if he let Arthur get murdered, not about Arthur himself.
"Lance," he said, before Lance could draw back into his Professional Bodyguard demeanour. "Something is going on, isn't it? Have there been more threats?"
"There are always threats," Lance said, starting to stand up.
Arthur put a hand on Lance's arm to stop him going, then withdrew it immediately. Arthur didn't touch people. "Ones that you're worried about."
Lance looked at him hard and for a moment Arthur thought he might actually get to hear the truth. Then, "No," Lance said, shaking his head. "I'm not worried."
That was such a blatant and obvious lie that Arthur was too busy being disappointed to tell him not to leave.
Once Arthur was alone again, he picked up his book and flipped it open to the right page. If no one was going to tell him what was going on then Arthur was going to keep searching for ways to fortify the Palace. No one could stop him from doing that, at least.
"Did you get me a Metro?" was the first thing Will said when Merlin arrived home.
"Oh no, I forgot," Merlin deadpanned, pulling today's copy of the paper out of his bag and flinging it at Will's head. He made himself look like a freak every day accepting every free paper thrust at him because he knew how much Will liked them.
"Oi, this is quality journalism."
Merlin laughed. "You're just still sore that they scrapped thelondonpaper."
Will clapped a hand to his chest. "Merlin, c'mon, show some respect. We're still in mourning."
Merlin rolled his eyes and walked into the kitchen, coming out with a glass of water and picking the remote up from Will's knee so he could flick to More4 for the repeat of today's Deal or No Deal.
"It's Clive," Will told him without looking up from the Metro crossword.
"Shh," Merlin said, flapping his hands, "Don't tell me how much he wins."
Will rolled his eyes. "You're unhealthily addicted to that programme."
"Yeah, well you’re unhealthily addicted to a newspaper."
"Yeah, well your unhealthy addiction features Noel Edmunds."
"Yeah, well -." Actually, Merlin had no comeback for that. It was true.
"Ha," Will said, smiling triumphantly and finally looking up from the paper. He braced a hand on Merlin's thigh to lean across and kiss him. "Good day at the Palace, dear?" he asked.
"It was-." Merlin stopped, still not really sure of the best way to tell Will that he kept accidentally meeting King Arthur. It just sounded so ridiculous. "It was good, yeah."
"Yeah? You don’t sound sure. You know you don’t have to stick it out just because Gaius found you the job, right?"
"No, it’s - it is good. I found out about a secret passageway." There, that was almost like telling Will about Arthur.
"Yeah?" Will asked, not sounding as excited as Merlin thought he should. But then Will had never been as into the Famous Five books as Merlin.
"Two, actually." Unless the one Arthur used to appear in the middle of the Ballroom was the same one that Merlin had caught him coming out of last week. Merlin preferred the idea of multiple secret passageways; much more intriguing.
Of course, multiple secret passageways also increased the possibility of Arthur jumping out at him again somewhere else, but that was just a risk Merlin was going to have to take.
A prickle along the back of his spine told Arthur that someone was standing behind him. He tensed and twisted around, preparing to leap to his feet and put his black belt in karate to good use.
He relaxed slightly when he saw that it was only the useless employee from the other day, the one with the floppy brown hair and ridiculous ears. The one with no sense of decorum or respect for Arthur's position. The one whose name Arthur did know, he simply chose not to remember.
Arthur snapped his notebook closed and glared. "What are you doing?"
"Loitering until you deign to acknowledge me, Your Majesty," Ridiculous Ears said, with a little smirk.
Arthur rolled his eyes but he couldn't very well send him away without risking someone noticing. They were one room away from the entrance the general public use to enter the Royal Gallery, which was really much closer than Arthur was supposed to get to his subjects without security protection. Lance would probably keel over in horror if he knew.
"All right, I've deigned," Arthur snapped, "Now sit down before someone sees you."
Ridiculous Ears sat. The uncharacteristic obedience worried Arthur. As did the fact that he was being forced to think of him as 'Ridiculous Ears'. "I don't remember your name," he said. Not apologetically because, well, why would he?
"Of course not," Ridicu- the boy replied. At Arthur's level, unimpressed look, he relented. "I'm Merlin Emrys." He held out his hand.
Manners had been drilled into Arthur since birth, so he took the hand automatically. "Arthur Pendragon," he said then felt a fool when Merlin laughed brightly.
"I know that," he said, still grinning.
Arthur turned away, flipping his notebook open and ignoring Merlin. He felt strangely wrong-footed and he hated that.
Merlin didn't leave. Nor did a portal open to another dimension and whisk him away, which was what Arthur had secretly been hoping for.
"What do you want?" Arthur asked eventually. He couldn't concentrate with Merlin sitting beside him, making the already stuffy room almost unbearably warm.
Merlin leant forward. "I'm trying to work out what you're doing," he said. "Are you writing a novel about the fascinating lives of Buckingham Palace staff?"
Arthur laughed without meaning to. "Hardly," he said, although he could admit that it might look like that. From his cold, stone seat, he couldn't see much further than the security guards checking people's bags on their way into the gallery. "I'm making sure that our security guards do their jobs properly. Is that all right with you?" He wasn't sure why he was explaining himself to Merlin. He certainly had no need to.
"Why?" Merlin asked, frowning. He leant forward so he could see what Arthur was looking at. This put him almost across Arthur's lap and Arthur moved backwards immediately, startled by the soft warmth of someone else's body unexpectedly against his.
Still shaken, Arthur answered much more honestly than he would have done otherwise. "Because this is Buckingham Palace. Nobody seems to realise what a prime terrorist target that makes it."
"I-I think they do," Merlin said, sounding surprised.
No, Arthur thought, Something is happening and no one trusts me enough to tell me what. "Do you remember the 7/7 bombings?" he asked instead, because he wasn't going to play Poor Little Emo Me, not when there was something he could do instead. "No one ever does anything until it's too late."
"I do remember," Merlin said quietly. "I was at school but the teachers let us watch it on the news."
Arthur laughed harshly. "Well then, you must be an expert," he said cruelly, even though he'd done almost the same thing himself.
Arthur had just returned from Eton for the summer when the bombings took place. He'd heard the sirens from his bedroom at Clarence House, but hadn't realised their significance until he'd got out of bed, turned on the TV and found every channel reporting nothing but newsflashes. He'd watched people being led off the Underground, their faces shocked pale and bloodied and he'd wanted badly to help. Edgeware Road wasn't too far from Clarence House and he'd been sure he could do something. His father's security had informed him in no uncertain terms that the presence of a sixteen year-old prince would do much more harm than good.
Merlin shrugged. He was still sitting too close and Arthur felt his uniform sleeve brush Arthur's bare forearm.
"Can I help with whatever you're doing?" Merlin asked, apparently not offended at all by Arthur's offhand dismissal. Stupid boy, Arthur thought, bemused.
"I doubt it," Arthur said, but not as bluntly as he wanted to.
"Okay." Merlin pushed himself to his feet. "My break's over anyway. I'll be out there selling tickets if you need anything."
Arthur bit his lip before he could ask what he might possibly need from Merlin, acknowledging the offer with a curt nod instead.
Merlin sauntered off, stopping in the doorway to throw Arthur a quick, uncertain smile before he disappeared. Arthur found it strangely hard to get back to what he'd been doing after that.
Master Post | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four