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Castles in the Air

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Life went on, as it was prone to do. Summer, no longer as bright and hopeful as it had once seemed, faded into Autumn, Winter, Spring and then it was Summer again. In that time Merlin went through his final year at university, graduated with a first, applied for a long succession of jobs that for the most part didn’t even get him to interview. Museum work was notoriously hard to get into, he’d always known that. But when a vacancy came up at Camelot Trust and he wasn’t even interviewed, and then a second one came along with the same outcome, Merlin knew he’d been blacklisted. He didn’t try again. Later he heard that one of the posts had gone to Elena. At least she deserved it.

Finally he got a job. It was one that he didn’t even need to apply for.

Being a wedding planner had never featured even remotely in his career plans. Not that Merlin had ever really considered what kind of work he might do if it wasn’t in a museum. But Gwen had never had any doubts. And she’d always hoped her best friend might go into business with her.

“Organising weddings is the best job possible,” she assured him. “We’ll be helping people who are deeply in love, working with them to make sure they have a wonderful day that they’ll always look back on with happiness. We’ll be there every step of the way, making sure their day is absolutely perfect!”

“Sounds a bit nauseating,” Merlin told her. But he was really struggling to find employment at the time and Gwen was his best friend (well, aside from Will but he was 150 miles away back in Ealdor and didn’t count) so he agreed to join her pet project.

To be fair, he hadn’t thought it would last very long. They officially set up business in August, and he’d fully expected to be looking for work again by the New Year.

He’d reckoned without Gwen.

Gwen was an amazing wedding planner. She really did love her job, and cared deeply about every wedding they worked on. So many happy couples. There were Ella and Ben from the local tavern who had wanted everything to be ale-themed. Merlin had particularly loved that one – they’d all spent many a planning session completely sloshed, and the party after the wedding had gone on all night. Brilliant. Then there were brides like Vivien at the other end of the spectrum. Daddy had paid for everything and the spoiled little madam had demanded a huge lavish wedding on top of Snowdonia then couldn’t understand why this wasn’t possible. Merlin had not been surprised to hear that the marriage only lasted a month. He just hoped Vivien wouldn’t use them again when she inevitably married some other poor sap.

Gwen had told him not to be so mean, but without much force. Vivien had even tried Gwen’s patience. And Gwen was the nicest person in the universe.

Gwen’s niceness, combined with a fierce intelligence, sharp brain for business, and absolute love of all things wedding related, meant that the business took off, at least enough for them to make ends meet and achieve a small profit. Shockingly, Merlin was still employed by the following Summer.

It was a busy job. They had to organise venues, music, flowers, catering, hairdressers, costumes… Well, usually suits and dresses, but those were costumes as far as Merlin was concerned. He preferred jeans and t-shirts. And yet the costumes were the area in which Gwen considered him absolutely essential.

Perhaps ensuring that a dress fitted perfectly on a bride’s wedding day wasn’t what he’d ever imagined using his magic for, but that was of no consequence. Because that was what it was used for. Time and time again. Overly optimistic women who bought dresses two sizes too small, convinced that would be the spur they needed to make them fit into it by the big day. It rarely happened. Or brides and grooms who had been so stressed by the wedding that they hadn’t eaten and needed the clothes taken in. Gwen’s seamless last minute dress adjustment service was legendary in the field. Merlin had no idea what people thought they did with the dresses and suits, and some surely had to suspect there was magic involved. But whatever, they got endless 5 star reviews and glowing recommendations.

The very worst part of the job was the actual wedding day where Merlin always had to dress up smartly whilst running around making sure everything went smoothly. Gwen on the other hand had a selection of beautiful wedding outfits and always looked stunning. Merlin suspected the actual weddings were her favourite part of the job. He wasn’t looking forward to the day Gwen decided to get married herself, because he had a horrible feeling he’d be organising that one solo. And it would have to be the best one ever.

The work didn’t dry up. Everyone loved a wedding. But the business wasn’t expanding as quickly as Gwen had hoped, despite the glowing reviews. Nearly a year in, and although things were going well enough there were still only the two of them employed.

Until the wedding that changed everything.

It began on a glorious July day, warm and sunny, but with a gentle summer breeze filtering through the open window in their office. (Office was perhaps stretching it a little – it was the living room of the flat that they shared) The sunshine brought back memories of two summers back, of Prince Arthur bloody Pendragon and all the hurt and disappointment he’d caused Merlin.

Mostly Merlin had convinced himself that he was over Arthur. It was just that the great prat was always on the TV, or in the papers. There had been a particularly annoying interview the previous summer in one of the Camelot Times weekend supplement magazines, going on about Arthur’s sensitive side and hinting at some secret love.  Of course, it was a female lover that the journalist was probing for information on. The Lonely Prince, she’d called the article. 

Merlin briefly considered using the article’s main photo of Arthur gazing wistfully out of a window as target practice after he’d read it.  But instead he did the same as always – carefully stored the magazine away in his room so that he could pine over it when he was feeling particularly miserable.  The writer seemed to think that Arthur was nursing a broken heart.  Merlin tried, unsuccessfully, to convince himself that this wasn’t the case.  But instead the piece had reopened old wounds and left Merlin hoping for things that he knew were impossible.

It wasn’t as if Merlin could even ask Arthur.  Although no restraining order had ever been served on him, Merlin had no doubt that should he approach Arthur again then that particular threat would be carried out.  He could have contacted Elena and begged her to pass on a message.  She was seeing Princess Morgana regularly if the article was correct - her frequent visits to the palace were what was fuelling the reporter's belief that there was something between Elena and Arthur.  But contacting Elena would put her in a difficult position, possibly even result in her being banished from the palace as well. He couldn’t do that to her.  Besides, he’d barely contacted her in the past year. Ringing up out of the blue just to ask a favour wouldn’t look good.

So Merlin shut the article away, as he did with all the others.  He could have done without having to view shirtless Arthur on the Camelot Trust charity calendar the previous August as well. But Gwen had bought a copy and hung it in pride of place in their flat. She’d never got around to taking it down, but at least December was only a shirtless picture of Lance. Merlin didn’t mind looking at that.  And he absolutely did not ever sneak a longing peak at August when Gwen wasn’t around.

It was impossible to avoid Arthur. Eventually, Merlin supposed, he’d be on the stamps and coins and everywhere, just like the article said.

But by that time Merlin was quite determined that he would have himself a decent, steady boyfriend who loved him, and that he would have completely forgotten his ill-advised dalliance with Arthur. It wasn’t as if Merlin was ever likely to bump into Arthur again. Once in a lifetime was enough of a shock for anyone.

Gwen was a little late that morning. That was unusual for several reasons, the most obvious one being that they worked out of their little flat and so she was always there to greet Merlin in the kitchen when he crawled out of bed in the morning. There was no sign of her. And the kettle was almost cold – she’d been gone for a while.

He checked her diary but there was nothing in there about an early meeting.

“Where are you?” he texted to her, but there was no reply. Later he tried calling, but still nothing.

It was odd, but he supposed she had been called away on something urgent and he’d find out soon enough. As long as it wasn’t Vivien’s second wedding already…

Late morning, by which time Merlin was on his third mug of coffee and halfway through a packet of hobnobs, Gwen breezed back into the flat, a bulging folder tucked under her arm and a huge smile on her face.

“Merlin! Great news! Guess what?”

“You’ve won the lottery and we’ll never have to work again?”

“Better!”

Merlin doubted that.

“We’ve got a brilliant job!” she put the file down on her desk, dropped her bag on the floor, then headed for the kitchenette and more specifically the kettle. “You’ll never guess who!”

“The prime minister? Lord Voldemort? Actually, that’s a good match!”

“Funny…” Gwen poured herself a mug of tea, as the kettle was still half-full and hot from Merlin’s coffee. “And yet wrong. I had a call this morning from my brother so I had to rush off. One of his friends is getting married,” Gwen explained. “Elyan’s going to be best man and he recommended us.”

That wasn’t surprising, Merlin thought, given that Gwen would probably have half-killed him if Elyan had let his friend go anywhere else. He liked Gwen’s brother, Elyan. Nice, down to earth sort of bloke.

“It’s his friend Leon. You remember Leon?”

Merlin did remember Leon. Elyan’s best mate at Uni who had sometimes accompanied Elyan when he was visiting his sister. They’d both turned up at Camelot Trust the previous summer for the fayre. Yes, tall, steady, reliable Leon. As down to earth as Elyan, and just as nice a person. They’d definitely give him the best wedding they possibly could. Leon deserved it. His partner would probably be a similar sort of person.

The last time Merlin had seen Leon was actually at that Camelot Fayre, during happier times. Times that Merlin preferred not to dwell on. It was over a year ago and Merlin had moved on. Or so he told himself. It was definitely for the best if he did so.

“Yeah, of course. What does he want? Let me guess, he’s marrying one of their cricket team and cricket’s the theme?”

“Not exactly,” Gwen replied. “His husband to be is one of the royal family.”

Merlin actually felt his heart plummet at that news. “What… Arthur?”

That would have been too cruel. Merlin could understand Arthur not being allowed to come out as gay, but to have settled down with another man… no.

“Oh Merlin!” Gwen laughed. “Now that would be the biggest coup of all time! We’d be made! No, definitely not your friend Prince Arthur. He hasn’t suddenly turned gay!”

“No,” Merlin said, trying not to sound too bitter. Gwen didn’t notice, so he must have succeeded.

“Though perhaps after this we’ll be in the running when he does tie the knot,” she continued. “Imagine! Actually, no, I think that level of royal wedding would be a bit much. No, I think this is a duke or something. Duke of Devonshire, I think.”

Merlin had never heard of the Duke of Devonshire. It was probably some minor royal. Highly unlikely that Arthur would attend the wedding in that case. He breathed a sigh of relief and didn’t bother to correct Gwen about his lack of ongoing friendship with Arthur.

“Yes,” Gwen was looking through her file, then brought out a picture. “This is him. Gwaine… er, Prince Gwaine, to give him his official title.”

Merlin remembered Gwaine from the fayre at Camelot Trust. He was the friend of Arthur’s whom they’d joked about being the first gay king if he hadn’t been about twentieth or so in line to the throne. Arthur had said something at the time about him not being the first, or the last. Clues that Merlin had missed early on. He didn’t think that anyone had mentioned Gwaine being Duke of Devonshire as well, though.

“Arthur’s friend. We met.”

Gwaine was looking even more handsome than usual in the photo Gwen was holding, with glossy locks that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a shampoo advert. He was grinning rakishly at the camera, posing as if he were born to do so. But then looking like that he probably was.

“He’s actually Arthur’s cousin, and nineteenth in line to the throne,” Gwen continued happily. “So if anything happened to Prince Arthur, Princess Morgana, and… oh, I don’t know, whoever are third through to eighteenth… then he’d be king! And we’re doing his wedding! Imagine!”

“Well if he’s looking for someone to assassinate Prince Arthur, I’d do it!” Merlin grumbled.

Gwen laughed, because of course she would think he was joking, Merlin realised. Perhaps he should have told her that their relationship had changed? But it had been so much easier to let people attribute his low mood to stress over his studies. Nobody knew the truth. Not one person.

“I know when you worked with him that summer you were grumbling about him at first. But… you started to get on?” Gwen frowned. “You stopped complaining about him after a few weeks, anyway, and when I visited you seemed to be good friends. Very good friends, actually. You know, at one point I thought that if Arthur hadn’t been straight the two of you might actually be…”

“Definitely didn’t get on,” Merlin confirmed, interrupting her before she told him whatever it was that she might have thought on seeing Arthur and himself flirting with each other. “I was just being polite. Come on, it’s not as if I ever mention him or anything, is it? Not like he’s Will or someone like that.” In fact, for the past year Merlin had always done his best to change the subject should anyone mention Arthur.

“Well… no, but he’s the Prince of Wales so you’re not going to be meeting him in the pub on a Friday or anything. I did think you two were good friends though.”

“Happy if I never see him again. Please tell me he’s not giving this Gwaine bloke away or something?”

Gwen looked deeply worried. “He’s not giving Gwaine away, no, Gwaine’s mother will be doing that.”

“But he’s attending this wedding, isn’t he?”

Gwen didn’t need to answer. Merlin could see it in her face.

“I thought the two of you were friends!” she repeated. “I didn’t realise it would be a problem…”

Merlin shook his head. “No, don’t worry Gwen. We never see the guests anyway at these things, too busy looking after the happy couple and those in the key roles. Easy enough to avoid Arthur.”

Gwen looked supremely uncomfortable. “That might be a little tricky,” she admitted. “He’s Gwaine’s best man.”

“You’re kidding me?” He knew she wasn’t. Gwaine and Arthur actually were friends. Probably because Arthur hadn’t slept with Gwaine and broken his heart. Of course Arthur would be Gwaine’s best man.

“I thought it was going to be a nice surprise!” Gwen told him. “I’m really sorry, Merlin. Look, I’ll do the wedding. You just help behind the scenes. No need to ever meet anyone involved with it. How does that sound?”

It sounded barely bearable.

Just as long as Merlin could make himself stay away. But he knew that if Arthur was going to be nearby then the temptation to go and give him a piece of his mind would be strong.

---

At first it was easy enough.

Gwen was the one liaising with the grooms, doing all the meetings. Merlin sat in their office working on invitation designs and catering menu options, and a thousand and one other things. And another wedding came onto the books, a small one that Merlin could handle solo. Gwen was better at all the face to face stuff anyway. She charmed all their clients, soothing any fears with her gentle calm. Merlin knew he’d probably just make any last minute jitters worse.

He was quite surprised at Leon. Gwaine was obviously handsome and rich, but Merlin had never had Leon marked down as someone who would care about that. Gwaine had seemed fun, and pleasant enough. But he’d also seemed incredibly loud and full of himself, things that Leon was not. Perhaps opposites really did attract. Polar opposites in this particular case.

It was to be a winter wedding, a few days before Christmas. Held on Gwaine’s country estate, unsurprisingly. Devon was lovely in the summer, but Merlin wasn’t so sure about it in December. And although he was only working in the background on that particular job, it was going to be far too big to leave Gwen to deal with on her own. Which meant that afterwards Merlin would have to drive back to Camelot, spend a day or so sorting out the post-wedding paperwork, and then have to drive all the way back to Wales for Christmas with his mum.

Gwaine might have seemed down to earth and nice enough but just like his cousin he was clearly a typical inconsiderate royal prat.

Work stopped for a few minutes while Merlin brooded yet again on his lost love. It had been two years, and he still wasn’t over it. He didn’t think he’d ever be completely over Arthur. The complete change of heart, the personality transplant, the coldness of the man… none of it made sense. Arthur had been there with him in bed that final morning, full of hope for the future, whispering promises and speaking of undying love… and then breaking it off cold like that.

It was Arthur’s father, of course. Merlin had no doubts about that. Everything had been fine right up until Arthur had gone to talk to Uther about Merlin, right up until Arthur had tried to come out to the king. Whatever Uther had said and done in that meeting, it had finished any hopes Merlin had for a future with Arthur. But Arthur had been so sure it would be okay, so determined to succeed at any cost. They’d gone through every possible scenario. There was nothing that Uther could have said or done that would have made Arthur change his mind about Merlin. There was nothing in Merlin’s past that could have put Arthur off – he’d met Merlin’s mum a couple of times over that summer and got along with her very well.

Merlin just didn’t understand it. He thought he never would. Arthur had let himself be persuaded out of it. And although King Uther had done that persuading, Arthur still had to shoulder a share of the blame for going along with it.

But on that particular day Merlin had other things to worry about. It was cake-tasting day for Gwaine and Leon, and Merlin was in charge of sorting out the samples with the chosen bakery, a firm based within a village owned by Gwaine’s Duchy. Every business involved in the wedding had to be based within that (admittedly quite wide) area. Pretty much the only one that wasn’t was their wedding planning service – Merlin wasn’t quite sure how they’d got away with that one and supposed it must have been Leon’s long friendship with Elyan that swung it. Still, in general long drives down to Devon or not far off it were involved whenever face to face meetings were required. Their mileage on the ‘Gleon’ job was already pretty high.

It would be the first time that Merlin would have to deal with the grooms themselves. So far he’d avoided that. But Merlin normally dealt with cakes so go he must. Gwen had assured him that there was no chance of the Best Man turning up (the worst man, Merlin tried unsuccessfully to tell himself) but still he was nervous. He hadn’t seen Gwaine since that day two years ago. And Gwaine had definitely noticed that Merlin and Arthur were an item. Or, at that time, on the brink of being one, but that was irrelevant. Even if he had forgotten Merlin, Leon would not have done. Leon would remind Gwaine.

Merlin felt slightly sick with apprehension, and that was before the cake-tasting had even begun.

He picked up his car keys and jacket, and headed for the door. Yet another long drive ahead.

---

Audrey’s Bakery was fronted by a quaint little shop in the heart of the village of Little Pockton. Audrey herself was a formidable woman who had her own ideas about what made a suitable wedding cake and hadn’t been overly interested in Merlin’s suggestions. She apparently was a friend of Gwaine’s mother, though, so there was no chance of Merlin persuading the grooms to select someone else.

The meeting was booked for 4pm, by which time the shop had its few remaining wares marked down at a sale price. Merlin picked up a loaf of bread and a couple of pastries for Gwen and himself to enjoy when he finally got home that night, then headed off into the kitchen at the back of the shop to meet Audrey herself.

“Merlin!”

Gwaine and Leon were already there, Leon greeting him with a cheery wave. Gwaine just nodded at him, not unfriendly but certainly not the same as he’d been towards Merlin that day at Camelot Trust.

“How are you?” Leon asked. “Haven’t seen you in ages!”

Merlin shrugged, “I’m getting by,” he said as non-committedly as possible. “But congratulations to you two!”

“I’m only here for the cake,” Gwaine assured him, then looked him up and down critically. “You look thinner than I remember, Merlin. You lose weight?”

Leon frowned, noticing it too. Merlin knew that he had lost a lot, too much in fact when he’d first lost Arthur. Slowly Gwen had tried to feed him up and it was less noticeable now or so he thought. That was what a broken heart could do to you.

“Stress over my final year studies,” he explained. That had been the excuse for everything for the first year. Then for the second year it had been stress in trying to find a job in his chosen area, although people had mostly stopped asking why he was so sad by then. “I lost a lot, that’s why Gwen puts me in charge of cakes. She thinks it’ll help fatten me up again.”

“Sounds like a dream job,” Leon told him. Beside him, Gwaine just nodded, watching Merlin thoughtfully. He opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but then Audrey appeared with a plate of cake slices in each hand and set them down on the table in the middle of the kitchen.

“There you go, boys. Your best man out there,” she nodded towards the door she’d just come in through, “he’s already stolen two. Cheeky lad!”

Merlin’s heart plummeted to his boots. Gwen had sworn Arthur wouldn’t be there. He glanced at the door worriedly. Perhaps he could get out before Arthur appeared.

“Hey Merlin,” Gwaine called softly to Merlin, his face softened in what looked like concern. “You know Leon’s best man? Elyan?”

The man in question appeared as if on cue, a plate in one hand and a half eaten cake slice in the other.

“Hi Merlin! Hey, I can see why you and my sister are in this business! Free cake! Brilliant! I like this one!”

“That’s what you said about the other two,” Audrey smiled, pleased. “Now, I’ve got chocolate, lemon sponge, coffee – though that doesn’t always sit well in a wedding cake, I don’t know why, Seville orange with rum – I thought of you, Gwaine, and a lemon and lavender.”

“Lavender?” Gwaine pulled a face. “I already like the rum one best.”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Elyan warned him. “The lavender one is amazing!”

Leon went over and started trying small pieces of the cakes. It was a serious business, evidently. He’d even got a notepad out to make comparisons.

“Mate, you just need to taste them not write an essay,” Elyan laughed at him, trying a different piece of cake. “Oh… this is the rum one… that’s the one you want!”

“You’re not the one getting married, El,” Leon told him. “And I’m not giving Gwaine any opportunity to get even more pissed than he will anyway!”

“You wound me my love!” Gwaine called to him.

“You don’t deny it though!”

Gwaine shrugged, then headed over to join in the cake tasting. He had hung back a little, watching Merlin. Still Gwaine hadn’t completely lost interest in Merlin and nudged him as he passed. “You went so pale then I thought you were going to pass out,” he commented quietly. “Miss him, don’t you?”

“What?” Merlin asked, startled. “No…who?”

Gwaine gave him a sad little smile. “Thought so. Now I have cake to eat, assuming Elyan’s left us any. Then you and I shall have a talk.”

Again, Merlin wondered if he could escape.

---

Talking to Gwaine turned out to be an excuse to sit in a local pub, supposedly so that Merlin could have a meal before he drove back on all that sugar. Elyan and Leon headed off to the bar to get a round in. There was a long queue. Merlin wished he’d been quicker to offer to get it, because he was left with a once-again serious Gwaine. And, a moment later, Percival, beer in hand.

“I timed that well,” he told them. “Leon only spotted me after I’d been served so I couldn’t buy a round! They’ll be a while, it’s a massive queue.” Percival sat down opposite Merlin, putting his beer down on the table. “Hi Merlin. Long time no see. How’re you doing?”

Percival had lost his job because of Merlin’s affair with Arthur. Even though Percival was greeting him with a smile, Merlin wasn’t entirely convinced that Percival was going to feel all that friendly towards him. And Percival had not got any less muscular in the past couple of years.

“Okay,” he replied warily, absently rubbing his neck, trying not to think how easily Percival’s hands could just snap it like a twig. “Um… How are you?”

“He’s great! He’s back working for me, where he belongs,” Gwaine grinned.

Percival nodded, still smiling. “I am, it’s true.”

Merlin swallowed nervously, shifting on his seat. “I’m really sorry you lost your old job,” he ventured.

Percival shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. Uther’s a jerk, I was glad to get away from him. Val was horrible to work with too. And Gwaine had a vacancy down here so it all worked out fine for me. I just feel bad for Arthur.”

Merlin gave a disbelieving snort at that. “I don’t!”

“Really?” Percival frowned at him. “Arthur’s a great guy, he’s nothing like his father. Surely you of all people know that?”

“I know he says one thing and then does whatever his father tells him to,” Merlin replied. “I know he breaks promises. I know he’s weak.”

“And I know he’s absolutely wretched,” Gwaine put in. “He’s miserable, Merlin.”

“Good!” Merlin looked around to see where Leon and Elyan had got to with the drinks. Driving later or not, he needed one. Perhaps he’d have a skinful, find a bed and breakfast for the night then drive home in the morning. Little Pockton looked like exactly the sort of quaint tourist haunt that would have plenty of places to stay.

“I was with him the day he went to see his father about you,” Percival continued. “Arthur was completely certain about what he was going to do. He was dead set on it, had all these ideas of how he could be a positive role model for the gay community. Didn’t stop talking about it. And I’m sure he would have been brilliant at it. But he went into his father’s study and closed the door. After that only the two of them know what went on in there. Arthur was in there for nearly two hours. I could hear them arguing. Uther was shouting all kinds of homophobic abuse that I won’t repeat. Arthur was giving as good as he got, yelling back at him. Sometimes it would go quiet for a while, they’d talk in normal tones again. But it would always start back up, the raised voices, the anger, neither of them willing to give way.”

“But Arthur did give way,” Merlin pointed out. “He sent me a message telling me I was a mistake and that he was changing his phone.”

“I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what Arthur wanted,” Percival insisted. “Uther said something. It was quiet so I couldn’t hear. He talked for a long time and every now and then Arthur must have tried to butt in because I’d hear Uther yell not to interrupt him, he was the king and Arthur would damn well obey him.”

“And he did,” Merlin pointed out, his voice cold.

“Yes. Eventually the door opened. The king came out, fired me on the spot for not doing my job.”

“Even though your job was bodyguard, not matchmaker,” Gwaine put in.

“Yeah. I wasn’t worried, I have no problem getting employed in security jobs, I mean look at me!” Percival smiled, gesturing down at himself. “Uther’s loss!”

“My gain,” Gwaine grinned. “Good to have my buddy back on security.”

“Safer work too,” Percival told Merlin. “We’re at risk of break-ins here rather than assassination attempts or kidnapping. But I didn’t like to leave Arthur behind. I had no choice, I had to obey the king. But I could see Arthur sitting in Uther’s study, head in hands. He looked broken, Merlin.”

“And he’s been like that ever since,” Gwaine added. “Merlin, listen, you don’t really know me but I’ve heard a lot about you, most of it from Arthur. He’s my best mate, has been since we were kids. All through that shit with Cenred… you know about that, right?”

Merlin had heard that the man had died in a plane crash earlier that year. An accident. But that wasn’t what Gwaine was referring to so Merlin just nodded. “Smart bloke. Came away from it rich, not that it did him much good in the long run.”

Gwaine shrugged. “I didn’t shed any tears over that. And going after Arthur’s money’s not something you’ve ever considered, am I right?” Gwaine asked, not waiting for an answer. “Of course you haven’t. Because you’re a decent guy, and that’s why Arthur loves you.”

Merlin gave a bitter laugh at that. “I don’t think so. Look, what is this, Gwaine? Are you even getting married or is this some sort of setup to get me here so that you rich royal types can have another laugh at my expense? That’s it, isn’t it? Aw, Gwen’s going to be livid, she had hopes for this job.”

“I’m getting married,” Gwaine told him. “Arthur’s my best man. And yes, Leon and I hired Gwen’s firm because of you, because I wanted to see if there was any hope. Gwen’s chatty, friendly. Lovely girl. She told me you’ve been miserable too. She didn’t appear to be aware that you and Arthur were ever anything more than friends. Seemed to think study and work were what made you sad, and that you’d be glad to see your old friend Arthur. Even though you never mention him to her.”

“I haven’t told anyone,” Merlin admitted. “No point now, is there?” He looked around again. Leon was talking to Elyan, both of them laughing together at something. Happy. Looking forward to the future. It was how he’d hoped that he would be with Arthur by now. Once. Before Arthur dashed all his hopes.

“I think there is,” Gwaine replied. “I’ve known Arthur my entire life. He’s my best mate. And I have never seen him like this.”

Percival nodded. “I’ve only known him a few years, but I agree with Gwaine. Whatever the reason that he broke things off with you, it’s definitely not because he doesn’t care.”

Merlin didn’t know what to think. It could be a joke. Gwaine was the sort who liked a joke. But surely not a cruel one? Elyan and Leon wouldn’t have let him do that if they knew. Merlin didn’t believe that Percival would either. And Merlin wanted it to be true. He wanted so much for Arthur to love him.

“Say I believe you,” Merlin said carefully. “Say this isn’t a cruel joke…”

Percival looked quite offended at that idea. He was probably the decent bloke Merlin took him for. But Gwaine was nobility, one of the supposed elite. It might amuse him to take all the plebs for a ride.

“It isn’t,” Gwaine assured him.

“Then what are we going to do about it?”

Gwaine smiled. “Well, my friend, we are going to get you and Arthur talking to each other. And then we’ll take it from there.”

Percival grinned, toasting them with his beer.

Merlin just hoped this wasn’t going to be a terrible idea.

---

The meeting to approve the reception dinner was, Gwaine had decided, the best place to bring Arthur in without arousing any suspicion. It was to be held on Gwaine’s estate, the caterer demonstrating exactly what they could provide at the location. Merlin had found that doing the tasting at the wedding venue always went best. Not that it really made any difference to the taste, but it gave the couple a better idea of how things would be on the day. There were rarely any complaints. Vivien, of course, but then that bride had complained about everything.

Waiting for Arthur to arrive was nerve-wracking.

Merlin busied himself with the caterers, going over every aspect of the menu with them. He knew he was probably asking the same questions that he had done weeks ago, anything to distract himself from what was about to happen.

What if Gwaine was wrong? Arthur had seemed so sure they were finished the last time Merlin saw him. What if Val and that other bodyguard, Kanen, were there? Merlin was fairly sure Val would do whatever he felt he needed to ensure Merlin was kept away from Arthur.

“Are you okay?” Gwen asked, as Merlin checked the starters list for the third time. “I could recite that selection myself by now, I’ve heard you go through it so many times.”

“Fine,” Merlin assured her, looking at the desserts list. “Hmm… that’s four different chocolate dishes…”

“Which will go down well!” Gwen assured him. “Everyone loves chocolate.”

“My mate Will doesn’t.”

“Your friend Will is a very strange man,” Gwen told him. “Now something’s up, Merlin. What is it?”

Merlin wondered if he should tell her the truth. After all, if they got fired from the job by the king or something she wasn’t going to be too happy with him. Nor would she be happy if he hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her about Arthur. Gwen wasn’t just his business partner, she was his friend. She deserved to know the truth.

“It’s Arthur,” he began to say. “He and I…”

And right then the doors burst open and the two grooms walked in, Elyan following closely behind. Gwen was instantly all business.

“Merlin, we’re going to talk about his, I’m worried about you,” she promised, giving his hand a quick squeeze before greeting their customers. “Gwaine, Leon, hello! I do hope you two are hungry because there’s quite a spread to go through. And I must say the caterers you’ve chosen have done an excellent job. Now if you’ll come with me to the first table, can we start with the amuse bouche? Oh Elyan, no!”

Merlin smiled despite himself, seeing Gwen smack her brother’s hand as he reached for one of the miniature, artistic morsels of food.

“I’m the best man!” he protested, popping a tiny rockfish cromesquis into his mouth. “Mmm… that one’s good. Bit small.”

Merlin wasn’t quite sure how being best man made him taster in chief, but Elyan had certainly embraced the role at the bakery. He was fairly sure Elyan had made the final decision on the wedding cake.

“How are you so slim?” Gwen grumbled at him. “Don’t eat any more. Now, Leon, Gwaine, try the spiced confit pork belly…”

Merlin watched them moving around the table, trying the tiny samples. It was easy enough for them to select half a dozen or so, then move on to the starters.

“Now,” Gwen began, “the salmon roulade is sourced from a local farm…”

Merlin stopped listening. He thought he might possibly have stopped breathing. Because coming through the doorway, looking every bit as fine as he had two years earlier, was Arthur Pendragon.

“Sorry I’m late,” Arthur called, hurrying over to join them. He was dressed in a green Henley and what looked like a brand new pair of designer jeans. Casual wear for the very rich, Merlin supposed. “There were roadworks on the motorway, ten mile tailback. We had to take the scenic route.”

Behind Arthur was a bodyguard that Merlin hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t Val or Kanen but a younger man with a gentler face. Handsome, Merlin noted. He hoped that Arthur hadn’t replaced him.

“No worries, mate!” Gwaine grinned, turning to greet his friend. “You’ve only missed the amused booch thingies!”

“Which were delicious,” Leon added quickly to the somewhat offended-looking caterer.

“That’s good, good…” Arthur looked around at the group and that was when he saw Merlin. Merlin could pinpoint the exact moment Arthur realised he was there because all the colour drained out of Arthur’s face.

“Merlin,” he breathed. For a moment Arthur just stared at him, mouth hanging slightly open. Merlin wasn’t sure what the best way would be to react.

“Hello, Arthur,” was the simple greeting he eventually settled on. And they stared at each other long enough that it was starting to become awkward.

“Guys,” Gwaine beamed at them both, grabbing Merlin’s arm with one hand and Arthur’s with the other then sweeping them off across to the far side of the room. “I forgot you two knew each other, you were on that course, weren’t you? Probably want to catch up!”

Merlin was aware that Gwen, Elyan and the caterers were watching them all curiously. He could hear Leon loudly trying to draw their attention back to the starters, which removed any question of whether Leon was in on it or not.

“What’s going on?” Arthur demanded, keeping his voice down. “Why’s Merlin here?”

Gwaine shrugged. “Well he’s the wedding planner.”

Arthur frowned. “Wedding planner? Merlin?” he looked at Merlin curiously. “You’re an archaeologist!”

“I couldn’t get a job,” Merlin explained. “So I joined Gwen’s wedding planning company,” Merlin told him. “Well, mine and Gwen’s now I suppose.”

“Til Death… you said it was going to be called Til Death,” Arthur said. He looked around, to Gwaine. “You gave me a company name, it wasn’t Til Death. I would have remembered.” He looked back at Merlin, his expression almost frantic.

“Gwen hated that name, there was no way she’d actually call her business that,” Merlin sighed. “Queen of Hearts Wedding Planning, that’s what we went with. Our logo has a playing card with a manipulation of Gwen dressed as the Queen of hearts. She looks beautiful.”

“She really does,” Gwaine agreed.

Arthur looked at Merlin, then at Gwaine, then back at Merlin again.

“I can’t do this. I can’t be here,” he announced.

“Yeah, you can, mate,” Gwaine reassured him. “Look, you’ve been miserable without Merlin, we both know it. We’ll persuade your dad, eventually. I mean what’s he going to do, really?”

“You don’t know,” Arthur told him, running his hands through his hair then pulling on it. Merlin had never seen anyone actually do that before. Arthur looked desperate. “You don’t understand. I have to go. I can’t ever be anywhere near Merlin.”

“Why not?” Merlin asked. “What’s your dad said?”

“The king. He’s the king, Merlin,” Arthur said.

“Yes, I know. He’s still your dad.”

“He’s the king. I have to go,” Arthur repeated. “Gwaine, I’ll call you. We need to talk about this.”

“What about me?” Merlin demanded. “Don’t I deserve an explanation?”

Arthur gazed at him sadly. “Just forget about me, Merlin. For your own good. Please. Find someone who deserves you, makes you happy.”

“You made me happy,” Merlin found himself saying. “And you were happy too.”

The look of pain on Arthur’s face on hearing that was heartbreaking. “I have to go,” he said yet again. “Don’t come after me.” He turned away and headed for the door, calling to his bodyguard who had stayed at the entrance. “Galahad! Change of plan, we’re leaving.”

The bodyguard, Galahad, looked confused, but followed Arthur out.

“Well that could have gone better,” Gwaine commented.

“You think?”

Gwaine hummed thoughtfully to himself for a moment or two. “Yeah,” he said eventually. “But could have gone worse as well. Least he doesn’t have Val as bodyguard all the time now. That new lad won’t know who you are. Hope he’s on guard duty next time too!”

Next time?” Merlin repeated incredulously. “Arthur’s never going to come near this wedding now he knows I’m helping organise it!”

“Perhaps,” Gwaine told him cheerily. “We’ll see. I have another plan.”

“And this one went so well.”

Gwaine just smiled smugly. He was clearly living proof that the aristocracy were insane after so many generations of inbreeding, Merlin decided.

“Merlin!” Gwen called across. “If you’ve finished, we need Gwaine over here please.”

“Come on, you have a wedding breakfast menu to decide on,” Merlin told him. He tried not to listen to the sound of a car engine starting up outside, knowing it would be taking Arthur away from him yet again.

He tried to ignore the curious looks that Gwen was giving him. But there would be questions later, he knew.

---

“So,” Gwen began when they got home that night. “Prince Arthur. Explain.”

Merlin had been waiting for that. Gwen had been very quiet in the car journey back, turning the radio on and letting the music and inane DJ chatter fill the silence. But it could only last so long, and as soon as they were inside their flat, the door closed, she asked the inevitable question.

“Arthur doesn’t want me around. I don’t think we’ll lose the job, Gwaine said not to worry about that. But I don’t think Arthur’s going to want to be best man if I’m working on this.”

“Arthur looked at you as if he’d seen a ghost,” Gwen commented. “It was shock on his face when he saw you, not dislike.”

“I don’t know what it was,” Merlin said truthfully.

“I know what it looked like,” Gwen stated. She stood in front of him, arms folded. “It looked like a couple of exes meeting up unexpectedly. That’s what it looked like. Merlin, tell me Arthur’s not the reason you’ve been so unhappy over the past couple of years.”

Merlin didn’t say anything. Hiding the truth was one thing but he wouldn’t lie to Gwen.

“I’ve missed something huge in your life, haven’t I?” she said softly, no longer demanding. She unfolded her arms and took a step closer. “Oh sweetie,” she put her arms around him, drawing him in for a hug. “I wish you’d told me right away instead of pretending you were stressed about exams. You were so miserable. And I would never have taken this job. We can still cancel it. Or I’ll just do it alone, whatever you want.”

“This wedding’s too big a job for one person,” Merlin told her. “And we can’t cancel, it’s a huge boost for business and we’d be letting Gwaine and Leon down. No, we’ll do what we agreed in the beginning and I’ll just work on it all in the background.”

It seemed like a reasonable solution. And it would have been except for one thing.

Gwaine.

---

Doing the suit fittings was a terrible idea, Merlin knew.

It was his speciality, using his magic to ensure that everyone’s wedding outfits fitted perfectly. Normally there wasn’t a problem. And with the Gwaine/Leon wedding there wouldn’t have been if it weren’t for one of the best men.

“Surely he can get one of his royal tailors to do this?” Merlin complained when Gwaine announced his latest plan.

“Nope. Everyone has to match. I’m not having my wedding ruined because of Arthur. What if his suit’s the wrong shade of black? It’s going to ruin the photos!”

Gwaine did not strike Merlin as the kind of person who would really worry too much about that. He did seem quite invested in getting Arthur and Merlin speaking to each other again, hopeless though it was.

“Having Arthur on the photos is going to ruin them anyway,” Merlin told him.

“Hmm… This is true, and I’ll make sure to tell him.”

“Wonderful,” Merlin muttered, “another reason for him to hate me.”

“He doesn’t hate you. It’s something else but he won’t tell me what it is. Anyway, we’re doing this. I’m the customer and the customer is always right,” Gwaine stated happily. “So, we’ll have a fitting next week. See you then, Merlin.”

Gwaine’s calls usually seemed to go along those lines, Merlin had discovered.

Arthur probably wouldn’t turn up, anyway, Merlin told himself. So he went along with it. The fact that he was secretly hoping that he would see Arthur again had absolutely nothing to do with his agreement.

And so, a week later he was back at Gwaine’s stately home, kneeling on the floor at Percival’s feet. As one of the ushers, Percival also needed a suit. And getting one to fit properly was definitely a major challenge for Merlin’s magic.

Percival was pleased with the results though. “Merlin, I’m going to hire you to adjust every item of clothing I buy from this point on! You’re brilliant! I’ve never had a suit fit this well. You’re wasted in wedding planning, you know that?”

Merlin did know that. He knew he’d studied long and hard for a career in museums and archaeology, but despite having a first and plenty of work experience he had found it impossible to find a job in that area. Sometimes he wondered if it was anything to do with his past relationship with Arthur, some kind of payback from the king? But he supposed he would never know.

Leon was next, another tall man but considerably less muscular than Percival. His suit fitted perfectly, there was nothing for Merlin to do. Unlike Gwaine, who somehow managed to make the trousers look as if they were the wrong length no matter what Merlin did. Elyan’s fitting was easy enough, another man built to wear a suit.

Eventually Merlin had seen to all of the wedding party except Arthur. It was disappointing, but he hadn’t expected Arthur to show, not really. So Merlin went for a comfort break in one of Gwaine’s stately bathrooms, then came back expecting to pack up and go home.

Except he couldn’t because there was one more member of the wedding party waiting when he got back.

“Oh, you’re joking,” Arthur complained as soon as he saw Merlin. “He said it was your colleague Gwen! I’m going to kill him, I swear.”

Well, that explained how Gwaine had persuaded Arthur to come along. Merlin couldn’t face yet another rejection and turned to leave.

The door shut in his face, and he heard a key turning in the lock.

“You’ll thank me later, bitches!” Gwaine called through the door. “Now kiss and make up!”

“That’s not funny!” Merlin called, but he wasn’t sure Gwaine was even still there on the other side of the door. “Let us out!”

There was no answer.

“He’s gone,” Arthur said. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. I take it this was his idea?”

Merlin reluctantly turned to face his ex-lover. “Of course it was. I get the message, Arthur. Obviously I have to do this, it’s part of my job. I didn’t expect you to actually come along. Seriously, you thought Gwen was going to do this?”

Arthur glared back at him defiantly. “Why wouldn’t she? Equal opportunities, Merlin.”

Merlin wondered, because it felt a little suspect. “Okay. Well I don’t think Gwaine’s thought this through. I can let us out of here, I can use my magic to open that door.”

“Do it.”

“Oh I will. As soon as you tell me what happened. What went wrong? Why did you suddenly decide you didn’t want us?”

“Common sense, Merlin. I’m the heir to the throne, I can’t be seen as a gay man.”

“Why? You were happy enough before. You had plans, hopes for the future. And I’m supposed to believe that those meant nothing too? I meant nothing?”

Arthur turned towards the window, as if seeking something out there that might help him. Or perhaps looking for an escape, Merlin thought.

“Well?” Merlin demanded, when no response was forthcoming. “Don’t I deserve to know?”

Arthur remained staring out of the window. “You meant everything,” he said finally, not looking at Merlin. “You still do.”

Merlin froze, not daring to hope. Had he misheard? “What?”

“We can’t be together,” Arthur continued. “It isn’t possible. The press would tear you apart.”

“We discussed that. I can cope,” Merlin insisted. “Look at me!” he shouted, when Arthur still kept his gaze on the window.

Slowly Arthur turned.

“It would be easier if, after this wedding, our paths don’t cross again.”

“But why?” Merlin had to know. “What changed?”

Arthur gave a heavy sigh, then sat down on a plush sofa in front of the window. “It was my father,” he said. “I thought he would understand. But he made it clear he could never, ever understand two men being in love. Cenred was something that he could comprehend. Cenred had seduced his son, corrupted him. Cenred wanted money, and that was what he got. That was all he was ever interested in. But you were different. You couldn’t be bought, you never once made threats or asked for hush money. He took my private phone from me on that first evening. So every text, every voice message you left after that, he saw or heard them all. All that love and concern for me. Even he could tell that it wasn’t a blackmailer calling his son but someone that actually cared. And that you weren’t going to go away.”

“So he sent that text?” Merlin sat down next to him, daring to be close. Arthur didn’t move away.

“No,” Arthur shook his head sadly. “That was me. I sent it. I had to try to make you give up on me, get on with your own life. There were things my father said… I was afraid, Merlin.”

“You?” Merlin could never imagine Arthur being afraid of anything.

“Not for myself. I don’t care what happens to me. I’d go through anything for you. But it wasn’t about me. I was afraid for you, for what would happen to you if you persisted.”

“We talked about that. I can cope with the press intrusion.”

“Not the press. Oh god, I don’t know how to tell you this.”

“Try.”

Arthur gazed at him sadly, then away. “First of all, in this country there are ancient laws regarding the monarchy. I’ve told you before, I think, that I can’t step down from being heir to the throne regardless of how much I want to. That would have to be done by Parliament. I can’t even abdicate when the time comes unless they agree. Did I tell you that part of it? I have no say in things at all.”

“That’s insane.”

“Tell me about it. And it’s not the worst one, the one that means we can’t be together. You’ve probably heard of sovereign immunity?”

“Yes.”

“It means that my father could commit any crime and no court could convict him. Anything, including murder. If he did it himself there would be no comeback. He told me this. When I absolutely refused to give you up he stopped shouting at me. He sat down at his desk and brought out a gun, laid it there in front of him.”

“He threatened to kill you?”

“Oh Merlin,” Arthur sighed, “are you being deliberately foolish? Of course it wasn’t me he threatened. If it was me then I would have just taken the risk. But it wasn’t. It was you. He threatened your life.”

That wasn’t what Merlin had expected to hear. “The king wants me dead?”

Arthur shrugged. “Not if you aren’t part of my life. But he sat there telling me how easy it was to poison someone’s food or drink, how simple it would be to procure the necessary product. You could detach yourself from what you were doing, convince yourself you were adding flavouring or something. He said that. He said all of that. And then he looked at me and told me very clearly, very coldly, that he would never allow me to have a partner of the opposite sex. And that it would be for the best for this homosexual person – those were his words – if they never saw me again. Kinder. Safer. All the time he was gently tapping the barrel of that gun. Threatening, yes. But not me. No. He threatened the most precious thing in the world to me.” Arthur looked down at his hands, stretching his fingers out then clenching them into tight fists. “I love you more than anything, Merlin. I think I always will. And I’m not subjecting you to that kind of danger.”

Merlin felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from him. Arthur loved him. Arthur had never stopped loving him. It had never been about anything other than Arthur’s desperate wish to keep Merlin alive. The fool. The stupid, self-sacrificing fool.

“That’s not your choice to make,” Merlin told him. “I’m not scared. If that’s all it is then it should have been my choice. I’d choose you,” Merlin insisted. “Even now, I’d choose you.”

“I can’t ask…”

“You don’t have to,” Merlin insisted. “I’m offering.”

“Did you not understand? He will have you killed. The kind of money he has, it wouldn’t be a problem and anyway I think he’d actually like to do it himself.”

Merlin shrugged, trying to appear less bothered by that than he actually was. “Well, he can try.”

“He will! Listen to me!  Morgana came to me the morning after I’d spoken to my father. She was distraught, crying.  I told you she’s a seer?”

“Yes.”

“She’s good.  She’s really good.  And she had a vision. She saw you and I in my father’s office.  There was a gun in his hand, pointing at you.  And she saw him shoot at you, point blank.  That was the decider for me. Morgana doesn’t lie, and her visions come true. How would she have known you and I were even together? It was too big a coincidence. I couldn’t risk you, Merlin. I still won’t.”

“Did she actually see me die in this vision?” Merlin asked.

“Well, no,” Arthur admitted.  “She woke up.  But she’s had the same vision again several times. She says it doesn’t change.  I’ve always feared you’ll turn up at the palace or something and that scene she’s dreamed will play out.”

“But she didn’t see me die?” Merlin checked. He knew enough of seers to realise that what they thought they had seen and what they had actually seen could be very different.  Not that you could ever tell a seer that.  They were always adamant if it was a strong vision.  And this one sounded as if it had been very clear.

“No she didn’t,” Arthur admitted. “But she said you couldn’t possibly have survived it.  He shot you in the chest. Oh my god, Merlin! I couldn’t live with myself if that happened. I can cope, knowing you’re out here in the world living your life, alive, safe. I hate it, I hate not being with you, but if that’s the price for your life then I’ll pay it.”

“Is that the only thing stopping us being together?” Merlin asked carefully. “You’re trying to save my life?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“But you still want us to be together as much as I do? Your feelings haven’t changed? Everything we had wasn’t a mistake?”

“God no, I’m miserable without you,” Arthur admitted. “Not a single day has gone by that I haven’t wished you were with me. But that’s selfish. I can’t let you die because of me.”

“Oh Arthur…” Merlin breathed. “That’s just… oh, you idiot!

Arthur looked understandably hurt and offended by that.  “Hey, I didn’t want to let you go!”

“But you didn’t need to!” Merlin insisted. “Prophecies can be avoided.”

Arthur gazed at him sadly.  “Morgana saw this over and over. She’s never had such a strong vision.” He glanced briefly at the door, then back at Merlin. “Look, my bodyguard is outside. I don’t know how Gwaine’s persuaded him not to come in here so far but eventually he’ll want to check on me. You need to unlock that.”

Merlin ignored that request. “I think we should go and see your father.”

“What? Are you not listening to me? No!”

“We should visit him, talk to him.”

“I don’t want you anywhere near him!”

“I’m not scared of him.”

“Well you should be!” Arthur exclaimed. “Even without what Morgana saw, there’s security to worry about. Val and Kanen, that day you turned up at the hospital, they reported back to my father and they’ve been told if you ever come near me again they’re to shoot you and make it look like an accident. They can do that.”

“Like Cenred?” Merlin asked. He already suspected the answer.

“Yes,” Arthur’s expression was grim. “Exactly like Cenred.”

Merlin had searched for Cenred, angry at the way he’d treated Arthur at first, and then just confused at the whole situation. At his lowest point Merlin had even wondered whether Cenred might be the innocent party after all, just another man naïve enough to fall for Prince Arthur. So Merlin had always kept an alert on the name, just in case. He’d seen the news stories the previous year, the obituary. “The plane crash. A tragic accident, the papers said.”

“I don’t think it was an accident,” Arthur told him. “In fact, I know it wasn’t. My father made very sure that I knew it wasn’t, in case I was thinking of ever making contact with you again. And it worked because I’m not risking anything like that happening to you.”

Merlin glanced back out of the window but there was nobody around. “Are they here today, Val and Kanen?”

“No. Galahad’s on duty. He’s newer, wouldn’t immediately know who you are. You’re probably safe with him on duty, and Owain, my other newer guard. They’re decent men, wouldn’t kill without good reason. But they might report back. Someone might show them a photo of you and then they’ll realise. Galahad will probably say something about today.”

“I don’t want us to be finished,” Merlin told him plaintively. “I still love you.”

Arthur gazed at him sadly, his eyes tracing the features of Merlin’s face as if trying to commit it to memory. “And I you. But it can’t be. Not while my father is alive.”

“What about when you’re king? We could keep things quiet and be together then. I’d wait,” Merlin added. “For you, I’d wait.”

“My father is fifty-eight years old,” Arthur pointed out. “My great-grandmother lived to be almost a hundred, kept all her mental faculties and fell asleep one evening after a tipple of her favourite gin. With medical advances my father might live even longer. I can’t ask you to wait for what might be more than forty years. You’d be giving up half your life, only to live the rest of it in media hell.”

“Arthur,” Merlin smiled, trying not to laugh. “I wouldn’t be giving up anything. I’m a gay man, it’s not as if there’s a biological clock ticking. I have a job – not the one I expected, I grant you, but it’s a job. I like working with Gwen, who wouldn’t? And knowing that you’re waiting too, that one day we can be together properly, that would make it worthwhile. I can cope. All I would be giving up is a slow trickle of meaningless relationships with people I can never truly love because my heart is already taken. So yes, I’d wait a thousand years if I had to.”

And then Merlin leaned in to kiss Arthur, because he could. Because Arthur had never ever stopped loving him, quite the opposite, and the world made sense again. Arthur didn’t resist, didn’t even try to pull away. They half-sat, half-lay on the sofa, rediscovering the warmth and taste of each other’s mouths. When Arthur finally, regretfully broke away it didn’t feel like an ending but a beginning.

“I’ve missed you so much,” Arthur whispered.

“Me too. And now we need to talk to your father,” Merlin insisted again, with a braveness he didn’t feel. He had an idea, a way to deal with Uther. But he needed to face the man in order to carry it out.

“I did,” Arthur told him sadly. “I argued for hours, and it made no difference.”

“Well,” Merlin smiled, looking into Arthur’s beloved face and feeling stronger than he had in over two years, “you’re not me.”

And just to emphasise that, he conjured a tiny dragon in his hands, all made of ice cold flame.

Arthur gazed at it wonderingly. “No,” he agreed. “I suppose I’m not.”

---

The drive to the palace seemed to take forever.

Arthur’s new bodyguard, Galahad, was sitting in the front seat next to the driver. He’d simply accepted it when Arthur had told him they were going back to the palace and that Merlin was coming with them.

“Merlin is one of the wedding planners,” Arthur had explained. “Already passed security when Gwaine took them on, no need to worry about checking. We’ve had a bit of a disagreement about my suit for the wedding, I just want to show him the one I think would be better.”

“Yes, Sir,” Galahad said, but Merlin had seen him tapping at his phone as they got in.

“He’s probably doing a check on me,” Merlin whispered to Arthur.

“I know.” Arthur leaned forward and tapped on the glass dividing him from Galahad and the driver. “Don’t start the car yet. Galahad, don’t run that check yet. Can we step outside, just for a minute?”

Galahad gave Merlin a wary look but got out.

“Stay here,” Arthur told Merlin.

“But…”

“I need to show him you’re not threatening me. If you’re right next to me you could be controlling me by some means. Especially as you’re down as a magic user. Okay?”

Merlin reluctantly agreed and stayed in the car, watching as Arthur climbed out and walked a short distance away with Galahad.

The driver stayed in the car, checking the sat nav, uninterested in anything else. Merlin might as well not have been there for all the notice that the man took. He supposed that was professional disinterest. What or who the royals had in the car with them was not any of his business. Sadly the same couldn’t be said of those in security posts.

Merlin couldn’t hear what Arthur was saying to Galahad, but at the end of their conversation Galahad nodded, pocketed his phone then said something to Arthur. Whatever it was it made Arthur smile and both men returned to the car looking a lot happier than they were when they’d left it.

“Well?” Merlin whispered when Arthur slid back onto the seat beside him, the door being closed after Arthur got in. Arthur was apparently not supposed to do such things himself. Merlin wasn’t sure he’d ever quite get over learning that.

“It’s fine. Galahad will get us through security when we arrive. I’ve promised him that if he gets into any trouble for this Gwaine or my sister will employ him. It’s a better job here with Gwaine anyway.”

That didn’t stop Merlin worrying for the entire journey. Every time Galahad looked round Merlin found himself reaching for his magic, concerned that he might need to protect himself against a bullet.

But Galahad stayed true to his word and they reached the palace without incident. Merlin had seen the palace before, of course, many times, though always from the outside. Having the main gates opened and being driven through was a far different experience. All the tourists outside had been moved back but that didn’t stop them excitedly snapping photos as Arthur’s car drove through. Merlin ducked his head, hoping that the tinted windows would hide him. Arthur laughed at that.

“They can’t see you, Merlin!”

“It doesn’t feel like it. Oh god, we’re inside the palace grounds!”

“Second thoughts?” Arthur queried. “We could leave, if you don’t think you can do this?”

Merlin shook his head. He knew they’d probably only get one chance. Soon enough Uther would hear that they were back in contact and then it would be too late. He would persuade Arthur that Merlin’s life would be forfeit if they continued their relationship, and Merlin would lose him again.

“I’m ready.”

There was another unfamiliar bodyguard waiting for them when they got out of the car.

“Owain,” Arthur greeted the man. “This is Merlin. He’s with me. We’re going to see my father. Can you and Galahad accompany us, please.”

Merlin saw the two bodyguards exchange glances. Galahad nodded to Owain. Merlin supposed that Arthur was right and the pair of them were the decent people he’d claimed. They would have to be.

The palace itself was ridiculous. Overly ornate, it was more of a museum than a home. Merlin felt completely out of place. And yet Arthur strode through the corridors, greeting everyone that they passed. Merlin didn’t know how he managed to remember all their names. But he did.

“You actually live here?” he asked Arthur at one point as they passed through what looked like (but in fact weren’t) solid gold doors.

“No, I have my own residence now. Owain and Galahad work directly for me rather than being part of the king’s security team. But yes, I grew up here.”

“Just what every child dreams of,” Merlin commented, looking around at the thick drapes on the windows, the old and probably priceless paintings on the walls.

“Indeed,” Arthur said. Merlin supposed that perhaps it hadn’t been much fun there for a child. “But Morgana and I had each other, and the private rooms aren’t as bad as this. And we often stayed with Gwaine.”

It still felt far too austere for a child to grow up in.

The king’s office was on the first floor. Merlin had visions of King Uther sitting on some sort of ornate throne, signing documents whilst wearing his crown and looking regal. Perhaps there would be a robe involved. There were none of these things.

Arthur nodded to the guard outside, then tapped on the relatively plain wooden door to the office.

“Enter,” called a very familiar voice. It spoke to the nation on Christmas Day every year. Merlin felt a sudden rush of nerves but it was far too late to back out. The guard opened the door for Arthur, then stepped back.

King Uther was dressed in a perfectly normal and un-kingly outfit. Just a light blue button-up shirt with an open collar, not even wearing a tie. He was sitting at his desk, his back to the window, working on some papers. Briefly he glanced up when the door opened, but then continued reading through the paper he had in his hand. He didn’t look up again until he had finished with the document, laying it back down on the table.

Arthur and Merlin stood in front of the desk, waiting. Merlin had learned that much at least, that he was supposed to wait until the king spoke before saying anything himself. It was stupid, and Uther was demonstrating exactly why.

“Yes, Arthur,” Uther sighed, finally looking up from his paper. And then he spotted Merlin. “You!”

“This is Merlin, Father,” Arthur put in quickly.

“I know who he is!” Uther roared, getting to his feet. “How did he get in here? Why are you with him? Did I not make myself clear on the previous occasions that we discussed this, Arthur?”

“Yes, but you’re wrong…” Arthur began.

“I am the king!” Uther yelled at him, banging his fist on the desk. “You will obey me, Arthur! How dare you bring this… this abomination here!”

“I love Merlin,” Arthur replied. Merlin could hear the slight tremor in his voice as he spoke. Arthur had endured a lifetime of Uther dominating him, Merlin supposed. It would be hard to stand up to that, even as an adult.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Uther scoffed. 

“And I love Arthur,” Merlin added.

“You do not speak in the presence of your king,” Uther growled at Merlin.

The king who wanted him dead, Merlin thought. He knew he should be frightened. But really, Uther was just a man. A man with far too much power.

“That isn’t illegal, just royal protocol,” Merlin pointed out.

“Get out or I’ll have you arrested.”

“For what? Talking? I walked in here with Arthur. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Uther glared at him, then turned to Arthur. “Arthur, you know what we spoke of. Don’t think that I will hesitate.”

Arthur glanced nervously at Merlin, who nodded reassuringly. “It’s okay, he can’t hurt me.”

“Oh, I can,” Uther assured him. He reached down and opened the drawer of his desk. Sure enough, just as Arthur claimed, he brought out a gun, dark and sleek.

Arthur took a sharp intake of breath. “Morgana saw this…” He looked to Merlin, his expression desperate.  “It’s going to happen, just like she saw. You need to go. Now!”

“As if I wouldn’t be able to hit him before he reached the door,” Uther sneered.  “Arthur, if I do this it will be for your own good. You clearly cannot control your feelings for this boy.”

Merlin regarded him coldly. He had no intention of going anywhere. “You do know we’re not living in medieval times now, don’t you? You know that you’re just a figurehead, a face for the coins, not some kind of warlord?”

“Merlin…” Arthur warned.  “Don’t provoke him.”

“You will give up any claim to my son,” Uther told him calmly. “There will be a payment, just as there was with the other one.”

“You mean Cenred? That money didn’t do him much good, did it?” Merlin commented. He glanced at Arthur, who was regarding them both worriedly.

“I know you killed Cenred,” Arthur stated flatly. It wasn’t even an accusation. There was a gasp from behind them, and Merlin realised that at least one of the guards had entered the room. A witness then.

“He was greedy. Requested more after his silence had already been purchased. So. Now he is permanently silent. It’s a lesson that you would do well to learn.”

“I love Arthur,” Merlin repeated. “I won’t give him up. I don’t want your money.”

There was a tightening in Uther’s jaw at that statement. He still held the gun. “Do not contaminate my son with your abnormality,” he commanded. “Arthur’s bloodline is that of kings, going back centuries.”

“And queens, no doubt,” Merlin pointed out. He wasn’t sure if Uther would get the reference at first, but the anger on Uther’s face left him in no doubt.

“How dare you!”

“No, how dare you! Your son came out to you and you didn’t just reject him, you forced him back into the closet for the rest of his life! You didn’t think what it would do to him!”

“Arthur will be king after me!”

“And his being bi will make no difference to that. You’re a heterosexual man, god help women everywhere, is that something you flaunt every day? Do you go on state visits or attend posh dinners, or wave from balconies shouting that you like to fuck women?”

“How dare you!” Uther repeated. His face was going a shade of purple.

“Sire, please put the gun down.” That was Galahad, coming forward cautiously, hand outstretched. Uther ignored him. Because what could Galahad do? He wasn’t allowed to overpower the king.

“Merlin,” Arthur warned, “be careful. Remember Morgana’s vision. You be careful too,” he added to Galahad. “Don’t do anything rash.”

Merlin kept a wary eye on the gun, knowing that he was goading the king. But there was method in his madness. 

“But it’s true!” Merlin continued. “His sexuality is irrelevant. It doesn’t stop him being king. Would you really rather that your son was unhappy for the rest of his life than be true to who he is?”

“The media will rip both of you apart. You’ll be the pervert who turned their golden prince into a degenerate. The people will reject you both, but you especially. It will be the end of the monarchy!”

“Well that wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” Arthur put in. “I don’t want this. I didn’t choose it.”

“Arthur!” Uther protested. “See how this creature has corrupted you?”

The gun was still pointed at Merlin, but it was wavering, almost as if Uther were considering including Arthur as a target. Merlin kept up his concentration, watching Uther like a hawk. The guard from outside and Owain had come in too. But like Galahad they were powerless.

And then with a clatter of heels Morgana burst into the room, stopping dead in the entrance as she took in the scene.

“Oh my god no!” she exclaimed. “I just saw… No… no, no… this can’t happen!”

“It’s okay,” Merlin called to her, holding up a hand in what he hoped would be a warning to her not to come closer.  The last thing anyone needed was Morgana caught in the crossfire. “Stay back.”

“Leave us, Morgana,” Uther ordered.  “Guards, remove her.”

“Don’t you touch me,” Morgana warned.  Sensibly, none of the guards even attempted it, and she strode over to Arthur’s side.  “What are you doing?” Merlin heard her whisper.  “Oh, Arthur… why’s Merlin here?”

Arthur shook his head at her. “I trust Merlin,” he told her, then turned back to face their father, looking far calmer than he had to be feeling, Merlin supposed.  “The monarchy should go if it means monsters like you ever coming into this position again, Father.”

“Divine right of kings? Divine right of demented murderers is more like it. It’s all that in-breeding, isn’t it?” Merlin added.

Uther pointed the gun squarely at Merlin. “It’s a divine right, especially if it clears the world of depraved creatures like you.”

“I’m not the one who’s depraved,” Merlin told him.

Uther fired.

“No!” Arthur yelled, almost drowned out by Morgana’s scream.

At point blank range Uther couldn’t possibly miss. And he wouldn’t have done with any other target than Merlin.

Merlin reached out for the bullet with his magic, freezing it there in the air between them. Uther fired again, a second shot straight after the first, so quickly that he couldn’t have realised what was happening.

Both bullets froze in mid-air, hanging there impossibly still. The guards, who had moved towards Uther when he fired, king or no, paused, staring at the suspended bullets.

“How?” Galahad asked.

Morgana stared at the frozen bullets in amazement for a moment. “Oh.  Oh, Merlin…” And then she made a strange sound, half-sob, half-laugh. “Oh my god…”

“He has magic,” Uther exclaimed disgustedly. “Magic! I’ve long said it should be made illegal. Small wonder he has such influence over Arthur. Arrest him!”

Merlin gave the bullets a little nudge with his magic and they dissolved in a shower of golden dust.

“Other than protecting myself I’ve done nothing wrong,” he pointed out.

“Unlike my father,” Arthur added. “You all witnessed that he attempted to kill Merlin? For no good reason other than his own homophobia? It’s you who should be arrested, Father.”

“Arthur, listen to yourself!” Uther exclaimed. “That’s treason!” The gun was still in his hand. And now it was pointing at Arthur.

“Don’t…” Arthur began.

Perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps Uther’s finger slipped on the trigger in his rage. Merlin didn’t know and didn’t care. Because suddenly there was a bullet racing towards Arthur, aiming to hit him in the heart.

“No!” Merlin heard Morgana cry. The guards all leapt forward, but they would have been far too slow. Only Merlin was fast enough.

The bullet stopped just inches from Arthur’s chest. Arthur was staring at it in horror. At least, until Merlin plucked it from the air with his fingers and laid it carefully down on the desk. Then he stared at Merlin instead, pale with shock.

“Merlin… God, you saved my life!”

Uther had dropped the gun in shock. Whether that was the shock of shooting his son, or at how Merlin had stopped the bullets, Merlin wasn’t sure.  At any rate Morgana snatched the gun up, keeping it safely out of Uther’s reach.

“Does sovereign immunity extend so far as attempted murder of your own son?” Merlin asked. His hands were shaking. That had been so close. Too close.

“Silence!” Uther demanded.

“You just tried to kill me!” Arthur gasped. He still looked stunned. “If Merlin hadn’t been here…”

“I… It was the sorcerer!” Uther cried.

“What?” Merlin exclaimed.

“It was you, Father,” Arthur said, shaking his head.  “It was you.”

“Guard!” Uther pointed at Owain. “Arrest the sorcerer,” he repeated, ignoring Arthur. “Arrest both of them!”

“Are you okay, Sire?” Galahad asked cautiously. “You seem a little…”

“Unhinged is the word you’re looking for,” Merlin supplied.

“You’re fired!” Uther snapped at Galahad, as if it were him who had spoken. “You!” he pointed to the guard who had been on duty at the door, “call up my head of security. Tell him to bring as many men as possible, ones equipped to deal with magic users. Hurry!”

“Do as he asks,” Arthur told the man calmly. “Ensure that they bring a doctor as well. I think that we can all see that sadly my father is not himself. I fear he is perhaps unwell and requires a break from his duties. My sister and I will need to stand in for a short time, at least until he is quite recovered.”

“How dare you!” Uther raged. “This is treason!”

“I’m sure the security footage from this room, along with my father’s confession regarding Cenred King, will be sufficient to ensure he receives the help and support that he needs,” Arthur continued. “Galahad, Owain, please restrain him. It’s for his own good.”

“Treason, Arthur! I’ll have you disinherited!” Uther shouted.

“Yes, except that’s not possible now,” Morgana told him. “You won’t be having anything done to anyone, you evil pig!”

Behind them, guards were already entering the room.  Valiant, Merlin was glad to see, wasn’t amongst them. Belatedly he realised that the guard who had been outside the door was probably quite senior, having been guarding the king. There would be few who doubted his word.

“Monmouth!” Uther yelled as an older man came hurrying in.

Merlin had heard Arthur mention Geoffrey Monmouth, Uther’s chief advisor before. He was red in the face and Merlin supposed the man had been rushing to get there.

“Goodness me, whatever is going on?” he asked, seeing the king in handcuffs and almost spitting with rage. “Arthur? Morgana?”

Arthur gave Merlin’s hand a gentle squeeze.

“It’ll be okay,” he promised. “Nobody knows protocol better than Geoffrey.”

Then he let go and went over to begin the long process of change.

---

Merlin didn’t see Arthur again for hours.

By that time Morgana and Arthur had been locked in fierce discussions over the future of the monarchy. Prime Minister Annis had been summoned to the palace. She had actually been smiling when she left by all accounts. Uther was not a particularly popular king.

Morgana had been distraught at first after the shock of having seen her visions coming true.  But once Arthur had convinced her that he was okay and so was Merlin she calmed down.  After that she had stood at her brother’s side and stayed there, supporting him as much as she could.

Merlin had been shown to a side room, assigned a person he could call on if he needed anything, and then left to his own devices. Mostly that involved watching TV and playing with his phone as there wasn’t a lot else to do. The news was speculating that something was going on at the palace because of the prime ministerial summons, but as yet none of the stations seemed to have come anywhere close to guessing the truth.

It was quite boring, waiting. Gwaine popped in for a while, but he was on his way to see Arthur and barely had time for more than a hello. Merlin could have requested anything he wanted from the assistant that he’d been given. But instead he just had a sandwich (the poshest sandwich that he’d ever had in his life!) then took a selfie and sent it to Gwen.

Arthur finally appeared at nearly 10pm. He looked exhausted and sank wearily down onto the sofa beside Merlin.

“Well, it’s done,” Arthur told him. “My father has been declared unfit to rule. He’s in a private secure hospital receiving the best care.”

“So you’re king now?”

“I’m regent. It will be officially declared soon. And I’ve discussed with the prime minister how we can bring in legislation removing sovereign immunity. She was very enthusiastic about it. Probably a republican like you!”

Merlin smiled. “I’m rethinking. I like some aspects of the monarchy. The Prince of Wales, for one. Morgana and Gwaine are pretty good too.”

“You’re not bad yourself,” Arthur told him. “God, I wish I’d known you could stop bullets… that was incredible! I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought you just made paper crowns and adjusted costumes!”

Merlin shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant about it all. “I’m quite good at magic.”

“I’ll say!  I could have had you at my side all this time,” he shook his head sadly.  “You never needed protecting.”

“No,” Merlin agreed.  “But you couldn’t have known that. And I get that you pushed me away because you love me, I really do.”

“I’d do anything to keep you safe, Merlin. But I feel like a fool.”

“Well, you’re royalty so that’s nearly the same thing!” Merlin teased, making Arthur smile again.

“Cheek!”

“I try. So, will your father abdicate at some point?”

Arthur shook his head. “It’s complicated. Because technically he’s not of sound mind he can’t abdicate. I step in as Prince Regent until such time as he’s declared fit to rule again.”

Merlin did not like the sound of that. “So he could return to the throne?”

“Yes. But in the meantime I will effectively be the king in all but name. And as I said, I can work with our government to ensure that the archaic laws regarding the monarchy and sovereign immunity are changed. So if he does return to the throne there will be charges to answer, king or not. After what’s happened here there won’t be much opposition to changing that particular aspect of the law.”

“Get rid of the monarchy altogether?” Merlin asked hopefully. “Save all that money and you and I could have a normal life?”

“I’ll never have a completely normal life,” Arthur told him. “There’s always going to be media interest. Photos of me in retirement while I’m shuffling round Tescos in scruffy clothes with the headline pointing out that I don’t look the same as I did fifty years earlier.”

Merlin didn’t bother arguing it. They both knew it was true.

“So,” Arthur said, putting an arm around his partner. “Apparently I have to live here again now. How would you feel about being the royal consort?”

“Servants and four-poster beds?”

“Well, we normally say staff rather than servants, Mer-lin, and usually sleep on a comfortable divan with a firm mattress…”

Merlin grinned delightedly. “Ah,” he said, “finally!”

“What?”

“There’s the royal prat I know and love!” Merlin declared.

“Regent, Merlin.”

“Royal Prat Regent, yes,” Merlin told him happily, silencing the indignant spluttering with a kiss.

---

After that, Merlin’s life couldn’t stay the same.

For one thing, he had to sneak around pretending that he wasn’t having a secret affair with the Prince Regent. And for another there was no longer King Uther blocking his career.

Professor Gaius called him on the afternoon Arthur’s regency was announced, offering him a job. Not everyone was entirely happy about that.

“Leaving?” Gwen exclaimed. “But… you can’t! The big wedding… I can’t train someone that fast!”

Merlin had a feeling that would be her reaction. “It’s okay…”

“It’s not okay!”

“It is. I’ve spoken to Professor Gaius. One of his assistants is retiring at the end of the year. So I start in January. Plenty of time for us to recruit and train. And I’ll still be around for Gwaine and Leon’s wedding.”

“Hmm,” Gwen considered this. “It’s still not very long. But I’ll manage. Won’t it be further away from Arthur though?”

Merlin shrugged. “Arthur’s so busy at the moment, I sometimes go days without seeing him, especially during the week. So I’ll drive down on Monday morning and back on a Friday. Or he’ll come to me. We’ll make it work. Apparently there’s a country estate not too far away from Camelot Trust anyway. Arthur’s seeing whether he can take it on as his private retreat. Or we could just move into the castle at Camelot Trust if it’s ever finished!”

“Money no object!” Gwen commented, smiling, reaching out to give him a hug. “Well, I suppose I couldn’t keep you forever. I'll miss you though. But I’ll be coming to visit regularly, you can bet on that. And you have to do something for me. No arguments.”

“What?” Merlin asked warily.

“This.” Gwen pointed to the old Camelot Trust charity calendar that she’d had on the office wall for over a year. Merlin had assumed she just hadn’t got around to taking it down at year end. It wasn’t as if the picture there was anything but perfect. Lance, shirtless, grinning at the camera.

“Introduce me to Mr December!” she begged. “Oh my god, Merlin, please tell me he’s straight and single!”

---

The wedding went perfectly. But then, weddings organised by Gwen and Merlin always did.

Arthur remained as best man, which given his change of status suddenly meant that there were a lot more media enquiries for Merlin and Gwen to deal with. They took it in their stride, though. Suddenly every reporter in the world wanted to be at that wedding.  The phone did not stop ringing. No, Arthur would not be bringing a plus one. No, they didn’t know whether he was seeing anyone. Yes, it was on the Duke of Devonshire’s private estate so no unapproved press access. Yes, a single reporter would be in attendance and they had already been approved and appointed. No, Gwen and Merlin couldn’t sneak anyone else in, no matter how much was offered.  And so it went on.

Arthur’s best man speech was heartfelt and entertaining, whilst Elyan’s made everyone laugh. In the end the two had collaborated so that there was no risk of one upstaging the other. Gwaine managed not to fluff his lines in the chapel, despite having completely messed up the rehearsal a few days before. And Leon did everything correctly, as he always did.

“I enjoyed today,” Arthur commented, sitting to one side with Merlin at the evening do. “That was a beautiful wedding. Well done.”

Gwaine was out on the dance floor doing some sort of ridiculous routine that he had clearly choreographed two seconds earlier and must have looked far better in his somewhat inebriated mind. Leon was watching him fondly, shaking his head. They both looked stupidly happy. As you should on your wedding day.

“Gwen’s weddings always go well,” Merlin assured him. “She’s an expert.”

“Hmm.” Arthur sat back in his chair, watching the dancers thoughtfully.  “An expert…”

Morgana was dancing with a group of her friends.  Merlin noted that Elena was amongst them.  They’d somewhat lost touch over the past couple of years. He was looking forward to getting to know her again in the New Year.

“One day I might put Gwen to the test on that,” Arthur said quietly.

Merlin gave him a quizzical look. “What do you mean?” he asked, though he knew perfectly well. It was always fun to watch Arthur squirm though. 

On that particular occasion, Arthur just smiled.

“Nothing yet,” Arthur smiled at him. “We haven’t even announced ourselves to the world yet.”

They sort of had, though Merlin had not yet been named as Arthur’s partner.

Arthur hadn’t held back during his first address to the nation. Prime Minister Annis had already announced that King Uther was unwell and that his heir Prince Arthur would be standing in as regent for the foreseeable future. So Arthur had introduced himself and immediately declared that he would be reforming the monarchy, starting with the abolition of sovereign immunity.

After that, because Arthur didn’t do things by halves, Arthur came out to the entire nation. And so it was that revelation, not his proposed overturning of ancient laws which dominated news reports around the world in the 24 hours following his address.

Arthur’s declaration of his sexuality had provoked either outrage, indifference or adoration, depending on the slant of the particular news media reporting it. So far the reception had been mostly positive. But then he hadn’t brought his partner out officially in public, not yet.

And so Merlin and Arthur had quietly rebuilt their relationship, keeping everything private. It had been difficult when Arthur was hounded by the press constantly. Still, he had refused to release the name of his lover. Sooner or later someone would find out. Merlin knew that Arthur was tired of hiding. He was too. It was almost Christmas and he would have liked to take Arthur home, introduce him properly to his mum. Or perhaps they’d all have to go to the palace.  Arthur had already recorded his first Christmas day speech but it was perhaps best not to advertise the fact that it wasn’t entirely live…

Obviously the shock and horror of Merlin’s new boyfriend’s identity was going to kill Will but that couldn’t be helped.

“Is the reporter still here, do you think?” Arthur asked casually.

Merlin looked around the room. He could see Mithian Nemeth, the same reporter who had written the thoughtful article about Arthur the previous year. She was sitting quietly across from them. Watching them, naturally, though never intrusive.

“Yes, she’s still here. I don’t think she’s taken her eyes off you all night.”

“Perhaps she needs to know that I’m spoken for,” Arthur said lightly, though there were questions in his eyes as he looked at Merlin.

“I think perhaps she does.”

“Shall we dance?” Arthur stood, offering his hand.

Merlin took Arthur’s hand. He didn’t look over at the reporter, knowing she would be alert, would be about to get the scoop of a lifetime.

“Are you ready?” Arthur asked.

“No,” Merlin replied. “But I never will be so let’s do it anyway.”

And so they did.

-----