Actions

Work Header

A Modern Manservant

Chapter Text

True to his word, Arthur's menial list of tasks dramatically decreased. In the past, he used to insist that Merlin complete every chore on his gigantic list, from bathing his dogs to polishing every shoe in his wardrobe but now Arthur was being -- heaven forbid -- decent.

Not only did he seem to have weaned himself off throwing every available object at Merlin's person but even his insults had lost their cruel sting and now just came across as harmless jibes. 'Arseface' and 'Prathead' had somehow become almost affectionate nicknames and every morning without fail, Arthur would find a new and innovative way to describe Merlin's ears ('cinnamon swirls' had been by far the worst, especially since Arthur had been eating one at the time).

It wasn't all fun and games, however. Arthur being Arthur was still as high-maintenance as the most demanding WAG on the planet and continued to be a daily pain in Merlin's posterior.

When he wasn't being nearly murdered by the new monster of the week, the snakes in the grass in the company seemed to slowly be making their play for his throne. Morgana silently tried to sabotage day-to-day operations while Agravaine panted after her like a middle-aged puppy in heat and Mordred skulked about in dark corners being generally creepy.

Morgana's plans had initially started out small, like misplacing 'The Book' -- the mock-up of the magazine that was often treated like the bible -- or getting Agravaine to whisper his poisonous suggestions into Arthur's ear. Now, however, she had been quiet and Merlin was sure she was plotting something he couldn't prove. Even Arthur, who had once been so paranoid about Morgana that Merlin had caught him trying to sneak a hidden camera into the hibiscus in her office, had almost totally let his guard down.

So Merlin had waited, watching Morgana every free moment he had that didn't include fighting off giant scorpions (Monday) and stopping Arthur from dooming Camelot with a series of plagues after he pissed off a one night stand's vengeful warlock father (Wednesday through Friday).

To Merlin’s surprise, though, Morgana did not end up being the next big problem. Instead, that honour went to one of Arthur's incredibly active community of fans.

It wasn't like Merlin didn't know early on that Arthur had admirers. After all, he already knew Arthur was the walking wet dream of the majority of the building (including himself, sadly enough) but after having to wade through sacks of his fan mail on a regular basis, Merlin had come to realise that there were a lot of very deluded people out there.

From marriage proposals and teddy bears to letters so pornographic that they made Merlin's ears go pink, Merlin had a strong suspicion that every quack in the country was violently in love with his employer.

So when the death threats starting coming through the post and ended up being so creepy in nature that they made the people before seem as mentally sound as the Dalai Lama, Merlin felt it was a cause for concern. By the time the third letter found its way to Arthur's desk and contained detailed descriptions of necrophilia, Merlin had really started to worry.

"Don't be such a girl, Merlin," Arthur said in response to his fears, which felt slightly hypocritical for him to say considering that he was the one preening and posing into a mirror as he said it. "I always get weird notes."

"Arthur, have you read any of these? This isn't just another one of your misguided fans who, for some reason, can't see that you're an arrogant twit. This person wants to make love to your dead eye sockets! Do you think that is normal behaviour?" 

"I'll agree that some fans to get carried away..." 

"Eye sockets, Arthur!" Merlin bellowed.

Sadly, Arthur being the oblivious idiot he was didn’t listen and had not only waved off Merlin's concerns but did so again when a fourth note came, as though a letter detailing frying parts of his anatomy and eating them wasn't worth worrying about.

When the fifth note included a Polaroid of Arthur's bedroom, Arthur finally started to take things seriously.

Leon, naturally, was furious Arthur hadn't mentioned the notes to him earlier.

"Arthur, what the hell. How could you have failed to notify me about this?" he demanded angrily.

"Leon, honestly, it seemed harmless enough," Arthur said, demonstrating how seriously he took the situation as he buffed his nails.

"Harmless? Arthur, they wanted to make love to your eye sockets!"

"I told you that was weird," Merlin cut in like a know-it-all.

Arthur took a moment to give him a remarkably potent scowl before turning back to Leon.

"Look, can you get your contacts to figure out who this is? I don't want the police involved unless it’s absolutely necessary." 

"Arthur, this doesn't sound like your run of the mill fan girl,” Leon said, his forehead lined with apprehension. “As your head of security, my main job is to keep you safe."

"I want to know how this bloke got into your bedroom," Merlin wondered aloud. "It's like Fort Knox getting into that place. They'd have to be James Bond to bypass all your fancy security crap. Maybe it's an ex? You don’t have any old MI6 girlfriends floating about, do you?" 

"I've never invited anyone to my place,” Arthur said simply.

"Wait," Merlin paused, taking in the implications of this, "as in no one? Ever? Not your father or even an old girlfriend?"

"I don't do girlfriends."

Merlin looked at Leon who just waved his hand, as though telling him not to bother trying to fathom the complexities of Arthur's love life.

"Arthur, this is serious," Leon said instead, sitting himself down and looking at his best friend with concern, "and with the Christmas holidays approaching, I'm not happy about you staying at your place by yourself. Clearly, if they broke in once then they could do it again. Also, these letters are bloody disturbing. They seem to know everything you do. It’s almost as though it’s someone who knows the ins and outs of your schedule."

Leon then sneaked a look at Merlin, who felt slightly affronted by the suspicion. Sure he appreciated Arthur's looks -– he was only human, after all -- but mistaking him for someone who Jeffrey Dahmer would swap recipe cards with was highly insulting.

Arthur had also noticed Leon's speculative glance because he soon grunted at it.

"Leon, Merlin wouldn't know how to break into a house even if he had the keys in one hand and the blueprints in the other," Arthur said. "Not to mention that he's all loved-up with his boyfriend."

"I already told you, Will isn't my boyfriend," Merlin interrupted but they both seemed to ignore him to carry on talking about him anyway. 

"Arthur, I’m not accusing Merlin here but I'm just saying to be wary-" Leon continued doggedly.

"Leon," Arthur said in so firm a voice that even Uther Pendragon would have backed down, "we're not talking about this anymore so just drop it. I trust Merlin with my life. End of discussion."

Merlin blinked at Arthur with shock, both touched and pleasantly surprised. Leon, on the other hand, didn’t look half as approving but he grudgingly let it go.

"Fine. But either way, Arthur, you'll need somewhere else to stay for the time being, to be safe."

"Leon, what do you expect me to do?" Arthur whined, going from editor-in-chief to pre-schooler in the blink of an eye. "Go to the house in Hertfordshire and put my life on hold? I have a job and a social life, you know. I need to be in London. I'll book a hotel if it worries you so much."

"Arthur, this person knows all about you. They might even be tracking your credit cards. No, you should lay low and stay with someone you trust. I'd let you stay with me but I've already booked my tickets to spend Christmas with my family in Greece. What about your father or your Uncle Agravaine?"

"Balls, must we get them involved in all this?" Arthur asked, rubbing his fingers over his temples as though he was trying to dispel a headache. "My father already bollocks me enough about how common my celebrity is and Agravaine couldn't do it even if I wanted him to - he's in Switzerland on his annual ski trip." 

"Arthur, you're not giving me many options here," Leon said tiredly, his infinite patience showing a strain. "I hate to say it but under the circumstances, it looks like Morgana is your best choice."

"I'd rather flat-share with the stalker and let him fuck my eye sockets every morning than share with Morgana," Arthur responded without the slightest hesitation before clarifying, "In case that wasn't clear, Leon, that means 'no, I'm not staying with her or her demon dog'."

"Lovely," Leon responded before dropping himself down onto a chair in surrender. "Well, I've exhausted all other possibilities. I'd say stay with one of the women you keep on retainer but considering the fact that you shag them and never call them again, they're just as likely to murder you as this psycho is. Honestly, I’m at a loss. I don't know what else to suggest."

"No need to worry, Leon, I have an idea," said Arthur confidently. He then turned to Merlin and looked expectantly at him. Merlin's response to this was to immediately check behind him. When he saw nothing but a window and a sorry looking potted-plant that looked like it needed watering, realisation slowly set in.

"Wait, you want to stay with me?" Merlin said in disbelief, pointing at himself just to be sure Arthur wasn't really talking about the dying peace lily. "My flat barely has enough space in it for the people who live there, let alone manage to fit in your massive head. I mean, it's a wonder it even got into this room to be honest."

"Charming little shit, isn't he?" Arthur briefly remarked with amusement to Leon before turning back to Merlin and saying, "You have a floor, don't you?"

"Wow, you're willing to sleep on the floor?" Merlin asked, impressed as he entertained the notion that perhaps Arthur had matured.

Unfortunately, Arthur chose that moment to scoff, proving he hadn't matured in the slightest.

"Of course I’m not sleeping on the floor," Arthur said derisively, as if Merlin had been born backward. "Naturally I'll take your bed. I am a guest after all. The floor is for you."

"I haven't even said yes to this and you've already turfed me out of my bed and delegated me to my own floor!?" Merlin remarked, scandalised. "You, sir, are no gentleman."

"Tell me something I don't know," Arthur replied, his smile playful. He then looked at Leon. "What do you say, Leon, does this arrangement work?"

Leon tilted his shaggy head to the side thoughtfully.

"It might," he considered.

"Wait a minute, a moment ago, you almost accused me of being the stalker!" Merlin reminded Leon, just in case he suffered from short-term memory loss. "Now you're all about me taking him home with me? What if I am the guy, huh? What if I try to make pâté out of Arthur's liver or decide to wear his skull as a hat?"

Leon looked rather impressed by Merlin's imagination.

"Do you have the inclination to do either of those things?"

"Well, it depends on how much of a pain he's being but no, not generally. Blood makes me squeamish," Merlin admitted truthfully. A thought then occurred to him. "So wait, Arthur, does this mean we're spending Christmas together? Because I have no idea what you would like as a present. I'd get you another framed photo of yourself posing like tosser for your wall but there's no space to put it."

"As sweet as that gesture is," said Arthur, sarcasm dripping off his words, "there's no need to worry about presents. I don't do Christmas."

"Wait," Merlin said, pausing. "So, like.... not at all?"

"No," said Arthur indifferently, going back to buffing his nails.

"So no presents?"

"No."

"No Christmas tree?"

"They shed."

"No stockings?" 

"Silk and only if they're on hot women." 

"Wow," Merlin replied, honestly taken aback as he looked at Arthur in a whole different light. He had always imagined him having ridiculously fancy Christmases at Pendragon manor, with a tree to rival the one in Trafalgar Square and a glazed boar large enough to feed a banquet. The fact he didn’t have any of that made Merlin almost feel sorry for him. "So, you really never celebrate it? How can that even be possible?"

"Have you met my father?" Arthur said like it was reason enough which, when Merlin thought about it, it sort of was. "He told me Father Christmas wasn't real on my fifth birthday."

"That sounds like your father," Merlin accepted. His face then fell. "That's really sad, Arthur."

Arthur waved this off.

"Oh, I suspected he was a fraud when the one at our local grotto got drunk, snagged his beard on a Christmas tree and then ruined the nativity scene by throwing up in Jesus' manger."

"I didn't mean Father Christmas -- although, granted, that is pretty depressing, too -- but I meant the fact you've never really looked forward to the holidays."

"Oh God," Arthur groaned, rolling his eyes, "you're not going to cry on me, are you? Leon, you don't have a tissue to hand, do you? Merlin's about to burst into tears."

"Shut up!" Merlin laughed, swiping at his arm and ducking when Arthur aimed a smack at him in return. "And stop trying to distract me. It's not right that you haven't had a traditional Christmas. It's a good thing you're coming over to stay at mine, now you can have a proper one. My mum is the best cook on earth. It'd do you good to eat normal food instead of takeaway pizzas and those greasy horsemeat donor kebabs you insist on ingesting on a daily basis."

"My body is a temple," Arthur responded, pointing at a bicep to prove his point. "But I suppose I could bring myself to socialise with you for good food, if I must. No Christmas carols though. Or paper hats. If I get a whiff of either one, I'm off."

"You know, it really is a wonder someone wants to kill you," Merlin returned sardonically. "No, really, your gratitude is so astounding that it beggars belief."

"Technically, they're don't want to kill me, they want to do sexy things with my handsome corpse," Arthur corrected before sighing in a put upon way. "I always knew being this naturally charming would be my downfall."

"Oh hell, where is this psycho?” Merlin groaned. “Forget inviting you over to mine, I'm going to find them and just give them your schedule."

"Ladies," Leon cut in, looking like he was trying not to laugh. "Can we get back to the order of business for a moment? Merlin, Arthur staying at yours isn’t a problem?"

"Well, I need to talk to my mum about it first," Merlin admitted because nothing went on under Hunith’s roof without her say so, "but yeah, I'm pretty sure it'll be okay. For some reason, she thinks Arthur is darling. I'm sure this grave misunderstanding is because she only met him for a few minutes."

"I'll have you know that in that short period of time, your mother and I got on wonderfully," Arthur immediately retorted. "We especially bonded over our mutual disbelief that she managed to have you as a son."

"Seriously, are you two always like this?" Leon wondered in amazement, looking curiously between them. Merlin, who had been in the middle of sticking his tongue out at Arthur, rolled it back into his mouth and looked at Leon innocently. 

“Like what?" he asked.

Leon looked like he was going to say something but he seemed to hold his tongue at the last moment, his eyes trailing over them both like he knew a secret they didn't.

"Anyway," he said, letting out a cough, "that's that sorted. My flight is the morning after the Camelot Christmas party so I'll be shadowing you like a hawk until then."

"Sir Leon, the walking cock-block," Arthur said with grand acerbity. "Well, if you are going to be my bodyguard at the party, you can at least match my costume. I’m in red so go for the Head Knight look this time. Also, I'm taking that Brazilian model I met at the Agent Provocateur party so do try to piss off long enough for me to get my end away."

"I'm making no promises," Leon said staunchly, unmoved by Arthur in a way Merlin rarely saw. Other than Merlin himself, Leon seemed to be the only person who didn't put up with Arthur’s crap. "I'll take the costume suggestion under advisement, though."

"Wait a minute, costumes? Knights?" Merlin questioned as excitement filled his stomach. "Wait, this isn't fancy dress, is it?"

"It's tradition," Arthur said pompously. "Everyone has to dress up in Arthurian garb for the Christmas party."

"Really?" Merlin said eagerly, already looking forward to this as he beamed about him. He had a bit of a camp fondness for dressing up. "So you can wear anything you want as long as it fits the Camelot look and feel?"

"Yes but I wouldn't worry about you, Merlin,” said Arthur, picking up a mug and drinking from it to hide the huge smile threatening to overtake his face, “I've already picked your outfit."

"Wait, what? I didn't agree to this!"

"It's tradition, Merlin," Arthur said, looking like all his dreams had come true. "The editor always chooses his manservant's-"

"Assistant's."

"-outfit. it's how it's always been at Camelot. No need to look so horrified. I got you a good one. Very debonair. Aren't you excited?"

Merlin responded to this by groaning, dropping his head in his hands and honestly saying,

"Oh dear lord, shoot me now."

The gleeful grin Arthur gave him in response to this did nothing to abate his fears.

 

 

 

  

 

"So, this is the infamous Camelot Christmas Party," said Merlin a few days later, staring at the gargantuan renaissance fair that had somehow filled itself into every available bit of space in the Camelot offices. Wooden food and drink stalls lined the hallways, performers juggled, a man playing a lute was crooning about and a giant Christmas tree sat in the middle of the reception, covered in medieval decorations from brave looking knights and fluttering damsels to candles and miniature presents. People from all walks of the company were there, packed down the circular hallways of Camelot in the most colourful and spectacular outfits Merlin had ever seen.

With Morgana looking stunning in an emerald green gown and debutante Lady Annis in a fur outfit that made her look like a fancy extra from Game of Thrones, it really was apparent that this was a party thrown by a fashion magazine. Even the Oxbridge toffs, one of whom was dressed like a bosomly maiden, had got into the spirit of things and were so relaxed in their surroundings that they had gone as far as to pelt some idiot who had accidentally got himself stuck in the prop stocks with mince pies.

Gwen smiled from beside Merlin as he watched the bustling scene with fascination, pretty ribbons twirled in her hair as she wore a simple lavender peasant's dress. Sipping from a steaming goblet of mulled wine, she definitely looked the part.

"Oh, you haven't seen the half of it,” she said excitedly. “To the left you'll find the olde worlde food stalls. To the right you'll find the arena slash boardroom for the annual sword fighting competition -- which Arthur wins every year -- then there's the costume competition - something Uther Pendragon himself judges. There’s the magical section, where you can get a fortune teller to read your palm and tell you about your future and there's also a fire-eater prancing about. Oh! And two people always get caught having sex in the toilets. It's tradition." Gwen then paused to breathe, her face flushed, before barrelling on. "So where's your outfit?"

"Arthur is bringing it," Merlin said with dread. Looking miserable, he sniffed pitifully enough for Gwen to pat him on the shoulder. "I'm pretty sure he's going to dress me as the back end of a donkey. Or a girl. Oh god, he is going to dress me up as the back end of a girl donkey. Quick, hit me with that punch ladle. He can't torture me if I'm in A&E."

Gwen tried to look sympathetic but Merlin could see her lips trying not quirk into a smile.

"Don't you think you might be overreacting slightly?" she asked mildly. "I mean, surely he'll put you in peasant garb like everyone else. We'll all look as silly as each other. It won't be that bad, you'll see. Everything will be fine."

"What the hell is that?!" Merlin squawked ten minutes later, realising everything was not fine when Arthur –- who looked annoyingly dashing donned like a prince in chain mail, a royal red cape and a thin gold circlet around his head -- waggled what looked like pile of red feathers at him.

"Your outfit, of course," Arthur said with so much glee that it looked like his smile might break his face in two. "Now go put it on, there's a good manservant."

"Assistant," Merlin corrected but he looked green as he took the feathers. "This is abuse. Making me dress like an idiot in the workplace is surely a HR violation."

"You always look like an idiot in the workplace so your argument is invalid,” Arthur reminded him. “Now go put this on or you'll be wearing the dress I picked out for my date."

"You're the anti-Christ," Merlin moaned genuinely. "I bet you catch fire the minute you step foot in a church."

"Mild sunburn at the most," Arthur responded, smiling sweetly. "Now get. And come back when you've changed, I have a lute for you to collect to go with your outfit."

"Sadistic bastard," Merlin muttered under his breath as he stomped his way into the nearest empty meeting room to put it on.

After much struggling and swearing and tights -- tights -- to wiggle into, Merlin put the red feathered hat on his head and looked at his reflection in the glass. Merlin then shuddered. If it wasn't bad enough that he was in this ridiculous hat, red tights and curled buckled shoes, he was also in a tasselled red cape that made him look like a walking Pendragon advert as the gold lion logo was gaudily emblazoned on his chest. The worst part of the outfit, however, had to be underneath the lion, where the word 'manservant' was stitched in gold, confirming to Merlin that Arthur had had this costume specially made for him for maximum embarrassment. This was even worse than his Ginger Spice costume and that time he had to wear platform shoes and a ginger wig.

"It's not that bad," Gwen had tried to console him when he walked out and he would have potentially believed her had Arthur not thrown back his head and burst into a series of guffaws when he saw him, slapping his thigh through tears of mirth and pointing at Merlin like he was the funniest thing he had ever seen in his life.

Glowering at him, Merlin honestly considered using his magic to drop Arthur's princely trousers when he saw the two familiar faces of Gwaine and Elyan walk through the door. Gwen, looking pale, immediately rushed over to pull her brother aside while Gwaine swaggered over like a swashbuckling pirate. It immediately made Merlin beam out a smile.

"Gwaine, you came!" Merlin said enthusiastically as Gwaine walked over in a form fitting outfit which included brown leather trousers and a billowing light shirt that was untied at the top for all-out man cleavage.

Arthur's good-humoured tears dried up almost immediately.

"And what are you supposed to be?" Arthur demanded of Gwaine, trying to look imperious in his prince's get-up as though he really was addressing a lowly subject. Amused by Arthur’s behaviour, Gwaine jabbed at himself with a thumb.

"I'm a drunken cad," he said, sounding proud about the fact.

"You didn't need the costume." Arthur said acidly.

Gwaine just winked in response. Arthur looked like he was about to have a coronary.

"So, Merlin," Gwaine said, ignoring Arthur to smoothly turn his full attention to Merlin instead. "I'm loving the hat. Bard?"

Merlin went as red as his outfit as he quickly swiped the hat off and patted down his ruffled hair.

"You don't need to lie, I know I look ridiculous," he said, glaring at Arthur for good measure who just smiled, grabbed a steaming goblet from a passing 'servant' and took a smug sip.

"Merlin, my dearest fellow, you know you never look ridiculous to me,” Gwaine said genuinely, patting a hand on Merlin’s shoulder before looking deeply into Merlin’s eyes. “Quite the opposite in fact-"

"Well, it's been lovely to see you as always, Gwaine,” Arthur cut in loudly, back in host-mode as he physically steered Gwaine away from Merlin by the shoulders. “Drinks are to the right. Food will be served after the tournament and there are more than enough drunk lushes here to tickle your fancy. Have a good night."

Giving them an impish grin, Gwaine made a flourish of a bow at Arthur.

“My liege,” he said impertinently before giving Merlin one last smile and heading straight towards the drinks stall.

Merlin frowned as Gwaine left.

"Why don't you ever let me talk to Gwaine?" he asked petulantly.

"Because he's a letch who'll lead you astray. I'm protecting your virtue here, fair maiden." Arthur then bowed mockingly like a prince would to a lady of the court. It made Merlin want to give him an unladylike kick in the shin.

"For the last time, I am not a virgin,” Merlin bit out, feeling cross. “Also, because it seems to keep escaping your notice, I am not a girl either, even if you do insist on dressing me in tights and feathers."

Arthur just ignored this and continued to smirk into his drink. His teasing eyes made Merlin feel oddly hot and bothered and made his magic flutter cartwheels inside his stomach. He briefly hoped it was indigestion but even Merlin couldn't fool himself into believing that. It was annoying really, how much sex appeal Arthur exuded. It made Merlin feel about as exciting as lumpy porridge in comparison.

"I'm just looking out for you, Merlin," Arthur said sweetly, pulling Merlin out of his thoughts. “You’re so damn clueless that someone has to make sure you don’t get yourself taken advantage of by the showy scoundrel.”

“You’re the one who invited Gwaine to the party so you can save the act, Arthur,” Merlin said cannily, knowing Arthur well enough to know when he truly disliked someone. “I also know that you’ve invited him to join the private round table meetings you’re going to start next quarter for your closest advisors. You like Gwaine a lot more than you want to admit.”

Arthur didn’t try to deny it, which Merlin took as a victory.

"I'm just being a friend, Merlin,” Arthur said instead. “Friends tell friends when they hang around with bad influences.”

"So we're friends now, are we?"

Arthur seemed to consider this as he tilted his head and looked at Merlin appraisingly, eyeing him up and down in a way that made Merlin want to shiver under his penetrating gaze.

"Perhaps,” Arthur finally admitted, shrugging. “If I wasn't your boss, I think we'd probably get on. That is, if you weren't such a nitwit half the time."

"At least I'm not a dollophead,” Merlin shot back immediately.

"A what?" Arthur exclaimed in bafflement.

"A dollop," said Merlin clearly, then, "head. A head that is made from a dollop. A dollop-shaped head.”

Arthur opened his mouth, looking very close to laughing.

"There's no such word,” he accused Merlin. “You just made that up."

"No, I didn't, it's in the dictionary. Look it up and you'll see a picture of your face in the definition."

"You cheeky little shit!" Arthur laughed.

"Arrogant arse!"

"Dumbo ears!"

"Clotpole!"

"That word doesn't exist either!" Arthur protested, clearly snickering now.

"I imagine I'm not interrupting anything?" Uther cut in, entering the conversation like a cold breeze that immediately froze both men to the spot. Uther, unsurprisingly, was dressed like a king, his outfit even more elaborate than Arthur’s because it had added sashes and included a huge crown that looked like it was going to crush Uther’s head under its weight at any moment. At his side was Arthur's tall Brazilian date; exotic, tanned, ludicrously beautiful and wearing a gorgeous red velvet gown with a plunging neckline that made her look like the perfect muse for artists everywhere. Merlin blinked up at her, wondering if he had ever felt more inadequate in his life.

Arthur's rare display of merriment immediately disappeared when confronted with his father as his face took on its professional sheen.

"Ah, father, I'm so glad to see you. I see you found Gabriela," he said, sounding a little sheepish faced with the fact that he had clearly been neglecting her.

"Yes, I found this poor young woman awkwardly circling the punch bowl while her date was clearly not paying her due attention," Uther returned. "I thought I instilled better manners in my son."

"I, um- I think I see Lance," Merlin suddenly said as he hastily backed away. He knew Arthur wouldn't want an audience to this. "I should go runawa- I mean, I should go and visit him. It was, err, lovely to see you, Mr Pendragon. Nice outfit, by the way. Very kingly." Uther eyed Merlin like he was a hair away from invoking his sovereign right to have him beheaded so Merlin quickly said, "Okay, bye!" and ran over to where a knightly Lance was drinking by the punch bowl.

"Merlin," said a distracted Lance when Merlin approached. He had been looking across the room at where Gwen seemed to be arguing with Elyan, a completely lovesick look on his face. Merlin just smiled at him. It was lucky he loved them both so much, otherwise their perfect star-crossed love would have been irritating.

"So, good Sir Knight, when are you going to ask for your lady's hand? And before you start to see green with envy, Elyan's her brother, not a suitor," said Merlin.

"She seems busy," said Lance and he wasn’t wrong. Whatever Gwen and Elyan were whispering furiously about looked like a big deal. Gwen then seemed to say one last angry retort before turning on her heel and storming off. Calling her name desperately, Elyan soon ran after her.

Merlin and Lance looked at each other.

"Yikes," said Merlin.

"Should we go after them do you think?" Lance asked uncertainly, still staring after the spot where Gwen had disappeared into the crowd, as though willing his lady back to him with his broody stare alone.

"I say leave them for now. They have a lot of unresolved issues," Merlin advised, looking a little sadly after his friend and hoping that they managed to work it out. "So you and Arthur seem to be best friends now. That's nice."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Lance said, as humble as always.

"Lance, after Leon, you were the first person he invited into his private round table club and he asked you to dress up as one of his knights," Merlin said with amusement, eyeing Lance's red and chainmail outfit and thinking that it suited him better than his actual clothes did. "Trust me, if he loved you any more, he would be down on one knee and proposing to you right now." 

"Well, I wouldn't say we're as close as you two are but we've definitely become good friends," Lance replied as they picked up a couple of ales from the drinks stall. "We like a lot of the same things and we both enjoy playing football on the weekends. He's also a demon on a squash court. You know, he mentions you a lot when we’re together. It's obvious he respects you a great deal."

"Respects me?" said Merlin in surprise as he choked midway through his ale, the thought filling him with a warmth that wasn't from the booze alone.

"Well, we always knew he was fond of you,” said Lance, looking a little fondly at Merlin himself, “but the poisoning really did prove how much. Leon said he had never seen anything like it. Arthur even tried to give you mouth to mouth, despite the fact you still had the poison on your lips. Uther had to have him physically restrained.”

"He did?" Merlin said, his mouth hanging open partially in wonder -- mainly in regret -- that that hadn't happened. Merlin then wet his lips, as though tasting a ghost of what might have been. "What else makes you think Arthur likes me?"

So Lance told him. While they finished their ales, grabbed some eggnog from a passing bar wench and amusedly watched the mini tourneys and performers, he told Merlin that Arthur thought Merlin's loyalty bordered on dimwittedness, that he was surprisingly efficient for a clumsy oaf and that he was incredibly creative when he wasn't falling on his arse about the place. As they circled the corridors of Camelot, Merlin raised a brow at his friend's words.

"Those sound more like insults than compliments," Merlin pointed out.

"Not with that look on his face they weren't."

"What look?”

"The one you're wearing right now," Lance said, smiling gently. For a moment Merlin worried that Lance had picked up on something but Gwaine chose that moment to barrel into them, looking utterly inebriated.

"Merlin, my old friend, how excellent to see you!" he said, throwing an arm around Merlin's shoulder and stumbling into him as he did. Merlin chuckled, holding Gwaine up before they both ended up tumbling to the ground.

"Lance, you've met Gwaine right?"

"At the photoshoot," Lance revealed, letting out a genuine smile as he shook Gwaine's hand. He had obviously left a far better impression on Lance than he had on Arthur. "I never got the chance to thank you for your advice. It's good to see you again." Lance then looked at Merlin to elaborate. "I got a bit of stage fright."

Gwaine waved his hand.

"He was a natural, all I did was tell him that. Stage fright on your first big shoot is tradition. Which reminds me," Gwaine then pulled out a sprig of mistletoe from his pocket and purposely waggled it over Merlin's head, wearing a shit-eating grin, "I'm all about tradition."

Merlin's cheeks went blotchy as Lance choked a laugh into his drink.

"Come on, Merlin," Gwaine cajoled, his voice one long whine before he stuck out his bottom lip like a sad toddler. "I've been a good boy all year."

"I don't believe that for a second," Merlin countered, still mortified but Gwaine's playfulness was infectious enough to make him smile weakly. "I bet you are totally on the naughty list."

"Naughty boys need love, too," Gwaine reasoned as puckered his lips like a goldfish and made loud kissy noises. "Come on, just one and I can die happy."

"Fine, but once and only on the cheek," Merlin said, pointing at Gwaine firmly and feeling rather like a stern schoolmistress. Gwaine put a hand over his heart.

"On my honour as a cad," he promised before leaning forward, grabbing Merlin's head with both hands and smacking a kiss so wet, loud and long on Merlin's cheek that it made him burst into laughter.

"G-Gwaine!" Merlin hiccoughed through sniggers as Gwaine clung to him like a limpet, his arms around Merlin’s shoulders and his lengthy kiss still going strong. Trying to squirm away, Merlin let out a spluttered shriek of amusement as their lips accidentally smashed together. “Mmmph!” Merlin said in response but his laughter soon died away when he caught the look on Arthur’s face from over Gwaine’s shoulder. He looked outright disgusted.

Pulling away like he had been burnt, Merlin felt his face blistering with embarrassment at the scene they caused. Gwaine, proving there was a gentleman behind the façade, sheepishly rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and apologised.

“Shit, sorry about that, mate,” he said looking genuinely repentant. “Might have got a little over-zealous there.”

“It’s okay, Gwaine,” Merlin said and it was. Everyone around them seemed to find it more amusing than anything else. Even Uther, who was wearing a stern expression, looked like he was trying not to laugh. Arthur was the only one who hadn’t been amused but as Merlin looked around to seek him out again, he couldn’t find him. He seemed to have disappeared into thin air.

“Come on,” said Lance, gesturing over to where a series of mini tourneys were being held. “They’ve opened up the duel. How about I fight Gwaine for besmirching your honour, Merlin?”

Craning his neck and standing on his tiptoes still looking for Arthur, Merlin soon pulled himself back into the conversation with a distracted smile.

“Why am I always the woman?” he asked aloud but he was grinning as he led his friends to where the canteen had now been divided into a cluster of mini events.

The mini tourneys were a variety of one-on-one games which reminded Merlin of a strange sort of medieval mix of It’s a Knockout and Gladiators. There was even a duelling area with two elevated wooden platforms for the opponents to stand on while they hit each other repeatedly with large inflatable barbells until one of them was knocked off. At the moment, the champion of the game appeared to be another one of Arthur’s round table ‘knights’, Percy; a man mountain of a model who had the body of a Greek god and looked so criminally good in tight Calvin Klein pants that Merlin's brain had seriously ached when he had first been faced with his perfection. Now dressed, Percy wasn’t any the less impressive as he surveyed his territory because lying on the mat below were his former opponents, strewn about the place and moaning with agony like injured soldiers in a war hospital. Merlin blinked at the scene. Percy was lethal.

“Right, me next!” Gwaine insisted, ripping off his shirt with fanfare. Percy, not to be outdone, duly followed this by tearing off the sleeves of his outfit, which was doubly impressive because they were made out of metal links. Merlin just shook his head at the state of the both of them as they preened back at each other. It was like a Chippendale face off.

To Merlin’s surprise, though, they were both amazing. Even drunk off his head, Gwaine seemed to have co-ordination and power that Merlin couldn’t even manage when he was sober and Percy was a powerhouse of strength. Before long, there was a large circle around the combatants, cheering and goading them on, from a refereeing Gaius -- who was wearing blue robes and a very dubious white wig -- to a laughing Elyan, who was standing on a table and shouting tips at them both from the sidelines.

Eventually, Gwaine’s intoxication got the better of him because he soon lost balance and landed squarely on his bottom on the mat below. He looked breathless and pleased regardless of this, though.

“Ah well, good match,” he wheezed out through a grin, squinting up at Percy through one eye before saying. “What do you say, best of three?”

“You should have parried left!” Elyan yelled from his table.

“Okay, buddy, you’re going next!” Gwaine decided, pointing at him.

“This is brilliant!” Merlin shouted over the din at Lance as Elyan and Percy duelled even fiercer than the bout before. “I never realised this would be this fun! Are you going to sign up? I would but I’d be nothing but a streak of bloody matter if I went up against Percy.”

“Toilet first, then victory,” said Lance before briefly cheering as Elyan hit Percy squarely in the chest, nearly dislodging him.

“Yeah, me too,” Merlin slurred slightly, feeling pleasantly buzzed. “Drank too much. Think I’m well and truly battered.”

“I think Gwaine is well and truly battered,” Lance corrected before pointing at where a shirtless Gwaine was lying flat out on the mat, snoring cheerfully through his black eye. “Hey Gwaine, you all right there?”

“Let’s leave sleeping beauty to it, he’s had a long night,” Merlin said, snickering as he pushed Lance through the crowd and then through the door to the men’s toilets, feeling happily tipsy and content with life.

Almost falling over his feet as he stumbled his way to the urinal, Merlin was just about to unzip when he heard the unmistakeable sound of moaning and thumping that was unquestionably two people having sex in one of the stalls. Bursting into laughter, Merlin's sniggers turned into hiccoughs as he sidled over to Lance and tried to keep his voice down.

"Lance," Merlin stage-whispered dramatically. "Lance! Someone is getting it on in there. Gwen was right - someone always does get caught having sex in the toilets!"

"Uh, Gwen..." 

"Yeah, Gwen," Merlin agreed, nodding animatedly before pausing to tilt his head. That breathy moan didn't sound like Lance. It sounded more like - 

"Oh, Arthur..."

Merlin's grin froze on his face.

It couldn't be, he thought. Gwen wouldn't. Looking at how pale Lance had turned, however, it seemed that Gwen categorically would and was doing, right then and there. Merlin opened his mouth, found he had nothing to say and closed it again. There was a sick, acidic sensation bubbling in his stomach that he had a feeling had nothing to do with all the alcohol he had ingested.

Eventually shaking out of his stupor –- which the loud, “Oh yes, harder!” may have had something to do with -- Merlin grabbed a rather horrified-looking Lance by the arm and tugged him towards the exit.

"Come on, no one needs to hear this," he said, trying to block out the sounds himself as yet another loud groan broadcasted itself from the stall.

With all his strength. Merlin managed to haul the stunned Lance to the door, hoping to lessen his emotional trauma by getting him as far away from the rutting pair as possible.

And then Mordred walked through the door.

"Mordred!" Merlin said gaily, his overly-large smile so wide that he looked slightly touched in the head as he launched himself forward and shook his hand. "So nice to see you! What are you doing here?"

Donned top to toe in a black bear pelt outfit that was probably made from an animal Mordred had vindictively shot himself, Mordred yanked his hand away with distaste. How he managed to give Merlin both a blank and a scathing look, Merlin didn't quite know but it was rather impressive.

"I need to use the facilities," Mordred said as if Merlin was a moron before trying to push past him.

Panicking, Merlin immediately sidestepped in front of him. If Mordred found out about Arthur and Gwen, the first person he would tell would be Morgana and she would undoubtedly use the knowledge to get both Arthur and Gwen in trouble, maybe even fired. Merlin couldn’t let that happen so he lifted up his hand and placed it on the wall to block Mordred from getting in any further.

"Oh, no, no, you don't want to use the toilets," Merlin said, waving his other hand and trying to coat his words with enough magic to pull off some sort of Jedi mind trick.

Judging by Mordred’s face, this plan didn’t work.

"My bladder says I do," Mordred said, fleetingly looking at Merlin like he was mad as he tried to get past again but Merlin held firm.

"No, really, really, I wouldn't go in there if I were you."

Mordred narrowed his eyes suspiciously and angled his head to run a slow, probing look across the room.

 

"Why?" he asked cunningly, looking far too astute for Merlin’s liking.

"Because... because... er, Lance?" Merlin asked, at a loss as he desperately turned to his friend to come up with something.

Unfortunately for him, Lance was too busy staring at the stall door with such a severe amount of shock that it looked unlikely that he would ever close his mouth again.

Another groan sounded from the stall.

Mordred's eyebrows shot up.

"What was that?" he demanded, trying to get into the room again.

"Oh! That was just me, uggggh," Merlin groaned theatrically, colliding into Mordred as he clutched at his own stomach in faux pain. "Bad canapes. I threw up all over the place. Sprayed chunks everywhere. It was awful. Have you ever seen the Exorcist? Well, it was worse than that. Right, Lance?”

Still frozen in shock, Lance blinked.

“See?” Merlin said, as though this proved something. “You better go, you wouldn't want your fancy bearskin traveller outfit thing getting ruined, would you?" When Mordred looked down at his outfit with worry , Merlin knew he had him.

"I'll use the loo on the other side," Mordred finally yielded but he still looked at Merlin through narrowed, clever eyes and continued to do so as he walked backwards out the room. When the door closed shut behind Mordred, Merlin sighed in relief and locked it behind him so no one else could come in.

Merlin then turned with dread back to the closed stall door. From the sound of things -- or lack thereof -- it seemed as though Arthur and Gwen had finished.

Merlin let out a cough, wishing the floor would open up and swallow him whole.

"Um," he said out loud awkwardly, sure that Gwen was cowering with humiliation inside the stall at being overheard. "That was Mordred. Don’t worry, he didn’t see anything. I made sure he stayed out. Anyway, um, it’s been a nice party. We'll just... we’ll just wait outside and let you guys get – er, we’ll just wait outside."

Merlin then grabbed the still gaping Lance and pulled him outside, wishing he could erase both the sounds from his brain and this strange hollow pain from inside his chest.

 

 

 

  

“So you haven’t talked to Gwen since?" Will asked the day after, trying to get the whole story eagerly out of Merlin as he made himself comfortable with a bowl of popcorn.

"What was I going to say? What was he like on a scale of 1 to 10?" Merlin asked dryly, holding a cold compress to his hungover head. It was the day before Christmas Eve, officially the first day of the holidays and Merlin was already vowing never to drink again. He felt like death warmed up. "She was obviously upset from fighting with her brother, probably drank too much because of it and then randomly bumped into Arthur, who frankly just has to stand there doing nothing for someone to want to sleep with him. Getting caught in the act by her closest friend at work and the guy she's head over heels about was no doubt the last thing she wanted. Knowing Gwen like I do, she's probably hiding under her bed and vowing never to leave her house again."

"Man, Merlin, your workplace sounds brilliant," Will sighed, obviously ignoring Merlin's dramatic tale of heartbreak and humiliation as he looked starry-eyed. He then shook himself out of it. "So when is your boyfriend coming over anyway?"

"He's not my boyfriend!" Merlin said so violently that even Will blinked at his reaction. Merlin then coughed. "I mean, Arthur should be coming over within the hour. His stalker sent him a Christmas present apparently. A skinned cat. Arthur was not amused, especially because he's allergic to cats. He was sneezing down the phone at me all this morning complaining about it. He sounded a bit like Lloyd Grossman."

Will chortled at this.

“God, he really is a total ponce, isn’t he?” he said, shaking his head.

“Hey,” Merlin interjected immediately, his lips turning downwards into a frown. “Leave it out, okay? Arthur’s all right. Not to mention he’s my boss so no surprises from you while he’s staying with us. Don’t forget that you promised me you would be on your best behaviour around him.”

“I did? When did we have that conversation?”

“Will.”

“Fine, fine. Jesus, Merlin, get out my arse already,” Will said, grinning one of his infuriating ear to ear smiles. “I’ll be good. Promise. I’m even going out for lunch, just to give you two a bit of space.”

“Good,” Merlin nodded, hating himself slightly for how excited he was about this. “Anyway, I better go sit by the window and look out for him. He’ll be keeping a low profile.”

Which, according to Leon, Arthur was. Leon had told Arthur specifically to keep it low-key on his trip over and Merlin was sure that even an attention whore like Arthur could manage to blend into the background for just one trip if his life was in danger.

When Arthur pulled up outside Merlin's estate in a white sports car, however, Merlin knew he should have known better.

"What do you think?" Arthur asked when Merlin went out to meet him, puffing out his chest as though he had given birth to it himself. Merlin, who liked cars as much as the next man, stared at the curves of the Maserati with genuine appreciation before looking at Arthur and saying,

"It's too conspicuous, you bell end."

"That's the point, arse brain,” Arthur returned. “You don't spend this much money on a car and have it fade into the background."

"Arthur, you have a psycho trying to murder you. You're supposed to be hiding out in my area. Don't you think you should be driving around in something that people in Ealdor would actually drive? Like a Skoda?"

"Don't use that word around me again," Arthur threatened, holding out a finger to highlight his seriousness. "And I'm not giving her back now. We've bonded. I've even given her a name, haven't I, Hengroen?" Arthur crooned, patting her bonnet. If Merlin didn't know better, he could have sworn that the car arched faithfully under his touch.

Looking closely at it, Merlin felt a certain familiarity tug at his chest but he couldn't say why. He also -- much to his own surprise -- discovered that there was someone else inside the car.

"What the- Myror?!" Merlin said in disbelief before turning and looking at Arthur like he was mad. "For god's sake, Arthur, you brought Myror with you? What part of laying low and telling no one you're here don't you get?"

"Well, you can't exactly expect me to drive myself," Arthur responded as if the idea of him doing anything for himself was absurd. "It's too hot for leather gloves and steering wheels chafe my hands."

"I'm going to remind you of this conversation every time you accuse me of being a girl," Merlin said honestly, going as far as pulling out his phone, writing a memo and putting his phone back in his pocket. "And for the record? I actually have a car we could have used."

"If you expect me to willingly get into some death trap vehicle with you of all people behind the wheel, your stupidity has reached new heights."

"Oh sod off, chafed hands, I'm a good driver," Merlin retorted before leaning down to talk to Myror and giving him an apologetic smile. "Hi, sorry for the inconvenience but we don't need you now, you can head back home if you want. Enjoy the rest of your holidays. Give Mrs Myror or little baby Myror a nice Christmas surprise."

Myror gave Merlin that blank glare he seemed to give everyone until Arthur huffed loudly and leaned down to the window, too, his warm shoulder bumping Merlin's.

"Do as he says, Myror. Just leave my things - Merlin can carry them up. Oh, and do try not to inform any homicidal stalkers where I am. Attaboy." Arthur then straightened up and looked at Merlin. "There," he said in a long-suffering tone. "Happy now, Merlin?"

"Jumping for joy," Merlin puffed out, tugging at Arthur's heavy Louis Vuitton trunk fruitlessly from the boot until Arthur sighed again like a martyr and pulled the thing out one-handed. "Honestly, Merlin, how have you survived this long? It's almost like an act. You can't really be this useless, can you?"

Glaring at Arthur, Merlin felt his magic flush through him, rushing through his muscles like a stream of water. He then reached over to pick up the trunk like it was filled with nothing but air.

Arthur looked suitably stunned.

"Come on, I'll show you up," Merlin said sunnily, "introduce you properly to my mum. For some reason, she's been looking forward to seeing you again."

Arthur lifted his head at this and a look crossed his face that Merlin didn't quite understand.

"Actually, I need to get something first," Arthur said thoughtfully, opening Hengroen's passenger seat door. "Number 17a, right? I'll meet you there in ten minutes. Myror, I'll direct you."

"Wait, where are you going?" Merlin questioned but Arthur had already shut the door and zoomed off before he could get a response.

True to his word, Arthur returned almost exactly ten minutes later with a prompt knock on the front door. Merlin grimaced as he heard his mother bustle to open it, knowing that it would be a disaster re-introducing Arthur to her because, if there was one thing he could be sure of, it was that Hunith Emrys would once again adore every inch of him.

And Merlin wasn't wrong.

"For you," Arthur charmed from where he stood on the doorstep of their apartment, holding the hugest bouquet of flowers for Hunith that Merlin had ever seen.

To Merlin’s astonishment, Arthur had changed into an especially sharp suit and his hair, his aviators and his teeth all shone back at Hunith like the ceramic tiles in a Cif commercial.

Merlin, who had been stowing Arthur's things away in a rather cramped wardrobe that Will's pants kept mistaking for an airing cupboard, looked more ridiculous than usual in comparison. His clothes were dusty and rumpled and he was emanating an odd smell that seemed to be combination of old lady and dead cat.

Wiping a smear of dust off a cheekbone, Merlin glared balefully as Hunith happily took the flowers, her eyes soft and warm as she inhaled them deeply. If he didn’t know better, Merlin could have sworn that Arthur was making the moves on his mother.

"Oh! They're beautiful. What a lovely gesture,” Hunith said sincerely. “That's very kind of you, Arthur. Please come in."

"Oh, think nothing of it. It's the least I can do after your hospitality, Hunith," Arthur returned, his flirting in overdrive as he gave her a luminous smile. It made Merlin want to roll his eyes, poke the pillock in the head and tell him that sort of overly friendly smarm may work on everyone else but it wouldn't work on his mum.

When Hunith beamed back at Arthur and patted him fondly on the cheek, however, Merlin realised all hope was lost.

"You're a good boy," she said with maternal affection and Merlin had the mildly satisfying image of seeing Arthur flush, both uncomfortable and pleased, at her words. "Now come and sit at the table, lunch will be served in a moment. Merlin, dear, set the table, won't you?"

Merlin sighed. Even in his own house, he was still running around after Arthur.

"Yes, mum," he said dutifully, placing Arthur's place mat in front of him and glaring when Arthur smirked and stretched shamelessly at the situation, placing his arms behind his head like he was lounging in a hammock.

"Merlin, don't forget the coasters," Hunith called from the kitchen.

Arthur grinned hugely.

"Yes, Merlin, chop chop," he said, tapping the table top and looking as though he was having the time of his life. "And get me a still water while you're at it, will you, garçon? I'm ever so parched."

"Probably because you've had your head up your arse for the past year," Merlin muttered under his breath, surprised when Arthur snorted in amusement in return.

Looking at the genuine and unrestrained happiness on Arthur's face at that moment made Merlin realise how little Arthur actually laughed. It was sad and gave Merlin a weird urge to try and keep that look on Arthur's face as often as he could.

Merlin then groaned at his own brain. He was so smitten it was ridiculous.

“We’re having roast lamb, I hope you’re all right with that, Arthur,” Hunith said as she carried over what had to be the largest leg of lamb Merlin had ever seen in his life. He wasn’t sure how it had fit in the oven. He wasn’t even sure if it was lamb at all but, whatever it was, it smelled amazing. Compelled to look over at his mother, Merlin caught her eye mid-carve and smiled. She had clearly gone to a lot of effort.

“One of my favourites, Hunith, it looks wonderful,” Arthur said, sounding genuine as he leaned forward with appreciation. “Merlin always waxes lyrical about how magnificent your cooking is and it looks like I’m going to have to agree with him.”

“You’re agreeing with me?” Merlin said with exaggerated astonishment as he slipped into the seat beside Arthur and starting dishing him roast potatoes. “Mum, quick, call the police, some pod person is wearing Arthur’s skin.”

“Merlin, don’t tease our guest,” Hunith admonished gently, causing Arthur to grin contentedly and mouth, “Yes, Merlin, don’t tease me,” when Hunith’s back was turned. To make matters worse, Hunith fussed over Arthur like a favourite child throughout the entirety of the meal, cutting the primest bits of meat for him and giving him Merlin's potatoes when he exclaimed how tasty they were.

Puffing out his chest, Arthur lapped up the attention and smiled wickedly over at Merlin during dessert when Hunith gave him another slice of her famous apple pie.

"Stop looking so smug,” Merlin hissed when his mother was out of earshot in the kitchen, “she loves me more."

"Debatable,” Arthur returned, looking almost sinful as he licked crumbs off his fork. “Hunith is no doubt a smart woman and wants to trade up.”

"I saw her first, hands off!"

Arthur just smirked at this. He then looked around the cramped kitchen/diner.

"So, this place is... nice."

Merlin rolled his eyes. He knew Arthur better than that.

"It's the size of your living room,” he pointed out, knowing this for a fact because he had counted the steps.

"Yes, but you've done a lot to maximise the space," Arthur tried again.

Merlin looked at the stacked bookshelves, the crammed photo frames mounted on the wall and the poky little kitchen that couldn’t even fit a washing machine before turning back to raise a brow at Arthur.

Arthur knocked his elbow off the table in response.

"Shut up, cauliflower ears,” Arthur snapped. “That’s the last time I try to be nice to you.”

"That was you being nice?” Merlin asked earnestly. “And I already told you, you’re not allowed to talk about my ears like that. I'll tell HR."

"And I'll tell them I have a useless manservant who does nothing but make my life a misery."

"Assistant,” Merlin corrected, just like he always did. “And for all your complaining, you still seem to keep me around."

"What can I say, Merlin,” Arthur shrugged expansively, raising his arms. “You're like a venereal disease. Irritating and hard to get rid of."

"Well, you would know, considering how many you've had - ow, you prat! That hurt!" Merlin cried out, grabbing the assaulted pink ear Arthur had just flicked at ruthlessly.

Arthur just smiled sweetly, looking the picture of innocence when Hunith walked back into the room with a tray of steaming hot mince pies.

"Anyone for extra dessert?"

"Oh, yes please!" said Arthur with delight, lifting up his plate eagerly.

"There goes another hole in the belt," Merlin muttered as he rubbed his ear, which earned him a poke in the ribs with Arthur’s fork.

Hunith smiled at them both indulgently.

“Merlin, dear, why don’t you show Arthur where he’ll be staying? Make sure he’s comfortable with where he’s sleeping?”

“Thank you again, Hunith,” said Arthur as he stood up, charging up the magnetism again as he gave her one of his devastating smiles. “I’m sure it’ll be perfect.” This magnetism was clearly not reserved for Merlin, however, because as soon as Merlin showed Arthur to his bedroom, Arthur made a face and simply said, "Good god, Merlin, you actually live in this mess?"

"Oh sod off," Merlin said, flipping Arthur off as he did, "Some of us aren't privileged enough to have a maid, a personal trainer, a chef, an arse wiper for when you're on the loo..."

"Ha ha," Arthur said dryly before picking up a discarded shirt from the unmade bed and holding it up between with his thumb and forefinger like it was a dirty nappy. He even wrinkled his nose. "Seriously though, I've never seen this much polyester in all my life. It's almost like a bomb exploded in the middle of Tesco's clothing department."

Merlin frowned, snatching his insulted shirt and holding it to his chest as a means to comfort it. The shirt subtly clung back.

"Shut up. I'll have you know that Tesco do nice flannels. Oh, and don't sit there -" Merlin warned as Arthur moved to sit on a nearby stool. Arse in the air, Arthur frowned, both him and his bottom used to getting their own way.

"Why the hell not?" he demanded with irritation.

"Because that's where Archimedes likes to perch. He gets very grumpy when someone tries to steal his seat," Merlin told him knowledgeably.

"Archi who?" Arthur asked with confusion. He then turned back to the seat, ready to ease himself down onto it when a shrill, squawk-like noise sounded and a beak jabbed itself into Arthur's right bum cheek. "Ow! What the actual fuck!" Arthur shrieked, spinning around and grabbing his assaulted arse to find a hooting bird sitting there imperially, flapping its wings. "Holy shit!" Arthur exclaimed, pointing at it in horror. "Where the sod did that bird come from? It wasn't there a second ago. What the fuck. Why do you have a fucking bird for? "

"For the record? That's my owl you just tried to sit on. And would you mind your language? I don't want you teaching him bad habits."

"Bad habits? How about teaching your flea-ridden pigeon there not to impale people in the sodding buttocks, how is that for a bad habit?" Arthur snapped. "And I'll talk how I like, you lunatic. He's an owl, not a parrot. He's not about to repeat my bad language back to me."

"He might," Merlin reasoned before holding out his arm for Archimedes to fly onto, grinning smugly when Arthur yelped and flailed his arms over his head in protection from the bird's flapping wings. When Archimedes landed gracefully with his talons digging into Merlin's arm, Merlin stroked his feathers fondly. "He's actually very smart," he informed Arthur proudly. "He can hoot the entire Doctor Who theme tune and he gets me my paper in the morning. He's only really learnt to steal The Sun, unfortunately, so the only news I get is about the Kardashians. I'm trying to train him up to the Independent but I think he likes the Made in Chelsea gossip. He's a bit of a fan of reality tv. Goes mental if I try to change the channel."

"A car-crash-tv-watching pet owl," Arthur said aloud, more to himself than Merlin, as though asking himself how on earth Merlin existed. "Only you would have a car-crash-tv-watching pet owl. I'm not even surprised." Perching on the end of the bed instead, Arthur then said, "Tell me I'm not sharing a room with that thing. And that I have a bed. I need a proper bed."

"Don't worry, Little Lord Fauntleroy, he's an owl. He'll be out hunting all night like owls do. And you're sitting on the bed you're having -- mine by the way -- so be grateful I didn't leave you in the dumpster outside. The hobos on our estate get very territorial about their skips."

"So, I'll be sleeping in your bed?" Arthur asked in a strange sort of voice Merlin couldn't quite place. Looking at him, Merlin nodded in response, his face feeling hot as he tried not to imagine Arthur under his sheets.

"Lord help me but yes,” Merlin said, hoping he hadn’t gone too obvious a shade of fuchsia. “I can sleep on the floor. I can hardly give you Will's room because only Satan knows what dangerous things he's got locked up in there and I'm not turfing out my mum. I mean, she offered but her back plays up and the floor isn't great for-"

"Don't be a nincompoop, Merlin. I'd never take your mother's room. I wouldn't hear of it. Her kindness letting me stay is more than enough. She's done more for me than anyone else would."

And just like that, Arthur could turn from prat to a prince in a blink of an eye.

Smiling at him, Merlin tried to tamp down the warm buzz in his chest.

"So, has Leon's contact worked out who your creepy stalker is yet?" he asked instead, sitting companionably beside Arthur. "They've not sent you any more limericks about eating your organs, have they? Because I've not recovered from the last batch. I still can't look at sausages without feeling queasy."

"Leon's on the case, he said he'd update me if he had anything. I still find it ridiculous I have to go into hiding. I have a social life, you know. I have parties to go to. A week ago, I was this close to getting a date with Scarlett Johansson from my publicist. I'm probably too late now. Knowing my luck, she's probably gone and settled for that manwhore Jake Gyllenhaal. He'll shag anything."

"Pot, black," Merlin said simply. "And I like Jake Gyllenhaal. He made me cry in Brokeback Mountain."

"A strong wind could make you cry, you girl," Arthur said rudely before getting to his feet. "Right, I need to go to the loo. Please tell me it's not an outhouse or a chamberpot."

"This might be a surprise to you but even estates have indoor plumbing," Merlin said dryly. "The toilet's down the corridor and to the left. Oh, and the lights don't work so use the flashlight outside. It's a bit like going in a cave - just remember to aim for the toilet bowl and not hit your head on the lower shelf."

"Jesus, Merlin, I'm not a complete idiot," Arthur said with exasperation as he walked out the door. He then collided straight into Will in the hallway, who was wearing a pair of holey y-fronts that really weren't suitable for public view.

"William," Arthur said primly, looking at his state of undress with disapproval.

"Andrew," Will returned, eyeing Arthur's overly flashy attire right back before saying, “Are you going to a funeral or something?”

Merlin stuck his head around the hallway.

"Will, for the last time, would you put on some trousers?" he asked despairingly.

"Please, like you don't love seeing some of this,” Will said, striking a pose and flexing his muscles in way that Merlin assumed was supposed to be sexy but only looked ridiculous. Will finally stopped when the doorbell rang, saving their eyes from any more of his posturing as he cried out, "Oh, that'll be my package!"

Arthur shook his head, watching as Will hurried off to collect the mail. From the squeak Merlin heard from the post woman at the door, he had a feeling Will hadn't bothered to put trousers on to greet her.

"Seriously, why are you sleeping with him again?" Arthur asked, baffled. "Because even you could do better, Merlin, and that's saying something."

"I already told you I'm not sleeping with him,” Merlin said, although if he were, he could see how Arthur had a point. "He's my best friend."

"You live with him."

"And I live with my mother too. It's hardly a love-nest up in here," Merlin pointed out. "Will and I grew up together. My mother has taken care of him since we were kids when his father died during Gulf War manoeuvres in Iraq. He was a soldier. Anyway, after he died, my mum became Will’s official guardian. Will’s my brother in everything but blood. So, please, can we drop the boyfriend thing now?”

“Fine,” said Arthur, still not sounding convinced. Walking back into Merlin’s room, Arthur sat back down on the bed. Obviously, Will’s half-naked form had scared his pee away. “So what is there to do around here anyway?”

“Well, Leon has given me strict instructions not to let you leave the house so it’s either Monopoly or Scrabble for you,” Merlin said as he rummaged around underneath his bed. He then pulled out a dusty cardboard box and said excitedly. “Oooh, or Operation. Everyone likes a bit of that. I’m pretty sure I’ve got Connect Four and Battleship under here somewhere, too…”

“Scarlett Johanssen,” Arthur moaned with regret, talking to what looked like Merlin’s poster of Arsenal Football Club. “I could have been on a date with Scarlett Johanssen.”

“Trivial Pursuits? Guess Who?” Merlin continued, unable to hear Arthur with his head still under the bed. “Or how about Hungry Hungry Hippos? I think I still have a Buckaroo set down there somewhere but Archimedes got spooked this one time when the mule bucked and sort of pecked its legs off so I’m not sure it works anymore.”

“Satan’s scrotum, any of them. Just stop talking,” Arthur said, waving a hand at this in resignation before catching sight of something disturbing on Merlin’s desk. Dropping his jaw, Arthur gestured towards it in dismay.

"What the hell is that?" he asked, pointing at the pathetic-looking pink Christmas tree that was drooping under the weight of the one bauble hanging off it.

"Oh that's Rodney," Merlin said, getting to his feet and wiping the dust off his knees as he looked fondly at the knackered little tree.

"Rodney?" Arthur repeated, wearing that face he wore when he was particularly unimpressed with something Merlin had done. "You named your Christmas tree Rodney?"

"Well, he's been with us since I was a kid," Merlin explained like this was perfectly normal. "He's part of the family. It's only fitting he has a name. He's like the camp uncle I never had. His LED lights don't turn on anymore but he looked like the shit they worked. When I think about it, he's probably older than I am."

"Funny how that doesn't surprise me," Arthur replied, barely blinking when Rodney's bauble gave up its fight with gravity and smashed onto the ground. Arthur then looked at Merlin and raised a brow.

"Oh, shut your face," Merlin said defensively, stroking Rodney's plastic fir branches and then wincing when one of them fell off with his touch. "Anyway, you shouldn't judge poor Rodney. We couldn't ever really afford a decent tree. He's served us faithfully for all these years so you should show him more respect."

Shaking his head, Arthur looked at Merlin for about a minute, like he wasn't sure which planet he was from, before opening his mouth and honestly saying,

"This is going to be the most unconventional Christmas on the planet, isn't it?"

When Merlin shrugged and simply responded to this query with a "Probably", he was surprised to see that Arthur looked oddly pleased about this.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

Over the next few days, Merlin came to discover that Christmas with Arthur was not what he had expected it to be.

Merlin wasn't entirely sure what he thought it would be like -- other than the fact they would argue constantly over every minute detail of it -- but he was sure it would once again be the Arthur Show, which would include Merlin running around behind him like he always did and probably even chopping up the food on his plate for him.

What Merlin didn't expect, though, was the amount of effort Arthur went into repaying Merlin's family for letting him stay, from buying the hugest turkey like a modern day Scrooge to the frankly ridiculous number of presents he left lying around the house. The biggest gesture of all, however, had to be what Merlin caught him, Elyan, Gwaine, Lance and Percy trying to sneak into his house on Christmas morning.

"What the hell is this?" Merlin said in surprise, woken up by the kerfuffle as he walked down the stairs in his flannel pyjamas and wondered if he was still asleep. Merlin then blinked dazedly at the scene, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, saw it hadn't changed anything and then hesitatingly asked, "Is that a tree trying to break into my house?"

"Er, no?" Lance attempted to deny unconvincingly while holding said tree.

"You're dreaming!" Gwaine tried to add, waving his arms about in a strangely hypnotic motion that looked like a Mexican wave. "This is all just a dream."

“It is?” Merlin asked, genuinely unsure as he scratched his bedhead hair.

"Oh for fuck’s sake," Arthur huffed out, his bodyless head suddenly popping out from the middle of the tree as the twigs sticking out of his usually pristine hair made him look mad, "Merlin, go the hell upstairs and don't come down until I say so."

"But-"

"Up!" Arthur ordered in a voice that wouldn’t take no for an answer.

"This is my house, you know," Merlin mumbled but he turned around anyway to trudge back up the stairs but not before calling out over his shoulder, "Oh, and Merry Christmas, guys. Do any of you want a cuppa?"

"Green.”

"Milk, one sugar.”

"Earl Grey would be super.”

"Oolong if you have it.”

"Actually, you don't have coffee instead, do you?"

“Merlin, shut up and go upstairs,” said Arthur, shutting them all down effectively with just the tone of his voice. “And make sure to bring your mother down when I tell you to. This is more for her than you.”

“Well, that’s nice,” Merlin returned peevishly but he forgave Arthur’s rudeness the instant he came back down with Hunith an hour later and was greeted by the most impressive looking Christmas scene he had ever seen.

The huge fir tree the boys had been not so covertly dragging in stood tall in the corner of the living, lavish and beautiful as it grazed the ceiling and was bedecked with such fancy ornaments that Merlin could only imagine how much each of them had cost. Tacky decorations such as tinsel and gaudy gold stars didn’t get a look-in as decadent ribbons of gold and silver were placed artfully across the branches, complimenting the tasteful twinkling lights that wound around the tree. And then there were all the presents under the tree, accompanied by the roaring fireplace that Merlin had never got to work in all the years they had lived there.

Turning to Arthur, Merlin shook his head, beaming.

“God,” he said.

“Arthur, actually, but I suppose God is close enough,” Arthur returned, looking delightfully pleased with himself. Turning to Hunith, he looked a little like a hopeful child showing off what he had done at school that day. “I… um, I hope you don’t think I overstepped.”

Hunith didn’t disappoint him.

“Oh, Arthur, this is wonderful of you,” she said happily, tiptoeing to drop a kiss on his cheek that made his face go blotchy. “Absolutely marvellous. And boys,” here Hunith turned to the others, who were covered in pine needles and had the occasional bauble hanging off their ears, “you’ve done such a spectacular job that I hope you’ll stay for lunch. The turkey is big enough to feed an army. What do you say?”

They all enthusiastically said “Yes”, which is how Merlin soon found himself sitting at his cramped dinner table with the lot of them. Will and Gwaine seemed to hit it off immediately and were trying to out-gross each other with lewd tales that made the others roar with laughter while Percy put a paper hat on his head with dignity and Elyan read out a Christmas cracker joke that made Lance laugh purely because it was so bad. Arthur, who pressed close to Merlin’s side, seemed to just be drinking in the scene around him and looking happier than Merlin had ever seen him look before. It made Merlin smile softly at him, the warmth in his chest expanding.

“Thank you,” said Merlin when everyone had left, washing the dishes as he gave Arthur a sincere smile. “That was a really nice thing you did for my mum. Don’t get me wrong, we all love Rodney but Gladys here is spiffing.”

“Gladys?” Arthur responded, raising an eyebrow as he took the newly washed dishes from Merlin, towel-dried them efficiently and stacked them to the side. “You named the tree I got you Gladys?”

“Oh, she’s definitely a lady, look at her,” Merlin said, sticking out his chest as he took in her dazzling appearance with pride. “All spruced up and fancy and dressed-up better than most of the trees in department stores. She’s like the Helen Mirren of Christmas trees. The Dame Judy Dench of Christmas trees. She’s just all classy and stuff.”

Arthur laughed, towelling the last dish and setting it aside.

“You’re an idiot,” he said affectionately before looking at his watch, humming and pulling Merlin forward by the arm. “Right, come on, you useless waste of space, I’ve left your present in your room.”

“Wait, but you got the turkey and the tree,” Merlin interjected but he let Arthur pull him up the stairs to his bedroom anyway. “You don’t have to get me anything else. I sure as hell didn’t get you anything. I tried to think of something but a harem of supermodels was a little beyond my budget.”

“Do you want it or not, knobhead?” Arthur asked with amusement as he heaved open his trunk, rummaged around in it for a moment before pulling out a small, beautifully wrapped box. Arthur then proceeded to practically throw it at Merlin’s head, as though chucking it at him would make the whole thing less sentimental than it was. “Well, go on then, open it. We haven’t got all night.”

“You’re a bit of a prick, has anyone ever told you that?” Merlin asked conversationally as he tried to untie the box.

“You do, every day,” Arthur replied before laughing, “Jesus, Merlin, it’s a bow, not a Rubick's cube. Trust you to get confused untying one.”

“You shouldn’t use Jesus’ name in vain on his birthday, you know. It’s just not polite,” Merlin said smartly as he finally managed to loosen the knot. Lifting the lid and moving the tissue paper aside, Merlin discovered an antique medallion gleaming back at him. It felt warm under his fingers as sparks of magic seemed to fly between his fingertips and the medallion, as though the heirloom had been waiting for him all this time. Lifting it up, Merlin then looked at Arthur quizzically. If Merlin didn’t know better, he would say Arthur looked embarrassed.

“It belonged to my mother,” Arthur clarified and Merlin widened his eyes, surprised, because Arthur never talked about his mother. “It bears her sigil. It always brought me luck. Being the clumsy idiot you are, you need more luck than I do.”

“Arthur,” Merlin said, his throat dry and his shoulders suddenly heavy with the magnitude of this as he tried to hand it back, “I can’t-“

“Just take it,” Arthur said, his voice firm as he reached over and closed Merlin’s fingers around the medallion. The heat of his hand on Merlin’s tingled from the tips of Merlin nails and spread down to his entire arm. 

"I really appreciate it you know," Arthur suddenly said, breaking the momentary silence.

Merlin looked down at where their hands were still clasped, wetting his dry mouth.

"Appreciate what?" he asked faintly as he watched the way Arthur’s thumb stroked down the seam of his hand, his touch like a lightning storm against his skin

"Everything you've done for me. Everything you’re doing for me right now,” Arthur elaborated, his eyes large and earnest as they met Merlin’s. He then let out a self-deprecating grin. “I mean, you're a shitty host and your bed is highly uncomfortable and your owl is frankly demonic but I owe you a debt of thanks for letting me hide out here and for showing me that Christmas isn’t all about puking Father Christmases."

Arthur then smiled at him softly, his mouth crooked and so damned mesmerising that Merlin couldn't stop himself from smiling back. Something crossed over Arthur's eyes, making the air charged and heavy and Merlin’s skin suddenly felt so sticky with want that he physically gulped, his heart pounding like a jackhammer behind his ribcage.

Their faces moved closer and Merlin suddenly -– hysterically -- realised that this was the moment, that this is when it would finally happen.

And then he saw the knife whizzing through the air and heading right for the back of Arthur’s head.

Working off instinct, Merlin immediately jumped on top of Arthur so they both collapsed to the floor, watching as the knife embedded into the back of Merlin’s computer chair.

“Fuck, where did that come from?” Arthur asked, white-faced. “Is it the stalker?”

“Arthur, stay down and keep away from the windows!” Merlin scolded, going into instant bodyguard mode. ”And call the police. Tell them we need someone over right away. Wait, I can see someone in the bushes outside. Stay here, okay? I’ll be back.”

“Are you mad?!” Arthur exclaimed hotly, grabbing Merlin by the arm. “What are you going to do, you’re only tiny! If anyone is going, it’s me.”

“I can handle myself, let go!”

“Like fuck you can!” Arthur argued heatedly. He looked a sight to behold when he was all pumped up and glowing with courage. “The same way you handled the poison by drinking it? Stop being such a self-sacrificing moron for a second and wait for the police!”

“He’ll get away by the time they get here!”

“So let me go instead! It’s my problem, not yours!”

“Arthur, I’m not going to let you die! Not again!”

“Again?” said Arthur, his face completely mystified. “What do you mean by again?”

Merlin closed his mouth, puzzled by his words himself. What did he mean by again?

Before he could think about it, however, the window was suddenly smashed from the outside and a dark figure lithely climbed itself into the room with the flexibility of an acrobat. Merlin immediately placed himself in front of Arthur protectively, raising a hand until he got a good look at who the intruder was. Letting out a huff, Merlin couldn’t stop himself from turning his head to glare at Arthur with a look that clearly said ‘I told you so’.

“Seriously, what did Leon and I tell you about lying low?” he demanded because none other than Myror himself had burst into the room, looking at Arthur with an absolutely besotted expression.

“Myror? Seriously?” Arthur said aloud, blinking at the unlikeliness of this before turning to Merlin and saying, “Wow. I really didn’t see that one coming.”

Myror took a step forward. Merlin immediately raised his hand even higher.

“Now, Myror, stay back, all right? I don’t want to hurt you,” Merlin said shakily. Merlin could practically hear Arthur rolling his eyes behind him before he grabbed Merlin by the scruff of his shirt and yanked him forcefully behind him instead.

“Okay, look, Myror, this doesn’t have to end unpleasantly,” Arthur said, charm oozing from every pore as he smiled that trademark smile again. “Sure you may have written a few frankly disturbing letters and probably did some pretty unspeakable things to my bedsheets but we can sort this out. This doesn’t have to end badly.” In response to this, Myror pulled out a carving knife larger than a femur, his smile blinding against his dark complexion. “Or not,” Arthur conceded, sounding like he was at a loss. Arthur then rubbed at the back of his neck and tried another tactic. “Right, um, well, I suppose you’ve got me now. Well done and all that. We should probably be off then.”

“Arthur!” Merlin rebuked, grabbing Arthur’s arm to wheel him around to face him. “Are you mad!?”

“Look, just stay here and make sure your mother and Will are safe, okay?” Arthur whispered out of the corner of his mouth while nodding his head and trying to smile pleasantly at Myror at the same time. “I’m the one he wants.”

“No way, I’m not leaving you alone with this psycho,” Merlin replied without argument, watching as Myror licked his tongue over his teeth in a highly disconcerting fashion.

“Merlin-“ Arthur ground out again, sounding angry now.

“Eye sockets, Arthur!”

“Look, I’m not having you or your family suffer because of my problem!”

“Now who’s the self-sacrificing idiot?!”

“Still you, you insolent moron!”

“Oh, you are such a wanker sometimes!”

“At least I’m not as thick as a plank!”

“You’re right, you’re thicker!”

“I’m sorry but can we hurry this up?” Myror suddenly cut in, breaking out of character to lift up his knife to interject. “I do have quite a lot to be getting on with, you know.”

“I’m sorry, are we keeping you from your murderous schedule?” Merlin asked sarcastically. “Because really, don’t let us keep you. If you have someone else to terrorise, please, I insist, go right ahead. We’ll be here waiting for you when you get back.”

Unfortunately for Merlin, these words seemed to set Myror off. It all happened in the blink of an eye. One minute Myror was smiling at Merlin with that strange, freaky little smile of his. The next, he had pulled back his hand and thrown what looked like a poisoned dart right into Arthur’s neck, making Arthur immediately crumple to the ground.

“No!” Merlin cried out, scrambling desperately to Arthur’s side to check his pulse. “Don’t be dead, don’t you dare be dead…”

“He’s not dead,” Myror said laconically, which Merlin confirmed himself with an overwhelming sense of relief when he felt the steady throb of Arthur’s heart beat back against his palm. Merlin then snapped his head up at Myror and was surprised by himself when he let out an animalistic growl. He had never felt so furious, so magically unstable, in all his life.

“What did you do to him?!” Merlin demanded, rising to his feet as his magic whipped around him like a whirlwind and made his hair slap against his face. As if prompted by his words, the loyal objects around Merlin’s room also suddenly sprang to life behind him, awakening from their inanimate forms like an undead army rising from the grave. All his shoes started walking menacingly towards Myror like a marching militia and his shirts and trousers rose up into the air to form bodyless soldiers, each one equipped with a different weapon, from umbrellas to coat hangers.

Myror had obviously noticed this because he immediately dropped the knife and took a step back, his eyes huge and frightened.

“Who- what are you?” he gasped out.

“I am Emrys,” Merlin’s voice boomed out before Merlin could even control it. It reverberated around the room and shook the curtains open with its force. In the back of his mind, Merlin really hoped it hadn’t woken up his mum. “And you have angered me, Myror.”

Myror fell to his knees.

“Lord Emrys,” he said with fear. “I didn’t realise- I never even thought-”

“Obviously. Now tell me what you did to Arthur and I’ll try not to flay you where you stand,” said Merlin, although he really wasn’t much of flayer. Myror didn’t know this, however, so he revealed the plan in full, barely taking a breath as he did.

"So it's just a tranquiliser dart?" Merlin confirmed, slumping back against one of his animated shirts in relief, who patted him consolingly on the shoulder with a sleeve. "No crazed love dart? No strain of rabies in there? No slow acting poison that will eventually paralyse him?"

"No," said Myror, before quirking his head as though those suggestions were inspired ideas and he was disappointed he hadn't thought of them earlier.

"Thank fuck," said Merlin, exhaling out a deep breath. He then picked up his mobile from the bed, dialled 999 and brightly said, "Hi yes, police, please. Oh yes, hello there. A mad robber man with an earring and a knife just broke into my house. Please come soon before he kills us all. 7b Oakwood Court. Thanks."

Merlin then hung up and looked at Myror, pointing at him threateningly with the phone.

"Right, I’m going to walk you outside. The police will be here soon to pick you up and you're going to go with them without a fuss. And you’re going to be quiet while we walk out - I don’t want you waking my mother up and upsetting her. Understood?"

"Yes, my Lord," said Myror and it appeared he was a man of his word because he proceeded to creep silently down the stairs of the house with Merlin and calmly sat on the wall outside for the police to arrive, offering Merlin some chewing gum while they waited.

By the time the police arrived and, with some befuddlement, escorted the rather calm man into the police van, it was three in the morning and Merlin was frankly exhausted. So, trudging his way back up the stairs, Merlin dismissed his animated objects with a wave of his hand so they slumped back into lifelessness, rubbed a heavy hand over his face and perched on the bed beside Arthur. Looking down at him, Merlin tried not to think of ridiculous Sleeping Beauty comparisons but it was Arthur's own fault for being so damn pretty.

"Arthur?” Merlin said through a yawn, trying to nudge him awake. “Arthur?" When a minute of this didn’t work, Merlin shrugged, briefly thought about stupid things like kissing him awake before going for his tried and tested approach and smacking Arthur as hard as he could across the face. "Oi, dickhead, are you awake or what!?"

"Jesus!" Arthur yelped as he sat up with a start, his eyes huge as he looked around frantically for what had woken him up. He then groaned and held a palm to his injured neck. "Ow, what the hell. What's going on? Why does my neck hurt? The last thing I remember is the window smashing and Myror... fuck! Myror!" Arthur exclaimed, jumping up onto his feet so fast that he overbalanced and fell right back onto the bed again on his arse. Merlin rolled his eyes.

"Calm down before you give yourself another injury, you git," Merlin scolded, holding Arthur's shoulder down before he tried to jump up again. "Myror's gone. The police took him away."

"I-! Wait, what?" Arthur stuttered. "When?"

"While you were out."

"Out?" Arthur repeated

"Yeah," Merlin said nodding, thinking about what the sensible thing to say would be before replying, "You fainted again."

Arthur paled.

"I did not."

"Yeah, I think it was the size of the knife that set you off this time," Merlin returned, enjoying the alarm on Arthur's face before the reality of the situation hit home. His smile drooped slightly. "You know what this means, don't you?"

"That I'm as much of a woman as you?" Arthur said, looking like he wanted to smother himself with the nearest pillow.

"No, it means you're safe now," Merlin said softly. "You can go back to your big fancy apartment again."

"Oh, yes, my place," said Arthur, as if he had forgotten that he actually lived there. If Merlin didn't know better, he would say Arthur sounded disappointed. "I suppose I should head back tomorrow."

"Right," said Merlin, barely stopping himself from throwing his arms around Arthur's waist and hysterically wailing 'Stay!' like the little girl Arthur always accused him of being. "Well, um. My mum will really miss you."

"She did make staying in close proximity to you all the more bearable," Arthur said. "Really, Merlin, are you sure you're not-"

"Adopted? Come on, Arthur, the comebacks are getting predictable now," Merlin returned with a warm smile.

"Yes, well, your face is predictable."

"What does that even mean?"

"No idea," Arthur replied, returning the smile. He then looked up at Merlin, worrying his lip a little before blurting out, "Look, Merlin, about before. I mean, that is, just before Myror threw that thing at me-"

"Arthur, it's okay, seriously," Merlin said, not wanting Arthur to feel guilty about the argument they had had before the dart had knocked Arthur out. "Don't worry about it, all right? It's forgotten."

"It's just that- wait, forgotten?" Arthur repeated. "As in- you want to forget about it?"

"Don't you?" Merlin asked with a laugh. "It was just a bit of momentary madness. Just happens sometimes when you spend too much time with someone. Forget about it, okay? It's water under the bridge. I mean, unless you don't think - I mean, we're still friends, right?"

"Friends?" Arthur repeated faintly. He then looked down for a moment, seemed to decide something in his head and then looked up, nodding his head once. "Of course. Right, yes. Friends." Then barely a moment later, "I should get to sleep. I've a long day ahead of me tomorrow."

"Right, okay," Merlin said, not sure where the curt tone had come from. Before he could say anything, however, Arthur had walked into the bathroom and closed the door shut behind him, leaving Merlin with a gnawing feeling that he had missed something important.

 

 

 

  

 

Two weeks later, work started up again and for the first few days, it felt like all the progress Arthur and Merlin had made during the holidays had gone. Merlin didn't know why but Arthur was even more closed off than he had been before and talked to Merlin in a polite, stilted sort of way that included no insults to Merlin's person or any of the derogatory nicknames that had been a daily habit for them. In short, it was awful.

They also seemed to entirely gloss over the almost-kiss to such a degree that Merlin was now beginning to wonder if he had had a psychotic episode where he had just imagined the whole thing, which was entirely probable because he daydreamed about Arthur so often that he was beginning not to be able to discern the difference between reality and fantasy.

The only good thing about returning to work from Merlin's point of view was catching up with Gwen. They had texted each other the customary 'Merry Christmas' over the holidays but they hadn't really talked since the Christmas party when he and Lance had walked in on her and Arthur in the toilets. Nevertheless, the moment he walked into the Closet on his first day back and just looked at her, they ended up throwing their arms around each other immediately.

"Oh, Merlin, I feel so awful about the whole thing," Gwen had confessed as he took a seat beside her on the camp lip-shaped sofa in the Closet and held her hand. "It was so stupid of me. I had had this awful argument with Elyan because he got a job here as a freelance model -- which I should have just supported him about but I didn’t because I'm an awful sister -- and I felt so guilty about it afterwards that I suppose I drank more than I should have. That is no excuse for what I did though. I feel like I betrayed you. "

“Well, I'm not going to lie and say that I hadn't always hoped that you and Lance would get together," Merlin admitted truthfully, "but you've got nothing to apologise to me about, Gwen."

"Oh, Merlin, I don't mean betrayal over Lance," she said boldly. "I mean betrayal over Arthur."

"Arthur?" Merlin squeaked out because just his name made his insides go funny and his voice screech out with nerves. "Why would I-?" but the knowing look Gwen gave him said everything it needed to.

"It's okay, Merlin. I think I've known for a while,” she said gently, patting his hand soothingly like Hunith did when he was upset. “You like him, don't you?"

"Me? Well, I- that is, I-"

"If it helps, I'm more than positive he's just as besotted with you, too," Gwen cut across him with a warm smile.

"I'm not besotted!"

Gwen gave him a look. It was enough to make Merlin drop his head face down into her lap and groan.

"God, I'm so screwed," his voice muffled against her skirt. Gwen, being a dear, stroked his hair in sympathy.

"It's not such a bad thing, is it?” she asked positively. "Everyone in this office is half in love with him as it is. You're the only one that has a chance to actually tie him down." Merlin's eyes glazed. "Into a relationship, Merlin," Gwen clarified with a pointed look and a tweak of his ear, looking like she was trying not to smile.

"Oh, right," Merlin nodded, pretending that he knew that even as the image stayed in his head and did a sexy little dance for him.

"Is it the sex?" Gwen suddenly asked. "Because I can, um, tell you that part is definitely not disappointing."

Merlin lifted up his head to look at her.

"Too soon?" she hazarded, biting her lip.

"Don't forget, Gwen, I've seen him shag -- literally seen him shag -- about a hundred women since I started this job. I'm in no doubt he's incredible." Merlin then paused and remembered Freya's rather strained smile after their first time and her little pat on his shoulder as she said, “Um, that was... interesting." Merlin gulped and sat up completely. "Okay, I'm sort of worried about the sex now."

"Crap, I'm sorry, just ignore me!" Gwen apologised fretfully. "I just wanted you to know that I think it's sweet. You and Arthur. You really work together. Not that it matters what I say, he'll probably ask you out before the day is out."

"I doubt it," said Merlin. "He's being... weird with me."

"Weird?"

"Ever since he stayed at mine, he's been sort of off. I mean, we were fine until Myror-"

"-broke in and had to be taken away by the police?" Gwen finished. When Merlin looked at her in surprise, she smiled humorously. "The rumour mill around here is so good sometimes that it can predict things before they even happen. So what happened between you and Arthur before Myror?"

"I, well... I think we almost kissed- bloody hell, Gwen!" Merlin yelped because Gwen had let out a high-pitched screech of excitement at this. Slapping her hands over her mouth, she tried to look apologetic but she was too busy beaming.

"Sorry, please continue," she insisted, calming herself down as she primly placed her hands in her lap.

"Blimey, my ears are still ringing," Merlin commented before shaking his head like a dog with water in its ears. "Anyway, I'm pretty sure we almost kissed before Myror attacked him and interrupted us but I don't even know anymore. Maybe that's just how Arthur looks at people. Maybe he was leaning forward to tell me I had spinach in my teeth. I don't even know anymore. All I know is that he can barely look at me now, like it was some embarrassing thing he had done when he was drunk, like wearing women's underwear or doing a striptease in the middle of the tube."

"... have you done either of those things when you were drunk?" Gwen asked, blinking at his analogies.

Merlin opened his mouth briefly before soon closing it shut.

"We're getting off the subject," Merlin said, neatly avoiding that topic. "The main point is that I'm worried that we've lost the friendship that we had before. Heck, for all I know, I could get fired for sexually harassing my boss."

"Oh Merlin, of course that won't happen!" Gwen said. "Even if Arthur despised you -- which he doesn't -- he couldn't afford to get rid of a potentially award winning concept man."

"Award winning?"

"You didn't hear? We got nominated for a Fashion Publishing Award for the Lady Helen shoot. Well, if we're honest now, you got nominated."

"Really? That's brilliant!" Merlin said enthusiastically, feeling thrilled as his face broke into a grin. He had never been nominated for anything before. His smile slowly faded when a thought hit him. "Arthur never said anything to me about it."

"Maybe he just forgot?"

"Yeah," said Merlin, feeling glum again as he dropped his head back on Gwen's lap. "Maybe."

"I'm sorry, is this a bad time?" a polite voice suddenly enquired at the door.

"Lance!" Gwen cried out before jumping to her feet, her sudden movement making Merlin fall with an “Oof!” to the floor. "I, um... welcome back! How was your holiday?"

"Yes, great. Thank you. And yours?" Lance asked, sounding uneasy as he stepped forward, reminding Merlin of one of those tortured and conflicted period drama heroes who made women swoon with their gallantry and tight breeches.

"Oh! Yes, um, mine was fine. Elyan and I thought we would have dinner together and that was nice. I mean, it got a bit hairy when he burnt the stuffing but it was all right because I had saved an extra batch of mixture just in case and- um, I'm rambling again, aren't I? Sorry."

"No please, don't apologise. I love hearing you ramble," Lance said with a bit of a lovesick look himself before clapping a hand over his mouth and correcting himself. "I mean, not that I think you ramble. I think you talk a perfect amount, really. I think... I think you're perfect, really."

"Oh," said Gwen, looking decidedly like she was about to jump him and rip his clothes off. Merlin realised that was his cue to leave.

"I should go," he said to no one in particular, peeling himself off the floor as he waved a hand to get their attention. When neither of them noticed him, Merlin coughed and got to his feet. "Um, okay, bye then," he said before walking out the door Lance had left open and closing it shut behind him. Merlin then pressed his ear to the door. Smirking when he heard what was unmistakably the sound of two people throwing themselves at each other with everything they had, Merlin took a step back, turned to head back to Arthur's office and left his friends to it.

‘Where have you been?’ was the reply Merlin had usually expected from Arthur when he took a while to return back to him. After all, in the past -- well, the period of history before the Myror situation -- Arthur used to get rather narked at Merlin when he disappeared from his side for an extended period of time. Now, though, when Merlin returned to him from the Closet, Arthur looked like he would have preferred it if Merlin had never returned at all.

Instead of upsetting Merlin, this just seemed to make him angry.

"So, I hear we got nominated for the Lady Helen shoot," said Merlin loudly enough to be heard in the next building as he crossed his arms, addressing Arthur directly. "That's nice."

Arthur was sitting behind his desk and working through piles of paperwork that he had never bothered tackling before briefly looking up.

"Yes, it's exciting," he said in a voice that sounded as uninterested as possible. He then pointed at his coffee table with his pen before returning back to his work. "I left the envelope with your invitations on the table there."

"Wait, invitations? As in, a pair?" repeated Merlin, surprised he had managed to snag one, let alone two. He knew how much it cost the company to pay for a table at an award show. He had booked enough of them for Arthur to know, after all. Picking up the envelope from the table, Merlin opened it and found his printed name gleaming back at him. He had never been important enough to warrant being addressed by name. He had only ever been an 'and guest' in the past. Arthur's guest. Merlin looked up at Arthur, feeling a little disappointed. "So, I'm not your plus one?"

"You came up with the concept, it's only fitting that you reap the rewards of its success. In any case, there's someone else I want to take."

"Oh," said Merlin, feeling like Morgana had stepped one of her pencil heels right through his chest. "Great. I mean, that's great. For you. I guess I'll ask Will then."

"Great," said Arthur tersely, "I'll see you then." Arthur then returned back to the paperwork he had been doing, not even lifting his head back up to Merlin as he said, "That'll be all, Merlin."

"Right, um, okay," said Merlin, not sure what to do with himself as he walked out because he had never been officially dismissed like that before.

Slinking back to his desk, Merlin sank down onto his chair and stared at his sleeping computer monitor for a while before grabbing his phone and dialling Gwen's extension. Unsurprisingly, it went straight to voicemail.

"Hey Gwen - oh, and hi to Lance there, too. Anyway, Gwen, if you could give me a call back when you're done, that would be great. I need a tux for the award show. A brilliant one. Oh, and if I could get you to try and sort out my shitty hair for the night, that would be amazing, too. Anyway, congrats, guys. It's about sodding time. Thanks."

Merlin then hung up to immediately dial Will.

"Hey," he said the moment Will picked up, "are you busy Friday night?"

 

 

 

  

 

Merlin had always assumed that the Fashion Publishing Awards were a big deal from the way people 'oohed' and 'aahed' over them but he never realised that they were the literal Oscars of their industry.

As soon as it became common knowledge that Merlin was going, everyone had started to share tales about previous years to prepare him, from the bitchy backstage goings ons to the all-out cat-fight on stage a few years back between Naomi Campbell and the model she had lost out to. Apparently, it had been such a big deal that Marc Jacobs had been inspired to make a handbag about it, Tom Ford filmed it artistically on his phone for inspiration for his next feature film and people maintained that Lagerfeld had been scandalised but it was impossible to tell with a face like his.

Gwen in particularly couldn't stop stressing the importance of the night, which she had proved on the evening in question by the artistic sculpture she seemed to be making out of Merlin’s hair with Brylcreem and frankly so much hairspray that Merlin made an apology to the ozone layer for any lasting effects

"Don't you think this is a bit much?" Merlin had asked timidly as he sat still in his seat because Gwen mid-styling frightened him slightly.

"No, it's just about enough," Gwen said, giving his hair one last yank before taking a step back to survey her work. She then clasped her hands together, exceedingly proud of herself.

"Perfect," she said, looking like she had surprised even herself with how good she was. "Arthur won't be able to keep his hands off you."

"If you mean by hitting me around the head when we lose, I'll agree with you there. Luckily, I've got so much product in my hair that it's like I'm wearing a helmet. It'll bounce right off me."

"That was not what I meant and you know it," Gwen said with affection colouring her voice. "Now get out of here, Cinderella, and go dazzle your prince at the ball. Oh, and no losing those shoes at midnight. They're Louboutins and I need to have them back for the shoot on Monday."

"Yes, fairy godmother," Merlin returned, bowing at her respectfully. Gwen immediately curtsied back.

"Oh and Merlin?" Gwen called back as he turned to leave. "You look fantastic. Don't doubt it."

And Merlin didn't, especially when he entered Arthur's office and watched him double take the moment he took in Merlin's appearance. 

"Merlin," Arthur said, blinking a little stupidly at Merlin outfit like it had rendered his brain useless. "You look... not ridiculous."

Distracted by the fact that Arthur looked so good in his tux that it actually hurt to look at him directly, Merlin proceeded to look down at himself instead.

"Er, thanks," Merlin said, genuinely taken aback by the compliment before a creeping grin slowly took over his face. "You know, that might just be the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

"Well, don't get used to it, you're still an idiot," Arthur quipped back, going a little red as he dropped his gaze to his wrists and tried to adjust his cufflinks. Rolling his eyes as he watched Arthur make a pig's ear of it, Merlin gathered his courage to move forward and slapped his employer's fingers away to fasten them properly himself. For once, Arthur didn't complain. In fact, he stood in a rather rigid pose, as though he was afraid to move. "So," Arthur began stiffly, as Merlin let out a "ha!" of triumph when the platinum dragon slipped into place. "No William, then?"

"Well, I sent him an invitation but I'm not sure this kind of party is really Will's scene," Merlin admitted, imagining Will loudly insulting all the rich donors and making drunken passes at their wives. It was almost worth inviting him for entertainment's sake. Merlin must have been wearing a soft smile on his face because Arthur simply gave him a withering look

Merlin coughed and released Arthur's cuffs, scratching behind his ear.

"So, remind me why it's mandatory to wear this monkey suit again?"

"Technically, you look more like a monkey in what you usually wear," Arthur bantered back.

"And we're back to insulting me again, that didn't take long," Merlin said morosely.

"It's not my fault you make it so easy," Arthur retorted but he was smiling despite himself, his lips quirked. It made Merlin's stomach flutter. This was the first time Arthur had really smiled at him since the Myror incident. He examined every detail of it and committed it to memory, just in case it was the last time it happened again.

"So, no Nimueh at the awards this year," Merlin said, trying to keep the mood light. "Maybe we'll win."

"We still have Morgause to beat," Arthur reminded him.

"Oh, she's not that scary," Merlin said resolutely before laughing at the look Arthur gave him. "Okay, she is kind of terrifying," Merlin admitted before pausing to note. "I also think her eyeliner is tattooed to her eyelids."

"Irrelevant but probably true."

Merlin smiled, suddenly feeling shy.

"So, um, are you meeting your date here?"

"My date?" Arthur said in confusion.

"You know, your plus one? You said you had someone special you wanted to take?"

Looking puzzled, Arthur opened his mouth to reply when there was a knock on the door and Arthur's plus one walked through the door.

"Arthur, apologies I'm late. I had a bit of a wardrobe malfunction."

"Lance?" Merlin said in surprise, gawking at his slick-looking, tuxedoed friend before and pointing at him to clarify, "Wait, so Lance is your date?"

"Date?" both Lance and Arthur said in surprise.

"You said you had someone in mind to take-"

“Lance worked on the final shoot, I thought it was only fitting to take him with me," Arthur said, looking at Merlin like he was simple.

"Oh," said Merlin, his despondency about spending an evening with Arthur and some beautiful woman melting as quickly as sugar in a cup of hot tea. He let out a wide smile, sure he looked stupid but not caring in the slightest. "So, this isn't a date.”

"Of course it isn't," Arthur snapped as Lance muttered,

"Well, I don't think Gwen would approve…"

"Brilliant, that's brilliant," Merlin said brightly before picking up his coat. "Right, we should head off, right? Don't want to be late!" Merlin then paused to look at Lance. "You were with Gwen just before coming here, weren't you?"

Lance's eyes grew round like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

"How did you guess?"

"Magic," Merlin said winking. He then turned to head out the door. "Also, your fly is undone."

By the time they made it to the Savoy, where the event was happening, Lance's flies were up, Arthur was looking entirely too edible for a man of flesh and blood and Merlin's hair had hardened to such a degree that he was sure it could cut glass. To Merlin's delight, he caught sight of Will as soon as he entered the reception.

"Will, you came! Where the hell did you get the tux from?"

"Gaius," Will explained, before giving Merlin a twirl that made him laugh with joy. "He actually showed up at the door, gave me the eyebrow, handed it over and basically told me not to get drunk and puke all over it. It's like he's psychic. I'm still sort of freaked out about it."

"Sounds like Gaius," Merlin admitted, before looking at Will with gratitude and saying. "I'm glad you came. I'm a lot more nervous than I thought I'd be. Although-"

"Yes, yes, I know, don't be myself," Will finished. "I know the drill."

"I never said don't be yourself. Just try not to do anything to humiliate me completely."

"So, basically, don't be myself," Will said, grinning. "You always ruin my fun, Merlin. This is nice though." he said, looking around the room. "Very snazzy. So where's Arthur? Trying to present an award to himself?"

"No, but that's not a bad idea," Arthur remarked aloud as he walked up to them both from where he had been networking by the bar, Leon and Lance at his shoulders. He nodded at Will. "William. I see you've got your trousers on for once, I almost didn't recognise you."

"Well, I suppose if I saw me walking around trouserless all the time, I wouldn't look me in the face either," Will said before grabbing a flute of champagne from a nearby server, sipping it and then spitting it back into his glass. "Crikey, this is all a bit poncy, isn't it? I thought that was Appletiser. Pendragon, your family owns everyone in this room, right? You couldn't get us a beer, could you? Champagne makes me gassy."

Merlin looked around for the nearest wall to bang his head against as Arthur smiled a stilted, rictus little smile that was usually directed at pushy stakeholders or his father.

"I'll see what I can find," he said, his eye twitching so violently that Merlin watched it with concern, ready to duck at the inevitable moment it popped out of his head.

"No, don't worry about it, I'll get his drink," Merlin cut in, putting a hand on Arthur's chest to stop him before getting terribly affected by the strong thump of Arthur's heart against his fingertips. Quickly dropping his hand before it did something inappropriate -- like slide its way down into Arthur's trousers -- Merlin quickly headed over to the bar before he lost his cool completely.

"Get a grip," he muttered to himself.

"Are you talking to me?" a ridiculously tall woman asked from beside him, looking down her nose from where she towered over him.

"No, I'm just talking to myself," Merlin confirmed miserably. "Don't mind me."

Grabbing the drinks once the bartender had placed them in front of him, Merlin turned and was just about to head back to Will when he heard Arthur's voice drifting from the balcony behind him.

"What are you up to with Merlin?" Arthur asked.

Merlin froze briefly at hearing his own name and considered not eavesdropping for the shortest millisecond in the history of time before ducking behind the balcony curtain to peek at the shadowy figures of Arthur and, strangely enough, Gwaine bathed in moonlight. Merlin smiled automatically. He didn't know Gwaine had even been invited and briefly lamented that he hadn't checked the program to see if Gwaine was up for Model of the Year.

Gwaine was wearing his tuxedo casually with no bow and his top buttons undone and was lazily leaning back against the edge of the balcony like a man with no fear. He was also looking at Arthur with a mixture of both befuddlement and fond amusement.

"You couldn’t repeat the question, could you?" Gwaine asked cheekily. "I couldn't quite catch it under all the uppity in your voice, mate."

"Damn it, Gwaine, you heard me," Arthur replied through clenched teeth, looking a little strained, as if it galled him to ask. "What is going on with you and Merlin? As his employer, I have a right to know."

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's not true," Gwaine replied. "But since I like you, I'll tell you anyway. I'm courting him."

"Courting him?"

"Well, it's nicer than saying I'm trying to get into his pants but you get the general gist if it."

Arthur seemed to gape at Gwaine as if he couldn't quite believe the sheer shamelessness of him before blurting out,

"I forbid it!"

"You forbid- excuse me?" Gwaine let out a bark of disbelief. “Arthur, come on, now.”

"Workplace romances are a problem."

"You've screwed every woman in the company under the age of sixty. Even some over!"

"Yes, well, I'm an exceptional case,” Arthur said mulishly.

"You know what I think?" Gwaine suddenly remarked, leaning back against the balcony rail to stare Arthur straight in the eye. "I think you're jealous."

"Jealous?" Arthur said. "I think all the alcohol you've consumed over the years has permanently addled your brain. Why would I be jealous over you?"

"Not me, princess. Merlin."

There was a pause for a moment which was soon broken by Arthur's blank voice saying,

"Merlin. You think I'm jealous over Merlin."

"I think you're so used to his world revolving around you that you can't stand seeing someone else getting his attention," Gwaine said brashly.

Arthur snorted so loudly he could have been mistaken for a farmyard animal.

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

"About as ridiculous as you trying to stop Merlin from dating?" Gwaine asked innocently, sipping on his drink.

"I'm trying to stop Merlin from dating you, Gwaine. There's a distinct difference."

"And why is that? Don't you think I'm a catch?" Gwaine asked sweetly.

"I think he's likely to catch something from you, yes," Arthur returned before letting out an exhale and running a hand through his hair, looking a little hassled. "Look, just… just leave him alone, okay? He doesn't need to be caught up in your drama."

"Says the most dramatic person on the planet," Gwaine said and Merlin had to agree with him there. "How many times has he saved your arse again?"

"I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself!" Arthur argued, which made the eavesdropping Merlin roll his eyes.

"Oh please, you can barely dress yourself in the morning without Merlin there to pick out your outfits and put them on for you."

"Now who is the one who sounds jealous?"

"That's because I am and I'm not afraid to admit it," Gwaine said simply. "You, on the other hand, would need a wrecking ball to break down that closet of yours before you ever step out of it."

"Wait one minute, are you trying to imply-"

"I'm not implying anything, your highness. I'm straight out telling you - you have a thing for Merlin."

"That's- that's absurd! Have you seen him? Why... why would I even-"

"Because he's gorgeous and has cheekbones you could slice granite with and is probably the most adorable person on the planet. And then there's his arse -- don't even try to tell me you haven't noticed it -- which is reason enough by itself. The question isn't why would you fancy him, it's why wouldn't you?"

"His... his ears," Arthur said weakly, sounding like he was grasping at straws.

Gwaine just sighed an exaggerated long-suffering sigh and put an arm around Arthur's shoulder.

"As much as I find you a pain in the arse, we're still friends so let me give you some advice, free of charge. Someone will eventually snap him up. Whether it's me, the apparently straight Will or heaven forbid, a woman. Do something about it Arthur, before it’s too late." Gwaine then looked up and to Merlin's mortification, spotted him hiding behind the curtain. Looking at him curiously, Gwaine tilted his head and for a moment, Merlin feared that he would tell Arthur that Merlin had been listening. But Gwaine didn't. Instead, he turned back to Arthur and slapped him genially on the back. "Anyway, I better head off. See if I can catch Merlin on his lonesome. You should try to do the same, my prickly friend, or you'll end up regretting it."

Gwaine then exited the balcony and headed straight towards Merlin, making him swear as he squeezed himself into a tiny gap in the wall to avoid being seen by Arthur. Looking at him briefly as he passed, Gwaine let out a rasp of a laugh and shook his head at both Merlin and Arthur, as though they were both stupid and beyond his help.

"He's all yours, if you want him," Gwaine said suggestively, indicating towards where Arthur was still frowning on the balcony unhappily as though he was genuinely debating whether or not to jump off the edge. "You want him, don't you?"

Merlin replied to this by letting out a squeak and running away.

"There you are," said Will, finding him hiding behind a tapestry about a minute later and Merlin momentarily cursed him for knowing him so well. Will then cocked his head curiously before shrugging and sliding in beside him. "So," he said conversationally a few moments later, "why are we hiding here then?"

"I was hiding here before you bothered me."

"Well, they started to seat everyone and I couldn't exactly just park myself without you. That's just rude." Will then looked down at the beer still clutched in Merlin's hand and cheered. "Brilliant! You got me a Corona! I was dead parched." Taking a blissful sip, Will looked considerably much happier with life before turning back to Merlin. "So, are you actually going to tell me what's going on with you or are we going to stay here all night? Because honestly, mate, you're acting like a bit of weirdo right now."

"I'm not acting weird."

"We're hiding behind a tapestry," Will reminded him before sighing heavily, pushing the tapestry aside and pulling Merlin back into the open. "Look, is this about Arthur Pratdragon?"

"Arthur? No! Why would you say that! Of course not, why would I be worrying over Arthur?"

"Because you're acting like a loony, that's why. The only other time you acted this strange was when you and Freya snuck of to that-" Will then suddenly stopped to shriek out, "Oh my god!" at the top of his lungs before looking at Merlin with horror. "You're fucking Arthur Pendragon, aren't you? Holy shit, Merlin, a building full of hot women and you go for the only other bloke?"

Merlin's face went bright red as he grabbed Will by the elbow and tried to pull him back behind the tapestry before hissing,

"Would you keep your voice down?!"

"He's not even denying it!" Will called up to the ceiling, as though having an exasperated conversation with God. Pulling him frantically into a nearby chair, Merlin tried to ignore where Arthur was now standing across the room with Leon and Lance, watching them through narrowed eyes.

"There's nothing to deny. And don't you scoff at me!" Merlin snapped the moment Will did indeed scoff. "It's purely platonic."

"Your Prince Charming over there has been glaring at me the moment you touched my arm," Will stated matter-of-factly. "So yeah, not too platonic from where I'm standing, mate."

"Of course he hasn't been staring, don't be daft! Has he?" Merlin asked, looking painfully hopeful. Will just groaned and clicked his fingers in front Merlin's face like a hypnotist breaking a trance.

"Oi, head out the clouds, Dale Winton! We've got important shit to discuss. Namely, is this my fault?"

"What?"

"I am a pretty prime piece of meat here, Mer. Can't have been easy, growing up around this." Will gestured to himself before pointing particularly at his crotch. He then looked at Merlin seriously. "This turned you, didn't it?"

"Yes, Will," Merlin said in a blank voice. "Your mighty cock turned me gay."

"Aw, don't get all narky. If I liked dick, Mer, I'd definitely suck yours. No need to pine."

Will then grinned. Merlin, who had been agonising about telling Will about his feelings for Arthur, let out a breath he didn't even realise he had been holding, his heart feeling lighter.

"Git," he said fondly.

"Is that any way to speak to the man you love?" Will quipped back. Merlin punched him good-naturedly in the arm. "So, about you and prissy-pants Pendragon over there-"

"It's complicated," Merlin said gloomily, running a hand over his face.

"What's so complicated about sticking your tongue down his throat?"

"I see the Will Gendry art of seduction hasn't changed." Merlin laughed shakily, before resignation soon worked itself through every muscle in his body. "First of all, I don't even think he likes me like that. And second, he's my boss, Will."

"So?" Will demanded abruptly. "Merlin, as your best friend, I insist you sleep your way to the top. You'll get a pay rise and I can finally afford that hot tub I've always dreamed about. Also? Shagging your boss means you can role-play Disclosure on office furniture after everyone has left, which is always a plus. Man, Demi Moore is a hot milf."

"It's just," Merlin lowered his voice, every insecurity in his head rushing to the surface, "he's just so out of my league."

Merlin should have expected Will's hand to thump his head but it was still a surprise when it did.

"Ow!" he wailed. "What was that for?"

"You blind tosser, can that wanker start a fire with his mind?" Will defended him staunchly. "Can he transport himself somewhere just by thinking about it? So he goes to the gym and slaps fake tan on his arse every week, what's so impressive about that?"

"That's not all!" Merlin cried out, offended on Arthur's behalf. "He's really smart, he just hides behind an arrogant, poster boy front. If you knew him, Will, you'd see that he's kind to his staff and he cares about the company more than he cares about himself and he's strangely diplomatic and he always tries to do the right thing. The way he appears in the papers and magazines... it's not him. He's just so terrified of not having his father's approval that he puts up this alter-ego to the world."

"Wow," said Will, blinking. "I see things clearly now."

Merlin nodded.

"Thank you."

"You're in love with him."

"What?!" Merlin squawked but Will overlooked his outrage.

"Oh, Arthur is so big and brave, he's such a knight in shining armour! He fought a dragon and saved a village from bandits!" Will mocked in a high falsetto, holding his hands together like a maiden and fluttering his eyelashes in a way that Merlin found highly disturbing.

“I don’t sound like that,” he argued back.

“You're right. You sound worse,” Will returned. “It’s embarrassing. Has he got beer-flavoured balls or something? I don’t get it.”

Merlin shrugged because he honestly didn't get it either. And then he caught Arthur's eye from across the room and like a donkey kick to the chest, it suddenly all made perfect sense.

Will gagged.

"Okay, I'm off. If I have to stand around and watch you two eye-fuck each other any longer, I'll end up chucking myself off that balcony over there. Go sort it out, Mer, before you end up dying of blue balls and I have to speak at your funeral. I'm crap at eulogies and don't like wearing black."

"Liar, you love wearing black."

"True. It brings out my eyes, doesn't it?" Will acknowledged. "Now stop being such a chicken-shit little pussy and go and woo lover boy already. There are loads of dark corners around this place you can sneak off to for a quick shag. I decided to pay attention just in case Morgana felt like slumming it. Speaking of, I'll see you at the table." Will then licked his palm, ran it through his hair and walked off to join the group following a passing Morgana, their eyes dazed and their arms outstretched like zombies who had found the ultimate piece of brain.

Merlin watched them go, letting out a morose little exhale. It seemed like everyone was in love.

"Merlin, over here!" Lance's voice called out over all the chattering voices. He was sitting by the table nearest the stage and was motioning for Merlin to join him and Arthur. Morgana had escaped her lumbering fans and was sitting on the other side of the table with Mordred, somehow managing to find the happy medium of sitting as far away from Arthur as possible and managing to eat her meal. Seeing Arthur's back stiffen at just the sound of Merlin’s name made Merlin fall deeper into despair. Both Gwaine and Will had been wrong. Arthur really wasn't interested.

"Um, wow, good table. Best view in the house," Merlin commented, trying to remain chipper as he scanned the table for his allocated seat. Since fate apparently hated him, he found the fancy place card with his name on it sitting mockingly beside Arthur, as though a big practical joke was being played on him. Slipping down onto his seat, Merlin counted to ten in his head and prayed that a wormhole would suddenly appear beside him and suck him out of this dimension to save him from the awkwardness. When it didn't, he felt immensely disappointed.

It took a further ten minutes for the award show to begin and Merlin, who had always thought these things were terribly glamorous on television, soon realised that award shows, next to the Tellytubbies, were the most monotonous thing on the planet to witness. There seemed to be about a thousand categories and the format was generally the same for each and every one. A heavily botoxed ex-model would get introduced to give the award, they would totter on stage barely holding themselves together in an outfit at least a dress size too tight and then they would squint and fumble through reading out the winner because they had already got themselves completely sloshed on all the free champagne. By the time they had reached the fifteenth category, Merlin was losing the will to live. It didn't help that Arthur was sitting beside him and kept darting the odd considering look at him. He even opened his mouth a couple of times and looked like he was going to say something to him but he always seemed to change his mind at the last minute and lean back into his seat, looking annoyed at himself.

It was only when the clock struck midnight that Merlin sat up and actually cared about a category. It was the Male Model of the Year award and Merlin had double-checked the program to see that Gwaine was nominated. To present the award was infamous model Fabio himself, skin orange and his mane of blond hair as swishy as ever as he made his way onto the stage, told a joke that made no sense whatsoever to Merlin and then announced the nominees.

"And the Fashion Publishing Award for Male Model of the year goes to," said Fabio in his Italian accent before flicking back his hair just for the sake of it, "Gwaine!"

Merlin jumped to his feet in his exhilaration, beaming from ear to ear as he clapped so hard he was sure he had broken a couple of fingers.

Gwaine, who was seated at the table behind them, got to his feet and grinned about him with delight as he weaved his way around the Pendragon table towards the stage. Instead of heading straight there, however, Gwaine stopped at their table and, to Merlin's shock, grabbed Merlin by the sides of the face and planted a loud kiss on his mouth. He then disappeared up onto the stage as quickly as he had kissed him, making a speech that Merlin didn't catch because all he could hear were the flashes of hundreds of camera snapping him in a room quite literally filled with journalists.

"Yes, yes, that's my best friend," Will said to an enquiring woman from the next table. "Merlin Emrys. He's a big deal, you know."

"I need to go to the bathroom," Arthur suddenly said, getting to his feet as Gwaine made his way off the stage and the new category was in middle of being introduced.

"I- but what about the award?" Merlin asked, still blinking from the camera flashes as he turned to Arthur. "Our category is straight after this one. We might win."

"Well, if we do, why don't you ask Gwaine to pick it up in my place?" Arthur returned petulantly, throwing a rather frayed looking napkin down on the table. "I'm sure he'd be happy to oblige."

"Arthur-" Merlin tried to say, reaching for his arm but Arthur had already turned and stormed off towards the exit. Rolling his eyes like he was used to this, Leon necked his champagne and then slipped his sunglasses back on.

"I'll see you in a bit, gentlemen," he said before hurrying after Arthur's retreating form.

"God, you two I swear," groaned Will as Merlin sank unhappily back into his chair. "When are you just going to shag and get all this tension over with? It's playing with everyone's nerves."

To Merlin's surprise, Lance, who had been steadily drinking and looking drunker by the second, nodded with agreement.

"He's right you know," he said. "It's painful to watch. We've even got money riding on it."

"You lot are betting on me and Arthur?" Merlin said, rounding on Lance, who he had expected better from.

"Well, it was Gwaine's idea," Lance pointed out as Gwaine himself made his way back through the crowd, looking thoroughly pleased with life as he clutched his award in his hand. Seeing Athur's empty seat, he then shrugged, sat in it and reached over to drink Arthur's champagne before rethinking this and stopping. He had obviously remembered what had happened at the fundraiser.

"So Arthur's fucked off then?" Gwaine asked, popping a green bean from Arthur’s plate into his mouth

"He's gone to the bathroom." said Merlin dejectedly.

"And you're not sucking him off in the toilets right now because?"

"Gwaine!" Merlin scolded as Will groaned with disgust and threw a bread roll at him. Mordred, giving them all a disapproving glare, huffed and left the table, in case their lack of propriety was catching. When a drunk Lance in the corner just tittered at this, Merlin realised all his friends were insane. "You lot do realise we're here for an award show right?"

As if prompted by his words, the presenter for the next award -- their award -- stepped up to the podium. The table immediately quietened down.

The presenter, Merlin was impressed to see, was none other than Naomi Campbell herself, who wore platforms taller than most small children and looked so unimpressed with the whole affair that Merlin wasn't too sure why she was even there in the first place.

"And the winner for Best Editorial Campaign is," she opened the envelope, almost slicing it in half with her nails, "the Lady Helen War of the Poses spread, Camelot, Pendragon Publications."

They all jumped up and embraced each other, Morgana in particularly looking absolutely ecstatic as she threw her arms around the nearest person to her who, to Will's delight, was himself. Morgana then, to Merlin's great surprise, turned to him and nodded her head towards the stage. "Come on then. Arthur's buggered off so it's you and me."

Almost tripping over his feet, as she dragged him up by the hand, Merlin gawped at the award almost stupidly as the towering Naomi thrust it over to him indifferently.

"Thank you, Naomi, what a host," Morgana said into the microphone, giving the model a catty little smile that immediately told Merlin that Morgana had been the one whom Naomi had had that infamous catfight with. When Noami narrowed her eyes and took a wobbling platform step closer, Merlin quickly took over before another brawl broke out.

"This is wonderful, brilliant. We really are very humbled by this award," he said as the crowd turned to each other in confusion, as though wondering what 'humbled' meant. "I'm accepting this on behalf of Arthur Pendragon, who I know will be delighted to hear that we won. Thank you to the committee, everyone who worked on it and most importantly, to Lady Helen and her amazing team for giving us the freedom and support to run with it. Thank you again!"

"Wow," said Morgana as they walked off the stage together and back towards their seats. Her face was genuinely astonished as she looked at Merlin with a respect he had never seen from her before. "I think we might make something of you after all." 

Merlin just grinned at her as they approached their dancing table. Gwaine and Lance, who had been hugging and jumping on each other, clapped him on the back while Will swiped the award, bit into it to check it was gold, raised his thumb in approval and carried on jumping with them.

Merlin had been amused by their antics until he caught sight of Arthur's place holder on the table, his gold name gleaming back at Merlin. 

Merlin's smile then promptly fell.

"I'll be right back," he said, snatching the award from Lance, who had been beginning to waltz with it.

"Wait, where are you going?" asked Gwaine who, to their server's horror, was now just downing the champagne on their table from the bottle. "It's time to celebrate!"

"Not before I find Arthur," Merlin insisted, the award clutched tightly in his hand. "No one deserves this more than he does."

"Good luck, mate!" said Will, still dancing and looking thrilled when Morgana joined in.

"Tell him congratulations from me!" Lance said.

"Oh, and remember to swallow!" Gwaine added cheerfully.

Arthur wasn't in the toilets when Merlin went looking for him and he wasn't at the bar either. Merlin had almost given up looking for him when he passed by a room that Merlin assumed was a conference meeting room and saw a familiar head of blond hair.

Arthur was sitting at a large empty table, leaning his head back so he was facing the ornate ceiling. Eyes closed with a look of contentment, he looked utterly relaxed.

Merlin raised a cautious eyebrow. Arthur only really looked that calm and happy when he was making Merlin's life miserable.

Merlin coughed awkwardly.

"Er, hello?"

Arthur nearly jumped a metre in the air, flailing uncharacteristically by elbowing a pencil off the table as he did.

"Holy shit! Merlin, what are you-" he looked guilty, like a schoolboy caught doing something particularly naughty.

"Well. Um, we won," Merlin said, gesturing towards the award in his hand, feeling nervous and happy and suddenly brave. "And, as usual, you missed it, you dunce."

"Oh," said Arthur, blinking at the award in amazement. "That's… oh."

Merlin, who expected a better reply than that, sighed before looking down at the pencil, which had now rolled its way to Merlin's shoe.

"Let me pick that up for you."

"Oh no! It's not a problem!" Arthur said almost gaily, his eyes wide and little panicked. "I can do it!"

"You never pick up after yourself. Are you ill?" Merlin questioned, eyeing Arthur like he was an imposter.

"Perfectly well! Actually, wait, no, I feel ghastly. Merlin. Go across the road and get me some Lemsip, will you?”

"Um, all right. So you have the flu? Should I get you some tablets or some lozenges to suck on? Maybe you should just go home."

And then Merlin heard the sneeze sounding from under the table. Arthur froze like a statue.

"Is there-" Merlin swallowed, his throat suddenly dry, "is there someone under the table?"

"Of course not," Arthur insisted in what sounded like mortification as another sneeze went off.

Merlin didn't know what this crushing feeling in his chest was but he wouldn't have been surprised if it was his heart breaking.

Plastering on a smile that he knew looked pained, he tried to force himself to keep eye contact with Arthur.

"Arthur, it's not a big deal," he attempted to say light-heartedly, hating himself for the quiver in his voice. "I mean, let's be honest now, it's not like I haven't walked in on you doing worse-"

"Merlin, really, I can explain this," Arthur said, panicked and uncharacteristically clumsy as he tried to jump to his feet and do up his trousers at the same time, slipping on an overly-long trouser leg as he did. "I just, you said we were only friends and we- the way I feel about you-"

"Arthur, really, it's fine, you don't have to explain yourself to me," Merlin said, head spinning as he moved towards the door. He had a feeling he was going to vomit and he didn't want to do it on the expensive carpet. "Anyway, I should really go and check on something."

"Merlin, wait! Look, fuck, don't go. This- it's doesn't mean anything."

"Nothing?" a familiar and very male voice said just before the curly head of Mordred popped out from under the table. He then wiped his mouth across the back of his hand in a lazily suggestive fashion before smirking at Merlin. "Well, don't I feel special," he drawled.

If looks could kill, the look Arthur threw at Mordred would have hung, drawn and quartered him all at once but Merlin didn't see it. He had already pulled open the door and bolted out the room as fast as his legs could carry him.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

Merlin wasn't sure how long he had been out walking for or where exactly he had gone. His feet found themselves wandering aimlessly with no destination in mind but with just one objective - to get as far away from Arthur and Mordred as possible.

His mind whirred with a million thoughts, crashing into each other like a storm inside his head.

Mordred, he had said to himself when his mind had the capacity to do so without short-circuiting at the mere thought of it. Where the hell had Mordred come from? Mordred didn't even like Arthur and Arthur had certainly never shown any affection for Morgana's assistant, who honestly looked too busy plotting world domination and creeping about creepily to have a sex life.

But Mordred did have a sex life, something Merlin could now vouch to after being rudely exposed to it.

And as for Arthur suddenly getting off with men... well, that part wasn't too much of a surprise considering all their sexual tension lately and then the almost-kiss they shared. What was a surprise -- what had hurt, really -- was that that man wasn't Merlin.

Merlin looked back at the award in his hand. He hadn't even noticed that he had taken it with him. He could just imagine Morgana tearing the place apart like a mad woman looking for it, especially because she had co-ordinated her dress that night rather confidently to go with that particular shade of gold.

Running his fingers over the inscription on the award, Merlin felt a hollow pit in his stomach where happiness had once filled. He had been so pleased when they first got it. After all, it had been his first project – his idea -- and all the subsequent hard work that had followed had finally seemed worth it after getting his hands around this award. Now, though, the statue was just a reminder of something he would rather never think about again.

Before Merlin knew it, his feet had found themselves walking to Camelot, ready to give it back. Walking passed the night staff at the Pendragon reception, who were showing their usual diligence and hard work by snoring loudly in their seats, Merlin entered the lifts and took the familiar journey to the ninth floor.

The Camelot offices seemed hauntingly desolate as Merlin walked the corridors to Arthur's office and placed the award on his coffee table.

Merlin then walked to his own desk and sat at it numbly, pulling the bowtie of his tux free and staring at nothing in particular. After a minute of this, he suddenly came to a decision, booted up his computer and began to type.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

"Fuck!" Merlin jumped as Kilgharrah, who was holding a mop and wearing a sleeping mask on his forehead, looked at him sombrely from the other side of Merlin's desk. "Would you not do that? And it's one in the morning, how can you possibly be on the clock now?"

"Running away will not solve your problems, young warlock," Kilgharrah continued, ignoring his questions to look at him with those shrewd yellow eyes.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Merlin sniffed before continuing to write.

"The letter of resignation that you are currently typing," Kilgharrah said, motioning towards the computer with a nod of his head, "is not a wise decision."

"God, get out of my head already, would you?" Merlin snapped, his nerves raw. "And you know what? I'm tired of listening to you. What has listening to your crap ever done for me? I've spent a year running after him with your little voice in my ear telling me about some huge destiny and what do I get in return? Scorpion bites, days in a coma, homicidal maniacs breaking into my house-"

"A broken heart?" Kilgharrah hazarded frankly.

Merlin slumped back into his chair, the anger deflating out of him like a balloon.

"Why didn't you warn me?" he whimpered quietly, feeling pathetic.

"Warn you?" Kilgharrah enquired.

"That my life means nothing without him in it?" Merlin said in a choked voice.

"If I had told you that, would you have believed me?"

"I can't do this anymore," Merlin said, finishing the letter by typing his name and pressing print. "It hurts too much."

"And what about him?" Kilgharrah returned. "Without you, Arthur will surely be killed."

Merlin paused, thinking about this.

"Then I'll watch him from afar."

"Merlin-"

"No, listen to me,” Merlin said, interrupting Kilgharrah for once. “I can keep tracking charms on him. Hell, I doubt very much that I'll ever be able to leave him alone even if I wanted to. He just doesn't have to know."

"You're making a mistake, Merlin," said Kilgharrah sadly, his glowing eyes losing some of their shine.

"It's my mistake to make," Merlin returned firmly, although his hands were shaking uncontrollably in his lap.

Kilgharrah looked troubled and seemed to be on the cusp of saying something else when Arthur suddenly ran through the door, his hair a mess and his clothes rumpled.

"Merlin! Thank fuck, there you are, I've been looking for you everywhere. Where did you- wait, what's this?" Arthur said suspiciously because Merlin chose that moment to walk over to the printer, take the freshly printed letter and hand it over to Arthur.

"It's my letter resignation," Merlin said, not watching as Kilgharrah shook his head and slinked away disapprovingly.

Arthur looked like he had been slapped hard across the face.

"... excuse me?"

"Arthur,” Merlin began, taking in a deep inhale so he could get everything out in one breath, “I'd like to thank you for the opportunity and for giving me a chance when so many other people didn't."

"Merlin, don't do this,” Arthur entreated, his voice taking on a pleading tone that Merlin had never heard from him before. Closing his eyes briefly at the pain of it, Merlin tried to ignore it and persevere.

"I have learned so much from this job and from you and I'll always be so grateful for it."

"Did you rehearse this?"

"A little bit," Merlin admitted sheepishly.

"Merlin, look,” Arthur said beseechingly, “if this is about Mordred-"

"It's about me, Arthur.”

Arthur looked dumbfounded and fraught, like he didn’t know what to do before flatly saying,

"Well, I'm sorry but I don't accept your resignation."

Merlin dropped his jaw.

"What?"

"I said I don't accept your resignation,” Arthur repeated stubbornly, looking more like his usual exasperating self. “In case you've forgotten, you have a binding contract that promises Camelot one month after your notice has been given. You can't just break it. Now stop talking this nonsense and help me with the new Givenchy brief that came through. We have a lot of work to do so it might be an all-nighter. I'll order dinner. The food at the award show was crap. I'll even order those ridiculous jalapeño cheese things you like. Why you enjoy those things I'll never know."

"Arthur, you're not listening to me-" Merlin tried again.

"I won't make allowances with the pizza though," Arthur breezily continued, proving Merlin's point entirely as he bypassed his words, "I'm getting you your own because I refuse to put anchovies and pineapple in my mouth at the same time. It should be against the law."

"Fine then," said Merlin firmly, finally having enough as he glowered at Arthur and his pig-headedness. "If you don’t want to listen to me then fine but understand this, Arthur - this is my notice. In a month, I'll be gone."

Shutting down his computer, Merlin then walked out the door, ignoring Arthur's plea for him to come back.

 

 

The next month was a complete reversal of Merlin's first one. During Merlin's first few weeks at Camelot, Arthur had tried to sabotage him out of the job at every turn. Now, he was now throwing everything including the kitchen sink at him to coerce him to stay. First came the substantial wads of cash that Arthur just left on Merlin’s desk as 'bonuses'. Then came the offers of promotions with Arthur going as far as to offer him his own office and assistant. When the phase came along which included Arthur actually complimenting him, Merlin knew things were really serious.

"He's trying to court you," Gwen said soppily, looking absolutely delighted by this. "It's romantic! I knew he couldn't bear to be without you. He'd be lost if you went. He wouldn’t know what to do with himself.”

"Yeah, well it's too little, too late," Merlin responded grumpily, stealing one of Gwen's chips from her plate and crunching it angrily as he imagined it was Arthur’s head. "And stop 'awwing' like he's precious. He's a bloody knobhead. He treated me like rubbish for months."

"Yes, but you didn't hand in your notice months ago - you did it when you caught him with Mordred," Gwen said, too astute for her own good.

"Thanks for reminding me, it's not like I've been trying to erase that out of my mind. My dog got hit by a car when I was a kid, shall we talk about that, too?"

"Don't you get sassy with me, Merlin," Gwen said, barely affected as she slapped his hand away when he tried to grab another chip. "Why can't you forgive him? It's not like you were dating. Granted, getting blown by Mordred was a terrible idea but the only one who suffered from that was Arthur. Personally, if I had a todger, I wouldn't trust it anywhere near Mordred's mouth. I'd be scared he'd bite it off."

"Gwen!" Merlin yelled out, wailing with horror as he slapped his hands over his poor ears. "What have I told you about spending too much time at the pub with the boys? I knew you'd pick up a potty mouth."

"Lance is a gentleman."

"Yes, but Gwaine is not," Merlin said. Gwen didn't deny it. Instead she leaned over to place a soft hand on Merlin’s shoulder. It made his heart feel hollow and empty.

"Look, Merlin, I know you were hurt by the Mordred thing but, well, look at me and Lance. He saw me with Arthur, after all-"

"-god, we're as incestual as Star Wars, aren't we?" Merlin said briefly before turning to Gwen and saying, "I know you're trying to help Gwen but you've never had any doubt about Lance's feelings for you. Me? I don't even know if he fancies me."

"Merlin, he's completely in love with you, how can you be the only one who can't see it?" Gwen said, sounding almost sad.

Merlin knew the reason why. It was because he was insecure and a coward but he didn’t say this aloud. Instead, he smiled at Gwen with as unaffected a smile as he could manage and said,

"Anyway, enough about me, tell me how your first official date with Lance went."

Gwen didn’t look too impressed with this blatant change of subject but being Gwen, she didn’t call him on it or push him to talk.

Gaius, on the other hand, was another matter. He just had to look at Merlin during one of their lunch dates and Merlin’s defences immediately crumbled.

“I’m such an idiot,” he mumbled into Gaius’ shoulder after his godfather, seeing his dejected expression, had pulled him into an embrace. “I got in too deep and have probably completely ruined that destiny everyone had such high hopes for.”

“Oh, Merlin,” Gaius sighed deeply before pulling back, his hands warm and grounding on Merlin’s arms. “My dear, dramatic boy. You don’t make things easy for yourself, do you?”

Merlin quirked out a forlorn smile at this.

“Have I ever?” he asked.

Gaius just shook his head, a mixture of affection and exasperation on his face.

“You know running from your problems is never the right option.”

“You’re beginning to sound like Kilgharrah,” Merlin grumbled.

“Don’t begrudge us old men our anecdotes, Merlin. When a man has lived as long as both Kilgharrah and I have, you learn a few useful lessons along the way,” Gaius said, his voice both wise and amused as he patted Merlin on the shoulder. “So, what exactly has Arthur said?”

“I think he’s in denial,” Merlin said honestly. “He either alternates between ignoring that I’m going completely to offering me the moon to get me to stay. And he’s being, well, nice. He actually tried to make me a cup of tea the other day. I mean, it was barely tea because Arthur’s never made one in his life before and screwed it up but the fact that he tried is messing with my mind. It’s unnerving. It’s like I’m working for a completely different person.”

“It sounds to me like he’s desperate for you to stay,” Gaius noted aloud, pointedly looking at Merlin over his half-moon spectacles.

“I know what you’re going to say and the answer is still no. I’m leaving,” Merlin said resolutely, knowing Gaius’ game. “My life is already completely tied up and invested in him. I need a clean break. It’s best for both of us.”

Gaius nodded his head but his eyes were thoughtful and he looked like he didn’t buy Merlin’s words for a moment. Merlin didn’t blame him. He didn’t really believe them himself.

 

 

"Before you say anything," Merlin said to Kilgharrah as he walked into his basement office on the morning of his last day, "I just wanted to say that it's been emotional."

"That, my dear Merlin, it has," said Kilgharrah, giving him a cryptic smile. "But I believe I cannot give you a genuine goodbye without sharing a few truths first."

"Truths?" Merlin asked, his eyes narrowed suspiciously as he tried not to feel too wary. "Is this when you tell me you're actually my father?"

"Not quite," Kilgharrah said slowly, looking so perturbed by the thought of fathering Merlin that Merlin felt quite offended. "But I did know your father before he died. In fact, after you, he was probably the greatest friend I ever had."

"He was?" Merlin said, sure that he was gaping unattractively at Kilgharrah but he didn't care enough to stop. "Why didn't you ever say anything?"

"Because to tell you how I knew him is to reveal my true form to you."

"True form?" Merlin repeated. "Now I'm worried. Are you a Sidhe? Or an alien from a different planet? Or an Ogre? Is this like Shrek? I don't have to give you True Love's Kiss you, do I? Because that would make things awkward between us." Kilgharrah gave Merlin a look that was so wholly unimpressed that it made Merlin grin. He really would miss the old fart. "Okay, fine, don't tell me. Show me."

"Fine. But to do this, we need to go outside," Kilgharrah said. "Somewhere remote. If I transform in here... well, let's just say I'll make a mess and being the caretaker, I don't particularly like giving myself extra work."

"All right," Merlin said before going over to Kilgharrah and taking his sleeve. "Shall we say the Forest of Dean?"

Kilgharrah barely had time to nod his head in affirmation before they found themselves in the middle of a beautiful picnic spot with a giant lake to the right of them, disappearing into the horizon. In the distance, Merlin could just about make out a small island with a tower. Distracted by the familiarity of the view, Merlin found himself kneeling down to run his fingers through the blades of grass by the shore, the familiarity of it making every synapse in his brain flicker and pulse like they had been struck by lightning. So distracted was he, in fact, that he hadn't noticed that Kilgharrah had taken this time to transform into his true form.

"Ah," said Merlin weakly when he saw him, feeling a little lightheaded as he looked up at the thirty feet of scaly reptile peering down at him. "I suppose that's why they call you the dragon."

Kilgharrah bowed his head.

"So, you can shapeshift?" Merlin said, trying to wrap his brain around this new development.

"I couldn't always. Let’s just say an old friend did a spell to make it easier for my visits to go unnoticed. There are only so many empty fields for a dragon to go to in modern Britain without terrifying the local population. I already caused a bit of a stir when I went for a dip in Loch Ness a few centuries back. People still haven't got over it."

Merlin stared, not only wondering why he wasn't screaming and jumping into the lake in terror but why this all felt so normal to him. Perhaps all the insane things he had had to do under Arthur's employ had mellowed him.

Kilgharrah chuckled, as though he could read his thoughts.

"I see, young warlock, that it's all beginning to come back to you."

"What is?"

"Why, your life before, of course. Completely obliterating over a thousand years is a mighty feat, even for someone as powerful as you."

"Come on, Kilgharrah, you know living that long is impossible,” Merlin said with a laugh. “Even if it wasn't, I know that can't be right. I'm twenty-five. My mum has photos of me when I born in Whittington Hospital in Archway."

"No, young warlock," Kilgharrah said, shaking his head so gravely that Merlin’s amusement abated. "You have lived many lives, the most significant one of all being your life in Camelot almost fifteen hundred years ago. Arthur was King, you were his manservant and the return of Avalon was on the horizon. Unfortunately, the Witch’s war against Camelot and her accomplice’s blade ended Arthur’s life at Camlann before this dream could be realised. For centuries, you waited for the return of the Once and Future King, lonely and inconsolable," Kilgharrah said, his voice matter-of-fact. "I would know because I was there, one of the few that was. Everyone else you loved eventually died around you, from your mother and Gaius to Queen Guinevere, all of whom you laid to rest at the lake. Combined with Arthur's death, it had all taken its toll on you. Perhaps that is why you remained at the lake and refused to return to Camelot, I do not know. What I do know is that a mere twenty-six years ago, when the prophets began to speak of a baby boy who was the reincarnation of Arthur Pendragon himself, you leapt into the lake."

Merlin’s eyes widened.

"I- I tried to kill myself?"

The dragon chuckled, amused by the notion.

"Kill yourself?" he said, as if the idea was absurd. "Merlin, you are made of magic. You cannot simply die. Have you never noticed your knack for cheating death? For coming out of all manner of dangerous situations practically unscathed? It was not because of Arthur's doctors that you survived the poison. You are Emrys. You cannot be killed but you can choose to be reborn anew and such is your power that everyone else returned with you. All the people that left an impression on you, from those you loved, like your mother and Gaius and your friend William to the creatures that caused you trouble, they all came back with you. Fate has ensured all your lives remained intertwined. It is no coincidence that these people either ended up at Camelot or close to you in some way. It is why you brought the Witch back, despite the trouble she caused."

"The Witch? That’s Morgana, right? I knew Morgana?"

"She was once a dear friend to you. I believe you blamed yourself for her betrayal."

Merlin stared at Kilgharrah in sheer bewilderment, trying to digest all this. It should have sounded ridiculous but for some reason, it all made perfect sense. Everything slotted into place.

"How is it that I don't remember any of this?" Merlin breathed.

"You were the most powerful sorcerer in the world, Merlin, you simply did not want yourself to. After all those years burdened by nothing but painful memories, I believe you felt like Arthur wasn't the only one who deserved a new start."

Merlin was silent for a moment as he deliberated on this. He then looked up at Kilgharrah’s, his great height straining his neck.

"Why are you telling me all this now?" Merlin questioned.

"Because you have never fulfilled your destiny, Merlin,” Kilgharrah explained patiently. “You have never brought about the time of Avalon, where the magical and non-magical people of this country live in harmony. Not even when Arthur was Alexander and you were Hephaestion. The closest you ever got was when Arthur was King of Camelot and you were his sorcerer."

"King Arthur. Alexander the Great. I. This- oh god, I think I need to sit down," Merlin said faintly, dropping down on his arse as he took in the magnitude of Kilgharrah's words.

"Head between your knees, there we go," said Kilgharrah, barely fazed.

Merlin lifted his head, his face pale.

"I cannot believe you never told me any of this before, you giant withholder of truth, you," he said accusingly, pointing at Kilgharrah with a quivering finger. "You sat on it for all this time."

"You swore me to secrecy," Kilgharrah said simply.

"That's great, put it all on me," Merlin said grumpily.

"Well, every time you returned, your previous incarnation made me promise not to reveal it all," Kilgharrah said in a 'so there' tone of voice, proving that even immortal beings could be childish.

"But you're revealing it to me now," Merlin reminded him.

"Because you've never been this close before," Kilgharrah said, his voice tinged with an excitement and yearning that Merlin didn't know Kilgharrah possessed. "Something would always hinder the process in the past, be it Morgana's war against Camelot or your early death when you were Hephaestion-“

“Wait, you just said I couldn’t die.”

“When you became Emrys, you couldn’t,” Kilgharrah illuminated. “Before Emrys, you had magic but you were still a mortal creature of flesh and blood. It was only when you were fathered by the Dragonlord Balinor that you achieved true immortality. This immortality was the reason why I was convinced -– and still am -- that you could bring about Avalon. I can feel it in the air. It's the song that the trees are singing. I can feel the very earth under my feet trembling with the anticipation of it. Avalon is on the cusp of formation.”

"You know, I remember the last time I was in Camelot," Merlin said softly, pictures flooding through his brain as that impressive dam of magic he had built up began to crack and spew out memories at an almost overwhelming rate. "I remember all of it. Uther executing that poor man. Saving Gaius' life with magic. Arthur throwing knives at poor Morris. Morgana in that dress. Meeting Gwen while I was in the stocks," Merlin said in wonder before, laughing. "Mum and Will in Ealdor. Leon, Lancelot, Gwaine, Percival... Jesus, I really did bring them all back with me, didn't I?"

"All but Jesus," Kilgharrah said. "Even you aren’t that powerful."

"So, Arthur and I really are destined then,” Merlin said but it was not a question. He knew it. He could feel it inside his very soul.

"Even Aristotle once remarked that you were 'one soul abiding in two bodies'."

"Seriously,” Merlin said weakly, not even sure how to address this information, “you're invoking Aristotle now to prove your point?"

"He thought you were cute together," Kilgharrah said smugly.

Merlin didn't know what to say to the absurdity of this so he didn't say anything at all. Instead he looked at Kilgharrah in a new light.

Kilgharrah the confidante in the dungeons under the citadel. Kilgharrah who set Camelot ablaze when Merlin had fulfilled his promise and released him. Kilgharrah who bid him adieu as he held Arthur's dead body in his arms. And Arthur, who had finally looked at him knowing who he really was, face full of love and trust as the life faded from his eyes.

Merlin swallowed hard. That wound had never healed. He doubted it ever would.

"Thank you for reminding me old friend," he said shakily, his gratitude beyond words.

Kilgharrah just bowed his head before saying quite clearly in Merlin's head.

Now, my Lord, do us both a favour and go meet your destiny. It's already been far, far too long.

 

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

Merlin was waiting in Arthur's office, not entirely sure what he was going to say to him when Morgana sidled in beside him, a huge pair of vintage sunglasses on her face and a mink stole wrapped her like she was a movie star from the 1950s.

Over the year Merlin had been there, he and Morgana had cheerfully ignored each other whenever they had happened to be in the same vicinity. Now, however, she not only looked directly at him but stared at him as though she had been purposely seeking him out. Looking at her, he was suddenly reminded of the Morgana who had donned armour and fought bandits for him in Ealdor, brave and beautiful.

"So I hear your leaving do is today," said Morgana, her gaze penetrating even through her sunglasses. "I have to say, you lasted a lot longer than I thought you would. The first time I saw you, I was convinced Arthur was going to fire you on the spot."

"Um, thanks?" Merlin said, unsure how to take that backhanded compliment.

"You're good for him, you know,” she suddenly said, sounding almost reluctant to share the words of praise. “As much as it galls me to say it, you make him a better person. You always have, Emrys."

Merlin nodded at this in thanks before pausing and repeating her words back in his head.

"Wait, what do you mean by always?" Merlin asked astutely.

"I don't actually-" Morgana then blinked. "I don't think I meant to say that aloud. I- I occasionally have these dreams-"

"About being a witch?” Merlin said, throwing caution to the wind as he looked her intensely in the eye. “Leading an army? Fighting Arthur for the throne?"

Morgana stared at Merlin, wide-eyed and stunned.

"How… how on earth did you-?"

"I'm in these dreams, right? I have magic? Because those aren’t just dreams, Morgana," Merlin said. Looking around to check they were alone, he then took a deep breath and did something he never thought he would do - he used magic in front of a work colleague.

He extended his hand and watched Morgana's face as he wordlessly conjured a flame in the middle of his palm. Morgana watched, her face rapt with attention as the dancing yellow flames reflected back at Merlin from her eyes. She didn't look frightened or disbelieving. She looked teary-eyed and so relieved that Merlin could literally see the tension draining from her body.

"I thought I was the only one,” she whispered, her knees on the cusp of buckling as she feebly lowered herself down on the edge of Arthur’s desk.

"Oh, you're not, trust me. Not by a long shot,” Merlin said knowingly, delighted because he finally had found someone like him, someone who had felt just as alone as he had. He then proceeded to tell her all about the creatures he had faced, from Sophia and her Sidhe ways to Myror and his homicidal obsession with Arthur. Morgana drank it all in with fascination.

"I don't believe it," she said, shaking her head in wonder. "And that crotchedy caretaker who hates me and always hisses ‘witch’ at me when my back is turned? He's one, too?"

"I don't want to freak you out but he's actually a dragon,"

"Bloody hell. That's certainly something you don't hear every day," said Morgana before walking over to Arthur’s bar, pouring herself a whiskey and downing it in one shot. She then tilted her head, as though the alcohol had jogged a memory in her head. "Wait, didn’t you try to poison me once?"

"Um," said Merlin, not sure how to continue that sentence.

"You did!” Morgana gasped, pointing at Merlin accusingly with a exquisitely manicured hand. “You poisoned me with hemlock!"

"Okay, in my defence, I knew you wouldn't die,” Merlin said defensively, holding up his hands in admission. “Morgause would never let you. It was all a total misunderstanding anyway. I thought you were responsible for unleashing the Knights of Medhir."

Huffing, Morgana crossed her arms and looked irate for a moment before finally shrugging.

"Eh, I did stick a snake in your neck and try and have you murder Arthur,” she conceded.

"Yeah, you did,” Merlin said, rubbing his neck with the memory of it. “That still twinges every time I turn my head to the left, you know.”

"Oh, you big baby, it does not," Morgana said, looking amused by this. "If you think that's bad, you don't want to know what I did to poor Gwaine."

"Yeah, death by torture right? I really wasn’t happy with you about that when I found out,” Merlin said lightly but he remembered the pain in his gut when he had heard the news like it was yesterday, “You know, I think he still holds a subconscious feeling of animosity towards you about that."

"Trust Gwaine to hold a grudge after fifteen hundred years," Morgana said. She then paused. "Wait, did you kill me?"

"Er, we're getting off the subject," Merlin said, not wanting to have to explain that part of the tale just yet in case she turned around and decided to kill him back. This Morgana might not be as dangerous with a sword or as adept with her magic but she terrified Merlin more than the other one ever had. "The thing is, I've been fighting all this time to bring magic back and, apparently, I'm close, although I have no idea how I'm going to do it. I need allies. I need you, Morgana."

"Allies? You're acting like we're locked in war again and may I remind you, last time we were, we weren’t exactly on the same side,” Morgana said deprecatorily and Merlin had a feeling some leftover hostility was still present in her voice.

“Exactly,” Merlin agreed, taking their dire history into account, “and look what happened then. We both lost. When you think about it, we were actually on the same side. We wanted to be accepted for who we were, we both wanted magic to return. But something bad is coming. I don’t know what but even the druids have felt it when they scry. They send me emails about it constantly.”

“The druids?” Morgana asked with confusion.

"Oh, a group of magic users who follow me around and send me fanmail," Merlin explained casually before looking at her imploringly. "Morgana, I don’t know what’s coming and I know this all sounds a bit mad but we need to work together this time. I need, you, Arthur needs you. He's your blood, you grew up together, he loves you-"

"Look, Merlin, this is all a little much to take right now," Morgana said, lifting up her hand to stop Merlin from continuing. "I have about fifty things to do today and the rest of this to try and process."

"Morgana," Merlin tried to say but she just walked away, rubbing her temples as she did.

Watching her go, Merlin leaned back against the nearest wall and slid down listlessly until he was crouched on the floor. Kilgharrah was wrong, It really was best that he left. He had already dragged everyone into his destiny by bringing them back against their will. The least he could do was to go and set them free.

 

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Camelot leaving parties have a tradition," Gwen had once explained to Merlin. "If the person is leaving under amicable circumstances, we usually make them wear that crown we keep in reception for the day. They also get a nice lunch and then after work, we go out for drinks at the local."

"And what if they're not leaving under amicable circumstances?" Merlin had asked, almost not wanting to know the answer.

"They usually sneak out the back door when no one is looking," Gwen confessed before looking at Merlin's sullen face and quickly saying, "Not that you'd have to! Everyone hated Catrina but she still got a cake and a card. I'm sure Arthur is organising something really nice for you, you'll see."

So, when the time came for Merlin's leaving party later that day, he resigned himself to maybe getting a candle in a cupcake, perhaps even a banner if he was lucky. What he actually got, however, was preposterous.

"What the-" Merlin gasped as he was led into the cavernous ballroom of the Pendragon building where the swankiest do on the planet seemed to be taking place. Everyone in the building seemed to be there, from board members and senior management to the lady who cleaned the filter from the coffee machine. Even Uther Pendragon was in attendance, looking imposing in his suit as he stared imperiously at a cupcake with Merlin's grinning face recreated on it with icing, clearly debating whether he really wanted to put it in his mouth.

Food and drink were abundance as a busy and efficient catering team whizzed around the room in fancy uniforms, offering canapés and topping up drinks with lightning speed. There was even a tribute band performing in the background, playing songs such as 'I Can't Stand Losing You' by the Police, 'Baby Come Back,' by UB40 and other songs of a similar vein.

“What is this?" Merlin said to the room at large, feeling perplexed when he caught sight of a highly unflattering billboard-sized photo of him printed with the words 'Merlin's Leaving Party (He'll regret it!) - 2013'.

"Surprise!" the crowd said back to him in unison while Gwaine threw rice at Merlin ceremonially, almost blinding him when a grain of it got in his eye.

"Gwaine, for goodness sake, boy, he's not getting married," Gaius rebuked as Elyan slapped Merlin on the back and cheerfully said,

"Merlin! Welcome to your goodbye party, mate. Here, have a drink. Gwaine made it himself. He calls it the Merlin Molotov. Hold your nose first though, it's potent enough to knock out a horse. Or Percy."

"Um, guys, this is lovely and everything but don't you think this is all a bit much?" Merlin said to his friends as he gave a fake smile and a cheery wave to the rest of the cheering crowd, who were safely out of earshot. "Agatha from accounting only got a book voucher and she worked here for fifteen years."

"Yes but no one really liked her. Also, she used to steal all the paperclips," Gwen revealed before dropping a kiss on his cheekbone in greeting and linking her arm with Lance's. "Anyway, Arthur was determined to make yours the best one yet. He even ignored Uther when he went a little crazy with the budget. He financed most of this himself. Except the band, of course. Leon offered to play himself, free of charge.”

“Wait, that’s Leon’s band?” Merlin said, whirling around to see the surreal sight of Leon crooning ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’ by Pink into a microphone while a drunk-looking Percy stood by the stage and swayed to the music while holding up a lighter. “I didn’t know he could sing!”

“That’s nothing,” Arthur’s voice suddenly sounded from behind him. “Wait until you hear his rendition of ‘Big Spender’. He puts Dame Shirley to shame.”

Spinning around so fast that he was sure he had given himself a permanent state of whiplash, Merlin tried to give Arthur a glare but this regrettably morphed into a downright leer due to Arthur looking entirely too edible in a tight red shirt than any person not made of chocolate had a right to.

"Arthur, are you insane?” Merlin said when he had finally stopped imagining licking him. “How much did all this set you back?"

"You're a valued employee Merlin. At Camelot, we look after our own,” Arthur said, quite obviously avoiding the question before pulling out a leaflet from his pocket and handing it to Merlin. “Our pension package is so generous, in fact, that it has been featured in the Financial Times three fiscal years running. Look at this written testimonial from Martin here. Martin came to us from News International. In fact, I see him there by the punch bowl – Martin! Why don’t you come over here and tell Merlin all about our packages and why Camelot is the right fit for him?”

"Good God, would you stop that?" Merlin groaned, pulling Arthur away from their amused friends before he embarrassed them both any further. Merlin then slapped the leaflet away as Arthur waggled it under his nose. "And put that away, would you? You sound like one of those infomercials that try and sell you liquid hair in a can."

"I'll stop if you stay," Arthur said, dropping his voice so only Merlin could hear that hint of desperation in his tone. He had been like this all week, what with him praising Merlin so loudly to colleagues that it was impossible not to overhear and his shameless QVC-like plugs for Camelot products. He had even offered Merlin a free company car, making him feel like he was a game show contestant and Arthur was both the host with the sparkling white smile and the sexy assistant rolled into one.

"Arthur, look, it's not as easy as all that," Merlin tried to explain. "I just think it's best I go. For everyone. Do you understand?"

"A flat!" Arthur cried out, proving he didn't understand at all. "I can get you one if you want. Big enough for your mother and Will."

"Arthur, I don't want a flat," Merlin tried to say unwearyingly.

"Is it because of the way I treated you? Because I've stopped being a dick, you've noticed that right? I mean, it's taken all my bloody willpower and a couple of hypnotherapy sessions that I don't really think worked but I've stopped. And I already promised you a raise. What do you want, a six figure salary? All you have to do is ask."

"Arthur, for God's sake, this isn't about the job," Merlin said, getting frustrated.

"Then what the hell is it about!?" Arthur demanded, finally losing his temper.

"It's about the fact I'm absolutely crazy about you, you complete and utter clotpole!" Merlin screamed out, his voice echoing around the large room and making every person in attendance turn to look at him in shock. Even Leon, who had just been getting to the juicy bit of Shakespeare Sister’s ‘Stay With Me’, croaked mid-warble and stared. Somewhere in the back of Merlin's mind, he could hysterically imagine a rolling tumbleweed blowing across the scene.

Arthur, who Merlin had always seen at least attempt to maintain a look of dignity in the hairiest of situations, looked absolutely flabbergasted. His jaw fell open at this confession, practically scraping the floor in his surprise and Merlin dropped his face in his hands, silently plotting revenge on his own brain for letting that one slip.

And then, just when he thought his life couldn't get any more screwed up, everything went to hell.

"Well, isn't that sweet," said a disingenuous female voice into the now silent room before the speaker showed herself, parting through the crowd like Moses did the Red Sea. A small army of men marched behind her, wearing Arab-chic better than an extra in The Mummy and co-ordinating their head-scarves like a particularly large boy band. Even their steps appeared to be in time like a well-choreographed dance troupe but Merlin could tell from the weapons they were carrying that they were more likely to cut heads than cut a rug.

"Nimueh," said Merlin, recognising the woman from his previous life and instinctively moving in front of Arthur as he did. Nimueh looked as other-worldly as she always had; pale, barefoot and in the same red dress Merlin had last seen her in. She was even wearing the same conniving smile on her mouth. Merlin's magic began to flutter impatiently inside him just looking at her again, as though it remembered the last time it had been unleashed at the Isle of the Blessed and was ready for a repeat performance. Merlin wet his mouth, steeling himself. "I thought you were in jail." 

"You should know better than most, Emrys, that no mortal jail cell can hold me," said Nimueh grandly and Merlin could feel the magic pulsing off her in waves, making her skin glow like some sort of nuclear experiment. "You have fought bravely but you have lost the battle. Now step aside, Emrys. There is no need for us to be enemies. We are both creatures of the Old Religion, after all. We are just here for the king, not you."

"What the hell?" said Arthur, side-stepping Merlin to stare at Nimueh like she had lost her mind. "You're supposed to be locked up, you crazed poisoner. And what in the blazes is all this? Some sort of dinner theatre coup? Is this because we beat you at the awards? I appreciate that Camelot is a big deal but don't you think you've gone a little over the top with the fake army and camp declaration of war? Who does your PR again? Because, really, you should fire your agency. This is overkill."

"Do you actually think this is about this pointless magazine feud?" Nimueh spat out with venom, rounding on Arthur, who wisely took a step back in the face of her wrath. "No, this is about you, Arthur Pendragon and the damage you will do if you come to your full power. I was completely in ignorance for all these years, working on that pathetic little magazine as though it meant something. It wasn’t until I first met Morgause at Fashion Week that it all came back to me and I finally discovered who I was and who you really were. It was then that I realised that the Pendragons had to be stopped and that the Priestesses were the true restorers of Avalon, not some weak bloodline who had done nothing but persecute and murder our kind. So I did everything in my power to bring about your early death, from divulging your location to the Sidhe and every other angry creature I could find to poisoning your champagne and ensorcelling your driver. Unfortunately, none of these attempts succeeded." Nimueh paused here to share a tortured 'you just can't get the staff these days' look with the crowd. "It was then that I realised that not only was someone protecting you, but that Emrys himself had returned and was keeping you from harm. So here I am myself to finally do this properly. Emrys may have thwarted everything I have thrown at you thus far but even he cannot take on the entire immortal army."

Merlin stared at the fifty blank-faced men behind her.

"This is the entire immortal army?" he asked, slightly underwhelmed.

"The rest are outside," Nimueh explained rather mulishly, looking irritable that the hall wasn't big enough to accommodate them all. She then flicked back her sheet of dark hair imperiously. "Now hand him over and join me, Emrys. We are too valuable to each other to be enemies. Your power is stronger than it has ever been. I can help you channel that magic."

"Into a homicidal rage like you did?” Merlin questioned, firmly rooted to Arthur’s side. “Thanks but no thanks. I'm a pacifist."

"Says the man who struck me with lightning and blew me into a million pieces," Nimueh reminded him curtly.

"That was in the past!" Merlin defended, mortified that she had to bring that up in front of company. "I'd never do that now! I didn't even know about my life before until this morning." Merlin then urgently turned to Arthur, who looked completely confused. "Seriously, Arthur, I can explain all this."

"Would you? Because I have absolutely no idea what is going on here," Arthur said honestly and the rest of his guests seemed to concur because they nodded animatedly at his words.

"Okay, well, you see, this all kind of starts about fifteen hundred years ago-" Merlin began.

“Fourteen hundred and seventy would probably be more accurate,” Gaius butted in from behind him.

“Yes, thank you, Gaius, fourteen hundred and seventy,” Merlin said before stopping, wheeling around to look at Gaius and saying, “Wait a minute, you knew?! I can’t believe you never said anything before-“

"ENOUGH!" Nimueh roared, obviously tired of this conversation as she looked both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. With her dark hair flying behind her like an ebony cape and her red lips shining like fresh blood, she looked remarkably like the front cover of one of her magazines, fan machine and everything. "There's already been enough talk and I have waited far too long for this moment. Prepare to die, Arthur Pendragon," she hissed, cupping her hands together to create a fireball so bright that it made one person in the crowd go "ooh, that's like that David Blaine street magic stuff."

When Nimueh raised a hand and sent the fireball careering towards Arthur, however, the curious whispers soon became screams of terror. Without even thinking about the consequences of revealing his magic, Merlin instinctively lifted up his hands to form a golden shield of magic in front of him, protecting both him and Arthur and making the fireball bounce off it and away from them. It impacted with a huge crash into the wall beside them, brickwork flying everywhere as the flames licked the edge of a Pendragon banner and made the whole thing instantly catch alight.

“What on earth!?” Arthur cried out in shock, jumping back away from Merlin with a combination of fear and disbelief.

“Um, yeah… there’s couple of things about me that I didn’t put in my CV,” Merlin admitted guiltily as he ran a hand through his hair. He then opened his mouth to try and begin to explain when the screams of the guests cut through their conversation.

Petrified by the destruction and the spreading fire, the majority of the party-goers began to run for the exit in droves but Nimueh had simply waved her hands elegantly through the air and locked the doors with a slam.

Only a few people had stood firm and not run and Merlin wasn't overly surprised when he saw that every one of them were in his close-knit group of friends. The group had obviously recalled some semblance of their old lives because not only did they not look surprised by being faced with magic but they reacted like their past selves would have. Leon was holding his microphone stand threateningly like a sword. Percy had picked up a nearby table and looked like he was ready to lob it at someone's head. Gwen was frantically trying to make weapons by tying cutlery together and passing them on to Lance and Elyan. Gaius was patching up an injured person who had been hit by the flying debris and Gwaine had necked a bottle of wine before smashing the bottom of the bottle against a wall and holding it like a weapon. 

Affection swelled in Merlin's chest. Things hadn't really changed that much at all.

Nimueh had obviously noticed this, too, because she gave Arthur a wicked smile.

"How quaint," she commented. "The Knights of Camelot fighting alongside their king once again. It would be sweet if you weren't all about to die."

Merlin looked over his shoulder at Arthur, ready to witness a look of further confusion on his face at her words but Arthur didn't look perplexed. He simply stared at Nimueh, his face as white as a sheet as slow realisation bled across his features.

"The cave. The spiders," Arthur said to Nimueh in a choked voice. To Merlin, it sounded like Arthur was purely mumbling nonsense but Nimueh was smirking like she understood every word.

"Remember it do you, little prince?" she taunted, looking pleased. "No matter, you won't remember much else once we're done with you."

Arthur did not look intimidated by these words. Instead, they only seemed to fill him with courage as he stepped forward resolutely.

"Nimueh," Arthur suddenly said in an authoritative voice that sent chills down Merlin's spine. Arthur then straightened his posture and looked focused in way that Merlin knew he hadn't seen for centuries. "Stop this. This feud is between us, let these people go."

"How noble you are, Arthur," Nimueh mocked, her voice almost child-like as she turned to look at the cowering Camelot employees by the door, who looked sooty and terrified. Her lips quirked with bitter satisfaction. "The brave monarch, ready to sacrifice himself for his people. Are you really foolish enough to think you can save them all?"

At her words, the immortal army behind her unsheathed their weapons in unison, fluid and deadly as swords still caked with the blood of previous victims were raised in the air.

"Pity. I expected so much more," Nimueh said coldly, sounding almost disappointed that Arthur hadn't presented her with more of a challenge before saying, "Goodbye, Arthur Pendragon."

Merlin’s magic crackled furiously at the presumption of these words. Arthur wasn’t going anywhere. Not ever again.

"I don't think so," Merlin replied darkly, finally throwing caution to the wind as he stepped forward resolutely. Raising his arms in the air, Merlin threw back his head and bellowed out a summoning spell that called all allies to his aid, his eyes flashing so blindingly with gold that he could see people shielding their faces from the glare. The result of his spell was soon obvious for everyone to see as puffs of smoke soon erupted around the room and people quite literally appeared out of them from thin air.

"What the fuck-?!" cried out Arthur as Cedric, who had obviously been in the middle of brushing his teeth, materialised in front of him. Arthur then let out a squeak -- Merlin vowed to remember this for later -- as Sophia, Myror, all twenty of Merlin's druids and every other magical being he had faced (and consequently, let live) appeared before them. The goblin that had torn apart Geoffrey’s office a few months back was there, still causing mayhem as it mooned a scandalised Lady Helen while Alvarr (Morgana’s clingy ex-boyfriend who had thought killing Uther was a good way to win her back) was comparing the size of his new staff with Sophia’s father's and Anhora's. Merlin could see them all dotted around the room, from the troll who had tried to marry Uther sitting in a literal shit-pile in the corner to Gaius' wife Alice, materialising by her husband's side. Before Merlin knew it, there were over two hundred magical beings standing there, waiting for his command. Even Archimedes had popped in for the show. Hooting superiorly as he flew over to Merlin’s shoulder, he then turned to Nimueh and moved his head from side to side at her in a strange sort of owl dance, as though he was trying to psyche her out.

With his army of reformed criminals behind him and the bird on his shoulder, Merlin suddenly felt a bit like a pirate captain. Merlin lifted his shoulders. He had always wanted to be pirate captain.

"What in the blazes is this?" Nimueh demanded as Edwin -- a phoney anti-wrinkle expert Merlin had busted after he tried to sneak poisonous insects into the Camelot building -- popped in beside her and gave her a wave.

"This is my army, Nimueh,” said Merlin simply, holding up his arms.

"Am I still drunk?" Merlin could hear Gwaine ask Lance seriously.

“It looks like an army of misfits to me," Nimueh commented casually but Merlin could see the apprehension in her eyes.

"Oh, not necessarily," came a cool voice as Morgana literally popped into the scene, barely hesitating as she made her way to Merlin's side. "You see, Nimueh, we're small but we have our charms."

Merlin couldn't help but beam at her.

"As fashionably late as ever, I see," he said warmly.

"Better late than never, I suppose," Morgana replied, a smile on her face but her eyes were shining with past regret. "And anyway, I have an appearance to maintain. Make-up to touch up, hair to get styled. Oh, and no outfit can be complete without a Cup of Life filled with blood by your side." Morgana then lifted up the golden chalice she had been holding in her hands, the cup gleaming with promise in her hands.

Both Merlin and Nimueh looked stunned.

“Where did you get that?” Merlin asked in wonder.

“Let’s just say Morgause has more loyalty to me then this old quack,” Morgana said, waving a hand towards Nimueh like she was something particularly abhorrent. “Apparently, she’s a shitty boss. She doesn’t even pay overtime. And as for the hours-“

"Morgana,” Nimueh suddenly cut in as she stepped forward to appeal to Morgana, looking slightly thrown by recent events, “you are a Priestess. You are my sister-"

"I’m not your sister,” Morgana said bluntly, lifting up a hand to stop Nimueh before she continued to speak any longer. “Arthur may be the most oblivious idiot that has ever walked the earth, but he is my real blood. Not you."

"I'm sorry but could someone please tell me what the hell is going on?" Arthur cut in, sounding sort of hysterical now.

"Not now, Arthur," Merlin and Morgana said in unison.

“No,” Nimueh said, shaking her head, refusing to believe this was over as she took a step backwards and vibrated with fury. “I will not be defeated. Immortal army, attack!”

At once, the army of men behind Nimueh let out a group battle cry and sprinted forward, swinging their swords ferociously. Shrugging coolly in the face of this, Morgana sighed delicately and turned the cup over, letting the blood inside it spill to the ground in a pool by her feet. Immediately, half the army slumped to the floor, stone dead. The other half stopped for a second, looked marginally concerned by their suddenly deceased brethren before shrugging and bellowing again for a second wind.

It was as if someone had lit a firecracker under Arthur because he went from gaping with slack-jawed amazement at the proceedings one minute to suddenly ripping the arms off his red shirt, grabbing a sword from a nearby suit of armour and bellowing, “On me!” and taking about ten of them down with one swing.

He was soon joined by the knights and the now loyal magical beings Merlin had summoned, who were attacking the immortal army using everything in their arsenal, from the druids, who were surprisingly good at Kung Fu as they backflipped around the place to Cedric, who was animating the gargoyles around the room and gleefully instructing them to bite off heads. Even Uther was caught in the foray, whacking the attacking soldiers repeatedly with his Armani loafers while Merlin caught sight of a fully Sidhe-transformed Sophia scratching her claws viciously across every enemy face she saw.

It didn't take long for the soldiers to yield in the face of all this vigour but Nimueh wasn't nearly as compliant. She and Merlin duelled furiously, throwing fireballs and enormous bolts of lightning at each other with such spectacle that a ring of spectators soon formed around them, watching with complete awe. Arthur in particular had lowered his sword to watch Merlin in incredulity, barely recognising him.

"Set her head on fire!" Gwaine yelled from the sidelines, jumping up and down with excitement.

"Go for her left side, it's the weaker of the two!" Elyan advised helpfully.

"Just kill the bitch!" George had screamed from beside them, gnawing on his fingernails with anxiety.

But Merlin didn't do any of these things. Instead, an alarming feeling of serenity suddenly hit him with the speed of a freight train, making him lift his face to the ceiling and close his eyes like one would to the sun. Everything moved in slow motion as his senses suddenly shifted momentously, sharpening acutely enough to let him hear conversations from across the room and feel the burning pain in Lance's shoulder from where the fire had caught his shirt.  Every magical cell in his body was singing like a bird inside him, soaring sweetly as they swept through him like a tide that refused to abate. Like a golden light growing in his chest, the tingle inside him spread through his bones and flowed to his throat like liquid honey before inducing him to quietly say in a voice he barely recognised,

"Stop."

And to everyone's surprise, especially Nimueh's, her body did indeed stop.

"What the- what is this?!" she had demanded with hysteria, her body frozen mid-spell and her lips barely moving as she spoke. 

"Oh Mighty Emrys," the druids suddenly exploded into adoration before dropping to their knees en mass. "The legends about him are true!"

"Pssst, what legend?" Percy bent down from his towering height to ask the closest druid to him, who was kissing the floor in happiness. It was Gaius, however, who responded, looking at Merlin with tearful pride.

" 'Once the Dragonlord has fully unlocked his power, there is no magic that he cannot command'," he recited grandly. He then turned to the confused looking knights. "That includes the magic inside of her," he clarified. 

Gaius' words were obviously ringing true because Nimueh's frozen eyes looked terrified.

"What are you going to do with her?" asked Lance quietly, Gwen by his side and looking equally concerned.

Merlin just looked at Nimueh, his expression unreadable. He then blinked his golden eyes and the curse that held her immediately let her go. She fell to the floor with the sudden release onto her hands and knees, catching her breath as she did, before lifting up her face and wearing a look so ugly that it looked unnatural.

"You'll... you'll pay for that Emrys!" she sneered in a winded voice, still on her knees as she threw up her hand to fire a spell. When nothing happened, the cruel look she was wearing was soon overcome with one of sheer panic. "What have you- what have you done to my magic?!"

"Oh, it's still there," Merlin said simply, brimming with power as he walked over to her and crouched down beside her to look her in the eye. "But it won't work for you if you try to use it to hurt people. If you raise your hand with ill-intent, your magic will not comply."

Nimueh's pale skin practically went transparent.

"No," she said in denial, shaking her head and scurrying backwards away from him. "You- you can't do that. You can't stop me from... You can't just... Forbærne! Ácwele!"

"Please stop," Merlin said gently in an almost kind voice. "You're just embarrassing yourself." He then rose to his feet and turned to Leon. "You'd better call your friends at Scotland Yard and tell them they're missing a prisoner."

Leon, however, was looking at Merlin with the same sort of reverence that the druids did.

"Jesus, Merlin," he said shaking his head before letting out an incredulous laugh. "You're... just, wow. How did you manage to hide that for the past few millennia?"

"Um, practice," said Merlin, feeling a little embarrassed as he looked around the room where everyone was gawping at him with amazement.

There was only one face he wanted to see.

"Arthur," he said softly, taking a step towards his employer as he dreaded his reaction.

Looking every inch the brave king, Arthur was covered in soot and sweat and had a bloody gash on his arm. He then dropped the sword in his hand to the floor with a clatter and gaped at Merlin with an absolutely stunned look on his face. Closing his mouth, he wet his dry lips.

"You- you just did magic," he said, looking remarkably calm considering the circumstances.

He then promptly proceeded to pass out.

Merlin's magic, being as enamoured with Arthur as it was, immediately conjured a rather splendid emperor-sized four poster with silk sheets and nicely colour-cordinated pillows for him to land on. Given the fact that Merlin's magic barely let him conjure a tent for himself, he momentarily considered how unfair it was that it loved Arthur so much more than it loved him.

"Wow," said Morgana staring at her prone brother's fancy bed sheets. Reaching over to feel the material, she looked at Merlin like he was a lost cause. "Egyptian cotton sateen? You're completely batty about him, aren't you?"

"Can you blame him?" said Myror, giving Arthur such a hungry sort of look that Merlin immediately lifted up his palms and gave him a look of molten gold that clearly said, 'I'm not afraid to use this.' Myror, being relatively intelligent, immediately shut his mouth and looked at the relatively unsexy light fixtures instead.

"So, does Arthur know?" Morgana asked Merlin, her eyes intense.

"Does Arthur know what?"

"What happened on Casualty last night - that you're in love with him, of course!" Morgana exclaimed like he was a simpleton.

"I’m not in love with him! Who told you that?" Merlin tried to argue weakly.

"Everyone knows, Merlin," she told him matter-of-factly. "Everyone except you and Arthur, apparently. Men. I don't know how two of them manage to be in a relationship without a woman there to clarify things for them."

"Look, Morgana, you've got this all wrong," Merlin argued, the lies sounding hollow even to his own ears.

"Oh, have I?" Morgana responded before pointing at a waiter who was cowering under a table with his tray of entrees and saying, "you there, who is this man in love with?"

"Arthur Pendragon," the man said at once before shakily offering his tray and saying, "Would Madam like a canape?"

"Oh, yes please," she said, popping a salmon roll into her mouth. "Right, I'll see about sorting out the bill for all this damage. Meanwhile, you go take Arthur home.”

“Home? What about the fall-out from all this?" Merlin said, rounding on her like she didn't understand the severity of the situation. "Morgana, everyone in this room saw magic happen tonight. As soon as they leave this building, they’re all going to go to the papers. After that, the government is going to pick me up, stick me in some hidden base and poke and prod me like some sort of Roswell experiment!”

“You’ve been watching too many History Channel conspiracy theories.”

“Alex Mack, actually,” Merlin corrected her. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m screwed.”

“Oh, I really wouldn’t worry, Merlin,” said Morgana like it was as much as an issue as having a bit of dandruff. “Your druid friends over there seem to have everything sorted.”

“They what?” Merlin asked, turning to see the druids who, now that he noticed it, were all dressed in sunglasses and suits fit for the FBI. They seemed to be sitting people down in groups and asking them to look into the jewelled head of a large staff which let out a glowing, mesmerising light that soon rendered their faces slack. Merlin dropped his jaw. “Christ, they’re the Men in Black!”

“Secret service, actually, my Lord,” said Alator, who had stealthily approached while Merlin had been watching, his hands clasped in front of him like a bald and imposing bouncer. ”We’ve been keeping the magic a secret for generations.”

“So you actually have a day job? I imagined you guys spent your time in your robes, communing with the forest."

“Oh, only on our days off," Alator confirmed. "They say the robes are a health hazard at work."

He looked a little sullen about that.

"So," said Merlin, trying to take all this in, "the secret service has been watching me all this time?"

"We try and keep an eye on all registered magic users but you, my Lord... we're all huge fans of you. We even have a framed photo of you at work. Here, look, it's the screensaver on my phone."

"Um, oh wow, thanks. That's very flattering," said Merlin, a tiny bit creeped out by this. He then looked back at the crowd of party-goers, who seemed to have gone back to drinking and looking carefree again. "So, everything here is sorted?"

"Yes, but hopefully we won't have to do this for too much longer. Erasing people's memories, that is," Alator confided through a whisper, like it was a playground secret. 

"Why not?" asked Merlin.

"Why, because Avalon is coming, my Lord," Alator said simply. "We're all very excited about it. By the by, we've been loving your work, Lord Emrys. It's inspired. The whole 'Stop' business in particular was very impressive."

Feeling embarrassed, Merlin didn't know what to say to this so he didn't reply to it at all. Instead he shook Alator's hand and thanked him for his help.

"Ah, my Lord, one last thing," Alator said as he and the druids turned to go. "Your Type 4D friends over there-"

"Type 4D?"

"Reincarnated persons who remember a past life," the giant druid added helpfully.

"-yes, anyway," Alator continued, "we decided to let them keep their memories, as a mark of respect to you. You brought them back, after all, I'm sure they factor into your plans."

Merlin, who had no plan whatsoever but didn't have the heart to tell them, tried to lift up his shoulders and nod wisely at this.

"Great, my plans, yes, excellent," Merlin said. "Thank you, Alator. You've done well." Merlin then paused as a terrifying thought hit him. "Wait, so Uther-"

"Oh, we wiped him good, don't worry, my Lord," the tiny elderly druid woman piped up. "He was enough trouble as it was the first time around." 

"What about Arthur?" Merlin persisted. "When he wakes up, will he remember everything?" 

"Naturally, my Lord, we would never wipe his mind," Alator said in a scandalised voice, like it was an act of not only treason but blasphemy. "He is the Once and Future King."

"Yes," Merlin said softly, looking across at the bed Arthur was lying in majestically, surrounded by all his friends. "He really is, isn't he?"

Recognising the devoted looks in the druids' eyes when he turned back to them, Merlin quickly made his exit before they starting kissing his shoes again. With one last handshake with Alator, he turned and headed over to where his friends were all congregated around Arthur's bed and obviously sharing stories.

Gaius noticed him approach and immediately pulled him into a loving hug.

"My boy," he said tenderly as Merlin melted into the embrace. "My dear, wonderful boy."

"Wonderful?" Gwaine scoffed from where he was lying next to Arthur, using the blond's stomach as a table for the tray of entrees he chewing his way through. "Merlin, you are bloody brilliant! I still can't believe you never told me about the magic though, you bloody secret keeper! Sir Lancelot here just admitted you told him! I had to die knowing you didn't trust me!"

Merlin let out a shudder of breath. So Gwaine really did remember everything. They all did. Looking around at the faces of all his friends, he suddenly didn't see the colleagues he had been working with the last year but the knights and royalty that they were. Merlin then turned to Gwaine.

"Wait a minute, back in the past, you knew I had magic?"

"When that midget on the bridge called you Magic, I kind of figured it out, you know," Gwaine said, swallowing the five crab cakes he had stuffed in his mouth. "I know I'm always drunk off my arse but I'm not deaf."

"You shouldn't say 'midget'," Percy politically-corrected. "It's 'little person'."

"Sure thing, Sir Percival," Elyan teased with a shove as Leon cleared his throat reproachfully at them like the First Knight he was.

"So how is he?" Merlin asked, gesturing towards Arthur, who still looked completely out of it.

"Oh, he'll be fine," Gaius confirmed. "It's just the shock of everything really."

"So, he actually did faint this time," Merlin said, trying not to grin fondly but unable to stop himself. He would never let Arthur live this one down. His smile slowly faded when he caught Gwen's eye, however.

Gwen, who was one of his best friends and who had once not just been in love with Arthur but had been his queen. Merlin swallowed hard, a horrible feeling festering in his gut as he told himself it was best for everyone if he just stepped back and let them find their way back to each other.

But Gwen had obviously seen the anguish and self-sacrifice on his face because she soon pursed her lips resolutely, pointedly stood by Lance's side and took his hand, her eyes bright and fixed on Merlin. Her smile was soft and a little sad but approving as her eyes darted between Arthur and Merlin. Merlin let out the breath he hadn't even realised he had been holding.

"You know," said Gwen, clearing her throat. "I think it's been a rough day for everyone involved. Merlin, why don't you do what Morgana suggested and magic Arthur home? We'll help clean all this up. You've done more than enough."

Gwaine and Leon shared a secretive sort of grin that Merlin didn't quite understand but he nodded his head and agreed anyway. With one last affectionate pat from Gaius and a solid thump on the back from Percy that nearly sent him flying across the room, Merlin placed his hand on Arthur's arm, whispered a spell under his breath and watched as his friends and the giant hall around him melted away and reformed into the empty interior of Arthur's bedroom. Merlin then blinked down at the grand four-poster and the black silk sheets Arthur was now lying on. Apparently, Merlin’s magic had decided to drop Arthur invitingly on his bed just to torture him.

Sitting beside Arthur on the bed, Merlin drank in his profile for a moment and tried not to feel like too much of a moon-eyed schoolgirl as he did but it was unavoidable when even Arthur's pillows seemed to compliment his complexion perfectly. Shaking himself out of it before he spent all day ogling him, Merlin heaved a sigh, placed a glowing hand over Arthur's chest and whispered an awakening spell under his breath. 

Almost immediately, Arthur stirred awake and blinked open his eyes, his gaze unfocused and fuzzy until it finally rested on Merlin, who was hunched in on himself and looking horribly guilty.

"Um, hello," Merlin said, his lips curling into more of a grimace than a smile. "So I guess we should talk. I mean, unless you don't remember what just happened with Nimueh, in which case, we don't have to talk about anything at all! We could just sit here and play hangman or noughts and crosses, what do you say?"

Still lying flat on his back, Arthur glared at him with the fire of a thousand suns, betrayal burning in his eyes. Merlin gulped.

"Okay, so I’m assuming that you do remember," Merlin guessed with a wince. "And I can understand that you're angry at me but I had a good reason for keeping it from you. I just- I just wanted to protect you, Arthur. Everything I do is to protect you, whether it’s drinking poison for you to saving you from crazed priestesses who want to murder you. I just need to look after you. You already have so much to worry about, what with your father and running the magazine and I didn't want to add another burden to your list and- and- and can you please say something before I drop dead of a heart attack?"

Arthur narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms, his lips pressed tight like an old fishwife. If Merlin wasn't so intimidated by his stare, he would have giggled.

"You lied to me, Merlin." Arthur said when he finally spoke. "You lied to me again."

"I know," Merlin said pitifully, feeling rubbish. "And I get why you're angry, Arthur, I do but- wait, again? Arthur, are you saying... I mean, do you actually remember that-"

"-that my manservant is a lying bloody sorcerer who tells lies?" Arthur finished with an arch of his eyebrow. “Yes, Merlin, you total buffoon, I do remember.”

“Oh,” said Merlin, for once not correcting Arthur for the manservant jibe because he had subconsciously been right the whole time. He then scratched his nose. “So, does this mean I’m fired then?”

"Fired? Merlin, we just came from your leaving do, you moron. You're the one who left first," Arthur snapped, although Merlin could hear a wounded bite to his voice that betrayed that he was still unhappy about this fact.

Merlin felt a turn in his stomach. He was unhappy about it, too.

Arthur suddenly lifted his head off the bed.

"What is that playing on my stereo?" he asked, sitting up and trying to sound superior but his bedhead was sticking up in every conceivable direction known to man and wasn't helping his cause. Merlin tried not to laugh at how ridiculously charming he looked when he heard the music, too, accompanied by Barry White's unmistakably velvety sex voice. Groaning aloud, Merlin slapped a hand to his forehead in realisation.

"I'm going to kill Will."

"I don't know," Arthur tried to say lightly, only just noticing the newly mounted mirrors on the ceiling and the cameras that were pointed at the bed. "Other than you, Leon is the only other person who has access to my place and all this sordid shit screams Gwaine to me."

Merlin shut his gaping mouth, finally understanding what Gwaine and Leon's grins had been about. He didn't know Leon had it in him.

"Will probably helped them set up the cameras. He works part-time at Jessops," Merlin said with betrayal, already planning the magical Chinese burn he was going to inflict on his best friend.

"You're telling me I had both Gwaine and Will in my flat at the same time and it's still standing? It must be a miracle. Oh God, please don't tell me they shagged in my kitchen or something. I'm still traumatised by the wet spots Myror left about the place when he broke in."

"Okay, firstly, that is disgusting so thank you for putting that image in my head," Merlin said, rubbing his eyes to try and erase that from his mental eyeballs, "and secondly, considering that Will is the very definition of straight, I doubt even Gwaine's lustrous locks could get him to give it up."

"Straight?" Arthur questioned with misunderstanding, snapping his head back from where it had been studying the overhead mirrors with far too much interest. Flustered, Arthur then stumbled over his words. "But... but Will said you two were together!"

"He's also said that he founded Taco Bell and that he's distantly related to Reverend Desmond Tutu," Merlin said dryly, his eyebrow half-cocked. "I think that should tell you never to trust a word that Will says."

"So- so you're not actually gay?" Arthur said like this news changed everything. His words were so unmistakably heavy with disappointment -- so disheartened -- that they compelled Merlin to swallow hard, be brave and finally admit the undeniable fact that had been sitting in his chest for the past year. Hell, the past fourteen hundred and seventy years.

"Well, considering the fact I declared my love for you in front of the entire company, you stupid dollop head, I suppose I must be a little gay, mustn't I?" Merlin said, trying to sound casual but his heart was pounding so manically that he wouldn’t be surprised if it burst out of his chest and hit Arthur in the face.

Arthur's eyes widened to the size of hubcaps.

"You're- you're in love with me? I...really?" he asked in a high, hopeful sort of voice. Arthur then seemed to hear himself because he quickly let out a cough and rolled his shoulders in a manly sort of way. "Well, I mean, yes, obviously, of course you’re in love with me. I'm hot, rich and powerful. Why wouldn't you want some of this?"

"Oi, you prick, you're supposed to say it back!" Merlin laughed as he aimed a smack at Arthur's chest, his smile so wide that he was sure that he looked like the lovesick fool he was. Easily catching Merlin's hand between both of his own, Arthur smiled just as foolishly back at him before shrugging and saying with fake nonchalance,

"I suppose you'll do."

"You suppose I'll- oh, you really are the biggest dollophead in exist-mmph!" Merlin squeaked because Arthur had swooped in like a bird of prey and caught his lips in one of those earth-shattering, mind-blowing, firework-exploding movie kisses that made Merlin, much to his own dismay, swoon.

In the tiny part of Merlin's mind that was still functioning, he realised that Arthur had not only not been lying about being the best kisser on earth but he had actually sold himself short. It was other-worldly how talented Arthur’s mouth was. From his lips, which consumed Merlin like a starving man, to the tongue that happily plundered Merlin’s mouth so obscenely that it was bound to be illegal in some countries, Arthur was completely and utterly unravelling him with just a kiss.

Merlin's magic, which always did the occasional somersault inside him when Arthur was in the vicinity, was downright bungee jumping inside him at that moment. He could feel it rushing just under the surface of his skin, as though hoping to feel even the slightest touch of Arthur's skin. 

It flat out blinded him with gold when Arthur's greedy hands ran down Merlin's sides and made one of the cushions on the bed self-combust into an explosion of feathers when Arthur brazenly groped the front of Merlin’s trousers hard enough to make Merlin almost bite his own lip off.

"What the-?!" said Arthur in brief confusion, spitting out a feather.

"Just ignore it," Merlin said distractedly, pulling him back in and actually gurgling when Arthur bent his head to lick a stripe of sweat from Merlin’s throat.

"Merlin," Arthur groaned, peppering kisses up his neck and over his face and grinding so hard against him that Merlin saw stars. "If you don't get your clothes off right now, I'm going to fire you."

"I don't -- oh fuck, god, yes, there again please -- I don't work for you anymore, you prat," Merlin gasped, clutching at fistfuls of Arthur's hair like it was a life buoy keeping him afloat.

"Then I'm... Christ... I'm rehiring you," Arthur panted, licking his teeth.

"Okay," Merlin agreed wholeheartedly, pushing Arthur flat on his back on the bed and climbing on top of him eagerly. Arthur, who seemed to keep getting distracted fondling Merlin's arse, froze mid bottom-squeeze to pull away, his lips swollen and his eyes dark as he looked up at Merlin.

"Okay?" Arthur returned hopefully, his breath coming out in short bursts as his chest heaved. "You'll come back?"

"Yes, yes, I'll stay until hell freezes over and penguins are smart enough to start colonising the moon, now can we please talk about this after you're done fucking me into your fancy designer sheets?" Merlin pleaded, grabbing Arthur by the tie almost threateningly.

Arthur cocked his head, as though considering this.

"Okay," he agreed in less than a millisecond before flipping them over so he was on top and latching his mouth under Merlin's jaw. He then proceeded to suck a bruise so vociferously onto his pale skin that it made Merlin ache in places he didn't even know could ache. 

"Fuck, Arthur," Merlin whimpered, his hands flexing uncontrollably in Arthur's hair as he wrapped his legs around his hips and pulled his head closer. "You're trying to kill me, aren't you? This is punishment for all the back talk, isn't it?"

"Shut the fuck up, you traitorous sodding sorceror, you," Arthur returned gruffly, roughly slipping a hand inside both Merlin's trousers and his underwear before pumping his fingers around him mercilessly. "Lying to me for years. Never even taking any credit. Telling me I fainted all those times when I didn't..."

"Ugthhhth," Merlin said, arching off the bed, his magic shattering every lightbulb in the room.

"Throwing yourself in danger," Arthur continued fiercely, his fist pumping savagely as he bit into his collarbone, "scaring all the fucking prey away on a hunt, wearing those stupid bloody neckerchiefs..."

'I liked those neckerchiefs,' Merlin had tried to say but it came out like "Ugthhhth" again as he threw back his head and caught sight of the erratic bedroom blinds from upside down, which were opening and closing so frantically by themselves that they were getting caught up in their own string. Panting, Merlin grabbed Arthur's clothed shoulder and furiously wished he was naked because from the few times he had walked in on Arthur and his many conquests, his body had been such a sight to behold that Merlin's eyes had actually welled from taking in all that golden, chiselled loveliness in one go.

His magic had obviously agreed with him because barely a second after he had thought this, a whoosh of a noise sounded and a rather perplexed -- and now very nude -- Arthur looked down at himself, clearly wondering where his pants had gone. Arthur then looked up at him accusingly.

"You cheated!" he declared.

"Warlock," Merlin reminded him as he pointed at himself, cheerfully drinking in the view. His magic seemed to be enjoying it, too, because a wispy vine of it had escaped to wind its way around Arthur and generally feel him up like a pervert.

"Okay, okay, that's enough, stop. I said 'stop', you dirty harlot, he's mine," Merlin scolded, waving it away but not before it cheekily tweaked a nipple. Arthur, who seemed to have been enjoying himself, grinned down at Merlin wolfishly from where he was straddling him. Hair over his eyes and absolutely unabashed in his nudity, Arthur's skin glistened from the leftover trails of magic and his arousal bobbed impressively in front of Merlin's face. Gulping, Merlin simply gawped, hungrily eyeing him like he was banquet. He didn't know where to start.

Arthur clearly did, however.

"Come on, Merlin." He grinned showily before winking at Merlin. Lifting up his muscular arms to place them behind his head like a poser, Arthur then thrust his hips out like the cocky bastard he was. "Open your mouth for me, there's a good boy."

"You know, it's so nice being with such a romantic," Merlin said airily even as he shifted forward and placed his hands firmly on Arthur's arse, his lips watering with anticipation. "Roses, chocolates, declarations of undying affection... I get it all with you."

Merlin expected a cuff on the ear or even an affectionate tug on a lock of hair. What he got was Arthur lifting up his chin and looking down at him with such tenderness shining in his eyes that Merlin was momentarily winded.

"I do love you, you know," Arthur said without a trace of hesitation, brushing his fingertips over a cheekbone consideringly. "Even though you are a massive dollophead."

"That's my word," Merlin returned but he was smiling back with so much choked emotion that he had to turn his face away and bury it into the hand Arthur had placed on his cheek. 

"Hey," Arthur said gently, combing his hand through Merlin's dark hair with concern and looking suddenly serious as a frown appeared between his eyes. "Are you okay? Because we don't have to do anything if you- well, I mean, don't feel pressured to- if you're not ready to, I'm happy to-"

"Arthur?" Merlin said gently, cutting him off.

"Yes?"

"Shut up."

"Hey, that's my line!" Arthur complained and he would have argued further if Merlin hadn't chosen that moment to lean in and swallow down him from root to tip. 

After that, Arthur's words went from breathless to downright unintelligible.

He instinctively grabbed Merlin's ears, his fingernails burying into them hard enough to leave crescent-shaped grooves as Merlin greedily tried to inhale every inch of him that he could. Deep-throating him to the point of almost choking himself, Merlin's head bobbed so animatedly that he was sure he had pulled muscles in both his neck and his cheek.

“Fuck," said Arthur in one of his more lucid periods. Hips slamming like a piston as he literally fucked Merlin's mouth with no abandon, he then yanked Merlin's head roughly up by the ears so their gazes locked. Merlin looked up at him hungrily as he mouthed over him, his eyes burning like fire as his magic literally swept itself up the insides of Arthur's thighs, making them almost buckle as they quivered uncontrollably. "Merlin- I'm- I'm not going to- last if you- if you keep- Oi!" Arthur yelped with injustice because Merlin had said, 

"Okay," and had pulled off, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Arthur, understandably, was livid.

"What the hell are you - you put that back in your mouth this instant or you're fired, mister!"

"You just said you weren't going to last," Merlin rationalised, feeling a strangely immense feeling of calm. He then rose up to his knees, his clothes literally melting off him and making his pale skin hum and glow with so much power that Arthur was momentarily distracted by it.

"Uh," said Arthur, looking a little stunned as he eyed Merlin like he would a God. He even lifted a shaking hand to touch him but then dropped it by his side, as though feeling unworthy. "Er... I mean... wait, what were we talking about again?" he asked, head blank.

"You said you weren't going to last," Merlin reminded him almost conversationally. He then pushed Arthur back down on the bed hard enough for the mattress to creak. "But I'm still nowhere near done with you."

Merlin's eyes then flashed and Arthur immediately found himself pinned to the bed, his arms held up against the headboard as though his wrists were tied with invisible bonds.

Arthur swallowed hard.

"Fuck," he croaked in an almost unrecognisable voice, so hard that his arousal was lying flat against his stomach.

Merlin replied to this with a predatory grin.

"Told you I wasn't a virgin," he said impishly before climbing happily on top of Arthur, his thighs on either side of his hips as he nuzzled his neck. 

Arthur looked like he would have sold his first born at that moment just to get his hands on Merlin. Straining against his invisible bonds and trying desperately to get some sort of friction between their bodies, Arthur bucked wildly with frenzy. When Merlin tsked and slapped him on the backside for bad behaviour, he literally whimpered with need. 

"Merlin, you fucking tease," Arthur groaned, sounding in pain as he tried to lever himself up again to claim a kiss. Taking pity on him, Merlin pressed a chaste, reverent peck on his mouth as he breathed Arthur in. He smelled like ridiculously expensive cologne and sweat and it was enough to make Merlin dizzy with want.

"Please tell me you have condoms and lube," he murmured against Arthur's mouth, rubbing their groins together pointedly.

"Hnnngh," Arthur replied between kisses. 

"Is that a yes?" Merlin said fondly, licking the shell of Arthur's ear.

"On the... on the bedside table," Arthur moaned, breathing hard through his nose. "I got them just in case you- uhhhh."

"In case I ‘uuhhh’ed, huh?" Merlin purred with amusement into his ear before idly lifting up his palm and levitating the items from the bedside table towards him. Arthur squirmed underneath him at this, making Merlin let out a large smile, his eyes still blazing from the spell.

"Is it me or do you get off on my powers?" Merlin teased, tearing the condom wrapper open with his teeth. He then handed it over to the translucent ribbons of magic dancing beside him, which soon wrapped themselves around Arthur's shaft like the coils of a snake and slid the condom on him as smoothly as a glove. Arthur moaned even louder at this, bending his spine back like a bowstring as they went to work, pooling at his crotch and running themselves over him worshipfully like the tongue of an attentive lover. Merlin drank in the scene, his mouth dry. He didn't realise his magic was so filthy. "I suppose that answers my question," he said to himself before popping off the cap to the lube and applying a copious amount of it to both Arthur and then himself, preparing himself so thoroughly with three of his own fingers that it made Arthur thrash against his magical restraints, almost breaking them completely. Breathing shallowly, Merlin leaned over to press his lips to Arthur's temple before dropping a kiss on his collarbone. "Ready, baby?"

"Call me baby again and I'll break your neck."

Merlin beamed happily at this response, as though it was everything he had ever wished for.

"Wanker," he said lovingly before biting his lip, guiding Arthur into him and lowering down until he sheathed him completely.

"Fuck," hissed Merlin.

"Fuck," Arthur replied, squeezing shut his eyes and dropping his head back down onto his pillow weakly, as though it was almost too much to bear. "Merlin... are... are you...?"

But Merlin couldn't hear him. He had sat himself up and thrown back his head, eyes open and blinding with light as he watched their joining in the mirror above. Arthur was lying prone with ecstasy on his face, his wrists shimmering from where they were being held as Merlin watched himself ride him slowly, palms flat on Arthur's stomach, his teeth grit hard and the burn ripping through his body like a forest fire. 

Almost immediately, he noticed the magic slowly building from their coupling like a galaxy of stars, spinning a whirlwind around their naked bodies as though they were literally the centre of the universe. It was like a turbulent and stormy sea of colours, crashing phosphorescent waves against their bodies before wrapping them in a cocoon made of a million tiny threads of magic.

Merlin breathed deeply and could feel Arthur's lungs exhaling his breaths in response, as though they really were one body and one soul. He could feel Arthur pushing into him as though Merlin were Arthur himself and their hearts suddenly weren't just beating in tandem, they were one and the same. 

Somewhere along the way, the binds on Arthur's wrists must have dissipated because he rose up to crush Merlin tightly against his body, his strong arms wrapped around him as he ravished his mouth urgently and his hands slipped to the small of Merlin's back, continuing to urge the cant of his hips on. As Merlin started to move himself up and down with uncoordinated desperation and Arthur's thrusts started to get more and more erratic, the calming magic around them started to pop and fire off like firecrackers in the air, crackling and fizzing like the lit fuse of a bomb on the cusp of going off.

Perhaps it was because Merlin was so far gone -- so completely out of his mind with the sensations of what they were doing -- that he didn't notice that the magic around them had risen their joined bodies up into the air but when his head bumped the mirrored ceiling, Merlin just raised his hands, placed his palms flat onto the ceiling and used it to push himself down on Arthur with everything he had. This seemed to be their undoing because they soon let out a cry of mutual climax against each other’s' mouths, the magic around them literally erupting into a huge explosion of fireworks, so forceful that it blew Arthur's belongings into the nearest wall and bathed both Arthur and Merlin in trailing streamers of light. 

They slowly floated back down, almost feather-light in their descent as they softly continued to kiss each other like they still couldn't get enough of it. When they finally landed back to the bed, it was as though gravity had finally returned full force and Merlin immediately found himself collapsing bonelessly on top of Arthur, absolutely exhausted. The silk sheets felt cool and clingy and strangely alien against Merlin's shins as he tried to catch his breath, stars still exploding behind his eyelids as his head lolled against Arthur's shoulder.

Well, Merlin thought as his brain slowly tried to boot itself back up again. They were definitely doing that again.

"Wow," said Arthur, finally breaking the silence when he had caught his breath. He sounded deferential, like he had just witnessed a miracle on earth. "That was-"

"Yeah," Merlin agreed, yawning contentedly against his collarbone.

"No, but I mean, really. That was just. I can't even put into words how -"

"I know," Merlin concurred, wincing sorely as he lifted himself off of Arthur, who just lay there uselessly and watched Merlin in wonderment, sticky and sort of gross now. Shaking his head as he concluded that one way or another he would always be stuck sorting out Arthur's messes, Merlin drowsily waved a hand, cleaning them both off instantly. He then returned back to sprawling back on top of Arthur like a large cat, closing his eyes serenely.

"And did I just hallucinate or did we really just have levitation sex?" Arthur asked, still sounding like his world had been shaken to the core.

"Um, yeah, that wasn't intentional," Merlin said, popping an eye open and feeling a little overwhelmed himself by what just happened. "That's actually never happened before. I think it's because my magic fancies you so much. It keeps trying to grope you and show off to impress you."

"Well, everyone fancies me, why should your magic be any different?" Arthur smirked, expertly anticipating Merlin's tired swipe at him by grabbing his wrist and pulling him in for a kiss that was frankly so filthy that it made a porno look like a Disney cartoon. With one last lick across the seam of Merlin's lips, Arthur leaned back against the pillows and placed his arms behind his head, breathless and smug as he watched Merlin's eyes glaze over. "So, is the floating-in-mid-air thing going to happen every time we do it? Because my bed is feeling like a false economy here."

"Oh shut up," Merlin mumbled half-heartedly with an affectionate nip to Arthur's sweaty shoulder, which was suddenly exceedingly distracting. "You wouldn't know how to budget even if you were held at gunpoint and told to be frugal."

Arthur wrinkled his nose, like he often did when terms like 'budget' were bandied about. Merlin grinned, propping his chin up on his crossed arms and looking down at Arthur with a soft expression.

"So I have a question,” Merlin said suddenly, feeling a little shy as he drew circles over Arthur's heart. ”When exactly did you stop trying to dump me for one of your usual hottie PAs?"

Arthur seemed to deliberate on this, indolently stroking his fingers over Merlin's bare hip.

"I suppose the moment I realised -- to my horror -- that you actually were one of those hottie PAs."

"How distressing for you," Merlin said dryly, stilling his finger and looking highly unimpressed.

"It was an upsetting discovery, yes," Arthur said seriously as he nodded his head, ignoring the sarcasm in Merlin's voice. 

"Okay, so clarify things for me then; when exactly was this moment when you completely lost your sanity and found me attractive?" Merlin asked, trying to feel offended but, honestly, he had considered Arthur's interest either magic or madness himself.

Looking a little embarrassed, Arthur mumbled something under his breath.

"I'm sorry, I don't speak Wookiee," Merlin teased, poking him in the cheek and feeling an overwhelming surge of affection wash over him as Arthur pouted and softly bit his finger.

"I said 'the Lady Helen pitch', smartarse," Arthur responded, his cheeks going pink.

Merlin couldn't help it. He dropped his jaw.

"What?!" he gasped, his eyes round and stunned as he lifted up his head. "But- but you still made my life miserable after! In fact, you were even worse than you were before! The fussy lunches, the ridiculous tasks in the middle of the night, throwing objects at my head - Griffin!"

"Well, I couldn't exactly act like I liked you, could I?" Arthur said defensively, as though his actions were totally justified. "I was your employer. It would have been unseemly."

"But you slept with all those other girls!" Merlin protested, feeling rather affronted that Arthur hadn't made the effort with him.

"Exactly," Arthur said, like Merlin had just hit the nail on the head. "Girls. And you certainly weren't one of those. I didn't know what the hell was going on with me for those first few weeks. You were the first man I had ever had those feelings for and it scared me shitless. Not to mention that it was embarrassing as fuck. I was surrounded by male models on a daily basis but you were the one I was mooning over? I was appalled with my taste."

"Thank you," said Merlin.

"Oh shut up," Arthur grumbled before lifting up a hand to tweak at a damp curl at Merlin's nape. "Anyway, I thought if I could get you to quit that the feeling would go with you but then you had to go and be halfway competent and I grew to rely on you. I suppose I resigned myself to the possibility that all we had was a platonic relationship that wouldn't go anywhere. We were two straight men after all."

"And then Will pulled the gay card out of his arse," Merlin said with mounting realisation.

Arthur snorted at that, especially given what he now knew.

"That was when I realised that it wasn't because we were straight, it was because you weren't interested."

"So you acted like an even bigger arse than usual," Merlin said, remembering Arthur's snide remarks every time Gwaine had flirted with him.

"I never said I wasn't petty," Arthur pointed out unashamedly, raising his hands.

Merlin smiled, feeling it wobble a little on his lips as it all finally dawned on him.

"You were jealous," he said, trying not to feel delighted by this fact and failing horribly.

"Stop looking so pleased, I was obviously brain-addled," Arthur returned in an uppity voice, as though psychological problems explained everything. "You were nothing but elbows and knees."

"I'm still nothing but elbows and knees," Merlin reminded him, pointing at said elbows and knees to prove his point. Arms behind his head, Arthur shrugged with easy equanimity.

"Luckily, I've come to terms with that."

"And luckily, I've come to terms with the fact that you are a giant cabbage head," Merlin quipped back.

"So it looks like we're golden," Arthur replied, taking Merlin's hand and wearing a soft smile that Merlin couldn't stop himself responding to.

"So, the insults," Merlin persisted as Arthur raised his hand and began to nip at the tips of fingers. "Was all that just the burning lust you had for me?"

"You sound like a Jackie Collins novel," Arthur murmured around his thumb.

"The fact you know what a Jackie Collins novel sounds like should have tipped you off that you were at least partially gay," Merlin pointed out before giving Arthur his other hand to nibble at, which he soon did. "No but seriously, all this time, all the insults, was it all just an act?"

"Of course it wasn't an act, you moron," Arthur said without the slightest hesitation. "You're a bloody idiot almost all the time. For some God forsaken reason, I find that attractive."

"And for some God forsaken reason, I like arrogant prats who are mean to me. I must be a masochist."

"I'm happy to tie you up next time to see if you are."

"I'd be happy to let you." Merlin replied back snappily. They then grinned sappily at each other. “But what happened over Christmas?" Merlin asked, finally wanting to straighten this out. "We were fine one minute but the moment Myror attacked you-”

“With a tranquiliser dart that had nothing to do with me fainting, you bloody magic-wielding liar," Arthur cut in bitterly.

“-Yes, yes, would you get over that already? I totally saved your arse. Anyway, what was going on? You just suddenly stopped speaking to me.”

“Are you kidding me?" Arthur said, giving Merlin that look he always gave him when he thought he was being particularly dim. "I tried to kiss you and you blew me off. That hurt my fragile ego.”

“Fragile ego? Your ego has a stronger military defence than most countries. And wait, blew you off? No I didn’t!”

“Do you have a selective memory?" Arthur asked, raising himself up on his elbows so Merlin could appreciate how incredulous his gaze was. "When I tried to talk to you about the kiss –- or lack thereof, thanks very much for that -- you said it would be better if we remained friends.”

Merlin stared at Arthur in confusion, who might as well have been talking in Greek considering how little Merlin understood him at that moment.

“I’m sorry, are you making up conversations now? I never said that! We didn’t even talk about the not-a-kiss! We just talked about the argument we had because of Myror. I wanted us to put it behind us.”

“Put it behind… Merlin, you idiot, I wasn’t talking about the argument, we always sodding argue!” Arthur snapped, thwapping him very unromantically across the head.

“Oh,” said Merlin with increasing comprehension, the thump on the skull obviously dislodging something. “You thought- you seriously thought I was rejecting you?”

“I was galled by your taste to be honest, I’m a catch,” Arthur said, clearly still smarting from the insult as he pouted.

Unable to stop himself from finding that look adorable, Merlin shuffled forwards until their bodies were aligned and pecked Arthur on the tip of his nose. 

“Well, you do have all your own teeth, I suppose," he sighed, as though settling for Arthur was a bit of a hardship. "And for some reason, my mother seems to like you.”

"I'm hot, too. And well hung," Arthur added to the list, his hands expertly kneading over Merlin's arse before he shifted against him suggestively. "Now, brace yourself. I'm going to kiss you again. Try not to pass out with bliss." 

"Muppet," Merlin said warmly before happily letting his lips get claimed. Arthur’s mouth was like a revelation. It was heady and hot and so mind-meltingly addictive that Merlin was amazed there wasn’t a hotline dedicated to offering his old flames withdrawal counselling. He was intoxicating really and as Merlin was rolled willingly onto his back for an overwhelming taste of him, he wondered if it was possible for life to get any more perfect than this.

And then his stomach rumbled.

Snorting, Arthur reluctantly detached his tongue from Merlin's tonsils and looked down at him.

"Do you mind? I’m trying to get back inside your arse here and you’re fucking up my seduction.”

"Hey, it’s not my fault that I didn't get to eat anything at the leaving do," Merlin said in his stomach’s defence, patting it as though to say, ‘There, there’. "Nimueh crashed it before I could even get some nibbles." 

"H'ordeuvres, you plebeian. But I suppose even sex slaves need food,” Arthur conceded, lazily caressing the leg Merlin had wrapped around his hip as his fingers trailed against the direction of the hair. “What do you want?"

"You're going to cook for me?" Merlin said, both amazed and mildly terrified because Arthur's cooking repertoire mainly consisted of toast, which he somehow always managed to turn into a congealed nuclear experiment.

"Don’t be absurd, Merlin, of course I'm not going to cook," Arthur replied as though Merlin had asked him for a kidney. "But I get room service from the Mandarin next door. Just press '0' and ask them for whatever you want. After that, get your skinny arse back in bed. You're going to finish that blowjob you fucking teased me with if it's the last thing you do."

"Work, work, work," Merlin mock-mumbled before clambering over Arthur and reaching for where the poor phone had landed on the floor after their chaotic love-making.

After placing his order -- which wasn't helped at all by the fact that Arthur kept fondling Merlin while he tried to give the bemused lady on the other end his choice of pizza toppings -- both Merlin and his magic literally jumped on top of Arthur and attacked him. Grabbing him by a fistful of hair, Merlin had pulled Arthur's head back and had just got to sucking the juncture of his throat with more zeal than a vampire when the doorbell rang, making Merlin curse the rich for their impeccable service.

"I'll get it," Arthur smirked, throwing him off him cockily to get to his feet. Wrapping the black sheet around him, Arthur then flounced out the room to the front door but not before blowing Merlin an infuriating kiss over his shoulder.

Merlin shook his head. He really did love that arrogant moron. 

Easing himself off the bed, Merlin stretched his aching muscles and was just about to consider foraging around the barely-used kitchen for cutlery when Arthur’s confused voice floated to him from the front door.

"Er, Merlin. There's a bunch of grim reapers at the door looking for you."

"Grim reapers?" Merlin enquired, quickly slipping on a pair of Arthur's Star Wars pants as he walked outside.

Merlin then groaned as the druids waved back at him.

"Lord Emrys!" they said in unison, the one closest to Arthur bowing so emphatically that he was either a contortionist or someone who would soon be making an appointment with their osteopath. "How wonderful to see you again! And so much of you, too!"

Flushing, Merlin grabbed a nearby sofa cushion and placed it in front of his crotch while Arthur, who was holding the sheet around his waist with a surprising amount of dignity, sniffed and surveyed the crowd of people like an observing monarch.

"So, I'm assuming none of you lot have our pizza?" he hazarded dryly.

"They're not room service," Merlin said, stating the obvious before rounding on Alator with frustration. "Alator, what are you guys even doing here? It was all very nice being bowed to and revered and all that and I really appreciated all your help during the battle but even the messiah needs his privacy. I mean, hell, how did you even find me?!"

"We caught your scent," said Alator, which made Merlin blush and worry just how much debaunchery and sex he reeked of. And then, to answer his question, the other druids piped up.

"All hail this day, the consummation has occurred!"

"The joining is completed!"

"The two halves have become a whole!"

Arthur's eyebrows shot up as Merlin dropped his head into his hands, the cushion falling with a flump to the floor.

"Er, Merlin? Who are these people?" Arthur asked in a light, friendly voice that had that underlying tone of 'Tell me now or I'll kill you'.

"Um... they're my fan club, kind of," Merlin explained.

"Fan club?" Arthur repeated, like the idea of anyone other than him finding Merlin charming was madness. "Why on earth- wait, let me guess, this is another magic thing, isn't it?"

Merlin shrugged, suddenly feeling nervous.

"Um, it's more like a destiny thing actually."

Arthur slanted his head, his eyes more curious than anything else.

"So we're destined?"

"From the beginning of time," one druid began.

"To the end of all days," another continued.

"Together, the Once and Future King and his warlock will change the history of the world," Alator finally finished with a flourish that proved that he had obviously had some prior theatrical training.

Arthur blinked slowly and Merlin cursed his lovesick brain for finding the expression cute, especially when coupled with his sex hair, which made Arthur's normally pristine hair-do like it had been dragged backwards through a bush.

"Once and Future King?" Arthur repeated.

"That's you," Alator explained helpfully. "What with being the reincarnation of King Arthur and everything. We've all been waiting for your return for centuries, Sire. It's good to finally see you. The water in the Lake of Avalon has done wonders for your skin."

Arthur gaped for a second before making a "Huh" sort of a sound, as though sleeping for centuries in a watery grave made perfect sense. 

"You know, all this time, I thought all those medieval Master/Servant dreams I kept having of us was just pure sexual deviance," Arthur confided as an aside to Merlin. "Although why I thought watching you muck out the stables was supposed to be sexy I'll never know. Oh well, I suppose it could be worse. I could have been stuck with George."

"Heaven forbid," Merlin said loftily. 

"Now, now, Merlin, no need to sulk," Arthur teased, before pulling a huffy Merlin towards him by the hand.

"I'm not sulking, you tosser," Merlin sulked but he went to Arthur anyway, hating himself a little for how susceptible he was to his charms. Arthur just grinned at him hugely as their chests bumped warmly, his happiness radiating off him in waves.

"Gentlemen, could you leave now, please?" Arthur asked the druids vaguely although his eyes were fixed solely on Merlin as he wrapped his arms around his hips. "The two halves need to become whole once more."

"Technically, Sire, you already are..." Alator tried to explain matter-of-factly but Arthur's glower cut him short. 

The druid then turned to Merlin for confirmation, as if his word was really the one that counted. Merlin smiled, relaxing completely in Arthur's arms.

"It was lovely having you over, I'll call you guys if I need you again. Thanks for all the Kung Fu earlier by the way. That was inspired."

"Edith over here teaches martial arts on the weekend," Alator elaborated, pointing at the tiny elderly witch who bowed at Merlin with such vigour that he fretted about her hip. "Anyway, we'll leave you now, my Lord. And remember to be safe! Malcolm here once had an itch that went green for a month after he-"

"Okay, great, thanks, that's wonderful, bye!" Merlin said, loudly slamming the door in Alator's face before he could catch the entirety of that story, which was clearly going to scar him for life. 

"Please tell me they're not going to show up every time we have sex," Arthur said once they made it back to the bedroom, wrapping his sheet around the both of them snugly.

"Don't think I can make any promises there," Merlin lamented, letting himself snuggle into their shared warmth. "They're a bunch of psychics. They kind of hang about outside my place to check up on me. I caught one of them in the bushes once, just watching me watch telly. He was even wearing camouflage paint on his face. Totally blended in with next door's hydrangeas."

"Well, there's nothing else for it then, you're just going to have to move in here," Arthur said, like this solved everything.

"... Wait, what?" Merlin stuttered out.

"It's far more secure," Arthur elaborated in a relaxed fashion, clearly trying to act like it wasn't a big deal. "It's too high for anyone to peek through the windows and you can put a spell up to make sure they stay outside. Besides, I need someone to put my clothes in order in the mornings. Not to mention all the free sex on tap."

"For the last time, I'm not a bloody sex slave, you mong," Merlin chided but he was looking at Arthur with soft eyes that completely gave him away. "And I'm also not your maid. I get enough of that at work."

"Don't be a nag, Merlin," Arthur said, drawing out his name as he tugged playfully at an earlobe with his teeth. "It's not like it’s hard for you to put things away.”

"True," Merlin admitted, backing this up by flashing his eyes and sending a crumpled shirt on the floor flying onto a hanger.

"My God," said Arthur, staring at the shirt as it gave Merlin a quick salute before slumping back into lifelessness. "I'm sleeping with Mary Poppins."

"Sod off!” Merlin laughed, hitting him on the chest. “Although I reckon you could say that I’m practically perfect in every way.”

Catching the hand that had hit him, Arthur held it against his beating heart and looked down at Merlin almost thoughtfully, his eyes lightly raking over his face.

"Yes," he said, unusually serious as the thumb of his other hand smoothed across Merlin's cheekbone. "I suppose you are a bit, aren’t you?"

The warmth that spread from Merlin's chest made its way all to his cheeks, which flamed under Arthur's touch.

"That's just the love talking," Merlin said, feeling strangely bashful considering everything they had done.

"Yeah, that’s probably true," Arthur acknowledged, nodding his head in wholehearted agreement. "After all, they do say love is blind- ow!"

"You really are the biggest prat alive!" Merlin yelped, raining Arthur with a shower of smacks to the chest. Sniggering uncontrollably like a schoolboy as he tried to unsuccessfully duck out of the way, Arthur’s shoulders physically shook with mirth. "I don't even know why I bother with you. Ever since we met, it's been nothing but grief!"

"Grief? Me?” Arthur raised his voice, pointing at himself in incredulity as though Merlin clearly had a case of mistaken identity. “I think you'll find that you were the one who hit me with the portfolio."

"Ah, you deserved it," Merlin said, waving a nonchalant hand. "Besides, my portfolio did that by itself. It had PMS that day or something. Although, if you ask Alator, he'll give you this massive spiel about fate compelling it to bring us together."

"By bashing me to the floor?"

"Well, it worked, didn’t it?"

Arthur paused, thinking back on the day they met as he lay back down and curled his arm behind his head.

"You know, I was on my way to Bali the day we met,” he recollected.

"I heard. I saw,” Merlin said. “I even remember the girl. Leggy, blonde, the polar opposite to me-"

"And weird as fuck," Arthur finished the sentence with a sardonic smile on his face. "She kept talking about her pet guinea pig. She even had a blog where she would write as him in the first person. 'Day 234 in the cage: rode on the wheel. Took a shit. A good time was had by all.' Absolutely barking. Honestly, I have no idea what I saw in her. I probably just stuck my tongue down her throat just to shut her the hell up."

"Is that why you kissed me?"

"You I kissed because I'd been wanting to since almost the moment I met you."

"Well, aren't you a charmer.”

Arthur looked at him closely before grinning widely.

"You're blushing," he crowed with delight.

"Shut up, I am not," Merlin said, blushing even harder as he buried his hot face in Arthur’s shoulder. It was ridiculously cosy and became even more so when Arthur’s strong arms wrapped around him. A niggling thought was playing on Merlin’s mind, however. “How do you think your father is going to react to all this?”

“You’re bringing up my father in bed? You really know how to set the mood. How about we mention Agravaine and Morgana, too? And we can’t forget Gaius…”

“Arthur,” Merlin pressed, knowing when Arthur was hedging a question. “Are you going to tell him?"

"Tomorrow," Arthur said, not looking forward to it in the slightest if the constipated look on his face was any indication. "I'll let him know tomorrow."

"And, um, what are you going to tell him exactly?" Merlin asked nervously, hoping that Arthur mentioned his name as little as possible because Uther terrified him more than Nimueh and her army combined.

"Well," Arthur said thoughtfully before looking down at Merlin and dropping a kiss on his mouth. "I have a pretty good idea."

 

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

"So, I'm in love with Merlin."

Uther Pendragon, who had been reading his share prices in the Financial Times and tsking under his breath at their performance, looked up at his son’s dramatic entrance. He then considered what he said and furrowed his brow.

"I’m sorry, who?"

"Merlin,” Arthur said quickly, as though doing so as fast as possible would hurt them both less. “My manse- er, I mean, my assistant."

Uther paused for a second and put the paper down.

"The one with the ears?" he said.

Arthur tried not to smile dotingly but that was mainly because he had come to realise that it made him look just as stupid as Merlin.

"Yes," he confirmed, schooling his face into a serious expression and lifting his shoulders proudly. "The one with the ears."

"That can't be possible, Arthur. He's a man," Uther said, addressing him like he was six years old again and asking where babies came from.

Arthur rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

"Yeah, apparently, that's not a deal breaker for me."

Sighing heavily, Uther slipped off his glasses and gave Arthur an exasperated look.

"For heaven's sake, Arthur. Must you bed absolutely everyone who takes that position? I feel could have hired you a one-eyed orangutan and you would still be here, telling me you want to run away with them."

Arthur didn't know whether to be more offended for himself for being accused of bestiality or Merlin for being compared to a visually-impaired ape.

"Father, that's not fair-" he tried to argue but Uther cut across him easily.

"Have you or have you not slept with every person who has ever taken that position?" Uther demanded.

Arthur winced. Merlin was right. Arthur really was a bit of a slapper.

"Yes, but-"

"So what reason have I to believe you won't leave this Marvin-"

"Merlin," Arthur corrected.

"-for the next person you hire?" Uther finished sternly.

"He is the next person I'm hiring. I offered him his job back and he accepted. It's not just favouritism. He's the best assistant I've ever had." 

Which, ironically enough, Merlin was. Not that Arthur would have ever told him that, of course. He wouldn't want Merlin knowing Arthur actually thought he was competent.

Uther still looked unconvinced.

"That is a high recommendation indeed for the boy who set fire to the canteen microwave by trying to boil an egg in it," he said coldly.

Arthur tried to stop his lips from twitching with amusement but it was a near impossibility when he recalled how Merlin had looked, singed and sooty and with bits of egg frying in his smoking hair. Uther seemed to be remembering the same image because his nose wrinkled, as though he could still smell it.

"In any case," Uther carried on. "it's highly unprofessional for you to carry on a relationship with a member of staff. People will accuse you of nepotism."

"The way they do with us?" Arthur returned bitterly.

Uther gave him a hard look that would have reduced most men to a gibbering mess.

"Exactly," he said bluntly. "And what's to say this boy isn't using you and won't sell your story to the papers?"

"Merlin?" Arthur said with dry disbelief, trying not to laugh at the notion. "He's the most unselfish person on the planet. He couldn't even plot a coup in a nursery class. When he's not crying over baby bunnies in David Attenborough documentaries, he's handing his ratty shirt over to the nearest charlatan within reach. He's ridiculous."

Arthur's voice trailed off with fondly.

Uther shuddered. Witnessing affection of any kind always gave him an acute form of indigestion.

"Arthur, please don't. If I wanted to see vacant expressions, I'd visit Donatella Versace and ask her to attempt to count to ten."

"Fair enough," Arthur agreed, hands clasped behind his back and his game-face back on. "So, am I completely disinherited or partially? Because the apartment in Hyde Park was mostly bought with my own money so I really think-"

"Why would you be disinherited?" Uther abruptly asked, looking confused.

Arthur responded to this with frankly more confusion and gaped at his father, wondering if Uther had gone senile in the short time they had been standing there.

"Well... because I'm in a gay scandal with my male assistant," Arthur said slowly, as though his enunciated speech would clarify things. "Oh, and because I've brought shame on the magazine with my raging sexuality," he added after, just to be clear.

"Arthur, Camelot sells fashion magazines," Uther said bluntly. "Everyone in our industry is gay. The only way you would bring shame is if you started wearing George by Asda." Uther then stared at Arthur shrewdly. "You're not are you?"

"Of course not!" Arthur remarked, feeling so highly offended for his Gucci suit that he placed a hand on his breast pocket to console it. "How could you ask me something like that?!"

"Isn't that what your assistant wears?" Uther replied simply.

"Father, Merlin isn't that bad!" Arthur lied bald-facedly, pointedly not remarking on the polyester Tesco shirts Merlin wore on a daily basis.

Uther just hummed.

"Hmm. In any case, I must say I'm surprised. You always seemed to enjoy the company women. Far too frequently, if truth be told. Why shouldn't I believe that this isn't just some sort of experimental phase?"

Arthur looked abashed at his father's critical eye.

"I do still like women," he admitted through a mumble, red-faced. "I just like Merlin more." ‘Because I'm an idiot’, he wanted to add but he realised that wouldn't help his case. "It's not a phase or this season's thing to be. He makes me feel like I should be a better person. Hell, he's made me into a far better person than I was before he came along. Not to mention that he's the only one who's ever really called me on my bullshit."

"Language, Arthur," Uther chastened.

"Sorry," Arthur apologised, not really meaning it, "but he really is the only person who doesn't put up with my crap."

"Heaven knows you need that," Uther agreed before sighing again, rubbing his forehead and saying, "I still expect grandchildren."

 Arthur beamed at his father.

"Merlin is trying to persuade Gwen to be a surrogate as I speak. I think he's using chocolate, so it should be in the bag," he confided brightly. "Although I should tell you, father, it'll be a good few years before I can handle another child - Merlin is bad enough as it is."

"God help us all, you must be serious about this boy. You actually planned for children."

"Well, I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up marrying the berk," Arthur shared with a shrug. "No one else would put up with him. Anyway, I thought you'd be pleased with my foresight. You're the one always lecturing me to be more organised."

"I never realised you were paying attention.”

"To be honest, neither did I," Arthur replied truthfully, smiling hopefully at his father. Looking at his eager face, Uther came to the conclusion that this wasn’t going to go away.

"And there is nothing I can say to dissuade you from this decision?" Uther asked just in case, sounding mildly hopeful. 

"No, sorry, " Arthur apologised, shaking his head as he gave his father a grin. "It's pretty non-negotiable."

"Well," said Uther, looking like he was honestly lost for words before getting to his feet and, in a remarkably rare gesture, pulling his son in for a hug. "I suppose if you're happy, I can be indifferent."

"Thanks, dad," Arthur muttered into his shoulder, choking back the sentiment in his voice because Pendragons frankly didn't do that. "Anyway, I better head off. I left him alone in my office and who knows what he might destroy in my absence. He has a tendency to fall over his own feet."

"I’d noticed," Uther said dryly, letting him go but not before asking, "Arthur, before you leave, answer me truthfully - why now? Why this boy?"

Arthur hesitated for a moment, thinking about the best way to answer his father before simply going for honesty.

"He makes me happy," he said truthfully. "And there's also this whole coins and destiny thing but I won't bore you with that. Either way, it's a match made in... well, somewhere. I love him."

Uther looked at him judiciously for a moment before shrugging his shoulders, picking up his paper again and returning to studying his stocks.

"All right, well I suppose that is that. Be a good lad and close the door on your way out, would you?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you for your time," Arthur said, nodding his head respectfully but he was smiling as he walked to the door.

That was as close to a seal of approval from his father than he would ever get.

 

 

"I want you to meet Kilgharrah," Merlin said to Arthur the next day as he walked into Arthur's office. Merlin then remembered he could actually kiss him whenever he wanted to now so he leaned over the desk and promptly did so a little giddily.

"Kilgharrah?" Arthur asked in confusion when they pulled apart, looking rosier in the face than usual. "The caretaker? You want me to meet the caretaker?" 

"The thing is, he's not exactly a caretaker," Merlin said tentatively, trying to gauge Arthur's reaction as he nervously perched on the edge of his desk. "I mean, he is a caretaker because he cleans the place and complains about mildew and limescale enough but he's also... he's also kind of a dragon."

"Well, he does seem a grumpy sort," Arthur said, giving Merlin that, "but that's a little mean for you, Merlin. You don't usually insult anyone except me. I'm a little jealous here."

"I'm not insulting him, I'm trying to tell you that he's an actual fire-breathing dragon!" Merlin exclaimed, making wing movements with his arms like they were playing charades. "He's actually a pretty top bloke. I mean, he sort of went rogue once, laid a city to ruin and killed a bunch of people in the process but he was having a bad day. He had been imprisoned in a cave for decades, after all. Anyway, he's much more chilled out these days. He and Gaius do yoga together on the weekend."

"Come on, Merlin, do you really expect me to believe all that?" Arthur laughed. "Hell, the yoga is improbable enough! Dragons may have been around in the past but don't you think we would have noticed one mopping our floor? Is this because all the sex last night frazzled your brain? I admit, I have been told I'm pretty mind-blowing in the sack but I never really took it that seriously. Are you hallucinating now? Quick, how many fingers am I holding up?"

"None, you plum, you haven't even lifted up your hand," Merlin said before yanking Arthur out of his seat and saying determinedly. "Come on. We're going to see Kilgharrah so he can show you himself."

"Ah, young warlock," said Kilgharrah after they had marched downstairs to his rather sparse-looking office. "I had a feeling I would be seeing you again soon."  

Looking particularly spindly dressed in his usual navy overalls and with his cigarette hanging out of his mouth, Merlin could see exactly why Arthur thought Merlin had lost his mind.  Kilgharrah simply looked like the average ageing old man with a nicotine problem and a few misplaced marbles.

When Kilgharrah turned to look at them with his yellow eyes gleaming with accomplishment, however, Merlin could feel the power vibrating from him.

"I see the two halves have truly become a whole," Kilgharrah said with a knowing smirk that made Arthur roll his eyes and groan,

"Does everyone know we had sex?" 

Merlin just ignored this and turned back to Kilgharrah.

"Yeah, we shagged. It was magical. Sparks literally flew, yadda yadda yadda… now can you please do your 'Puff! I'm a Magic Dragon!' thing? Arthur knows about everything now except you. Look I'll even take us back to Avalon so you can shapeshift, see?"

"Merlin!" Arthur rebuked as Merlin clicked his fingers and magically popped the three of them into Avalon so fast that Arthur swayed with the force of it. Holding onto a nearby tree branch for balance, Arthur tried to catch his breath, his complexion almost green. "Jesus! Warn a person before you do that, would you?!"

Merlin shared a look with Kilgharrah that clearly said 'muggles’.

“Fine, I’m sorry,” he said, realising that it would be best to apologise to Arthur if he wanted sex in the near future but Arthur didn’t seem to be listening.

Instead, Arthur had drifted away from the tree he had been leaning against to examine the scenery around him in wonderment, like he had had stumbled into a long forgotten dream. The lake looked bluer than Merlin remembered and the trees shook with a breeze that felt more like a lover’s caress than a wind. Stepping forward, Arthur knelt by the shore and ran his hand over the smooth surface of the lake, the velvety water feeling strangely warm against his skin. Merlin could feel the history and the magic of the place reacting to Arthur’s touch as it suddenly circled around the both of them like a warm breath, as though welcoming home a pair of lost sons.

"This- this is where I died, isn't it?" Arthur asked quietly, his voice barely audible as the rippling lake reflected in his eyes like memories.

"Technically, it's where you both died," said Kilgharrah, his powerful voice rustling the leaves on the trees.

Arthur furrowed his brow at this, still studying the shimmering water.

"Both died? What do you mean by- Fuck me! You’re a dragon!" he shouted because Kilgharrah had transformed silently while Arthur’s attention had been diverted, his huge, scaly body glittering a myriad of dark colours under the light of the sun.

"I told you," said Merlin, jerking his thumb casually at Kilgharrah as he loomed over them both like an impressive building.

"No but…. but he's- he’s a dragon!" Arthur exclaimed, gesticulating towards him wildly in case Merlin hadn't noticed.

“I know, Arthur, I’m the one that pointed that out,” Merlin said patiently but Arthur had already yanked Merlin behind him protectively and yelled,

“Stay back, beast! Keep your distance or I’ll run you through!” He then groped blindly at his hip, hoping to pull out a sword but brandishing his iPhone instead.

“Sorry, Kilgharrah,” Merlin apologised to the dragon cheerily, taking the mobile from Arthur and placing it back in his pocket before he hurt himself. “You can take the knight out of Camelot but you can’t take Camelot out of the knight.” Merlin then looked at Kilgharrah hopefully. "So... we finally did it right, right? We went down the right path of our destiny?"

"It would appear so, young warlock," Kilgharrah admitted, quizzically amused by Merlin's eventual fist punch in the air.

Arthur, on the other hand, was still looking at Kilgharrah with his mouth open in astonishment.

Noticing Arthur's attention, Kilgharrah bowed his large head at him properly, no mockery in his solemn tones.

"I must say, your majesty, it really is an honour to finally make your acquaintance properly."

"You're… you’re a dragon," Arthur said in response, having calmed down from his previous panic and now just looking like his mind was completely blown. "You're a caretaker and you're a dragon. My caretaker is a dragon."

Merlin snorted, rolling his eyes as he clapped a hand to Arthur's shoulder.

"Don't mind him, Kilgharrah, he's usually sharper than this. Not a lot, mind you, but he ordinarily does more than just state the obvious. Luckily, he has his good looks to fall back on."

"Indeed," Kilgharrah said, amused as he looked at Arthur as though he were a peculiarity.

"You used to clean our toilets," Arthur said, sounding confused, as though wondering how a dragon managed to hold a toilet brush with those claws.

Merlin shook his head as he looked at Arthur's utter bewilderment and had a sudden urge to kiss his gaping mouth. Then again, Merlin always had an urge to kiss Arthur whether his mouth was gaping or not. 

Will was right; it really was embarrassing how smitten Merlin was with him.

"So anyway, now that we've potentially saved the world from certain doom and all, what do we do now?" Merlin asked Kilgharrah, ignoring Arthur as the blond crouched down by Kilgharrah’s swishing tail and just stared at it with fascination.

"Now?" Kilgharrah said, letting out a husky laugh that shook his large shoulders. "Now, young warlock, you live. I hear the Caribbean is pleasant at this time of year."

"That's not a bad shout actually," Arthur remarked, finally finding his voice again as he straightened up to his full height. "I have a beach house in Parrot Cay." 

"Of course you do," Merlin said drolly.

"Shut up you idiot, most girls wet themselves when they hear I'm such a property tycoon."

"You don't actually call yourself, do you? Because that's pretty wanky."

"As much as I enjoy watching oddity of human courtship rituals," said Kilgharrah like he didn't understand them at all, "I must go."

"Go?" Merlin asked, his forehead lined as he removed his elbow from where it had nudged Arthur’s ribs. "Wait, where are you going?"

"You don't need me anymore, Merlin," said Kilgharrah, his smile somehow managing to look soft even with those sharp teeth glinting back at them. "I was always here to act as a guide for you on this journey but little did I realise that you were the one who would teach me. I considered your compassion for humanity a weakness but in the end, it was this very trait that helped you rally so many creatures of magic together under one banner. You have reached your destination. My presence here is no longer necessary." Kilgharrah then lowered his entire body in the most reverent of bows. "It has been my pleasure to know you and serve you, Lord Emrys."

"Wait, so... I'll never see you again?" Merlin said, his voice overcome with emotion up despite himself.

Kilgharrah just continued to smile widely, looking as infuriatingly knowing as always.

"Oh, I'm sure our paths will cross again, Merlin, and much sooner than you think," Kilgharrah said like a promise before turning to Arthur and bowing to him in farewell as well. “Goodbye, King Arthur. When Albion approaches, answer her call.” And with those parting words, Kilgharrah then spread his huge wings and lifted off the ground, graceful and powerful as he kicked up enough dust and wind for it to constitute as a small tornado. 

Shielding his eyes with his hand, Merlin watched Kilgharrah rise majestically into the air, his wing span huge as he rose up passed the tops of the trees and soon got smaller and smaller until he disappeared completely into the sky. A bittersweet smile clung to Merlin’s face. He missed him already.

"Wow," said Arthur as he watched the sky as well. "That dragon is completely mental."

Merlin laughed.

"Yeah, he really is," he said warmly before turning back to Arthur. "What can I say? I can put up with a lot. I have a bit of a tyrant for a boss, you know."

“I heard that,” Arthur returned with a leer before jerking Merlin forward by the hand so their chests bumped. “I also hear he’s fit as fuck.”

“Not going to deny that,” Merlin returned through a daft grin, everything going a little rose-tinted as Arthur dropped a kiss on the tip of his nose.

"The giant lizard made a good point though. I think we need a holiday." Merlin gave Arthur a dour look. "Fine, you need a holiday,” Arthur amended. “I'm still inviting myself, however - you'll only get in trouble without me there to look after you. Not to mention you'll need me if you want me to fly us in my private jet."

"You are the reason I even get into trouble in the first place!" Merlin briefly laughed until Arthur's words fully registered. When they did, he literally took a staggered step backwards. "Wait a minute, did you just say you have a private jet that you can fly?"

"Told you I was a catch," Arthur said conceitedly, slithering down the hands he had placed on Merlin’s hips so they slid snugly into Merlin's back pockets. He then pushed their groins together, his smile wicked. "So, Caribbean?"

"What, as in now?" Merlin asked, a little out of breath.

"Yes, now, you dummy. What do you say?"

"Um, okay," said Merlin, his mind trying to catch up with how swiftly everything was happening. After months of their relationship sitting on a slow burn, the speed was a welcome change. "I mean, I'll need to pick up my passport and some stuff. And I'll have to tell my mum or she'll worry."

"Then do it," Arthur said, his smile brilliant enough to give the sun a run for its money. “I’ll inform my father so he can get Morgana to keep an eye over things in my absence. Now shift your arse. You're costing me tanning time here."

"Okay, okay, you vain idiot, I'll just go and pack a bag. Meet you back at the office?"

"Fine. I'll see you there. Oh and Merlin? Don't bother packing clothes. You really won't need them," Arthur said cockily, spinning around to walk away with a sassy exit when he realised he had absolutely no idea where they were. Turning back, he looked a little embarrassed. "Um, you can get us back home, right?"

Grinning, Merlin reached for his hand.

“Hold on a minute,” Arthur suddenly said with outrage as they both started to disappear, as though hit with a bout of clarity. “Was that the same dragon that destroyed Camelot?!”

 

 

When Uther Pendragon walked into Arthur’s round table meeting on Monday, the sight was so unexpected that it caused Leon to choke on a glass of water and Gwaine to almost fall backwards on the chair he had been teetering back on. Percy, proving that he was always good in a crisis, handed Leon a hankie with one large hand and easily grabbed the back of Gwaine’s chair with the other.

"Uther, this is a pleasant surprise," Gaius said, standing quickly and looking far more wary than pleased as he shared a concerned look with Gwen and the others. "We were just waiting for Arthur and Merlin to arrive before starting the meeting."

"This meeting has been cancelled until further notice,” Uther said shortly before seating himself down on the Wassily chair before him like it was a throne. “It appears that Arthur, true to form, has run off with another assistant."

"Wait, assistant?" Gwaine asked, sounding hopeful as he sat up in his chair and beamed about him. "Merlin, right? He's run off with Merlin, hasn't he?"

"Indeed," Uther said loftily, briefly eyeing Gwaine's following whoop and slap on the knee with disapproval before turning to Gaius. "And don't pretend to look so surprised, Gaius, I assume you've known about them for quite some time."

Gaius clasped his fingers together in a gracious manner.

"I confess I had an inkling," he admitted before composedly collecting the winnings a groaning Elyan slid toward him.

"That's not fair, you had inside information," Elyan grumbled, slipping his now much lighter wallet back into his pocket.

"Being a sore loser is unbecoming, Elyan," Gaius returned briskly before cheerfully slipping the notes into his sleeve. He then turned back to Uther, his eyes genuinely concerned. "If you don't mind me saying, sir, you seem rather calm, considering the circumstances."

"Apparently, Arthur fancies himself in love," Uther said, sounding rather baffled by the entire affair, like he still didn’t quite understand it himself. "I've only ever heard Arthur use that word twice before; once when waxing lyrical about his hair and then when he got that ridiculous car of his. This relationship appears to be a permanent fixture. He was willing to give up everything for the boy, including his inheritance. I never knew he could commit to anything except his fortnightly manicure. It's... oddly refreshing."

"Merlin is good for him. They're good for each other," Lance piped up before bowing his head at the stern look Uther threw at him. "Sir,” he hastily added.

"Well," Uther said stiffly, sniffing as he surveyed the table imperially. "That remains to be seen. I trust, being that you are Arthur's most trusted advisors, that this conversation won't leave this room?"

Gwaine, who had obviously been texting Will to share the good news, hid his phone rather badly behind his back.

"You have our word," Leon assured Uther respectfully, flickering a sharp look at Gwaine that made the other man reluctantly pocket his phone.

"Good," Uther said firmly, rising to his feet like the sovereign he clearly was. “Now, excuse me. I have to relay this news to Morgana."

"Uther," Gaius suddenly spoke up, proving that he was still the only person in the world that could address Uther without wetting themselves with fear, "before you leave, can you tell us where they’ve run off to?"

"Honestly, I haven't the foggiest," Uther replied, looking like he didn’t have the slightest compulsion of finding out either. "I can safely assume, however, that wherever it is, they will be virtually impossible to get a hold of. Now, I must go.”

And with that, Uther walked imposingly out the door, leaving the others to silently stare after him, lost in their own thoughts.

“So,” said Gwaine, finally breaking the quiet around the table. “Is anyone else still terrified that he is going to have them flogged in the middle of the town square or is that just me?’

“It’s not just you,” everyone but Gaius chimed in.

“Thought so,” Gwaine said smoothly before sitting forward and grinning around the table. “So, pub?”

Fifteen minutes later, they were crammed into a booth at the Rising Sun and necking their fifth celebratory ‘To Arthur and Merlin!” toast. Will, who Gwaine had called on the sly, was at the bar buying another round and was held up once again by arguing with the grumpy barman about something or other.

"You know, I really should have guessed about Arthur being gay earlier really," Leon slurred out, slightly drunk as he put an arm around Percy for balance. "Even back when he was king, he used to ask Gaius here for beauty lotions for his skin.”

Gaius, who was sipping on a port, couldn’t deny this as he nodded in agreement, his wrinkled mouth straightening out into a smirk.

“Yes,” he said, amused by the memory. “I do remember recalling that it was curious how many more beauty treatments Arthur requested than both Guinevere and Morgana combined.”

“Vain bastard,” Leon said with a sniff, his voice so fond that he looked like he was going to burst into tears with pride at any moment. “Only idiot I know that exfoliates."

"Hey, there’s nothing wrong with exfoliating," said Elyan who, now that everyone noticed it, had marvellous skin. "And to be perfectly frank, I don't know how interested Arthur is in other men."

"That's right," Gwen agreed with her brother, slipping her arm into his affectionately as she bumped his shoulder. "He's Merlin-sexual."

"We're all Merlin-sexual," Gwaine piped up as he took a large gulp of Percy’s Guinness and got a slap on the hand from the big man for his presumption.

"Speak for yourself, ladies,” Will said, overhearing the conversation as he finally approached with a tray full of drinks, popped it on the table and grabbed himself a bottle of Corona, “I love that guy more than all of you combined but unless it's got tits, leave me out of it.”

"I see you're as charming as ever William," Morgana's drawl responded as the woman herself sashayed into the pub, looking as out of place in her backless evening dress as David Cameron at an Eminem concert. Will, who had eased himself beside Gaius, immediately sat up with attention as everyone else around the table groaned.

"What are you doing here, Morgana?" Gwaine demanded, looking sour as he loudly thunked Percy’s drink back on the table, who quickly claimed it back. "Shouldn't you be sacrificing kittens or drinking the blood of unicorns under a full moon?"

"Only on Tuesdays," Morgana quipped back smartly, before tilting her head, her cat-like eyes amused. "I'm surprised at you, Gwaine. Arthur and Merlin have forgiven me. I never thought you'd be one to hold a grudge. You don't usually commit to anything."

"You murdered me!" Gwaine said vociferously, pointing at her in accusation.

Morgana simply waved this off, as if it was a trivial detail.

"Oh, that was simply ages ago. I tortured Elyan here and rose Lancelot's dead corpse up from the grave and you don't see them complaining. You should learn to let things go. You'll get wrinkles." Morgana then turned to nod civilly at Gwen, who nodded back, a blossoming friendship already forming. "Anyway, are you ready to go? I have your outfit in the limo."

"You're going out with her?" Lance cut in, looking at his girlfriend in shock.

"Actually," said Will to everyone's surprise before downing his drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and getting to his feet, "she was talking to me."

Leon stared, Percy choked on his drink, Lance blinked repeatedly, Elyan raised his eyebrows and Gwaine was so stunned by the proceedings that he looked like he would never speak again.

Only Gwen and Gaius smiled knowingly.

"Well," said Lance in disbelief, looking rather poleaxed. "I can safely say I didn't see that one coming."

"Traitor," Gwaine grumbled in Will's direction.

"Oh hush, Gwaine," Elyan reprimanded. "I think Arthur and Merlin proved to us all that love can come from the most unexpected of places."

"Love?" Morgana said, wrinkling her nose with distaste as if Elyan had used a rude word in her presence. "I'm just using him for sex."

"Which I have no objections to," Will cut in, grinning like a smug idiot as he slipped his jacket on and offered Morgana his rumpled arm, "Shall we, milady?"

Morgana looked at it critically.

"Please tell me you washed first."

"I used soap and everything," Will responded before holding out his arms. "I'm happy to let you inspect if you don't believe me, though. Start with the crotch and work your way up. And don't worry about being gentle, you know I like it rough."

To everyone's shock, Morgana let out a laugh that sounded disturbingly like a flirty giggle.

"You are such a perverted little shit," she said, seeming horribly pleased about it as she took Will's arm. "Keep on like this and I'll let you do that illegal thing you wanted to do to me last night."

"Oh my god, my ears," Gwaine wailed as Percy patted his arm consolingly.

"Button it, L'oreal. This is payback for all those Merlin fantasies you kept oversharing with me. Oh, and for the record? Making me imagine my best friend in lingerie should be an arrestable offence," Will said bluntly before turning to Morgana to waggle his eyebrows at her. "Ready, you hot piece of arse?"

Morgana opened her mouth to respond when her phone started ringing from a clutch bag so tiny that it was miraculous a phone had managed to get in there in the first place. Pulling out the phone and looking extremely puzzled when she looked at the caller ID, Morgana shrugged and answered it in her usual haughty manner.

"Father, dearest," she said dryly, "to what do I owe this impromptu call? Are you planning another father/daughter day out? Because the suggestion with the egg and spoon race left me severely underwhelmed. What? No, I'm not watching the news, why?" Morgana's pale face went the colour of snow as she choked out in her posh voice, "Fuck me. Both of them? Does Arthur know yet? Oh, stop complaining, it's not like you've never heard me say the word 'fuck' before. No, of course I don't know where he is. Do you honestly think he'd tell me? So what, he's incommunicado? That's just typical of, Arthur. The world goes mad and he's on holiday, shagging his assistant. Oh don't be such a prude, Uther, you know they do that, don't you?"

"Oi mate," Percy called out to the scowling bartender as Morgana continued to argue with her father. "Put the telly on BBC news, will you?"

"Whatever it is, it can't be that big a deal, can it?" Gwen asked Lance, looking concerned as they watched the television fizzle onto the grave face of Huw Edwards.

And then they all read the scrolling headline on the bottom of the screen.

"Fuck," they all said in unison.

 

 

This, thought Merlin as he lay back on the warm sand and let the ocean nibble at his feet, was the life. With the hot sun beating down on him and a cool breeze washing over his sweaty skin, Merlin could do nothing but close his eyes and exhale deeply, his fists clenching in the sand beside him and his muscles relaxing as though they were made of liquid. This wasn’t just the stuff dreams were made of, this was a fantasy in itself. And then an annoyed voice sounded from between his legs and ruined the beautiful illusion.

“Merlin, I swear to God, if you are going to sleep on me while I suck you off, I am going to bite it off.”

“Shush,” said Merlin to the tetchy Arthur as he idly groped the back of Arthur’s blond head to push himself back into his mouth. “I’m almost there, there’s a good boy.”

“Mmmph,” Arthur said around his mouthful but he seemed to happily get back to it, especially if the way he was dry humping Merlin’s foot like there was no tomorrow was any indication.

It didn’t take either of them very long. It never really did.

“Arthur!” Merlin yelled into the air like a prayer, throwing back his head with his climax as the sea blew an enormous wave the size of a mountain over them. The arc of the wave then abruptly suspended itself in mid-air, as though Arthur and Merlin had quite literally stopped time and space in its tracks. The massive curve of water above them glowed a hundred different colours, like millions of tiny lights were lighting it up from the inside. Schools of fish moved inside the frozen wave like synchronised swimmers as the water slowly began to form itself into a new shape, a shape which included grand turrets and battlements and towers as high as the tallest trees.

Camelot, Merlin realised breathlessly as the earth stood still. Avalon.

He didn’t know how long he had been hazily watching it but soon both gravity and time had returned and the vision was lost as the wave dropped in a ferocious crash that engulfed them both like an avalanche of liquid.

“Fuck,” Arthur whimpered, head reeling and dripping wet as the now gentle wave abated and returned back to the ocean. Absolutely exhausted, Arthur placed his chin on Merlin’s hip and breathed raggedly, blinking the stars out of his vision. “How is it always so… always so… fuck.”

“Mmm,” agreed Merlin, useless to the world as he pulled Arthur up weakly for a kiss, which Arthur tiredly raised himself up to meet. Drinking in his lips with the thirst of a person who might never get a chance at this again, Arthur’s tongue was just getting warmed up when he stilled, his body freezing.

“Er, Merlin,” he said, trying to sound calm as hysteria tinged his voice, “I think the cast of A Little Mermaid are trying to watch us shag.”

“Ah,” said Merlin, trying not to snigger as a deluge of sea creatures popped their heads out of the water and slowly made their way over to the shore to watch them. One crab in particular had wiggled himself a space in the sand to sit down and spectate while a seal on the other side of the beach waddled onto the land and clapped its flippers, as though asking for an encore. Merlin turned to Arthur sheepishly. “So, funny story. Animals? They sort of love me. I never did tell you about my run-in with a bear, did I?”

“Yeah, let’s skip that tale for now,” Arthur said, reacting to the enamoured creatures of the deep pretty calmly considering how bizarre the situation was. He then got to his feet and extended his hand to pull Merlin up. “Come on, let’s get back to the house before Finding Nemo and friends here revolt and try and steal you from me. Hopefully my father has finally stopped ringing my mobile by now.”

"Yeah, about that... Arthur, don't you think you should answer his calls?” Merlin asked, side-stepping a penguin of all things as he walked up the steps of Arthur’s beach house. “He's been ringing non-stop for the past few hours, after all. Something might be wrong.” Merlin then paused outside the sliding glass door of the house to hear the unmistakeable sound of a phone still ringing. He raised an eyebrow at Arthur.

"Don't you look at me like that,” Arthur said, pulling open the sliding door and grabbing a towel to wipe himself down. “I'm immune to your face."

"You're really not but it's cute that you think so," Merlin returned with affection before standing close enough to nudge his nose against Arthur's cheek. "Go on, answer it. I need a shower anyway. Sex on the beach might be fun but sand really does get in places it never should.”

“It really does,” Arthur agreed before making a tortured face, picking up his ringing phone and easing himself down on the sofa. “Father, what a pleasant surprise, how wonderful to hear from you."

Grinning at how disingenuous Arthur's tone was, Merlin moved passed him to make his way to the shower when Arthur grabbed him and pulled him onto his bare lap.

"Arthur!" he hissed, snickering as Arthur nibbled between his shoulder blades between words.

"Yes, sorry about that, father,” Arthur said, trying to sound professional as he ran his mouth over Merlin’s skin. “I left my mobile in the house and we were at the beach all day so I must have missed those- What? The news? No, we've not really had time to watch television what with all the -"

"Fucking," Merlin mouthed.

"- fun we're having here," Arthur said, smothering a laugh as he bit down on Merlin's shoulder. "Why, what's happened?" Stroking his hands down Merlin's flank, Arthur's nibbling had made its way to Merlin's neck when he suddenly stopped cold at his father's words. "W-what?" he choked out, pulling his mouth away from Merlin throat. "How did that- I don't understand-"

"Arthur?" Merlin questioned, concerned, but Arthur had already grabbed around Merlin for the remote control and switched on the television. 

The headline made him drop both the phone and the remote with a crash.

"Oh holy god," Arthur said, white-faced.

"What?" Merlin asked in confusion, watching the breaking news headline showing a stormy seafront. Then he read the scrolling text under the frantic news reporter.

'Palace confirms that boat tragedy has claimed the lives of King Odin and the prince…'

A storm will pass and the future of England will change forever.

Merlin's jaw dropped as Alator’s words came swimming back to him. His predictions had actually been correct. It was like one of those crazy ‘The End is Nigh’ board-wearers actually managing to foretell the apocalypse.

"Arthur,” Merlin said in a stupefied voice, trying to wrap his head around this as he moved to sit beside Arthur. Head swimming, his magic warred within him and fluttered with excitement, like it could sense a new beginning on the horizon. “Does-does this mean what I think it means?"

"My father is next in line to be king,” Arthur croaked, sounding like he had well and truly entered into one of the later stages of madness. “I'm second in line to the throne."

"Oh," said Merlin, keeping silent because he wasn’t sure what else to do other than burst into a hysterical bout of laughter that would eventually turn into tears. "So, once again you're..."

"A prince,” Arthur finished, looking like he was about to pass out. 

"A prince," Merlin said, testing it out on his tongue as he tried to stop himself from freaking out completely. "Prince Arthur. Wow. It’s been a while since I got to say that. It feels right."

The healthy tan Arthur had been nurturing for the past few days seemed to ashen at Merlin's words.

"This can't be happening," Arthur said, getting to his feet, completely flabbergasted. "I mean, I wasn't even in contention to- our side of the family weren't even supposed to get a look in but somehow- how could they all be in the same place at the same time? The king and his heirs are supposed to be in different locations at all times in case something like this happens. It shouldn’t have even been possible."

"There was a wedding," Merlin said, reading the scrolling text under the news reporter. "And King Odin only really had his son. As his second cousin, it seems as though your father has the biggest claim to the throne." 

“This can’t be happening,” Arthur said again, shaking his head with disbelief. “It’s lunacy, it’s impossible…” 

It’s fate, Kilgharrah’s voice suddenly purred inside Merlin’s head

Merlin swallowed hard, his vision spinning like a kaleidoscope. And here he thought they had got through the hard part of their destiny.

Squeezing shut his eyes, Merlin pressed a couple of fingers against his temple and, despite the voice screaming at him to keep his mouth shut, addressed the pink elephant in the room.

"Arthur, look, I'll understand if we... if we call it a day." 

"Huh?" said Arthur, still caught up in his thoughts as he turned to Merlin in bewilderment. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about us," Merlin clarified, ducking his head and feeling himself die a little inside with every word he was saying. "You're going to be royalty. The public will scrutinise everything you do. You're going to have to marry someone who can produce little Arthurs for you. How do you think people will react to a gay prince? A gay king?"

They looked at each other for a long moment, the only sound in the room coming from the television, which was now showing a montage of King Odin’s rule, like a macabre version of This is Your Life. Arthur then wet his lips and very clearly said,

"Shut up, Merlin.”

"But Arthur-" Merlin tried to protest.

"I said shut up, you ass," Arthur scolded, not having any of it as he pulled Merlin back into his lap and grabbed his left hand, tracing the strip of skin on his finger where an engagement ring would sit like a promise. "Stop trying to be noble and unselfish and realise that you’re not getting rid of me that easily. They want kids? You have magic. You can probably zap them into existence if you want to. Not to mention," Arthur cut in when Merlin opened his mouth to refute that, "that we have both Gwen and Morgana on retainer if we need them. I'm not giving you up, so get used it. It's you and me, Merlin. It always has been. Whatever happens, we're in it together. You swore to me once that you would always stand by my side, no matter what life threw at us. Was all that just a lie?"

Merlin sniffed, eyes watering as he shook his head. Arthur was right, he really was such a girl sometimes.

"No, that wasn’t a lie. I'm here for as long as you want me, turnip head," Merlin said softly, burying his face in Arthur's blond hair. "You know that.”

"Good," Arthur responded like a spoiled child who had got his way before lifting Merlin’s face up by the chin to graze a feather of a kiss against his mouth. The relief on Arthur’s face was obvious. "Because honestly, I don’t know if I can do this without you. Not only are you the only one who knows how my stuff is organised but you were always sort of nifty by my side. Not to mention that I know sod-all about being a prince nowadays. Maybe I’ll have them bring back tourneys and jousting. Either way, I'll need a good warlock ruling by my side, helping me uphold peace throughout the kingdom with his fancy schmancy powers.”

Kilgharrah didn’t even need to breathe ‘Avalon’ into Merlin’s ear for Merlin to see its foundations already beginning to form between them.

Swallowing hard, Merlin gave Arthur a shaky but sincere smile

"As long as you don't make me muck out your stables again or pick cabbage out of your coleslaw, I'm happy to be with you until the day I die," he said earnestly, tiny sparks fizzling between their joined fingers as he leaned in for a kiss.

Happily obliging, Arthur deftly caught his lips, somehow making a tongue stroke over the roof of Merlin's mouth the single most erotic thing on the planet.

"Fine, but I'm not making any promises about cancelling your chores," Arthur murmured against Merlin’s mouth, softly pulling Merlin's bottom lip with his teeth. "You're not a half-bad assistant."

"Manservant," Merlin corrected mid-pant.

"Whatever." Arthur smirked. He then pushed Merlin so forcefully back onto the couch that he lay flat on his back, the springs of the sofa creaking under the force of his weight. "Now shut up, try and obey your king and put that big mouth of yours to better use."

Grinning at this with a stupid amount of joy, Merlin pulled Arthur’s hips towards his face obediently, said "As you wish, Sire," and, for once in his life, did exactly as he was told.

Finis