corilannam: (Merlin - pendragon)
[personal profile] corilannam
Continued from Chapter 1




The call came into Buckingham Palace at 0217 GMT. At 0219, a frantic scatter of lights went on across the palace, and by 0230, half of London was lit like daylight -- 10 Downing Street, the BBC, every newspaper of any or no legitimacy, and everyone who had heard from someone and then called someone else.

After blinking away sleep and the initial shock, everyone asked the same question: does Arthur know yet? To whom will fall the task of telling the Prince--no, the King--that his father is dead?

The matter would have been easier, and handled already, if the Prince of Wales had been living at Kensington Palace or Clarence House or any of the numerous royal residences where he belonged. What on earth had possessed him to move to Cardiff, and what had possessed King Uther--God rest his soul--to let him?

At 0300 precisely, Elyan answered his ringing mobile.

Arthur woke when the pounding on the front door began. He lifted his head to squint at the clock before burying his head back into the pillow with a groan. He had only gotten to bed two hours ago after talking to his father in Australia and then finishing the agenda for the site meeting tomorrow. He had meant to email to ask Merlin to look over it for him, but Merlin was surely asleep by then.

"Hold your bloody horses," he heard Gwaine growling as he stomped past Arthur's door. "Motherfucking fuckball cunt munchers. If the paps got past security again, I swear to God I'm setting them on fire."

Arthur, being in favour of that plan, burrowed down further under the covers. Good old Gwaine. He always saved the day. Alcohol had long since pickled his inbred noble brain enough to make him impervious to any public or private crisis of Arthur's.

"A little late, boys, don't you think?" Gwaine bellowed from the front door. Arthur snorted into his pillow; a few years ago, their party would still have been in full swing at this hour.

The answer came as a muted rumble. Gwaine's voice dropped to a deeper rumble in response. Arthur let the sound soothe him back into a comfortable doze.

Gwaine's shout pulled him back. "No, I'll be the one tell him, you insensitive pricks." The slamming of the door jolted Arthur the rest of the way awake.

Tell me what? he wondered just before a soft tap on his bedroom door. "Arthur? You awake?"

He sat up and rubbed his hand over his brow. "Evidently."

A sliver of light fell across the floor, widening and then breaking under Gwaine's shadow. "Don't suppose you heard any of that?"

"Just you yelling." Arthur squinted up at the looming shape of his friend. "What's going on? We haven't raised a scandal lately, have we?"

"Not that I remember, but that's not saying much." Gwaine smirked, but sobered as he dropped onto the edge of the bed. "Look, there's no point in sugar coating it. Your dad's dead."

He had been expecting a state crisis: an invasion, a resignation, Morgana on another bender. "No, you're wrong. I just talked to him. They were heading back to Canberra."

"The helicopter crashed as they entered New South Wales. No survivors." Gwaine gave a great gusty sigh and wrapped his arm around Arthur's neck. "Come here, mate. Go on, cry it out."

"No, wait." Shock dulled his reaction time so that his nose hit Gwaine's shoulder before he could pull back.

Gwaine let him move away, but kept his hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Arthur, my lad, there are men outside who are waiting to make you King. This is the last chance you'll get to be your father's son for a long time."

He should weep; he should mourn, but the part of him that loved his father was quiet and numb. All he could think about was everything else he had just lost. The Avalon Project was finished, at least for Arthur. He would probably never see Merlin or Lancelot again, except in passing, if he was lucky.

"My life is over." He bent over onto his knees, overwhelmed. "Fuck, Gwaine. My life is over."

Gwaine gripped him harder and shook him. "No, his life is over. Yours is just beginning, and now you're the one with the power to decide what to do with it."

A little defiance glimmered in his chest before fading into the numbness. Arthur had contemplated such things before, but the possibility had never seemed real enough to matter. And now nothing seemed real at all.

He didn't cry, but he sat in the dark with Gwaine for a long time, watching his once-distant future rush towards him like an oncoming train.




"Merlin. Merlin. Fuck's sake, Merlin, wake up."

Merlin groaned. He kept as still as he could, but his bed kept shaking. "Go away."

"Merlin!"

"Will." Merlin flopped over onto his back, but kept his eyes squeezed shut. "I gave you that key for an emergency. An emergency, Will."

"This is a bloody emergency, Merlin. Uther Pendragon is dead."

"Yeah, long live the king." He flipped over again; half of him slid off the mattress, but it was worth it to hide even half his vision from the cruel light trying to stab through the sleep-grit into his brain. Will could rant to the back of his head as easily as the front of it. With any luck, Merlin could just drift off again and Will would never notice the difference.

"No, you don't get it." Will shook him; then he grunted and kicked him until Merlin had to cling to the edge of the mattress. "Uther was in a helicopter. In Australia. No survivors. Get. Up."

Merlin stiffened when the words sifted in. "Fuck," he groaned and let himself slide over the edge onto the floor. Jesus. Arthur. Oh, Arthur. "Fuck."

"Yeah, right?" Will settled cross legged into the warm groove Merlin had been forced to vacate, laptop already open in front of him. "It's just about to hit the wires. Kanen called me. We gotta jump on this."

Merlin pulled his limbs into a sitting position, crammed into the space between the bed and the wall under the window. "Jump on what?" He really didn't feel up to doing any jumping. All he really wanted to do was talk to Arthur and see if he was all right, but he had no way to do that.

A pause, and then Will's face frowned down at him from over a hill of crumpled quilt. "You're kidding me, right? The Pendragons live fucking forever. We thought it'd be decades before there was a regime change. The monarchy is vulnerable during the transition, and we have to lead the people in saying enough is enough! I know you've developed a soft spot for the prat, but come on, let's not crown yet another useless figurehead who grew up suckling at the public teat."

Will had to pause again, this time for breath, and Merlin jumped into the breach while he could. "Will, he might not even know yet. Seems a little crass, doesn't it?"

"There are many things in this world I find crass, Merlin. For example, the seventy million pounds spent on Uther Pendragon's coronation and the fifty million pounds spent on his wedding. You wanna wait around and see what the next one is going to drain out of our pockets? In this economy?"

"Yeah, I get it," Merlin said, and he did, but he'd also got a worm of sorrow and remorse squirming in his gut. "But the coronation won't be for months. I'm just thinking, poor Arthur."

He knew that was a mistake the instant before Will's face loomed large in his vision. "Poor Arthur? Seriously? Christ, I knew it. Working with the bloke has ruined your edge."

"What, you have a problem with basic human decency now? I don't need him as my king, but he just lost his dad." Merlin paused, swallowed, and shifted his gaze to the side, down the long canyon between bed and wall. "Maybe you forgot what that feels like, but I haven't."

He figured on fifty-fifty odds whether Will would blow his lid or let his better nature prevail. The irritated huff over his head told the tale, and Merlin sighed with relief.

"Fine," Will said after his head thudded against the headboard a few times. "We'll do it your way."

"I knew you had a heart down in there somewhere--ow."

"Your way, your words, you do the work. Get typing, mate. I'm not giving up this scoop."

Merlin fumbled to balance the laptop that had just smacked, somewhat painfully, onto his kneecaps. A cursor blinked in the empty update box, ready to post directly onto their website.

Will had already typed in a title: The King Is Dead...Let Him Stay That Way. Merlin backspaced it away without comment. He wasn't sure yet what he wanted to write, but that wasn't it. He didn't want to talk about Uther at all. Whatever beef he'd had with the king was over now; Uther was the past, Arthur the future.

And it meant that the Avalon Project was probably finished, and Merlin would never see Arthur again. That should have been a relief, but instead, Merlin felt a keen disappointment. Whatever Will thought, Merlin liked Arthur, so very much.

Arthur was special – not because he was born the only son of a king, but because he was Arthur. The throne would put an end to the real good Arthur Pendragon could have done with his life.

A pillow hit him in the head. "Wake up. You're on the clock now, you are."

"Yeah, yeah." Merlin shook the cobwebs out of his head and focused on the blank space and the relentless blinking cursor.

If he were really Arthur's friend, he would know what to say right now. If he were really Arthur's friend, he would be able to say it to him directly and not to an empty blog screen that Arthur would never see.

Maybe it was better this way; he could say what he felt in his heart and still be able to look Arthur in the eye, if they ever met again.

Dear Arthur, he typed into the subject line and kept typing for the rest of the night.




Arthur jumped when Gwaine's hand landed on his shoulder.

"I'm heading back to Cardiff." Gwaine's hand tightened, because Gwaine had a hard time not touching people when he was having feelings. "Are you sure you're all right by yourself?"

"Of course." Arthur smiled, though he could not quite meet Gwaine's concerned gaze. "Mithian said she would come by later. In the meantime, I should catch up with some work. Start closing things down."

Gwaine's mouth tightened. Arthur half-wished he would start the argument over Arthur's future again, but Gwaine only sighed. "All right. I'll phone you tomorrow."

"Take good care of our baby. And give my best to Merlin. Tell him... I'm sorry I couldn't prove him wrong."

Gwaine snorted and whapped Arthur on the back of the head. "Convey your own regrets. I have work to do, since you're fucking off to wave at people for the rest of your life."

That fucking hurt. Gwaine hesitated as though he knew it, but then turned and left without apologizing.

Arthur sighed, starting a little at how loud it sounded in the evening quiet of the palace. He never appreciated how loud Gwaine was, how much space he took up, until he left Arthur alone somewhere like this.

He had always hated Buckingham Palace, even when he had been growing up in these same rooms. The smaller houses suited him better: Clarence House (for which Gwaine always tried to charge him rent), even St. James, or their ancestral homes at Camelot and Tintagel. Everywhere seemed warmer than here; even the most haunted of their houses would be less full of ghosts.

At least Gwaine had brought him his laptop. He cast a glance at the door, considering his father's office or reception parlour. No, he had spent enough time there so far, holding audiences with the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Lord This and Lord That who all came to kiss his arse even though every one of them held more real power than he did.

He set the computer on a side table and looked for a plug. Of course, there was nothing. He could call George and ask where one was, but then he would have to actually talk to George. One more minute of that stiff upper lip and they would be lucky to get Arthur to stop screaming before the coronation, let alone the funeral.

His email provided little distraction. His personal email was almost non-existent, except for a few dirty joke forwards from Mithian, bless her. The emptiness of his work email hurt more: the steady rush of emails about Avalon had ceased abruptly on Monday morning. He had been cut out of the loop with brutal precision.

To add insult to injury, his Google alert for the Avalon Project had only generated a single email. Obviously, either no one thought Arthur's absence would make any difference to the project, or no one gave a shit in the first place.

"Oh, I should have known," he growled when he saw the link. "Those vultures are probably planning a fucking festival for his funeral."

He had no desire to hear those bloggers, who had no respect for his father or anything his father had given to this country, had to say. But after another minute of futile seething, he clicked on the link to the blog, desperate for a solid target for his anger.

"Dear Arthur, my arse," he muttered.

And then he kept reading.

Dear Arthur,

I just heard that your father died. I'm so sorry. If you read this site at all (and of course you don't), you know that I haven't always been a fan of your father's public role. But he was your father. I lost my father a few years ago, so I understand a little bit of how you must be feeling right now. I hope you're surrounded by people who love you.

You're going to be king soon--well, I suppose you already are now. You probably wouldn't believe it, but I appreciate the tradition of the monarchy and how it's shaped our history and culture. Every new king and queen has had to choose what they wanted to make of their reign, how they would use their power and what they wanted their country to look like when they were gone.

You won't have the absolute power that Vortigern or Aurelius wielded (no offence, but I think we're all happy about that), but you have the power to decide what the monarchy will look like and what purpose you want it to serve, within the limits of the constitution. It's not exactly the divine right of kings, but it is wholly your prerogative. No one can tell you what to do.

Your father chose to be a symbol of stability and consistency, setting a steady and conservative path. But we don't need someone to smile and wave and tell us to keep calm and carry on. We need a leader with a vision for the future who won't be swayed by profits, politics, and approval ratings. Cara Nimueh sure doesn't fit the bill. If the monarchy has any purpose left to it, let it be that inspiration.

Before the Avalon Project, I thought you were just another pretentious prat. But now I suspect you have much more courage, creativity, and vision than you ever let us see before. You can be more than a figurehead. You can be the real deal in your own way.

Show us who you really are. And don't be that prat.


He reached up to touch his face and to his wonder, found it wet. Strange, he didn't remember starting to cry. Fuck, it hurt.

When he had been younger, about to start uni, he had an elaborate fantasy of what he would do when he was king. He would stand up in front of his nation, a handsome consort at his side (preferably a glamorous football player or movie star), and inspire everyone to join him in building a new golden age of unity, harmony, and productivity.

He had whispered his speech to himself in the darkness of his room.

Then he had told his father all about it.

Uther had smiled. That had been the worst part of it.

His sovereign had given him commands, and Arthur was bound by ancient law and loyalty to obey them. But Uther was gone now, and all the desperate, clawing need Arthur felt to talk to him again would not make him walk through the door. What then of his commands?

Arthur stood up, feeling like his head was clearing of fog for the first time since he had woken to the pounding on the door. He was the King now. All the rest of the family were still bound by Uther's word—unless Arthur commanded differently.

He walked out into the quiet corridors of the palace and down the main staircase until he came upon the larger than life portrait of Uther at the end of a line of Arthur's ancestors. Uther looked just over the top of his head, in death as in life.

Arthur watched him for a little while, then looked at the empty space next to him where Arthur's portrait would soon hang.

"Not while you lived, we said, Father," he murmured. "I kept my word."




Merlin wound up wandering around, feeling like a lost tourist at his own school. He had gone down on Monday morning just to make sure no loutish types were trying vandalize the deserted site or nick some morbid souvenir of Arthur's brief residency. He went again the next day, just to have something to do with himself.

On Wednesday, he was shocked to find the school bustling with builders and Taliesin staff. In the midst of his confusion, he honed in on the flash of gold hair that identified the so-called Lady Vivian and made a beeline for the one familiar, if not exactly comforting, face.

"Didn't you get Lancelot's email? The project must carry on," she told him after the third time he asked what the hell was going on.

He had stopped checking his email and phone around noon on Monday, tired of everyone he had ever met messaging him to ask about the King. As if Merlin could know anything more than they did.

"We already lost two days because Gwaine insisted on a bloody mourning period, and the partners went along with it because he's a stupid duke. Personally, I think Arthur would rather we not lose sight of the timeline."

That did sound like Arthur. "How is he?" Merlin tried not to sound eager, but she was the first person he could actually ask who might know something more than what was on the television.

She shrugged and shoved her empty paper cup into his hand. "I need more caffeine to deal with your endless questions. Go fetch me some, hm?"

"Excuse me?" He stared down at the empty cup, feeling like its existence somehow did not make sense.

"And be sure you go get it from Coffee #1. I can't bear the lukewarm swill you have here."

By the time the red cleared from his vision, the cup had crumpled in his fist. Vivian failed to notice until it hit her in the side of the head. By the time her outraged shriek faded, Merlin had regained his power of speech.

"I am not your skivvy and I barely tolerated this crap from Arthur. If you want coffee, get your over-privileged arse down to whatever shop you prefer and get in line for it yourself."

He stood his ground against the ensuing tantrum until she finally ran out of steam and empty threats. When she finally stormed away, Merlin heard a chuckle behind him.

"Well. You can only be Merlin Emrys, I imagine."

Merlin turned to see a man dressed somewhere between formal and builder, handsome in an almost stereotypically rakish way. He looked amused, and also very tired.

"That's me." Merlin gestured off toward the cloud of fury disappearing around the corner of the main building. "If you'd like to sack me, too, I think you'll have to take it up with that one. I'm pretty sure you can only do it once."

"Think outside the box, Merlin. We could always rehire you just to fire you again. In fact, I'm pretty sure Arthur contemplated that a couple of times." The man grinned and stuck out his hand. "And I would know—I'm Gwaine, his coworker and housemate."

There was not the slightest bit of pretentiousness about Gwaine, nor any mention of his noble title; Merlin liked him instantly and even liked Arthur that much better in that moment for his choice of friends. His answering grin faded as he dropped Gwaine's hand. "How is he? I mean, how is he really doing?"

Gwaine bit his lip and nodded his head for a second like he was agreeing with a voice in his head. Then he grabbed Merlin and pulled him into a fierce embrace.

"Er." After a few moments, Merlin returned the hug and patted Gwaine's shoulder. He supposed anyone who had lived with Arthur for so long must be at least partially insane. "It's nice to meet you, too."

Gwaine just pounded him on the back with manful emotion. When he finally let go, he was still nodding, but smiling again. "Give me your phone."

"What?"

"Your phone." Gwaine made an impatient gimme gesture with his fingers. "Give it to me."

"You know, there's a phone in the office if you need to make a—okay, then." His phone was already out of his hand and into Gwaine's, barely having cleared his pocket.

Gwaine's thumbs flew over the keyboard with impressive dexterity. He handed it back with a solemn air. "There. Now you can ask him yourself."

Merlin stared down at the display. "Arthur" it read simply over the number.

"That's his private mobile, obviously. Not the one the Prime Minister has."

"Oh. Right, of course." He looked again at the King of Britain's mobile number in his contact list. Despite his general lack of awe at anyone's title, even Arthur's, it was a little surreal to have a bloke just walk up and insist on giving him the King's mobile number.

Gwaine's smile had grown sadder by the time Merlin looked up again. "You're the only one who's asked. Asked for real, I mean."

His throat clogged up a little and this time he was the one who kept nodding like he was daft. "Okay. So. Are you taking over here?"

"For now. I'd owe it to him even if I didn't care as much about the project as he does." Gwaine shifted from foot to foot as though suddenly embarrassed by his emotions. "I have to go talk to Vivian about something—and don't get your hopes up, she can't actually sack you—but stay where I can find you. Arthur said I could depend on you."

Arthur? Arthur said that? Maybe they were talking about two different Arthurs, which would explain the phone number thing. Or maybe Gwaine really was just a nutter.

Merlin took refuge in the tiny office. Lancelot's briefcase was sat on the desk, but otherwise it was as empty as it had been these last few days. For once, he was glad.

He pulled out his phone and stared at Arthur's number again. Ringing him would clearly be a poor choice—with Merlin's luck, he would interrupt him in the middle of an audience with the Lord Chancellor or some such.

A text, one simple text, that would be fine, he thought. He opened a message. Hi. Just wanted to see if you were all right.

He hit send before he could think about it. A moment later, he realized he really should have thought about it. I mean, of course I know you're not all right, since you lost your dad. I didn't mean I expect you to be all chuffed about it or anything.

No, no, that was terrible. He went to erase it, but some kind of text message muscle memory took over for a brief, horrifying instant. "Oh, shit, why did I hit send?" he yelped. "Oh, bloody buggering bollocks."

I didn't mean to send that last one. Don't worry, I realized it was stupid. And then I sent it anyway, apparently.

Oh it's Merlin btw. You may have guessed from the idiocy.

"Oh my God, oh my God, stop texting." The phone clattered onto the desk as Merlin stuck his hands under his legs before he typed something else.

He stared at the phone. In his imagination, it looked exactly like an adder, poised to deliver a fatal strike.

Nothing happened. Slowly, he began to relax. Gwaine was probably a snobby douchebag after all and had given Merlin a fake number. Arthur never needed to know how much Merlin had just lost the plot.

Then the phone buzzed and Merlin jumped. He eyed it with distrust again before his hand whipped out to snatch it up.

Hi.

Merlin forced himself to relax. He should just dash off an apology to whatever poor sod had found himself stuck in this prank.

The phone buzzed again in his hand. I see Gwaine must have found you.

Merlin closed his eyes. On the bright side, it was hardly the worst thing he had ever said to Arthur, and the other things had been deliberate.

I'm fine. Would rather be there, though. How is everything?

He smiled and this time pressed the keys calmly. No clue. Who would win in a death match, Gwaine or Vivian?

A long pause followed. Then, Sorry the lord chancellor just arrived. See you soon.

"Right," Merlin said aloud as he slowly put the phone back on the table. "Of course he did."

"There you are." Gwaine appeared in the doorway, giving him a chiding look as though Merlin had been hiding from him. "Come along, it's lunch time. I think it's time you and I got to know each other."

His wicked grin should have provoked dread, but Merlin found himself standing up and grinning back while feeling like that was a very good idea.




Still there?

Dunno.

?

Gwaine tock me our to lunch. Can't freely my node.

Or your fingers, apparently.

How's the lc?

Similar experience. He's on the parlour table now, singing.

RLY?

No, you idiot. Go home. Don't want you setting the school on fire. And you're not allowed to talk to Gwaine anymore.





"Does that cover everything, Prime Minister?" Arthur tried not to shift in his chair and let on how very much he did not want to be in it. It was his father's chair in his father's office, and the only place he wanted to be less was the place he had to be next -- behind his father's coffin.

"Yes, I believe so, sir." Cara Nimueh hesitated just long enough for Arthur's last nerve to start ringing in his ear. "The only other thing I wanted to mention is that we still haven't seen a copy of your address."

"That's because there is no copy." Arthur leaned back in his chair and allowed himself one sharp moment to enjoy the look of consternation on her face. His father would have enjoyed that, too. "I'm going to wing it."

She opened her mouth, closed it again, and then smiled a practiced, controlled smile. Arthur knew it well from every meeting she had ever had with Uther. "I certainly understand your reluctance to plan for it, but I think you'll find it's much easier with planned remarks. My office would be happy to assist you with some general themes and language -- shall I have someone get in contact with your private secretary?"

"That's very kind of you." And more to the point, it would get quite a few people to shut up, none of whom would realize that he was not using their carefully crafted, politically unobjectionable speech until it was too late to do a damn thing about it.

Nimueh hesitated again. "God knows your father and I had our differences," she said, which was putting it quite mildly for anyone who had ever been in a room with the two of them at the same time, "but I'm sorry he was taken from you so soon. He was a good father."

"He did his best." Arthur rose with a practiced smile of his own. Merlin's awkward condolences had been much more sincere and comforting. "Perhaps better than I ever did for him."

She gave him a small nod of sympathy and stood as well, just as his private secretary tapped lightly on the door.

"Your Majesty." George was as placid as he had ever been, with no discernible discomfort after unexpectedly finding himself managing the affairs of a King rather than a Prince. "The Princess Royal is waiting in the drawing room. You have exactly eighteen minutes before the procession sets out again."

"Thank you, George. Please see the Prime Minister to her car." Arthur shook Nimueh's hand again; as the door closed again behind them, he shook himself all over and jumped up and down a few times.

He felt, periodically, like his mind was flying to pieces, unraveling him from the top down. He did not imagine that Morgana was going to improve that feeling. The only respite he had allowed himself were the occasional text messages from Merlin.

Arthur gave himself one more minute to sit in silence, since silence was something he was unlikely to find again in the near future. He sat back down behind his father's desk and tried to feel like he belonged there. A king; a statesman; a crowned head; a figurehead.

After a moment he felt his lungs tightening and realized he was holding his breath. He blew it out slowly, and his gaze drifted once again to the single framed photograph on his father's desk.

Arthur picked it up, heavy in its gilt frame. He had seen the back of it his whole life, but never the front, never having dared to venture into the sacred space behind Uther's desk. He had always assumed it was a photograph of his mother, an assumption so strong that he had never thought to wonder otherwise.

It was not Igraine. Or rather, it was Igraine in absentia -- the Queen present only in the sliver of her coffin visible at the edge of the frame. At the centre of the photograph was Uther himself, marching grimfaced behind the gun carriage that bore his Queen to her grave. He wore full military uniform and a tiny boy wrapped around his neck.

Arthur did not remember being that tiny boy, too exhausted to walk any further, not understanding where his mother had gone or why so many people were staring at him and weeping. But he had heard the story hundreds of times of how he had tugged at Uther's hand until the King had scooped up his son and cradled Arthur against his chest for the rest of the long march to the chapel.

He wished he had seen this picture before, so that he could have asked Uther why, out of all the photographs in the world, even out of all the photographs of the two of them, he had chosen this one to look at every day for the rest of his life.

Though he supposed he would not have asked, even if he had the opportunity. There was a reason, after all, why he had never seen this side of the desk, or this side of his father.

The sound of a clearing throat, obnoxiously loud, made him jump and almost drop the picture. He had not even heard the door open again.

"Excuse me, Your Most Royal and Magnificent Majesty, but literally the entire world is waiting on your presence, so if you think you could move your most exalted arse toward the door, we would be ever so grateful."

The voice sounded like it was talking through a mouthful of marbles, but he recognized it even before his eyes focused on the intruder. "Jesus, Mithian, you startled me. Are you trying to bury two Kings in one day?"

"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty." She sauntered forward, immaculately if soberly dressed, though there was something a bit off about her look. When she grinned at him, he realized what it was.

"What on earth is in your mouth?"

"Teef." She grinned harder, enormous buck teeth jutting out of her mouth in ragged, discoloured glory. A string of saliva dripped down over her lower lip.

Arthur stared at her until he could not stand it another second and burst into snorts of laughter. If Merlin met Mithian, he would have to eat every word he ever said about royalty being stuck up and pretentious.

"Oh, thank fuck." She pulled the false teeth out of her mouth and smacked her lips with relief. "I thought I was going start drooling all over myself if I had to keep those in another minute."

"You already did," Arthur said and laughed harder.

Mithian dropped the teeth on the desk and swiped the back of her hand across her mouth. "It was worth it. Do you feel kingly now?"

"Oh, decidedly." His arms circled her easily as she slipped onto his lap, and he buried his face against her neck. "Thank you, Mitzi."

"Anything for you, Arthur." Her hand stroked over his hair. "You know that."

They sat in silence for a moment. Arthur could feel his small parcel of time ticking away, but he could not bring himself to move. Just another minute.

"You have to go," she said at last when another minute and another minute after that had passed. "Don't worry, I won't be far if you need me."

"You never are."

He felt her shift, and then her hand gripped his. "You don't want me next to you at the funeral."

"No."

"Are you sure?"

"What would be the point?" He gathered himself, ready to dump her off his lap if he needed to. Mithian might be the one person in the world who could change his mind, so he would rather not risk her trying.

She cupped his face in her free hand and forced him to look up at her. "So you really mean to go through with this?"

"I really do. It's now or never. We both deserve better than never, don't you think?"

Mithian smiled with a sadness that would have panged guilt in Arthur for the promises he was breaking, except that her relief shone stronger through it. "I will always be your friend." She dropped a soft kiss on his lips. "And I would have been honoured to be your Queen."

"Thank you." His emotions already ran on such a frayed edge that it was hard not to get choked up -- until she sighed and brushed herself off as she stood up.

"But now you'll go be someone else's queen. Pretty boy like you, it was inevitable, I suppose."

She snorted with laughter as he smacked her arse and chased her out of the room.

"I see there's little mourning going on here." Morgana's cold voice stopped him dead as he emerged into the parlour. "Should I have worn a brighter colour for the occasion?"

George, standing ramrod straight across the room, cleared his throat with as much admonishment as apology. "The Princess Royal, sir. I believe I mentioned she was waiting for you."

"Yes, thank you, George." Arthur tried not to snap, or flush under his half-sister's flinty gaze. "Please go and tell them that we're on our way down."

George nodded, and Mithian touched his arm one more time before following George from the parlour.

"I'm grateful you've come prepared to at least feign grief for our father," Arthur said as soon as the door closed. Taking the offensive was the only defence against Morgana when emotions ran high. "I'm sure you must be leaping with joy inside."

"Hardly." Morgana reached up and adjusted the black netting that came down from her modest but elegant hat to cover her face. "It's just one more way the old bastard screwed me over. It's going to be twice as hard to supplant you once they crown you."

Arthur allowed himself a tiny smile of malice. "Yes. I imagine it will. I'm rather popular, you know."

"So am I." The malice of her own smile smoothed into a placid expression of melancholy, suitable for public viewing, as she reached for his arm. "Shall we go say our farewells to the man who ruined both our lives, dear brother?"

Arthur had already said his farewells in the chapel last night as he kept a private vigil with the coffin holding what they had managed to reassemble of his father. He had said nothing and asked for nothing, but somewhere in the darkest part of the night, he had made a fragile peace with his father's memory, as fragile as the peace they had brokered in life.

He had, he hoped, made a stronger peace with himself. Only time would tell if he was strong enough to carry it through.

"He did love you, you know. No matter what you said or did." He felt her stiffen on his arm and knew she would take his words as an affront, as she always took any gesture from him.

Then they went down to join the procession that would bear their father to his funeral, and then to his final resting place. It would be the last thing Arthur did because his father expected it of him.




"Thank you for not bringing Will today. You know I love him like he was mine, but--"

Merlin handed his mum her mug of tea with a wry smile as she tried to find a way to finish her sentence. "It's all right, Mum. We're not always joined at the hip, you know."

"It's just that this is such a solemn occasion." She smiled, with the appropriate overlay of solemnity, and they both knew what she really meant: Will would be watching the funeral with popcorn and an arsenal of sarcasm.

"I know, Mum." If he were honest, Merlin would have to admit that he would rather be watching it with neither of them, alone. Hunith, who still had the commemorative china from Uther's wedding to Lady Igraine almost thirty years ago, viewed the House of Pendragon with a sentimental reverence that Merlin could only explain by her being female and slightly old.

Most of the time, he was happy to let her know of the errors in her thinking, backed up with solid logic and historical data. However, today he was merely there to offer her tea and tissues as she mourned their nation's greatest loss since Igraine had passed, sealing a perfect royal romance into unbreakable history and leaving her little boy alone with his grief-stricken father.

For his own part, Merlin only found himself feeling uncomfortable at the prospect of watching his friend have to mourn his father under the mawkish gaze of the entire Commonwealth and beyond. He knew Arthur well enough now to know that he took no satisfaction in the display. Merlin wished there were something more he could do than just watch.

"You can bring Will on Sunday for the speech, if you like. He can't miss Sunday dinner. Oh, look, here comes the first company of soldiers. That was the King's old regiment, you know."

Merlin, who could read the discreet scroll at the bottom of the screen as well as she could, hummed in vague agreement and sipped his tea. The procession continued with horses and soldiers and various important people, until finally the gun carriage bearing Uther's casket emerged from the palace gates. He held out the box of tissues before his mum could even ask.

She took one just as the first sniffle welled up. "I still can't quite believe it. Such a tragedy. Don't you think so?"

He'd already rehearsed a diplomatic answer for this one, having gotten into trouble once already when she had phoned him the day the news had broken about Uther's death. "Yes. It's always a tragedy when someone dies so young."

Being his mother, she could read his subtext easily enough and slanted him a chiding look. "It's different when it's a King, Merlin. This is history."

"I know," he conceded. And it was Arthur's father, which seemed more important to note than what the deceased had done for a living.

"Oh, look at the Prince and Princess. Well, I suppose we have to call him the King now, don't we? Have you spoken with him?"

"No," he replied, which was mostly true, though they had been texting several times a day. He suspected Arthur needed that small hint of normalcy, and Merlin needed...well, what he needed remained just out of his conscious grasp.

"So young to have lost both their parents. They look so sad."

He could not help thinking that Will had been orphaned much younger than that. He never looked sad, though; grief only fueled his fury at the unjust world.

It was the first time he had seen Arthur since that last afternoon at the school, save for a brief shot of him acknowledging the crowds of mourners at the palace gates. Arthur's face looked drawn tight around his bones, as though someone had tried to embalm him along with his father. He walked next to his half-sister, steady and dignified, nothing left of the sarcastic prat Merlin had grown so fond of over the last few weeks.

Princess Morgana did not look particularly sad to Merlin's eye. "I think she looks more grim," he said to his mother.

"I wonder if she ever made her peace with her father," his mum mused. "That tell-all book by her mother's butler said that she was enraged when she found out her true parentage."

"Can't blame her." He elbowed his mother playfully. "I wouldn't have taken it well, either, if I found out you were stepping out on Dad and that's how you got me."

She gave him a playful smack in return that ended in a fond squeeze of his arm. "Well, I hope they reconciled by the end. We always think we have so much time, but then it runs out."

Morgana looked like she had a fuck-ton of regrets, but somehow, Merlin doubted that it had much to do with wishing she had repaired her relationship with her biological father. She never made a secret out of her desire to supplant her half-brother as heir apparent. Parliament had been making noises for decades about changing the Acts of Succession, at least when it came to male primogeniture, but there'd been no urgency about it once Arthur was born.

Merlin would have liked to see that debate as at least a first step in acknowledging how ridiculous and outdated the monarchy was. He had some small suspicion that Arthur would not have objected to it. But even if they had done it, Morgana would still have been screwed, from her birth if not her gender.

He shrugged and reached for a biscuit. It was just an empty title—the only thing worth noting was what Arthur was about to sacrifice to it. As far as Merlin was concerned, Morgana could have it if it meant Merlin got to have Arthur back.




"They are nearly ready for you, sir." George came most of the way through the door to the study, closing it discreetly to a crack. He gasped in disapproval as the door was wrenched out of his grasp from the other side and Leon barged through it.

"We're all here," he announced as he closed the door again, with George on the other side. "Gwaine even dressed appropriately for a change."

Arthur finally looked up from his phone with a smile. "Who had to wrestle him into the waistcoat?"

Leon made a gesture expansive of the entire palace, though they both knew Gwaine was capable of making a good show on his own—when he wanted to. "Got your speech ready? One of the PM's mice is scurrying around out there wanting to see your edits."

He patted his chest right over the empty breast pocket. "All set. No edits." Not hard, since he had not even looked at the pages that 10 Downing had sent over.

His oldest friend and companion, the Earl of Sussex, dropped down onto the settee next to him. "Reviewing it now, are you?"

His eyes back on his phone, Arthur made a vaguely affirmative noise.

"Let's see it, then." Leon snapped the phone out of his hands before Arthur realized his danger. "Oh, for God's sake, Arthur. Not that nonsense again."

"It isn't nonsense to listen to the voices of the people." Arthur made a half-hearted grab for the phone, but Leon had turned his whole body to the side to hunch over it as he read.

"This isn't the people. This is a couple of nutters with a grudge against the world and obviously no sex lives." Leon stood up. "I'm going to leave you to collect your thoughts now. No, I'm taking this with me. This is the last thing you need to be filling your head with right now."

"Give me my phone, Leon. I'm the King, I command you." Arthur held out his hand imperiously, but Leon just pocketed the phone and headed for the door.

"It's for your own good, Your Majesty." Leon exited, elbowing George aside from the door as it opened.

Arthur sat in the stifling silence for a few more minutes. The silence had been soothing before because he'd had the company of his phone. Reading the blog again had been inspirational, but mostly a way to kill time while waiting for Merlin to text another reply. His bumbling irreverence and growing affection had been just what Arthur needed to put himself in the proper mindset for this night.

Arthur closed his eyes and tried to remember the words he had wanted to read again before he went on the air; he had read them often enough already, after all. They had gone to his heart, an exhortation to seize his chance to break out of his father's shadow and use his reign to make changes that were long overdue.

But the sense of connection was gone. Arthur would have to do this on his own.

He stood up and smoothed his suit, though half a dozen people would be smoothing him repeatedly before the camera started rolling.

Then he left his father's study for what he was determined would be the last time.




Will showed up at the house not long after Merlin arrived, bearing a moderately-priced bottle of wine and a brave smile. "Thank you for having me, Mrs. Emrys."

She smiled and kissed his cheek, taking the bottle. "I'm so glad you're here. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the speech."

She's not, Merlin mouthed at Will over his mother's shoulder. Once he had sidled past Merlin's mother, Will rolled his eyes and gave Merlin a rough jostle with his shoulder. Merlin jostled him back, throwing in a few light punches. They roughhoused in the tiny foyer until Merlin's mother was the one rolling her eyes as she shooed them into the house.

"The lamb is outstanding as ever, Mrs. Emrys," Will said over dinner, after they had all chewed in silence for a few minutes.

"Thank you, Will." Merlin's mother slid another helping onto his plate without being asked. "I do hope you boys will give our new King a fair chance before you start writing horrible things about him on that awful website of yours."

Merlin and Will choked on their lamb in unison. "What?" Merlin gasped in between gulping the glass of wine his mother calmly pushed closer to him.

"I understand that Uther wasn't exactly a King for the young people, even when he was young himself. But I really think you should keep an open mind about Arthur. After all, Merlin, you liked him a great deal when you were working with him."

"Yes, Mum," he mumbled. Gwaine had even invited him to London to watch Arthur give his speech in person, but as much as he wanted to see Arthur again, he could not imagine anywhere he would be more out of place.

Will scratched the back of his head and looked abashed, a rare expression for him. "I have nothing against Arthur, Mrs. Emrys. It's the institution I dislike. Not just the monarchy, but all the aristocracy: a useless burden on public funds and the public attention."

She put her hand over his. "I understand your feelings, Will," she said. "But the royal family still means something to a lot of us. And Arthur is your generation. Promise me you'll listen to what he has to say tonight before you condemn him."

"I wasn't going to condemn anybody," Will grumbled and let her pat his hand.

"Come on," Merlin's mother said with the cheeriness of victory. "Let's carry in our puddings. I think it's time for the broadcast to start."

Merlin let himself be herded into the sitting room with no protest. He did not like any of this nonsense, but he had to admit, part of him was still eager to hear what Arthur had to say.




By the time Arthur arrived at the makeshift TV studio set up in the White Drawing Room, affectionately known amongst the Pendragons as the Great Hall, he was surrounded on all sides by people he barely knew. He could identify three staffers from the Beeb, two of his father's senior staff, and one of the PM's lackeys. George's stolid presence at his back proved an unlikely source of comfort.

He was still being brushed and fluffed and wittered at (no one had ever wittered at Uther) when he spotted the people he did know. Leon stood with Gwaine and Mithian and—to Arthur's surprised delight—Lancelot along the back wall behind the camera. Arthur broke away from his small army of helpfulness and veered over to join them.

Gwaine grinned as easily as he always did and clapped him on the arm. "Like the cufflinks? I had them hauled out of the vault just for your special moment."

"Someone's going to report them stolen by morning. No one will believe you're actually wearing them." Arthur smirked.

Gwaine dropped his voice. "Merlin sends his best. I tried to bring him, but he said he was allergic to television cameras. He promised to watch on telly, though."

"He's probably waiting with popcorn, the bastard." Arthur perversely enjoyed that image, though he felt a pang of disappointment that Merlin was not here to see the show in person. He would have liked to see Merlin's face.

The producer appeared at Arthur's shoulder. "Three minutes until air time, Your Majesty. If you would be so kind, we need to do the final checks."

"Of course." Arthur had only ever given an address of his own once, upon his investiture as Prince of Wales and heir apparent, but he had watched his father every Christmas for his entire life.

They smoothed and dusted him one more time after he sat down at the ornate desk from which his grandfather had first addressed the nation on television. He stared at the camera as if it were a foe on the battlefield while they tweaked the lighting one last time. For one brief, heart-sinking moment, he wished his father were there to tell him he was doing the right thing.

Except, of course, that if Uther were here, Arthur would not be doing this at all.

The director caught his attention and started counting down from ten. He had that many seconds left to come to his senses and stop this nonsense.

But it was already too late. He had not printed out Nimueh's speech for a reason. No Plan B; no excuses.

"Three...two...and we're live."

Arthur looked into the black lens, at his people, his erstwhile subjects, and felt like he was falling into a black abyss. His mouth was moving on autopilot and he hoped to God that intelligible sound was coming out of it. It was difficult to tell through the buzzing in his ears.

"...of course, my family has taken great comfort in all the ways you have let us know that you share in our grief." As his mind cleared enough to catch up with his mouth, he noticed in his peripheral vision that Morgana had slipped in. "My sister Morgana, in particular, wishes to express her gratitude for your support in this difficult time."

One might interpret that as an olive branch; Arthur rather suspected it would prove more a red flag in front of a bull. He could not see her reaction, but either way, Arthur felt he would get something out of it.

"My father raised us with the belief that our duty to the British people is paramount. My commitment to you that I made upon becoming the Prince of Wales has not wavered. Please hold that in your hearts through the rest of what I have to say."

Arthur paused long enough to feel the sharp rise of tension in the room as people caught on that something unexpected was about to happen. He fancied he could feel the attention of the entire nation focusing on him with actual interest for the first time in his life.

"My father and I agreed on many principles of statesmanship, the chief of which was that a monarch should be of use to his people, striving ever for their protection, prosperity, and the betterment of the nation. In my studies, my military service, and my choice of career, I have sought to serve you however God intended."

Are you listening, Merlin? he wondered as he took a breath. This is what I was trying to tell you, that day.

"I had imagined that when I was called to become King, many years from now, I would leave these things behind and enter a different kind of service. However, after a great deal of thought and counsel, it became apparent to me that I am already on the path I was intended to take."

Across the room, he heard at least three separate phones start to buzz. The sound invigorated him at the thought of how many people he was terrifying right now.

"When the remaining obligations of my succession are settled, I intend to return to my work in advancing municipal architecture to the next level of environmental modernity. Rest assured that I will still fulfill my formal obligations as King. I will entertain state visitors; I will open Parliament; I expect I will be bringing a thoughtful message into your homes at Christmas time. But for the rest of the year, I will work at my vocation like any other citizen."

He took another breath and smiled. There was the easy part done.

"I have one other matter to bring to you, my people. I cannot offer you my service without my honesty. Along with many of you, I intend someday to marry and start a family. However, my spouse, my consort, will not be a woman. I am a gay man and although I recognize that the world still has a great ways to go in peaceful acceptance of difference, I feel I can trust the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth with the truth of my heart."

When he paused again, he felt dizzy with terror and relief. It was done; he could not take it back.

"I sense the words 'constitutional crisis' looming in some of your minds as I speak. It is true that matters of succession will need to be carefully examined and modernized, a process long overdue. However it turns out, should I die without an heir of my body, I will hardly be the first King to do so. The monarchy will go on."

Sorry about that part, Merlin, he thought and wished he dared look over at Morgana's face.

"But that is for the future. For the present, I will begin my reign by mourning the tragically early loss of my father, as is necessary and appropriate for me to do. I will go back to work alongside the hard-working people of this Commonwealth of Nations. Together, as always, we shall go forward. I give you my most humble thanks for your support, your compassion, and your prayers."

He had to look pointedly at the stunned director and camera operator before they hastily cut the broadcast.

Well, at least they had probably already forgotten the part about keeping his job.




"What the fuck?" Will asked after a moment of stunned silence.

"Goodness," Merlin's mother said faintly in response.

Merlin realized he had stood up at some point during the speech. He sat down on the sofa with a thud. "Well, fuck me," he said.




When the camera light finally went off, the room was dead silent. At last Arthur could look over at Morgana and see that she looked like a cat with a canary at her mercy, which was about what he had expected. With every ounce of dignity bred and practiced, Arthur rose and tugged his jacket straight.

Ignoring the gaping shock and wondering grins, Arthur walked across the room and stopped in front of Lancelot. "Hi. Would you like to have dinner with me?"

Lancelot opened his mouth, had to close it again to swallow, and then smiled. "I would be honoured, Arthur."

He looked at Arthur with admiration bordering on reverence. It was not quite drop dead sexual attraction, nor was it as sweet a victory as if Lancelot had had blue eyes and a sharp tongue. But given the rest of his track record to date, Arthur thought it was a fine place to start.

"Can he do this?" Leon was complaining. "I really don't think he can do this."

"Fuck yeah, he can," Gwaine interrupted, and Mithian finished: "He's the fucking King. He can do anything."

Arthur grinned and gestured at Leon to give his damn phone back. He could not wait to tell Merlin.




Arthur was coming back.

Arthur was coming out.

Merlin looked down at his hands. They trembled, a fine tremor until he clenched his fists.

Arthur was gay. Then when he had seemed to be attracted to Merlin--he actually had been. And Merlin had shut him down completely.

Compulsively, he picked up his phone again. The text message was still on the screen.

Asked Lancelot out. He said yes. Radical enough for you?

On the third try, he got his thumbs to work. Impressed. R u really coming back?

Arthur must still have his phone out, because the answer came seconds later. Sorry to disappoint you.

Not disappointed, he typed and hit send before he could think better of it.

He should be disappointed. He was disappointed, but the reasons were nothing he had ever anticipated.

Arthur had been brilliant. Merlin admitted it freely and with joy. Even Will had not been able to summon up any invective.

He looked over at the kitchen table where Will still sat, motionless, staring at the blank update box on the blog. A faint sound of distress drifted across the room.

Arthur had been brilliant, brave, beautiful, and none of it had anything to do with all the titles around his name. No, that was not quite honest--Arthur was King. His station had helped shape who he was, and he had just chosen to elevate that station rather than allowing it to confine him.

"He asked Lancelot out," he said aloud. It must have been the first thing he chose to do with his new freedom.

Will glanced up. "The bloke at work? He doesn't waste time. Here, what do you think of this? Just as a start."

Still clutching the phone, Merlin went to read over Will's shoulder. He only got few lines in before anger flared through him.

"No." He reached around Will and slammed his fingers down on the delete key.

"Oi! What the fuck?" Will knocked his hand away. "What's wrong with you?"

"You don't get to use his sexuality against him like that. Anything you feel about the monarchy, it's nothing to do with that." He picked up the laptop and closed it, still seething.

Will stared at him like he was a family pet that had started foaming at the mouth, just a tad. "You know it's not about you, right? I mean, it doesn't bother me that you're half poofter. I forget about it most of the time anyway."

"Thanks." Merlin slumped into a chair. Everyone forgot; it was the way Merlin had engineered it, unconsciously at first, but then as a protective mechanism. When he had been with Freya, his bisexuality had been a non-issue. He would never stray from her, so his orientation was more of a private party trick that let him check out guys with her and contemplate celebrity threesomes.

By the time Freya left, he was already at Avalon where everyone, on account of Freya, assumed he was straight. He had never bothered correcting them before, and then it seemed safer just to keep his mouth shut. He worked at a primary school in a very small community; all it would take was one nervous bigot overreacting and he would lose the job he loved and probably have to move.

"Hey." Will dragged his chair over to Merlin's and kicked at his trainer until Merlin looked up at him. Will's brow creased with worry. "I'm sorry. You're right, it's out of line to say shit like this. Doesn't even make sense, does it? I mean he's right, plenty of kings and queens didn't have kids to follow them. Some of them were probably even gay. It's nothing to do with wanting the monarchy itself gone. Saying something like that just tears down my own argument, doesn't it? I mean—"

Merlin finally kicked him back with a small grin. "Stop babbling. I forgive you."

A broad grin of relief spread over Will's face, but then it creased back into worry. "You really have feelings for him, don't you?"

He could find no reason to lie about it anymore, to himself or to Will. "Yeah. I really do. How stupid is that, right?"

"No, he's stupid for not trying pull you in the first place." If Merlin had ever needed to know how much Will loved him, he would have proof now in Will's sudden fury that the King of Great Britain and a number of other places had not asked Merlin out. "You said he was intelligent, but he must be right daft if he passed you up for some rich old frog."

"Lancelot's not rich. He went to Oxford on scholarship. And he's young and quite fit."

Will stared at him as though he were the one who was daft, which was probably true. "That is not the point, Merlin."

"Look, we had sort of a moment, right before he left. I panicked, started throwing around Freya like some kind of hetero club card. I had no reason to think he was gay then; I just didn't want him to think I was."

Will nodded thoughtfully for a moment, then reached over and smacked the back of Merlin's head. As Merlin yelped in protest, Will got up and went to rummage through Merlin's refrigerator. "Never mind. I'm on his side now. That's what it's come to, my friend. I am siding with the symbol of everything I loathe about our society."

Merlin rolled his eyes, but accepted a beer as a peace offering. "Does that mean you'll give him a chance before you pillory him online?"

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves." Will made a cranky harrumphing sound as he headed for the back door. "We'll see."

Left alone, Merlin reached for his phone again to check for new messages. It was a shame he could never explain to Arthur what a tremendous victory he had just won.



Chapter 3

Date: 2012-12-16 12:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sunny-rainfall.livejournal.com
that was brilliant. totally and utterly brilliant. Arthur is a boss

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Cori Lannam

September 2013

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