The very first time Prince Arthur of Camelot met Prince Merlin of Mercia, Arthur was seven years old and Merlin was five. Arthur didn’t really remember a huge amount about it, except that Merlin carried around a stupid stuffed dragon toy with him all the time. People said it was because he was homesick. They usually then said something along the lines of “awww.” He also remembered that Merlin was shorter than him, and had ears that stuck out too far, and that when people said “Isn’t he cute?” they were, for the first time ever, not talking about Arthur. And he remembered the photo session.
The photo session had been Arthur’s very first PR disaster. Arthur had to stand with Merlin for photographs, and whilst Arthur was expected to pose nicely, as he had been taught, Merlin stood there clutching the dragon in front of him and half-hiding his face. Somehow this had produced more comments about cuteness, and more sighing, when clearly it wasn’t the right way to behave. So Arthur, because he was going to be king one day and had to lead the way, or so his father kept telling him, took charge. He grabbed the dragon by its tail, pulled it out of Merlin’s arms, and threw it to one side. Unfortunately as they were standing in the palace grounds very close to a huge and very historical fountain, and Arthur was quite strong for his age, the toy went swimming.
Little Merlin had gazed for a moment in horror, his mouth hanging half open. And then, as his beloved toy rapidly sank, his face crumpled, his mouth opened wide and a horrible noise came out. Arthur thought it was all a bit much over a stupid toy, but he was the only one that thought so. Arthur’s nanny climbed into the fountain and retrieved the toy, but when he saw the soggy, misshapen thing Merlin just cried louder.
Arthur the Dragonslayer! was probably the best of the headlines the next day though Arthur didn’t see them until years later. Most of the other headlines dealt with the wailing Mercian prince and a few were less than kind about Arthur. Merlin was removed from Arthur’s presence, which suited Arthur very well. Within a few days the peace talks between their fathers had fallen through and Merlin, his stupid toy and all the people who came to Camelot with him had gone home. And that was the last Prince Arthur saw of Prince Merlin for many, many years.
One day, shortly after Arthur’s twenty-third birthday, Arthur encountered Merlin again.
It was, Arthur decided very quickly, one of the worst days of his entire life.
Arthur was the crown prince. The only crown prince of Camelot, and therefore the only crown prince that mattered. So he didn’t really enjoy having this foreign boy who had come in with the visitation from Mercia declaring himself to be a crown prince as well. Even though Merlin clearly was the crown prince of Mercia (for what that was worth), it was a lesser country and therefore Merlin was a lesser prince in Arthur’s mind.
To be fair, Merlin hadn’t actually done the declaring. That was the annoying herald who had announced the arrival of the royal party. No, Merlin had stood there beside his father looking around him with some fascination. He’d had the cheek to smile at Arthur, and when that smile wasn’t returned he’d pulled a face. At Arthur. Nobody did that. Especially not people who had caused Arthur to briefly lose favour with his own press, and who were known to be able to cry at will over the slightest thing.
Merlin wasn’t actually five any more, and he wasn’t shorter than Arthur any more either. He still had the sticking out ears that Arthur remembered, and Arthur suspected he probably still slept with that stupid dragon toy. The papers had all reminded him of the toy, and the incident, because of course they’d brought it up as soon as the visit had been announced. The Mercian royal family hadn’t been seen in Camelot since the incident so the journalists probably expected Merlin to still be five.
Arthur glared at him. He supposed he could probably make Merlin cry again if he wanted to. It might brighten up the afternoon. Admittedly the initial smile had been attractive… very attractive if he were honest… but Arthur wasn’t going to forgive sixteen years of little digs from the press all that easily.
He didn’t really see why they had to put up with the visitation anyway. Camelot was clearly the stronger of the two nations and could overrun Mercia using brute force if needed, even if Mercia did have those wretched dragons. His father was always telling him as much. The peace talks were just a sop to the weaker nation, and a slap in the face to Cenred of Essetir who had fallen out with both countries over it. If his father didn’t do so first, Arthur could see his own reign easily merging both nations and Cenred’s and maybe a few more too. In fact, if Merlin was king of Mercia at the time, Arthur would take great pleasure in swallowing up Merlin’s little kingdom within his own. He might even send Merlin a little stuffed dragon as a keepsake after he’d done so, in case Merlin started crying again.
The thought was so pleasing that he wasn’t really listening to his father’s speech. It would be over soon and then Arthur would be able to leave, to change into something more comfortable and head out with his friends. He wondered if Leon could be persuaded to drop the horrible levels of security he liked to surround Arthur with and let him into a nightclub. The papers appeared to have forgotten about the last nightclub incident in the excitement over the Mercian visit. And it hadn’t been entirely Arthur’s fault anyway, he’d tripped on an uneven paving slab on the way out. It could have happened to anyone. He hadn’t been totally off his face, it was just unfortunate that the press had been right there, waiting…
His father was talking about dragons, and restrictions, and neutral territory. Arthur had stopped listening as it was all beyond tedious. Merlin obviously thought so too, he was looking less happy by the moment.
“…won’t you, Arthur?”
The mention of his own name caught his attention. He had no idea what his father had just asked, but he smiled and nodded agreement. Anything to get the meeting over with.
Merlin gaped at him in horror. “He wasn’t listening, he didn’t even hear what you said,” he accused.
“Merlin, please.” Balinor reprimanded his son. “Remember why we’re here.” He looked to Uther. “I’m sorry, my son is a little headstrong. Hopefully he’ll learn a few manners whilst we’re here.”
Merlin glared at Arthur but said nothing more. He was clearly bursting to do so.
Uther raised an eyebrow at Merlin. Arthur knew him well enough to recognise disapproval, it was normally something he saw directed at himself.
“Good, that’s settled. Arthur.” Uther waved a hand towards Merlin.
Arthur suddenly realised that he was supposed to leave with the foreign prince. Hopefully it was just to show him to the guest quarters, and not to have to stand around having photos taken together again. He took a step forward, not hurrying, hoping that someone would enlighten him. He really needed to start paying attention at these things.
“Come along then,” he said reluctantly. “I’m sure you’ll want to change.”
Arthur would have wanted to change, whatever it was they were supposed to be doing. Merlin and his father had turned up in the Mercian ceremonial dress, or something close to it. It looked ridiculous, all billowing shirts and tight breeches and Arthur wasn’t sure whether it was the father or the son who looked worse in the outfits. The father, he decided, because despite how very annoying the Mercian prince was, Arthur could always appreciate what appeared to be a firm arse and wiry but strong legs. Even on Merlin.
“I hope you haven’t brought any toys with you this time, Merlin,” Arthur whispered as they crossed the room together. “No fluffy dragons or anything.”
“I was five,” Merlin retorted. “Unlike you, I’m older than that now!”
That was a matter of opinion, Arthur thought. Still, he only had to show Merlin to his room and then that would be an end to it. Perhaps he could vanish for a few days? He’d done that before, and his father would probably be so busy with the Mercian visit that he wouldn’t even notice.
“Still, I could arrange for a cuddly blankie to be brought along. We like to look after our guests.” He stepped aside to let Merlin walk through the door ahead of him, glancing back to make sure his father saw how very polite he was being. It might have been wasted as Uther’s attention was fully on the rival king.
“So where are we going?” Merlin asked.
“To your room, of course.” Arthur had a sinking feeling that Merlin was about to tell him that there was more to his father’s instruction than that. He wasn’t wrong.
“I meant after that. What are all these famous sights that you’re going to show me?” Merlin paused, and Arthur knew he hadn’t been quick enough to hide the dismay. “Hah! I knew you weren’t listening to your father! Well, Arthur, you’re my tour guide for the afternoon. Lucky me.”
“I need full security before I go out,” Arthur put in quickly, ignoring the fact that he spent most of his life trying to avoid it. “Can’t just drop everything and go sailing around Camelot. Takes ages to organise. Father must have forgotten that.”
“It’s an arranged visit,” Merlin told him patiently. “You just have to stand there and smile in the photos with me at each site, and we’ll be taken around in a car with lots of security. Surely you do this a lot?”
Arthur didn’t like to admit that since a visit from Princess Vivian, which had culminated in some embarrassing front pages and an apology to her father King Olaf of Norway, Uther had mostly kept Arthur away from any visiting royals. He sat at feasts and nodded and smiled, and that was about it. He certainly hadn’t been trusted with their entertainment. However, he wasn’t going to tell Merlin that.
“Of course I do. Now hurry along and change, you don’t want to be mistaken for a circus act!”
“I’m not the one who gets his face plastered all across the papers every week because he doesn’t know how a future king should behave in public.”
“Hah! Your face… your bawling face is across all the papers and has been all week!”
“What five year old wouldn’t cry, being saddled with a pompous bully? That’s what it said, you know? All across the Mercian papers when the peace talks failed. You were a symbol for your bullying country, picking on little Mercia and a tiny little boy. That’s why I have to spend the day with you, as part of the PR, to show you’ve changed. But you haven’t, have you? You’re still just the same. What a horrible king you’ll make.”
Arthur really didn’t like Merlin. “I won’t be weak,” he snapped. “Here, this is your room. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Don’t hurry,” he heard Merlin mutter as he walked away. Arthur had no intention of doing so.
There had been no getting out of the tour. Arthur had tried, but his father was locked in talks with Balinor, and Leon was under strict instructions to ensure the tour went ahead.
“But I can’t stand him,” Arthur protested.
“Good practice for dealing with him when you’re both kings,” Morgana told him and Leon nodded agreement, the traitor. Arthur suspected that if Morgana said black was white Leon would nod agreement.
“Why don’t you take him round instead?” Arthur suggested. His sister, as well as being the most annoying person on the planet (with the possible exception now of Merlin) was excellent at being totally charming when she wanted to be, and would doubtless be the wonderful hostess she always was. “Maybe,” and he thought this was a particular stroke of genius, considering how disloyal Leon was being. “Maybe I should suggest to father than you marry him and join the two countries together that way? How the papers would love that! What do you think, Leon?”
As he’d hoped, his traitorous friend was looking utterly horrified at the idea. Arthur pondered pushing it further, just to serve Leon right, but Morgana put a stop to that.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous, Arthur,” Morgana snapped. “Apparently the prince likes men as much as you do, although he’s not as indiscreet about it. It’s not me Uther intends marrying him to.”
Arthur felt a sudden thrill of horror at her words, and although he did his best to quickly hide it, he knew the momentary shock had shown on his face. He narrowed his eyes at her. “What?”
“Oh!” She put her hands to her mouth in what was clearly not shock at all. “I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I? Oops.”
He really hated it when she looked quite that pleased with herself. Worse, she’d glanced at Leon smugly. Perhaps Leon’s secret crush wasn’t quite so secret any more and that would be a pity because Arthur had spent many months now gently tormenting him.
“I’d sooner spend the rest of my life celibate,” Arthur growled.
“You both loathe each other so much, you probably would spend the rest of your lives celibate,” Morgana assured him.
Leon’s phone buzzed for attention. He answered it, spoke briefly to someone, and then shrugged a little apologetically. “Sorry Arthur, Gwen’s wanting to know why the tour hasn’t started yet. The cameras are waiting and they want a clip for the lunchtime news.”
“Oh, don’t keep your beloved waiting!” Morgana beamed, then gave a nasty cackle. Honestly, sometimes his sister was no better than a witch.
Arthur left, Leon at his heels. “I really don’t know what it is you see in her,” Arthur muttered as soon as they were out in the corridor. “She was joking, wasn’t she? Father isn’t planning some kind of romantic outcome?”
“No,” Leon began. “He…”
“Spoilsport!” Morgana yelled from the room they’d just vacated. “I can hear you, Leon!”
“Looks like it’ll be two of us celibate then,” Arthur smiled. “Bad luck. Now, carry on.”
Leon looked back ruefully, but continued. “The king said, when the princess suggested it, over his dead body and he’d even rather have that awful Princess Vivian who was here last summer as his daughter in law than any freakish Mercian dragonlord. He said considerably more than that on the subject, but that was the gist of it.”
It was cheering to know. His father was a wise man.
Merlin was waiting in his room as instructed, sitting on the edge of his bed and looking fed up.
He’d changed into jeans and a t-shirt, with a jacket made of some kind of odd-looking leather that was far too fitted to be stylish in Camelot but suited him anyway.
“A few minutes?” he asked, when Arthur entered. “Are Camelot minutes so much longer than Mercian ones?”
“I was called away,” Arthur told him pompously. “I am the crown prince, you know?”
“I know you’re pretty rude,” Merlin muttered. “Come on then, let’s start this tour.”
He walked past Arthur and out into the corridor, waited a moment for Arthur to catch up but Arthur knew that was because he didn’t know where he was going rather than out of any sort of politeness.
“We’ll have a photographer with us,” Arthur told him as they strode along the corridor. “His name’s Gwaine. He’ll flirt with you, he flirts with anything that moves. It’s an instinct in him in the same way that most people have an instinct to breathe. Don’t make an international incident out of it, he’s harmless.”
“I can cope with someone flirting with me,” Merlin growled.
“Good. Didn’t want you crying or anything.” He heard a heavy sigh from behind him. “Oh don’t start!”
“Getting tedious now,” Merlin warned. “Do you only have one joke?”
“Not at all. Don’t shag Gwaine, by the way. Don’t want you getting knocked up. Again, international incident. Funny though.”
“Well, you know.” Arthur turned to smile at Merlin. “You Mercian men and the pregnancy risk. I think it would make me stay celibate for the rest of my life!”
“I’m sure the world would be grateful for that,” Merlin retorted.
Arthur pushed open a door, strode through it and let it fall back in Merlin’s face.
“Prat!” he heard muttered from behind him.
“Girl,” Arthur retorted. He counted the silence afterwards as a win. It was far and away the most odd thing about the Mercians, and the subject of many jokes amongst the people of Camelot. Or at least it had been until the politically correct bunch had declared it racist and offensive to laugh about any male with a little or a lot of Mercian blood who happened to fall pregnant. Camelot liked to do it the old-fashioned way and have women bear children. Arthur had never met anyone, ever, whom he’d even consider settling down and having children with. He certainly wouldn’t be bearing them himself if he ever did. He could see Merlin’s sulky countenance reflected in the glass doors they were approaching.
“Smile, princess.” Gwaine was always calling him princess. It seemed far more fitting to use it on the Mercian prince. He’d have to point that out to Gwaine later. “Our public await and want to see us nice and happy!”
“They shouldn’t have saddled me with you for the day then,” Merlin told him, then pushed past him, opened the door and beamed happily around at the group of people waiting on the steps. “Hello! Are you taking us on the tour? I’ve heard so much about your beautiful city, I can’t wait to see it!”
Arthur followed, trying not to roll his eyes as Merlin walked around shaking them all by the hand and professing his love for Camelot. The faker, he thought. He was obviously the only one who could see right through Merlin.
“Ah, you’re Gwaine!” Merlin was being introduced to the handsome photographer, who was shaking his hand far too enthusiastically. “Arthur was telling me all about you. I think he’s got a bit of a crush.” And then he winked at Gwaine, who grinned back.
“Ah yes, me and the princess go back a long way.”
“Princess!” Merlin turned and gave Arthur a huge, far too smug grin. Arthur hated him all over again.
It was, definitely, going to be the worst day of Arthur’s life.
The state car that they were going to be driven around in seemed considerably smaller than normal. Gwen had ushered them inside, and then sat opposite them giving a long list of dos and don’ts at the various places they were going to visit. Most of them seemed to be directed at Arthur, which he thought was a little unfair given that Merlin was the one who was unfamiliar with the country.
“…the important thing is that this whole visit gives a positive impression of unity between the two nations…”
“She means don’t burst into tears if you lose your favourite toy this time,” Arthur clarified for Merlin.
“Oh, I’ll be right here, don’t worry!” Gwaine grinned. He and Merlin had already hit it off far too well for Arthur’s liking. He suspected that all the pictures were going to favour their foreign guest far too much. Gwaine had already started snapping off pictures in the car, and Arthur didn’t think he was in any of them so far.
Rather than suffer Gwaine’s never-ending attempts to get laid, Arthur chose to stare out of the window instead, watching the world race past at speed. People were looking at the car, but the tinted windows gave them no hint of who was inside. Sometimes it was like being in a goldfish bowl, always on show, unable to escape the public gaze.
Across on the other side of the car, Gwaine was telling one of his jokes. His hand, Arthur noticed when he glanced over, was already on Merlin’s knee, and the Mercian prince didn’t seem to be in any hurry to push it away. Arthur wasn’t going to need to do anything to make this trip a disaster, he realised. Merlin and Gwaine were going to manage that all by themselves. He felt oddly irritated by that. Perhaps he was more inclined to help with his father’s peace talks than he realised, he wondered, and wanted to stop some embarrassing affair taking place. But no, Gwaine was often annoying. He was supposed to take all the official pictures, and frequently was out at Arthur’s side. Somehow, although he always took wonderfully flattering pictures of the king, the ones of Arthur didn’t always turn out as well.
The first stop was the Mercian embassy, where they had to stand in front of the memorial to a brave Mercian diplomat who had, decades before, uncovered plans for an attack on both countries by Caerleon. The discovery had saved thousands, but at the cost of her own life. It had resulted in an uneasy truce between the nations and a unified attack and defeat of Caerleon, which had been divided between Camelot and Mercia as a result. After that, while things had never really been entirely friendly, the dragon-riding people of Mercia were no longer regarded as the enemy.
Arthur solemnly laid a wreath beside the memorial, and watched as Merlin did the same. They stood for a moment, heads bowed, trying not to notice the steady click of Gwaine’s camera, and those of other photographers who had gathered. There was the usual line of diplomats to meet and greet before they got back into the car and headed for the next stop.
Merlin, at least, seemed to be professional about the whole thing. He looked serious when required, and smiled delightedly when required. It was like watching a little wind-up doll, Arthur decided, conveniently forgetting that he was doing the same thing. Merlin did have a very attractive smile, though. He almost wished it was being directed at him instead of at Gwaine. Then one of the ever-amusing paparazzi would call out something to the effect of: “No tears this time then, Arthur?” and he would recall just how annoying Merlin actually was.
The Tate had a special exhibition on loan from a famous Mercian artist, Cornelius Sigan, which they were supposed to walk around and admire. It was hideous stuff, Arthur thought, too much black paint and too many winged monsters for his liking.
“It’s very bleak,” he commented as they rounded a corner and were faced with yet another demonic bird-creature. “Is all Mercian art like this?”
“Why do you think we let you borrow it?” Merlin whispered back. “It’s hideous. He’s the worst artist in all Mercia.”
If that was true, it would explain a lot about imported Mercian art. “Do you send all your rubbish over to us?”
Merlin just beamed at him, which probably answered the question. Then he turned to Gwen, who was busy talking to someone on her headset and glancing at her watch. They were probably half a minute behind schedule, Arthur guessed. He leaned forward, pretending interest in the horrible painting in order to delay them further. He didn’t see why he should be the only one who was having a miserable time that day.
“It’s wonderful to see how you’ve embraced our culture,” Merlin told Gwen. “But I’d love to see some Camelot art too.”
Gwen glared at him and looked down at her schedule. “I don’t… there’s no time to fit that in. We have fifteen minutes before the boat needs to leave. Arthur, stop looking at that picture, we need to go.”
“Bossy!” Merlin mouthed at Arthur, who started to smile back then remembered himself.
He wasn’t going to let the Mercian prince work whatever magic he was managing on everyone else on him.
“Gwen’s very professional,” he told Merlin haughtily, ignoring Gwen’s look of surprise. Perhaps he did wind her up a little too much on these official trips, but if she just relaxed a little he wouldn’t get the urge to tease her so. “Come along, we’ve got a boat trip. You’ll like that.”
“What’s the Mercian connection?” Merlin asked suspiciously.
“There’s a fine eighteenth century bridge designed by a Mercian architect,” Gwen answered enthusiastically. “We’ll pass under it. And then we’ll have lunch at the new revolving restaurant at the top of the Dragon Centre.”
“That’s Mercian, isn’t it?” Merlin checked.
“Well, of course it is, Mer-lin,” Arthur drawled. “The clue is in the name. Camelot doesn’t do dragons, even if it might not feel like that today.”
Gwen glanced at him a little worriedly, then turned a friendly smile on the visiting prince, obviously trying to gloss over Arthur’s rudeness. “We want you to feel at home.”
“I’m starting to feel as if I’ve stayed there,” Merlin agreed. The polished smile was, Arthur thought, slipping a little.
It rained while they were on the boat, but then as that was typical Camelot weather Arthur wasn’t surprised. The bridge wasn’t terribly exciting, and when they disembarked, he noticed Merlin looking longingly across at the famous new opera house. Some people loved it, others hated it, but it was a huge attraction.
“Will we visit that later?” he asked. Gwen shook her head.
“No time for that. We’re aiming to promote this as a way to show how well our people work together, how thoroughly our cultures have already mixed.”
“I’ll take you on a tour later if you play your cards right,” Gwaine put in with a wicked grin, nudging Merlin’s arm. “Show you all the sights…”
“There’ll be none of that,” Gwen told them. “Arthur and Merlin will be in the royal box at the King’s Theatre, seven-thirty, to enjoy Heart of the Dragon.”
“What’s that?” Merlin asked nervously, at the same time as Arthur groaned loudly “Oh no…”
“It’s a famous and beloved musical,” Gwen explained.
“Singing and dancing,” Arthur muttered. “With a big dragon puppet.”
“It’s a love story across two cultures,” Gwen continued.
“A Camelot boy is shagging a Mercian girl,” Gwaine added helpfully. “Their parents don’t approve, but…”
“Don’t spoil it!” Gwen squeaked. “It’s wonderful, Merlin, you’ll love it. I’ve been five times, and it always makes me cry.”
Merlin looked over at Arthur with an expression that was almost, almost pleading for help. He seemed to realise that he wasn’t going to get it, and gazed across at the new opera house building again. Arthur did feel a little sorry for him and didn’t take up the opportunity to put in a jibe about crying again. He didn’t think he’d appreciate being taken on a tour of all the Camelot tributes if… or as was looking rather likely when he had to visit Mercia. Bearing that in mind, he decided to step in.
“What are we doing tomorrow, Gwen? Is anything planned?”
“Lots of things. The zoo… there’s a new exhibit at the reptile house and then there’s a parade in the afternoon…”
A parade. Sitting in a carriage waving at people. Arthur hated that. He could tell by Merlin’s expression that he did too. Perhaps they had more in common than he’d thought.
“Cut down the time at the zoo. I know it’s a good one but not everyone enjoys the idea of caged animals. See if you can slot in a tour of the popular tourist spots instead. A proper one, with a double decker bus and a guide. It’ll go down well, look as if we’re doing the regular tourist thing. And see if you can find a space where we can visit the opera house. Maybe the Houses of Parliament too.”
“But…” For a moment he thought she was going to either cry or start raging at him. Either was possible, Gwen was absolutely brilliant at organising any kind of state visit right down to the last detail, and he knew she would hate making any changes, especially this close to the event. Still, she’d planned out a positively hideous schedule for him, with his planned escape to a nightclub that evening ruined now with the prospect of a horrible musical, so he didn’t feel too guilty.
Merlin was gaping at him in surprise, looking decidedly un-princelike, so Arthur added for good measure:
“And see if you can fit in Westminster Abbey too.”
Gwen’s nostrils actually flared for a moment. “Perhaps you’d like a ride on the Eye as well?” she snarled.
Merlin beamed at her. “I’d love that!”
Arthur managed not to laugh, though he could hear Gwaine almost choking behind him. Lancelot was hovering worriedly behind Gwen. He’d probably get an earful about spoiled princes later. Still, she was making Arthur go to a musical. And in the box he would be in full view and wouldn’t be able to go to sleep or get drunk.
“Well then,” Gwen started tapping furiously on her tablet. “I’ll just sort that out for you both. No trouble, really. See if you can come up with any more ideas!” She turned away, so didn’t see Merlin open his mouth to do just that. Arthur quickly shook his head, and thankfully Merlin had the sense not to say anything until she had walked away.
Gwen travelled in one of the other cars to the Dragon Tower, and didn’t join them for lunch. Arthur guessed she was probably trying to sort out the changes, but suspected she was also keeping away in case they asked for more.
“Thanks for getting the itinerary changed,” Merlin said when they finally stopped having to meet what appeared to be half the staff of the restaurant and could sit down and eat. “I really wanted to see all of Camelot while I’m here, not just…” he paused as a waiter approached and filled his glass. When the man had moved far enough away not to hear and be offended, Merlin continued in a whisper. “Not just Camelot’s version of Mercia.”
Arthur poked dubiously at the food that had been put in front of him and thought he could see Merlin’s point. “The opera building isn’t that interesting.”
“Oh, it is. I’m studying architecture at university, the central staircase is a work of art. And there’s a Palladian manor a few miles outside the city that I’d really like to see as well. It has a miniature suspension bridge in the grounds and those are just fascinating. Did you know that…”
Arthur held a hand up. “Stop. No geeking out over buildings. If I fall asleep in the…” he picked up a forkful of whatever the blackened, sauce-covered thing on his plate was and regarded it dubiously. “Whatever this is, Gwaine will take pictures, sell them anonymously to the papers, and then I’ll have to listen to my father shouting.” Gwaine had done it before. Gwaine thought Arthur didn’t know it was him. Arthur wasn’t stupid.
“It’s chicken,” Merlin told him, taking a mouthful. “Seared in dragonfire, or probably in this case the grill, and then sautéed in herbs and ginger. National dish. Eat up, if you’re lucky we’ll get pickled toad eyeballs for the main course. They’re a real Mercian delicacy!”
Arthur hoped he was joking. There was a little twinkle in Merlin’s bright eyes as he spoke.
“I love toad eyeballs,” Arthur replied, hoping fervently that they weren’t actually a thing. “Eat them all the time.”
Merlin gave him a huge, disarming grin, then looked around for the waiter.
“Don’t even think about it!” Arthur warned. “You’re breakfasting at mine, remember?”
“Promises! Don’t let Gwaine hear you say that,” Merlin whispered. “He might get ideas.” And then he gave Arthur a look that, if Arthur didn’t know better, he would have thought was Merlin having ideas of his own. But that couldn’t be.
Arthur took a bite of the chicken, and tried not to think about Merlin. But that was difficult when the man was sitting right there next to him. Fortunately the Mercian businessman who owned the restaurant had trotted out both his son and daughter for the event and was trying to engage Merlin’s attention at every opportunity. It was something that happened to Arthur frequently, and he could tell that Merlin was just as used to it by the politely interested replies that he was giving the man. Actually, Arthur thought, it was quite nice not being the one who had to suffer the attentions of a would-be father-of-the-consort. He took another sip of wine. Across the room Gwaine was helping himself to the buffet that had been put out for their entourage, and still managing to snap numerous photos at every opportunity. He saw Arthur looking, and winked at him.
That probably meant he’d managed to get a shot that Arthur wouldn’t like. It usually did.
Arthur gestured to the waiter for a refill, and hoped the meal wouldn’t go on for too much longer.
The meal went on for two hours. By the end of it they’d had to listen to speeches from both the Mercian ambassador and the Mercian businessman, and several other people whose names and positions Arthur had already forgotten. Merlin had been monopolised for the entire time by people wanting his attention, and that had got tiresome quite quickly. Arthur was used to being considered the most interesting thing in the room unless his father was around, and often even then the eligible young prince tended to attract more social attention than the king. It was a curious change, and although it was in some ways a relief, Arthur thought that perhaps Merlin was turning out to be a bit better company than he’d always assumed, and he would have liked the chance to explore that discovery a little more. No chance, with them barely able to exchange more than a few words at a time before they got interrupted.
When they finally got outside and Arthur saw the cars waiting, he barely suppressed a sigh of relief. He climbed in after Merlin and collapsed wearily onto the seat next to him.
“God, that was tedious!” he sighed when the door was closed. Gwen was obviously still angry with him as she had taken the other car again to make herself less accessible. She did that from time to time, when he’d annoyed her during some official event. It was supposed to remind him who was actually in control, Lancelot had admitted once. Arthur supposed that Lancelot was reminded of the fact constantly, though as his bodyguard seemed blissfully happy with his domestic arrangements that probably wasn’t a bad thing. Now Arthur would have to spend the rest of the day relatively ignorant of what he’d be doing next. Apart from the musical. There would be no escape from that. He glanced at his watch. Four hours away.
“Where are we going next?” Merlin asked.
Arthur shrugged, not wanting to admit that he didn’t know. “Probably more of the same.”
He tried not to examine the feelings that the disappointed look on Merlin’s face gave him.
To his surprise, they stopped only a few minutes later, right outside the Camelot Eye, the huge sightseeing wheel that had been erected as part of the Millennium celebrations. There was, as always, a very long queue, probably made even longer by their arrival. Merlin looked over at it hopefully.
“Do you think we’re going on that after all?”
“If we are, you can bet you won’t be able to admire the sights because the owner and half the shareholders will be riding with us. Plus any eligible offspring.”
Merlin shrugged. “At least it’s a proper tourist site.” The car door opened, and he scrambled out. Merlin really was far too undignified and enthusiastic to be proper royalty, Arthur thought as he followed him. He couldn’t help also thinking that it made a refreshing change.
Gwen gave Arthur a stern look when he exited the car. “This wasn’t easy to arrange. Just make sure you both change very fast when we get back to the palace. We can just barely fit this into the schedule.”
“You’re a star, Gwen,” Arthur assured her.
“Yes!” Merlin agreed, and for a moment Arthur thought he was going to hug Gwen. He just fidgeted awkwardly instead and Arthur wondered if he’d just stopped himself. He wondered what he was going to have to do to get a hug. Then he shook his head, wondering where on earth that thought had come from. “Thank you so much for this.”
“Just doing my job,” Gwen told him, but she looked pleased. She never looked particularly pleased when she was dealing with Arthur, he’d noticed. “Come on, you don’t want to miss the VIP car.”
The wheel had slowed right down, almost to a standstill. It was never fast-moving, and Arthur supposed Gwen had pulled a few strings. Luckily it was a tourist crowd, and most of them seemed more interested in taking pictures of the royal visitors than in complaining at the delay. Arthur waved and smiled dutifully as some of the sightseers started to call out to him. Always on display. He hated it.
One of the tourists called out something to Merlin, who ducked his head embarrassedly, blushed a little, then smiled and waved rather self-consciously. It provoked a squeal of delight from the crowd. Arthur could understand that, the blush was strangely endearing. He looked away before anyone noticed him staring, and walked a little faster.
“Come on Merlin, keep up after Gwen’s gone to all this trouble,” he whispered. They hurried into the car, and Arthur was relieved to see that only a few people followed them. His bodyguards Lancelot and Leon, a couple of Camelot Eye staff, and Gwaine with his camera. Everyone else stayed behind. The two staff seemed to only be there to serve champagne, which was fine with Arthur. He thought it might mellow him enough that he would be able to cope with the dire musical later.
As the doors closed, and they started to slowly move away, Merlin pulled out his phone. “I’m supposed to come back with pictures for my little sister,” he explained. “She’s missing me, and she wanted to come too.”
Arthur hadn’t met Freya, but he’d seen a few pictures. Petite and fey, she was probably even more prone to crying than her older brother. “We’ll pick out some of the less dire ones that Gwaine’s taken for her.”
“Oi! Right here,” Gwaine pointed out. He’d already got hold of a glass of champagne, had settled down on the bench and didn’t look as if he was going to take any more pictures for a few minutes.
“She’s better off not coming on this one. She’d be bored,” Arthur admitted. “This isn’t the most exciting of tours. What is she, nine? Ten?”
“Nine. But she wanted to meet Princess Morgana.” Merlin was smiling fondly just at the thought of his sister. Arthur couldn’t imagine ever feeling like that over Morgana. They’d fought for as long as he could remember. Though if anyone ever hurt her… He put that disturbing thought to one side, and tried not to imagine that the fond expression on Merlin’s face was actually directed at him. “Apparently your sister is the most beautiful woman on the planet and Freya wants to be just like her when she grows up.”
“Heaven forbid! One is enough.”
“She was charming to me when we met this morning. Much nicer than you were.”
Well, of course Morgana would have already made sure she met the Mercian delegation. Arthur wasn’t quite sure when or how she’d done it, but that was just typical.
“Don’t believe a word she tells you. She’s an evil witch.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Okay. She said I was to let bygones be bygones, and that you’d changed, and that you weren’t the same horrible prat you were when you were seven. Is that wrong? I mean, judging by your earlier behaviour I thought it probably was, but now…”
“No, obviously she’s right about that,” Arthur put in hurriedly. He wondered just what Morgana was up to, though he had an idea that she was still trying to matchmake. He looked at Merlin, appraisingly. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea. He’d certainly had worse options.
Merlin gave him a quizzical look. “What?”
“Nothing,” Arthur shook his head. “Morgana just has some strange ideas sometimes. Champagne?”
The waiters were obviously listening as they were immediately at Arthur’s side, offering up flutes of sparkling alcohol. Arthur heard the click of Gwaine’s camera shutter as he handed Merlin a glass. Often he wished his life wasn’t so public, that he could get to know someone quietly, privately, away from the constant scrutiny. Merlin’s life had to be the same, although Mercia apparently didn’t have quite the same fascination with celebrity and royalty that Camelot did. Anything he said might be repeated back to the media by either of the two waiters, and Gwaine was always threatening to write his memoirs. It was probably a joke, but you could never be sure with Gwaine.
Still, there were ways…
Arthur held out his hand for the phone. “I’ll take one of you up here, your sister will like that.”
After Merlin had posed for a couple of shots, Arthur took the opportunity to key in his private number.
“Just in case you get lost on the tour, Merlin. We don’t want any more pictures of you crying in the papers.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, but took the phone back with a half-smile. A few moments later Arthur’s phone bleeped softly.
“Prat,” was all it said. But still, it meant he had Merlin’s number and a way to communicate privately. Merlin, with his hair mussed where he’d run his hand through it, who was grinning back at him cheekily and tilting his champagne flute in a mock salute, leaning against the rail, all of Camelot spread out behind him.
Faintly, Arthur heard the click of Gwaine’s camera yet again.
There was no sign of the king when they returned to the palace. George, his father’s horribly correct PA, was waiting at the door to Arthur’s chambers with a message. Uther wanted a full report on how the day had gone during their breakfast meeting the next morning.
Arthur hated breakfast meetings. They weren’t so much breakfast as crack of dawn meetings. Sometimes it was still dark outside, occasionally even in the summer. He knew his father tended to hold them when he suspected Arthur was going to be hungover, or likely to let him down in some other way. Uther had told him as much after the nightclub incident… one of the nightclub incidents.
“How are the talks going?” Arthur asked, pausing before going into his rooms.
George drew himself up to his full height (which was still only up to Arthur’s shoulder) and puffed out his chest a little. “I’m not at liberty to divulge such things.”
Arthur was heir to the throne. He was going to be king one day. He’d be redeploying George into a job more suited to his skills and Arthur’s good mental health at the earliest opportunity. “Fine. Tell my father that I’ll see him in the morning.”
George strode off importantly. Arthur reluctantly set his alarm for six. Unless the evening was a disaster and he got an early night, he’d be tired all day tomorrow.
The evening was not a disaster.
Arthur knew it wouldn’t be when he walked down to the foyer, Leon at his heels, and saw Merlin already there, talking to Morgana. In black tie, still flushed and slightly damp from the shower he looked good enough to eat. Morgana of course looked fabulous in her deep green evening gown, but then she always did.
He wasn’t late and he knew it, so he just ignored her.
“I apologise for anything my sister has said or will say to you,” he told Merlin as they headed for the car.
“She’s been charming,” Merlin insisted.
“I have stilettos on,” Morgana called over her shoulder. “I’ll be sitting beside you, brother dear. Be nice.”
Arthur was going to see a musical with singing and dancing dragon puppets. With his sister and entourage there to ruin the fact that he would be sitting in a darkened room for several hours with the distractingly tempting Mercian prince. He didn’t feel particularly nice, even when his feet were being threatened with GBH.
“You see?” he whispered to Merlin. “Witch.”
Morgana, however, was surprisingly pleasant in the car for most of the journey. She looked even more smug than usual, and spent most of the journey either asking Merlin questions about his homeland or distracting Leon from doing his job. Arthur thought that unless any would-be assassin popped up from between Morgana’s breasts, then his bodyguard wasn’t likely to notice.
“Is it true,” Morgana asked, leaning forward and giving them all an eyeful that Arthur thought he might need counselling for, “that in Mercia, it’s the men who give birth?”
Merlin glanced at Arthur, then down, blushing adorably. “Sometimes. Some men. Usually only those with dragonlord blood. There’s a spell…”
“You have dragonlord blood, don’t you?”
Merlin looked a little uncomfortable, but nodded.
“You don’t have to answer her questions,” Arthur told him. “Honestly, Morgana. We’re not here to interrogate him.”
“It’s okay,” Merlin assured him.
“See? He doesn’t mind. So did your father have you or was it your mother?”
“Well… I’m the heir so it had to be my father. But Mum had Freya.”
“Ah.” Morgana sat back, regarding Merlin with quite a predatory look on her face. “So… You’ll have to carry your heir?”
“Yes. It removes the question of succession, you see. There’s no doubt, can never be any doubt, that the child is the rightful heir to the throne.” Merlin glanced at Arthur again, then away. “And you choose, when the time’s right. There are never any accidents. The child’s always wanted. It’s a good way.”
“And it wouldn’t matter if you married a man or a woman either? A huge step forward for gay rights.” Morgana smiled at Arthur, and there was definitely smugness there. Evidently she hadn’t given up on her earlier ideas. Arthur, however, was no longer adverse to them. Although it would be strange having a pregnant male partner. Mercians were certainly different.
“Some male dragonlords marry other men,” Merlin told her. “And some marry women. And some female dragonlords marry women too.”
“And,” Morgana asked, glancing at Arthur and ignoring the pointed shushing motions he was making. “Which will you be marrying, Merlin?”
“Leave him alone, you harpy,” Arthur hissed.
“He’s marrying me!” Gwaine yelled from the front seat where he’d been relegated. “So hands off!”
Arthur revised his opinion of Gwaine. He had his uses after all. Merlin lost the rabbit caught in headlights look that he’d gained since Morgana’s interrogation had started, and gave a small, relieved laugh. “Yes, that’s right, I’m marrying Gwaine.”
“You heard it here first!” Gwaine called. “Now get those puppies out of his face, Morgs. You’re wasting your time!”
Morgana just smiled at Arthur, and when he scowled back at her she looked more smug than ever. Even when they arrived, and she was posing for the sea of photographers, Arthur didn’t think she looked as pleased with herself as she had at that particular moment. Merlin and he waited patiently whilst the media got their fill, though only Gwaine was allowed to follow them inside for official shots. Arthur supposed that Gwaine was probably one of the few who had managed to get shots of himself and Merlin outside the theatre as well, given the love affair everyone had with Morgana and her low-cut dresses.
Arthur hated the theatre. It wasn’t so much the theatre itself, actually he appreciated a good production, it was more that he hated where he had to sit. It was almost always in a box, in full view of the audience and cast, and at an awkward angle to the stage. He looked enviously at the people down in the stalls, or even up in the cheap seats. They all blended in together, nobody stared at them and if they happened to fall asleep or look bored during the production, nobody would take much notice. If Arthur so much as stifled a yawn it would be all over the papers.
“Ladies first!” Morgana announced as they entered the box, and flounced over to the seat nearest the stage, pausing for a moment to enjoy the ripple of applause and wave to their fellow theatre-goers before she sat down. Merlin sat beside her, and Arthur found himself in the third seat. It was probably the least visible of the three, which was something to be vaguely grateful for. It also, he realised as he sat down, meant that he could watch Merlin instead of the play if he wanted to and nobody would notice. Leon and Lancelot were sitting at the back. Gwaine had vanished, doubtless taking advantage of the bar and his expenses sheet.
Merlin turned to smile at him. “It’s a beautiful theatre.”
Arthur tried to dredge up some useful and interesting fact about the place from a visit a few years ago when it had been refurbished, but he couldn’t think of a thing when Merlin was smiling at him like that. “It’s quite old. Very old.”
Morgana looked across at him pityingly. Fortunately he was spared any further embarrassment, as the lights went down and the orchestra began to play the introduction. It was loud and dramatic, and completely over the top.
As it turned out, that set the scene for the entire show. The star-crossed lovers at the centre of the drama warbled tearfully that they could never be together, whilst the vast dragon puppets sailed around them and the orchestra thundered and tinkled in turns.
Merlin was, Arthur thought, very good at pretending that he was enjoying it. He clapped enthusiastically in all the appropriate places, laughed at the jokes, and gasped with everyone else when the giant dragon puppet suddenly appeared in a flash of fire in the middle of the stage. Even Arthur thought that bit was fairly good. When the curtain went down for the interval, Merlin was applauding almost as hard as the people down in the stalls who had come dressed up as the protagonists.
“That was brilliant!” he enthused.
Arthur had mostly just enjoyed watching Merlin and had thought the musical as ridiculous as he had expected, but he wasn’t going to admit to that so he just nodded. “I liked the bit where the dragon exploded onto the stage.”
“Yes! And the smaller puppets were very clever. Someone has studied how they move and got it just right. It’s really effective. They should tour in Mercia, people would love it.”
“You can tell them that when we have to meet the cast afterwards,” Arthur told him.
“I will!” Merlin glanced back at the closed curtain, and it suddenly occurred to Arthur how handsome the male lead was. He wondered if it was actually the dragons that Merlin was interested in.
The second half was just as loud and over the top as the first, and Arthur allowed himself a brief comfort break whilst the dragons were roaring their fury at the supposed demise of the heroine. Lancelot followed him, and they made their way along the deserted corridor to the gents. The advantage of the uncomfortable box seats were that they could leave without disturbing anyone, and there was no queue, but having to avoid going out during the interval also meant that he always had to miss part of the play.
“I suppose Gwen is threatening to join the republican movement again?” Arthur asked as they walked back.
“Merlin sent her flowers earlier as a thank you for rearranging things. She thinks he’s wonderful. You, not so much,” Lancelot admitted.
Everyone loved Merlin, apparently. And if Arthur did the same thing it would just look as if he were copying now. They were approaching the little stall near the stairs that sold snacks and programmes and, because the musical was so popular, souvenirs.
“I could get her chocolates,” he suggested, looking at the uninspiring range on offer. Perhaps a call to Thorntons in the morning might be better.
“She’ll think you’re sickening for something,” Lancelot advised. “No, don’t worry. Gwen’s worked for you for long enough, she knows what you’re like.”
There was a small, plush dragon staring at him from the top of the stall. It was various shades of green, and had a small heart dangling from the collar around its neck. Arthur picked it up and looked at it.
“Honestly, Arthur, she’s fine with Merlin’s flowers.”
It was very similar to the little toy Arthur had ruined years ago. Arthur knew, he’d seen enough pictures of the wretched thing.
“I’ll send her some next week, when the visit’s over. She does a good job, we don’t appreciate her enough. I’ll tell her as much.” He turned the dragon over, checked the price, and then looked at Lancelot a little sheepishly because nobody had thought to put any money out when they left him his evening clothes back at the palace. “Can you lend me fifteen pounds?”
Merlin glanced up briefly when Arthur took his seat, but he was still enthralled by the show, which appeared to be nearing its dramatic and noisy climax. Arthur couldn’t help watching his reactions rather than the play. Dragons aside, Merlin was more entertaining. He regretted it a few moments later when he realised Morgana had noticed, a knowing smile playing about her lips. He knew he wouldn’t have to wait long before the teasing started. He’d probably made her evening.
Arthur, apparently, was the only person in the audience who hadn’t loved the show. The cast had two standing ovations, which Merlin joined in with enthusiastically. Arthur had never given anyone a standing ovation in his life, and he was somewhat mortified to be doing so for a singing and dancing dragon. Still, the cast were beaming happily up at them, and Merlin was grinning back delightedly… yes, that lead actor really was far too good looking.
They were ushered out to some stairs away from the main exits that would, Arthur knew, lead down to the backstage area. He knew all this routine, shaking hands, congratulating them all on a wonderful performance and almost sleepwalked through it. The sooner it was over with the better.
Merlin didn’t seem to have picked up on that, and stood chatting with the two leads and the main puppeteer for ages after they had gone down the line-up. Gwaine didn’t help, insisting on taking pictures of him with the cast and the dragon. Arthur was aware that Morgana kept glancing down curiously at the bag Arthur was carrying. Not knowing what was in there would probably be killing her. He clung on tightly, resolving not to hand it over whilst she was around if he could help it. That actor really was smiling far too much at Merlin though.
“What’s in the bag?” Gwaine asked, poking at it because Gwaine was just nosey and didn’t stand on ceremony with anyone. Except the king, whom he flattered and photoshopped in equal measure. Uther wasn’t kidding when he commented that Gwaine’s pictures took a good ten years off him. Never was an employee in less risk of losing their job.
“A souvenir.” Arthur moved it as far from Gwaine as he could. Unfortunately that put it in easy range of Morgana, who grabbed it eagerly and peeked inside. She handed it back with a knowing smile.
“Oh Arthur,” she said softly. “That’s terribly sweet.”
And then she grabbed Gwaine by the arm, and dragged him over to the giant dragon puppet, demanding that he get on with his job and take pictures of her with it. It was as far away from Arthur as possible to get without actually leaving. The more publicity-hungry members of the cast (which included, Arthur was pleased to see, the male lead) gathered around her like moths to a flame, leaving Merlin momentarily abandoned. Arthur took the opportunity and moved to stand beside him.
“Still want your little sister to meet Morgana?” he asked. Morgana was climbing up onto the dragon’s back with the two leads, recreating one of the major scenes except with added show-off princess. Her dress was doing very little to cover her legs, and Arthur could imagine how delighted their father was going to be in the morning when he saw the pictures in the paper. Perhaps they wouldn’t be in the early editions and he would be spared the ranting…
“Freya would adore her,” Merlin told him. “Though our father would probably have something to say if he thought his precious little princess was being led astray.”
“Not your mother?”
“She’d probably join in. No, you’re right, Morgana shouldn’t meet either of them.”
They both laughed, though Arthur couldn’t help wondering wistfully what it would be like to have a mother like that. He didn’t think it would be something he could ever really feel embarrassed about. Morgana’s mother had been cool and distant towards him, and it had been no great loss when she’d scandalously divorced their father and abandoned them all. At least she’d left Morgana. He would have hated to lose that horrible harpy who was his arch-nemesis and best friend all rolled into one.
“Very wise. Oh,” Arthur tried to make it sound like the most casual thing in the world. “I got you this. To, you know, make up for the one I drowned.” He handed over the rather crumpled bag, and watched Merlin’s expression go from puzzlement to delight as he reached in and held up the dragon, laughing.
“I love this! Thank you!” Just for a moment Merlin moved as if he were about to kiss him, then thought better of it and hugged him instead. “Thank you!”
Merlin felt every bit as good as Arthur had supposed, warm and vital against him. He let the embrace linger, only pulling away reluctantly when Merlin gave a little chuckle, and the motion sent a little frisson of want through Arthur. It was, Arthur realised, time to stop avoiding the attraction he was feeling and do something about it. Because Merlin would be gone in a few days, or sooner if their fathers screwed up the talks.
Merlin held up the little toy, grinning broadly, though Arthur didn’t miss the faint flush across his cheeks. “Are you trying to crush this one instead of drowning it?”
“I wouldn’t mind trying.” Arthur knew he was grinning right back like an idiot, but he didn’t care.
“Hmm, I was right about you. Poor dragons don’t stand a chance. Lucky it’s your sister up on that model and not you or you’d be trying to slay it.”
Arthur didn’t look, because he was far too distracted by the way Merlin’s eyes twinkled with mischief as he spoke. But if he had, he would have seen that from her vantage point high on the dragon, Morgana wasn’t missing a thing.
There were far too many people in the car on the way back. Not for the first time, Arthur wished he was just a regular member of society. It was almost impossible, if he was interested in someone, not to carry out every moment of the courtship with someone watching, even if it was just the bodyguards.
It was so much more difficult when the object of his affections was his opposite number in a rival state. Merlin was whisked away by Balinor as soon as the car arrived back at the palace. The Mercian king looked tired and drawn, and just about managed a civil greeting to Morgana. He might not even have noticed Arthur had Merlin not called out goodnight to him, and even then it was barely a nodded acknowledgement that he got. It didn’t bode very well.
Wearily, Arthur made his way back to his rooms, repaid Lancelot for the toy, and collapsed on his bed. Finally there was a little peace and quiet. That lasted almost fifteen minutes, before there was a rap on his door.
“You opened that very quickly,” Morgana pointed out as she swept past him. She’d changed into a baggy sweatshirt and a pair of leggings and she still looked as if she’d stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine. “Expecting someone else?”
Arthur didn’t bother asking who. “Did you want something, Morgana?” he asked wearily, wandering back to the bed and sitting down on the edge of it. “Only it’s been a long day…”
“Yes, he is. Is that all?”
“I see you bought him a present... Well, strictly Lancelot did, but…” She paused, seeing his face. “Oh come on, do you think Gwen wouldn’t already have told me that? I hope you’ve paid him back.”
“I have. Is there anything that man does without telling his wife about it? Aren’t there privacy rules written into his contract?”
“I don’t think they cover the purchase of small furry dragons,” Morgana mused. “It was very sweet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do anything so sweet. It’s a whole new fluffy side to you. I like it. If this is the effect he’s had already, I can’t wait till you start shagging him. You’ll be so much nicer!”
“It was just a spur of the moment thing,” Arthur sighed. He was starting to regret it already.
“Yes! You don’t do those. You were rapidly turning into a dreary and boring replica of our father.”
Arthur was no such thing. He went out with his friends all the time and had lots of fun, lots of wild times. Or, at least he went to bars and clubs with Gwaine and got drunk, while Leon or Lancelot stood beside them looking either worried or disapproving. But it was fun. Usually. Sometimes.
“The papers don’t think I’m boring.”
“No, they think you’re a joke.”
That stung. “At least I’m not a clothes horse.” But he knew people loved Morgana because of her charity work. She did as much as his mother had once done, and could wear all the fancy dresses in the world, nobody would ever think of her as a joke. She knew it, as well, not even bothering to acknowledge what he’d said.
“I hope you’re not going to be rude to Merlin.”
“Why are you so keen on this?” Arthur sighed. Morgana never encouraged any of his liaisons, ever.
“Why do you think? He’s a dragonlord, Arthur. He can pop out the royal heir and spare, which, given your preferences, means I won’t be expected to continue the line. Plus he’s a sweetheart. I’d love him as a brother-in-law. And let’s not forget the whole political angle, and the advantages there.”
“I’m not marrying anyone for political reasons,” Arthur growled.
“Quite right. Did I mention he’s a sweetheart? He’d make you happy. And besides, you already adore him, I can tell.”
Right on cue, Arthur’s phone bleeped with an incoming message.
“Is that him?”
It was. There was a little photo attached of the dragon toy and ‘See you in the morning, thanks again for this. X’
Arthur couldn’t help smiling at it. Especially the X.
Morgana gave a disgusted sigh. “Oh you’ve got it bad, you should see your face. I’m going before I puke. Just remember he’s only here for as long as those talks last. And they aren’t going well. Move it, Arthur!”
And with that she left, closing the door behind her and leaving him to his thoughts.
Breakfast with his father went just as well as Arthur had expected. It was far too early, and Arthur had spent far too long the previous night sending texts back and forth to Merlin.
Uther was in a bad mood. He wasn’t enjoying the peace talks, he hated the idea of being forced into some sort of alliance when he would vastly prefer just to overrun Mercia and take it over.
“In the old days we wouldn’t have bothered with talks,” he told Arthur. Arthur thought of Merlin in armour, scarred and bruised but defiant. It was a delicious image. He wondered if the Mercian prince might be interested in roleplay. That could be fun. Still, he wouldn’t have wanted to fight him for real.
“I suppose that boy is as empty-headed as he looks? Are you managing not to make him cry this time around?”
“Actually, he’s quite clever. He’s been studying architecture. They’re constructing a new palace and he’s helping design one of the wings.”
Uther gave a contemptuous snort. “What use is that to someone who’s heir to the throne? Politics and Business, then go into the military for a while. Excellent grounding. Two years in the RAF did you the world of good, didn’t it?”
Two years in the RAF, not allowed to be posted anywhere dangerous, quickly promoted beyond what was reasonable, and then discharged before he’d been allowed to do anything useful. It had done nothing for him other than emphasise how different he was. And instilled a love of flying. That, at least, was something.
Uther grunted in what might have been approval. “Well, do what you can with the boy. It won’t be for long, these talks aren’t going well. Balinor is an idealistic, narrow-minded fool. As if I’d ever let his wretched dragons over Camelot skies. Can you imagine if they ran into a plane? The carnage. They might…”
Arthur couldn’t really see any reason for that to stop the advent of a time of peace. He let his father’s voice wash over him, and thought of blue eyes and a bright smile.
Gwen had looked quite startled when Arthur arrived in the foyer a good fifteen minutes before they were due to leave. He’d gone looking for Merlin, but apparently Arthur wasn’t the only one who had to have an early meeting with their father. Waiting near the car seemed a good idea, and it had the added bonus of appeasing Gwen, who had managed to fit in a quick visit to the new opera house for them before they went to the zoo.
It was Merlin, in fact, who was a few minutes late, running into the foyer without the slightest attempt at dignity. Arthur wondered what sort of etiquette they were taught in Mercia, as it was starting to look questionable as to whether there was any at all.
“Have you even tried to comb your hair this morning?” Arthur whispered as they climbed into the car. “Honestly, Merlin, it looks as if you fell out of bed on your head!” He opened up the little compartment in the back of the seat in front of him, and rummaged through to find a comb. “Here.”
Merlin made some attempt, but his hair was sticking up in very odd directions when he’d finished so Arthur grabbed the comb and did it himself. There was an audible click from behind him.
“Print that picture and I’ll have you put in the tower, Gwaine,” Arthur warned. He didn’t look away. Merlin’s face was very close, watching him, half-amused, half something else. His hair was very soft. Arthur really, really wanted to throw the comb away and just run his fingers through it. And kiss those lips. Definitely that.
“It’s priceless. Are you trying to replace his mum?” Gwaine laughed.
“I am nothing like his mother,” Arthur growled at the same time that Merlin gave a little yelp of horrified protest at the idea. “For a start, I would have taught him better personal grooming…”
He heard Gwaine snort with laughter, and then the click of the camera again.
Gwaine was definitely heading for the tower.
Apparently the opera house had been fascinating. Arthur couldn’t see it himself, but he’d enjoyed listening to Merlin enthusing about it and had walked around with him, claiming he was getting an education. They had a couple of cameramen from Mercia with them as well, filming the second day of the tour for a brief news item on Mercia TV as apparently it was more interesting than the snippets that were coming from the conference. Gwaine was a bit put out about their being there, although it had been some of his pictures in the early editions that morning that had been the main cause. Arthur doubted he would be portrayed kindly on the broadcast, he’d seen a few stories in the Mercian papers over the past few years and even without the dragon toy in the fountain incident, they hadn’t been impressed with his nocturnal escapades. He tried not to think about them being there, and concentrated on being pleasant and charming.
The zoo was more to Arthur’s taste than the opera house. It was privately owned and newly opened. There were animals, after all. Lions and tigers and things that he knew about. And penguins, which apparently they were going to be allowed to help feed. He was quite looking forward to that. But first, they had to visit the reptile house then perform the official opening ceremony that afternoon.
It wasn’t so much of a house, unless the house was the size of an aircraft hangar.
“This,” Mordred Black, the rather young managing director of the zoo, told them proudly as he led them past small lizards and snakes in large glass cases, “is our newest exhibit. No other zoo has one in captivity. We’re the first.” He beamed at Merlin. “You’ll be particularly interested in this one, your highness.”
Arthur suddenly had a horrible sense of foreboding. The reptile house was, after all, far too large for all the small creatures that they were passing. “Perhaps you should tell us what…” he began, but it was too late. The double doors they were being taken through opened up to reveal a huge pen dug down well into the earth and that rose up to the domed ceiling of the reptile house. And there, right in the middle of it, curled up on a rock and shivering miserably, was a small white dragon.
Merlin gave a cry of distress and raced to the glass, pressing his face against it. The little dragon raised its head and looked towards him, then gave a plaintive, wailing call. Arthur could see Merlin react to it, staggering a little, almost as if the call had physically hit him, and he ran to the man’s side.
“Merlin? Are you okay?”
Merlin gazed at him in confusion, almost as if he were looking at a complete stranger, then looked back at the dragon. The creature was struggling to its feet now, shaking out stunted little wings. “I need to go to him.” The dragon gave another cry, and Merlin gasped as if it had hurt him, then started moving along the side of the cage, searching for a way in, pressing on the glass. “Let me in.” He sounded dazed.
Arthur stared for a moment, then turned to glare at Mordred. “Let him in. Unlock the door.”
The man took a step back. “It’s a dragon!”
“Well, I can see that!” Arthur snapped. “What the hell were you thinking of? He’s a dragonlord! Open the door.”
“It’s priceless… and it might be dangerous…”
“It won’t harm him.” Arthur didn’t know a lot about dragonlords, but he was fairly certain of that one fact. He was aware that the cameraman was still filming and that he was unlikely to come out of this well, but that would all have to be dealt with later. “They have some sort of bond. Now open the door!” He shouted the last few words, and Merlin turned to look at him, eyes wide with concern.
“Arthur, he’s frightened.”
“We’ll get you in there, don’t worry,” Arthur assured him. He glanced back at Mordred, who was just standing there apparently at a loss as to what to do. “Unlock the door, that’s an order! Now!”
A female employee of the zoo made the decision for him. She hurried forward with a key and quickly opened the door to the cage, standing back immediately as Merlin rushed past her and raced over to the dragon. He greeted it in a foreign tongue, his voice sounding deeper, stronger than Arthur had ever heard it.
“What’s he doing?” Mordred breathed. “God, if that thing attacks him…”
“Of course it won’t attack him!” Arthur snapped. He wasn’t quite sure what Merlin was doing, but he was fairly sure from the way that the little dragon was behaving that the Mercian prince was quite safe. The dragon was struggling to stand up, and was trying to rub his head affectionately against Merlin’s chest. The crying had stopped, although it was making other noises. Merlin seemed to be responding, almost as if they were talking to each other. Arthur wished he’d bothered to find out a bit more about a dragonlord and what they could do.
“Perhaps we should shut the cage door?” Mordred wondered. “If he’s really safe… those things can be dangerous.”
Arthur glared at the man, seeing his cowardice for what it was. He certainly wasn’t going to stand for Merlin being locked in anywhere. “The only thing that’s dangerous here is that you’ve seen fit to capture a dragon! There are laws…”
“It was crippled!” the man exclaimed. “The law states if they’re crippled it’s kinder to keep them in captivity. It would die out in the wild!”
“Not in Mercia,” one of the cameramen pointed out. “There are protected parks where we let them live out their days. It’s not captivity, and they’re run by charities. My kids love going there at the weekends. None of the dragons are shut in like this. They’d hate it.”
“Sounds like the sort of place this one should go to.” Arthur looked back at the dark pen. He wondered if the zoo had employed any real experts on dragoncare. On impulse, he walked in, ignoring the worried protests from Leon when he did so.
Merlin was sitting with the dragon now, getting it to lift its wings so that he could look closer. Arthur slowly walked towards them, not wanting to startle the beast.
“How badly is it hurt?” he asked softly.
“Bad enough,” Merlin answered without looking around. “Someone’s deliberately clipped his wings. He’s young, we might be able to do something to help him if we get him to a specialist right away but he’ll never be able to fly as well as he should if he hadn’t been maimed.”
The dragon gave a low wail as Merlin started to stretch out his second wing, and Merlin immediately stopped and began making soothing noises. “Sorry… sorry, it’s okay, shhh… I need to get him out of here, Arthur.”
Arthur had gathered that much. He crouched down beside Merlin, still speaking softly so as not to scare the frightened creature further. “Tell me what you need. Gwen’s got a whole team of people on the end of her phone, we’ll have him home in no time.”
“Thank you.” Merlin looked up, briefly. “Someone cut him, Arthur. I’ve heard about this in other countries, I didn’t think Camelot would do it. It’s to get around the law, have a captive dragon through the loopholes. It’s a clean, debilitating slice.”
Arthur held his gaze steadily, trying to convey his own sincerity. “Camelot didn’t do this. One greedy citizen did it and I’ll have them closed down for it. And I’ll sort out getting your dragon home. So, details, Merlin. Tell me what you need.”
If anyone had told Arthur a week previously that he would be sitting in the cargo hold of an aircraft in a special custom-built crate with an injured young dragon and the heir to the Mercian throne, and flying back to Mercia in said crate, he would have laughed at them. The hold was pressurised and temperate, and there were all sorts of health and safety guidelines in place for take-off and landing, but all the same he was in the cargo hold.
The little dragon (Aithusa, Merlin said he was called) was extremely well behaved, though Arthur supposed that was largely due to Merlin. Aithusa lay quietly for the entire flight, with his head resting in Merlin’s lap for most of it. At one stage he even let Arthur take Merlin’s place while the young dragonlord stretched his legs. It was an amazing feeling, having the abused creature trust him enough to do that, though Arthur noticed that as soon as they hit a little turbulence Aithusa was looking round for Merlin again.
Gwen had been amazing. Arthur was sure she needed a promotion after this. She’d organised the flight, called a number Merlin had given her to ensure there was a sanctuary waiting to receive them in Mercia, and had then cancelled everything they were supposed to be doing for the rest of the day. Probably her team had done much of it, but it had all been very fast, very slick, and removed any risk that Merlin and his people might think they’d had anything to do with the cruelty shown to the little dragon.
Arthur had vague recollections of shouting a lot, particularly at the income-hungry Mordred and his staff. He hadn’t been able to help himself, Merlin had been horribly upset by the plight of the dragon and Arthur didn’t like seeing the dragon or Merlin in such distress. Shouting, he supposed, was probably something he’d learned from his father. Gwen’s kind heart meant that she had needed no encouragement at all for her part in it, he’d seen her eyes well up with tears when Merlin had shown her the damaged wing, and she’d been on her phone in moments. He supposed that the cancellation of the rest of that day’s tour, and most of all the fact that he was flying off to Mercia with no notice and little in the way of security, was going to earn him one of the more memorable breakfast meetings with his father tomorrow, but right then he didn’t care. He was content enough, sitting there, watching Merlin with the dragon.
“We’re starting our descent,” the pilot’s voice came over the intercom. “Either strap yourselves in or hold on tight.”
Merlin looked up, and caught Arthur gazing at him. He smiled, and Arthur thought perhaps it was the same warm, gentle, adoring smile he was giving the precious dragon. Arthur didn’t think anyone had ever looked at him like that before.
“You’d better strap yourself in,” Merlin told him.
“I’m staying in here with you.”
Merlin shook his head. “If you want to help, sit outside and put on a seatbelt. If it’s a rough landing, you’ll be more help if you’re safely out there than if we’re both crushed by an unintentionally flying dragon.”
Aithusa gave a mournful little cry, and Merlin bent over him again, stroking his neck, and said something in the dragon tongue. “He’s worried he’s going to hurt me.”
“He’s not the only one.” Arthur had helped lift Aithusa onto the trolley that had transported him to the plane. The dragon might be small, but he certainly wasn’t light. “Don’t risk it, Merlin. Come and sit out there with me. Aithusa wants you to.”
The dragon gave a plaintive wail, which Arthur hoped meant he agreed.
“And you’ll ruin the peace talks if you get squashed. I really want those peace talks to work, don’t you?”
Merlin looked up, and there was that loving look again. Arthur thought he could drown in it and die happy. “Oh yes. I’m not done with Camelot yet.”
“I’m not done with Mercia either,” Arthur whispered, leaning close to breathe in Merlin’s ear. They really were the most ridiculously large ears, and possibly the most adorable at the same time. Arthur wondered if he was losing it if he was focussing on Merlin’s ears now, of all things. “I’m not done with their prince. I don’t want him hurt, or worse. I’d like to take him back to the palace after this, and go on a private tour…”
Merlin’s eyes widened slightly, and Arthur could see a faint blush starting to colour his pale skin.
“…just the two of us. I’d like to take him back to my rooms, and lock the door, and take…”
Aithusa drowned out what Arthur wanted to take with a lengthy diatribe of his own. Merlin looked up at Arthur a little sheepishly.
“What did he say?”
“Um… he’s really happy for us that you… um… want to mate with me and he thinks we should breed a whole herd of little dragonlords… but can we both stop now because he doesn’t want to hear all the details.”
“Cockblocker,” Arthur told the white dragon, though there was no malice in his voice. Aithusa just gave a little sneeze… although a little sneeze, even for such a small dragon, resulted in a tiny puff of smoke.
The pilot called over the intercom again that they needed to strap themselves in, and Arthur got up. Merlin, he could tell, was going to stay exactly where he was. He was more than tempted to do the same himself, but Merlin was right that he needed to be safe and ready to help if things went wrong.
“Be careful,” Arthur warned, and then on impulse leaned down and kissed him. Merlin tasted of hope and promises and the horrible coffee they’d been given on the plane. It tasted better on Merlin. “I’ll see you when we’ve landed.”
The smile he got back was nothing like the one Merlin gave the dragon, nothing at all.
The dragon sanctuary was an amazing place.
Percival, the head ranger, was a giant of a man who boarded the plane as soon as it landed. He seemed to know Merlin quite well, and Arthur tried not to feel jealous at the friendly way Merlin greeted him. Aithusa seemed happy enough with the newcomer. Just a few hours with Merlin had calmed the dragon right down.
Getting Aithusa’s crate off the plane was a lot harder than getting him on there, but Percival’s team managed it, and soon the little dragon was safely in a warm and dry stable where he could rest and be examined and treated. Percival was convinced they would be able to heal most of the damage, and hoped that in time Aithusa would be strong enough to fly again.
As Merlin was busy with the dragon, and likely to be for some time, Arthur took some time to call Gwen and find out what was going on at home. Unsurprisingly his father had already heard about the trip and was furious. Arthur wasn’t looking forward to their return.
To kill time he wandered around the yard, peering into a couple of the stables but they all appeared to be empty so he walked back into Aithusa’s stall and leaned against the wall, waiting. He supposed this was what it was like for Merlin, visiting Camelot. Everything was slightly different to what he was used to, and he wasn’t the crown prince that everyone was interested in. In a way, it was a refreshing change. Someone gave him coffee. It tasted different to anything he’d had in Camelot, slightly more bitter with a stronger aroma, very good. He would be asking Merlin to send him some, he decided.
One of the cameramen had left, presumably taking their footage back to the studio, but the other one was still busily filming Merlin and Aithusa. When Merlin finally got up and obviously very reluctantly left Aithusa to Percival’s care, the cameraman stayed focused on the dragon.
“Dragons are very important to my people,” Merlin explained as they left the stable. “It’s rare to use a plane in Mercia, most of our travel is via these beautiful creatures, and they have countless other powers. Whoever crippled Aithusa would be committing an act close to treason as far as we’re concerned.”
“You’ll have the full support of Camelot in finding the perpetrator,” Arthur promised. “You have my word.”
“Thank you.” Merlin looked up at the sky worriedly. It was starting to grow dark now. “Have you called home? I don’t want your father thinking we’ve kidnapped you.”
Arthur shrugged. “He knows where I am. Apparently he’s in a foul mood. There was supposed to be that big parade this afternoon, remember? So I’m in no hurry to go home.” He looked around. “Where are the dragons? I’d like to see them.”
“Mostly out hunting, probably. They roam very freely here. You could meet my father’s dragon, if you like. He lives here when my father doesn’t need him. If he’s in a good mood he might even let us ride him.”
“Or he might eat me,” Arthur pointed out.
That didn’t make Arthur feel any more confident, although he took heart from the fact that Merlin smirked when he said it.
Kilgharrah was the biggest dragon Arthur had ever seen. Admittedly he was only the fourth dragon Arthur had ever seen, one being Aithusa and the other two being a couple of small green dragons that had flown overhead whilst he was walking with Merlin down to see Kilgharrah. He was almost as big as the plane they’d flown in on, and the gust of air as he flew down to meet them made Arthur stagger back a little.
“Young Emrys.” The dragon inclined his head a little in a respectful bow. “And the Pendragon boy.” There was no such bow for Arthur. “Two sides of the same coin.”
Arthur didn’t like this dragon as much as Aithusa, he decided. Boy, indeed.
“He likes to sprout about destiny,” Merlin whispered. “You should have heard him when we announced the trip to Camelot. He’s very old and comes out with some strange things.”
“Not so old that I can’t hear you, young dragonlord,” Kilgharrah rumbled. “You have not succeeded your father yet.”
“Why can I understand him?” Arthur whispered. “I couldn’t understand Aithusa.”
“With great age comes great wisdom,” the dragon replied. “I have knowledge of many tongues. Can you say the same? Or would you go from country to country, expecting everyone to learn your language and making no effort of your own to learn theirs?”
It was the latter, but Arthur didn’t think he would dignify the dragon’s accusation with a reply. The great beast’s huge head moved closer, examining him. Arthur tried not to flinch, even when he could feel the creature’s warm breath.
“That’s enough,” Merlin warned. “I brought Arthur out here to meet you. Arthur could make a difference, if he could see dragons can be good, peaceful creatures…”
Kilgharrah laughed at that, loud and hard. “Ah, young dragonlord. You and Arthur are destined to make a great change, to bind your lands together and build a new Albion. Yes…”
Arthur looked up, waiting for the dragon to finish. The huge scaly head was focused on him, as if Kilgharrah was assessing him. And then, completely without warning, he was engulfed in a blast of cold fire from the dragon’s nostrils.
For a moment it was all Arthur could do not to scream, expecting a searing, probably fatal pain. There was nothing, just a gentle warmth throughout his body as if he’d drunk a warmed wine on a cold day. Merlin was yelling furiously at the dragon, who appeared to be just mildly amused.
“I’m okay,” Arthur assured him. “Merlin, I’m okay.”
“You should listen, young Emrys. Now take your mate and climb up on my back. I will take you both back to Camelot.”
Mate… There was something satisfyingly primal about the term, and Merlin didn’t seem to be rejecting it. In fact, he was giving Arthur a small, slightly self-conscious smile. Arthur was starting to see what Merlin saw in these dragons. Kilgharrah was considerably larger and more terrifying than sweet little Aithusa, but at least he accepted what Arthur hoped was his blossoming relationship with Merlin. If only their fathers were likely to be as approving. Ah yes, his father…
“Dragons are banned…” Arthur began, but Merlin shook his head.
“Not always. As long as we call ahead we’ll be okay. How do you think we arrived?”
That, Arthur realised, was probably why they had been wearing those strange outfits. Merlin had fetched them both a couple of thick overcoats and a pair of gloves before they’d gone out to see the dragons. Arthur had been getting overly warm during the walk and grumbled they were unnecessary, but they didn’t seem enough now. “Won’t we be cold?”
“He’s like a furnace,” Merlin assured him. “Come on, call Gwen or Leon or someone. Get us clearance. Kilgharrah knows the approved route. Have Gwaine waiting at the other end to take photos, he’s probably still sulking about being left behind when we left with Aithusa and the Mercian camera crew.”
Arthur did as he was bid, and was a little put out to find Gwen wasn’t at all surprised that they would be flying back. Apparently he was the only one who hadn’t seen Kilgharrah arrive with the male side of the Mercian royal family on his back a few days earlier.
In the meantime, Merlin was climbing up onto the dragon’s back. He looked natural, right at home there, and Arthur supposed that he probably was. Cautiously, Arthur took the hand that was held out to him, and climbed a little awkwardly up behind Merlin.
“You’ll need to hold onto me,” Merlin told him. “Don’t let go.”
Arthur had no intention of letting go of Merlin. Ever. He wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, pressing his body up close and resting his chin on Merlin’s shoulder.
“This is already feeling like the best way to travel,” Arthur breathed into Merlin’s ear. “Very cosy.”
“Yeah, I can feel how cosy you’re getting. Don’t get any ideas.”
“Too late!” Arthur snuggled closer, letting one hand slip inside Merlin’s heavy coat and start to explore, trying to find a way under his shirt.
Kilgharrah gave a mighty roar, glared back at the pair of them, and then took off without any warning at all. If Merlin hadn’t grabbed hold of Arthur’s wandering hand, he thought he might have fallen off and been left behind. Arthur clung on grimly as they rapidly ascended, and decided he wouldn’t be trying anything further with Merlin until they were safely back down on the ground. Obviously the dragon didn’t approve of them enjoying the ride too much.
The initial ascent was fast and breathtaking. The dragon sanctuary grew smaller beneath them, and he could clearly see the lights of the courtyard and the road beyond. Further in the distance were the dark shadows of the Mercian mountain ranges, vast and oppressive, a single road that cut through them provided the only light there. The cold evening air rushed past their faces, but Merlin was right about how warm the massive dragon was, and anyway it was a good excuse to keep his face close to the warmth of Merlin’s neck.
“Okay?” Merlin asked as the dragon levelled out and started to head towards the mountains.
“It’s amazing,” Arthur breathed. “I never thought it would be like this.”
Merlin pulled away and turned to look back at him. Arthur knew his own delighted grin was probably equal to the one splitting Merlin’s face. “I knew you’d love it!”
Arthur just nodded, still smiling. Merlin settled back down and Arthur drew him close again. He could feel the strength of the creature beneath him, and see the powerful wings beating steadily. And far below them the tiny road that would, he thought, eventually lead them home.
The flight took several hours, and by the time the lights of Camelot came into view, impossibly bright against the night sky, and unmistakeable, Arthur was starting to ache from clinging on with his arms and legs for so long. He could tell Merlin felt the same from the way he was starting to fidget.
“Keep still,” boomed Kilgharrah. “This sea of light blinds me, I need no further distractions.” He was staying high, Arthur noticed. They had flown low over the Mercian valleys and Arthur had enjoyed the view. But once they reached Camelot Kilgharrah had climbed higher, making them harder to spot. Arthur could imagine why. He had no wish to be shot down by his own people, protected route or not.
The Eye, the Houses of Parliament, the Shard, the vast river running through the city… all of them were visible in the distance, looking like little toys. And as Kilgharrah finally began to descend, flying low over Hyde Park, Arthur could see cars and finally people all staring up at them and pointing. Kilgharrah sailed so low over the Wellington Arch that Arthur thought they might hit it, then they were past, and he could see Constitution Hill and the palace. They were over the walls, and down into the privacy of the gardens in moments.
It hadn’t been the most subtle and inconspicuous of arrivals, but Arthur didn’t care. He waved enthusiastically at Gwaine, who was there with Gwen and Morgana, recording it all.
“That was brilliant!” he yelled as he slid off the dragon’s back. “Amazing! You all have to try it. It was just…” He turned to watch Merlin slide down after him. “Amazing! Really, truly…”
“Amazing,” boomed Kilgharrah.
“Oh my God it can talk!” Gwaine gasped, and started taking more pictures. He stopped a moment later, seeing the dragon’s disapproving glare had been turned towards him.
“He,” Arthur emphasised, glad he hadn’t made that particular faux pas, “is very old and wise and can speak many languages.”
“Creep,” Merlin whispered. “He… oh.”
Arthur didn’t need to look to see why Merlin’s suddenly sounded so apprehensive. Their respective fathers were striding across the lawns. Neither looked particularly pleased.
“Balinor, get that thing out of here before it eats one of the corgis!”
Arthur wouldn’t mind if Kilgharrah did, they were annoying, yappy little things that were always getting under his feet and had on several occasions alerted his father to just how very late and drunk he had arrived home.
Balinor rolled his eyes, and just for a moment Arthur could see the family resemblance with his son. “He won’t touch your dogs.” He held out a hand in greeting to the dragon. “Thank you for bringing the boys safely home. Are you in need of food before your return?”
“We have corgis,” Arthur whispered to Merlin, who couldn’t quite stifle a giggle. Uther looked at them both furiously, and Merlin straightened, immediately serious.
“I will feed when I reach Mercia.” Kilgharrah bowed his head to King Balinor, then turned to look at Arthur. “Enjoy your destiny, young Pendragon,” he rumbled.
“What was that?” Uther spluttered. “Was that a threat? Did that thing just threaten my son? Balinor, you agreed these creatures were to be kept under control!”
There was no mistaking the contemptuous snort that Kilgharrah gave. The great dragon spread his wings and rose up into the night sky, evidently having had enough.
“He’s magnificent,” Arthur breathed, watching him go.
Uther looked less impressed. When Arthur turned to his father, he could see that he was about to pay for his exciting day and, probably more so, for his sudden enthusiasm for dragons.
Arthur’s shoulders slumped, the fun part of the day definitely was over. He followed his father back to the palace, Merlin at his side.
“It was a parade, Arthur! Have you no idea how much those things cost? Roads were closed, diversion signs went up. And you vanished. We’ve had to close Black’s zoo down temporarily while there’s an investigation as to how they acquired that damned dragon! He’s threatening to sue!”
“So am I,” Balinor put in quietly. “We have agreements. If he tries to make a fuss about this, he’ll regret it.”
Uther, not used to being interrupted, even by fellow kings, glared at him then carried on.
“What do you think it says to people when you can’t be bothered to show up? It’s not as if it’s difficult, sitting there in a car smiling and waving! You’ve managed it before now even when you’re hungover! In fact you usually manage it hungover! What were you thinking of?”
“The dragon needed to be taken to a sanctuary quickly, and couldn’t go through the trauma of the flight without a dragonlord,” Merlin put in. “There were only two dragonlords in Camelot, and we could hardly pull my father out of the talks. So I had to do it and Arthur helped me.”
“Very commendable,” Balinor agreed.
“It was just an animal!” Uther sputtered. “It could have waited. It wasn’t dying!”
“Actually they’re very intelligent…” Arthur began.
“Silence! Don’t argue with me! I knew your behaviour yesterday was too good to be true. Morgana.” He looked to his daughter. “You’ll be accompanying Merlin for the rest of the tour. I hope you can show a little more common sense than your brother.”
Morgana gave Arthur a brief, sympathetic look. “I don’t think Arthur did anything wrong…”
“He rode a dragon through Camelot! People saw him! What kind of message does that send out?” Uther glared at Gwen who had just entered the room and was hovering in the doorway. “And what do you want? You’re lucky I don’t fire you for allowing this to happen! Did you organise this circus?”
“Don’t blame Gwen,” Arthur put in, and was almost drowned out by Morgana and Merlin saying more or less the same thing. “She does a good job.”
“Thank you,” Gwen walked forward, carefully not looking at Uther, and switched on the TV screen in the corner of the room. “I think you all need to see this before anyone does anything hasty.”
It was a news broadcast from CBC1. There was footage from earlier in the day, at the zoo, showing Aithusa interspersed with footage of Merlin comforting the dragon and Arthur raging at Mordred.
Arthur watched himself, detached as if it were a different person. He’d thought Gwen had done everything, but he appeared to be furiously ordering people around and had helped lift the dragon into the transport when it arrived. He winced, as he saw himself bellowing at the director of the zoo, seeing the man cringing before him. He would do it again in a heartbeat, but he knew his father was going to be furious.
“You were brilliant,” Merlin whispered at his side. “Thank you.”
“It’s all over the Mercian media. And ours too,” Gwen told them. “Arthur’s approval rating is going sky-high over there. It might not be what we had planned, but it’s done wonders for the talks. Nobody likes cruelty to animals.”
“Also,” Monmouth put in quickly, “there's been a development. It appears that it may have been a setup. The dragon was acquired from a seller in Essetir who almost certainly acquired it illegally. We don’t know if the management at the zoo knew of this, but apparently Mordred Black hailed from Essetir originally, and has now vanished so it looks very likely. Obviously King Cenred has a great deal to lose if these talks succeed. We’re still investigating, but it would appear the intention was, with the Mercian press there, to cause an outrage and have public opinion in both countries turn against the peace talks. Thanks to Arthur, he’s failed quite spectacularly.”
“Coming back home on the dragon was a masterstroke,” Gwen added. “Look.”
There was a short piece of Gwaine’s footage showing Kilgharrah gliding down to the palace grounds, both his passengers clearly having enjoyed the ride. Arthur could see his arms wrapped tightly around Merlin’s waist, and noticed how he lingered after they landed, saw the way Merlin looked back over his shoulder with a huge, far too pleased with himself grin, and wondered how anyone could possibly not notice their obvious attraction to each other.
Morgana looked across at him and raised an eyebrow. Well, he’d known she would miss nothing. The commentator was talking about friendship and other bullshit, and Arthur was happy to let as many people as possible continue to think that way.
“A dragon,” Uther growled. “In the grounds of Buckingham Palace.”
“It was certainly a lot quieter than using a helicopter,” Arthur told him. He was, after all, damned anyway. “More eco-friendly as well.”
His father’s nostrils actually flared. It was, Arthur thought, a little like watching the dragon.
“It was admirable,” King Balinor told him. “You must be very proud of your son.”
Uther said nothing. Arthur could see a tiny little twitch starting just above his eyebrow.
“Mercian TV want to interview both the princes,” Gwen put in quickly. “Perhaps, if we’re done here, Your Majesty, I could brief them both? It’s all excellent publicity. Cenred is probably tearing his hair out at how very wrong it’s all gone for him.”
Uther gave a brief, curt nod. Arthur took his opportunity and escaped, though he had the feeling it might only be a temporary reprieve.
“It could have gone far worse,” Merlin pointed out later as he walked with Arthur through the mostly deserted palace corridors.
Gwen’s interview had turned out to be several interviews and had gone on for hours. By the time they were finished, Morgana had reported that Uther had retired to bed and that they were safe at least until the morning. No further mention had been made of Gwen losing her job, and apparently Uther had decided that although Morgana should accompany them to keep Arthur in line, Arthur would still be showing Merlin the sights of Camelot.
“Well, your father seems to like me, anyway. That’s something.”
Balinor had given his own interview, praising Arthur for his open-mindedness, and expressing great hope for the future peace between their countries. It was clear to all that what he wanted to add was that it was a refreshing change from Uther’s attitude.
“Yep. Whether he’d like you as much if he knew you were planning to deflower me and breed little dragonlords from me is another matter,” Merlin said seriously.
Arthur stopped and stared at him. “Deflower? What… you aren’t… you never…?” This was not part of the plan. He’d assumed someone else had to have got there first. Hadn’t Morgana said there had been reports a few years back of a boyfriend? “Do you get pregnant every time or something?”
Merlin stared back at him for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Oh Arthur, you should see your face! No! Of course I’m not. Obviously I don’t shag everything that moves like you do…”
“Not true. Just stories in the papers.” Arthur started to walk on again, moving closer to Merlin so that their shoulders brushed as they walked.
“Gwaine said it was true.”
“Gwaine probably made up half the stories.” Not entirely, and Gwaine had first-hand knowledge of Arthur’s preferences on more than one occasion, but Merlin didn’t need to know much about that. “If you’d slept with him he’d start making up the stories about you as well.”
“Yes. So steer clear.”
Merlin nodded, slipping his hand into Arthur’s and walking closely beside him so that if they ran into someone it wouldn’t be obvious. For a moment or two they walked on quietly. Arthur wanted nothing more than to push him into the nearest empty room, lock the door and shag him senseless. But there were cameras and master keys, and servants walking around and all sorts of other reasons why that was a bad idea.
“I’d get lost in this place,” Merlin admitted. “I took three wrong turns on the way down to the car this morning.”
“I’ve lived here most of my life,” Arthur admitted. The part of his life after his mother had died. She’d preferred Clarence House but he could barely remember that. “You get used to it. Look, my rooms are down here, but if you go up this staircase you’ll find yourself at the end of the corridor where your room is.”
Merlin gazed at the staircase. “Can we go to my room? I’ll never find my way back here, I’m bound to be spotted wandering around lost and doing the walk of shame.”
Arthur didn’t care which room they went to, as long as they got there soon. He led Merlin up the stairs, wincing at the way the floorboards creaked as they sneaked along the corridor, and slipped quietly into his room.
Arthur rarely visited the guest quarters, and didn’t pause long to look around. Merlin locked the door behind them, bolted it, and then turned to look at Arthur, a nervous little half-smile playing about his lips. It was irresistible. Arthur kissed him, gently at first but Merlin wasn’t having that, pushing him up against the door and kissing him back harder, reaching up and under Arthur’s shirt, trying to undress him without breaking the kiss. Arthur pushed back, herding Merlin towards the bed, managing to kick off one shoe and half undo Merlin’s fly before they both stumbled over and fell on the bed, laughing and still trying to get each other’s clothes off.
Suddenly Arthur groaned, realising. “Lube and condoms. You’re not going to have any in here.”
“Course not,” Merlin reached up, peppering kisses down Arthur’s neck and chest as he pulled off his shirt and flung it aside. “I was going to visit a country that hates us with a royal prince who drowns defenceless soft toys. But I’m clean, and don’t you get tested too?”
“Every week,” Arthur admitted. It was one of the things his father had insisted on when he’d realised Arthur was gay. No public displays, no scandals and no STDs. At least there’s no risk that you’ll get some gold-digging girl pregnant, Uther had reasoned somewhat bitterly. “But it’s not just that. Won’t you… you know, the baby thing that you can do?”
Merlin looked at him almost in pity. “Baby thing?”
“Well,” Arthur took the opportunity to finish undressing and climb between the sheets. “I don’t want you going back to Mercia with any extra souvenirs.” He picked up the little plush dragon that Merlin had left on his bedside table. “You’ve already got this.”
Merlin laughed, and took the dragon away from him, setting it down well out of Arthur’s reach, then for good measure turning it away from them, which made Arthur laugh. “Don’t worry about that. I’m as safe as you are. Dragonlords only have children when they choose to. When I marry, there’ll be a ceremony. It’s quite rare, whatever your people have assumed, and I don’t even know what happens for sure as I’ve never seen one. I know it’s very secluded, very private and involves dragon magic. It’s to make sure there is never a dragonlord conceived that the dragons themselves won’t approve of. It’s why there’s such a strong bond. So you don’t have to worry about being careful.” He had finished undressing whilst he was talking, and climbed in beside Arthur. “You really, really don’t. In fact…”
“Enough talking,” Arthur whispered, pulling him towards him, and silencing him with a kiss that Merlin met eagerly. “Enough.”
The next few days were, Arthur thought later, the best of his life.
He’d woken every morning with Merlin’s body cuddling him close, always gravitating towards him even if Arthur had got up in the night. Merlin claimed it was just the warmth of him, that the palace was cold and as a dragonlord he was used to fire. But Arthur would watch him sleep, and saw how he would frown if Arthur moved away, and then edge closer until he was snuggled up against Arthur again. Then his face would settle back into relaxed contentedness. It was a simple thing, but Arthur thought it was one of the sweetest things he’d ever seen. He could hardly bear the thought that soon the talks would be over, one way or another, and Merlin would return home. It could be a long time before they were together again.
On the fifth day of the talks, they were lying in later than usual. There were no engagements until the afternoon, and Arthur had hung a change of clothes in the bathroom in case they were disturbed. Merlin had asked for breakfast in his room, and as enough for three or four people had been brought up, they sat in bed eating it, sharing toast and enjoying each other’s company.
“Do you think the talks are going to succeed?” Merlin asked suddenly. Arthur slopped his tea in the saucer, cursed, and managed to spill some of it in the bed for good measure. “Oh, nice. Well?”
“I don’t know. I hope so. I want to visit Aithusa and see how he’s getting on.”
Merlin beamed at him. “I got a message from Percival. Too early to tell on the wing, but Aithusa’s on his feet and walking around, into everything. And they’ve had a new arrival, a blue from the north, really small and with a deformed wing. The two of them are getting friendly. See, happy ending. And that film crew have been back, they’re doing a documentary on Aithusa’s recovery. So you’ll get to see him.” He paused. “It would be better if you could come back with me, though. Perhaps one day.”
Arthur nodded thoughtfully. “You know, we could marry and bind the two lands together forever,” he said as casually as he could. “When, you know, we’re both king. No peace conferences needed. Everything equal.”
Merlin didn’t reply at once, but when Arthur found the courage to look at Merlin again, those blue eyes were gazing at him lovingly. “Really?”
“Really. I know it’s only been a few days, but I feel like I’ve known you forever.”
“Like we fit? Like we’re meant to be? I know. I feel it too.”
“So, what do you say?” Arthur fingered the edge of the duvet nervously. “I mean… if you want to. I hate the thought of not waking up with you every morning, and I’m sick of sneaking around, of watching people push their eligible offspring at you wherever we go.”
“You know I would, in a heartbeat,” Merlin told him. “But our fathers… well, your father really, because I think mine would come round, he likes you. Your father would never accept me.”
Arthur knew it was true. But there had to be a way. There were only a couple of days left.
“If the talks work, I could visit,” Arthur began.
There was a thunderous rapping on the door. “Merlin!”
“My father!” Merlin hissed. “Quick, hide in the bathroom.” He scrambled out of bed, pulled on the nearest pair of pants then helped Arthur pick up his clothes. “Hurry!” he hissed, then shouted to his father that he would be there in a moment.
“Never mind!” Balinor replied. “Just throw your things in your case, we’re leaving right now! I’m done talking to that man.”
Arthur and Merlin stared at each other in horror.
“I’ll be back in two minutes. Be ready.”
Merlin pulled his case out and started throwing things in. He looked every bit as miserable as Arthur felt. Reluctantly, Arthur helped him, silently emptying the closet while Merlin quickly got dressed.
“We can call each other,” Merlin ventured. “Email. Skype, we can do that. It’s not like we’re that far away. Maybe we could meet up at the border sometimes?”
“I don’t want just sometimes,” Arthur told him, packing up a small tablet computer and cushioning it with socks. “This isn’t fair.”
“Life isn’t fair, Arthur. Get dressed, you can come and see me off.”
The sound of Balinor stomping back down the corridor was clearly audible. Arthur scrambled into the crumpled clothes that had been lying on the floor most of the night. Merlin winced and Arthur just shrugged. There was no time to go and get the fresh set.
Merlin ran over and opened the door, and his father stormed in. “That man is a narrow-minded, egocentric, bigoted…” he paused, seeing Arthur. “Ah. Arthur.” He looked down at the creased trousers and crumpled shirt that Arthur was wearing.
“Arthur came along to say goodbye,” Merlin put in. “You know we’ve become friends.”
“Just pulled on whatever I had to hand when Merlin rang,” Arthur confirmed.
“And locked the door after you came in?” Balinor queried. “Your father lies, Arthur. You seem to be a better man, generally. So try not to fall into the same habit. Merlin, are you ready?”
Merlin gazed desperately across at Arthur. Arthur wanted to grab hold of him and never let him go, tell Balinor to leave by himself. But instead he picked up Merlin’s case, and handed it to him silently.
“Thank you,” Merlin whispered. “I’ll call you when I’m home.”
Arthur nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“I’ll visit Aithusa and send you some pictures.”
“Merlin, come on,” Balinor snapped. “Arthur,” he held out a hand. “It’s been a pleasure. You’ll be a far better king than your father. And you would be welcome in Mercia,” he glanced at his son. “For any reason.”
Merlin looked as if he were going to cry as he followed his father out, though if he did it was after they were airborne because none of the photos Gwaine showed Arthur later had Merlin crying. It was as Arthur had expected before Merlin arrived. It seemed Arthur had a real knack for making him leave in tears.
Picking up the remainder of his clothes, and a few other pieces that Merlin had left behind, Arthur looked back at the room one last time. Soon it would be cleaned and aired, and there would be no trace of either of them. A flash of bright green caught his eye. Merlin’s dragon had fallen on the floor and been missed when they’d hurriedly packed. Arthur picked it up, and held it close.
“So the Mercian visit was a complete disaster?”
It had been over a month since Merlin left, but the news was still all about the failed peace talks. Arthur was only half-listening to the broadcast. It was on in the background, that awful Nimueh Lake was interviewing his father’s chief Mercian advisor, Professor Gaius. Gaius was secretly one of Arthur’s favourites out of all his father’s advisors. In fact, he was probably the only one that Arthur actually liked. It was the way that he never actually disagreed with Uther as such, just looked at him with that amazing eyebrow climbing higher and higher up his face until, often as not, Uther reconsidered what he said. He was probably the only one who never seemed to be afraid of Uther, and that was something to be admired in itself.
“Oh hardly,” Gaius protested. He didn’t like Nimueh, Arthur knew. He wondered how she had persuaded Gaius to appear on the show. “Things could have gone better, but we are talking about two very strong and powerful kings from very different backgrounds, very different countries. These were initial talks. You forget that they lasted five days. Last time, the talks were finished before they’d been here a day. Both countries want peace. This was a very positive step.”
It was quite an optimistic attitude. Arthur smiled fondly as he saw that the studio had put a picture of himself and Merlin on either side of their fathers on the screen behind Gaius. It had been taken on the third day, and Merlin was looking relaxed and happy, glowing even. So did Arthur, for that matter.
“But King Balinor left in a fury, did he not? He stormed out of the palace and vowed never to return.”
There was a quick piece of footage showing Balinor striding towards a waiting helicopter, Merlin hurrying along behind him, head down. They hadn’t even waited for Kilgharrah to collect them.
“Of course he did. As I said, King Balinor is a strong-minded individual, as is King Uther. This will take time.”
“But you believe it will happen, that we will have an alliance with Mercia eventually?”
“Without question. Think of the future. While the talks didn’t go as well as we might wish, there was the tour by the princes. That went far better than anybody had hoped and was a huge success.”
The picture cut away to footage of Arthur and Merlin walking along together, Merlin laughing at something Arthur had said. Then it focussed on them coming out of the theatre together, Merlin clutching that stupid dragon toy happily. There were a number of other similar clips, and then it moved to the zoo.
“This part didn’t go as well,” Nimueh said, talking over the footage.
“It went very well. The two young men who will one day rule both kingdoms worked together to prevent things escalating, and ensured that the dragon went home. I believe there has been some very positive reporting in Mercia of Arthur’s role in freeing the beast. There’s even talk over there of setting up a reciprocal visit, with Arthur touring key sites in Mercia.”
Arthur couldn’t imagine his father agreeing to that for a moment, but he let himself daydream about the idea for a few moments. There was some footage of the two of them doing a walkabout, Merlin bending over to talk to a little girl. Arthur felt his heart wrench at the sight. He really, really missed Merlin.
“It’s all a very good omen for the future,” Gaius was saying.
“Excellent, thank you Professor Gaius.” Nimueh smiled brightly at the camera. “All very different from our last report on Prince Arthur.” The screen behind her filled with a picture of Arthur falling on his face outside a nightclub. Off-camera, the microphone managed to pick up Gaius’ exclamation of irritation and disgust.
“Now, after the break we’ve got our regular cookery slot with…”
Arthur turned the television off before it numbed his brain. Cookery slots had never appealed to him much, and he’d been feeling a bit queasy that morning anyway. Strange, when he’d spent most of the previous evening on Skype with Merlin and hadn’t drunk anything. Still, Gaius thinking that he and Merlin boded well for the future stayed with him. He glanced over at his computer and wondered if Merlin was online yet.
The one good thing about the end of the Mercian visit was that Arthur didn’t have to suffer breakfast with his father every day. In fact, it was barely more than once a week. He was largely left to his own devices first thing, and had taken to eating in his rooms whenever possible. Sometimes he just didn’t feel like eating, and it was easier to hide that if he was alone. Also it was the only part of the day he got to himself, a time when he could call Merlin. He cherished it.
“Are you putting on weight?” Uther regarded him critically (was there ever any other way?) over the top of his newspaper.
Arthur shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It was true that his tailor had taken out his trousers for the official function last week, and that there were few things in his wardrobe that didn’t feel a little snug. But it had been a busy month, what with all the fallout from the treaty discussions and everything, there had been a lot of official dinners and not much time to visit the gym. He was probably comfort eating. It was pretty miserable having found someone he could actually envisage spending the rest of his life with and then having them wrenched away from him like that.
“I’ll get rid of it.”
“Good. Looks bad in the papers, as if we’re greedy.”
Arthur imagined Merlin’s response to that, and put down the slice of toast he’d been about to help himself to. Thinking about it, he didn’t feel particularly hungry anyway at the moment. It was probably a reaction to the sickness bug he seemed to have picked up and which didn’t seem to want to go away. Though really he thought he should be losing weight rather than putting it on because of that.
Morgana gazed at him thoughtfully across the breakfast table. “You know, Arthur, you’re looking a little pale, and you’ve not been well recently. Perhaps you should have a doctor look at you?”
Uther snorted disparagingly. “Don’t be ridiculous, he’s as strong as an ox. Didn’t you see him last week taking part in that tug-of-war contest at that ridiculous country fete?”
“I saw him worn out that evening, yes,” Morgana mused. “Still, you know best.” Her tone suggested quite the opposite and Arthur wasn’t surprised when she followed him out and walked behind him all the way to his rooms. There was no chance of stopping her from following him in, so he didn’t bother trying.
“You look terrible, Arthur. What’s the matter with you? And don’t say nothing.”
“It is nothing. I’ve had a bug, nothing to worry about.” He took a seat, not bothering to offer her one because there was no need. She would just take one anyway. Sure enough, she sat down and fixed him with that penetrating gaze she had.
“I am worried. Have you seen a doctor? A proper doctor, not just the check-ups with the nurse.”
Arthur hadn’t even been bothering with the check-ups. There wasn’t any point, he wasn’t sleeping with anyone, not for months, not since Merlin left. He told Morgana as much.
“I don’t need a doctor, Morgana. It’s just a bug.”
“But you’re putting on weight, and being sick.” She pursed her lips together thoughtfully. “That’s contradictory, you know?”
“I’ve stopped being sick, that was just the virus.”
She reached into her pocket, and pulled out her phone. “I don’t agree. I’m calling someone.”
It was Professor Gaius, of all people, that she called. He was a medical doctor, after a fashion. But he’d studied in Mercia, and his knowledge had to be years out of date. Arthur liked the man, but had no wish to submit to any sort of examination from him.
“Absolutely not,” he insisted when she turned the phone off. But it was hopeless to disagree with her, like trying to hold back the tide.
And so he found himself sitting in his own bedroom, with Gaius insisting on listening to his stomach. Worse, whatever Gaius found left him with a faintly horrified look on his face and insisting that Arthur have a scan. He wouldn’t say why. It was, frankly, quite frightening. The scan was booked in for the afternoon.
Left alone, with nothing to do but think and worry, Arthur called Merlin.
Merlin loved modern technology.
He particularly loved Skype, which allowed him to sit and chat with Arthur for long periods of time each day. He could see Arthur’s face gazing back at him, see what he was wearing that day (or sometimes not wearing, though they hadn’t done that for a few weeks because Arthur often wasn’t feeling too good), hear his voice and see the little toy dragon sitting there next to the screen, because Arthur claimed it was waiting for him to come back and collect it.
Arthur didn’t look well. He hadn’t looked well for a while, but he looked pale and tired, and his smile wasn’t as bright as usual when he appeared on the screen in front of Merlin. It was horrible, being so far away and unable to do anything to help. He’d many times urged Arthur to visit a doctor, but now that he had, and the doctor (or antiquated old quack as Arthur referred to him, not entirely fondly) appeared to have found something.
Arthur’s stomach was swelling up, yet he wasn’t eating as much as usual, was feeling sick and tired and rundown. He had stomach cramps sometimes too, although he swore they were only very mild. Merlin could see the fear in Arthur’s eyes and knew what he wasn’t saying, the fear that it could be something terrible, something fatal even. Merlin had tried to reassure him, but he was terrified himself. Losing Arthur didn’t bear thinking about.
They talked for over an hour, only stopping when Morgana came back to Arthur’s rooms to sit with her brother. She’d looked concerned as well, and hadn’t greeted Merlin as brightly as she usually did. He thought he would call her later, find out if there was anything more, if there were things Arthur wasn’t telling him. Perhaps she could even find a way that he could visit.
Merlin shut down his laptop after the Skype session, still worried. He sat there for a moment, thinking about what Arthur had said, trying to think of other possibilities. If he wasn’t horribly ill, what were the other possibilities? Merlin wanted something to cling onto, some hope. Perhaps it was just an infection, and he needed antibiotics or something. Or, it almost sounded as if Arthur was pregnant… but it couldn’t be. That wasn’t possible. Arthur wasn’t a dragonlord, he wasn’t even Mercian, and even if he was there was the whole dragon ceremony to go through…
The dragon ceremony, which involved the dragon conjuring some form of mysterious magic over the host. How would they do that? He thought of Arthur, standing in front of Kilgharrah, and that awful moment when he’d thought the dragon was going to incinerate him. Kilgharrah hadn’t, but Merlin wondered what he might have done to Arthur instead.
With more than a little trepidation, Merlin got up and went to find his parents.
Arthur had never been hospitalised in his life.
He didn’t like it, didn’t like the smell, didn’t like the way people kept coming in and out of his room, didn’t like the way Morgana insisted on sitting there holding his hand as if he were dying or something. No, there was nothing to like about it.
“I want to go home,” he grumbled petulantly. “I’m starving.”
They wouldn’t give him any food until the scan results came back. Arthur had been in the hospital bed for hours, being poked and prodded and tested. His stomach growled loudly in support of his words.
“Just a little bit longer,” Morgana assured him. “Don’t worry, Arthur. It’ll be okay.”
He thought he liked her better when she was being mean to him.
Queen Hunith was up in her office when Merlin found her. He thought to try his mother first, because when on form Balinor could rival Uther Pendragon for his ability to shout. And if Merlin’s wildly improbable theory was correct, both kings were going to put that rivalry to the test. But it was a ridiculous theory. He went in and stood beside her desk.
“Mother, can I ask you something?”
“Very formal, Merlin. Sit down.” Hunith put down her pen and swung round to face him. “What is it?”
“Well, I wanted to ask you about your wedding.”
“It was beautiful. You’ve seen it many times.”
Merlin nodded. “It was the dragon ceremony afterwards that I was curious about. Is there footage of that anywhere?”
“Ah. No. Kilgharrah would never allow that. I don’t think your father would either. You won’t want that filmed when it’s your time, will you? It’s nice to keep some things private.”
Merlin wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know the answer to his next question, in case it involved a scarring retelling of his parents’ sex lives that he might need counselling to erase from his brain. “But… what exactly happened? What does the dragon do?”
Hunith’s smile softened further at the recollection. “Oh, well, I suppose there’s no harm in telling you. It was very beautiful. We went out together, just the two of us, to meet Kilgharrah. We’d just married, but with there being so few dragonlords, your father wanted an heir right away. So we knelt before Kilgharrah and asked for his blessing. And he blessed your father, and that was it, we went back to the wedding celebrations and I’m sure I don’t need to explain that part any further! And then nine rather stressful months later, because your father did not enjoy being pregnant one little bit, you were born.”
Merlin was glad he’d missed that time. The thought of his rather acerbic father in such a condition was horrific. But his mother hadn’t quite answered his question. “So, this blessing… does the dragon speak it?”
“Oh no,” Hunith smiled. “It was lovely. He breathed a sort of cold fire over your father. It glowed silver, just for a few moments. It was so pretty. And look, it gave us you.” She reached out and touched his cheek fondly. “Is that what you wanted to know? Oh Merlin, you look quite shocked, is something wrong?”
“Maybe nothing,” Merlin said, hoping that was true. “It would only work on dragonlords, or those with Mercian blood, wouldn’t it?”
“Of course. Most Mercians have dragonlord blood in them somewhere.”
“The Pendragons don’t though, they’re not Mercian. So if… say Uther was king of Mercia, he wouldn’t be able to receive the dragon’s blessing?”
Hunith laughed. “I don’t think so, for many reasons. He would probably be the last person in the world who might receive it. Kilgharrah would blast him where he stands if your father allowed it. And of course there probably isn’t a drop of Mercian blood running through his veins, so no, he wouldn’t be able to. What a strange question!” Her eyes were twinkling, and he supposed she had a very good idea exactly what he was really asking, though probably not why. His father had interpreted Arthur’s dishevelled appearance in Merlin’s bedroom on that last morning quite correctly, and both his parents would gently tease every now and then, thinking it only a crush or a dalliance. This was confirmed a moment later when she added, “Arthur, though, he’d be another matter. His mother was half-Mercian, I believe… Oh goodness, Merlin! Your face! Whatever is the matter?”
Arthur stared at the fuzzy, black and white scan in front of him. He had been staring at it for several minutes.
It was a mistake, of course. This wasn’t possible. He’d told Gaius as much, and had then had a long explanation about family on his mother’s side and how it was indeed quite possible, if a little unusual.
“Arthur, please say something,” Morgana urged.
He looked up at her, still too stunned to speak, then back down at the picture in his hands.
“He seems perfectly healthy,” Gaius continued.
“He? It’s a boy?” Morgana peered at the picture. “Isn’t that the umbilical cord?”
An umbilical cord. Arthur stared at it. Inside him. Growing. It couldn’t be true.
“This is a joke, yes?” He looked up at Gaius hopefully. “It’s not funny.”
Gaius raised an eyebrow at him. “Considering what we originally thought this might be, I think I would take the pregnancy and be happy about it. I won’t ask how this came about, because I’m sure we are all under no illusions who the other parent is. But we will need to think very carefully how we break this to your father. Perhaps you should call Merlin, tell him what’s happened. You shouldn’t have to face this by yourself.”
Arthur looked down at the picture again, then at his faintly swollen stomach. He wasn’t going to be facing anything by himself by the looks of things, not for a long, long time.
At least he’d get to see Merlin again. That would be good. He could strangle him…
In the end, the peace talks went very well.
King Uther and King Balinor shouted and yelled at one another for a very long time, though that was only to be expected. The shouting generally involved accusations of whose son was more to blame, and the evilness of dragons and sorcery, and general rages about unnatural practices.
Arthur missed all that, because Gaius had kindly decided to declare him delicate and unfit for any sort of stressful situation, which suited Arthur just fine. Merlin’s mother was a kindly woman who insisted on looking after him and making him soup and hot tea, and generally fussed around him, and Merlin was sitting there all through it holding his hand and looking horribly guilty.
Arthur sort of liked the guilty look. Merlin, he supposed, probably deserved it. He might not have meant to do it, but Arthur’s condition was entirely Merlin’s fault. Merlin’s and that wretched dragon. It was a situation Arthur intended milking for many years to come.
Uther, reluctantly, agreed in the end that there was only one course of action. A wedding, quick and quiet, and a suitably vague press release that, whilst not actually saying that Merlin was the one expecting the child, heavily hinting that this was the case. Arthur was to go to Mercia and stay out of the public eye until the child was born, then there would be a huge and very public wedding next year with a ceremony in both countries.
Uther wasn’t too bothered about the huge wedding, but he made it very clear that he would not budge on any of the other points. Arthur found that he didn’t care too much. When he packed his bags and left with Merlin, it was the last time he would call the city of Camelot his primary home. Instead, he and Merlin set up a new home, together, on the border between the two countries. They didn’t look back with any regrets.
Later, Arthur found he didn’t want to think back too much on the pregnancy. It was uncomfortable and the eventual caesarean had left a faint scar. But he was happy and contented with his family, and the little dark-haired boy who looked so much like Arthur’s mother was worth it, even if he did go through a phase where he kept waking up every hour, every night, and then months later was toddling around, getting into everything, always clutching that wretched little dragon.
At least there were no rival princes to take it away and throw it into fountains, Arthur thought fondly. He stood in the nursery, watching as Merlin tucked in their little boy and laughingly refused the demands for a second bedtime story. They both kissed their son goodnight, then stood watching for a few moments as the little boy who would one day be king of all Albion cuddled up to his favourite toy, before turning out the light and leaving him to settle into sleep.