He only first gets the idea that Arthur is one of those people who is stubborn and direct and uncomfortably honest when, after only three consecutive weeks of sitting a seat away from one another in their morning history uni course that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the upper part of campus, Merlin is hailed with a pointed cough on the front steps of the anthropology building, and nearly trips trying to turn around. Arthur is sitting on the banister at the side—not sitting so much as lounging—lounging? it’s more like carefully leaning against—loitering—whatever.
Merlin says, “Yeah?” before remembering, oh, fuck, that’s right, he can’t just address Arthur as an ordinary bloke like that, and stumbles to tack on a title, and then realizes he has no idea what to say, anyway, and gives it up as lost cause. At least he clears his throat and manages to add a civil, “Did you want something?”
There; he’s not outright offensive about it, and no one can accuse him of being so.
“Hello,” Arthur says, far more politely than Merlin’s tone had ever hoped to be.
Seconds pass, and then Arthur’s not doing anything, just sort of sitting there serenely. Merlin shifts from one foot to another, awkwardly poised in between two steps of disparate height, before inwardly sighing and walking back up to stand at the side of the banister by Arthur.
Arthur says, blunt, almost thoughtful, “You don’t like me very much, do you?”
And that, right there, that is uncomfortable.
Because Merlin doesn’t know what to feel:
Grudging admiration that Arthur has picked up on it in such a short, subtle time span; sneering condescension at the idea that Arthur probably thinks everybody is supposed to automatically like him by virtue of his title or name or position or bloody fucking smile; or most likely mortification, because he isn’t even usually this rude, not to anyone, least of all to people who could potentially have him expelled, or locked up, or dead, at the snap of two fingers.
He lies, “I like you fine.”
The corners of Arthur’s lips turn slightly down for the first time—almost like Merlin's answer troubles him. Merlin banishes the ridiculous notion immediately. People like Arthur don’t think about things like that.
“Is it something I’ve done?” Arthur wants to know, pressing on. He moves his hands into the pockets of his neatly ironed blazer, and Merlin watches the movement before snapping his eyes back up, realizing how it could be construed, and flushing scarlet. But Arthur’s not paying attention—“Or is it, you know,” he goes on, shrugging a shoulder lightly, “that general distaste thing. Is it socially cool to not like—well, people like me—these days.”
“People like you,” Merlin repeats. He’s still hovering there, and why the hell is he still hovering there?
“Wealthy people who haven’t earned what’s been given to them. Or, I suppose. Royals,” Arthur says, casually, dismissively, tossing the word out there as if it’s lawyers or dentists or something innocent, ordinary. “Or me being here at your college interfering with life. Or is it,” he ponders, “the media thing?”
Merlin spares a fleeting glance down at his watch and realizes he’s due at work in the school bookstore in about four and a half minutes, and he makes the decision that he really doesn’t have time for this right now. Or ever.
He thinks of the poor state of his childhood, thinks of his best friend Will, thinks of growing up with ‘that general distaste’—which is a rather kind way to phrase it, he thinks—of ‘people like Arthur,’ thinks of his father’s distrust of the monarchy and his mother’s tears at being ignored by the public system and Will’s activism, miles away, protesting against every stupid and unnecessary and extravagant and overblown thing that the royal family still stands for.
“Yeah,” he says, too shortly, answering to everything, but he doesn’t have time and it doesn’t matter—and waves an awkward good-bye before fleeing down the steps, only mildly wondering how amusing Arthur’s expression would have looked.
He does regret it, later; he has a heart, after all, and a good sense of guilt, and in retrospect he shouldn’t have been so rude to someone who is apparently going to run the country someday. But frankly, he really doesn’t see why it matters.
Arthur’s not looking at him the next Tuesday, when their class next meets, and Merlin takes the unrepentant line of his profile to be the answer he’d expected; ha, Merlin thinks triumphantly, inwardly crowing and pushing away the still-lingering strains of his guilt over being impolite, because see, Arthur is just as much a sore attention-seeking loser who can’t get over not being loved and all-popular as Will and his violently anti-government hippie friends had promised him, and Merlin is justified. He’s got proof.
Except then, three minutes into the lecture, Arthur turns toward him—Merlin turns too on instinct, and he meets Arthur’s gaze, which is bizarrely soft and kind, before he wrenches his head away and wonders, what the hell.
There’s this strange lopsided shape on Arthur’s face that looks suspiciously like a real, honest-to-god smile.
Weirdo, Merlin decides. Must be all that royal inbreeding.
And later as he’s gathering up his things, Arthur waits—he’s just waiting there, lingering by the side of Merlin’s seat, like he’s entitled, like he’s a close acquaintance or maybe even a friend—and offers to, later that night, buy him a drink.
That’s how it starts: the upside-down fumbling of his world.
The music at the dark bar drowns out most of what Merlin drunkenly shouts, but he thinks that at least maybe thirty-percent of it must come through undiluted, judging by the increasingly unhappy frown on Arthur’s face. He doesn’t even know the contents of what he’s yelling; mostly, it’s just a long continuous diatribe on the pointlessness of the entire monarchial system, but he thinks that he actually gets into politics a little bit and also at one point calls Arthur’s parents things that would definitely have gotten him thrown into a cell somewhere, were a member of the royal family present and hearing all of this.
Which—oh. Wait. There is one.
And that’s just really funny, so Merlin laughs. “How many years are you going to get me for, your highness?” he wants to know, patting Arthur on the shoulder. He’s warm, there, and the fabric of his shirt is expensive-feeling.
“What do you mean?”
“How many. . . or will it be straight to the—to the firing squad, or—or, the guillotine—“
“Oh, for the love of—I’m not going to arrest you,” Arthur says, raising an eyebrow and twitching his mouth a little. “Are you serious? It’s not like this is the first time I’ve heard anyone say something against—well. You know.”
“By that you mean, everything you stand for, and all the waste that it is,” Merlin supplies cheerfully.
“Do you always insult people you’ve never met this thoroughly?” Arthur says lightly.
“Do you always offer to take people who insult you out for drinks?” Merlin asks, purposely aiming for a leer, but the effect is ruined when he stumbles on his foot.
Arthur calmly rests a hand on his waist to steady him, and the skin there feels like it’s being branded.
“Only the interesting ones that I happen to like,” he might say, quietly, but Merlin isn’t sure; the music is really, really loud here and the lights are dark enough that he can’t read Arthur’s lips and be accurate about it, so he asks, “What?”
Arthur shakes his head and says, “You’re really bad at holding your liquor.”
“And you’re such a giant twat that you can’t even go to university without your personal team of bodyguards living on the first floor,” Merlin giggles, snorting, “so I mean, fuck you.”
It’s not until the next morning when he’s sobered up considerably that he realizes with dawning horror what he’d actually said, the night before, to the bloody Prince of Wales.
“I’m sorry,” is the first hushed thing out of his mouth on Thursday when he walks in. “God, I’m. I don’t usually say that to people, I swear. I’m never that rude or awful, or. And especially not. . .”
“Oh,” Arthur’s lips quirk as he looks up to see Merlin. “Come, now. Don’t start being all boring now.”
Merlin watches him, wary.
“I’m sure you have many other flaws you want to point out about my personality, or my upbringing, or my family. Feel free to let them loose; bottling up the anger could be unhealthy.” Arthur grins in an indecipherable way, leaning back in his chair and resting an elbow at the back of it.
Merlin says, stupidly, wondering if it’s a trick, wondering if there’s a hidden camera or a team of royal guards waiting to seize him hiding in the shadows, “What, erm, right now?”
“Well,” Arthur shrugs, nonchalant. “Later, if you like. Lunch is on me.”
It only goes downhill (or uphill, depending on your perspective, or sideways, or pear-shaped, or completely lost in a gravity-defying spiral of a black hole) from there.
The thing is, Tuesdays and Thursdays become a routine that expands into Mondays and Wednesdays and some Fridays, too, after Merlin inexplicably finds Arthur’s number in his phone at the top of his contacts list one day when opening it up to call his mother. Merlin takes awful care at first not to say anything absurdly bad-mannered, but he slips when he starts to tell Arthur about his family and Will and his friends. Arthur takes it in great stride, mainly finding it all faintly amusing, like he views it all in not-too-serious light, which makes Merlin reluctantly respect him a bit. He sort of stumbles into being friends with Arthur; never actively seeking him out, never even demonstrating real enthusiasm or extending any kind of invitation into his life, but Arthur takes one on his own anyway. He nudges his way in, slowly, until he’s not the irritating royal presence on campus anymore, but the irritating royal presence that Merlin knows.
On a late-afternoon video chat with Will on his laptop, when Will starts spewing his usual tirade about something-or-other-outrageous-political-thing and mentions on the side that ‘stupid, air-headed prince who prances around uni for public approval,’ Merlin finds himself actually on the defensive and saying before he knows it, “He’s not that bad.”
Will sputters. “Oh, right, I forgot that he goes there—so you have to see him all the time? My condolences, mate.”
He could just leave it there, but some stupid thing possesses Merlin to follow it up with, “He’s different from what you always thought, though. More aware and self-deprecating and actually kind of normal,” before he has the sense to shut up.
Will just stares and stares and stares.
And when Merlin signs off, closing the lid of his computer so he can get to his next class soon, he feels a tiny twinge of shame, like he’s somehow betrayed everyone he knows.
Arthur disappears nearly every weekend of the fall term to attend to whatever-matters-of-state in cities all across the country, supposedly—Merlin thinks the details are too boring to bother remembering—but he’s usually back on campus for his first class of the week. Always back by Tuesday for morning history.
Merlin looks at the empty seat next to him today and wonders idly.
He lets it go, but when Arthur’s absent at their usual Wednesday breakfast thing and still not there on Thursday in the lecture hall—and it’s not like Merlin misses him or anything atrocious like that—he sends a quick text asking where are you in the most nonchalant manner he knows how, and he gets back a call at eleven at night, and Arthur’s voice sounds weird, distorted, as he says—
“My father’s ill,” simple and plain, but it’s strained, and Merlin knows enough about Uther from what little information Arthur’s been willing to release from the place closest to his chest that he understands. He understands, without being told.
“Oh,” he says, for lack of anything substantial, anything he could offer.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Arthur says in that same tone, struggling at a neutrality that could probably fool someone who knew him a bit less.
Merlin says, “Meet up in the courtyard for lunch around twelve?”
He hears both the tension and the gratefulness unspoken in Arthur’s voice when he says, “All right.”
The holidays arrive before Merlin really knows it, and then the spring term kicks off, and winter disappears, and before he knows it he’s packing all his bags and books and posters for the summer break.
“Where are you going?” Arthur wants to know, cautiously leaning against the doorframe of his crappy dorm room, in dark sunglasses and a flat cap.
“Take the hat off, you look ridiculous and everyone can obviously still recognize you,” Merlin says, dismissively waving his hands in Arthur’s direction before going back to shoving an entire year’s worth of textbooks into the bottom of a suitcase, on the floor.
Arthur deadpans, “It’s a fashion statement,” before coming into the room and pulling it and the glasses off his head, his hair frizzing up at the back in hilarious ways. “You haven’t answered.”
“Home,” Merlin says, quashing the urge to roll his eyes. “Obviously. Where ordinary people go for breaks from university.” He wrestles a set of bed sheets into the suitcase, on top of the books. “So which exotic island are you going to spend your vacation on?”
“Ha,” Arthur says, kicking a pair of dirty socks in his direction.
Merlin throws them back, then stands up to stomp on the stack of rumpled clothing in the hopes of possibly compressing it within the dimensions of his bags.
“You’ll be back, right?” Arthur asks suddenly.
“Back at—here, back here, for next year, idiot,” Arthur says, staring at him kind of intently. “For school in the fall.”
Merlin looks at him. “Yes. Are you?”
He says, “Okay. Good.”
From there, it goes:
Two years of university. Half a year of no contact at all, when Merlin moves back home for graduation—and then goes stir-crazy, because he does love everyone and all, but he can’t take much more of the constant nagging to Do Something with his life—and then he finally picks up and moves to London, where the first thing he does is call Arthur, and suspiciously, Arthur’s free that very afternoon without any sort of state obligations to attend to, and so the two of them (and Arthur’s driver—one of the three, actually—Merlin finds it incredulous and stupid and hilarious that Arthur has three drivers who are all available to ferry him around town at a moment’s whim) spend a day moving all of Merlin’s stuff into the cramped little fifth-floor flat.
“Didn’t even know you were capable of manual labor,” Merlin mocks, and Arthur elbows him in the ribs with a heavy box.
And then it goes:
Another year, a full year, of living in London, adjusting to it, picking up a job at a small publishing firm, seeing Arthur in the news and on the internet and on the television and musing on how surreal and strange that is, seeing Arthur in real life once every month or so (casual things, friend-things, often with a few other people from university around, mostly at bars and restaurants that are ordinary and out-of-the-way enough that there’s a guarantee there will be no one with a professional video camera hanging around) and not musing on anything at all. Everything feels—well, not right, exactly, but easy.
The first time Arthur kisses him, it’s on Merlin’s ratty couch, light, teasing, but Merlin opens his mouth wide and swallows it whole, and suddenly they’re biting at each other’s skin and everything between them has changed and nothing is enough.
(The way Arthur curls around him, sighs, says, “It’s—I just—look, you can say you don’t want this, because I know it’s complicated as hell and you were never really. . . You can tell me that, if you’re scared to—“ and Merlin just groans at him to shut up, because that's kind of insulting. And later when Merlin asks, quiet, “Why me? When you could have—”
The way Arthur touches him, and says, red across his cheekbones, “Why anyone else, when I could have you.”)
Three weeks before the press gets wind of it.
They’re living together but not really living-together-living-together at six more months, meaning Arthur shoves aside a bunch of important duties that Merlin really should be more concerned about to stay at his flat once every few days and Merlin goes with Arthur very quietly on a trip to France, just once, and he refuses to leave the hotel anyway but they have fantastic sex in their room, and Arthur’s got a toothbrush at Merlin’s, and Merlin’s friends from work feel the need to alternate between teasing and cooing at him all the time, and there are way too many cringe-worthy news articles about Merlin’s life and background and every other little inane detail that could possibly crop up, and then there are fansites and political groups and activists and cameras filming him when he goes shopping for laundry detergent and all this uproar, and Merlin starts to wonder how Arthur hasn’t already been driven completely mental by twenty-something consecutive years of this oh, yeah, everybody in the world knows thing.
One night Will calls him, and Merlin motions for Arthur to put it on speakerphone because he’s in the middle of assembling the random shiny new sofa that Arthur had pressed him into getting (“Your couch is too lumpy,” he’d complained, refusing to shut up about it, and eventually ordered a giant one online and had it delivered and now it was here, unassembled and taking up too much space in the middle of the room). Will’s voice is bitingly sarcastic when he says,
“So when’s the wedding, then?”
“Will,” Merlin chokes, nearly dropping a screwdriver on his foot. “God, I—“
“Is he there? Oh, that’s great. You can tell him how much of a,” and Will goes on to spew a whole line of violent criticism, interspersed with the occasional profanities, before Merlin hurriedly makes his way over, darting between random nails and furniture parts on the ground to click the receiver firmly down.
“Sorry,” he mutters. “He’ll, you know. He’ll come around. He only hates you on principle, that’s all.”
Arthur looks at him in a way that’s kind of fond and kind of—uncertain. Questioning?
“What?” Merlin asks, blinking.
“Nothing,” Arthur says quickly, shaking his head.
There’s this moron of a reporter somewhere at some gossip magazine who spins a rumor out from nowhere that, at two years now of being an out-and-about-established-sort-of-couple-thing, Merlin and Arthur are going to make it official, with a ceremony and a procession and everything. This one rumor bleeds into another, nearly overnight, and rapidly another—like an ink stain spreading across tissue paper. And before anyone knows it, Merlin’s mother is calling him at three in the morning screaming at him for not letting her be the first to know about this supposed upcoming marriage, and Merlin says back, wildly, “What?” and has to fumble for his pants so he can get up and go on the internet and check and—oh, that’s. Oh.
He gets about seven hundred missed calls in one day.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, as evenly as he can manage, after he spends two hours tearing the flat apart trying to find the slip of paper he’d written the number of Arthur’s hotel on (it turns up under the sink, which, what). “Did you know that we’re getting married?”
Arthur’s voice, three hundred miles away—“What?”
“Yes, according to the world,” Merlin says, rubbing at his eyes.
“Wh—“ Arthur sounds tired and frantic and sleep-deprived all at the same time. “Oh, what the fuck--how the fuck did they know? I even paid—The jeweler promised—“
Merlin trips over his coffee table.
“What?” he says when he resurfaces, gripping the phone urgently to his ear. “What jeweler?”
“The one I bought the rings from,” Arthur says, agitated. “He swore no one would. . .”
There are fifty seconds of silence.
Arthur says, “Oh.”
Arthur ends up proposing twice, because he insists that the first time didn’t count because it was over a shitty long-distance phone connection and he didn’t even mean to do it, and so he ends up taking Merlin into the royal gardens and making an embarrassingly grand declaration of love as they stroll through among the roses, and he’s so earnest about it that Merlin doesn’t even have the heart to point out how redundant it is, since he’s already basically said yes. Stammered it, in shock, more like. But said yes all the same.
He draws the line, though, at Arthur going down on one knee, and drags him up instead, laughing. But he lies awake all night, fingers loose around the cool gold of the band, eventually falling asleep when Arthur’s fingers close over it.
(Sometimes he dreams of that history course, back at uni all those years and worlds ago. He can’t even remember the name of the professor who taught the class, but he knows all of Arthur’s smiles. Can catalogue almost every conversation. And he wonders what would have happened if he’d said no to drinks; if he’d refused, if he hadn’t gone down that particular path. But he always ends up full circle in his thoughts—there is no other road, he thinks, quite certainly. There never has been. Merlin’s not a huge believer in destiny, but he’s starting to think the idea of it isn’t half bad.)
Contrary to expectations, on the day of the—the thing—Merlin only throws up twice.
And once, afterwards, in a bathroom at the hotel, but that doesn’t count.
Dimly, he registers the extravagance of it all: the expense, the thousands of people in the room, the colors of the drapes, the cameras, the cake and the clothes and the presents and the size, the size of everything, the sheer scale of this whole thing. And immediately his first instinct is to run. But he doesn’t, because Arthur’s standing there when he makes his way up through the aisles—
Arthur, who’s been smiling at him the same way for years, who mutters out of the corner of his mouth as royal someone-or-other is giving a speech: “You could look a little more excited about everything, you know.”
The cameras focus away, panning and zooming in across the audience.
“Nah,” Merlin whispers back. “Ceremonial politics. Not really my sort of thing.”
“Of course, how could I forget,” Arthur murmurs.
But as he catches the white-radiant grin on Arthur’s face, still stubborn and determined as ever, and as he slides on the ring and says, “I do,” in a voice that amazingly does not tremble into the high frequencies that he’d feared, and later, much later, as they’re collapsing on a bed out of exhaustion and peeling off clothes and laughing at the ridiculous nature of everything, Merlin does admit to himself that attempting to deny anything at this point would be bit of a lost cause.
There’s really no going back now, is there? But that’s okay. Because he wouldn’t want to, anyway.