"Isn't it bad luck or something for you to be here?" Arthur asked and offered Merlin his left wrist.
"Mm. Probably." Merlin fiddled with the cuff and link until he made a distinct sound of approval. "Other wrist?"
Arthur obeyed with a shake of his head and waited while Merlin went through the same process with his right wrist. The cufflinks had been a gift from Merlin -- an engagement gift, at that, as if Arthur had needed some absurdly expensive marker of the promise that he and Merlin had made to each other more years ago than he was ready to count. But Merlin had handed him the small velvet box one quiet winter evening, wrapped Arthur's hands around the box, then his own hands around Arthur's, and had said "Please say yes this time, now that we can really get married, please say yes" in such a small, hopeful voice that Arthur had found himself unable to refuse Merlin anything. He'd said yes, he'd said it over and over again, pressing his mouth to Merlin's lips and cheeks and eyelids, and had felt his own chest swell with the kind of happiness and anticipation that made it ache almost unbearably.
He'd also promised Merlin that he would allow Merlin to help him dress and put the cufflinks on for Arthur, so here he stood, at seven in the morning on the day of his wedding, his fiancé fussing at his cufflinks and tie, because, god, if he couldn't refuse Merlin six months ago, he couldn't refuse him today.
"I'm not just talking about wedding superstitions, you know." Arthur stretched his arms in front of him and nodded. Merlin had fastened his cuffs perfectly, and he'd done it with such slow, meticulous care that Arthur's chest threatened to swell once more. He cleared his throat and gave Merlin a circumspect look. "You really ought to see about getting yourself ready on time."
"Oh. Oh, yeah, right. I'll be fine, no worries." Merlin grinned and scrubbed a hand through what Arthur recognized as his bed-rumpled hair. He hadn't shaved yet and was wearing a pair of brown corduroy trousers and both a blue jumper and tee shirt that had all seen better days. His grin widened at Arthur's grimace and he rubbed the back of his head so his hair stuck out at even odder angles. "Have I ever been late before?"
"Well." Arthur frowned again, but smiled when Merlin glared at him over the dark frames of his glasses. "I just want everything to be right."
"Hey. Hey, I know. I only wanted to see you for a little while before everyone else," Merlin said softly, moved in closer to Arthur, and smoothed both hands down Arthur's chest, resting them at Arthur's waist when he was satisfied. "We've waited nearly fifteen years for this day. I think the world can manage to wait five more minutes."
"I suppose so." Arthur leaned into the embrace for a few moments, then gave Merlin a shove. "Go on. I refuse to accept that the Prince of Wales might be late for his own wedding."
"Right, right. I'll see you soon." The grin was back on Merlin's face. He pushed his glasses up his nose and squeezed Arthur's hand rather hard before slipping out of the room at Clarence House Arthur where had stayed the night before the wedding.
"Very soon," Arthur replied, laughing when he glanced at his watch and realized that not a single minute had passed the whole time Merlin had been in his room.
Arthur was twenty years old the first time he'd turned down Merlin's offer of marriage.
To be fair, he was also completely and stupidly drunk, and the alcohol was playing merry havoc with his sense of judgment. He really ought to have said yes, given that he'd already decided it was a good idea to topple both himself and Merlin down onto the nearest sofa and to slip one hand up Merlin's shirt to stroke his feverishly warm skin. He's also decided that Merlin kissing him, all tongue and lips and unrestrained desperation, was quite possibly the most wonderful thing in the whole world.
So, really. Yes. He ought to have said yes when he had the chance and the ability to block out everything else except the press of Merlin's body against his and the scent of Merlin's skin all over his own.
"I think I asked you to marry me last night," Merlin said the next morning after moaning into his tea about the spectacular hang-over he'd woken up with.
"I think you did." Arthur smiled over his own breakfast. He'd met Merlin a few weeks ago at the uni library, though, of course, everyone knew Merlin was at Cambridge. They'd gone on one or two rather tentative dates, but last night's party and the hours after at Arthur's flat had been their first proper date.
"Did you... Um. Did you say yes? Or, maybe?" Merlin asked. He put down the toast triangle Arthur handed him and shoved his tea aside to reach for the jam. "I could accept maybe with option of yes in the future."
"Oh. Well, no, not sure I could manage the prospect of marrying the future King of England at this point in my life."
"I think the future Earl of Pembroke could marry a prince."
"Hm. You did spring it on me rather suddenly."
Merlin was quiet for a moment and when he finally spoke, there was a lot more disappointment in his voice than Arthur expected, "Oh, right. Yeah. That's a lot for a Thursday evening. Maybe next time?"
Arthur considered for a while, nudging his shoulder against Merlin's when Merlin looked like he was going to slip into the slough of hang-over despond. "You could actually try wooing me first. Just so the world doesn't think I'm only marrying you for your royal connections."
Merlin frowned. His dark hair was a wild mess and face was still creased with sleep, his blue eyes a little bleary and his voice a little hoarse despite the tea. He rubbed at one eye sleepily, then, after frowning harder in what looked like concentration, he closed his fingers over his palm, offered Arthur his hand, and uncurled his fingers to reveal a tiny, new, red rosebud.
"How's that for wooing?" he asked, face suddenly bright. "Now you're thinking that you should've said yes, right?"
Arthur just gaped.
As it turned out, aside from being both royal and magic, Merlin was also decent at the whole wooing thing. There were flowers and dinner dates, but there were also the odd little things he did for Arthur. Like showing up at the library when Arthur was working late on some project and insisting that Arthur at least have some coffee and a sandwich if he was committed to working through the night. Or like going through Arthur's Amazon wishlist to find the books and DVDs that had been on there the longest and buying them for Christmas or birthday gifts. Or letting Arthur woo him in return, taking him to odd cafes and obscure restaurants so as few people as possible would recognize Merlin, curling up with Merlin on the sofa or bed to watch those DVDs on his laptop, ringing him wherever he was in the world to wish him good morning, afternoon, or night, depending on the time zone.
Or the weird Merlin-y sort of things that he did for Arthur. Like sitting with Arthur when he had the 'flu and watching the footie because he'd decided Arthur couldn't possibly watch sporting events on his own when he was ill. Or getting massive amounts of beer and take-away to celebrate the two year anniversary of their fourth date, which he'd decided was the one worth celebrating because both of them had realized it was a proper date and neither of them ended up hung-over the next morning.
Which only made it all the more difficult for Arthur to turn down the second marriage proposal. Actually, turning Merlin down was possibly the most difficult thing he'd ever done by that point in his life.
"It's been five years," Merlin said, his voice close to breaking, "I suppose you'd know by now. I just thought..."
"I know, I'm sorry." Arthur reached to touch Merlin's shoulder, then stopped himself and let his hand fall to his lap. "It's not -- it's that I don't want to marry you, but... What if you change your mind?"
"Arthur." The look on Merlin's face was so sad. So sad and hurt, especially after he took off his glasses and placed them aside so he could scrub at his eyes, that Arthur almost reconsidered.
"I didn't mean that," Arthur whispered. "I really didn't, I'm sorry. I'm not ready to be some sort of example to be held up, something to be held up to say 'this gay marriage is all right' while so many other people can't get married. And it's not like we can get married. It's just the civil partnership. And the media --"
Merlin touched Arthur's hand briefly. "We're not ready. I didn't realize."
"I'm not ready."
Merlin shook his head. "If you're not ready, then … then we can't be ready. Do you understand?"
Arthur nodded, his throat too tight to reply. "Maybe next time?" he said, voice uncertain even after they'd been silent for a long time.
"Maybe," Merlin said and he let his hand rest atop Arthur's for an even longer time after that.
They tried staying together after the failed proposal, though their relationship seemed to be failing, too. Staying apart proved more painful, though, and Arthur's father proclaimed that the three months Arthur spent moping at Wilton House were more wretched than any of his moody teenage years.
"What have you been doing? You look awful." Merlin folded his napkin over his empty dinner plate and stood from his place the table to come sit closer to Arthur. Arthur's father and sisters had already retired to read or watch telly, and the awkward silence their conversation had held off had filled the room as soon as they left Merlin and Arthur alone.
"Helping Father with the estate. We're glad you came to Wilton, by the way," Arthur added, "I know it wasn't originally part of the royal tour this time."
"It's still not part of the royal tour," Merlin said. His arrival at Wilton last night had been the first time in three months that Arthur had seen him and even now, a day later, his presence felt vaguely unreal. "Look, Arthur, we need to stop."
Arthur folded his own napkin and stared at it for a good long time, hoping it would unfold and perhaps reveal to him all the answers to the difficult relationship questions he and Merlin had.
"I'm miserable and you're miserable, and there has to be someplace happy between being apart and waiting to decide when we're ready to get married. Can't we just, I don't know, can't we just be?"
"Be what? Together?" Arthur asked, and remembered the hope that had shone in Merlin's eyes that first time he'd drunkenly and ridiculously and adorably proposed to Arthur a little over five years ago.
"Together. Us. Arthur and Merlin. Can you say yes to that?" Merlin stroked the back of his hand over Arthur's cheek and kept on stroking until Arthur turned into the touch and let his eyes fall shut until he spoke.
"What about you? You... you're so easy for me to fall in love with, every time," Arthur confessed. "But I'm... I keep saying no, and I keep getting worried, though you've already told me a million times to stop being a selfish prat and to not worry about what the public world thinks, but it's not just that." The words came out in a hot rush and Arthur let out a breath that shuddered through him as he exhaled.
"What are you worried about?" They were always so blue and bright, Merlin's eyes, when some serious emotion settled over him. The bluest Arthur had ever seen, and they still were, even now when Arthur was being so strange and needy.
"What if it doesn't last? Not because of you or me or anything like that, but … just because." The admission hurt, more than the refusal of Merlin's proposal, more than the look in Merlin's eyes after he refused.
"Then it doesn't last," Merlin said and only used one fingertip to nudge Arthur's face so Arthur would look at him. "But I promise you, that if we try, and if we keep trying as much as we can, it won't hurt like this does. And I can do that with you."
"Then, so can I. So can I. Do you want to --"
"Oh god yes," Merlin said before Arthur could finish and tugged Arthur away from the table to the bedroom before he could elaborate.
That night, when Merlin pressed his mouth to Arthur's mouth and his hand to Arthur's chest, the gesture at once protective and tender, Arthur allowed himself to sink into it. Not just into the feel of Merlin's lips and hands on his body, but into the vast warmth of being cared for, of being looked after and protected, of being Merlin's, completely and without question.
In the decade that followed, Arthur found that Merlin had been right. He had a rather annoying tendency to do that, be right about thing that Arthur often doubted, but this time he was willing to concede. Years of trying, of royal tours and events, of Arthur settling into a life that allowed him to take over the running of Wilton House for his father, of trying harder and sometimes failing, but mostly managing fabulously and managing together. Years of realizing that Arthur had met the most wonderful man his first year at uni, and the fact that that man was the Prince of Wales remained an odd, remarkable fact of Arthur's life that he would never be able to explain away and one that he would put away, in the back of his mind, when he remembered that all that man had ever tried to be for him was Merlin.
"You were right," Arthur said when he met Merlin at the altar.
Merlin raised an eyebrow. "About?"
"Well. Everything, really."
Merlin's face drew into a familiar, brief frown of concentration and the world quieted, then stilled around them.
Arthur had seen this before -- had seen light and magic fall from Merlin's lips and fingertips, had seen the world made new and bright through the lens that magic offered -- but he always gasped and felt like laughing at the way Merlin could make it bubble through the air.
"Everything?" Merlin asked.
"Almost everything," Arthur amended. "Mostly that I ought to have said yes the first time."
Merlin smiled one of his open, unabashed smiles. The air around them was heavy with the scent of flowers and the damp warmth of a springtime morning. Merlin, who'd never been able to persuade either himself or the public that his short time in the military had made him a true soldier, had worn a morning suit in shades of blue and grey darker than Arthur's, and his eyes gleamed from behind a pair of fine silver glasses that he'd obtained special for their wedding.
"I'm going to kiss you," Merlin said, leaning in close to Arthur, "then I'm going to end this spell, and then I'm going to marry you. All right?"
"Yes," Arthur said once more, smiling even as Merlin's lips brushed against his. The world came back a moment after that, all noise and a rush of excitement that didn't stop for hours thereafter.