Summary: Arthur sees a vision of himself and Merlin married and happy, but they can barely stand each other. They both start doing everything they can to avoid it happening.
Warnings: Nothing that the rating doesn't imply.
A/N: For this prompt on the meme. I want to thank everyone who was reading over there again for bearing with me as what I originally intended to be maybe 10k and quite simple turned into this epic love letter to choosing your own destiny.
In other news, I am taking part in the summerpornathon (TEAM GLUTTONY), so there won't be too much fic posted in here for a while. I do plan on cleaning up and reposting all my Pornathon entries here at the end of the summer, though.
Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin.
Morgana, for some reason Arthur cannot fathom, insists upon playing party games that Arthur didn’t deign to play when he was thirteen at her dinner parties, even though she’s knocking thirty. “Twenty-eight, Arthur, it’s not like I’m ancient,” Morgana says while they bring the dishes into the kitchen for Morgana to corral someone into washing later. “And this isn’t just some sort of game for children’s sleepovers.”
“You’re a Seer, Morgana, what do you need to set up a scrying mirror for?”
She arches an eyebrow and lowers her voice until it’s covered by the conversation in the next room. “What, are you afraid? It’s not like Uther knows you’re using magic, Arthur, and I don’t know why you should care if he did. He’s bigoted and behind the times and I am tired of you catering to him.”
“He’s my father, in case you hadn’t remembered. Not to mention yours.” Her jaw tightens like it does anytime someone mentions that fact. “Well, he is,” Arthur adds, as apologetically as he can manage. “And you’re avoiding my question.”
“Because despite Morgause’s training, I can’t just ask my dreams a question, you idiot. I’ll probably set the mirror for five years from tonight, and I certainly couldn’t get anything specific like that even if I did manage to control it and dream about … Merlin, for instance.” Arthur grimaces, and of course Morgana smirks at him. “Congratulations on being civil for once, by the way. Almost polite, even.”
“Sod off.” Arthur finishes organizing the dishes, since chances are he’ll be the one Morgana makes do them later. “So, who are you trying to traumatize tonight?” She blinks at him innocently. “You always have a victim in mind when you take out the scrying mirror.” Although nobody talks about the time when they were fifteen and Morgana wrestled him into looking three years ahead and he saw himself and Gwen in bed, because that was a bad job all around. He’d been convinced for those two years that he was destined to be with her and she broke up with him two weeks after the night he’d seen, since they were heading to different universities.
“You’ll have to see, won’t you?” She grins and ducks back out of the kitchen, so he sighs and goes back to the table while she goes to the storage cabinet to get out her scrying mirror.
Merlin and Lancelot fall silent when Arthur comes in, so Arthur doesn’t really need Gwaine’s cheerful “Princess, we were just talking about you!” to know whom they were discussing.
Arthur’s seat, of course, is right next to Merlin’s, since Morgana delights in torture and doesn’t seem to accept that her brother is not all that fond of one of her good friends. He thinks about making a point of not sitting down, but that would be petty. “Yes, I’d noticed.” That makes Merlin’s ears go red and everyone else look a bit shamefaced. Except Gwen, who just narrows her eyes at him and then goes back to asking Elena something about her veterinary practice. After a tense moment, everyone else manages to find some thread of conversation as well. “Looking forward to having your future told, Merlin?” Arthur asks, doing his best to keep his tone light.
“Scrying’s never been very accurate for me,” says Merlin with a shrug. He doesn’t bother even looking at Arthur. “Gaius, my uncle, he does lectures on healing magic at the university--”
“I know who your uncle is, Merlin, everyone does.”
Merlin glares. It should look ridiculous, but with Merlin there’s always a bit of a reminder that he could turn you into a newt with one look, and Arthur hates it. “Right, of course, even pretentious wankers whose fathers have been working against magician’s rights since--”
“Merlin,” murmurs Lancelot, coming effortlessly out of his conversation with Leon.
“I’m too powerful. It distorts most tries at scrying,” says Merlin after another glare, this one in Lancelot’s direction. “Morgana’s powerful, though, so she convinced me to give it a shot.”
“And you will certainly see something, even if it’s not long or exciting,” Morgana says as she comes into the room, ornate mirror in hand. Morgause gave it to her, of course. Arthur can only be grateful that the harpy is on a business trip to France or he would have to deal with her and Merlin at once and that’s only doable once or twice a year. “Five years in the future, most of you will only get visions about thirty seconds long.”
“Thirty seconds is enough,” says Gwaine. Elena smacks him. Leon grimaces. “Shall I start, Morgana, since I’m to your left?”
Morgana goes to sit back at the head of the table. “In a minute.” She intones the spell to set the time on the scry with the same drama that any girl with a bit of power might for her friends right before they play a game of Truth or Dare. If anyone says the words “soul mate” Arthur is leaving, dignity or no. “There,” she adds on the end. “Gwaine, you may start if you wish.”
Of course Gwaine wishes. He watches in a trance for thirty seconds almost exactly, and comes out of it laughing, though he refuses to tell any of them why. “I’m going to have some good nights in five years,” is all he’s willing to say before he passes the mirror to Elena next to him.
Elena sees a horse ride out in the country and passes it to Leon, who flushes under his beard when it’s over and doesn’t say much beyond that before giving it to Elyan. Elyan, it seems, will be visiting the Taj Mahal in five years (Gwen just looks long-suffering), and he grins about that before passing the mirror across the table to his sister.
Gwen’s trance lasts a bit longer, and she’s smiling and teary-eyed when she comes out of it, pressing a hand to her stomach in a way that makes what she saw very obvious indeed. Lancelot looks delighted when he takes the mirror from his wife, and even more delighted when he looks away from it--obviously he saw their little bundle of joy as well. Arthur spends most of Merlin’s trance reflecting that the two of them are going to be insufferable to be around until they actually manage to get their brood started now that they’ve seen this.
Merlin, though, comes out of the trance after nearly a full minute like he’s coming out of a nightmare, giving Morgana a wide-eyed look that’s more horror than surprise. “You rigged that as a joke,” he accuses.
“I did no such thing,” she replies without a bit of a break in her serenity, though Arthur knows her well enough to know that she’s amused. “Now either tell us what you saw or give the mirror to Arthur.”
Whatever it is, Merlin must really not want to talk about it, because he nearly drops the mirror handing it to Arthur. “Such a girl, Merlin,” says Arthur, and looks in the mirror. For a split second, there’s just his exasperated face and then--
He’s nuzzling at someone’s ear, nose buried in short hair, sitting on a couch that he knows isn’t the one he’s got now. He gives the earlobe a light tug with his teeth and whoever he’s with huffs out a light laugh. “Seriously, Arthur, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, just because they’re large doesn’t mean they’re sensitive--”
And Arthur knows that voice, although he’s never heard it like that, fond and a bit breathless, but he can’t possibly believe it until himself five years from now pulls away to meet Merlin’s eyes. Merlin is smiling at him, bright and unabashed, and Arthur’s never seen that smile when Merlin knew he was in a room and certainly isn’t prepared for it this close to him, so he misses the first bit of what his future self says. “--help myself and you know it. And I’m storing up.”
Merlin’s smile goes soft, and he kisses Arthur’s jaw like he does it a hundred times a day. “It’ll be just like before.”
Arthur grabs Merlin’s hand, presses palm-to-palm with him, and there’s the rasp and slide of metal on metal when their ring fingers meet. Arthur doesn’t need to look down to know what that means, but apparently this future version of him does, because he traces the rings first with his eyes and then with his fingers. “Not quite like before. Gods, I don’t want to go back to work.”
That settles it. In the future Arthur will obviously have a terrible case of Stockholm Syndrome for Merlin, because he always wants to go to work in the mornings, to prove to his father that he can take over the business when the time comes (even if he plans to put more progressive hiring policies in place the second the business is in his name), and he doubts that will ever change. “Soon, though--”
Whatever the Merlin of the future is about to say is cut off when the Arthur of the future kisses him, full on the mouth and hard. Merlin gasps into the kiss, and Arthur presses him down against the couch, hands urgent at the buttons of his shirt, and--
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Arthur,” Elena observes from across the table.
Arthur practically throws the mirror at Morgana, very carefully not looking at Merlin, who is going to kidnap him and brainwash him in a few years, since there is no other explanation for that ridiculously soppy vision. “I’m at a business party,” he lies. “The speeches are more boring than usual. I thought I would have got out of something like that by now.”
Morgana just smiles and doesn’t look in the mirror herself before suggesting a game of poker. Arthur is very careful not to look at his right, where he knows Merlin is looking at him with an expression that screams You are a liar, because I saw it too.
“Arthur, it’s been a while. Where have you been?” says Leon the second he answers the door.
Arthur holds out the bottle of six-pack of cider he picked up. Normally Leon doesn’t have anything more than wine in his flat and Arthur is not going to make it through this evening without drink. But Morgana has been teasing him for avoiding them all month, and Elena is getting worried, and all told Merlin is less likely to show up at one of Leon’s gatherings than anywhere else. “Things have been busy at work. Father is trying to bring a new client on.”
“Ah.” Leon fidgets at the door, and Arthur suspects they’re about to have one of their rare and awkward discussions about feelings, which he generally tries to avoid. “I just wondered … well, Merlin has been avoiding everyone as well. So I wondered if perhaps you two had a worse fight than usual or something.”
“Just busy at work, as I said.” Arthur tries not to grimace, as Leon’s words are as good as confirmation that Merlin saw what he saw in the mirror, or at least something like it, and unless Morgana really did rig the visions, two people seeing the same thing is … significant. However, choices can change things, and never seeing Merlin again would do a neat job of keeping them from getting married. And subsequently divorced, no doubt. “Besides, have you ever known me to back down from an argument with Merlin?”
“I suppose not.” Leon finally lets him in. Morgana and Elena are already on the couch in front of the telly, watching something with pregame commentary, drinking wine from the bottle. Gwen and Lancelot, it appears, have opted out of watching the match, but Elyan is sprawled on an armchair, Gwaine is trying to steal the wine from Elena, and … fuck. Merlin is standing in the kitchen, carrying a bowl of crisps and staring at Arthur like he’s seen a ghost.
There is a long, long moment of silence that only Leon witnesses. And possibly Elyan. Luckily the other three are busy with their wine, they’re the three most likely to give Arthur a hard time. “Merlin,” he acknowledges eventually. “I didn’t realize you were a football fan.”
“Morgana promised me alcohol, and I’m too broke to buy my own this month. But she’s hogging all the wine.” Merlin raises his voice for the last bit. He still hasn’t looked away from Arthur.
“Give him a bottle of cider,” Morgana calls, not bothering to look up from kicking Gwaine in the shoulder to keep him away from the wine. “And you can probably turn water into wine or something, Merlin, you just wanted to get out of that tomb you call a flat for a night.”
“Really bad wine,” mutters Merlin, like doing it at all doesn’t break most of the scales they’ve got for measuring power.
“If it will stop you whining, you can have one of my ciders,” says Arthur, and pulls one out to throw it at him. Merlin catches it with magic, not with his hands, and Arthur rolls his eyes before shouldering past both of them to take a seat on the bean bag chair Leon’s laid out on the floor next to the couch (he has never asked why a man in his late twenties still has a bean bag chair; he probably doesn’t want to know the answer).
Watching the game is more than a bit awkward. It shouldn’t be, he and Merlin make enough silent effort that it shouldn’t be, but every time one of them starts an argument about a call in the game or even who should make more popcorn, the other one stops it before they can really get started and they go back to ignoring each other as well as they’re able. Morgana and Gwaine look vastly entertained by it all, Leon and Elena look worried, and Elyan just stares around at them all like he thinks they’re mad.
Arthur goes into the kitchen at a boring part of the game, more than a bit tipsy after drinking four of the six ciders in his six-pack (the other two having gone to Merlin and Leon, respectively), and Merlin follows him there under a minute later. He nearly drops the glass of water he’s just poured when he turns around to find Merlin standing closer to him than he ever has (in reality, at least). “We need to talk about this,” Merlin says with the sort of earnest determination that can only come from being a cheap date who Morgana has been plying with wine all evening. She refuses to give any to Gwaine on principle, but Merlin she coddles and boozes up like he’s some sort of alcoholic lapdog.
“Actually, we should never mention it again. Ever.”
Merlin sways a little bit closer, and yes, that’s definitely the closest they’ve ever stood. Normally they take care to have at least one other person there between them so they don’t kill each other or start shouting in public places. “I’ve been thinking we ought to work out a custody arrangement. Like, you get events that Morgana hosts, because she’s your sister and also she’s evil. And maybe Leon’s, since you were at school with him. And I’ll get Gwaine, and Lancelot. We can share Elena and Gwen, they like us both.”
“Lancelot and Gwen are married, though. They host events together.”
That conundrum seems to be beyond Merlin’s poor little drunk brain. “I get Percival, then,” he says eventually. “Lancelot and he are getting to be good friends, I’m sure he’ll get adopted eventually.”
“Who gets me?” asks Elyan from the doorway, sounding more sober than either of them, and both of them jump and turn around. He looks far too amused. “Are you two really divvying up your friends out here? Didn’t think you hated each other that much.” He walks around them to get another packet of crisps out of a cabinet. Leon’s cabinets seem to spawn crisps, which is odd, because he doesn’t actually like them that much.
Arthur attempts to focus on the subject at hand. “It’s safer this way.”
Elyan looks between them. “Safer for everyone who doesn’t want to get involved in another nuclear-level argument about magic users’ rights? Nice of you two to think of the rest of us.”
That is an excellent excuse. Arthur plans to use it with everyone who questions this new arrangement, which will hopefully be this brilliant when he’s fully sober. “Yes, that is exactly what we’re doing.”
For a second, there’s only the noise of Elena and Gwaine booing a call the referee made at the match, then Elyan starts laughing. Quietly, but he’s definitely laughing. “Oh, gods, you two actually finally fucked, didn’t you?”
“Not if we can help it,” says Merlin with the conviction of the truly pissed. “We are trying to change the future. It is absolutely vital.”
Elyan has to clutch the refrigerator handle to stay upright, he’s laughing so hard. Someone is going to get suspicious. “That’s what got you two’s knickers all in a twist at Morgana’s party? You saw yourselves sleeping together?”
“We were married,” blurts Arthur, because he actually hasn’t said the most horrifying part of it aloud yet. If he and Merlin had just been fucking the lights out of each other, that would have been one thing, but they were cuddling. And wearing rings.
Merlin grimaces. “Someone brainwashed us. Probably Morgana. Brainwashed us and forced us to get married. You were all …” He flaps a hand about. “Nice. It was weird.”
“There is absolutely no hope for you two,” says Elyan.
“Oi, arsehole,” calls Gwaine from the floor in front of the couch, where he’s still having far too much trouble coaxing alcohol out of Elena and Morgana. “Where are you with those crisps?”
“Please don’t tell anyone,” Arthur says before Elyan can leave, because he still looks far too amused. “No one. It’s just a possible future, it hasn’t happened yet and it won’t happen. At all. Ever.”
“Right, of course.” Elyan backs out of the kitchen before Arthur can take him to task for his disbelieving tone.
“We’ll work out that custody arrangement,” says Merlin, and follows a few steps behind Elyan.
“Fuck,” says Arthur, and wishes he’d brought another pack of cider.
Arthur wakes up a week later hard and aching, and he’s two strokes in before he remembers what he was dreaming about. Merlin. He was dreaming about Merlin, and while that’s not unheard of--they don’t get along, but he doesn’t deny there’s something alluring about Merlin for all he treats Arthur like an extension of his father and nothing more--it’s always been about Merlin on his knees, or on his back. This time, he just remembers being curled up on the same couch he saw in the vision, playing with Merlin’s hair, of all things. He clenches his hands in the bedsheets the second he realizes it.
It’s just been too long since he was with someone, he reassures himself, so his brain has apparently latched onto this vision of himself and Merlin. Nothing to worry about, it’s just like that summer when he had an inadvisable crush on a girl named Sophia and couldn’t get his mind off her even after she proved to be a conniving witch. All he needs to do is find someone else and he’ll forget all about Merlin and they won’t find themselves cuddling on a couch in five years (he doesn’t trust Merlin to prevent it, Merlin is useless for all he’s a powerful warlock). The future isn’t frozen, and this isn’t something he’s going to let himself fall into doing.
When he goes to work that day, he looks around at everyone with new eyes. He doesn’t have time to go to bars or clubs much these days, so someone at the company is going to be his easiest bet unless he wants to grovel to his father, or worse, Morgana (who would likely set him up on a blind date with Merlin anyway because she is impossible).
As luck would have it, Vivian King arrives in Arthur’s office just as he’s returning from his lunch break, a fury in heels almost as dangerous as Morgana’s. For all she’s a snob, she’s smart as a whip and pretty, with the added bonus of being as unlike Merlin as possible. He allows her to rant on about the deal they’re making with her father’s company for twenty minutes before interrupting her with a dinner invitation. She pauses in the midst of telling him that Camelot Corp is lucky that the Kings are even considering this, since they’ve been established for generations and Camelot is practically a startup and stares for several seconds. “Are you absolutely mad?” she inquires.
“I know a place that does very good chicken.”
Vivian narrows her eyes at him. “If you are trying to seduce privileged information from me …” She trails off threateningly.
“Just dinner, I promise. Perhaps several dinners. Maybe even the opera.” She looks rather less than impressed. “I want to get to know you better.” Which is at least slightly true. Actually, the idea is growing more appealing by the minute.
She sniffs. “You may pick me up at seven. We will not be informing my father, as he won’t trust your motives. Take me somewhere nice.” Arthur nods, trying to swallow a smile. She may be a snob, but at least she’s never boring. “Now if you’ve quite finished wasting my time, I think I ought to go find my father, we’re meant to have a meeting with your sales team.”
“Of course. I’ll come by your flat.”
Vivian gives him a sharp nod and leaves, and Arthur spends the rest of the day ignoring the horrified looks that his personal assistant keeps giving him and making the reservation himself so word doesn’t get back to Morgana. Which it does anyway, of course. She calls him while he’s on his way to pick Vivian up.
“Are you and Merlin trying to make each other jealous?” she inquires without preamble when he picks up the phone. “Because neither of you has gone out with anyone in months while you do that ridiculous fighting-flirting thing that you do and then suddenly you both have dates on the same night.”
Thank the gods, Arthur thinks, because that means Merlin is trying to avert disaster as well, and they’re far more likely to be successful if they’re both working towards not working towards a relationship. Perhaps he’s more intelligent than Arthur generally gives him credit for. “Vivian actually has nothing to do with Merlin,” he lies. “Believe it or not, my life doesn’t revolve around him.”
For once, he’s actually shocked Morgana into silence. Sadly, it doesn’t last long. “The pair of you are ridiculous, and when Vivian dumps you you shall get no sympathy from me whatsoever,” she snaps, and hangs up the phone.
The first date goes surprisingly well. As does the second, and the third, and the seventh, and the ninth, and Arthur’s father nearly knocks him over with the force of the clap on his shoulder when Arthur tells him what’s going on. None of his friends seem terribly impressed with Vivian, but none of them mentions it, and Merlin’s busy with his new boyfriend, so for two months Arthur barely thinks about the vision at all.
It’s all ruined, predictably enough, when Morgana has another dinner party. “Bring Vivian if you must. Merlin is bringing Gilli. At the very least we’ll have entertainment.”
“You’re not to get the scrying mirror out again, then, since we already have entertainment.”
Morgana starts laughing. “So that is what it’s all about. I’d wondered. What, were you two fucking?”
“Why does everyone assume that?” Arthur asks, then decides to change the subject before Morgana explains why. Knowing her, she has colour-coded lists of evidence for just this opportunity. “Vivian and I will be there, and no scrying mirror, Morgana. I mean that.”
So of course when he gets there, Vivian on his arm, Morgana greets them with the scrying mirror in her hands. Before Arthur can object, Vivian claps her hands with delight. “I haven’t played scrying games in years! What a lovely idea, Morgana.”
Morgana smirks at Arthur, who just glares at her. “I thought we’d pass it round while the roast finishes cooking. Come, sit in my living room. I don’t believe you’ve met Merlin yet, nor his boyfriend.”
Arthur trails after, since he has very little choice about it with Vivian’s arm clamped around his, and waves at all his friends before steeling himself and turning to Merlin, who is sitting next to a man with ears nearly as ridiculous as his and a rather mulish expression. Judging by the ostentatiously magical ring he’s wearing, he’s a sorcerer as well. Trust Merlin to pick someone who’s practically a clone of himself to date.
But then again, Arthur’s main criterion for picking Vivian in the first place was someone as far from Merlin as possible, and he sort of has to face the fact that Vivian is basically himself with tits and delusions of grandeur, so Merlin might have had a similar experience. “--and Gilli,” Morgana says, giving Arthur a significant look, at which he realizes he’s been staring at Merlin and his boyfriend, who apparently is joining Gwaine and Elyan in their Most Rubbish Name competition.
“Pleasure,” says Vivian, in the tones of one who is not actually particularly pleased, and turns back to Morgana, saving Arthur from having to exchange any significant looks with Merlin. “So, are we waiting for anyone else, or shall we start with the mirror?”
“You and Arthur are the last.”
Vivian gives Arthur a look through her lashes, confirming everyone’s suspicions as to why they were late. Arthur doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes. “We’re sorry to hold you up, then.” Arthur drags them to the last two chairs in Morgana’s living room. She’s brought out a few for the occasion, it seems.
Morgana smiles around at the lot of them when they’re all settled and holds up the mirror. “I’ve set the mirror for three years and a few months, for something different.” She hands it to Gwen, next to her. “Why don’t you start tonight? Then we’ll just go around the circle.”
Arthur ignores most everyone as the mirror goes around the circle, though he notes Elena’s blush and sudden refusal to meet anyone’s eyes and Gwaine’s disappointment at looking in on a boring evening when he’s home alone with the telly and no sign of anything else. Merlin and Gilli have near-identical poker faces, Arthur discovers, and he hopes that means they’ve seen each other.
He’s third from last, with only Vivian and Elyan yet to go, and he takes it and looks in, expecting for things to have changed quite drastically from the last time he looked in, and--
He’s in his office, and it’s dark outside. That at least is normal. Something nearby is playing “You Sexy Thing,” though, which is not.
Arthur-in-the-future picks up his mobile, and Arthur wonders how the hell his taste degenerates that much in so little time. “You changed my ringtone again,” says Arthur-in-the-future, and at least that’s a comfort. Probably it was Morgana, the witch.
“Are you still at work?” and fuck, fuck, it’s Merlin again.
“Only another half hour, I promise. Trying to sort out that snarl I mentioned to you earlier.”
“You shouldn’t have to fix your father’s mistakes.” That tone’s familiar, the blatant disdain for Uther Pendragon. Perhaps he and Merlin are just friends in this future. They bond over their mutual desire not to get married and get to be mates. Arthur can live with that, he supposes. “He shouldn’t be making them, after this long.”
Arthur-in-the-future’s reaction isn’t how Arthur would react to a mate, though. He slumps and rubs his forehead. “He’ll retire in a few years, and I’ll make it better then.”
“And in the meantime you’re miserable.” Merlin’s voice softens to a dangerous degree. “Arthur, if he won’t let you change things you should just--”
“We’re not having this argument again. I’ll come home soon, and we’ll talk about it then, but for now I’m sorting out this Mordred bloke.”
Merlin sighs. “Okay. You know I’m not angry at you, right?”
“I know. I love--”
Arthur pastes on a smile as he comes out of the trance, though judging by Elyan’s expression he doesn’t do a very good job of it. In some ways, that’s worse than the first one. He doesn’t let anyone talk about his father like that, not even Morgana, but he was accepting it from Merlin without any qualms whatsoever. “Working late,” he murmurs without looking at anyone, and passes it to Vivian.
She’s quiet when she comes out of her trance, and all through dinner, but Arthur barely notices because he’s too busy avoiding looking at Merlin in case Merlin is looking back.
Vivian breaks up with him quite spectacularly in a restaurant two weeks later, two nights after Merlin dumps Gilli, and Arthur can’t say that he regrets it too much. Clearly the dating-other-people experiment wasn’t a success this time, and he’ll have to think of another solution.
It’s sunny for once, it’s nearly summer, and Elena decides that it’s a lovely idea to have a picnic in one of the city parks three weeks after Vivian breaks up with Arthur. He shows up, under threat of pain from Morgana, to find out that Gwaine and Merlin are the only other two who could make it. “Where is everyone?” Arthur blurts out before he can even pretend to be polite and greet them.
Elena looks up from where she’s unpacking sandwiches. “Leon’s parents are in town, Elyan is sleeping off a date that apparently went on for a while, and Gwen is ovulating.” She pauses when Gwaine starts laughing. “I don’t think I was meant to say that last bit. Could we pretend I didn’t say that last bit?”
“We certainly can, Elena,” says Morgana, who would be mocking Arthur mercilessly if he ever said something like that but just beams at Elena like she’s a kitten frolicking about. “Also, Arthur, you’re rude. Can’t be glad for the company you have?”
“When it includes both you and Gwaine? No.” He sits down on the blanket someone laid out for them and finally forces himself to look at Merlin, who looks about as pleased with the situation as Arthur feels. The reminder that Gwen and Lancelot are whole-heartedly embracing their destiny is uncomfortable to say the least. “Merlin,” he acknowledges.
“Arthur,” replies Merlin, and they go back to studiously ignoring each other, which is a great deal harder in a smaller group, especially when Morgana draws them all into a discussion of Nimueh Lake, a magic user and front runner in the upcoming elections for Prime Minister, running against Uther’s friend Aredian.
The afternoon passes in a surprisingly pleasant haze, helped along by the bottle of wine Gwaine thought to bring, and Arthur finds himself halfway to dozing as the shadows get longer and the girls giggle about something inane and Gwaine harasses them. Merlin’s unusually quiet, considering how much he usually prattles on. Arthur forces his eyes all the way open eventually, because he may be willing to do pretty much anything to avoid marrying Merlin, but he was raised polite, and props himself up on his elbows to find Merlin watching him.
Normally he would tease Merlin, but he does the same more than he’s comfortable with whenever they’re forced to be in the same room. It’s a baffled look more than anything else, which is why they don’t mention it: they’re both trying to figure out what the hell it is that keeps having them paired off in a few years. Arthur knows Merlin is attractive, and interesting if nothing else, but Gwaine is both of those things as well and nearly as exasperating to be around, so it’s hard to figure out how his future has fixed on Merlin of all people.
“Fixed it yet?” he asks quietly under cover of Elena beating Gwaine about the head with one of her sandals while Morgana shrieks with laughter.
Merlin gives him an exasperated look. “How am I supposed to know? It’s not like I sit about in my flat nights staring into a scrying mirror just to make sure you and I don’t merge china collections. I’m not a seer, anyway.”
“Shocking. I just thought you might know, what with your …” Arthur wiggles his fingers about to signify the magic.
Merlin mimics the gesture. “Seriously? You can’t say the word? Worried that your father will hear you used it and scold you or something?” Arthur can feel himself go pale at that. Any other time, any other situation, whoever said something like that to him would find themselves with a black eye, or at least a fight they wouldn’t soon forget. With Merlin, he can’t decide if it’s worse or better, because Merlin must have seen them talking about his father in three years, must know what a low blow that is, but he also looks horrified the second he says it. “Shit, Arthur, I’m--”
“Oh, just shut up, Merlin,” says Arthur, because the other three are still too nearby and he doesn’t want them involved in the conversation. It’s a miracle Elyan hasn’t told any of them about the whole marriage thing. “I was just too lazy to finish my sentence, that’s all.”
“Of course.” Merlin breaks out into the grin that Arthur has never had directed at him in the present. It’s just as disconcerting as it was in the vision, and it takes Arthur a full five seconds to realize that he’s staring like an idiot. For a moment, it’s appallingly clear why his future self marries Merlin, and he feels like he’s stuck in one of the visions again, everything easy and golden in the late-afternoon sun while their friends giggle about Strictly Come Dancing or something equally ridiculous a few feet away.
Then he realizes that this is exactly how people get brainwashed into making visions they see come true, just like happened with him and Gwen forever ago. They see something that could be based off a five-second fancy just before they look into the future and obsess over it until it becomes the only possible future. That’s undoubtedly his and Merlin’s problem. Arthur pulls back, and Merlin turns away, smile shrinking.
“How’s work?” Arthur asks when the silence gets to be too awkward. Merlin just gives him a disbelieving look. Arthur rolls his eyes and lowers his voice. “Unless you want Morgana interrupting in about five seconds to scold us for not making nice, you’ll make an attempt at conversation. I for one would rather she not find out about this if at all possible.”
“It’s Morgana. Odds are she knows already, and has started a pool with everyone else to bet as to when it actually happens.”
“As to when what actually happens?” asks Elena at exactly the wrong moment.
“The inevitable time when Merlin and I snap and try to kill each other,” Arthur replies promptly. Gwaine snorts. Morgana just smiles serenely. “If nobody else has placed their bets on the second week of August, may I?”
“Having either of you involved will skew the odds,” Morgana says. “You’ll just have to work it out yourselves.” Judging by the arch of her eyebrow and her vague phrasing, she’s got more of an idea than anyone but Elyan what’s going on. Arthur can only hope that she doesn’t mention it to anyone else. “Although if you were to arrange for it to happen sometime in late June, I wouldn’t object.”
“Like you need the money,” says Gwaine. “I, on the other hand, do, but I won’t sink to cheating.”
From there, the conversation degenerates into them all arguing about when the double homicide will occur (much to the confusion and alarm of everyone who passes by and happens to catch a few words), and by the time Arthur excuses himself to go home and get some of the work he’s been putting off done, a lot of the awkwardness seems to have passed. He and Merlin will still have to figure out some sort of solution, but at least now they can be civil to one another again.
Merlin calls a week and a half after the picnic, and Arthur picks the phone up more from curiosity than anything else. He and Merlin exchanged numbers because Morgana glowered until they did years ago now, but they’ve never actually used them. “I have an idea,” says Merlin once they’ve exchanged greetings.
“About our particular problem, or in general?”
“Our particular problem, of course, prat. Do you really think you’d be the first person I called if I had ideas about other things?”
“If they were business-related and you had the IQ of a cabbage, yes.”
“Since when do I do anything about business? I’m training to be a social worker.” Merlin sighs. “Anyway, I think we should sleep together.”
Arthur examines that statement from several angles and fails to find any that magically cause it to make sense. “So you want us to give in?”
“What? No!” There, Merlin sounds properly appalled again. Arthur was getting worried. “I have a theory that if we fuck now, we won’t end up getting married.”
“That is a completely rubbish theory, so you know.”
“What, you’re afraid if you have me once you’ll never want to stop?” Merlin asks, amused.
Arthur takes a second to consider the wicked little smile Merlin makes every time he does magic around Arthur, and those blinding grins of his, and the way he just melts into a boneless heap when he’s relaxed enough, and then dismisses it as the future attempting to brainwash him again. “Afraid of the opposite, in fact. You’ve just attempted to booty call me to change the future, obviously I’m irresistible.”
“Am I that transparent?” Merlin asks, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. “I want you, I--”
“I’ve seen that movie,” Arthur interrupts, biting down on a laugh. “Right, then, tell me why the hell you think sleeping together will solve our problem. I’m curious as to your logic.”
“My theory is that if we stop avoiding each other and sort of indulge it, the excitement and attraction will wear off pretty quickly, since we don’t have anything in common.” Merlin coughs. Arthur can’t blame him for being awkward, this is the most heinously unsexy proposition in the history of them. “We just get married because we put it off for so long.”
Arthur ponders that for a few seconds. “That’s rubbish,” he decides eventually. “For all Morgana whines about sexual tension, it’s not as if we’re collapsing under the weight of it.” And then, because he can’t resist needling Merlin: “Well, unless there’s something you aren’t telling me.”
Merlin makes a frustrated noise. Arthur fights down a grin. “Look, at least I’m making suggestions. And you can’t tell me you haven’t been thinking about it. We should just … get it out of our systems. And then we won’t be thinking about it, because it’s weird, and the worst will have already happened and we can move on from it.”
“Gods, you sound like Gwen.” Arthur refrains from saying that sex wouldn’t be the worst. Sex with Merlin would probably be quite satisfactory. It’s the wondering what happens to make him trust Merlin of all people with how frustrated he gets at work, with how much he wants to change what his father does, not to mention the domesticity of it all. He doesn’t know what to do with any of it. “What brought this idea on, anyway?”
“Look, it’s just logic, yeah? The way we’re going now … I mean, think about it. It’s already happening. We keep trying to think of ways to end it, so we spend more time talking and all that, so eventually it sort of turns into us dating by accident, and we get married.” That actually sounds horribly plausible. “So maybe if we sort of go along with it for a bit, we’ll figure out that it’s not actually going to be anything that special.”
“It’s a pretty big risk,” he points out.
Merlin sighs. “Arthur. We’ve been talking for several minutes, and we’re arguing, but neither of us has hung up yet and it’s all pretty good-natured, don’t you dare say different. It’s already happening.”
Arthur hangs up, mostly out of spite.
The next day, after a particularly frustrating day of work, Arthur stops in a Seer’s shop when he gets out of the office. It’s a seedy little building in the middle of a street full of magic supply shops and art galleries and a particularly bohemian cafe, and he gets more than a few odd looks as he walks down it with his suit on and his briefcase in hand, but he refuses to go to Morgana and he wants to see if Merlin’s right about the path that they’re on. The man inside doesn’t so much as blink when Arthur enters, though. Which he shouldn’t, since he would be a pretty rubbish Seer if he acted surprised when customers came in.
The man is hold, with white hair and a neatly-trimmed beard and robes of the sort that magic users tend to don when they want to look mysterious and all-knowing for reasons Arthur can never fathom. “I am Taliesin,” he says in impressive tones. Arthur resists the urge to say that he’d guessed that, considering the shop is named Taliesin’s. “I assume you’re here because you want to know the future.”
“As pertains to something specific, yes.”
Morgana has said time and again that Seers aren’t mind-readers, and that dreaming they have no control over what they see and while scrying there’s no assurance that they’ll see anything useful. Arthur’s expecting Taliesin to start rambling about the stock market or something, but instead he just nods. “Come to the back room, then.”
Arthur follows, and finds himself in a dark room filled with crystals of all shapes and sizes. “You don’t use mirrors?” he asks, a bit surprised.
“Crystals are useful in the right hands.” Taliesin takes one off a shelf and peers into it for a moment. “I think this is the one for you. This one likes showing love.” Arthur bites down on a sarcastic comment, because Taliesin is still staring into it. “About three years from now, it seems. Are you prepared to see it?”
“I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” says Arthur grimly, and reaches out to take the crystal when Taliesin offers it. He looks down, catches a distorted reflection, and then--
”--pretend you’re sorry, because I know you aren’t!” Arthur finds himself shouting, and when he finds his bearings he’s standing in the kitchen of a flat he doesn’t recognize, facing off with Merlin, who looks halfway between concerned and furious. “You probably would have loved it if he disowned me.”
“Actually, no, because I’m not a monster. I won’t pretend I like him, not even for you, but I love you, and I’m sorry he hurt you. Now would you calm down and tell me what you were fighting about?”
Arthur-in-the-future apparently doesn’t like being told to calm down any more than Arthur-in-the-present does. “What the fuck do you think we were fighting about, Merlin? Same things as always. Magic. You.”
Merlin steps closer but doesn’t reach out and touch. “You don’t need to defend my honour or anything, Arthur. Magic, yes, I’m glad you fight him on that, but what he thinks of us doesn’t matter to me because you’ve told me it doesn’t matter to you.”
Arthur looks at the floor, and when he speaks again, he does it quietly. “It matters when he won’t give me my mother’s ring.” His mother’s ring, one of the things she left to him when she died at his birth, entrusted to his father until Arthur wants to propose to someone, and he’s never even thought about touching it before, but apparently in a few years he will, and for Merlin, no less.
“Your mother’s--Arthur.” Arthur keeps staring at the floor. “Arthur, does that--”
“I wanted you to have it,” he whispers.
“Arthur, look at me,” says Merlin, stepping closer still until Arthur can feel his body heat, and then he does look up to find Merlin shocked and bright-eyed. “Are you asking?”
“Of course I’m asking, did you think I was asking for the ring as a--”
Merlin kisses him, hard and bruising, and when he pulls away, it’s barely at all, and he whispers against Arthur’s mouth. “It doesn’t matter, I’ll marry you with a ring or without one, we can have our own tradition, it’s not like I wanted you to get down on one knee or anything.”
“This is not how I planned to propose.”
Merlin looks at him with so much naked love in his expression that Arthur feels absurdly like he’s intruding on a private moment even though he’s technically part of it. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Do you mind very much about your father?”
“I’m used to it, after two years of--”
Arthur stares at the blank crystal for ten seconds after he comes out of the vision. He and Merlin are still going to get married, it seems; maybe even sooner than before, though he didn’t see that far. And it seems that their relationship has taken the powder keg that is his relationship with his father and blown it up entirely. He can’t regret that much--something will do it eventually, even if he manages to avert the future with Merlin; it’s been coming since uni, when Arthur realized that magic users aren’t evil and untrustworthy after all. At this point, the problem is that he’s almost starting to want this future; no more pretending to be a dutiful son, someone to come home to at the end of the day. “That wasn’t the answer you were seeking,” says Taliesin, jostling him out of his thoughts.
He’s being brainwashed by the future, he reminds himself. “Not really, no. How much for it?”
He and Taliesin settle up, and the Seer is luckily smart enough not to ask questions or chatter away. Arthur feels a headache coming on and isn’t sure he wouldn’t snap if he were questioned on it.
Still, he calls Merlin the second he gets back to his flat. “All right, you win. Your flat or mine?”
Part Two | Part Three | Part Four