Merlin always stops the port, uneducated oik that he is, and somehow it's always Arthur's job to lean over and shove the decanter left before someone starts to bray about it (and if he sometimes takes a while to pull himself out of Merlin's lap again, that's because the table's too low and Gwaine thinks port tastes better from wineglasses and he was up at five to row, not because he likes the way Merlin laughs down at him, so loud and broad and affectionate they can probably hear him at high table).
Lancelot pulls him back up with an amused smile, murmuring, “The queen.”
They all manage to stumble upright to make the toast, though Arthur has to kick Merlin twice before he drinks.
“I'm a Marxist!” he protests, thankfully under the hubbub of everyone taking their seats again as the dons clear out to drink in the SCR. “I reject your elitist oligarchic mon-”
“Merlin,” Arthur reminds him kindly. “You're a classicist.”
Merlin sags down onto the bench, pouting a little. Then he perks up and points at Arthur. “And so are you! A reactionary Tory classicist!”
Arthur just grins at him and waits. Further down the table, a couple of chemists have rolled up their emblazoned menus and are using them and the candles to investigate the relative flammability of port, wine, sherry and leftover raspberry pavlova. Arthur rolls his eyes and decides to exercise what authority he has before the steward spots them and has apoplexy.
“Morons,” he informs them. “If you burn down Hall, we're not paying for it out of the JCR budget.”
“Who died and put you in charge?” Gilli demanded.
Arthur claps a cheerful hand on his shoulder. “If rumour has it right, my lad, you voted for me. You and an unprecedented ninety-one percent of the undergraduate body, I might add.”
“But not me,” Merlin puts in. “I abstained. It was a blow against the system.”
Lancelot appears quietly before Arthur can choose who to yell at first, and takes over with quiet friendliness and a quick application of cold coffee to burning tablecloth. Arthur leaves him to it – what else is a good VP for? - and drags Merlin outside. Gwaine and the others surround them, arguing over what should come next. Gwaine wants to revisit the townie pub from last Friday (vetoed: it's too close to Bumps for broken noses and jailtime); Percy wants fish and chips (“More food,” Merlin protests. “If the college didn't have to feed rowers, they could fund four more scholarships a year. Shut up, Arthur.”); there's the college bar or a medics' party somewhere off the Cowley Road that they could crash (“Good drugs,” Leon promises, with all the weight and authority of a postgrad with a marijuana patch in his back garden).
But it's snowing.
They're halfway down the steps out of Hall before Arthur notices, and that's only because Merlin's eyes suddenly go wide as he lifts his face towards the night sky. The snow twists down noiselessly, catching in Merlin's dark hair and on his eyelashes, melting on his parted lips. Beyond the noise of their voices, there's a deep and subtle silence about the world. The quiet which settles comfortingly in every ancient quad has redoubled, deeper and richer and more real, as if the city has taken another shuffling step closer to the Platonic ideal (and later, when he's ensconced in Plutarch again, he'll hate himself for romanticising Plato of all people, but that's for then, not now).
He doesn't want to leave college tonight, but the others seem to have decided that Elyan's sister can get them into the Somerville bop. Gwaine shouldn't get into fights there, and Gwen's friends are tolerant enough that they won't have to deal with the BNP arseholes they'd get in town (they're in the colleges too, all of them know, but the girls are less mouthy about it and Gwen knows who to avoid).
“No,” Arthur says, without turning around. He is never taking Merlin into a woman's college again. Merlin may be a lanky, socialist bundle of vicar's son from Liverpool, but his hair curls softly against his shoulders, he sounds a bit like John Lennon, and he's possessed of a sort of graceless chivalry that attracts shameless hussies like flies to honey. And, after all those years of prep school and Eton and college, Arthur just isn't comfortable being surrounded by quite that many women.
That, and Merlin never finds the knickers in his pockets until halfway through tutorials, and Arthur's terribly worried for the health of Gaius' eyebrows.
(“You are a disgusting chauvinist,” Morgana had informed him when he tried to explain all this. “Not to mention too stupid for words. I thought you'd read The Symposium.”
“I hate Plato and have no idea what you're wittering about,” he'd grumbled, trying not to choke on the fog of Diorissimo that filled her tiny room (which had a basin and a view of the gardens, but that was Morgana for you). “And when did you become a feminist?”
“I was thinking of burning my bra,” she mused, extracting a thick stick of eyeliner from between two Economics textbooks, “but I can't decide whether to do it on Cornmarket or on the steps of the Bod. Or what to wear – would a mini be hypocrisy? Should I invite Uther?”
He'd made what he still chose to consider a strategic retreat at that point, never mind that she still hadn't explained herself.)
He's worked out what she meant by now, of course – he may not be the only grammar school boy from north of Watford in the college, like a certain absent-minded genius, but he's not stupid. Knowing doesn't help, though, not when Merlin's standing here enraptured, with the snow falling and his scholar's gown billowing around his legs (he'll trip over it before the night is over, Arthur knows).
To hide the revolting wave of tenderness, he demands, “Do they not have snow up north, Emrys?”
“It looks different here,” Merlin informs him. “What's the plan, then?”
“I have booze,” Arthur starts, but is shouted down. He waits them out, arms folded as the snow touches his cheeks in quick wet kisses. “Well, for those who don't want to get snowed in at Somerville-”
“He says it like it's a bad thing,” Gwaine laments, and then leers. “Perhaps the ladies will have to share their accommodation with a handsome- ow!”
“Stay away from my sister,” Elyan warns him, hand still raised to cuff him again.
“You never say that to Lancelot,” Gwaine grumbles, dancing away down the steps.
Lancelot gives him a gracious smile. “He doesn't need to.”
Arthur manages to swallow his snort. According to his excellent sources, Lancelot and Gwen have done things which would make anyone blush if he were hear the details (which Morgana had then shared, and he had, damn her, and then she'd had the gall to threaten him if he repeated anything she'd told him. He'd had enough trouble even looking at Gwen or Lancelot for weeks afterwards – he'd be damned if he ever even thought about it again, or walked across Port Meadow, or ate another strawberry).
They all seem to be leaving, and he hesitates. Then he looks at Merlin again, and sees he hasn't moved; is still spellbound by the snow.
“Not bopping, then?” Arthur asks, looking down. Light is glowing out of every window, and he can just see that the snow is starting to settle in the creases between the cobbles, pale and frail.
“Nah,” Merlin says. “Thought I could stay here.” Then he winces a little and adds, “Could do with some gloves, though.”
Arthur rolls his eyes and propels Merlin across the quad, hand firm at his back. “Inside. Now.”
“Snow,” Merlin whines, wobbly-legged, and he would probably have never made it past St Giles anyway. Arthur's just looking out for him, if anyone should happen to ask.
Inside Arthur's room, which is low-ceiling and draughty and has authentic medieval wall-paintings over the basin, Merlin presses himself against the leaded glass and stares out. Arthur only turns on the table lamp, and uses its dim yellow light to wrestle with the gas fire until it hiccups on and its bars start to glow. He likes this low light, when he doesn't have to worry about whether his thoughts are written too clearly on his face.
Merlin drags himself away from the window with a sigh. He ambles over to the radio, retuning it away from the Home Service. Radio Caroline crackles out, brash and bold, and Merlin bounces along a little, singing along, “You really got me goin', you got me so I don't know what I'm doin'.”
I wish, Arthur thinks and says, “Merlin, whoever told you that you could sing was either tone deaf or playing a particularly inspired practical joke.”
Merlin pouts at him, but drapes himself into the comfy chair, gown settling around him like a shadow. The dim light makes a mystery of his face, until he says triumphantly, “The Greeks invented democracy!”
“Classics is not elitist!”
“They buggered it up within a generation or two,” Arthur retorts. “You want their real political achievements, you need to look at the way they administrated their empires. Alexander alone-”
“Alexander, Alexander, Alexander,” Merlin chants. “Over-privileged hothead who just couldn't bring himself to stop winning things. Hey, wait, who does that remind me of?”
Arthur throws a cushion at him, and then, very graciously he thinks, offers him a drink.
“Light on the tonic,” Merlin says hopefully.
“Of course,” Arthur lies and splashes the barest amount of gin into the bottom of the glass. “I'm out of lemons. You'll have to have satsuma.”
“Fire the butler, Jeeves,” Merlin crows, in a terrible impression of Arthur's accent. “I don't bloody care.”
“Jeeves was the butler.”
“He was,” Arthur asserts, but now he's not sure. “Have you read the books?”
“You know, I really don't think that's relevant to the discussion.”
“I'm sorry, was that, 'Oh, Arthur, I am culturally illiterate and admit your superiority in this matter?'”
“Yes, Arthur,” Merlin drawls, as if speaking to a child. “I admit you are the expert when it comes to the antiquated practise of domestic servitude.”
“Which is very sad,” Arthur informs him, “because in another time you'd probably be my servant. And you'd be terrible at it.”
“I would not!” Merlin protests.
“Er,” Merlin says and blinks at him. Then, hopefully, he holds out his glass. “More gin?”
“No,” Arthur says firmly, and ignores Merlin's pout. On the radio, the Beatles are having a hard day's night, and he says, “Did I ever tell you what my father did when they got their MBEs?”
“Sent his back,” Merlin tells him. “And, yes, you did. Repeatedly. I never did work out whether you were proud of that or not.”
“He loved that title,” Arthur murmurs, slumping into his desk chair. It's lumpy and uncomfortable, but it props him up. “He was, I don't know, standing up for his convictions.”
“Ye-es,” Merlin says slowly. “But that doesn't mean his convictions were right, does it?”
“He fought Hitler!” Arthur reminds him.
“What, personally?” Merlin asks, but Arthur's feeling too gloomy to smile. His father knows so clearly what the world should be; had no inkling that Arthur might have his own little contradictions and suppressed rebellions, points where he is not his father's son which would shatter and remake him if anyone pressed on them too hard.
“You're drunk,” Merlin informed him, leaning forward to pat his knee clumsily.
“So are you.”
“I'm drunk and happy. You're at the stage where you're drunk and miserable because your father's a-”
“A what, Merlin?”
“Nothing,” Merlin said quickly. “So, tell me about Alexander.”
Arthur narrows his eyes at him, but he really doesn't want to have this argument, so he just starts in about Aristotle's school at Mieza. Merlin listens and smiles at him in that fond, indulgent way which always makes Arthur's heart beat a little faster.
He knows exactly what he wants from Merlin, and knows that he can't have it. It's still illegal, though everyone knows it's just a matter of time before the law changes. But even if parliament issued a declaration today, his father wouldn't be able to bear the shame. Beyond that, Arthur wants a future. The times, everyone keeps singing, are a-changing, but he doesn't know how or whether they're getting better or worse. He wants to change the world for the better, but he can't do that and be honest about himself at the same time. It would rule out the army, rule out the political career he wants so much (he'd never even get nominated for a seat, not in his father's party), rule out anything where he needed the approval of powerful men. He's not even sure he'd find a job, if everyone knew. And maybe this too will change one day, but he's not made to be a rebel. He was born to be a leader, he hopes, to use the system he was born into to change the world, and this isn't Alexander's Macedon.
Sometimes, he wonders about just one night, to keep him warm for the rest of his life, but he knows it's not enough. Merlin would never accept it – he espouses his causes publicly and to the maximum once he's grasped them – and he couldn't bear it.
It's easier, he thinks bitterly, for older men. They see a greater freedom than they ever had before, but they've had a chance to follow their ambitions, to see their dreams realised even if they had to sacrifice love for it. They've had their chance and now they can risk it all for love. He can't bear the idea of doors closing to him before he's even started.
So he doesn't make waves; never pushes for what he really wants. He's only passing through, after all. He'll never be a notable scholar, but it's a step towards everything else he wants. And maybe, one day, when the world's finished changing, he'll come back. He'll walk through a college that's filled with faces that aren't just white, voices that aren't just the slow drawl of received pronunciation, see girls here as well as boys, holding hands in whatever combination they desire. He'll go and find Merlin, then, because Merlin will still be here: he belongs here, brilliant and passionate and unworldly. And, if he's lucky, Merlin won't have married one of those big-eyed, intense girls who already follow at his heels. If he's lucky, Merlin will still grin in welcome when he comes in. And, if, if, if he's more lucky than he could possibly deserve, Merlin won't hate him when he says, “I always loved you. Always. Tell me it's not too late.”
Right now, though, Merlin's snoring in his chair and it's still snowing, a white whirl outside the window which makes the rest of the world feel very far away. He needs to wake Merlin up and send him back to his own room, making sure that there's nothing for anyone to suspect.
Instead, he puts the bin out so the scout won't have to come in tomorrow. Then he shakes Merlin gently, shuffles him over the bed and tucks him in, pulling his shoes and gown off and putting his bowtie on the bedside table. Merlin settles in under the blankets with a contented snuffle, kicking his legs out to fill the bed.
Arthur waits until he's sure Merlin's asleep, kneeling beside the bed with his fist clenched in the scratchy blanket. Then he brushes a careful kiss against Merlin's cheek, letting himself linger against the softness of skin and bite of stubble.
“Arthur,” Merlin mumbles in his sleep, smiling a little.
It's one of the hardest things he's ever done, but he reminds himself that temptation is there to be resisted, picks up his key and leaves. The air outside is cold enough to bite at his bare cheeks, and the snow has speckled his gown by the time he reaches the library. For once, it's almost empty in there, and he has to turn on the lights as he climbs the stairs.
He's drunk, but not too far gone to read, so he snags something familiar and settles into the curve of the window to either torture or comfort himself with Curtius' account of the Battle of Issus and Hephaistion was by far the dearest of all the king's friends, educated together with him and the counsellor of all his secrets. No one had more freedom to admonish Alexander, but he used it in such a way that it seemed granted by the king, rather than taken by himself.
Somewhere out there Morgana's trying to reconcile Biba and bra-burning; Gwen and Elyan are wondering if it will ever be worth going back to Rhodesia, when their promised freedom keeps on slip-sliding away; Gwaine's drinking and flirting and hoping Belfast won't go up in flames again before he's graduated; Percy will never voice how he feels about the draft he's dodged by moving halfway across the world; old Gaius is hoping no one will ever ask too closely about the Communist Party card they all know is hidden in his sock drawer; and Arthur's sitting here, in the quiet of this ancient, protected place, using every last thread of willpower he has to hold himself still, to stop himself from walking back across the peaceful quad to climb into that bed beside Merlin, to press his face into the curve of Merlin's throat and hold him close and warm on this cold, cold night.
It's still snowing, and he puts the book down to watch. And he thinks about the too heartfelt songs again and can't quite make himself sneer this time. For the times really are a-changing, and he just has to live through them and never let himself forget what he holds most dear, and one day they'll have changed enough for him to have what he wants so very, very much.