“A wedding ring is sort of a tourniquet worn on one's finger to stop circulation” - Anon
There's a whole crowd of them at the funfair, laughing and shrieking and jostling each other. Merlin has candy-floss because really, what good is a fun-fair without candy-floss? Morgana says that candy-floss always looks better than it really tastes, doesn't like the way it turns to grit between her teeth, she says, but Merlin loves it. The girls are weighed down with armfuls of soft toys that the boys keep on winning for them. It's some kind of ridiculously complicated macho pissing-contest between them to see who can win the most games, the most ridiculously oversized toys. It's all because Gwen is Elyan's sister and Morgana is Arthur's, while Leon may or may not fancy Morgana and Lancelot very definitely fancies Gwen and Arthur probably does too. Merlin's not sure how Gwaine fits into this, but he's very keen to beat Arthur at everything, and distributes his furry winnings to all and sundry; a teddy for Gwen which makes Arthur frown, a hideous purple unicorn for Merlin, which he clutches under one arm as they trail around, and the rest are doled out to passing children to shrieks of delight from the kids and suspicious looks from their parents. Arthur teases Merlin mercilessly about the unicorn before turning to the archery game with renewed purpose. Merlin doesn't mind, he's always had a bit of a soft spot for unicorns and he can't make much of a retort with his mouth full of candy-floss anyway.
Morgana has mischief in her eyes as Arthur pulls back his bow, ready to take aim. She's been complaining for the past five minutes that it's all very well the boys winning them these toys but it's not very chivalrous of them to make her and Gwen carry the blasted things all around the rec ground. Morgana's views on chivalry in the modern age are well-known to the rest of the group and there is an air of expectation as she dumps her soft toy collection on the grass and hands over her pound to the man behind the archery stall. Arthur doesn't notice, concentrating on his shot, so when she jabs him in the side with her arrow he yelps with surprise. The arrow goes wide, sucker missing the target by a mile.
"Dear me, Arthur, you really ought to work on your aim," she smirks, firing off one arrow after the other and winning a giant panda which she offers to Leon, who blushes faintly under his beard. Arthur scowls as the stallholder offers him the pick of the consolation prizes. He grabs one at random, glances at it and after a second's hesitation, offers it to Merlin. Merlin takes it, fingers fumbling, sticky with candy-floss, still.
It's a ring. A tacky, plastic ring, a garish yellow that is probably pretending to be gold, but Merlin's heart skips a beat because Arthur has given it to him. Not Gwen, or anyone else, him. And he knows that it doesn't mean anything, he knows that Arthur has given it to him because it doesn't mean anything to give it to him, because he doesn't want to deal with the significance of giving a ring to a girl, he knows Arthur has only given it to him because it's the rubbish consolation prize. He knows all of this but still, his cheeks flush and he fights the instinct to grin soppily as he slides the ring onto his finger. It shouldn't fit, it's a child's toy, really, but he manages to squeeze it onto his finger.
The teasing kicks in straight away, of course. Morgana is cooing about what a beautiful bride he'll make and can she be best man because she knows all the best places to see strippers which makes Leon and Arthur choke and gives Merlin a more legitimate reason for his blush. Half the teasing is directed at Arthur, anyway, Elyan telling him he should have gone down on one knee, Gwaine offering to be Arthur's best man because he's sure he knows just as many strippers as Morgana. Even Leon joins in, with a joke about flowers which isn't funny in the slightest but the others – especially Morgana – seem to find hilarious.
And it's all fine, he doesn't mind the teasing because none of them know. If they did, the whole thing would undoubtedly be mortifying, but he's fairly sure his secret's safe. Well, Lancelot knows, but he's the soul of discretion. Merlin avoids his eye and it's all fine. Morgana doesn't let up for some time, asking Arthur if he's sure he doesn't want to sit next to his fiance on the ferris wheel, whether he thinks Uther will give him away, needling Merlin about whether he's going to be wearing white.
The joke wears off, though, after an hour or so, so by the time they've eaten burgers, been on the waltzer a few times, drank mulled wine from plastic cups and Gwaine has been sick in the bushes, everybody's forgotten it in favour of making bets on whether Gwaine can make it home without throwing up in the taxi they've called him and how much it'll cost him if it does, while he tries to convince them that his illness is due to bad meat and absolutely not because he can't handle his drink or a few spinning fairground rides.
Merlin doesn't take the ring off when he goes to bed. He pretends to himself that he's too tired, but that's not it, he just doesn't want to. The excuses pile up over the weekend, he forgot it was there (he never forgets it's there), it's too tight and he needs to find some washing-up liquid to help him ease it off. He's not sure if they're convincing. It's not comfortable, the edges digging into the flesh of his finger, but he likes wearing it.
Monday morning he has to take it off for work. He leaves it in a drawer but his finger feels bare all day without it, and he finds himself slipping it on as soon as he gets home.
He doesn't wear the ring when he meets up with Arthur and the others on a Friday night. He hides it when Gwaine comes round with beer and dvds and he keeps it locked safely away at home when he meets Gwen or Morgana for coffee, putting it on only in the privacy of his own room.
Until that's not enough anymore.
It starts with a bad day at work. He slams the door when he comes home, picks sullenly at his tuna pasta and drinks more than he should on a work night. Booze and comfort food don't do much to improve his mood but the ring does. It's become almost a habit, by now, putting it on when he gets in each day. He twists it absently around his finger while he watches cheap television without taking any of it in, when it suddenly strikes him that maybe taking it with him is the best way to get through the hellish day that tomorrow is bound to be. He can't wear it of course, there are guidelines about appropriate dress codes in his office and even if there weren't, he doesn't want to deal with his colleagues' inevitable questions were they to see him suddenly sporting a ring on his finger, let alone a garish yellow fairground prize.
Merlin's never been one for needless superstition, he doesn't have lucky socks or a lucky number or any kind of ritual in his route to work. But somehow the ring makes him feel better. It's not lucky, exactly, more comforting. With it on his finger he feels safer, stronger. And with it tucked safely away in his pocket where he can touch it whenever he needs to, he gets through the day. In an odd way, it's like Arthur is there with him.
Merlin's not an idiot, despite the frequency with which Arthur calls him one. He knows, he knows that the ring means nothing to Arthur, that Arthur meant nothing in giving it to him. But it means something to Merlin, it's the only outward sign he has of these feelings that threaten to burst out of him. He belongs to Arthur, that's what the ring means, even if no-one else can know, even if Arthur doesn't want him. And if wearing it is the only way he's ever going to get to feel close to him, well, he'll take what he can get.
He gets bolder, wears it out, when he thinks he can get away with it, under his gloves, lucky the weather's been so cold lately, he thinks. Sometimes he even takes his gloves off, in a coffee shop, on the bus. Christmas brings with it a round of parties. Caught up in the rush of present-buying and holiday plans, Merlin gets careless. He knows Lancelot has seen him wearing the ring around the house, but whatever conclusions he's drawn he hasn't said anything, so Merlin doesn't bother to hide it any more. Merlin knows Gwen and Morgana are coming round but when he opens the door to be greeted enthusiastically with hugs from both girls and a kiss on the cheek from Morgana, who's brought mistletoe, he forgets that he's still wearing it.
"I like your shirt," Gwen says. Merlin thinks she's probably just trying to be nice because this is his everything-else-is-in-the-laundry shirt. It's red, not his usual colour and he doesn't even remember buying it.
"That's the shirt I bought you last year, isn't it?" Morgana says, which solves the mystery of the shirt's provenance, at least. Merlin's relieved he didn't mention everything else being in the laundry, he wouldn't put it past Morgana to kiss him and slap him within the same five minutes. He runs one hand through his hair, grinning at his lucky escape. His relief is short lived, however, when Morgana's eyes narrow suspiciously. "What's that on your finger?" He tries to pull his hand away but she grabs it, eyes widening and the corners of her mouth turning up in a grin that is only slightly malicious. "Is that that ring Arthur gave you at the fair?"
"Yes it is, Merlin."
"Oh yes, so it is." He felt his blood drain when she spotted it but it's coming back in full force now, heating his cheeks. "I just thought... uh... since it's a party, I'd make an effort with... um..." What was that word? "Accessorising?" He winces, sure she'll see right through him but instead he is enveloped in another hug.
"Oh Merlin, you're finally getting some fashion sense, I'm so proud of you. I knew all my hard work would pay off. Didn't I say you must have an instinct for it somewhere, deep down?"
"Actually you said I couldn't possibly be gay because I don't dress well enough, which actually when you think about it is kind of offensive..."
"Yes, well, this isn't exactly what I had in mind when I suggested more accessories but it does have a certain kitsch charm to it, I suppose." And then, just when Merlin thinks he's got away with it, her lips curl into a dangerous smirk. "Won't Arthur be pleased to know you're still wearing his ring?"
It's not quite as bad as he fears, in the end. He manages to convince Arthur that wearing the ring is, in fact, all Morgana's fault, throwing out a few of the fashion terms he's heard her using like 'accessorizing' and 'complement' which cause Arthur to frown and back away from his sister as though she might decide to start on him next and make him wear ribbons in his hair. Actually, they seem to be bonding over their mutual fear of Morgana and her Gok Wan tendencies. Arthur elbows him in the ribs and jostles his shoulder and calls him an idiot, and Merlin revels in the hint of affection in his teasing, storing it up, each careless goofy touch enough to sustain him through weeks of hopeless wanting.
They see each other once more, before Arthur and Morgana leave for skiing in the Alps with their father, Gwen and Elyan head up North to spend Christmas with theirs, and Merlin goes home to his mum in Ealdor. Lance announces his plans to spend Christmas Day helping out in a soup kitchen which makes Gwen go all misty-eyed. Gwaine plans to spend his drunk but it's hard to feel sorry for him because he almost certainly won't be alone. Merlin invites him to Ealdor anyway, and receives a clap on the shoulder and a heartfelt thanks but no thanks. Gwen turns the last of the misty-eyed look on him and Arthur merely looks thoughtful. They're a sorry lot of orphans the lot of them, Merlin realises. Perhaps it's why they're such a close-knit group. One more reason that no-one else must ever find out about this ridiculous crush on Arthur, he thinks, shoving his left hand into his pocket out of sight.
Merlin wears it out again the next time they all meet up, shortly after New Year. This time he can see Arthur looking at him, at his hand, his expression a mixture of puzzlement and something else Merlin can't quite decipher. Arthur's cheeks look flushed and Merlin hopes it's just the sudden warmth of the pub coming in from the cold outside and not embarrassment at Merlin's behaviour. It would look worse to take it off now, guilty, even, but he resolves this will be the last time he wears it, it will. (It won't.)
He avoids Arthur's eyes as much as possible, paying more attention to Gwen and Lancelot, who are exchanging shy looks, making him wonder whether something's happened between them over Christmas, an awkward mistletoe kiss or a thoughtful gift that said more than it should. (Merlin had got alcohol for everyone except Gwaine who didn't need to be encouraged and had laughed uproariously at the bottle of water and packet of resolve in his parcel instead. Booze was safe; no chance of a bottle of London Pride saying 'I secretly love you'. Arthur always bought everyone lottery tickets. Merlin had smiled and swallowed down the awful thought that even if his ticket won it couldn't be as good a gift as that carelessly handed-over ring from the fair.)
Morgana sits on a bar stool, effectively holding court with Leon and Elyan hanging on her every word, or at least nodding along. Gwaine scans the bar constantly for eligible new arrivals and leaves the group periodically with a sly smile. As he's fairly sure Gwaine doesn't have a bladder problem, Merlin assumes he's on the look out for girls who might be receptive to his advances. One time he comes over with a wry grin, shaking droplets of liquid from his ridiculous hair.
"Waste of a good drink if you ask me," he remarks, "I was hardly harrassing the lady."
"You are pretty persistent," Gwen reminds him. "It took me ages to get rid of you, first time we met. You had flowers."
"I'm just persistent, women like that, right?"
"The drink in your hair is evidence to the contrary," Merlin says.
"Ah, but it'll pay off in the end, you'll see. If at first you don't succeed..."
Arthur is unusually quiet, when most times he would be the first to get a dig in at Gwaine. Merlin worries, shoving his hands behind his back out of sight, just in case.
As the night draws to a close, Merlin hugs Morgana, Gwaine and Gwen goodbye. Arthur stops in front of him and there's a slight awkward pause. He and Arthur don't hug. Arthur's not really a hugging sort of a bloke (although Merlin can remember him embracing Gwen on a couple of occasions, as he'd tried hard not to be jealous) and Merlin's never initiated it because – well, he's afraid he'd never want to let go. Arthur takes his hand instead, goes for a manly handshake. Except that Merlin imagines Arthur's fingers brush lingeringly over the ring and he doesn't know whether the desire or the mortification will kill him first.
That night at home Merlin closes his eyes, running the fingers of his right hand over his left, feeling the bumps on his palm, the ridges of his knuckles, the now familiar circle around his finger. He closes his eyes and lets himself pretend that it's real, just for a moment. Pretend that Arthur loves him the way he loves Arthur, that they're together, happy. It's a nice fantasy, but he knows that's all it'll ever be. He squeezes his eyes shut for a second more, sighing.
He starts to wonder, maybe, if it hasn't made things worse instead of better, after all.
Merlin's running a bit late, this is what happens when Lancelot isn't with him to chivvy him along. He's a little out of breath as he pushes open the curry house door, expecting a crowd all frowning at him, budging over to make room in the booth, if at least one of them's got there early enough to secure one. They do this once a month, or thereabouts. It's not an official arrangement, but every few weeks someone will ring someone about having a curry and the general consensus is always in favour of this plan.
The waiter is in front of him asking if he would like a table before he even has a chance to shake the rain from his fringe. He says no, my friends, a big group of them. The waiter points to what looks like a rugby team occupying the big bench in the centre of the room and Merlin frowns, looking around. There's no big group. There is one booth at the back occupied by a lone diner with a distinctive frown on his face. Arthur.
Merlin signals to the waiter and heads over, sliding into the booth opposite Arthur with a slightly flustered, "Hey!"
"Merlin!" Arthur looks up from his phone, his greeting a little too loud, winces slightly as he realises.
"Where is everyone?" Merlin asks. "A Cobra, please," he adds to the waiter who is hovering near the table with his notepad.
"That's what I was going to ask you. I know Morgana's visiting Morgause and Leon's tied up working. Elyan's got a cold."
"Lancelot's got a date," Merlin offers. Arthur raises an eyebrow. "With Gwen, I think," he adds, looking carefully to see Arthur's reaction, but he's giving nothing away.
"Took them long enough," he says in a measured tone. Merlin wants to ask, weren't you and Gwen, didn't you want, are you, but all he says is,
"Yeah." Arthur clears his throat.
"What about Gwaine?"
"I dunno, it's not like him to miss curry night."
"You haven't heard from him then?"
"No?" Arthur's looking at him curiously and Merlin wonders whether there's something wrong with him, besides the obvious rain hair, he did have to change in a bit of a hurry before coming out, and it's as he's sweeping a stray strand off his forehead that he realises he's still wearing the damn ring. He'd been cutting down on wearing it in public, but home was different, he wasn't ready to let go just yet, and tonight he'd just pulled on a pair of jeans and a top and ran a comb through his hair, he hadn't thought that it was still on his finger. He dropped his hands to his lap as casually as he could manage, wondering whether Arthur might not have seen it, whether if he had it would look worse, more conspicuous to take it off now.
The waiter brings his beer and he takes a large gulp. Being alone with Arthur is part fantasy and part nightmare, he feels sure to do something that will give away his ridiculous secret, or at least something to make Arthur think he's an idiot. For a second he wonders whether this is all a set-up, but no, that would mean the others would all have to know and he's pretty sure Lancelot's the only one who does, and he'd never do anything so underhand. Morgana on the other hand... but no, even if she did know, she wouldn't be this subtle. It's just horrible, wonderful coincidence, he decides, as Arthur's foot bumps accidentally against his under the table.
They both order Thali – vegetarian for Merlin, meat for Arthur. Not that Merlin is a vegetarian, he's rather partial to chicken, but draws the line at any dish that's vague about what the meat it contains actually is, could be rat for all you know, he tells Arthur who makes a face. They talk about music and politics. They don't agree on either of these things as such, but Merlin likes the way Arthur's face lights up when he's really animated about something, even when he's teasing him and gesturing at him with his fork. Merlin tries not to spray bits of poppodum from his mouth when Arthur makes him laugh and is pleased to see Arthur smile just a little when Merlin compliments him. He's half way through his second beer when he realises three things: first, he's forgotten about the ring. Second, this is pretty much almost like a date. Third, Arthur is looking at him with an odd expression on his face.
"Merlin," he begins, suddenly serious, when a sudden clap to the shoulder almost makes Merlin choke on his rice.
"Alright, lads, sorry I'm late. Budge up, Mer."
"Gwaine, you nearly killed me!" Merlin takes a sip of beer and slides along the bench, looking down at his food to hide his disappointment.
"Gwaine." Arthur's greeting sounds a little stilted, but it's not long before he and Gwaine are engaged in an in-depth discussion of the latest transfer news, with Gwaine helping himself to bhajis. Merlin finds himself sitting back a little, thumb tracing the pattern of the ring a little wistfully beneath the table.
Things come to a head when Gwen tries to set him up on a date. This is a consequence of her and Lancelot being all loved up these days, Merlin reckons. The guy is a friend of Lancelot's that Merlin thinks he's probably must have met before a while ago; his name's Percival and he's just back from two years in Australia. Merlin's first reaction is a sort of panic, and that can't be right, surely?
"I don't do blind dates," he tells her in a way which would be more emphatic if not accompanied by a nervous laugh.
"It's not blind," Gwen says triumphantly, whipping Lancelot's phone out from his pocket, startling him a little, and flicking through the gallery to find a photo. "Here, look." Merlin reluctantly takes the phone. The guy is fit but all Merlin can feel is the stupid ring tightening around his finger. He wants to say I can't, there's someone else, but he's not with someone else, and turning down a blind date with an attractive man because he's hopelessly in love with a friend who can't possibly return his feelings is almost certainly the dictionary definition of pathetic. Still, he can't bring himself to agree, it would hardly be fair on this Percival, for one thing.
"He's not my type," he says. Gwen looks askance at him.
"Merlin, he's tanned, fit and blonde, how is that not exactly your type?"
Of course Arthur and Morgana choose that moment to turn up and join the discussion. Merlin starts to wish the ring was magic and it could make him invisible. Morgana appropriates the phone and starts talking about how Merlin and Percival will be just perfect together. Merlin glances around, hoping for a bit of male solidarity but there's only Arthur and Lancelot and he can't meet their eyes, either of them. Lancelot's looking shifty and Arthur – well, he doesn't dare, under the circumstances. He wishes Gwaine were here.
He manages to laugh it off without agreeing to anything, in the end, but later, Lancelot corners him and tells him he thinks he should go on the date.
"You can't pine after Arthur forever," Lancelot tells him, seriously.
"What?" Merlin blusters, "I'm not pining,"
"Merlin." His tone is gentle, brotherly and Merlin hangs his head. "This could be good for you. Help you move on." Merlin feels sick. It's one thing knowing how pathetic your pathetic crush is, another thing entirely having it pointed out to you. Do they all know? Have they all been laughing at him, all this time? He stutters,
"I haven't said anything to her. But really, Merlin, it's only a matter of time before someone works it out." Lancelot doesn't mention the ring, for which Merlin is grateful, but he knows what he means. It feels too tight on his finger, cutting off his circulation.
"Right," he says, swallowing down a lump in his throat. "Right." He blinks. "I'm just going to... yeah." And he pushes past Lance and heads straight for the exit, tunnel vision, he doesn't even see the others, doesn't trust himself to look at them, much less scramble together an excuse for running out like this.
"Merlin!" Someone's calling his name, more than once, and it sounds like Arthur the way Arthur sounds in his dreams, his voice caring, concerned - further proof of just how far gone he is and Merlin can't stand to hear it.
The icy air outside is a relief, cooling the hot shame burning his cheeks and calming the threatening tears. Merlin runs, just in case one of the others should be tempted to come after him, wrenching the ring off his finger as he does so and flinging it carelessly to the ground where it skitters across the pavement.
Later, curled up in bed, he wishes he hadn't done it. His finger feels wrong without it. But he knows Lancelot is right: he can't pine forever.
It's time to move on.
Merlin calls Gwen and tells her he will go on the date with Percival after all, if it's not too late. He shrugs off enquiries about his sudden departure the night before, putting it down to a sudden stomach ache, and apologises to Lance privately.
It's hard getting used to not having the ring. He finds himself playing nervously with his fingers in its absence, checking his pockets absent mindedly and feeling a pang of loss when all he can find is a pound coin, a tissue and a mint. He realises he misses having a secret, however much difficulty and embarrassment it caused him.
He talks to himself in the mirror, tells himself that he is over Arthur, that he is not going to pine, that he is moving on. He wrinkles his nose when he realises how much he sounds like a self-help tape.
He feels underdressed as he gets ready to go out on Friday. He contemplates buying another ring, or maybe a bracelet, even if Morgana would never let him hear the end of it once he started actually buying accessories. He settles instead for a red scarf as Lance is banging on the door to tell him it's time to leave.
Of course nothing in Merlin's life is ever allowed to be easy and the week's hard work is unravelled quickly almost as soon as they set foot in the bar. It's busy and there's not enough seats. Gwen sits on Lancelot's lap while Merlin has to squeeze onto the end of the bench next to Arthur, of course it would be Arthur, pressed up against him, their thighs touching from knee to hip, arms brushing each time either of them reaches for a drink. Everything he would have given his right arm for a week ago but the last thing he needs right now. He can practically feel Arthur breathing and suddenly can't breathe himself. He excuses himself to the gents to calm down, to look himself in the eye in the mirror and silently repeat his 'I'm over Arthur' mantra.
As soon as he sits back down, though, Arthur leans over, his hair brushing Merlin's ears, as he murmurs,
"Not wearing it today?"
"What?" Merlin says, stupid with beer and Arthur's proximity.
"Uh, no," Merlin gives a nervous laugh. "I... I lost it."
"Oh." Arthur's brow furrows in what can't possibly be disappointment. I'm going mad, Merlin thinks, I'm actually cracking up. Then Arthur smiles, "I'll have to win you another one, eh?" And he actually squeezes Merlin's knee.
"Um," is all Merlin can say, taking a large swig of his pint. Their private conversation over, Merlin tunes back in to what the rest of the group are saying, Elyan is recounting a story from Gwen's childhood which causes her to bury her face in Lancelot's shoulder and Merlin feels a burn of envy at their casual closeness. He wants that. He forces himself to think of his upcoming date, but it's difficult with Arthur pressed up against him like this.
And then, and then, Arthur leans back, stretching his arm across the back of the bench so it's brushing against the back of Merlin's shoulders and he freezes, doesn't know if he can stand any more of these casual touches, why does Arthur have to do this now, just when he's been trying his hardest to move on? He's not that strong.
So when Gwaine announces he's off outside for a crafty fag, Merlin shoots to his feet saying he'll keep him company. Outside, Gwaine eyes him thoughtfully, but says nothing as he lights up. Merlin goes to touch the ring once again but it's not there, of course it's not there.
"You alright?" Gwiane asks and it's not clear whether it's a general enquiry or an offer of a cigarette (although it's not that, Gwaine knows he doesn't smoke, but perhaps certain circumstances might induce a person to take it up; Merlin's almost considering it just for something to do with his hands). Merlin just nods,
"Fine," he says, and Gwaine starts to tell him about a girl sat at the bar he thinks has been giving him signals all evening. Merlin's thoughts drift back to Arthur, but no, those are not signals, those are innocent touches he wouldn't be reading anything into if it wasn't for this ridiculous crush he still can't seem to get over.
And then the door of the pub opens, a blast of heat and music and chatter and out steps Arthur. His eyes flicker between Gwaine and Merlin.
"Didn't mean to interrupt," he says, stilted, and looks to turn on his heel and go back inside when Gwaine pushes off the wall and stops him.
"I was just going back in," he says, as he stubs his unfinished cigarette out on the brick wall, "See if I can get that blonde's number." He gives Merlin a theatrical wink, and Merlin's confused because for one thing he's sure Gwaine had said she was a red-head. Gwaine claps Arthur on the shoulder as he goes past which just confuses him even more and then it's just him and Arthur and Arthur just stands there, shuffling his feet. Merlin looks at him quizzically. Arthur doesn't smoke. Merlin doesn't smoke. They're just standing outside in the cold, sort of not really looking at each other and it's weird, it's really weird and then, out of the blue,
"So you and Gwaine, you're not..."
"Me and Gwaine?" Merlin gapes at him. Arthur shrugs.
"I just always thought there was something... He said not, but..."
Then there's silence again and Merlin's wondering whether it can possibly be more awkward.
"I'm sorry," Arthur blurts out, and Merlin stares at him. "I didn't mean... with the touching... I don't want to make you uncomfortable or anything. It's just..." he runs one hand through his hair, "You don't know, you've been sort of driving me crazy lately."
"I... what?" Merlin blinks at him.
"I know you don't... it's just you, wearing that stupid ring. I know you don't mean anything by it, but I..."
Merlin finds he's shaking as he takes half a step forward.
"You what?" It's suddenly urgent. "Arthur, you what?" Arthur looks up at him then and Merlin knows he's not imagining the want in his eyes. He licks his lips involuntarily and Arthur's gaze drops to them.
"I..." Arthur's hand is on his arm and then he's crowding him back against the wall just looking at him and Merlin can't help but whimper, just slightly.
"Arthur," he says, without meaning to, and it's more like a sigh than anything. Arthur inhales, and he's so close, and it's everything Merlin's ever wanted, he just can't help it.
He kisses him.
He half expects to be pushed back, even after all of this, whatever this is, but Arthur kisses back, harder, fingers curling tighter around Merlin's arm.
"Merlin," he breathes as he pulls back slightly. "You do want...?" He doesn't need to complete the question.
"Yes. Hell yes." There's more he could say, this, you, more than anything, always have but he doesn't dare. Arthur grabs hold of his hand, runs his fingers over Merlin's, tracing abstract patterns across his palm and Merlin shivers with every touch.
"You don't know what it's been doing to me, seeing you wearing that stupid ring all the time. I wanted..." Arthur looks down, embarrassed. "I wanted it to be real. I never really thought about you like that before, but once I started I couldn't stop and... you think I'm nuts, don't you?"
And it's so ridiculous and so perfect that Merlin can't help laughing breathlessly, even though Arthur's looking a little bit offended, he laughs and laughs and then he kisses him again, and again.
They don't make it back inside the pub that night.
Epilogue: Three years later
There's a whole crowd of them at the funfair, smiling and joking and stuffing their faces with toffee apples and popcorn. Merlin and Arthur bicker over which of them is going to sit on the outside on the Waltzer; it's proven that Merlin knows more about physics but that really, neither of them mind being squished together all that much. Gwen watches from the grass, minding the small mountain of soft toys won already, she can't really go on in her condition after all.
After that it's the Ferris Wheel and Merlin and Arthur hold hands like teenagers while Gwaine in the car behind threatens to spit on them on the way down (he doesn't). Then they walk past the archery stand and Arthur gets a glint in his eye as he hands over his two quid.
"No more soft toys, please," Lancelot begs, "There won't be room in the nursery for the baby at this rate!"Gwen giggles and hugs a giant pink bear.
Arthur focuses on his shot, a look of determination on his face. He misses. Takes another arrow, lines it up, misses again. If it hadn't been completely out of character for Arthur not to want to win at everything, Merlin would almost have thought he was doing it on purpose. As the third arrow falls shy of the target, Arthur takes the consolation prize, fumbles with it for a minute before turning to Merlin with an odd look on his face. Merlin can see already it's small and ring shaped and he can't help thinking back to three years before, all the heartache and misunderstanding and wanting. Arthur's gone and won him another ring, which is ridiculously sweet, but the look on his face as he hands it over is oddly shy and serious. Merlin takes it as it's offered to him, his fingers brushing Arthur's and it still makes him smile, even after they've been together for three years, just to touch him any way he can. But the ring feels strangely cold in his hand, and as he looks down he realises that it's not a plastic ring at all, it's gold, a plain gold band.
His head shoots up and he stares at Arthur. The shock must be written across his face because Arthur's lips curl into a small, satisfied smirk. Almost without thinking, Merlin slips the ring onto his finger. It's a perfect fit.
"Is that a yes, then?" Arthur demands.
"Like you have to ask," Merlin launches himself at him in a messy hug.
"Technically, I didn't ask," Arthur murmurs, lips against his neck.
"That's true. Aren't you going to get down on one knee?"
"In this weather? You must be joking, I don't love you that much."
By this time the rest of them have cottoned on and there's a lot of squealing and hugging and punching of arms, followed by the usual slew of jokes about stag dos and wedding nights and wearing white (Lance snorts at that and Merlin tries not to blush as he remembers that time Lance walked in on them in the kitchen, but then Lance has got Gwen all knocked up so he's not one to talk). And if it was fine the first time, when it was all fake, this time it's nothing short of bloody brilliant.