The afternoon before Arthur's wedding they checked in to the hotel. Miriam was already there with her bridesmaids and he wouldn't see her until the ceremony the next morning.
Arthur carried their cases up to the room while Merlin struggled behind him with the suit carriers. The room was airy and filled with afternoon sunshine, yellow flowers adorning the desk and tables.
They went down to the bar for dinner, he knew Miriam was planning to eat in her room so there was no chance of running into her or her party.
Merlin wasn't being very good company though, he picked at his food and only grimaced at Arthur's jokes, even his attempts to goad him into an argument fell flat.
"Really Merlin," he said, "It's the night before my bloody wedding, you could make an effort. I thought you understood now..."
Merlin darted hot eyes up to meet his. "Oh I understand," he hissed. "The company is more important to you than me."
Arthur sighed, they'd been over this a thousand times.
"The company is important, you know that, and Father expects certain things of me. It's alright for you to go off and study film and live the high life but some of us have responsibilities."
Merlin sneered and shook his head, "I'm going upstairs, don't get pissed." He snapped.
Arthur put his head in his hands and steadied his breathing, no one infuriated him the way Merlin did and no one could make him feel as shitty about his life, his choices. Merlin was the one who was supposed to understand him and support him, but more often than not he just made him feel guilty and inadequate.
He finished his beer and went to perch at the bar, showing his room key and ordering a double scotch. He breathed the rich scent in and replaced it on the polished wood. Merlin, he filled his mind, his senses, and sometimes he cursed the day his father had brought the little runt home. "It'll be good for you to learn to share." Uther had told him. "And you must look after him and teach him to be a Pendragon."
Most parents who wanted to teach their six year old responsibility got them a hamster, Uther got him a little brother. But he had tried, he had put up with Merlin following him around like the puppy he called him, he'd defended him from other boys who thought him weak, but they didn't know, they didn't know that Merlin was far stronger than them, stronger even than Arthur. It was a quiet strength, but you only had to look in his large blue eyes to see it, sometimes it terrified Arthur, seeing all that fervour directed at him, so much love and so much expectation. It terrified him but how could he help desiring it? He was supposed to be the strong one, the clever one, he was supposed to look after Merlin but all he wanted was to crawl into his arms and ask, beg, Merlin to take care of him. And Merlin had, when he was seven Merlin had faced off against a wrathful Uther and put himself between him and Arthur. Many times when Arthur had been banished to his room for some perceived failure Merlin had smuggled him apples from the garden and comics, one time Merlin had stolen a ladder and climbed up the side of the house to slither through Arthur's window and keep him company through his exile.
Arthur sighed and sipped his whiskey, Merlin had to know he was the most important thing in the world to him, but he was unrealistic. He had this idealized view of the world which Arthur could never live up to. Case in point, Merlin had studied film at university, Arthur had wanted to do English but Uther had told him not to be so ridiculous, so he had struggled his way through economics, which he hated. Merlin had said he should have stood his ground and Arthur had felt awful for letting him down, for not being strong enough. It was whilst at university that Merlin had decided he was gay, Uther had not been pleased but he'd accepted it. Merlin had wanted him to come out then but it had ended in a blazing row. What they did didn't make him gay, he'd shouted, it was just messing around, and Merlin had looked so hurt he thought he had felt his heart shatter, but he had stormed out and they barely spoke for a long time after that. Until about six months later when they had got pissed together and there had been more shouting, but then kissing, and fucking. Merlin had fucked him for the first time, it had been wonderful but he'd insisted on wearing a condom, so Arthur knew he'd been sleeping with other men.
Arthur downed his scotch to block that thought from his mind and left the bar.
Merlin was on one of the beds doing something on his laptop when Arthur came in. He stood there awkwardly and rolled his thumb ring between sweaty fingers.
Eventually Merlin sighed and looked up at him, his eyes were red and puffy and he ran the back of his hand angrily across his nose.
Arthur knelt on his bed and pushed the laptop to the side, he shuffled forward and took Merlin's hands in his.
"I'm sorry," he said softly, "Will you forgive me."
Merlin sniffed. "Are you still getting married?"
Arthur squeezed his hands tighter. "Yes."
Merlin choked on a sob and Arthur pulled him into his chest.
"I love you," he crooned, "I'll always love you, no one will ever come between us..."
He lifted Merlin's face and wiped the tears away with his thumbs.
"You are so beautiful," he whispered, awestruck, and bent his lips down to Merlin's. They were so soft, and swollen from crying, his skin was burning. He knew he could never do without this, even when he was married he would need this, Merlin wasn't just his baby brother, he was a part of him, the best part of him. He slid his fingers under the hem of Merlin's shirt, Merlin lifted his arms easily to let him pull it off and stretched his long white neck out for Arthur to kiss.
"We can still do this," Arthur murmured into his throat, "It'll still always be you and me, us against the world." He grinned as he felt Merlin's laugh through his lips.
"Yeah?" He groaned.
"Yep." Arthur pulled him down so he was lying flat underneath him and stripped his trousers and pants off in one move. "Always."
* * *
The ceremony went smoothly, Miriam looked beautiful and regal, and even though Arthur didn't love her she was a wonderful woman and he was very fond of her. Uther was on top form, circulating, oozing charm, working the room like the pro he was. Arthur was happy to leave him to it, catching up with what small and distant family they had. Merlin was behaving himself too, grinning widely at everyone, Arthur saw him flush bright red when Auntie Clara cornered him and tried to set him up with her fifteen year old daughter, presumably thinking he was of a similar age. Arthur chuckled to himself and sipped his champagne, clean-shaven Merlin looked exactly the same as he had at fifteen, though maybe it was his awkwardness in the morning suit which highlighted it.
Dinner was excellent and the guests all seemed to enjoy it. Arthur's nerves were settled and his full belly and the constant supply of champagne were combining to give him a contented glow.
When Miriam's father Sir Roderick stood up to give his speech though, Arthur found himself relieved that it would soon be over. He smiled at his bride and squeezed her hand while her father spoke lovingly of watching her grow up into the fine young lady she was. There was genuine warmth in the old man's words and Arthur found himself thankful that Uther was not required to give a speech, it would most likely have turned into a report to the shareholders if so.
His own speech was was not nearly so heartfelt, though he tried to imbue it with as much affection as he could, but although he said all the right things he was aware it sounded like something he got out of a book. Miriam smiled graciously though and accepted his peck on the lips at the end.
"And now," he continued, "It would be traditional for the best man to give his speech," he gestured to where Merlin sat studying his napkin. "But, as most of you may know my little brother is a big baby when it comes to public speaking..." The assembly tittered indulgently. "Luckily for us though he's also the "creative" one in the family..." Arthur actually did the air quotes, coming dangerously close to splashing champagne on his new wife and causing a fresh wave of laughter. He chuckled, "So instead Merlin has kindly made us a video, if we could get the lights please?" One of the stewards dimmed the lights and a screen descended off to the side of the top table, above the cake.
A Guitar strummed.
#Always when we fight
I try to make you laugh
Til everything's forgotten
I know you hate that...#
The music started to a scene of Arthur playing a shepherd in the school nativity, filmed by the nanny he seemed to recall, followed by Miriam as one of the three kings in her own school play. The audience let out a collective "Aww".
Arthur cringed at the choice of music though, Merlin getting one more dig in. He supposed he couldn't begrudge him that, "You & Me Song" was their song and though it was petty of him to have used it it gave Arthur a warm feeling inside. He looked over to smile at Merlin but he was still looking down, chewing on his lip and pulling at his napkin. Arthur went back to watching the film which was drawing all sorts of pleased noises out of the audience, the clips were your standard family video fare but it was definitely better edited than any he'd seen before, some of the juxtapositions between him and Miriam were fairly pointed and geared towards making him look silly, the guests were eating it up though and at least he wasn't poking fun at Miriam.
Of course most of the clips of Arthur after he was six included Merlin, often just hovering in the background but it in some they were clinging to each other like their lives depended on it, that seemed to please the Aunties no end, Arthur tugged on his collar.
Miriam didn't seem to have gone through any awkward or spotty phases, throughout her teens she looked wonderful, Arthur couldn't say the same for himself. The first still images of them together came at university, the sequence included a short but very unflattering video shot of Arthur sprawled asleep in his tiny bed in halls, the guests all laughed but Arthur's heart stuttered. It was from when Merlin had come to stay with him, they'd got high and fucked all night. There were shots of him and Miriam in the student union that he hadn't known Merlin was filming and one of the two of them outside a cafe on a day in summer when he was sure Merlin hadn't even been around. Miriam prodded his hand and looked questioningly at him, he didn't know what to say, Merlin was still focused entirely on the table.
As the song wound to a close Arthur breathed a sigh of relief, he wasn't sure he could take any more. The video continued though. It was Merlin against a pale yellow backdrop that he recognised as the hotel wallpaper. His eyes flickered between the screen and something in his lap a couple of times and then he sat up straight, took a deep breath and smiled broadly at the camera. Only Arthur could see how forced it was.
"Well Arthur, here we are, the night before your wedding. Miriam is a lovely girl and I don't know why she puts up with you," the audience chuckled politely, "But seriously, you've been a great brother, you welcomed me into your family when I had no one and nowhere to go, and I love you for that." The shot cut and the Merlin who returned had been crying, Arthur could see that clearly but no one else seemed to notice, "It's time for you to begin a new phase in your life," he started, brightly, "and I wish you all the happiness in the world..." The video cut again and this time an even more red faced Merlin was wiping his nose and looking off to the left, at someone who walked across the shot and knelt in front of him.
Arthur's blood ran cold, he could hear it rushing in his ears and he felt sick.
"Merlin?" he choked out, still unable to process what was happening.
Arthur on screen was hugging the crying Merlin. "I love you," he heard himself say, "I'll always love you, no one will ever come between us..."
The guests were going "Aww" again, Auntie Mabel was clutching her handkerchief to her bosom. This couldn't be happening, he didn't dare look at Uther.
"Merlin!" he shouted this time. Merlin looked up at him and his face was blank, his jaw was set and his full lips drawn thin.
"You are so beautiful." he said on screen. The spell broke and Arthur kicked his chair out from the table, he ran to where Merlin sat and yanked him up, sending his chair flying, when he had him upright he punched him full in the face, if he hadn't still been hanging on to his lapel with his left hand Merlin would have been on the floor, grabbing him with both hands he propelled him to the nearest wall and pinned him.
"What the fuck? What the absolute fuck Merlin?" he growled, shaking him so his head hit the wall repeatedly.
The audience were deathly silent, some gaping at Arthur and Merlin, some unable to drag their eyes from the screen.
"It'll still always be you and me, us against the world." Arthur said on screen, kissing his way down Merlin's neck.
"Will someone stop the fucking video?" he shouted to the room at large as on screen he pulled Merlin down out of shot, his own back and head still clearly visible. Eventually the lights came back up and the film cut out.
Arthur still had Merlin pinned against the wall, blood streaming down his face, coating his lips in away that made Arthur want to lick them clean. All eyes were on them.
He pushed himself away from Merlin, who slumped against the wall. "Get out." He said forcefully. "You don't belong here."
Merlin straightened his suit and tie, looking comfortable in them for the first time all day.
"Neither do you." He said softly as he passed Arthur and circled the main table, he walked sedately, head held high, through the tables towards the exit.
Arthur looked around, Miriam was looking mortified, her father fuming, he couldn't bear to look at his own father. His gaze swept the hall, business associates of his father's, family he didn't know, university friends who were really Miriam's friends... And Merlin, waiting by the door, Merlin with blood all down the front of his suit, looking more beautiful than ever, Merlin who lifted a hand to him, inviting him to take it. The only one who understood him, who saw him as he truly was and loved him still.
He turned to Miriam, the only other person in the room he cared about, to whom he owed an explanation.
She met his eye, disappointed but there was no hatred.
"I'm terribly sorry," he said, "I'm afraid I have to go."
He waited for her to nod in acknowledgement before turning and picking his way through the tables, just as Merlin had done. A murmur started amongst the assembled company, growing to a crescendo.
"ARTHUR!" It was his father, he trembled but kept walking. "ARTHUR GET BACK HERE THIS INSTANT."
He kept his eyes on Merlin, fighting the urge to break into a run, but when he reached him Merlin grabbed his hand yanked him into the corridor and started running towards their room. Arthur's case was already packed for him to move it to the bridal suite, Merlin shoved his stuff quickly into his while Arthur paced up and down tugging his hair. When Merlin was done they went out through the fire exit at the end of their corridor, sprinting round to Merlin's car and throwing themselves in, laughing. Part of Arthur knew it was completely inappropriate to be laughing in this situation but he couldn't help it, it was all so ridiculous and he felt light-headed and giddy and free in a way he never had before.
They drove to Merlin's flat to get his passport and some fresh clothes. They showered together and Arthur washed the blood from Merlin's face and kissed him.
"He'll never forgive us, you know." He whispered into Merlin's ear as they held each other under the scalding spray.
"I'll never forgive him for what he did to you," Merlin answered, "What he tried to make you become."
Arthur sighed and rested his forehead on Merlin's shoulder. "There's one thing he did right though, he got me you."
"Don't say that like I was some kind of pet." Merlin huffed, it was a familiar routine.
"But you were, he went to the puppy pound and said he wanted the scrawniest, ugliest, most pathetic little puppy they had and he got you and brought you home and gave you to me."
Merlin's shoulders were shaking with laughter, it was nice to fall back into their regular patter after the stress of the day, or if Arthur was honest, the stress of the last few years, he had missed Merlin so much.
Leaving the car at Merlin's they got the tube to St Pancras and from there the Eurostar to Paris.
"The French are very liberal," Arthur said as the train went underground. "I doubt they'd think we're at all scandalous."
"Pretty boring in fact," said Merlin.
"Never boring," said Arthur frowning, "I shall be a tortured writer and you'll be a tortured artist and we'll drink absinthe and make mad, passionate love day and night."
"How romantic, will we die of consumption?" said Merlin, yawning and snuggling his head into Arthur's shoulder.
"Probably... Or you'll get syphilis because I'll be pimping you out for absinthe money..." Arthur rested his head on Merlin's and closed his eyes.
"If I get syphilis I'm giving it to you..."
"Okay, long as we die together..."