Disclaimer: Merlin and its associated material are the property of its creators and the BBC.
Marriage is what you make it
Scrunching his eyes against the invasive sunlight, Merlin swatted a hand against his alarm clock in an attempt to put an end to its incessant ringing. He missed. His hand connected rather painfully with the edge of the bedside cabinet. With a yelp, Merlin Emrys, aged 18 and in his final year at Camelot Academy, snatched his hand back, rolled away from the offending piece of furniture, and promptly fell out of bed. With a groan, the young man levered himself up from off the floor, and glared blearily around the room in an attempt to ascertain the location of his towel. After a few minutes of fruitless staring, Merlin began to stumble around his room in an effort to find the illusive item. He found it beneath a pile of laundry he had meant to do the night before and forgotten to complete. With a sinking feeling, Merlin realised that every one of his shirts was in that pile. The school dress code was strict, and Merlin knew he would never get away with wearing any of the shirts he wore at the weekend to class. Gingerly selecting the most presentable top from the pile, Merlin knew that today was not going to be a good day.
Scrambling through the door and into his seat, Merlin ignored the scathing looks sent at him by the majority of his class mates. Sinking into the space beside a young woman named Guinevere Cameliard, the only other scholarship student in their year, Merlin breathed a sigh of relief; being in Gwen's presence always made him feel calmer. The young woman exuded a sense of peace and tranquillity, that one was hard pressed to find within the white walls of Camelot. He returned her smile with one of his own, before flipping open his notepad. He opened his mouth to begin a conversation with Gwen, when Mr Hurt – the social studies teacher and careers advisement officer – ambled through the door. Hurt was a strange man, and Merlin was not sure whether he was intimidated or amused by his eccentricities.
A flash of gold caught his eye, forcing Merlin to turn his head and immediately wished he had not bothered. The gold had been nothing more that the light reflecting off of blonde hair: Arthur Pendragon's hair to be exact. Huffing a sigh, Merlin aimed a glare at the back of Pendragon's head.
The boy – man as he would prefer to be called – was insufferable. Merlin was sure that if anyone was ever trapped in a small space with the blonde they would be suffocated by the size of his ego. Just because he was intelligent, and witty, and good at sports, with the body of a god - Merlin hastily slammed the lid on his traitorous thoughts and returned his attention to Hurt who was now speaking.
"The aim of this assignment is to give you a taste of what life will be like one you have left the sheltered environment of school, and college after. As responsible and independent as many of you no doubt consider yourselves to be, I doubt any of you have ever had to look after yourselves in the way this project will require of you. No meals will be cooked for you, you will have to do your own laundry, you will be forced to budget for rents and for meals, and you will be expected to act as if your job placement is permanent, not temporary." Hurt paused for breath, and Merlin blinked. He had the distinct feeling that he had missed something vital in those few moments he had spent glaring at Arthur rather than listening. Hurt handed a wad of envelopes to Arthur, who just happened to be sitting in front of him, and gestured for them to be handed out. Merlin watched, bemused, as the young man rifled through the pile, selected one, then passed the rest to the person beside him, who repeated the process. Turning to Gwen he cast her a gaze of confusion, tinged with desperation, prompting the young woman to take pity of him.
"It's one of those 'real-life perspective' projects everyone says Hurt is so fond of. We're partnered up and then we have to pretend as though we're living in the 'outside world'. At the end of the month we have to submit a report, detailing our budgets, living expenses etc." Upon seeing Merlin's still rather perplexed expression she sighed. "We are each being assigned a 'spouse' and a 'job'. Your partner for the project is your 'spouse' – names were assigned at random. Our 'jobs' are actually work placements, that we will be undertaking part-time in concert with our studies – we basically spend three days per week for the remainder of the month at our 'jobs'. We are expected to spend time with our 'spouse' as we would in a real marriage. We have to decide on expenditure budgets, pursue recreational activities as a couple, and then right a report about being 'married' and 'having a job'." Merlin smiled his thanks, whilst mentally cursing Mr Hurt. Why couldn't they just do what every other school did and look after a robotic child for a week?
A much diminished pile of white envelopes was shoved beneath his nose, and he took them, ignoring the derisive sneer of the oaf beside him – one of Arthur's cronies. He realised that the envelopes had names on them. He quickly flicked to the one bearing his own, before passing the rest on to Gwen. Ripping the envelope open, Merlin tipped the contents out onto his desk: a blue toothpick and a folded piece of paper. Merlin was entirely nonplussed.
He was prevented from investigating further, when Hurt once again began speaking. "Good, I see you've each got your envelopes. Inside each one you should find a piece of paper outlining your career path, and a coloured toothpick indicating the gender of your spouse." Merlin's eyes fell on the blue piece of wood lying across his desk and felt his eyebrows scramble towards his hairline.
Seeing, several rather shocked faces around the room, Hurt chuckled. "In light of the changing dynamics of modern society, the 'marriages' will not only be what some may term "traditional unions" – a number of civil-partnerships have been included in the mix." Consulting a list that lay on the table behind him, Hurt began to read. "The pairings are as follows –" Merlin tuned Hurt's voice out. He frowned down at his toothpick, and wondered just how much Hurt knew about his students. Had the type of partnership been based upon their own orientations? But no, a glance to the side told him that Arthur's oaf was also holding a blue toothpick and it was a widely known fact that the young man made it his duty to work his way through each girl in the lower years. It sounded crass even in his own thoughts, but Merlin really did not care enough to try and soften the truth.
His head snapped up when he heard Hurt intone, "Emrys, Merlin." He waited with baited breath to hear who his partner was to be. The blue toothpick ruled out Gwen but perhaps he would get someone who wasn't a complete tosser. "Pendragon, Arthur."
Merlin felt the blood drain from his face, as a voice at the front of the classroom swore loudly. He could not be partnered with Arthur. He could not. There was no way he could spend the next month effectively married to the most infuriating – and most handsome, a voice in his mind whispered – boy in the entire school. They would have to spend time together; have conversations. There was no way Merlin could do this without revealing himself. It would be impossible, he knew, for him to spend that many hours in Arthur Pendragon's company without letting all and sundry know that he had rather a large crush on the boy.
Merlin had been nicely horrified the first time he had realised that the cramping in his gut every time he laid eyes on the 'prince' of Camelot Academy, was not mild indigestion but actually something far more troublesome. Merlin was appalled that his heart had ignored his brain's wishes and fallen for Arthur, because the other boy was the world's biggest git. Unfortunately, he also had a tendency to look like one of the arc-angels, and Merlin was hard pressed to look away every time he saw Arthur outlined in sunlight, hair melting to liquid gold, and eyes gleaming like precious gems. The description was terribly trite and overly romantic, and Merlin berated himself every time it entered his mind, but that did not stop him from dreaming of his golden prince night after night.
Hurt continued reading off names, but Merlin was in so engrossed with his own thoughts and panic that he barely even registered mild surprise when Gwen was partnered with Morgana LeFay.
As he stared numbly down at the tiny piece of painted wood, Merlin managed to think, 'Yes, this is going to be a very bad day.'
Merlin watched despondently as Arthur marched aggressively towards Hurt at the end of the class. The man had, out of necessity, informed the class that all those who held a genuine moral or ethical objection could speak to him about re-arranging their assignment. Merlin knew that several of the more conservative students had been deeply uncomfortable when informed that they would be sharing a room with their 'spouse'. Though raised in a liberal household, Merlin knew that he would hate to have to sacrifice any of his principles for the sake of a high school assignment.
Personally, he had been rather pleased at the idea. For the duration of the project, the class had been informed they would be living in the self contained annexes dotted around the grounds. The annexes had originally been designed to house visiting parents and families and were in essence lavish hotel suites. Most guests rarely stayed long enough to require their use nowadays, but each unit was still meticulously maintained.
Winding his way between students as he moved down the hall, Merlin wondered what would happen if Arthur did manage to convince Hurt to allow a switch in partners. Arthur was Uther Pendragon's son after all – surely Hurt did not want to piss off the son of the most powerful man in the country.
Sliding onto a lab stool, Merlin put thoughts of Arthur Pendragon from his mind. Physiology was not an easy subject and despite the fact that Gaius was Merlin's guardian, as well as his teacher, the man allowed him not an inch of slack.
Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin could see the rest of his class taking their seats. A flash of raven hair and pale skin, signalled Morgana's arrival but it was the accompanying flash of dark hair and coffee-coloured skin that drew Merlin's attention. Morgana and Gwen were laughing as though they had been friends for a lifetime and Merlin felt vaguely betrayed, before guilt washed through him in a hot wave. Watching the scene unfold, he wondered if he had isolated Gwen from potential friends. They had arrived at the school at the same time – the only two scholarship students of the year – and Merlin had immediately alienated himself from the privileged student body. His clash with Arthur had become school legend (until something more sensational had replaced it) and had the effect of making it, so that no one wanted to speak to him. A choice between his friendship and the censure of Arthur Pendragon was no choice at all. As a result, he had worked hard at cementing his friendship with Gwen, but he wondered now that, if by securing her friendship, he hadn't ensured that no one else would talk to her.
With an effort of will, Merlin forced all such melancholy thoughts from his mind and focused on the anatomy diagram Gaius was currently drawing on the board.
Arthur Pendragon was furious. Hurt had flat out refused to allow him to switch partners, easily seeing through his new found interest in religion. Instead he had spouted some drivel Arthur was convinced he had once read in a fortune cookie, and sent him on to his next class. In retaliation, Arthur applied himself to brutally dismantling his opponent on the fencing court. Usually he restrained himself, wanting at least the illusion of a challenge, but today he took vicious pleasure in hearing the fencing master call the victory each time in his favour. He remembered meeting Emrys the first day of term. How the boy had labelled him a 'prat' and an 'arse', entirely unimpressed by Arthur's name, looks, or wealth. The encounter had eaten away at Arthur until he had built a wall around it in his mind, and worked on actively ignoring the other boy whenever he was nearby. There was no way he was going to allow this project to resurrect those feelings of inadequacy, of a thirst to prove that he was worthy of people's adoration and his father's occasional praise – the feeling of having been in the wrong.
He was sweating heavily by the time they were dismissed, and he had resolved to find Merlin-sodding-Emrys and tell him exactly how this project was going to work.
"I said 'no'."
Arthur Pendragon stared at the young man lounging on the grass beneath the shade of the oak tree. No one – except Hurt – ever denied him anything, and here was this scrawny, emo-looking nobody, refusing to do what he said.
"Why not?" He demanded angrily, his temper flaring when Emrys had the nerve to simply raise a single eyebrow at him.
"Because this is a team project. I'm not doing all of the work myself. And seeing as how we each have to write our own reports, I'll be sure to highlight any failings on your part, so don't think you can just get away with it." Arthur gaped at the utter nerve of the boy who, to add insult to injury, simply opened the book he had closed upon Arthur's approach, and recommenced reading. It was as though Arthur was not there.
Growling in exasperation, Arthur turned to go, when his gaze registered the sheer size of the volume Merlin was reading.
"What is that?" He asked, the words leaving his mouth before he had a chance to process the fact that they were being said.
Merlin looked up startled, sky-blue eyes boring into his own. Seeing that Arthur's gaze was fixed firmly on the tome in his lap, Merlin hefted the book up, offering Arthur a view of the cover.
"I can read Emrys." Arthur informed the other boy snidely, eyes still taking in the sheer volume of the book. He had read it himself once, over a summer when he was still too young to take up summer internships to please his father. On reflection, this probably meant that he was too young to fully appreciate the text. He contemplated for a moment re-reading it, but immediately wondered when he would have time. For that matter how did Merlin? He hesitated for a moment, debating whether or not to actually try to begin a conversation, before turning and walking away. He managed two paces before he spun around and returned, looking down at the dark haired youth for the space of a heartbeat before backing up again. Gifting Merlin with a rather stiff nod, the blonde young man once again turned and marched away.
Merlin was left sitting with the distinct impression that Arthur Pendragon might just be a little unhinged.
As Merlin looked around the room that he would share with Arthur for the remained of the project, Merlin sighed. The room, indeed the entire suite Hurt had assigned to them, was far more lavish that his room back in the main school. Those rooms were plain, practical – nice, but practical. He could just about forget where he was in that room. But here, now, he stood no hope. The furniture was dark and polished to an almost liquid shine. The carpet was plush and deep, and the beds were more comfortable than was decent. This was a room designed to impress – one which breathed wealth – and Merlin had never felt so alone.
He longed for his own home: that small house on the edge of the village, with Will living next door. A home where no one had cared that his mother worked behind the till at the local corner store and that he did not have a designer item to his name. He missed feeling like he belonged and being reminded that there was a world outside the realms of diplomats and socialites and those with more money than sense.
It was times like this that Merlin wished he had never agreed to attend Camelot Academy. But his mother, on Gaius' recommendation, had saved for weeks so he could take the entrance exam, and when he had been accepted on full scholarship, he had not had the heart to tell her he did not want to go. He could not wait until University where he would once again be amongst normal people.
Flopping down onto the bed, Merlin decided to procrastinate unpacking and instead pulled his phone from his pocket. Dialling a number he knew by heart, Merlin pressed call and waited for the person on the other end to the line to pick up.
"Will." Merlin breathed his friend's name with a sigh of relief, and not a little nostalgia. He heard Will chuckle on the other end of the line. They quickly fell into easy conversation, but there was a simmer of something beneath the words – a memory of drunken fumblings in dark corners, and very sober consummations. Just listening to Will talk let Merlin revel in the memory of home even as he bitched vehemently about Arthur.
Given the fact that Arthur studiously ignored Merlin most of the time, it was surprising just how much Merlin could find to complain about. Neither Will nor Merlin mentioned what it meant that the latter was watching the younger Pendragon so intently.
Merlin was still smiling when he hung up, his heart feeling lighter than it had in days. The project, despite the fact that he was 'married' to Arthur, was now looking manageable though he would not go so far as to say it might be fun.
Merlin managed to cling to this feeling before all of a minute before a voice in the doorway snatched it away.
"Who was that on the phone?" Jerking upright, Merlin felt the bottom drop out of his stomach at the sight of Arthur Pendragon lounging causally in the open doorway, designer luggage carrier lying at his feet.
"My friend Will," Merlin rasped, throat dry, "from back home." Arthur's face was perfectly neutral, and Merlin had no way of knowing just how much the other boy had heard. He prayed it was only the end of the phone call – he really did not want to give Arthur any more of a reason to make this project as difficult as possible. They remained staring at each other for what, to Merlin, seemed like hours before Arthur fixed his gaze upon a spot somewhere above Merlin's head.
"I had no idea you thought so little of me." The blonde intoned dryly, still not looking at the darker-haired boy. In truth, Arthur had had no idea that Merlin even thought of him at all. He was grateful that years of hiding his emotions from his father allowed him to speak with perfect composure. His throat felt tight and his stomach heavy. Did more people than Merlin view him with such disdain? Were they all too fearful of his father and his name to say anything?
"Yes, well - you're a prat." Merlin offered quietly, but the hesitation in his gaze and the way he refused to meet Arthur's eye took the sting from the words – if only a little. Kicking his luggage in the general direction of his bed, Arthur turned and left the room.