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a throwback to forever

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It's 1am and there is no food in Merlin's kitchen.

Okay, that's a lie. There're a few packets of boil-in-the-bag pasta and a couple of forlorn-looking Pot Noodles, but there's nothing actually appetising in Merlin's kitchen, which is a problem, because he's been running errands for his slave-driver of a boss all day and all he wants, all he wants, is some food.

And to sleep. But food has to come first.

With a sigh of resignation, Merlin picks up his keys and shrugs back into his jacket, tossing one final look at his empty kitchen before he leaves for the twenty-four-hour shop down the road from his flat. Shopping for food when you're hungry is always a bad idea because you inevitably end up buying far more than you need or actually even want, but it's a risk Merlin is willing to take.

He pushes open the door, nods a greeting at the woman behind the counter, and starts perusing the shelves. He's weighing up the pros and cons of nachos and cheese for dinner when there's a surprised huff from behind him and a familiar voice saying, "Merlin?"

Merlin spins around, his eyes going wide. "Gwaine? I haven't seen you in years," he says, and immediately goes in for the hug. Gwaine seems surprised, but hugs him back easily. "I didn't even know you still lived round here. How've you been?"

"Not bad," Gwaine says, pulling back to grin at him. "Fuck is it good to see you again, though. What are you doing with yourself these days?"

"Working at Pendragon's," Merlin says with a grimace. "I was temping for a long time, though, so I can't really complain about having a more permanent job."

Gwaine laughs. "You couldn't pay me enough to do that," he says, shaking his head. "Unless Arthur’s somehow become less insufferable since uni.”

"Sadly, I think he’s got worse. What about you," Merlin asks, "what have you been doing since you dropped out?"

"Oh, this and that," Gwaine says, and Merlin narrows his eyes because he knows what that means. He doesn’t push it, though; he doesn’t feel like he has a right to any more. "Still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, you know?"

"Yeah," Merlin says, and then just kind of just doesn't know what to say next. Apparently Gwaine doesn't either, because they stand there in awkward silence for a few minutes. "So what brought you out here at this time of night?"

"Oh," Gwaine says, looking surprised, like he hadn't realised how late it was. "Just, you know, browsing. You?"

"Dinner," Merlin says grimly, and Gwaine laughs.

"Let me guess," he says, "you've got nothing in your fridge because you've been too busy working to remember to go food-shopping?" Merlin makes a non-committal noise and Gwaine laughs again, softer this time. "You haven't changed a bit since uni."

"I have changed plenty," Merlin says, with great dignity. "I have a flat all to myself now, and it's all clean and grown-up looking and everything."

Gwaine just raises his eyebrows.

"I'll show you," Merlin insists. "Hey, and I'll cook us both dinner while I'm at it, if you want." He smiles, a little tentative. "It'd be good to hang out again."

That’s sort of an understatement. Merlin and Gwaine were put together in halls their first year of university and were best friends before the year was out. They were really close, closer even than Merlin had been to Will, who he’d known since they were in nappies, but then Gwaine dropped out of university at the start of their third year and they just sort of... lost touch.

"Sure," Gwaine says, "but I'm halving you in for whatever you're getting," and that's a good enough deal for Merlin.

*

Gwaine pokes around Merlin’s flat while Merlin prepares the lasagne they'd decided on for dinner. When he’s inspected it to his satisfaction, he returns to the kitchen and slouches against one of the free counters.

"It is a nice place you've got here," Gwaine says, as Merlin bends down to put the lasagne in the oven.

Merlin straightens up and grins at him. "Told you," he says. "And it's all mine, which is probably the best part."

"How do you afford it?" Gwaine asks, not judging, just genuinely interested. "Wouldn't have thought being Arthur Pendragon's secretary would pay all that much."

"It doesn't," Merlin says, looking away. "I, uh. Remember my dad?"

"I remember you telling me how he ran out on your mum before you were born," Gwaine says, bumping Merlin's arm gently. "Why?"

"He died, about a year ago," Merlin says as matter-of-factly as he can, and Gwaine's face splits with sympathy.

"Oh, mate, I'm sorry," he says, pulling Merlin into a sideways hug, squeezing gently.

"It's okay," Merlin says, and it is. "I got to meet him before- before, and he left me and my mum a shit ton of money, so. That's how I afford this place."

Gwaine squeezes him again. "Sorry I wasn't around," he says quietly, and he sounds like he means it, too, which is just ridiculous.

"We lost touch, it happens. It's not your fault," Merlin says, and Gwaine shakes his head.

"I should have been there," he says. "I should have been there for you." He smiles, and Merlin may not have seen him in five years but he can tell when Gwaine's faking it. "You were probably better off without me, though. I was never exactly a great friend."

"You were," Merlin says fiercely. "You were the best, Gwaine."

"Merlin-"

"Shut up, okay, I missed you a lot so don't you dare-" Merlin breaks off, his breathing ragged. "Just, don't you dare."

Gwaine's quiet for a second, and then he says, barely audible, "I missed you too."

Merlin turns to hug him properly, wrap his arms around Gwaine's shoulders and bury his head in Gwaine's neck and, fuck, Merlin missed him. All the sadness and the loneliness and the vague kind of betrayal is flaring up in him all at once and he doesn’t know how to deal with it except to keep on holding on. Gwaine hugs him back, and it's better than an apology, better than an explanation.

"I think the lasagne should be heated up by now," he says eventually, and Merlin steps back, opens up the oven to check. Gwaine's right. They must have been holding each other longer than Merlin thought. It only felt like a minute or so.

They squeeze around Merlin's tiny, one-person table, eat right out of the lasagne dish since Merlin can't be arsed doing more washing than he absolutely has to tonight.

"I'll do it," Gwaine offers, swallowing his mouthful of pasta. "You made me dinner, it's the least I can do."

Merlin's too tired to argue, so he just gives Gwaine a grateful smile. They eat in companionable silence and it's everything and nothing like being back at their flat at uni. They're not the same people they were back then, Merlin knows that, even though the routine is achingly familiar.

He puts his head down on the table while Gwaine washes the dishes, suddenly exhausted, and doesn't stir until there's a tap on his shoulder and a quiet, "Hey."

Merlin lifts his head. "Hey," he replies, just as quiet.

"I'm gonna head off now, leave you to sleep," Gwaine says, his hand settling on Merlin's shoulder.

"You don't need to do that," Merlin murmurs, rubbing at his face. "You should crash on my couch. 's a very comfy couch. I can get you a blanket and all."

Gwaine laughs, soft. "I'm sure it is, Merlin, but I don't want to trouble you any more than I already-"

"No trouble," Merlin says, staring Gwaine hard in the face. "Stay."

Gwaine stares back at him for a few seconds, and then he says, "Okay."