For the last time, Arthur Pendragon checked his reflection in the rearview mirror, smoothing down hair he’d already smoothed down more than once. On a good day, he thought he looked pretty good for coming up on fifty. His hair was still thick, and the silver shooting through the blond was barely noticeable. The lines around his mouth and on his forehead stuck around too long for his comfort after he stopped laughing or frowning, but his skin was healthy, his blue eyes sharp, and if he’d never bothered getting the nose job to fix the break in it from his youth like his father had always nagged him about, it was because he liked the way it gave his face character.
His gaze slid downward to the way his navy suit strained across his shoulders. He should’ve splurged for a new one, gone into London and plonked down a few dosh for something custom-made instead of settling for an old standby from Burton. Though he was still in good shape from running four days a week, he was broader than he’d been when he turned forty, more solidly packed. Not fat, he told himself too often. Just more there.
He rolled his eyes at his idiotic behavior. “Stop being such a git,” he scolded himself. “It’s not like you’ll be the only one in there who’s thirty years older.”
It was supposed to make him feel better, and in a way it did, that reminder that they’d all been boys together. These had been his friends, some of them so-called best mates.
But not all of them had, and it was that specter that had his stomach in knots, his collar damp because he couldn’t stop the anxious sweats. In all the time that had lapsed since leaving secondary school and Albion behind, he’d focused on the present, on the future, never on the past and what had never been, could never be.
Now he had to spend the evening mingling with memories like he’d never walked away from them. Yes, it was a deliberate choice he’d made not to pursue the friendships of his youth while he was at uni, but now that he was here, he wasn’t sure the wells of strength he’d have to dip into to get through the night would support him.
Someone tapped on his window. Startled, Arthur snapped his head to the right to meet laughing eyes he could never mistake, no matter how many lines fanned from their corners.
“Can’t buy you a pint if you’re still in your car, mate,” Gwaine said, his voice muffled through the glass.
Pocketing his keys, Arthur eased out, automatically sucking in his stomach as he faced off with his old friend. From the look of his trim waist, it seemed Gwaine could still eat whatever he wanted without having to worry about his weight. If he wasn’t such a lark to be around, Arthur might hate him a little for that.
True to form, Gwaine didn’t let him hold back, pulling Arthur into a firm hug he was compelled to return. As attractive as Gwaine was, though, the strength of the embrace did more for Arthur’s nerves than it did for his cock. When it came to the boys from school, it had always been very easy to ignore any desire for all but one of them. They were his friends, not potential partners. None of them even knew Arthur could swing that way.
Of course, nobody knew even now.
The warm slap to his shoulder gave him the boost he’d desperately needed. “You look good,” Arthur said when they parted.
“I know,” came the glib response. It was followed by a poke at his sternum. “And you’ve cost me twenty quid, but I guess I can’t complain since it’s so good to see you.”
He didn’t even have to ask. “You wagered I wouldn’t come.”
“I thought it was a safe bet. You’ve never come before.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“We’re all busy.” He threw an arm around Arthur’s shoulder and began walking toward the hall as if he didn’t trust Arthur not to flee. “This is always a night to forget that. To remember the old days and all the good times we had.”
“To get good and pissed, you mean,” Arthur said wryly.
Gwaine laughed. “That, too.”
“I’d heard you got married.”
“You heard right.”
“So why are you wasting time with me?”
“As fate would have it, my lucky bride got smart and realized she could do a lot better than me. We’ve been divorced for three years now.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that.” And he genuinely was. The few pics he’d seen around of Gwaine with Elena had made his old friend look happier than Arthur had ever seen him.
“What about you?” Gwaine asked. “You and Gwen ever make it official?”
Arthur shook his head. “Lance came back one too many times for me to look the other way. Last I heard, they were living in France somewhere.”
“Better there than under your nose. Nothing worse than having to see someone you want for yourself living it up with another bloke.”
Truer words had never been spoken, though Arthur was convinced Gwaine didn’t understand the real depths of his wisdom. Arthur had always been so careful never to let anyone get a glimpse of his true feelings, even the young men he’d trusted the most. They wouldn’t have understood, not in that time, that place. Now might be a different story, but those were pages yet unwritten, the pen of fate poised to either bring his hopes to fruition or cast them away, once and for all.
They rounded the corner of the hall into a mélange of music and light spilling through the open doors onto the twilight walk. Though he could hear the low murmur of voices from within, it was a lone shadowed figure, hovering at the curb, that captured Arthur’s attention.
Gwaine spotted him a moment after Arthur did.
The years had been more than kind to Merlin Emrys. They had been generous as well. The frame Arthur remembered as lanky at best, gawky at worst, had filled out without looking like he’d gone to seed. His shoulders were broader, his arms fuller if the stretch of his jacket was any indication, while his thighs looked strong and supple in his dark trousers.
His black hair was still full and thick, but in the yellow light falling from the lamp overheard, Arthur saw the silver shooting through their darker brethren. Would the same time be marked on Merlin’s face? His eyes had always been old, so it was up to the rest of him to catch up.
Suddenly, Arthur couldn’t breathe. Merlin was the sole reason he’d finally come to his secondary school’s reunion. Every year, he pulled strings to get the RSVP list, and every year, he stayed away when he discovered Merlin wasn’t on it. This year was supposed to be different. He came with the express desire to see Merlin one more time. Now that he had, however, he felt utterly incapacitated about what to do next.
Gwaine had no such compunctions. With a whoop, he abandoned Arthur to shock Merlin with a full body hug that practically lifted Merlin off his feet.
“That’s forty quid I’m down, but so worth it!” With his arm around Merlin’s shoulder, Gwaine angled him back to face Arthur, grinning like a madman. “Who would’ve thought it? Merlin and Arthur both back at the same time. It’s one for the record books, if you ask me.”
Not so much when Arthur had specifically come to see Merlin but he held his tongue so Gwaine could revel in the moment.
“Hello, Arthur,” Merlin said with a nod.
Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. Fuck if he didn’t sound exactly the same. Why hadn’t time ravaged its way with Merlin when it took such pleasure messing with Arthur? He’d call it unfair, but having the Merlin of old so readily accessible—here—made it more than worth it.
“You two have to buy my drinks tonight to make up for all the dosh you’ve cost me by showing up,” Gwaine said.
Merlin grinned and elbowed Gwaine, though not before he’d rolled his eyes conspiratorially at Arthur. “It’s not a cash bar, you nit.”
“Then you can buy me drinks after.” He turned Merlin toward the hall. “Let’s shock a few people, shall we?”
Arthur had yet to utter a single word in Merlin’s presence, but the prospect of having to do it in front of the old gang had his gut howling in protest.
“Gimme a sec,” he said. “In fact…” He touched Merlin’s arm, a casual tap to any observer, to him a scorching reminder of all he’d ever wanted. “Can I talk to you for a minute first, Merlin?”
Merlin glanced between them, brows drawn into a frown. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh, sure, sure.” Though it was anything but. “I just haven’t seen you in decades. It’d be nice to have a moment before neither one of us can get a word in edgewise.”
“Some things never change.” With a grin, Gwaine shook his head and let Merlin go. “I’ll be at the bar when you two are ready to make your grand entrance.”
“What was that about?” Arthur said once they were alone.
“Gwaine and his rubbish opinions,” Merlin replied.
“Oh, you know. He always gave me stick because he thought you had me at your beck and call.”
Arthur’s face went hot, both in embarrassment and indignation. “I did not.”
“Well, you sort of did.” Merlin ducked his head, hiding a sheepish smile. “I was at your call, anyway. No matter what you wanted from me, I made sure I could give it.”
That wasn’t the way Arthur remembered it at all, but the look on Merlin’s face said he believed to be in the right. “Nine times out of ten, I had to chase you down,” Arthur protested. “Like when I needed your help with that blonde who wouldn’t leave me alone. Where were you when I needed you most?”
“That doesn’t count.”
“Because I ignored you on purpose that week.”
Arthur stared at him, gobsmacked. “Why on earth would you do that?”
“Because that time, you got exactly what you deserved. You flirted with her for weeks, and then when she finally got interested, you wanted nothing to do with her.”
“Now I know you’re lying.”
“I can’t flirt. Never have.”
“What’re you talking about? You did it all the time. In fact, I think the only person you didn’t flirt with was me.”
For a very good reason, though Arthur knew that confessing his feelings now was completely the wrong time. He’d wanted to seduce Merlin with his success first, not remind him of what an absolute tosser he’d been back in the day.
“Clearly, both of us have dodgy memories,” Arthur said in an attempt to get Merlin out of the past and back into the here and now.
“You got it wrong.” His gaze went serious, and suddenly, Arthur wasn’t outside the hall anymore. He was back in school, deaf to all his mates’ goodbyes when he’d told them about moving away, wondering why Merlin wasn’t saying a word. He’d regarded Arthur with that same solemnity he did now, like he could see past all the rubbish excuses Arthur had concocted straight to the truth of the matter.
Arthur cleared his throat, shaking off the aching nostalgia. “Which part?”
“What I remember. The time I knew you, those will be the memories I take to my grave.” His sad smile was another echo from the past, the last image of him Arthur had ever had when he’d left. “This is going to sound ridiculous, but I used to love you a few years ago.”
Arthur had spent a lifetime learning how to put on the face everyone expected of him, but somehow, some way, Merlin always seemed to strip those masks away. He gaped at Merlin now, unsure of what he was hearing, sick to his stomach that his cowardice had earned him a past tense declaration.
“Don’t know why you’re so surprised,” Merlin said when the silence stretched to uncomfortable proportions. “Didn’t everybody love the one and only Arthur Pendragon at some time or another?”
“But…” His voice croaked, and he stopped to start again. “I didn’t know.”
“Why would you?”
“Because I thought I noticed everything about you.”
Merlin’s smile turned indulgent. “And there’s the Arthur hubris I so fondly remember.”
“No.” He refused to allow those opinions to linger. He was a different person, damn it, and if nothing else happened tonight, he would convince Merlin of it, once and for all. “That has nothing to do with it. It’s because…what you said, about what you felt.” His blood roared in his ears, blocking out everything else. “It’s not ridiculous. I loved you, too, you tosser.”
His words seemed to have no effect, Merlin’s features unchanged. “You had a funny way of showing it.”
“And you didn’t?”
“Beck and call, remember?”
Which made this entire experience all that more disastrous. He’d avoided regrets as much as he possibly could, Merlin being the lone exception, but if he’d been just a tad braver when they’d been in school, not been so wrapped up in his fears that someone would discover his secret longings, their lives might have been entirely different. His life could’ve been entirely different.
Neither one seemed to know what to say. After a minute of more of that terrible silence, Merlin glanced toward the hall. “Maybe we should go inside.”
Arthur couldn’t. He couldn’t face his old friends and pretend he was there for them. Too much had been ripped out from under him, and he simply wanted to go back to his hotel room and watch things blow up on the telly until he was numb again.
“Why did you come this year?” he blurted. “You’ve never come before.”
Shoving his hands into his pockets, Merlin kicked at a loose stone, not meeting Arthur’s eyes. “Because it was easier to stay away and not see you.”
It didn’t explain why he was here now, though. “You wouldn’t have. I stayed away because you were never on the RSVP list.” The way he saw it, his confession was safe. A door could be closed after tonight, and if it felt like he was being slammed in it, then so be it. “You’re the only reason I even bothered this time. Because when I said I loved you, I wasn’t entirely honest. I made it sound like that was all in the past. It’s not.”
Merlin stilled, looking at Arthur through his lashes. “We’re not boys anymore, Arthur.”
He swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Trust me. I’m well aware of that.”
“Don’t you have a family by now? Another generation to carry on the Pendragon legacy?”
“No. I have work, and I have friends, but…no. It’s just me.”
“Why? You were the pride of Albion. You could’ve had anything you wanted.”
“Except I never had you.” He heard Merlin’s exhalation, a long, shuddering breath that conveyed far more than any of the words they’d exchanged. He dared a step closer. “Look, I’ll admit I was a prat back then, but you said it yourself. We’re not those people anymore. Don’t judge me by those standards. Judge me as the man who didn’t want another thirty years to go by before seeing you again.”
“Was it worth it?”
For all the pain and all the fear and all the gut-wrenching anxiety he’d been sick with, he still only had one answer. “Absolutely.”
Slowly, the hunch of Merlin’s shoulders eased. “How do you feel about letting Gwaine get his forty quid after all?”
The sudden mention of Gwaine knocked Arthur off-guard. “Huh?”
“Let’s go for a pint. You and me. Catch up on old times and maybe…talk about some new ones.”
The offer was more than he’d ever dreamed about, even on his best day. “Everyone will give Gwaine a hard time for making up tales about us.”
Merlin laughed. “It’s going to make him the center of attention. You really think he’s going to fuss about that?”
He joined in Merlin’s mirth. “I guess not.”
“So is that a yes or a no? Time’s ticking, Arthur.”
It was, but he wasn’t going to cower as it wound down any longer. “It’s a yes, on one condition.”
“You want this on your terms?” But Merlin sounded more amused than anything else. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Make it dinner as well and allow me to pay.”
“Fine, it’s two.”
Merlin’s eyes glittered in the dusky light. “And it sounds remarkably like a date.”
“All right then. Just so we’re clear.” He began to brush past Arthur toward the carpark, but then stopped, turned, and shocked Arthur yet again by skimming a kiss across his unsuspecting mouth.
Arthur blinked. “What was that for?”
“In case I don’t get the chance later because you’ve changed your mind.”
His lips tingled. “I wouldn’t worry about that.” Grabbing Merlin’s hand, he hauled him toward the car again. When Merlin tightened his grip, Arthur felt lighter than he’d been for the last thirty years. “You’re going to have more chances than you’ll know what to do with.”