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the years in between

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Merlin frowned at the text message flashing on the screen and pocketed his phone with a resigned sigh. He took a deep breath and entered into Event Room ‘C’ at whichever hotel he was in. He’d already forgotten the name, he was so knackered from his double shift at the hospital.

It was the ten-year reunion of their school batch and he wouldn’t even be there if it weren’t for –

He’d barely stepped foot inside the room when he collided with a body, the person instinctively preventing Merlin’s fall with a strong hand on his arm.

“Whoa there,” said a voice that had a smooth and gruff quality at the same time. “Sorry about that!”

Merlin only knew one voice like that.

He pulled back with a grin. “Hi, Gwaine!” he greeted the long-haired man in front of him.

Gwaine’s face similarly split into a roguish grin. “Merlin!” he boomed, wasting no time in dragging Merlin into a suffocating hug, thumping him on the back with gusto.

Merlin laughed and Gwaine started guiding him towards the small group of their mutual friends gathered near the bar.

“It’s so good to see you!” he said. “How are you?”

“How do I seem?” Gwaine replied, his smile never leaving his face. Exactly as Merlin remembered him then.

“Fantastic,” Merlin answered truthfully.

Gwaine winked at him. “Exactly.”

Merlin rolled his eyes at Gwaine’s cheek. "Alright, Casanova. Now, why were you running like you'd seen a ghost?"

“I wish I'd seen a ghost," Gwaine said, the smile slipping off his face to be replaced with a look of horror. "I saw Eira."

“Don’t demonise the poor girl, Gwaine,” Mithian scolded as they reached the group, then turned towards Merlin. “Fancy seeing you here, Merlin!”

Mithian was looking stunning, as expected, with her dark hair loose around her shoulders and her arm around a petite, equally gorgeous black woman with the kindest eyes Merlin had ever seen.

As per Mithian’s introduction, the woman was her girlfriend Guinevere who greeted Merlin brightly and Merlin had a feeling that he’d get along famously with her. Although she hadn’t gone to their school, she was Elyan’s sister who was a good friend of theirs, along with Lance and Percy.

“You can’t demonise demons,” Gwaine replied to Mithian.

Merlin tried to place the name. "Eira…wasn't she your girlfriend for a few months?"

"Was being the operative word here," Gwaine retorted with a shudder.

"Come off it," Merlin teased, smirking. "I’m pretty sure seventeen-year-old you was absolutely smitten with her. Wouldn’t stop waxing poetic about her ‘silken golden hair’ for days."

"You're one to talk," Lance coughed, fighting back a smile behind his fist.

Merlin turned to him with narrowed eyes, while Mithian snickered none too subtly. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Lance adopted a face of perfect innocence. “Oh, nothing. It’s just that I seem to remember you harbouring a massive crush on a certain blond too. For at least two years, if not more.”

Merlin felt heat creep up his neck and he was about to open his mouth to deny that completely false accusation when Gwaine interrupted.

“Blond?” he echoed, a shit-eating grin appearing on his face once more. "You don't mean –”

Lance nodded and smiled wickedly, something Merlin didn't even know he was capable of. "Yep, the one and only Arthur Pendragon."

"Wait, I'm confused," Percy interjected, puzzled. "Weren't Merlin and Arthur arch enemies?"

"Not arch enemies, that sounds so childish," Merlin mumbled, his face feeling hot. "Rivals, maybe.”

Gwaine snorted. “Rivals, my arse! The way you two went at each in the halls was truly something to behold.”

“It was just banter,” Merlin responded, scowling petulantly. “I am sure it wasn’t that bad. Right?”

All of his traitorous friends avoided answering by averting their gazes and hiding their traitorous amusement behind their glasses. Merlin took back every regrettable thought he’d had about not being able to keep in touch with them. It served them right and they didn’t deserve him anyway.

“Fine, whatever,” he grumbled at last. “I didn’t know the crush was that obvious.”

Gwaine smirked devilishly and tipped his drink at Merlin. “Fret not, dear Merls. It was well-reciprocated.”

Merlin choked on his sip of wine and gaped at Gwaine, blood rushing to his head. “Excuse me?”

“Pendragon couldn’t shut up about you. We were drunk once and he broke out into a whole monologue about your lips or ears or something. Really got into it too –I almost fell in love with you by the end of it,” Gwaine explained, turning an appraising eye on Merlin.

Merlin flushed, looking away.

This was completely new information to him and it was breaking down all his previously held ideas about his life ten years ago.

That git. The way he’d used to insult Merlin all those years ago, only for Merlin to find out he’d fancied him the whole time –

“Wonder if he’s coming or not,” Mithian mused. “Ooh, do you think he’ll bring a date? A partner or a spouse?”

Merlin smiled, opening his mouth to answer when the class witch Sophia, undoubtedly eavesdropping on them, suddenly inserted herself into the conversation.

"Arthur doesn't have a date?" she said hopefully, something creepy settling in her gaze.

Irritation rapidly coursed through Merlin. "Piss off, Sophia,” he snapped. “He isn't even here."

Sophia shot him a murderous glare and left in a huff, muttering evilly to herself.

Gwaine nudged him suggestively. “Jealous?”

“You’re single, aren’t you, Merlin?” Mithian said excitedly, not waiting for him to answer. “And a doctor too!”

“Oh, yes. I saw that article about you saving that woman’s life on a plane,” Gwaine supplied.

“You read the newspaper?” Lance was doubtful.

Merlin struggled to keep up with the conversation. “Um wait –”

“So, a famous doctor, no less,” Mithian grinned mischievously. “I bet Arthur will fall at your feet in no time.”

“No, listen –” Merlin started only to be cut off yet again, by Gwaine this time.

“If he doesn’t, I will,” Gwaine announced, sending a wink in Merlin’s direction.

“Is that him?” Gwen asked, pointing towards the entrance of the room.

Mithian beamed. “Good eye, love.”

Gwaine guffawed, a gleam in his eyes. “That’s Pendragon, all right and oh, he seems to be alone. What say you, Merlin?”

Merlin bit his lip to keep from answering.

Arthur had caught sight of their group was heading towards them. And there he was, in all his stupid glory, fully equipped with the ability to make Merlin's insides melt even after all these years. He'd clearly come there straight from work, looking wonderfully dishevelled –with his tie askew in a way that made Merlin's fingers itch to fix it, or better, take it off entirely.

Merlin couldn't keep the smile off his face when Arthur reached them.

"Finally made it, have you?" he said. “Decided to grace us all with your presence?”

Arthur's eyebrows climbed high in challenge as he regarded Merlin. "Why, were you hoping I wouldn't?"

"Wouldn't dream of it," Merlin quipped, adding a none too silent "prat" under his breath.

Arthur rolled his eyes, lips quirking up at the corners and came to stand by Merlin's side, reaching his hand out to take Merlin's and lacing their fingers together.

The action, while small, hadn't gone unnoticed. Even a little.

Everyone froze, gawping at them with their mouths slightly open. Except Gwen, who looked delighted.

Arthur didn't seem to immediately grasp their shock as he leaned into Merlin's side to whisper into his ear. "Sorry, I got held up and the traffic was awful. I meant to reach here a lot sooner."

Merlin smiled and squeezed his hand. "It's okay. No harm done. I didn’t really think you were going to abandon me after forcing me to come.”

Gwaine sputtered suddenly, looking flustered like Merlin had never seen him. "What –but –but –you two are –”

Merlin smirked at Gwaine's incoherence and said smoothly, "Turns out Pendragon does have a date, actually."

Arthur looked slightly confused. "What is the matter with you lot? Why are you staring at us?"

When no one offered an answer, still too tongue-tied to form words, Merlin explained graciously and alright, a little smugly. "They were just about to set me up with you."

Arthur raised his eyebrows and laughed. "Set you up with your own fiancé? I'm not surprised, that has Gwaine written all over it."

Mithian's eyes widened even more, if possible. "Fiancé?" she gasped, pointing an accusing finger at Arthur. "You’re wearing too many rings! And you,” she turned to Merlin, “ –you’re not wearing any!"

"Oh, no. The ring is a pain when I have to put on surgical gloves so I wear it around my neck instead," Merlin told Mithian, reaching inside his collar to show her the thin band dangling off a simple chain.

"Why didn't you tell us?" she exclaimed, her face reddening.

Merlin bristled. "Well, I tried but you wouldn't let me speak! This is what happens when you scheme," he informed her.

"Well," Mithian said with as much dignity as she could muster. "In a way, our scheme was so perfect that you turned out to be already together."

"Oh, no," Arthur objected. "You don't get to take the credit for all the years of hard work I put into this one."

Merlin shoved him lightly with an offended pout. "Hey! I resent that!"

Arthur laughed and Gwaine and Mithian started to say several things at once when Percy finally stepped into the conversation before the circus could derail.

"So how did this happen?" he asked with a pleased smile, gesturing between Merlin and Arthur.

"He stalked me," Merlin replied flatly.

Arthur squawked, "I didn't stalk you! I ran into you at a coffee shop when you were at the height of your med student caffeine addiction."

Merlin shrugged. "It's just suspicious what you were doing on the completely opposite side of town, that's all."

Arthur rolled his eyes and turned to Percy. "To answer your question, we reconnected when he spilled his coffee on me at said coffee shop where I was not stalking him. Thankfully, it didn't burn me because Merlin is a deranged idiot who drinks frappes in winter and then falls sick."

"I'm a doctor!" Merlin retorted in a huff.

"Exactly, Merlin," Arthur agreed with a meaningful look. "You're a doctor."

"What happened next?" asked Gwen eagerly.

Arthur smirked. “Well, he begged for my forgiveness, paid for my drink, and then begged again a few months later but for a date this time.”

“There was no begging involved,” Merlin scoffed. “Stop projecting your secret fantasies on me.”

Percy choked on his drink.

“Anyway,” Arthur continued unaffected. “That was about five years ago and we’ve since gotten over our petty schooltime rivalries, as you can see.”

“Weren’t you arch enemies?” Lance sniggered and Merlin was starting to see something truly devious in him.

“No!” cried Merlin and Arthur in unison.

“Honestly, who even started this whole ‘arch enemies’ thing?” Merlin demanded. “I’m confident that neither of us ever said anything like that."

They were all silent for a moment and the answer came to everyone at once.

“Sophia,” they chanted.

“That checks out,” Arthur said drily. He looked behind him for good measure, to make sure she wasn’t hovering about.

Merlin tightened his hold on Arthur’s hand a bit and if the action had somewhat possessive sentiments behind it, then no one had to know.

He actually ended up enjoying himself and was glad that Arthur had made him come despite his vehement protests regarding exhaustion and doubt shifts.

He exchanged numbers with Gwen at one point, promising to meet for lunch the following weekend, after which Gwaine started hitting on Percy who didn’t look displeased about it and then two hours later, Merlin was tipsy enough for Arthur to slip an arm around his waist to keep his balance.

Merlin hummed into Arthur’s shoulder, feeling wonderfully light-headed.

Arthur chuckled fondly and turned to the others, hardly any of whom were sober either. “I think it’s time I took this one home. It’s unfortunately my turn to be the designated driver today.”

“It was a fair deal,” Merlin mumbled against his neck. Arthur just shook his head in a resigned manner and Merlin promised himself to get him back for that.

After unexpectedly emotional goodbyes and advance invitations to their wedding (whenever the hell that was), they stumbled towards the car, Merlin enjoying the feel of Arthur’s fingers curled around his waist far too much to let go just yet.

Arthur wrestled Merlin into the passenger seat with some amount of difficulty.

"You're such a clingy drunk," Arthur complained, finally snapping Merlin's seatbelt into the buckle.

Merlin scoffed. “’M not drunk. You’re drunk.”

“I wish I was drunk,” Arthur muttered darkly.

Merlin turned his head to gaze at Arthur when he’d settled on the other side. "You're so nice, always taking care of me," he said with a contented sigh.

He could see Arthur's mouth curve into a part fond, part amused smile. "I know."

Merlin blinked sluggishly. "Gwaine told me something about you today."

"Mmm?” Arthur said distractedly, setting up the GPS. “I'm sure it's a lie."

Merlin hesitated, swallowing, suddenly feeling a lot less buzzed. "Well…I hope it isn't."

Arthur must have identified the note of uncertainty in his voice because he directed all his attention at Merlin. "What did he say?"

Merlin lowered his lashes, flushing slightly. "That you used to secretly fancy me. Back in school. Apparently got sloshed once and gave a speech about my, um lips? I’m pretty sure he said lips."

Arthur groaned, letting his head fall back against the backrest. "Urgh, I hate Gwaine.”

Merlin fiddled with his coat sleeve. “So, it's true then?”

His heart was racing and he didn’t even know why. All of this was years in the past, he had Arthur now. They loved each other. They'd built a relationship, gone through so much over the last five years to get where they were now.

Merlin was engaged to him, for god’s sake. Something so trivial from a decade ago shouldn't matter.

Except it did.

Arthur didn’t answer but his cheeks coloured.

“Arthur?” Merlin probed.

He exhaled, turning to look at Merlin and taking hold of one of his hands. “Yes, it's true. I liked you. I liked your lips,” his eyes flitted to Merlin's mouth and Merlin felt hot all over. "I still do."

"I thought you hated me," Merlin whispered, not able to take his eyes off Arthur’s face, illuminated by the glow of streetlights.

"Oh, definitely,” Arthur agreed with a quirk of his lips. “You drove me mad and I had no idea what to do about it. Just because I thought you were fit doesn't mean I had to like it.”

Merlin grinned, relaxing. “That's so immature.”

“We were teenagers. It's not like you were winning any awards for maturity back then either, Merlin,” Arthur replied with a glare.

Merlin shrugged, smiling. “All I'm saying is that I'm glad you got your head out of your arse.”

He expected an indignant retort but Arthur just laughed, a soft look crossing his features, and leaned over to press a lingering kiss to Merlin's lips.

"Yeah. I'm glad I did too."