Title: In the Now
Pairing(s): Arthur/Gwen, Arthur/Merlin
Characters: Merlin, Gwen
Summary: Modern AU. Merlin comes to the annual reunion of uni friends with intentions of coming clean to Gwen...with a secret he's carried for forty years.
Warnings: Past character death
Word Count: 1200 (it's long, but I'm not sorry lol)
Prompt: #199, for an hour
The house was an uproar when Merlin let himself in, kids running around the front room with foam swords outstretched in hopes of bashing each other over the head, music with a heavy bass drifting from an upstairs bedroom—probably the teenagers, trying to escape the nostalgia so thick already throughout the abode. Voices drifted from the kitchen at the rear, and Merlin had to do a sidestep to avoid a little blond boy who nearly crashed into his knees.
“Sorry!” the child shouted. He barely stopped long enough to look up at Merlin, though it was more than long enough for the familiarity of his blue eyes to stab their unseen weapon through Merlin’s heart. Merlin watched him disappear through the doorway. One of Gwen’s. He had to be.
A laugh he hadn’t heard in a year jerked him back to the present. He avoided any more collisions to finish the path to the kitchen, where half a dozen grizzled faces all recognized him at once.
Shouts of “Merlin!” accompanied slaps on the back from Percival, a hug from Gwaine, a handshake from Elyan. For a few wonderful seconds, he wasn’t sixty years old with aching knees and gray hair sprouting from moles that had never sported hair before. They were all twenty-two, finishing up at uni, celebrating brand new lives as they went out into the real world with no more safety nets. The laughter and love filled a hole in his heart left worn around the ages with time, but even that wasn’t strong enough to keep him rooted in the past.
“You’re early this year,” Leon commented.
“Which means you’re only forty-five minutes late this time,” Elyan finished. “Traffic must’ve been clear for a change.”
Merlin smiled. Heavy traffic was always his excuse for not getting to the reunion until an hour after it started, but they all knew it was a lie. “Is Gwen…?”
Leon nodded, while Percival jerked his chin toward the back door. “You should go,” he said. “She’ll be glad to see you.”
She’d be glad to see him in fifteen minutes when she came back inside, too, but he hadn’t arrived now to avoid the inevitable.
They parted without a word to give him room to pass. Gwen’s daughter, Vonnie, sat in the conservatory, talking to Elyan’s oldest, but both women just gave him a smile as he stepped through the open door and into the back garden.
The foliage had changed early this year, and while the garden had been cleared in anticipation of the reunion, fallen leaves carpeted the grass that led down to the pond. They crackled beneath his shoes, making his approach much louder than he wanted, but Gwen didn’t look around when he reached the double chairs.
She faced the water, a heavy cardigan pulled tight around her to shield her from the chill. While new gray threaded through her temples, her features were as smooth as they’d been when they’d first met.
When the wood creaked in protest as he perched on the arm of the empty chair, Merlin winced. “I never realized how quiet it is out here.”
“That’s because everybody’s still inside.” Her voice was soft and dreamy, the curve of her mouth wistful. “Arthur would be complaining about it, you know. He’d insist we hold the reunion out here instead.”
Merlin smiled. Gwen was right about that. Arthur had loved the din of a good party, the rush of adrenaline from a brisk wind. “More room to play, that’s for certain.”
“They’ll be out here soon enough.”
He glanced at his watch. Thirteen minutes, to be exact. The hour Gwen always spent out here would be gone then. It was the only time she allowed all day to wallow in memories of Arthur.
“Did you see Henry?” she asked.
He had to pause for a moment to think on the name, sorting through the children and grandchildren until he remembered who it belonged to. “That’s Vonnie’s baby, right?”
Gwen chuckled. “He’s three now. He gave me one cuddle, then went straight for the toys.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “When he looked at me, Merlin, I could’ve sworn it was Arthur.”
A lump lodged in Merlin’s throat as he made the connection. The little boy with the sword. “Did you tell Vonnie?”
“Of course not. She thinks I get too maudlin today as it is.”
“One hour to remember Arthur is hardly maudlin.”
“You know how practical she is.”
“I can’t imagine where she gets that from.”
Though she smiled at his teasing, she didn’t respond. She pulled her cardigan more tightly around her shoulders and leaned her head against the back of the chair.
Now was his chance. He’d come specifically to admit it aloud, but now that the opportunity was here, he couldn’t find his voice.
Gwen beat him to it.
“I’m glad you came out here,” she said. “I’ve never understood why you punish yourself so much for loving him.”
Tears he’d been trying to hold back since his collision in the house finally welled up in his eyes. “He was my best friend.”
The gaze she turned to him was kind. “We both know he was more than that.”
He had no idea what to say to her. While he’d wondered in the decades since Arthur’s murder whether or not Gwen had ever suspected the truth, he’d never been brave enough to ask. He hadn’t wanted to tarnish her memories of him, especially since he knew in his heart that Arthur had loved her as deeply as he had Merlin. Perhaps in a different time, things could’ve ended up differently, they could’ve lived together in a world that wouldn’t condemn them for their unconventionality, but that hadn’t been the hand they’d been dealt. They’d done the best they could.
Even if they’d only had Arthur for a few precious years.
The silence engulfed them as the minutes ticked by. When Gwen finally stood, she came around to his side of the chair and held out her hand.
“Hour’s up,” she said, more bright than she’d been before. “Which means it’s time to start living in the now again.” She squeezed his fingers. “Somebody has to teach Henry how to use a sword properly.”
His brows shot up. “I hope you’re not referring to me.”
“Of course, I’m not. You’re going to be my cheerleader while I show him.”
The words just like you used to be for Arthur went unsaid, but Merlin heard them anyway. He let the relief that Gwen didn’t hate him roll through his flesh as he pulled her closer to his side and kissed the top of her head.
“You don’t need to use the reunion as an excuse to come by, you know,” Gwen said. “My door is always open for you.” The heat of her skin seeped through his shirt when she rested her cheek against his arm and whispered, “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
The leaves crunched beneath their feet as they walked slowly up to the house.
He would have to rake them for her the next time he came to visit.