Word count: 3484
Disclaimer: Not mine. No matter how much I wish it so.
Summary: Modern AU. After yet another broken engagement, Arthur escapes London for the sanctuary of his two best friends.
Notes: Written for the Short Challenge at ag_fics for the theme, "canceled." I was very lucky to win 1st. :)
“I’m sure he’s already seen—”
“And if he has, do you really want to make it worse, Gwen?”
No, she really didn’t, so she took the newspaper Merlin had thrust in her direction as soon as Arthur stepped through the pub doors and tried to find a place to get it out of sight. Her bag was too small, the next table too far away. The other chair at their tiny table was out of the question since Arthur would see it as soon as he pulled it out to sit, but Merlin was looking increasingly frantic as Arthur strode toward them. With no other resort, Gwen slid it beneath her butt. Out of sight, but definitely not out of mind.
“You have no idea how glad I am to see you two.” Arthur collapsed in the third chair and promptly slumped, running a broad hand through his unkempt hair. He hadn’t shaved in a day or two, and the scruff at his jaw and chin combined with his hollowed eyes to testify how little sleep he must’ve had. She itched to smooth some of the exhaustion away, but no matter how long they’d been friends, that wasn’t her place. “Now all I need is a half dozen pints or so.”
“Have a hard time getting up here?”
Arthur shrugged. “Same old, same old. London was the worst. Every time I turned around, there was another camera in my face.”
“Ah, the perils of being rich and pretty.”
He scowled at Merlin’s playful tone. “I’m not pretty.”
“Yes, you are.” She could finally reach out and touch him without it feeling awkward, and patted the back of the hand nearest her. “But we love you anyway.”
His weary eyes lifted and locked with hers, and for a long moment, she couldn’t breathe. This was the face that always enamored the paparazzi, that had drawn their attention from the time Arthur Pendragon had first stepped out into society. She’d seen the photos as he’d grown up—not when they were actually shot, but later, after the three of them had become such fast friends at uni and curiosity had sent her to the Internet to see why every female on campus seemed to think she was the luckiest girl in the world to be friends with him.
She started to pull back, only to be stopped when Arthur laced their fingers together.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am you’re letting me hide here.” He addressed both of them, but his hand remained entangled with hers. “I’m not ready to face my father yet.”
“I’m never ready to face your father,” Merlin commented.
Her palm was sweating, but though she desperately wanted to pull away before Arthur noticed, she couldn’t. Casual contact between the three of them had been the norm for as long as she could remember. How many times had she fallen asleep on Merlin and Arthur’s couch watching telly with them, only to wake up with her head on Arthur’s lap and her feet on Merlin’s? If she made a big deal of it now, one or the both of them would realize something was up. The last thing she needed Arthur to discover was how she was no longer oblivious to his devastating effect on women
“I take it that means you didn’t tell him before you canceled the wedding.” She almost sounded normal.
“How could I? He’s the one who kept nattering on about what a great match it was.” With one last squeeze, he let her go, though the skim of his thumb down the side of her hand sent an array of gooseflesh sprinkling up her arm. “Besides, he might’ve locked me in the house and forced me down the aisle in shackles if I’d told him first.”
“Would it have been so bad?” she asked. “I always thought Elena was lovely.”
“She was. Is. I just…” He played with one of the coasters, lost in thought. “I don’t love her.”
They fell silent. His declaration didn’t surprise her. In all the time she’d known Arthur, he’d never claimed to love any girl. He’d liked them, of course, or admired them for one reason or another, but being able to say those three words and meaning it eluded him, no matter how often he tried.
That was why the media had dubbed him the Robber Bridegroom, stealing women’s hearts when he broke off his engagements. Elena was the latest. Number Five in his string of canceled weddings over the past six years.
“So what are we doing to celebrate my newfound bachelorhood?” Arthur’s voice was falsely bright.
Merlin squirmed. “Actually, it’ll have to be just you two tonight—”
Both Arthur and Gwen straightened at the announcement, her tone sharper than she’d intended, his almost as alarmed. Merlin went red under both of their stares.
“I picked up a shift at work before you said you were coming down. I can’t get out of it.”
“Tell Gaius it’s an emergency.”
“I don’t think the head of A&E will believe that your mess of a love life is more of an emergency than the people who get brought in.”
“Can’t someone else take it?” Under the table, Gwen crossed her fingers.
He shook his head. “I already rang everyone I could think of. Sorry, guys. You’ll just have to get pissed without me.”
“The whole point of Arthur coming was so that the three of us could hang out together,” she pressed. When was the last time it had only been her and Arthur? Ever? Without Merlin there, Arthur would notice if she didn’t drink as much. But if she allowed herself to drink the way they used to, she’d say something she’d regret. Or worse, do something.
“We can hang out tomorrow,” Merlin promised. “Look. I’ve already stocked the fridge, the guest room is made up for Gwen, and now Arthur and I don’t have to fight over who gets my bed. Everybody wins.”
He only said that because he had no idea how she felt about Arthur. And why should he? They were the Three Musketeers. Every single time Arthur canceled another wedding, he came back to Cambridge to nurse his wounds by hanging out with them. And every single time, she listened to him rant about his inability to love any woman he’d ever dated. Not once had she let on that she wished for her own chance with Arthur, even though she knew it could never be. Their social differences aside, she was just good ol’ reliable Gwen. Neither one of them had any reason to believe things had changed.
Except she had. And she would just have to suck it up if she didn’t want to ruin the best friendships anybody could ever ask for.
As she reached Merlin’s front gate, Gwen frowned. The drive held a single car, not Merlin’s Nissan but not Arthur’s Mercedes, either. Instead, a dirty blue Mondeo was tucked far away from the street. She glanced inside as she walked by it, but other than a half-full water bottle in the driver’s drink holder, nothing gave away its owner.
The front door was unlocked, and she shifted her overnight bag on her shoulder as she stepped inside. She and Merlin spent as much time at each other’s place as they did their own, a holdover from uni. There had been a brief period after they’d graduated where they’d contemplated sharing a house, but then things started getting more serious between her and Lance, and Merlin begged off being a third wheel. Funny how neither one of them had ever complained when Arthur had been their third, though. That combination had always felt the most natural.
Until the last couple years, at least.
The front room was deserted. Gingerly, Gwen dropped her bag by the door, craning her neck to see the back of the house. “Arthur?”
“Be right out!” Glasses clinked. “You ready for a beer?”
She flopped down into the corner of the couch. Had that sounded confident enough? Because she bloody well didn’t feel it. She planned to nurse a single beer for the night, but Arthur wasn’t stupid. He could count empties just like she could. What was she going to do?
A Sam Adams appeared in front of her face, condensation already collecting on the dark glass. “Thanks,” she murmured, plucking it out of Arthur’s hand. Her head swiveled to watch him come around the end of the couch and take the seat next to her. “Where’s the Merc?”
He’d showered since lunchtime, so instead of his hair looking like he hadn’t had any sleep, he looked like he’d just spent hours in bed with not one but a handful of girls. Some of the shadows were gone from beneath his eyes, the exhaustion replaced with a shine in the blue irises. He’d started the party early.
“I left it in London.” He stretched his arm across the back of the couch, blunt fingers catching a loose strand of her hair and winding it among them. “I use the Mondeo most of the time now.”
His mouth tipped. “I got into the habit with Elena, actually. It used to brass both of our fathers off when we’d show up for functions in it.”
Her heart twisted. This was phase one of Arthur’s escape. The minutes spent deconstructing his latest failed relationship. It was probably why he’d started drinking already. Play along.
“I really thought you were going to marry this one,” she said. “What happened?”
“I told you.”
“No, you said you didn’t love her.”
“That’s not enough?”
His hand stilled, his fingertips dangerously close to the side of her neck. “I’d rather not talk about Elena.”
“Since I saw you at lunch.”
He meant her and Merlin, but for a split second, her pulse thundered and the world narrowed down to just Arthur, just the slightly glazed look in his eyes as he regarded her. Lunch would’ve been completely different if he’d come just to see her. She would’ve been able to smile and mean it. She would’ve been able to kiss him hello and cuddle with him in a booth, like she’d seen countless girls do before her.
But he didn’t, of course. They were his escape. In a few days, once the buzz died down that the Robber Bridegroom had struck again, he’d go back to London, and they’d go back to their lives, and she’d spend the coming months comparing all the men she met to the one she couldn’t have.
“If we don’t talk about Elena, what do we talk about?” she said, her voice soft.
The lazy caresses began again. This time, his thumb stretched to run along the line of her shoulder. Her thin jumper kept the contact from being skin to skin, but it still managed to scorch, keeping her traitorous heart accelerated.
“Tell me what’s been going on in your life since the last time I saw you.” He smiled, slow and beautiful. “What bloke are you tormenting now?”
In spite of how her nerves ran out of control, she laughed at how ridiculous the question was. “I don’t torment men.”
“Really? So all those dates I had to rescue you from back in uni were a figment of my imagination, were they?”
“Oh, like I never had to rescue you. Remember Vivian?”
“I try not to.”
“I’d hate to hear how you talk about the girls you didn’t ask to marry you.”
“For the record, Vivian asked me.”
Her brows shot up. “I never knew that.”
“Yeah, well, nobody did.” His gaze grew wistful. “When I called off the wedding, I didn’t want to make it worse for her. If everyone thought it was all me, then I’m the one who looks like a prat.”
She hadn’t thought he was a prat, though she knew she was in the minority. His reputation had only gotten worse the second time it happened. Frankly, she’d always wondered why any woman would agree to go out with Arthur if they knew his relationship history. Or at least, she had until her own feelings had deepened. Then it made perfect sense.
“What happened to that Gwaine?” he asked.
Another surprise from him, and not because of the shift back in topic to her. “How do you know about Gwaine?”
“Merlin told me when I asked.”
“Why did you ask?”
“Because I wanted to know.” The slight touch to her shoulder disappeared, only to return as a slide along her cheek. “You deserve to be happy, Gwen.”
The same could be said for him, but right now, all she could focus on was how he left a streak of fire from her chin to her ear, and how he abandoned the single curl to thread through the thicker mass at the base of her neck. Now, all four of his fingertips touched her skin, massaging at the most hypnotic pace, melting her bones even when she knew she couldn’t let her guard down for a second.
“Gwaine was too interested in partying all the time,” she heard herself saying. “He was fun, but…” He wasn’t you.
“And you don’t want fun?”
“I just want more.”
“Like…” She struggled to think straight. With Arthur so close, her brain refused to work. “Someone’s who there when I’ve had a rubbish day at work and I just want to curl up on the couch with a curry and watch good guys blow things up all night on the telly.”
“Kind of like our old Monday nights, when you were working for that git McGillis. You always fell asleep on me.”
She blushed. That was supposed to be her special memory. “And then got those embarrassing sleep lines on my face when you guys woke me up.”
“They weren’t embarrassing. They were adorable.”
“You’re just saying that because I have blackmail material on you.”
His hand came to rest again, cupping the back of her neck. “No, I’m saying it because it’s true.”
The more he said, the more confused she got. He’d never touched her this intimately before. Was it the beer? Was he so lonely that any female within his personal space was fair game? Had his break-up with Elena been harder than he’d let on? She didn’t have answers for any of them, and she sure wasn’t going to find them while he was short-circuiting every synapse she had.
Pulling away felt like a mistake when her whole body screamed for more. “Somebody’s had too many pints already today,” she said, trying to force the casual joking back into the moment.
For a second, she thought he was going to reach for her again, but then his hand fell into his lap, and he flopped against the cushions to stare up at the ceiling.
“I told Merlin this was a terrible idea,” he muttered.
Her head swam, trying to piece together his suddenly dejected demeanor with everything that had happened since she’d walked through the door. “What was a terrible idea?”
“This.” He gestured between them. “I’m going to wring his neck for talking me into it.”
“Talking you into what? Hanging out with me tonight?”
His head lolled to the side so he could meet her eyes. “I always want to hang out with you, Gwen. You should know that by now.”
She did, but it didn’t answer any of her questions. It just muddied them even more.
When she didn’t immediately respond, he sighed. “I’ve mucked this up, haven’t I? We’re supposed to be having fun.”
“You’re just upset about canceling the wedding.”
“No, that’s the one thing I did right. I can’t marry one girl when I’m in love with another.”
His words were like a kick to the chest, her heart aching to hear him say it out loud. It was one thing for him to ring and tell about his various dates, and engagements, and funny things Elena might’ve said, because he never actually said the words, she never actually had to hear him say how much he loved whoever he was with. She’d never expected how much she would ache once confronted with it. It didn’t matter that she knew deep in her heart she never stood a chance, or that they had no kind of future together whatsoever. As long as she didn’t hear him profess his love for another woman, a small, delicate part of her could always harbor hope.
“But that’s wonderful,” she managed to get out. “How many times did you say you didn’t think you could ever fall in love? Now you know you can.”
“She thinks we’re just friends.” His eyes bored into hers, daring her to look away. “She thinks the only way I could ever say anything nice about her is if I’ve had a few pints.”
That was her declaration. Those were her words.
He’s talking about me. Oh, God, how can he be talking about me?
Slowly, Arthur reached out to her, edging closer with each moment she didn’t speak. Sparks leapt up her arm at the first graze of his fingertips along the back of her hand, but when she didn’t jerk away or tell him to stop, his touch emboldened, sliding up to her wrist to curl gently around it. He tugged. Just once, and so carefully she could have explained it away if she wanted to. She went to him, because she couldn’t not go, not with Arthur and especially not after that particular revelation.
She ended up half on his lap. Arthur coiled one arm around her waist to keep her steady and lifted the other to touch her mouth.
“In for a penny…” he murmured, then cleared his throat, meeting her stunned gaze. “I love you, Gwen. I have since uni. Final year, actually. I knew for sure the night you broke your ankle when that wanker in the Beemer sideswiped you.”
She didn’t remember much about that night—not as high as she’d been on the painkillers they’d given her—but she remembered the weeks that followed. Merlin and Arthur had insisted she stay with them, then proceeded to wait on her hand and foot. Arthur had even carried her from room to room instead of letting her use the crutches they’d sent her home with.
“You never said anything.”
“I tried. Once. I was so nervous, I couldn’t get two words out. I’d just worked up my nerve to say something again after we graduated, but then you were dating Lance, and you looked so happy…I couldn’t do it.” He brushed his thumb over her lower lip again, making it quiver. “Every time I canceled another wedding, I did it for one reason. None of them were you.”
She felt like she was going to fly apart, but at the same time, everything in her world had suddenly taken shape. Arthur loved her. He endured national headlines because he couldn’t bear living a lie more than he already was. Every touch he’d given her tonight had been genuine, not out of loneliness, not a figment of her imagination.
There was only one thing she could do.
His unsuspecting mouth softened the moment she brushed hers across it, lips parting for the kiss she’d craved for years. Each turned their heads at the same time, fitting together even more naturally, and the world fell away, robbed of its power to distract either one of them until they had their fill.
Blue eyes shining with hope met hers when she pulled back. “Please tell me that wasn’t a goodbye Charlie kiss.”
She shook her head. “It was hello. Because now I have the whole night to show you exactly how glad you didn’t go through with marrying Elena.”
“The papers will have a field day with this. ‘Robber Bridegroom Finally Has Heart Stolen.’”
“That’s only fair.” Another kiss, deeper, hungrier. “Since you’ve had mine just as long.”