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Four in the Afternoon

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It was a cloudless day at the heart of London.

Arthur Regulus Pendragon sat on a park bench, wishing he had brought some bread to feed the ducks. Dressed in his finest funeral attire, he was clutching a single common rose rescued from a flower arrangement at the grave site. If he heard one more word of comfort from his father's associates, he didn't know what he would do. Lie down and not get up, maybe.

It was then that the tall man appeared.

"Good afternoon. Lovely weather, isn't it?" the tall man said.

"Good afternoon," Arthur responded. He looked up to the sky and granted that the blue was rather lovely.

There was a crisp sound of someone biting into an apple. Arthur turned to face the man—hardly out of adolescence, really, probably around his own age—and registered that he had striking cheekbones. He was standing a short distance away from the bench, and calmly took more bites out of the apple.

Arthur turned around, and they companionably watched birds pecking along the pathway.

"You don't live around here," the man said, throwing his apple core into a bin. "What is it that you're looking for?"

The stranger's question made Arthur thoughtful. He wanted to say he was looking to be alone, but that wasn't right.

"I'm looking for a friendly ear," Arthur answered. "Someone to listen, I suppose."

The man nodded knowingly, as if it was perfectly normal to sit on a park bench and expect conversations with strangers.

"Come and sit with me," Arthur said on impulse. "I'm Arthur."

"I can't sit with you; I'm just a man in a park like a hundred thousand other men."

"Oh." Arthur frowned.

"I'm here every day," the man said. "You should bring bread tomorrow."

*****

The next day, Arthur came back, carrying bread crusts in a plastic bag.

"Hi Arthur," the man said, head bent over a sketchbook. He was wearing the same red hoodie from the day before.

A fat grey squirrel cocked its head at him from its perch on the metal fence.

"It would be better to come back at the same time," the man said. "If, for example, you come at four in the afternoon, then when three o'clock strikes my heart will know to be happy. As the hour advances I will get more happy and excited, anticipating our time together. But if you come at any old time, I shall never know to prepare myself. It's important, observing rituals..."

Arthur was surprised at how talkative the man suddenly was. He had thought their encounters would be limited to a dozen sentences each. "Speaking of rituals, it is customary to give your name when someone has introduced themselves."

"I'm Merlin," the man said, closing his sketchbook and smiling at Arthur.

"Nice to meet you, Merlin," Arthur said solemnly.

"We've exchanged names; now we've established our first connection." Merlin looked pleased. "Do you want to take a stroll around the pond?"

Arthur lifted his bag of bread crusts, and Merlin grinned from ear to ear. Arthur had never seen such an open and uncomplicated expression of joy on anyone, not himself or his younger sister.

*****

Arthur arrived at their bench at four the next day. Merlin had fingerless gloves on, but otherwise he looked exactly the same. He was standing a mere step away from the bench. Not exactly the same, then.

"Good afternoon, Arthur." Merlin's expression looked soft in the afternoon light.

"Good afternoon, Merlin." He sat down off-center on the bench, slightly closer to Merlin.

"I don't want to be just another man in the park," Arthur said. "What must I do?"

"You must be very patient," Merlin said, blue eyes gleaming in the sun. "If you attach yourself to me and I to you, then we shall need each other. To me, you shall be unique in the world. To you, I shall be unique in the world."

"I think I'm starting to understand," Arthur said. "My adopted sister...I think she has tamed my father." He had only known Merlin for three days, but somehow it felt appropriate to tell him.

"It's petty of me to be jealous of her, I know—she lost her parents at a very young age—but my father never spent with me a tenth of the time he spent with her."

Merlin looked curious but didn't press for more.

Arthur paused and said, "I think, somewhere along the way, she has also tamed me."

"It's quite possible," Merlin said. "It is the time spent on your sister that made her so important."

"It is the time I've spent on Morgana..." Arthur said, eyes off in the distance.

*****

In another world, Uther Pendragon didn't collapse of a heart attack in the middle of a board meeting. In that other world, Morgana Rosewood would be at boarding school, and Arthur Pendragon would be gallivanting abroad—Southeast Asia or South America, maybe—for his gap year before uni. And Arthur wouldn't have met a man in the park who made him court for his friendship.

"My drawing is very monotonous," Merlin said, graphite pencil in hand. "All the squirrels are just alike and all the ducks are just alike. Earlier today, though, I saw a male pheasant hobbling on the grass. A pheasant!"

Arthur smiled at Merlin's enthusiasm.

"There is a ritual for hunters in this country. From October first to February first they hunt pheasants," Merlin said. "If they hunt pheasants at just any month of the year, every month would be like any other month, and our pheasant shall never have a holiday." He finished drawing the pheasant's long tail with a flourish.

"That would look good in colour," Arthur remarked. He was no art student, but he thought Merlin's drawings were particularly lifelike. He wondered if Merlin—with his red hoodie and fingerless gloves—was studying art.

"I save my coloured pencils for sunsets."

*****

Arthur walked to the park remembering bits and pieces of this morning’s surreal dream. A boa constrictor swallowed an elephant whole; a blue-eyed fox skipped around a vineyard; Morgana stood in the middle of a glass dome and took a bow to an audience of caterpillars.

He immediately forgot his dream when he saw that Merlin was sitting on their bench. He had a black peacoat on top of his hoodie today.

"Hullo, Arthur."

Arthur sat next to him on the bench and smiled. "Hello, Merlin."

They sat there and said nothing for a while. Arthur liked their silences; they don't feel heavy like the silences he used to have with his father.

"It's a beautiful day," Arthur pronounced.

"The sky is overcast," Merlin pointed out.

As if on cue, it started drizzling. Arthur looked at Merlin out of the corner of his eye. His friend was fighting back a grin.

Arthur gave into laughter and clapped Merlin on the shoulder.

*****

So Arthur made Merlin his friend. And soon the time for him to leave approached:

"I shall miss you," Merlin said, eyes damp.

"I never wished you any harm," Arthur said. He knew he couldn't spend his whole life sitting on park benches having silent conversations with Merlin, but now Merlin was going to cry.

"I know," Merlin said.

"You've gained nothing from it at all," Arthur said quietly.

"I've gained something." Merlin smiled, brilliant as always. He handed Arthur his sketchbook. "Look at the last page."

Arthur leafed through pages and pages of squirrels, birds, ducks and swans. Midway through the book was a picture of their pheasant. He touched the edge softly, careful not to smudge the drawing. Finally, he turned to the last page of the book.

"You've outgrown Kensington Gardens," Merlin said. "And I made this present for you."

At first Arthur thought Merlin had drawn the ubiquitous statue. This would have been unusual because Merlin enjoyed rendering fur and feathers but hated drawing statues and manmade structures. "All that shading is tedious," Merlin had told him once. But no, this drawing depicted not a statue but a real life boy, golden hair blowing in the wind and a single red rose held in his hand. Next to him, a dark-haired boy sat on a tree stump. A secretive smile played on his beautiful face.

Arthur laughed with delight when he saw their pheasant, now in glorious watercolour, pecking at the grass under their feet.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye," Merlin said, "but I think the colour of your hair deserved my watercolour pencils."

Arthur looked at Merlin, expression fond. Here was a friend who listened even when he was simply being silent.

"You must not forget this truth," Merlin said. "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose."

"I am responsible for my rose," Arthur repeated.

"Hi, I'm Arthur Regulus Pendragon."

"Hi Arthur. My name is Merlin Renard."

Goodbye.

Goodbye.

And that was how the little prince met his fox.

*****

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