Though it was hardly the first time he’d gone out since Gwen’s death, something about Gaius’s retirement party put Arthur into a maudlin mood, almost from the moment they walked through the hall’s doors. Maybe it was the strains of Cliff Richard filtering from deeper inside the building. Gwen’s father had been a fan and almost always had him playing when they visited. Or maybe it was running into so many friends he’d lost touch with over the last three years.
But he strongly suspected the biggest reason was his daughter’s excited smile, turned up to him with such innocent joy he couldn’t help but see Gwen all over again.
Lucy wore the pale blue party dress she’d picked out at the store, the skirt floating around her like a cloud, and her long, dark hair was carefully curled and pinned back with silver butterflies. Though her gaze kept straying toward the empty dance floor, she held onto Arthur’s hand as they waited at the buffet, dutifully whispering, “Thank you,” every time another person came up and marveled at how beautiful she was.
“Is that right, Daddy?” she asked after the first time.
Arthur squeezed her hand. “That’s perfect.”
Though a number of people invited him to join them to eat, Arthur chose an empty table at the edge of the dance floor to share with Lucy. Nobody pressed, thank God. They seemed to understand how overwhelmed he was. He rarely lasted this long at big events, but he’d promised himself they’d stay as long as Lucy wanted. It was her first big party, and Gaius was a good friend. He could do this, even if he wished Gwen could be here to share it.
As soon as her plate was empty, Lucy tugged on Arthur’s sleeve. “Can I dance now?”
With her wide brown eyes pleading up at him, he couldn’t say no. “Of course.”
She slid off her chair and never looked back. Angling his seat for a better view, Arthur watched her twirl and bob along to the beat, alone amidst all the other guests, oblivious to the growing attention upon her.
Every movement reminded him of Gwen. It was no wonder he was a bit melancholy tonight.
When the song ended, Lucy barely had a chance to pause before the next one started up. This tune was slower, so she took to swaying to the tempo rather than her previous bounce. Nobody else seemed interested in joining her yet, at least not until a little boy around her age scampered onto the dance floor to start swaying alongside Lucy.
She didn’t miss a beat. Holding out her hands, she kept on moving as she waited for her new partner to take hold. Arthur was not the only one to smile at the adorable sight they made.
So lost in their innocence, Arthur was startled when a tall man appeared next to him.
“Merlin says she’s your daughter,” the stranger said. “She’s absolutely lovely.”
Arthur straightened in his chair, suddenly uncomfortable at being caught out. “Thank you.”
“That’s my boy,” the man went on. “I think your little girl must have magical powers or something, because this is the first time I’ve ever seen him go up to somebody he didn’t already know without me there to hold his hand.”
The confession eased a bit of Arthur’s tension. Whoever this was, they shared more than common friends. Their children were another bond, if only for these moments they remained in the party’s spotlight.
He stood and held out his hand. “I’m Arthur.”
The man folded his large fingers around Arthur’s, a small smile curving his lips. “Percival.”
His grip was strong without being overbearing, and the blue eyes that met his possessed a kindness Arthur didn’t usually associate with other men. He let go, oddly reassured by Percival’s presence now.
“So you know Merlin?” he asked.
“Through Gaius, yes.”
“Oh? How do you know Gaius, then?”
“We work together. Worked,” he corrected with a laugh. “We’re going to miss him at hospital, that’s for certain.” Percival tilted his head in curiosity. “How do you know Gaius?”
“Through Merlin, actually,” he said. “Merlin and I were…friends at uni.” More than friends, though few knew of that. Arthur hadn’t been ready to admit his bisexuality publicly, so Merlin had broken it off until the day Arthur could. But then Arthur met Gwen, and the need to admit he wasn’t completely straight vanished.
Lucky for Arthur, Merlin loved Gwen as much as he had and never held it against him.
A third song started, diverting their attention back to the children. Others had started to drift onto the dance floor, but they were too wrapped up in each other to notice.
“I wish Gwen could see her now,” Arthur murmured.
Though he hadn’t meant to be overheard, especially with the music, he was surprised when Percival responded.
“Her mother couldn’t make it tonight?”
His throat tightened, and he shook his head. Then, because it didn’t feel like enough… “Gwen passed away when Lucy was born.”
The soft sigh was unlike the rest Arthur had received over the past three years. He didn’t know why. Time, perhaps? Maybe enough had elapsed to lessen the sting that came from unwanted sympathy.
“I’m sorry,” Percival said gently.
“What about his?” Arthur jerked his chin toward the little boy, anything to get off this topic.
“It’s just me and Ben. I adopted him last year.”
Arthur couldn’t help but smile. “You must love kids to voluntarily take on being a single father.”
Percival matched his grin. “I better love them. I’m a pediatrician.”
“Really?” He eyed Percival up and down, taking in the body that looked better fit for hard labor than a nursery. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for that.”
“Nobody ever does. Merlin certainly didn’t. He spent our one and only date trying to get me to admit I did roadworks on the side.”
Everything out of Percival’s mouth tilted Arthur off his narrow axis a little bit more. He was nothing as he expected. Had Merlin counted on that? Arthur wouldn’t put it past him.
The better question was, did Arthur care?
That answer was simple. No. Even if each new fact left him more off-balance.
Any time for pursuing the line of questioning vanished with the flourish of Lucy and Ben’s race from the dance floor. They laughed as they ran, their hands still entwined, and Lucy’s dark eyes glittered when she looked up at Arthur.
“Did you see us, Daddy? Did you see?” she babbled.
He laughed. “You were brilliant.”
Ben was slower to speak, the blue eyes he raised to Percival shy and thoughtful. “I was dancing, too.”
Percival crouched, and if it didn’t quite put them at eye level, it came very close. “And did you have fun?”
“He’s my friend,” Lucy announced.
“Nuh uh,” Ben said to her. “You’re mine.”
“Nothing says you can’t both be friends to each other,” Arthur said.
Ben’s gaze snapped to Percival. “Really?”
“Really,” Percival confirmed.
“We’re going to dance s’more.” Lucy tugged Ben away. “Come on.”
As the children bolted back to the growing crowd on the dance floor, Percival straightened, smiling the whole way. “I don’t suppose you have a spare Lucy I can keep for Ben?” he said. “I’ve never seen him take to anyone like that before.”
Because she possessed Gwen’s spirit, but Arthur couldn’t very well admit that to a man he’d only just met. He could, however, make a different offer.
“What about a playdate? Lucy’s always begging me for those, but it never seems to work out.”
“She’s not a biter, is she?”
Percival’s teasing tone elicited a chuckle. Nobody looking at Lucy would ever think her an aggressive child. “No, I’m afraid that’s all my fault. Socializing isn’t as easy for me these days as it used to be.”
Thankfully, Percival seemed to catch Arthur’s meaning and didn’t probe the healing grief further. “I’d be grateful for anything, actually. My schedule usually makes things a bit awkward, but I’ll change it up to suit yours any way I have to.” His smile became wistful. “Whatever it takes to keep him looking that happy.”
“We’ll make it happen,” Arthur promised.
And if he got a new friend out of the deal, too, all the better.