Every orphan had a story.
No matter how short-lived, regardless of any lack of dramatis, each child had arrived at their orphanage, group home, or foster care somehow. Whether their drug addict mother had arrived begging for someone to take her child from her or if they had been simply left on the doorstep, each child had come from somewhere.
It was one of the only things the children had to hold on to, the only link they had to their past, their parents, where they came from.
And at some point, either the child would search for their story, or if they were lucky, someone would take pity on them and tell them so they could have that connection to their past, no matter how small or inconsequential.
That was, every child except Arthur.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have a past. Sometimes it didn’t feel like it, but he knew logically that he had to come from somewhere. But, unlike the other children, he never wanted to know. He didn’t pester the matrons or beg information off of the older children. He let the others learn their stories, but never sought out his own.
He wasn’t sure why he never asked. Like all of the other children, he lay awake at night crying because no one wanted him, and he desperately wished for someone to appear and take him away from all of this.
Arthur lived in the same group home for the first eleven years of his life. It was shortly after his tenth birthday that Ms. Corrigan pulled him before he was allowed to go back to his room after dinner.
She knelt down so that they were at eye level and asked “Arthur, why have you never asked about your parents? Ever since you were a little boy, you’ve never asked. Not once.”
Arthur shrugged, not knowing how to explain. “I dunno.”
“I would tell you if you wanted to know,” she said, studying him quietly. “I heard Jimmy and Kyle talking yesterday, about where they came from, and I saw you sitting off in the corner by yourself. I don’t want you to feel left out, Arthur.”
Arthur shook his head. He was left out, but not because he didn’t know his story. He was left out because he acted better than the other boys, and didn’t want to play their stupid games, or tried to make up his own when they did let him play. He heard Mr. Larson say once that a boy like Arthur didn’t belong in a group home.
Arthur agreed with him.
“Well, you let me know if you ever want to talk about it,” Ms. Corrigan reached a hand up to tuck Arthur’s blonde hair under his ear. She always saved the best desserts for Arthur and pretended not to notice when she saw him sneaking out, so he smiled at her before running back to his bedroom.
Arthur left the group home the next year to live in a foster home with the Richards family, who had six other children living there as well. Though it wasn’t as many as the group home had, Arthur still felt separate from them, because whenever they would talk about their past, Arthur just didn’t care.
Sometimes their tones were reverent, and more often disparaging, but Arthur was always ambivalent. He didn’t know who his parents were and didn’t need to. Most of the time, it felt like he had just come into the world on his own, no parents necessary.
But that didn’t mean he didn’t have a story.
He left the Richards’ home on his sixteenth birthday; he had a job lined up in Liverpool. Nothing special, just temporary office work, but it was a start. If he raised enough money, he could eventually afford university, and then he could slowly work on becoming his own person, one with hopes and ambitions and dreams, and even love.
Because who would ever want an orphan boy who knew nothing about himself?
But before he left for Liverpool, he called the group home that he had lived in to speak to Ms. Corrigan. She picked up on the third ring, and Arthur immediately explained who he was.
“You know, I was just thinking of you,” she said thoughtfully after a moment. “I had forgotten, all of those years ago, when you left – I have something for you.”
“What?” Arthur asked, not sure he heard her correctly.
“Will you come down? I know it’s an hour’s drive, but you should really have this, Arthur.”
And so Arthur detoured and took a train to Manchester, to see the house he had left so long ago; he didn’t miss the place, but then again, it wasn’t like the Richards’ home had been much better. They had been decent people, and could pay a little more attention to him, but they weren’t family by any means.
Ms. Corrigan greeted him at the gate, and Arthur reached forward to shake her hand. She gave him a small, almost sad smile. “I’m glad that you’re here Arthur. Heading into adulthood…you should know where you came from.”
“You said you had something –?” Arthur began, but Ms. Corrigan kept talking, so he stopped in order to listen to her.
“It was 1980, the beginning of May. Mrs. Louse and I were locking the doors for the night. But just as we were about to, a young man showed up outside with a bundle of blankets – you.”
Arthur overcame the urge to roll his eyes at the obvious statement, instead nodding for her to carry on.
“The man couldn’t have been more than thirty – handsome fellow, tall, with curly dark hair. I didn’t quite believe him when he said he wasn’t your father that night, but I believe him now – you look nothing alike.”
So the man wasn’t his father, Arthur thought, lips pursed. But who else would he be?
“Anyway, he asked if he could come inside and give you to us – he said that he wasn’t your father, that you had no parents, that he would care for you if he could but it just wasn’t an option. I asked who he was, of course, and all he said was ‘a friend’. Cryptic man, never answered any of my questions directly – except one.
Your name. He said your name was Arthur, and he just looked so happy when he said it, and when he looked down at you – well, any fool could see that he loved you. I don’t know why he would give you up like that. But he did, and here you are.”
Arthur hadn’t cried since he was eight and one of the other boys at the home had told him that it was a good thing his parents had left him because Arthur was so foul that no one could ever love him. But right now – hearing his story for the first time – he could feel his eyes start to water.
Ms. Corrigan gave him a sympathetic look before reaching into her pocket. “Which brings me to this – he left something for you. He said to give it to you when you were old enough to understand – it’s why I asked you, all those years ago, whether you wanted to know your story. I’m so glad you’re here, Arthur. I could have kicked myself when I let you leave without giving this to you – but you have it now, and that’s what matters.”
She handed him a letter, on old type-print that was fading yellow. Arthur reached out to take it from her. She looked at him expectantly, but Arthur put the paper in his jacket pocket, not wanting this to be infringed upon, no matter how good her intentions were. He gave her a smile before saying “Thank you so much. I need to be off to Liverpool now, but I really appreciate you seeing me.”
Arthur hurried away so as not to look her in the eyes again; he didn’t know how to say goodbye to her, and therefore didn’t. It didn’t seem right to brush off someone who had just given Arthur a huge piece of his past, but it was hard enough dealing with this reality that he had a letter from a man who, although he wasn’t his father, knew something about Arthur and where he had come from.
He kept his hand in his pocket, just touching the letter, the whole train ride to Liverpool.
It wasn’t that Arthur didn’t want to read the letter, and it definitely wasn’t that he was scared to.
Well, maybe he was scared to. But that was just to be expected. What if it was just a blank letter? What if the man really had been his father? What if the man had known his parents? What if the man had been –?
It was best not to know, Arthur reasoned with himself as he stared at the letter in his lap. He generally kept it on him, because he had four roommates who were all pricks and definitely wouldn’t mind fucking up Arthur’s things, but he still took it out to look at once in a while.
If he didn’t know, he wouldn’t be disappointed.
Finally, months later, the questions started driving him mad, and one sleepless night, he swung out of bed and, before he could stop himself, sliced the letter open with shaking hands.
Arthur was uncomfortably aware of how fast and hard his heart was beating as he unfolded the yellowing pages; the handwriting on them was a messy scrawl, and Arthur had to squint in the soft light of his lamp to read the text, body going into some kind of shock as he read.
All this time and I actually have no idea what I want to say to you. I know I want to say something, which is why I’m writing this letter. I’m so, so sorry about leaving you in that home, but I hope that you’ll understand some day that me raising you was not a viable option.
Regardless, I hope you had a good life – maybe not quite the life of a pampered prince, but a good life nonetheless. I’m not sure how old you are right now, whether you’re seven or seventeen – I’m kind of writing this for the seventeen year old you. Not that the seven year-old can’t read this, of course, but you’ll understand more when you’re older.
At least, I hope you will. This situation and my relationship to you is not easy to explain, which is why I’m not even going to attempt it. You should know that I am most definitely not your father, and that your parents – well, for lack of a better explanation, they aren’t here. And I’m sorry if you were reading this expecting to find them. I can’t give you that.
What I can give you is this – I would really love to meet you properly. So hopefully this letter will reach you, because I’m planning on being in Trafalgar Square in London at the turn of the millennium (which, by the way, the year 2000? Completely insane), and I really hope you’ll show up there, too. I’m sure it’ll be packed, but that’s kind of the idea. I’m not going to tell you to meet me someplace alone like some kind of crazy stalker.
I’ll be the one looking nothing like what you’re expecting. Don’t worry; I’ll find you first.
Speaking of crazy stalkers, I’m probably going to check up on you a few times. You won’t know I’m there, but I will be. Hopefully, I’m in your memories as a man at the shop, or someone you passed on the street. Again, I’m sorry about not stopping to talk to you, but I’m really banking on you understanding this more when I explain it properly.
So I’ll be in Manchester from time to time – right now I’m mainly in Hong Kong, but by the time you’re reading this, it might be Tibet or Los Angeles or Costa Rica. Who knows? I don’t. I bounce around to places that need me, and right now, you don’t need full-time me. I’ll always be there, though, if you ever do find yourself in a situation where you need help. And if you’re ever in any danger, trust me – I’ll show up. I could never not show up.
Anyway, hopefully you don’t think I’m a crazy lunatic, and I hope beyond everything else that I’ll see you in Trafalgar Square on December 31st. Twenty years from now for me, but maybe as little as a couple of months for you. Though I should tell you I’ll probably come after you if you don’t show up, just to make sure that you at least saw this letter. If you don’t want anything to do with me after that, I’ll live. But you have the right to know a few things.
And if I know you at all, you’ll have a billion questions and you’ll be super irritating about all of them.
I can’t wait.
Arthur reread the words dozens and dozens of times, and yet absolutely none of his questions were answered.
In fact, he had a hell of a lot more of them.
But right now, all he could think about was the name Merlin. Merlin. Merlin.
It sounded so bone achingly familiar, and yet foreign at the same time. Though the letter couldn’t actually speak, Arthur could almost hear a voice.
And so despite the fact that this man – Merlin – could be anyone in the world, a phony or a fake, a stalker or a fraud, Arthur couldn’t help but hope that he could truly answer his questions, and would be there for him no matter what.
He pressed the letter against his chest and willed himself to fall back asleep.
Four years was a long time to wait for answers, however, and Arthur went through spells and phases where he was just so pissed off at this Merlin fellow for being vague and confusing and making assumptions about the person Arthur had become, because where did he get off telling an infant that they were irritating?
But mainly, Arthur just wanted the millennium to turn already so that he could finally meet this Merlin, who he had thought about every day, wondering who he could be, if they would get along, who he was to Arthur.
Arthur didn’t let himself think about it too much, because he had no idea who to expect.
By all accounts, Merlin should be a fifty year-old man who had known Arthur’s parents and had been entrusted with caring for him, and he would be there to explain why he couldn’t follow through in that respect and how sorry he was that Arthur had been left at the home, and in the future, they would get drinks once in a while and Arthur would send him Christmas cards once he could have the kind of lifestyle where one sent Christmas cards.
But Arthur couldn’t shake the feeling that that wasn’t who Merlin was or what was going to happen. The truth of the matter was, Arthur had no idea who or what to expect. So he didn’t let himself ponder it, because it was all futile in the end.
Besides, he had his own life to be getting to in the intermittent years. He finally saved enough money to afford university, and worked slowly toward getting his degree in finance while working part-time as an office assistant. He had good standing in the company, and his boss had promised him a higher-ranking job once he got his degree.
He dated minimally; no relationship ever felt right. He had had three girlfriends, but none of them really sparked anything more than a passing interest. He had gone to a couple of gay bars to see if that went any better, but no lasting relationship came formed from those experiences. But that was alright, too. Arthur wanted to figure himself out first before he had to figure out romance, and the most important step in that would come on New Year’s Eve of 1999.
He bought his train ticket to London weeks ahead of time; he considered getting a hotel room for the night, but didn’t want to splurge the money. Hopefully, Merlin had a place to stay in the city that he could crash at if necessary.
He spent a lot of time wondering where Merlin was and what he was doing – if he was still in Hong Kong, if he was in America, or if he was in the UK looking out for Arthur. He had grown hyperaware of the people around him, on the lookout for anyone who matched Ms. Corrigan’s description, but ‘handsome, tall, and dark curly hair’ was the most generic description possible.
He also wondered what Merlin had meant by places that needed his help, and why they ranked ahead of Arthur on the scale of what captured the man’s attention.
He went to London with some – well, a lot – of trepidation.
The city was absolutely crawling with people, most of them already shitfaced. Arthur could barely see through the crowd and wondered how the hell this Merlin would ever find him. Even if he knew what Arthur looked like, the crowd was so thick that Arthur couldn’t even shove his way through most of the time. Not to mention he had on a heavy coat with the hood up to block the weather. Eventually, he opted for taking it down, braving the cold.
Trafalgar Square seemed like the busiest place yet – other than the newly opening Millennium Wheel, which Arthur hadn’t even dared to cross by. After arriving in the Square, he made for the edge of the crowd, nearest to the shops; not moving was Merlin’s best shot at seeing him.
Arthur stood watching the festivities for at least an hour, hands going numb despite all of the radiating body heat. He checked his watch; it was only nine in the evening. The letter hadn’t specified a time, and Arthur hoped he wouldn’t be standing here until midnight.
Teeth chattering, he waited on, just watching the throngs of drunk locals and tourists, screaming and yelling, pushing and shoving, until suddenly – everything stopped.
It wasn’t that the crowd fell silent; it was much more than that. Everyone literally stopped in place, frozen in time, mid-step, mid-blink. The snowflakes falling in front of Arthur stopped in midair. He gaped and, to ensure that he could move, he reached out to touch one.
“What the hell?” He whispered, strangled, taking a step forward. Nothing in the Square moved but him. It was dead silent.
“Arthur! Hey, Arthur!”
Arthur whipped around, looking for the voice, and soon, he noticed the single movement in the crowd; there was a path being made through the throng of people; some of them were toppling over without any ability to right themselves, but it looked like the person was doing their best to keep everyone afloat, slowly but surely making his way to Arthur.
And then there was a man standing in front of him – a young man, easily less than thirty, tall and lanky, dressed in an overlarge bomber jacket and blue jeans, dark hair and stubble to match, with bright blue eyes. He winced, glancing between Arthur and the crowd he had left a little worse for wear and said in a deep, familiar voice, “that…could have probably gone smoother.”
Arthur stared at him. Handsome, tall, dark curly hair – this couldn’t possibly be…?
The man smiled at him, bright and beaming. He pointed to himself and said “Merlin. Yeah, I know. Take a second to process.”
“How –?” Arthur started, not knowing how to finish.
“Long story,” Merlin said, biting his lip with a bit of a laugh. “Um. Well, I suppose I should explain the time freezing thing first. Magic’s real? I guess that’s the best explanation.”
“Merlin,” Arthur nodded, connecting the dots, mind still not fully processing what was going on. “Magic. Right. I guess it makes sense why you named me Arthur, then.”
“Oh, no, I didn’t name you, I –”Merlin cut off with a bit of an awkward grin. “Well. I guess I technically did. You would actually be – well, Arthur Pendragon. The Once and Future King. Reborn. And all that jazz.”
Arthur wanted to react with shock, surprise, distrust, but all he could say was “Right. That…yeah. Okay. Are you – I mean – Is it weird that I think I was expecting this? Not consciously or anything, but I just – can’t think of any reason not to believe you.”
Merlin blinked at him a couple of times. “I thought that was going to be a lot harder than it was.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be an old man?” Arthur wondered aloud. “I mean – even though I knew it had to be true logically, I didn’t think you’d be old. But – I mean, I know nothing about the King Arthur myths, but – aren’t you?”
“I can turn into an old man if you really want me to,” Merlin said with a shrug, and a bit of a self-deprecating grin. “I tended to do so when I was being a creepy stalker and checking up on you. And even before you…came back, when I went to check on…well, the place you were supposed to be, I turned into an old man because it was the only time I really felt like one. I’ve retained my youthful spark rather well for someone over a thousand years old.”
“A thousand years old,” Arthur echoed, gazing at him with wide eyes. “Are you – does that mean – you said reborn. You knew me…before? In a different life?”
“Yeah,” Merlin said, wincing, eyes shifty. “Um. Do you want to maybe grab a cup of coffee or something? It’s just that keeping time frozen takes a hell of a lot of concentration and I’d like to give it all to you right now.”
“What – yeah, yeah, okay,” Arthur said, shaking his head in amazement as the people around him came to life again, the shouting and shrieks continuing as if they had never left off, movement surging back through the Square.
“Shop a few blocks down!” Merlin yelled to him over the noise, jerking his head. “Follow me!”
So Arthur followed him through the crowd, barely noticing the difficulties of it now with the onslaught of information he was being presented with.
The craziest thing was, Arthur believed him. Well, there was no way he wouldn’t take the man seriously what with the ability to freeze time, but Arthur should at least be taking all of these words with a grain of salt.
And yet, Merlin’s nervous smile was so familiar in a way that nothing else in Arthur’s life ever had been. And there was the fact that Arthur hadn’t been expecting anything logical, that everything presented to him had fallen into place as if it made perfect sense, and how could that be possible if it wasn’t the truth?
They finally got to a tiny coffee shop on the corner, and even though it was still busy, Merlin made a shooing gesture with his fingers and a table cleared up for them immediately.
“Handy trick,” Arthur chuckled nervously as he sat down opposite the other man, who looked at Arthur in a way that no one ever had, like he was precious and wonderful, like the sun rose and set with his words. Arthur had to look away. “Um – you were going to tell me. About us knowing each other.”
“Right,” Merlin nodded, inhaling nervously. “Well, uh, you were – my king, obviously. And – and my friend, too. I – I mean, I knew you better than pretty much anyone else.”
“What was I like?” Arthur asked without thinking, and immediately regretted it, but Merlin just looked curiously over at him, a half-smile twisting up on his face.
“You were an arrogant ass,” Merlin said with such a fond tone that Arthur couldn’t even be offended. “Too noble for your own good. Self-sacrificing. Honest. A good king. A good man.”
Arthur looked at his hands. He barely knew who he was on most days, could barely describe himself when interviewing for a job. It seemed like he was just a ghost most of the time, but this –
“Can I ask why you believe me?” Merlin shook his head in wonderment. “This is nothing like I was expecting.”
“This feels like exactly what I was expecting,” Arthur told him with a sigh. “Like…nothing else mattered in my life up until now. The group home, foster care, my job –”
“Sorry about the group home,” Merlin winced, choosing now to tear his eyes away from Arthur’s. “I really…I mean, I couldn’t raise you. Despite what the stories say, I am most definitely not your father figure. Hey, maybe the whole foster care system got all of that arrogance out of your system!”
“Doubt it,” Arthur said, voice growing stronger, and he couldn’t say why. “No one ever wanted to play with me because I bossed them around too much.”
“See, the difference is that back in the day, they had to play with you because you were the prince,” Merlin said with a roll of his eyes, “and it gave you a very inflated sense of self. I tried my hardest to puncture it – I was met with minimal success.”
“If you weren’t my father figure, what were you?” Arthur asked, a part of him already knowing the answer.
“I’m…well, your friend,” Merlin looked at his hands, but he was smiling, and Arthur smiled a bit, too. “Your best friend. So I’m sorry if you came here looking for a father figure. That’s really not me at all.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Arthur said immediately. “I’ve…never really had a friend before either.”
They both shot each other nervous smiles, and they went quiet for a moment, the shop still bustling around them with noise, but Arthur could barely hear it anymore.
“Why are you immortal?” Arthur finally asked. “Are you – I mean –”
“Well, a big part of it is that I was waiting for you to come back,” Merlin said, fingers drumming against the table in a nervous tic that Arthur found endearing. “But I’m always off in some place or another trying to help people – there are a lot of destinies out there that I need to fulfill, but…no matter where I am, where I’ve been, you’ve always been the part of me that’s missing. So I come back – try to look for you. And then, twenty years ago, I found you. God, you’re so young, Arthur.”
“I’m what, eight years younger than you?” Arthur challenged. “In looks, at least.”
“Thereabouts,” Merlin said with a shrug. “But…you were twenty when I met you for the first time. I was eighteen. And you were thirty when you died. So I think I’m justified in saying that God, you’re so young.”
Arthur thought about asking about how he died, but he was struck with the realization that it didn’t really matter, because he was alive now. Alive to fulfill one of these destinies Merlin was on about.
“What happens now?” Arthur asked him. “I mean – with us?”
Merlin hesitated, his mouth wavering slightly. “I – as far as the world goes, I don’t know. You were supposed to come back when Albion’s need is greatest. I figured we could wait twenty years, because absolutely nothing eventful happened in the first twenty years of your life the first time – no offense.”
“None taken,” Arthur snorted, wondering if Merlin was always this irreverent and immediately answering his own question with yes.
“As far as we go,” Merlin said, and now he looked at the ground, almost as if he was forcing words out, “I’ve spent a thousand years missing you. So…if you’ll let me come back to Liverpool with you…if you’ll come wherever I go next with me…I don’t care, I just want to see you every day again. Well, maybe every day is coming on a little strong –”
“It’s not,” Arthur said quietly, and Merlin’s eyes flickered up to his in amazement. “It’s – I feel like I’ve been waiting my entire life for you. I – I want to remember. I hope I remember. But if I don’t…I still want to be around you. I’ve never felt connected to another person before. Not like this. And I know it has to be true because – because it’s always felt like my life is a lie. Until now.”
Merlin’s hand reached forward, and he put it gently over Arthur’s. They both smiled at one another, and Arthur could tell that his own amazement and fear were reflected in Merlin’s eyes.
Arthur knew right now that he’d upend his entire life for Merlin. There was something burning between them, something the likes of which Arthur had never felt before. He always knew that he was something other than a foster child, something other than a kid whose parents abandoned him –
Ms. Corrigan had been right.
When Merlin looked at him, it was painfully obvious that Merlin loved him.
Arthur didn’t know how, or in what way, but he knew that it was true. And he knew that if he could remember, he would love Merlin, too. He had loved him.
And he would again.
And if Merlin kept looking at him like that, it would be really, really soon.
They were broken out of their reverie by the whoops of a group of teenagers who clattered into the shop, and one of the girls whooped “Two minutes, baby!”
“Is this why you asked me to meet you on New Year’s?” Arthur asked jokingly. “To get a midnight kiss?”
“God, no,” Merlin made a hilariously twisted face, and Arthur had to laugh. “I didn’t even realize that until this moment. My train of thought was new millennium! New beginnings! But that makes me sound so much more creepy and stalkerish than I already am.”
“Did…did we ever…?” Arthur began to ask hesitantly, and Merlin’s eyes widened.
“Um…no, not as such,” he said with a nervous, regretful sort of laugh. “I…We were friends. You were married. And I’ve nearly always been the definition of emotionally unavailable. We almost acknowledged…something like that. Once. In the moments before your death. But I’m absolutely rubbish at expressing my emotions, and you’re even worse, so that didn’t work out.”
Merlin’s voice was light and self-deprecating, but his lack of eye contact and true regret in his voice made Arthur falter.
“Well. We should.” Arthur jerked his head toward the clock on the wall. Merlin met his eyes in order to gape at him in shock. “If you want to.”
“Christ,” Merlin whispered, shaking his head in awe. “Maybe you shouldn’t get your memories back. I sense almost no emotional repression. That would never have happened before. We both would have danced awkwardly around the subject, you would have called me an idiot, I would have sniped at you, and we would have never mentioned it again.”
“That sounds fun, too,” Arthur said with a half-smile, liking the description.
“It was fun,” Merlin admitted with a begrudging laugh. “I lied. I do hope you remember. And trust me – I would love to kiss you.”
They didn’t wait for the clock to tick down, but they were still kissing when the new millennium rang in.
When they finally broke apart amidst all of the whoops and yells, Arthur let out a breathless sort of laugh.
“What?” Merlin asked, cheeks flushed and looking at Arthur in absolute wonderment.
“I remember everything.”