“You mean he is already showing signs of magical powers at age four?” Uther asks, surprised. Gaius nods at him as they watch Arthur play with the older boy across the nursery. Arthur is dressed as a super hero, red cape trailing behind him, blond hair almost white in the sunshine. He holds his tattered stuffed rabbit loosly in his left hand and regards the red-haired boy shyly.
“And you are saying his father is a wizard also?” Uther asks. The red-haired boy tries to share his train toy with Arthur, who backs a step away and does not take the toy.
“As was his grandfather before him.” Gaius says, bestowing a smile upon Arthur’s new play mate, who looks to the adults in the room for reassurance when Arthur fails, yet again, to play along.
“That’s promising.” Uther says, nodding. “Is there any other indication that he might be the one?”
“Not as yet, Your Majesty.”
“Have you told my father?” Uther asks Gaius. Growing tired of the red-haired child’s advances, Arthur finally runs from him and across the room into his father’s arms. Uther lifts his son with a smile, swinging him into the air and kissing his cheeks until Arthur is giggling and trying to get away from Uther’s embrace.
“No, the King doesn’t know.”
“Good. I do not want to mention it unless we’re sure.” Uther says, taking his son back to where the other boy is playing and trying the introduction again.
“But I thought Grandfather was King.” Arthur says, clearly confused.
“He was, but I will become King tomorrow.” Uther says, moving aside and making room in his chair for his son. Arthur’s bright hair has dulled to a rich golden as he’s aged and he is tall for six years old, but he feels terribly small and fragile in Uther’s embrace.
“Who will be King after you, Father?” Arthur asks, pushing himself further into Uther’s arms. His old stuffed rabbit has seen better days, but Arthur still carries it most places. Uther takes the toy and gives it a cuddle, eliciting a smile from his son.
“You will be King.” Uther replies, giving the rabbit back to Arthur and placing a kiss on the top of both of their heads.
“Me?” Arthur asks, and in his voice is all the eagerness and uncertainty that Uther feels on this, the eve of his Coronation.
“Yes, you will be King, Arthur, but not for a very long time.” Before Arthur can reply there is a knock on Uther’s door. “Come in.”
“Good evening, Your Highness.” Gaius says, entering Uther’s room with a sheaf of paper in one hand and a very excited look on his face. “I have found some further information.”
“Tell me.” Uther says, suddenly invigorated, rising to meet Gaius and leaving Arthur alone on the chair behind him. Uther and Gaius converse rapidly in hushed voices. Arthur, growing tired of trying to understand their dicsussion, finally falls asleep alone in Uther’s chair, clutching his old stuffed rabbit to his chin and breathing deeply his father’s familiar cologne.
The new kid is younger than Arthur by a good few years and seems incredibly nervous. His parents seem even more nervous, perhaps having a better understanding of what it means to be a private guest of the King at a Royal Garden Party. Arthur tries to make the kid feel comfortable, having plenty of experience meeting with and talking to strangers, but the kid still shies away. Eventually Arthur gives up and goes to play with his actual friends.
It isn’t as though the boy will be around for long any way. Once Uther and Gaius change their mind about him he won’t ever be seen at The Palace again. That’s just how it goes. Still, Percy and Leon try to include the boy, though he remains quiet and off to the side until Morgana starts talking to him when the boy shows a greater interest. This annoys Gwaine who always wants all of Morgana’s attention to himself, and it annoys Arthur, too, because Arthur always wants all of Gwaine’s attention to himself.
Gaius joins Uther before the end of the party, shaking his head, no. Uther very kindly and politely dismisses the young boy and his parents and they leave looking more confused than they had when they arrived. Arthur, at least, is pleased he didn’t spend too much time getting to know them.
In the distance is the sound of a helicopter approaching. Arthur barely looks up from the cards in his hands until his phone buzzes three text alerts in rapid succession and he sets down the cards to look at it.
Arthur makes a sound of disgust and rolls his eyes. Morgana, her interest piqued, takes the phone out of Arthur’s hand and, at Arthur’s silent prompting, reads the messages out loud. Lancelot laughs heartily as he lifts a card from the pile between them, taking great care to ensure no one can read his hand.
[text from King to Arthur: Visitor incoming. Please offer courteous accommodation. He is a wizard as was his father before him.]
“Didn’t you come to France to get away from Uther and his matchmaking?” Morgana asks, handing Arthur back his phone and sipping her gin and tonic. Arthur keeps his eyes on the approaching helicopter with a scowl.
“He sure did. He was a lawyer this time, wasn’t he? Awfully boring.” Leon says, looking critically at each of the card players as though trying to guess their cards. Finally he turns to Gwaine and asks, “Do you have any jacks?”
“Go fish.” Gwaine says, and Leon takes a card from the pile with a sigh. “I thought he was an accountant.” Gwaine says, then turns to Arthur with a devilish smile on his face, “Arthur, do you have any kings?”
The table explodes into laughter and Arthur, rolling his eyes dramatically, hands over the playing card. At some point during their holiday someone has taped tabloid images of Arthur’s face over all four kings in the deck of cards.
“Maybe he’ll be lovely.” Morgause says, shrugging her shoulders gracefully. Arthur makes a sound of indignation. “What?” Morgause asks, looking around at the circle. Morgana, taking pity on her, pats Morgause’s shoulder in a sympathetic gesture.
“They’re never lovely.” Gwaine says, shaking his head.
“Nope.” Leon adds. “Remember that one with the glass eye?”
“Remember that one that was old enough to be Arthur's grandfather?” Gwaine adds, laughing.
“Now, be fair, sometimes they’re not that bad.” Lancelot adds, always magnanamous.
“Easy for you to say, you aren’t supposed to ‘unite’ with them.” Arthur says, petulant, rearranging the cards in his hand and glancing moodily at the helicopter.
“Unite?” Morgause asks.
“Uther believes in a mythical magical being and has spent Arthur’s entire life setting him up with people in the hope that it might be them. It’s sad, really. Especially since we don’t even think they exist.”
“Made Arthur’s coming out as gay pretty unremarkable, though.” Gwaine says, as though this is the silver lininig they were all waiting on. “Even with thie sucession crisis.”
“Can we please change the subject?” Arthur asks, then turns to Leon, “Do you have any nines?”
“Go fish. Maybe ‘unite’ doesn’t mean what you’re thinking it means.” Leon says, but this point has been raised before.
“Of course it does,” Arthur begins, but Gwaine cuts him off.
“It means shagging!” As the whole table collapses into laughter again, Arthur leaves to get another drink. Behind him he can hear Morgause asking more questions. Ordinarily he would be annoyed, because he’s answered all of the questions a million times, and he’d come to France, as Leon had said, to get away from all of this, but Morgause is new to the group and Morgana’s girlfriend on top of that, so he tries to be more patient.
“But you said he’s been trying Arthur’s whole life? Surely he didn’t think ‘unite’ then, that’s vile.”
As Morgana tries to explain Uther’s apparent motives, Arthur downs his drink and wonders exactly how he is going to get out of entertianing the visitor this time. Their yacht is anchored somewhere off the Côte D'azur, a few miles from the mainland. The sun is splitting the sky and Arthur is absolutely roasting. On all sides they are surrounded by glittering blue water. Arthur would much rather be out in that water swimming than waiting on deck to welcome a stranger he’ll likely not be interested in at all and who'll likely be gone from their lives in a hurry in any case. Besides, it's too hot in the sun.
“Is that why King Constantine made magic legal again? So that Arthur’s mythical match guy wouldn’t have to hide?” Morgause asks.
“We think so.” Morgana says, looking around at everyone.
“Seems to be the only good thing that’s come from my Father’s obsession.” Arthur says, leaning his back against the bar. The card game has been abandoned in light of the conversation and the fact that the helicpoter is landing at the stern of the ship.
“You’re pro-magic, then?” Morgause asks, and Arthur knows she has rather a lot riding on the answer being a quite promising witch herself.
“I think I would be even if it were still illegal.” Arthur says, truthfully. “It’s come in handy in my life, historically.”
“You mean Gaius and Nimueh? They’ve been at The Palace since before you were born, haven’t they?” Morgause asks, shielding her eyes from the sun. Arthur just nods. As a group they all regard the helicopter pad where a young man with long blond hair is alighting from the helicopter, head down.
“Christ.” Gwaine swears, loudly, then digs in his pocket for a £10 note which he hands over the table to Morgana with a pained sigh.
“I told you the next one would be blond.” Morgana smiles, flaunting her winnings. “Sorry, Arthur.”
Arthur doesn’t even pause. He throws his cards on the table and turns from the group, lifting his sticky shirt off as he goes. He passes two members of the Royal Protection Command and nods at them. How anyone can wear a black suit in this heat...
Behind him Arthur can hear his friends calling his name, but he ignores them. He stands for only a moment on the edge of the deck, rolling his shoulders to rid himself of the weight of his destiny, feeling his stresses dissolve, before he dives head-first into the crystal waters. A long swim in the deep sea will relax him for certain. He will leave his friends to make their introductions and awkwardly explain away his absence. He probably won’t even introduce himself to this potential match. His father has crossed every line imaginable by sending someone here to meet with him while he is on holiday, and Arthur is burnt by the injustice of it all. So instead, he swims.
It isn’t that he is opposed to any of these men in principle, and certainly he is not put off by their being magic users, it’s just that as soon as Uther discovers they aren’t acutally the person he’s looking for, he sends them away and they’re never heard from again. Arthur had learned very quickly not to get too attached.
“He is a wizard, as was his father before him." is a sentence Arthur has heard quite enough already in his lifetime. However, no matter how often Arthur turns these men down, or how adamant he is with his father that, regardless of the existence of any legendary being of pure magic, Arthur shall choose his own companions in this life, thank you, his Father insists upon continuing in his quest.
No one is on deck when Arthur climbs from the water. Morgana must have suggested they retreat indoors due to the blistering afternoon heat. This suits Arthur well as he won’t have to speak to anyone on the way to his cabin. He towels off quickly and seeks out his mobile phone to send a text to his father.
[text from Arthur to King: Coming back early. Too warm in France. Others staying. Speak soon. Arth.]
After which Arthur descends into his cabin to pack his bag.
Everything is in darkness. Merlin sits on the edge of the bed, eyes closed, feeling his world fall away beneath him.
A spread of papers beside him on the bed go a long way to explain his despair. There are multiple envelopes stamped with large red OVERDUE notices. Beside this a thick sheaf of legal papers representing the repossession of his mother's home, and on top of all of that a single piece of paper: The Order of Service from his mother's funeral. It had been a brief, albeit well-attended, affair. Merlin had gallantly made it through half of his speech before he had had to be led from the room while he broke down in unrelenting sobs.
Next to that mournful piece of paper sits an opened envelope out of which spills a hastily-read letter and a handful of train tickets which will, eventually, lead him all the way to London.
The obituary Merlin clutches in his hand has been cut from the local paper. It doesn't explain Hunith Emrys as Merlin had known her, not the wonderful person his mother had been. It mostly focuses on her recent, brief and apocalyptic illness.
It doesn't even mention Merlin's late father.
On the floor at Merlin's feet lies a drab brown duffel bag into which Merlin has placed all of his most treasured possessions; his sketchbooks and pencils, his mother's jewellery, his father's books (which he had only recently discovered tucked away into a shadowy recess of the loft), and Merlin's only photograph of his parents together - his father looking young and arrogant in his Brigadier uniform and his mother positively glowing in her wispy ivory wedding gown.
The portrait he had drawn of his mother is tucked into his small, worn leather shoulder bag.
Time passes, but it doesn't disrupt Merlin, who simply sits there, thinking. Someone enters the room very quietly and Merlin only looks up when he hears the sound of glass clinking.
Will sits down cross-legged on the floor and cracks open a bottle of Johnnie Walker, pouring out two generous servings and handing one to Merlin.
Merlin drinks it down without pausing and then holds the empty glass out for a refill. Will, who is sipping his drink more casually, obliges.
After a few long moments of silence, Will speaks.
"Did you know that you're causing a storm out there?"
Merlin says nothing, sipping his drink.
"It's almost a hurricane. Just around your house, mind, not the whole village."
"Not my house anymore." Merlin's voice sounds like treacle on a cold day.
"Aye, I ken."
There's some more drinking and some more silence.
"I just thought you'd like to know about the storm. People are starting to talk. You might want to, I don't know, reign it in or something? Maintain a semblance of plausible deniability?"
"She's died." Merlin chokes on the words. The air around them stirs as though all the windows are open in a gale.
Merlin takes the bottle off Will and takes a long swig.
"At least she's not suffering anymore." Will says in an obvious attempt to find the silver lining.
"What am I going to do?"
"Well, you've to move to London tomorrow for a few months, then, when you can, you've to come back."
"To what, Will? What have I got left to come back to?" The air is moving more strongly now, rustling the papers on the bed.
"You've got me." Will says in an earnest voice so clouded with emotion that Merlin finally looks at him properly.
Will is soaking wet, his dark hair dishevelled and plastered to his face. His eyes are red-rimmed and fragile. Merlin has never seen Will with his guards down like this, even though they've been best friends their whole lives. The air in the room settles and the storm outside calms.
Merlin slides down off the bed and kneels in front of Will, reaching forward to push his hair back out of his eyes. When Merlin kisses him it isn't a kiss of sexual passion, but one of great comfort and deep emotion.
Will kisses him back as though he's saying goodbye forever.