Chapter 6 – Never Stop Searching
Arthur sighed wearily, dropping tiredly onto the edge of his bed in Buckingham Palace. His lunch with his father and the Prime Minister, and, unexpectedly, his step-sister Morgana, the Duchess of Edinburgh, had been even more stressful than he had expected it to be. As well as facing the usual hints about his lack of romantic life, which the press had noted frequently since he had been seventeen, and infuriatingly speculative glances from Morgana, Arthur had also been presented with a stack of booklets relating to various charities, so that he could select a single cause to which he could dedicate the annual Prince's Charity Christmas Ball.
Therefore, after merely ten minutes of perusing through information about the usual famous charities – the RSPCA, the Red Cross, Help the Heroes, Diabetes UK, and the NSPCC, to name just a few – Arthur was almost relieved when Morgana waltzed into his room, closing the door behind her, and sat down on the sofa opposite his bed, watching him expectantly.
"Can I help you, Morgana?" Arthur asked after a moment, dropping a leaflet about OXFAM down onto the pile of rejected charities and picking up another, this time about a charity Arthur had never even heard of, called NSS.
"What's going on with you?" Morgana asked, peering at him quizzically, as if he was a particularly confusing textbook she was determined to understand. "Something's on your mind."
Arthur had known Morgana and her younger sister Morgause since they were both seven years old, when his father had begun a relationship with her mother, Princess Maria Gorlois of Belgium, and they had become step-siblings a year later. While Morgause (now Duchess of Kent) had chosen to be educated in America following her mother's death ten years ago, when Arthur and Morgana were both fifteen, and Morgause was just thirteen, Morgana had stayed in England with Arthur and Uther, becoming, over the years, as only a loving sibling could, both Arthur's greatest antagonist and his closest confidant. The fact that she had an uncanny ability to detect when he had something which he might wish to confide certainly helped her with the second point.
"It's a long story." Arthur said, abandoning any hope of pretending nothing was going on with one glance of Morgana's severely raised eyebrow.
"Well then." Morgana said. "It's a good thing we're royalty and don't have to rush to clock into work, isn't it?"
Arthur stared, wondering how much he should say.
"I've kind of... taken somebody in." He said simply. "Someone who had nowhere else to go."
"I see." Morgana responded enigmatically. "Care to explain where you found this stray?"
"In the mental hospital." Arthur told her, cringing and waiting for the explosion.
The explosion never came.
"I see." Morgana said again. "Are they okay?"
"He's doing alright, I suppose." Arthur responded. "I've hired a residential nurse for him. I just... I don't know what I'm doing. He's only been out one night, and I don't know if the way he's been is normal for him, or if he's just adjusting to life outside the hospital, or if I'm doing something wrong."
"Oh, Arthur." Morgana sighed, moving to sit next to Arthur on the bed. "Whatever's going on, I'm sure you're doing your best. You're not really the type to go into anything half-arsed."
"What if my best isn't enough."
Morgana stared, startled by the uncharacteristic vulnerability in Arthur's voice.
"Just be there for him." The Duchess replied. "Just be there for him, and that will be enough."
Arthur froze outside the door to the Acton house, the key held dumbly in the lock, staring at the leaflet gripped tightly in his left hand. How had he not noticed that? All through the talk with Morgana, the telephone call to Paul, the car journey back, how had he failed to realise that he was still clutching the leaflet about Never Stop Searching?
He slowly let himself into the house and walked through to the lounge, still staring at the booklet as he lowered himself into an armchair with a mumbled greeting to Merlin, who was sitting on the sofa clutching a mug of tea. Shaking his head briefly to clear his mind, Arthur began to read.
NSS was a charity raising money for the families of missing people, both children and adults, to help them cope and to fund the continued search for their loved ones once the authorities had given up hope. A quick read over the information about the charity told Arthur that it had been established by a woman whose teenaged son had disappeared during the night several years earlier, and had been given up on by the police after just six months.
Sighing deeply in thought, Arthur's eyes fell on Merlin. His files had said that he had been in the hospital since he was fourteen years old. Where were his family? Did he have parents? Brothers or sisters? Grandparents who missed him? What was his mother going through, wondering whether her son was alive or dead? Would things have been different for him if there had been a fund available to help reunite him with his family? Did he even want to be found?
Arthur focused on Merlin's face to see the other man watching him curiously, his brow furrowed. The Prince hesitated, wondering whether to voice the question on his mind.
"What happened to your family?" He blurted out, cringing as he saw Merlin's jaw drop.
"Why?" Merlin asked suspiciously.
"I'm just curious." Arthur assured him, folding the leaflet and tucking it into his pocket before walking over to sit next to Merlin on the sofa. "I won't try to interfere, I was just wondering how you ended up in the hospital."
Merlin stared for a moment before speaking.
"I ran away." He said. "Just after my fourteenth birthday. The guy who... He was my mum's lodger. My dad died when I was a baby and she'd worked really hard to support us both when I was little, and then when I was nine she got this lodger. I couldn't tell her what he was doing. She couldn't afford to lose the money. And... I didn't want her to know. She was all I had, and I didn't want her to look at me and see a victim, or to think I was weak or pathetic or stupid. I think I was scared she wouldn't believe me. Why would she? I had no proof. So, one night, after he'd left me for the night, I got dressed, took a loaf of bread from the kitchen, and I left. I haven't been back since. I just lived on the streets for a few months"
Arthur sat in silence for a moment, taking in the sad, faraway look in Merlin's eyes before speaking. "God, Merlin, I'm so sorry."
"It's ok." Merlin said with a shrug. "I don't think I regret it."
"You don't think you regret it?" Arthur replied.
"Well I miss my mum." Merlin said, placing his now empty mug on the coffee table and curling up against Arthur. "And my uncle. But I'm ok."
"You should be more than ok." Arthur said, holding Merlin tightly. He imagined hugs were something he hadn't experienced a lot of in the last few years. "You should be happy. You shouldn't have had to sleep rough or spend years in some hell-hole hospital."
"It's fine." Merlin assured him. "For one thing it turns out council tax living on the streets is a freaking bargain."
Arthur snorted, pulling back slightly to peer down in amusement at Merlin's face. Merlin looked back up at him, his eyes sparkling with a hint of mirth, his face flushed and content, and Arthur suddenly found it difficult to breathe. He'd had thoughts and urges about other men before, at Eton and St Andrews, but they had always been easy to quash, overshadowed by knowledge of his responsibility, the requirement to marry and produce an heir, and hyperawareness of how much of a field day the press would have if they found out. Now, though, looking down at Merlin, he was sorely tempted to just say sod it all, throw all of that out of the window, and kiss him.
Merlin was beautiful. There was no other word for it. He was such a strange, perfect mess of contradictions: pale and dark; funny and sad; vulnerable and oh so brave. Arthur found himself wanting to both protect him and show him off, telling everybody 'Look at this man. This brave, wonderful man you were happy to abandon and forget. Look at him and think about what a waste that would have been.'
Arthur blinked, unsure of how long he had been staring. Had it been ten seconds or ten minutes. He had unconsciously drifted forwards, until his lips were just a couple of centimetres from Merlin's. Merlin was watching him carefully, glancing from Arthur's eyes to his lips and back again, his tongue darting out briefly to lick his lips before disappearing again.
Arthur jumped up, backing away quickly, his eyes never leaving Merlin's face. He stared for a moment, trying to think of something – anything – he could say to explain himself. Finally, he shook his head desperately and darted from the room, ignoring Gwen, who stood in the doorway, stunned, apparently having witnessed the entire scene.
A/N: After reading this chapter please remember families who really are missing loved ones. Madeleine McCann has been missing for more than four years. Keep looking for her, follow findmadeleine on Twitter, and if you can, donate to the Find Madeleine fund or buy Kate McCann's book to help fund the search for her.