Five days ago, Uther died.
It was a quiet death, nothing suspicious about it. The king simply slipped away in his sleep during the night, and was not to be roused the next morning, or ever again.
Three days ago, the funeral was held.
Arthur stood, proud and regal and strong, the very picture of the man who would be crowned king once the week of mourning had passed. He wore his black, and kept his back straight, and was the very image of composure in the face of death, ready to take whatever the world threw at him.
That is what he looked like from the outside. On the inside, things were very different. Arthur felt that he was falling apart. He wanted to rage and scream and throw things and hit people, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t proper, wasn’t what was expected of him.
Five days ago, Uther died.
Tonight, Arthur snapped.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Merlin asked. The quiet, even voice his servant spoke in set Arthur’s teeth on edge. Gwen, the knights, Merlin, Gaius – they’d all been tiptoeing around him. It made Arthur want to hit things even more.
“No,” Arthur said.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, choosing now of all times to grow perception and noticing Arthur’s growing tension. “If you ever need to talk –”
“What?” Arthur said, barking the word out, “What, Merlin? What will you do?”
“Listen,” said Merlin. “I’ll listen.”
“Shut up,” Arthur growled, staring down at his hands. “This doesn’t concern you, Merlin.”
“I know,” said Merlin, “But I’m just saying, I can –”
“Stop pretending that you understand what I’m going through! You don’t even have a father, or at least one that matters. You know nothing about this,” Arthur snarled, “How could you even fathom it? My father is dead, Merlin, and there is no way that a bastard like you could ever hope to understand.”
At the word ‘bastard’ Merlin went stiff and pale, and he said quietly, “Don’t call me that.”
“Why not? That’s what you are, isn’t it?” Arthur said, the words slipping out before he could register. Arthur hurt, hurt so badly and he lashed out, hitting the closest target. “Merlin the bastard, without a father to –”
The punch was completely unexpected, flying in from the red misted rage that Arthur had sunk beneath. Later, he would credit being startled, his surprise at the hit, for sending him staggering backwards, landing heavily on the floor. Later, he would admit that he’d completely deserved that smack to the jaw. For now, Arthur blinked up at Merlin, who was towering over him, anger radiating out from his set shoulders and his gritted jaw.
“Do not,” Merlin snarled, “Don’t call me that.”
“You hit me,” Arthur said, reaching up and poking the corner of his mouth. He was bleeding a bit. He still couldn’t quite process what had just happened. “Merlin, did you just hit me?”
Merlin opened his mouth to answer, but stopped. Instead, he turned on his heel and marched away. He ripped open the door, slamming it behind him. The noise reverberated through the room. Arthur sat on the floor, fingers still poking at the small bit of blood where a tooth had caught on his lip. As the minutes passed, the anger drained out of Arthur, leaving nothing but the guilty thudding of his heart. He tried to tell himself that Merlin had provoked him into saying those things. He tried to tell himself that this was Merlin’s fault, not his, that Merlin was the one who had punched him in the face. He tried to tell himself that everything he had just done was justified.
The only thing he managed to convince himself of, however, was that he – Arthur – was an ass who completely deserved getting smacked in the mouth like that.
He heaved himself to his feet, and walked out into the hall to try and find Merlin. It took nearly an hour, and the night was good and dark by the time that Arthur finally found his manservant. Merlin was leaning against the wall that stood over the main gate to the castle, watching the silent lower town below. Arthur stood still for a moment, feeling awkward and ashamed and uncertain.
Finally, unable to find the words, he cleared his throat. Merlin jumped slightly, and turned around. When he saw Arthur, he jerked his eyes away and stared at the ground. Arthur moved so that he was standing next to him. “I think,” said the prince, “That we probably need to have a talk.”
“I’d rather not,” said Merlin quietly.
“Too bad,” said Arthur, because he was here now and he had never ran away from danger. He had not intention of starting now.
“Arthur, you’ve just lost your father and you aren’t thinking straight and I’m sorry that I hit you,” Merlin said, staring resolutely at the grass, “But, please, leave me alone. We can talk tomorrow if you’d like, but if you don’t leave me be for tonight, we’re both going to probably end up saying things we’ll regret.”
“No,” said Arthur, “No, I think we need to talk about this now.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Do you have any idea how hard it was growing up for me?” Merlin snapped, turning away so that he was facing towards the lower town below. One of his hands curled into a fist. “I was the only one in Ealdor not to have a father. Not because he’d died. Not because he’d been sent away. Only because he wasn’t there and hadn’t married my mother. I heard that word all my life, and I didn’t know what it meant, not for the longest time. I knew it was a bad thing, and then when I found out what it was, I – and then you went and called me that.”
“Merlin, I –”
“Look at the bastard, they’d say. Hasn’t a father in the world, they’d say. Like it was my fault that he wasn’t around, like it was –” Merlin cut off, swallowing roughly, and then said, “And the other parents wouldn’t let their kids near me for very long, as if they were worried that it was catching. No one except for Will’s father. And even him, he’d call me that. Hunith’s little bastard. And he’d laugh, like it was something hilarious that I didn’t have a father. And it hurt. It hurt like someone had hit me in the stomach. It’s bad enough that my father wasn’t – but then, every day, people would throw that word around like it was nothing and that hurt, Arthur. Every day there was someone reminding me about what they had that I didn’t. And it made me feel smaller than anything else ever has. Ever.”
Arthur didn’t say anything, only felt the shame growing heavier and heavier and draping over his shoulders. He remembered going to Ealdor. He remembered thinking, the thought fleeting and vague, how odd it was that the only villagers to really talk to Merlin had been Will and Hunith. How he had found that strange, seeing how bright and cheerful Merlin was, how he had wiggled down beneath the collective skin of Camelot, inspiring loyalty wherever he happened to look at. But, then, Arthur hadn’t known about the absence of Merlin’s father. He hadn’t known.
“You’re the prince. I don’t – I don’t expect you to – I don’t want your pity,” Merlin said, pushing a small bit of loose rock around with his finger on top of the wall. “I only –No one, no one, has made me feel like that since coming here. I mean, no one really knew about that, but…Gwen and Morgana, they probably figured it out. At least that he wasn’t around. And Gaius. And you. But no one ever – not until tonight. Not in Camelot.”
“I’m sorry,” said Arthur, the words heavy and foreign in his mouth, “I wasn’t thinking straight. And it isn’t just you who can’t understand, it’s everyone. I can’t – it would be seen as weakness if I actually behaved the way I feel. It’s like a hole’s been ripped open in my chest and I – I’m sorry, Merlin. It’s just that he’s gone and I’m not allowed to grieve for him as much as I need to. I lashed out at you, and I’m sorry.”
Throughout his apology, Merlin’s face had gone blanker and blanker, jaw going tighter and tighter as he grit his teeth together, and Arthur couldn’t help but think that that was the opposite of what was supposed to be happening.
“Merlin?” he said, “Are you listening to me, I said I was –”
“I met my father, once,” Merlin said, abruptly, “Gaius told me who he was, and I went and I met him.”
Arthur could only gape. His thoughts were running relays and spinning cartwheel round and round his skull. “What?” he finally managed, “When? Merlin, how –When was this? Why didn’t you tell me? I – what –“
“His name was Balinor,” Merlin said shortly. He pushed the bit of rock off of the side of the ledge, watching it fall away towards the shadowed ground below. “So don’t you dare suggest that I don’t know what it is to lose a father and not be allowed to mourn him. Don’t you dare.”
“Merlin,” Arthur tried, but stopped as Merlin flicked his eyes up to look at him, dark blue, familiar eyes that suddenly were too old and too weary to have any business of being on Merlin’s face.
“Like I said,” Merlin whispered, any semblance of a fight gone from his words, “Saying things that I regret. I – I’m going to go. We can – tomorrow, if you’d like.”
Merlin turned on his heel and walked away, hugging himself slightly and shivering against a nonexistent wind.
Arthur didn’t stop him, and stayed leaning against the wall. He didn’t move until the sun started to rise over the lower town.