When it came to Merlin, the prince and his father were in a constant state of conflict. The fight never included words, much less raised voices. Uther would never allow anybody to know that his disobedient son was flaunting his will so openly by keeping Merlin on as his manservant. It wasn't that Uther had anything against the boy--a fact he tried to convey to Arthur more than once--but the relationship was unseemly. And quite frankly, perplexing. Uther had been mentally prepared for a fling between Arthur and one of the knights, maybe Leon or Kay, because he understood that sort of thing happened with young men especially during battle. Leon was a good knight with a good future in Camelot, strong and handsome and even somewhat intelligent. He probably would have been agreeable if Arthur approached him. Leon was so obviously the superior choice, but no. Arthur insisted on carrying on with that skinny, big-eared, idiotic boy.
And he wasn't even that discreet about the affair. The relationship between prince (or king) and manservant was intimate by its very nature, thus it was absolutely necessary to maintain a wall of dignity between one's self and one's servant. Arthur maintained no such walls when it came to Merlin, who probably crawled right into Arthur’s bath to wash his back for all Uther knew. The boy followed him everywhere, even when Arthur was on errands from the king, or drilling his knights. In other words, when Arthur had no need of him. Arthur refused to lend him to any visiting nobles, refused to leave him in Camelot when he went on patrols, and he'd taken to letting Merlin out of the stocks early. Did Arthur really think Uther wouldn't notice this sort of behavior?
Arthur simply being Arthur was he most damning piece of evidence of all. Arthur was good at wiping his face blank, at standing with perfect attention, at keeping his feelings safely locked away in his chest. But he wasn't some stranger. He had Ygraine's eyes and Uther read them without trying. Arthur lit up in Merlin’s presence, and he always tracked his manservant as he worked, watching each gesture and catching every inappropriate, stupid grin. . Even when he should have been paying attention to things that mattered, like visiting guests or monthly grain reports.
Uther could dismiss Merlin, but now that Arthur was crown prince, Uther was wary of pushing too hard. His reach did extend to every corner of the kingdom, including Arthur's private life, but he became king because he understood how to pick battles he could win. So instead of inviting an open war over Arthur's childish infatuation, Uther chose a long siege of barbed looks and pointed gestured and not-so-subtle suggestions. Arthur mostly ignored him.
The stalemate may have continued indefinitely--or at least until Arthur’s obstinacy finally pushed Uther to the snapping point--but for Merlin being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After trailing like a puppy behind Arthur into dangerous battles, after drinking poison for the prince, after committing infractions that Uther might have executed him over if he were a little less patient, Arthur nearly lost Merlin to an unknown assailant in the lower town. News of the attack reached Uther hours after they discovered Merlin's body in one of the narrow alleys, unconscious and limp.. It wasn't clear what happened, but the most likely explanation was that somebody had tried to mug him, found he didn't have anything worth stealing, and beat the boy for their troubles. Uther held up his hand, stopping the daily report from the city guard.
"You mean Arthur's manservant?"
"How bad is it?"
"One deep puncture wound, several broken ribs, a goose egg on his temple, and, sire, he's lost a great deal of blood. That's what I heard from Leon. Whoever got after him must have done it with a great big stick."
"And Gaius said he may not survive until morning?"
"That is what he said to Arthur, sire."
Uther nodded, dismissed him, and returned to the stacks of papers awaiting his attention, thoughts of Merlin drifting away. He couldn't say he was overly concerned about the boy, and this might make him incapable of working for Arthur. Uther would send him home (where did he come from? Some village somewhere) with a few pieces of gold and everything would return to normal. If Arthur tried to stop Merlin from leaving, a night in the dungeon would cool his head. It wouldn't be long before he focused his attention on more deserving, and appropriate, recipients. Not that the boy wasn’t loyal. If he were less incompetent, his loyalty may have counted for a good deal more.
After supper, he summoned Arthur. Several minutes later the servant returned looking drawn and nervous. "Sire...the prince is indisposed."
"Indisposed? Where is he?"
"Ah, in his chambers, my lord. He sends his regrets," the poor boy added helplessly.
Uther growled, prompting the servant to jump back. Without another word, he stalked out of the room and up the stairs that led to Arthur's chambers. He rapped once to announce his attention, but he was the king and he didn't have to wait for any closed doors to be opened for him.
Arthur sat by the window, rumpled edges outlined by weak light. The fire was dead, and he'd only bothered with the one candle. But Uther's eyes were sharp, and he saw the dry blood on Arthur's clothes and hands and even a streak on his face. His eyes sunk deep in his head, his mouth a thin, white line.
"Hello, father. Did you come to fetch me?" Each word was whittled down until it was nothing more than a nub of sound.
"I sent a servant to fetch you. Since when are you allowed to ignore my summons?"
"My apologies." Arthur turned back to the window, and he didn't look very sorry. Uther watched, shocked as a single tear rolled down Arthur's cheek, leaving a trail of gold in the low light. Another followed, and another, each one dropping off the edge of Arthur's jaw to hit the back of his hand. "Merlin..."
Uther waited a beat for Arthur to finish that sentence, but he apparently thought saying the boy’s name counted as enough of an explanation. Arthur leaned closer to the window, shoulders slanting as he pulled in on himself. Uther recognized the slouching form, so unlike Arthur’s regular posture. He’d curled up on himself after training as a child, as if he could hide his injuries by making himself small. The sight of it tugged uncomfortably at his chest until he could only sigh and cross the wide room. By the time he reached Arthur, most of the blood had faded into the tears, streaking across his cheek in narrow, erratic strips. Uther took a rag from his pocket and held Arthur's head with one hand, using the other to clean his son's face. Arthur didn't yank away from him. Uther knew Arthur probably hadn't even noticed his gesture. His mind and his heart were in the physician's chambers, and there was nothing to do but wait.
Always at the back of Uther’s mind lurked the memory of Arthur’s birth and the long wait to hear his son’s first cry. He, a warrior almost from birth, had never been so helpless, so utterly useless. Ygraine had shouted and shrieked, her beatific voice climbing higher until it shattered in Uther’s ears as the child tried to push free of her womb. The screams had hurt him, slicing through his flesh with invisible blades, and he'd been forced to sit in the antechamber and wait. Gaius had suggested a short hunting trip, but as Ygraine’s condition had progressed, Uther found he couldn’t leave her side. By the time the child had quickened, he’d been sleeping in her room for a week. As fluid gushed from her and soaked the sheets, he’d known he couldn't help. In his desperation to help, he vowed to do anything Gaius ordered.
Gaius only sent him away.
Now the circumstances were different, but Arthur was just as helpless as his father had once been.
Uther slid down the wall beside Arthur and settled on the floor. Arthur looked down from his spot on the window, as if he were surprised to see Uther at all, much less on the floor at his feet. It wasn't exactly dignified, Uther knew, but it wasn’t without precedent. He used to sit with Arthur when he was a child, filling the dark winter days with Arthur’s blue eyes and his eager love. Uther ordered the fire built up until it was positively roaring and the two of them played with Arthur's intricately carved knights and horses, reenacting certain battles, recreating strategies. There was more room to maneuver on the floor, and Uther had spent a surprising number of hours doing exactly that.
"Come here," Uther said, trying to soften the order a little.
Arthur sank to the floor, tears still flowing freely. Uther felt if he were to be a good father and a good king, he would tell Arthur to stop sniveling like a woman. He couldn't have the prince crying so pathetically over a manservant. But Arthur wasn't sniveling. He didn't make a sound, he just let the tears cascade from his eyes. He wasn't pathetic, either. The tears indicated his emotions were out of control, but Uther recognized his fear. He also recognized that this was Arthur being very much in control of himself, suppressing every useful and destructive bit of rage until it was safe to act on it. It was either cry or scream. Cry or destroy. Uther knew something about crying in the privacy of his own chambers.
"Gaius is an excellent physician."
"He's so...broken. What was he even doing down there?"
Who knew why peasants did the things they did? Especially ones as mentally deficient as Merlin? But in deference to his son's feelings, Uther didn't voice those thoughts. Instead, he put a comforting arm around Arthur's shoulders and watched as more tears rained down. The sense of helplessness returned. He hadn't been able to save Ygraine for himself, and he couldn't save Merlin for Arthur. Watching Ygraine slip away destroyed him, knowing she would never smile at their son, would never laugh or cry, would never hold him, would never be the queen Camelot needed. Thinking hurt. His tears were gone, perhaps forever. He could only act, blade slashing until the world was colored crimson. Everything beautiful in his life had been stolen away from him, and how could there be light after that? How could there be joy? He'd failed her by virtue of the fact he couldn't be all things to her, including her savior. If he couldn’t save, he would destroy.
Half of Camelot had burned after that, and not a single cry could soften the stone that replaced his heart. What did their lives matter when his beautiful wife would never draw another breath? He'd wished he could burn it all. He would have burned the entire world if he could, and sometimes, he still dreamed of flames. But there had been Arthur, and if Uther destroyed the world in his grief, what would he give to his child, his heir? Camelot, maybe even Albion, could thank Arthur for the reprieve.
"I'm going to find who did this.” They spoke a common language, the two men who oversaw Camelot, and Uther heard everything beneath the declaration. He was asking permission, he was stating his intention, he was plotting blood vengeance.
"Yes, I expect you will. What if you can’t find him in Camelot?”
“Then I’ll keep looking.”
“What if here’s more than one?”
“I’ll kill them all.” Arthur looked up, his face both old and young, trying to be determined and defiant under all the tears. "And when he’s better, I'm going to move Merlin to the chambers next to mine."
Uther nodded. Love was a terrible thing. If Uther could purge it from Camelot along with magic, he would. He'd never wish it on Arthur. But it was also an unstoppable thing, and even Uther didn't believe himself great enough to end it.
"He'll always…belong to you, Arthur."
The closest thing to a promise, to any reassurance, Uther could give him. History would always know Ygraine as Uther Pendragon's wife and the mother of his child. The two of them would be joined by name until all names turned to dust and there was nobody left to remember Camelot or the king that ruled over it for over twenty-five years. History wouldn't remember a simple manservant like Merlin, though. Nobody would remember him except Arthur, so the least Uther could do was promise not to be the one responsible for separating them.
Arthur eventually fell asleep there on the floor, his head resting on Uther's shoulder. What wouldn’t he give Arthur? His crown, his kingdom, his sword, his life—none of it was enough. He’d cut his own heart out of his chest for Arthur’s sake. If anybody ever managed to take Arthur from him, vengeance would wash over the land in a great, red wave. It wasn’t something Uther thought about often, but it was a central truth of his life he’d accepted the minute he held his baby in his arms.
Uther's back hurt against the cold stone and his knees weren't happy, either, but it didn't occur to him to move. Early the next morning, before dawn roused the castle from its slumbers, Gaius knocked on the door.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I can come back."
Uther shook his head and beckoned him over. He pushed himself to his feet, struggling against the stiffness in his lower back and legs. "Is it Merlin?"
Arthur started awake at mention of Merlin's name, and he did not have the same difficulty standing.
"What is it? Is he okay?" Arthur demanded, his voice only a little hoarse from sleep.
Gaius held up a reassuring hand. "He will be recovering for awhile, but he's through the worst of it. He should be himself within a fortnight."
"Excellent news!" Uther announced, earning a surprised look from both Arthur and Gaius.
"I want to see him," Arthur said.
"He's sleeping now. But I'll be happy to send a messenger when he wakes up."
"No, I want to see him now."
That was the end of that discussion. Arthur marched out of the room, his hair and clothes in utter disarray. Uther winced a little at the display, wishing Arthur had at least washed his face. Merlin wasn’t going anywhere.
"I was surprised to find you here, sire."
"Arthur had a long night."
"Yes, I imagine it must have been. But I thought..."
"Be sure to tell him he's expected at the advisor's meeting this afternoon. And tell him to look presentable."
Uther retired to his own chambers to for a long, hot soak and a change of clothes. By the time he saw Arthur again, the younger man had changed and scrubbed his skin. All of the sadness and fear from the night before was gone. Arthur nodded slightly as their eyes met across the table, Uther responding without quite moving his head. He didn't understand why Arthur chose Merlin, but the choice had been made.
Honestly, Uther had bigger things to worry about anyway.