Stage 1: Shock and Denial
Merlin wasn't dead. Surely, he couldn't be. And Arthur was certain that when he woke up in the morning, everything would be just as it always would. Merlin would come in and wake him up with his all-too chipper attitude, and Arthur would groan and possibly fling something at him, but Merlin would take it all in stride. Maybe, just for good measure, Arthur could throw in an insult about his manservant's ears. Yes, that was how it would go.
Because Merlin. Wasn't. Dead. He just wasn't.
But when Arthur woke up, Merlin wasn't there. At first he was a little confused, but slowly the events of the past few days had begun to sink in.
Even as Arthur put on a fresh shirt – he hadn't yet gotten a replacement servant to help dress him – he threw his old one at the empty space where Merlin usually stood.
And his eyes took over a glazed look as the shirt hit the floor with a gentle thud.
Stage 2: Pain and Guilt
A few days went by, during which Arthur would wait for Merlin, always expecting the dark-haired man to show up, tripping over his own feet like he always did. But, after a week, Arthur realized Merlin wasn't coming.
Because Merlin. Was. Dead.
Merlin was dead, Merlin was dead… Arthur repeated it over and over in his head until he said it out loud. Until he was yelling it angrily from his chambers. Merlin was dead. Merlin was dead…
Arthur wanted to hit something. So he did. He practically tore his chambers apart. It would take days for even a team of servants to put everything back together, and Arthur knew that it would be hard to explain to his father why he needed all new furniture due to his recent angry rampage. But at that moment, Arthur couldn't have cared any less.
Merlin was dead.
But of course, Arthur could only experience this pain when he was alone. He had to put a mask on in front of everyone else, because his people couldn't see their future king in such a state over the loss of one manservant.
For a while, Arthur tried to escape from the pain. He would consume more alcohol over a short period of days than he usually did over a month. But he found that it didn't work. So instead, he stayed in his chambers whenever it was possible, avoiding everyone, even Guinevere. The less people he had to see, the better.
But, he wondered, why was this? Merlin was just a lazy, idiotic manservant…
No, Arthur realized. Merlin was more than that.
Merlin had been his friend.
Arthur felt as though he might throw up. Every terrible thing he'd ever said to Merlin came back to him in a rush. Why had he said those things to the boy? He couldn't even remember. He felt awful for not appreciating those moments… those small, tender moments which had seemed so insignificant at the time… those moments around Merlin where he didn't have to be the Prince of Camelot… those moments where he could just be Arthur. Those moments he could never have again.
Stage 3: Anger and Bargaining
For a while, Arthur took it out on his knights. He didn't care how much they hurt physically, because he knew he was hurting inside more than they could fathom. He'd lashed out at Gaius more than once, which he knew was unfair. The old man had been like a father to Merlin, so he'd understand his hurt, wouldn't he?
No. No one understood what Arthur was feeling. They simply couldn't.
Gwen had tried to talk to him, tried to help him work through his emotions. But Arthur didn't want to hear any of it. In fact, he'd spoken to her in a tone so harsh when declaring that he didn't want her help, he thought he'd seen tears building in her eyes as she turned to leave.
Arthur instantly felt even guiltier.
"Please," he would whisper, begging some unknown force to help him. "Please, I will never, ever do something unjustified ever again if you just bring him back."
Arthur would sometimes bargain his kingdom, his life, or, on one occasion, his father's. But nothing ever seemed to work.
Stage 4: Depression, Reflection, and Loneliness
Arthur had thought he'd been spending a lot of time alone before, but he hadn't been, not really. At least, not compared to this. He had all of his meals sent up to his room, and if his attendance wasn't absolutely required, he never showed up to meetings.
And sometimes he didn't even show up then.
He left feasts early. He was guarded and polite. He was distant from everyone around him.
It seemed as though he had finally realized the true magnitude of his loss. He had lost a friend; a brother. Arthur began reflecting on all the moments he and Merlin had shared that he would miss. Their joking sessions in which insults with good intentions were thrown back in forth… those moments before battles, during which Arthur would sometimes bring himself to admit that Merlin was far more than just a manservant to him. That was just in case one of them didn't come back home alive.
But it seemed that just when Arthur had been the least bit prepared, the unthinkable had actually happened.
Arthur was aching all over. His head hurt, his chest hurt, his stomach hurt, his shoulder hurt… the list of pains was never-ending. He truly felt as though this would never end.
And still could hardly believe Merlin was gone. Merlin had been the first person he could really let see who he truly was, and the way the servant had talked to him… well, any good master would have thrown him in the dungeons. But Arthur didn't mind he, he secretly relished it. Merlin treated him like a real person. And now, he didn't have that anymore. As far as he knew, he never would.
Stage 5: The Upward Turn
One morning, Arthur woke up to discover that his stomach didn't hurt; he actually had an appetite. The next morning, his headache was gone. One by one, the physical pains slowly started to disappear, but Arthur still felt rather empty inside. He was missing a part of him, a part that could never be replaced, the other side of his coin…
Yes. It was still gone. Merlin was still gone.
But, slowly, Arthur was learning to cope.
Stage 6: Reconstruction and Working Through
For Arthur, this was like a slow-burning candle. His pain would diminish, and eventually the flame would go out. Someday, it would. He realized this one day while on his way to the training fields, and he took a good, long look at his knights as he arrived. They all looked rather worse for the wear, and the look of exhaustion on their faces was clear.
Arthur nearly stopped in his tracks. This wasn't something Merlin would be proud of. If Merlin were standing next to him, Arthur decided, the skinny boy would have voiced his disapproval without a second thought.
That day, he gave all the knights the training exercises that were usually reserved for the groups of would-be knights on tryout days. The looks of exhaustion changed into ones of appreciation, and that made Arthur feel a little bit better.
Stage 7: Acceptance and Hope
For the next few days, Arthur kept going easy on the knights. He showed up to all of the meetings without complaint. He stayed for the full duration of feasts, even occasionally interacting with the visiting nobles.
He also made it a point to see Gwen whenever he could. He thoroughly apologized to her for all of his actions during his period of grief, and having the kind heart she did, she'd forgiven him. He wasn't sure if he deserved to be forgiven, though. Gwen had been Merlin's friend too; she'd felt the loss just as much as Arthur had. And yet he'd never considered her feelings. But they were all right now… or as all right as they could be.
Not all was lost without Merlin, Arthur realized. Sure, he'd never fully recover from his loss, but at least he had accepted what happened. Merlin had died… and life would go on. Life without Merlin was hard, but it would go on.
The candle, it seemed, had burned out.