Arthur doesn't like the looks Lord Cedrick keeps giving Merlin. He doesn't like them at all. And from the looks of things, Merlin doesn't like it either. Arthur can tell that Merlin is uncomfortable, but he hides it well, standing beside Gaius, looking the other way.
Arthur grips Lord Cedrick's hand firmly, almost painfully, as the Lord greets the young Prince in the court hall. Everyone is gathered to welcome the Lord but Arthur would rather be elsewhere.
Everybody around the court knows what a sleazy and tacky bastard Lord Cedrick is. Arthur never really liked the man. The last time the Lord visited he probably bedded half the servants, and tried to bed half the court, at least that was Arthur's theory at the time. But Arthur does his duty, he stands up straight and smiles stiffly as Lord Cedrick and his entourage greet the King and the court. Arthur needs to at least pretend that he likes the Lord from Mercia.
Arthur's on the edge all afternoon and it's making Merlin anxious as well, he can tell. Arthur doesn't like walking around with a bad feeling; a feeling like something's going to happen. When they're alone, in the confinement of Arthur's bedchambers, Merlin quietly suggests a small hunting trip to clear his head. Merlin can tell something is bothering him, Merlin can always tell.
"I'm fine, honestly, Merlin. Stop fidgeting."
"I'm not fidgeting." Merlin looks offended as he helps Arthur to put on his coat, but he's wearing a small smirk and it makes Arthur want to kiss that smile off his lips. So he does.
They kiss frantically for a while, caught up in their own little world, a world of want and need, and Arthur wants to smack himself as he pulls away, and by the groaning noise coming from Merlin, Arthur suspects the manservant feels the same. Arthur grins, humming softly, leaning his forehead against Merlin, closing his eyes, breathing slowly in contentment.
"I think I might go hunting for the night to clear my head after all," Arthur whispers against Merlin's lips. "But don't worry, you don't need to come with me. I think I'll just go alone."
Merlin smirks, his eyebrows high. "You're going hunting alone? The Prince of Camelot is going hunting alone?"
Arthur kisses the silly smile off Merlin's face and pushes him against the fireplace. "Why don't you make yourself useful for once while I'm gone? Start the fire, I might be late tonight, so don't wait up," Arthur struggles to sound sarcastic, but the words don't really come out sarcastic, more sincere and it makes Arthur wonder when he became so soft.
Merlin just rolls his eyes and starts working on the fireplace. Arthur hesitate by the door, turning back to look at his manservant. "Merlin?" Merlin looks up. "Be careful tonight, stay away from Lord Cedrick, his intentions aren't always good, and I did not like those looks he was giving you."
Merlin looks bemused. "Of course," he says softly and Arthur walks out of the room, trying to ignore the uncomfortable feeling in his stomach.
Arthur is happy that he has a good enough excuse to skip the dinner feast, as childish as it is, but the Prince doesn't end up coming home late after all. He ends up coming home early, the growing sensation of something uncomfortable in the pit of his stomach eliminating any chance of hunting anything. Arthur rides back to Camelot just before the sun sets and he's back in his bedchambers before the dying sun casts its last red rays across the castle. Arthur doesn't even bother to go down to the feast; he'll take the disappointment of his father in the morning.
Merlin isn't in the bedchambers as Arthur returns and he pretends, for a moment, that it doesn't bother him. Merlin's probably in his own bedchambers, doing something extremely important or perhaps idiotic. Arthur puts down his sword on the table and leans his hands against the fireplace, staring into the licking flames, trying to ignore the growing feeling that something is terrible wrong. He just knows it. He gets his answer as Merlin rushes into the bedchambers, flushed and slightly dishevelled.
Arthur doesn't understand everything about Merlin, and most of the time he takes it with a grain of salt. Merlin keeps secrets for some reason and Arthur tries to not let it get to him. Arthur gives Merlin the benefit of the doubt. Except for tonight. Tonight Arthur will not take it with a grain of salt.
"What is wrong with you?" Arthur's voice is accusatory and his eyes narrow as he takes in Merlin's appearance.
"Nothing, I'm fine," Merlin mutters, but he refuses to meet the Prince's eyes.
"Merlin, tell me what it is now."
Merlin mutters something unintelligible and Arthur groans loudly, rolling his eyes. He crosses the room, pulling Merlin against him, his lips descending upon Merlin's. His hand runs up Merlin's back, a sharp hiss of pain rips from Merlin before he pulls away. Merlin tries to look innocent, but it is way too late, Arthur is not stupid enough to fall for that.
Merlin struggles weakly against Arthur's hand but eventually he gives up and just sighs as Arthur's hand gently pushes up Merlin's tunic. Arthur gasps sharply, he can't help it, at the marks covering Merlin's side and back.
The bruises are huge, way too big to even look remotely natural on Merlin's body – who happens to get bruised quite often – and it makes something dangerous and animalistic in Arthur clench horribly. Arthur's breath hitches, the blankness in Merlin's eyes making him scared. A wave of dizziness hits Arthur and he feels the dangerous rage bubbling inside of him. He can't seem to get in enough air into his lungs, it makes him want to fall upon his knees and start gasping.
"What. Did. He. Do?" Arthur's voice is deathly low. He doesn't have to mention who they are talking about, he can tell by the expression on Merlin's face, wide eyes, blank stare, open mouth, that he knows exactly who Arthur is talking about.
"It was nothing, he didn't do anything," Merlin explains hurriedly, grabbing Arthur's arm to still him as the Prince starts to move around the room like a caged animal, something terrible and dark in his eyes.
"Then why are there bruises on your back, Merlin?" Arthur snarls dangerously, looming over Merlin threateningly, but the manservant doesn't cower back, he just stares his master, friend and lover straight in the eye. "And don't tell me that you stumbled and fell because we both know that is not true."
"He didn't do anything," Merlin says again, quietly, his voice barely above a whisper.
"But he tried," Arthur confirms, nodding slowly, already knowing the answer.
"I can look after myself, Arthur," Merlin says in a reassuring voice, grabbing Arthur's shaking shoulder. "He caught me on the way to the kitchens, said some things, tried to do some things but I pushed him off."
Arthur shakes his head, seeing red. "But he forced himself on you, didn't he? That's where the bruises come from?" Arthur needs the whole story; he needs to know what happened.
"Did he touch you?" Arthur's voice is shaking from the repressed anger.
The look in Merlin's eyes says it all before the manservant looks away, a clear pain in his face and it makes something clench furiously inside Arthur. It makes something clench inside Arthur because no one should have the right to put that kind of pain in Merlin's face. Not even a Lord. Arthur is not stupid, he knows that the Lord must've pushed Merlin around quite roughly to create bruises like that.
Anger courses through his veins intensely like wildfire. He has never felt such rage before, such complete fury, as if he will lose control any minute, his fists shaking threateningly. His teeth clenches shut and he feels an irresponsible and unfamiliar feeling to kill something – he never feels that he wants to kill anyone, not in this horrible manner. There is pressure against his chest, as if he is drowning in the anger, as if he can't breathe.
Merlin cups his face roughly, forcing the Prince to look his manservant in the eye. "Hey, Arthur, look at me, I am fine, don't go and do something you'll regret."
The anger slowly fades into something else, something Arthur can't quite put his finger on. It scares him. "I am going to kill him," Arthur whispers and he realizes how much he truly means those words. Arthur is planning it all in his head. Lord Cedrick was dead as soon as Arthur saw the bruises on Merlin's body. He is dead.
"Arthur, I can not let you do this," Merlin says harshly. "I am fine, it was nothing."
Fury spikes Arthur's blood. "Don't say that it was nothing, he had no right to touch you in any way. He had no right to touch you."
"Please," Merlin whispers brokenly, pressing their faces together, forehead against forehead. Merlin's voice is quiet and soft and for a moment all the anger fades away as Merlin's arms snake around him. "Stay with me," Merlin says against Arthur's lips before pressing them together. And what Arthur possibly say to that? Nothing. So he doesn't. He lets Merlin keeps his arms around him and together they fall onto the bed, and for a while Arthur lets Merlin help him forget.
Moments later, with Merlin sleeping restfully into his side, the anger returns to Arthur with vengeance and it is hard to ignore.
Merlin mutters something in his sleep, smacking his lips loudly, and Arthur pulls the manservant closer to him.
Arthur realizes it then, in that moment, while holding Merlin close to him, his hand unconsciously rubbing tenderly against the bruises on the manservant's back, he realizes it and it hits him like a sledgehammer right against heart. The world suddenly feels like it has shifted and Arthur is certain he has hit the ground hard, everything failing around him. He has fallen, and it hurts, and he craves more of it, this sweet pain that makes his chest ache in the most wonderful way.
Arthur has loved before, he loved his death mother, he loves Morgana like the sister she has always been to him and he loves his father, at some point more and at some point less. Arthur has loved. But now, lying here with Merlin in his arms, he realizes that those kinds of love aren't near the love he suddenly feels for Merlin. It makes him stagger and he has to close his eyes for a minute.
The feeling makes him happy, but at the same time he's terrified to death. The feeling makes him feel whole and broken all at the same time.
Arthur stays here, with Merlin in his arms on the bed, but the fury and rage still bubbles furiously in his chest, making his head hurt and his eyes go red for a slight second. But the animal in his chest slowly weakens and he closes his eyes, pressing his face into Merlin's hair, trying to think of anything but Lord Cedrick, who is probably still sitting down in the feast hall, chatting away with the King and the court.
Merlin moans softly on his sleep and for a moment something warm and gentle bursts into Arthur's chest and he leans down and presses his lips tenderly against Merlin's pale temple.
Arthur is not used to waiting. He is not used to doing nothing. He is used to action and decisiveness, something his father has taught him since childhood, actions speak louder than words. It makes Arthur impatient beyond words, and almost angrier, to not do anything. But he swore to Merlin that he wouldn't leave until the young manservant woke up.
It takes all the restraint in Arthur's body to not get off the bed, grab his sword, and go down to the feast and cut Lord Cedrick's throat open.
For one, Merlin wouldn't like it and that is the only reason Arthur is still lying in the bed. Also, if Arthur killed the Lord, he'd probably declare an act of war against Mercia and that is really the last thing they need right now. Still, it doesn't make the fury in Arthur's chest quiet down. Arthur plots and plans for a few minutes in his head and as softly as he possibly can he slips from the bed, dressing quickly, but quietly. Arthur throws one last look at his sleeping lover before leaving the room.
When Arthur reaches the court hall most the court has already left for the evening, and Uther is sitting, talking quietly, but animatedly, with two other important men of the court. Arthur is glad; it makes the whole thing so much easier. He doesn't need an audience to top it. Morgana is just about to walk out of the hall, Gwen faithfully following, when Arthur storms in furiously, gripping his dagger painfully in his clenched fist.
"Arthur? You took off in quite a hurry, is everything all right?" Arthur completely ignores Morgana's question and heads straight for his target, pulling his dagger out, stalking towards Lord Cedrick who is discussing something with one of the knights.
Before anyone quite realizes what is happening, Arthur grabs Lord Cedrick around the neck, slamming him hard against the cold wall, pressing the glistening dagger against the Lord's exposed throat. Lord Cedrick gasps against the pressing sharpness, wearing an expression of confusion.
"If you ever touch him again, so help me God, I will kill you," Arthur hisses, low and dangerous, and something like dark recognition flickers in the Lord's eyes. "The only reason you're still breathing right now is because of Merlin's idiotic desire to keep you alive for some reason." Lord Cedrick wheezes against Arthur's tight grip and it only makes Arthur want to kill him even more. "Get out of here before I change my mind and run you through any way."
Arthur distantly hears his father yell his name in shock. Arthur presses the dagger harder against the Lord's throat before letting go and taking a few steps back, his chest heaving harshly, ragged breaths escaping from his throat, the rage still not quiet.
"Don't worry, sire," Lord Cedrick looks angry, but not nearly as furious as Arthur is still feeling. The Lord gives the Prince a small, smug smirk and it makes Arthur want to punch that grin off his ugly face. "I won't be touching that servant of yours any time soon. He is nothing but a little-"
Lord Cedrick doesn't even get to finish his sentence; Arthur's fist is already in the Lord's face. The sound of bones breaking gives Arthur a welcoming and pleasant satisfaction. The Lord lets out a sharp cry of pain, hands covering his face, blood seeping through his fingers, and somehow it still isn't enough for Arthur so he grabs the Lord's neck, shoving his face to the floor while at the same time, bringing up his own knee to meet the Lord's abdomen.
The dagger is disposed somewhere on the floor a few feet away, completely forgotten. Arthur doesn't need weapons for this.
There's a loud thump as Lord Cedrick crumples to the ground, still whimpering, one arm around his mid-section, the other hand glued to his bleeding nose. Arthur snorts loudly and stares down at the Lord. Pathetic, Arthur thinks. The satisfaction makes him feel a little better and he exhales slowly.
"Arthur," Uther's voice is harsh and disapproving and Arthur turns to look at his father. Uther glares slightly at his son but the King doesn't look furious or even angry and it surprise Arthur a little. He snorts again, looking down at the whimpering Lord and gives his father a clear he-deserved-it look.
"Just get out of here," Uther says curtly and Arthur is more than happy to oblige. He feels smug at the free pass and he grabs his dagger, throwing Lord Cedrick one last murderous glare before turning on his heels and stalking off. Arthur figures it is a good message to the rest of the crowd, not to mess around, ever, with the his manservant.
Arthur saunters out of the hall, throwing dirty looks at the people staring, daring them to make any comments. No one is really surprised.
When Arthur returns to the bedchambers, Merlin is up and awake, sitting on the bed, the sheet wrapped loosely around him. Arthur smirks slightly at Merlin's attempt to look threatening. For some reason it just makes the young man look even younger.
"Was that really necessary?" Merlin asks as Arthur walks over to sit on the bed.
"I promised I wouldn't kill him, I never promised I wouldn't hurt him," Arthur replies easily, taking off his coat and kicking off his boots.
"And yes, it was necessary," Arthur tells him, kissing the manservant softly on his forehead.
Who knows what true happiness is, not the conventional word, but the naked terror.