Title: In the Eye of the Beholder
Summary: It wasn't so much that Arthur didn't want to hug Merlin as it was that he very much did.
Spoilers/Warnings: Coda to 2x06 – "Beauty and the Beast II"
Word Count: 3,707
Disclaimer: What fun I would have. Alas, they are not mine. Such a shame, really!
Author's note: So yeah...I'm a week late. Whatever. People have accused me of being slow before, so I figure why fight it? ;) I wanted to write something in Merlin's POV, because I always seem to write things from Arthur's perspective. That did not end up happening, but I think this is a happy compromise – switching between the two throughout. This was beta-ed for me by my most wonderful friend Gem (readthesubtext). Thanks so much, hon! As always, constructive criticism is welcome. Enjoy!
In the Eye of the Beholder
"You are to arrest Merlin immediately."
His father's voice boomed in the Great Hall, and Arthur blinked at him in surprise. He had been summoned at the crack of dawn for a meeting with the King, but surely this couldn't have been the reason for the impromptu gathering? Why on earth could his father want Merlin arrested?
"Excuse me?" he asked pointedly, confusion lacing his voice. It was too early for this.
Uther stared at him with narrowed eyes and folded arms, as if he were questioning his son's intelligence.
"You are to find and arrest your manservant, Merlin," he repeated slowly, as if speaking to a small child.
Arthur managed to keep his expression carefully neutral, but wasn't quite able to take the edge of frustration out of his voice. "What for?"
"For the theft of my family seal," Lady – no, Queen – Catrina announced, stepping up to stand beside her newly acquired husband.
Arthur's eyes flickered towards his new step-mother, regarding her carefully. He couldn't quite believe what he was hearing. What on earth could Merlin possibly want with Catrina's family seal? "How do you know it was Merlin who stole your seal? Perhaps it was another servant?" Arthur suggested, hoping that it might dissuade her from pursuing this ridiculous notion further, all the while knowing that it wouldn't.
"I know because my servant Jonas saw him with his very own eyes."
"And so it's your servant's word against mine?" Arthur shot back incredulously. "Besides, what would Merlin want with your family seal? It makes no sense."
Catrina opened her mouth to retort, but Uther apparently decided that it was time to intervene instead.
"Are you questioning my wife? Are you accusing her of lying about this matter?" Uther demanded, tone icy, almost daring Arthur to give him a reason to fight.
But Arthur was no fool. If he even tried to defend Merlin at this point, he knew that Uther was not above resorting to even more drastic measures, and Arthur was not willing to risk his safety like that. "Of course not, sire," he responded with a nod of his head.
"Then you will take care of this matter immediately."
He paused briefly before responding, "Yes, sire."
* * *
Arthur gathered his knights together as quickly as he could, dispersing them around Camelot to hunt down Merlin. By all appearances he was leading an elaborate manhunt to find his manservant, but the one piece of information that Arthur did not share with anyone was the one place he knew Merlin would be. If Arthur didn't get to him first, then any chance of escape would be virtually impossible. He was eternally grateful that Merlin was predictable, and for once found himself thanking the gods that Merlin had a bad habit of lying in most days. Which ensured that at this hour he would still be in Arthur's chambers.
Once he'd commanded his knights to search various parts of the city, Arthur made as hasty a retreat back to his chambers as he could without coming across suspiciously. Running was out of the question, but if he strode with a determined glare on his face, he assumed that most people would know he was taking care of important princely business and leave him alone accordingly.
Arthur burst into the room a few minutes later and felt a flood of relief wash over him as he took in the sight of Merlin, in the process of changing his bed linens.
A hundred different thoughts ran through his head of what he wanted to say to his manservant. Where were you last night? or did you take the seal? or what were you thinking, you idiot? "You need to get out of here. The King's ordered me to arrest you," is what came out instead.
Merlin stared at him in confusion. "What?"
"Catrina's accused you of taking her seal."
Merlin looked horrified. "But I didn't!"
"I don't want to know and you haven't got time to explain." It was half true. Arthur did want to know what had happened, but Merlin was running out of time to escape and he couldn't afford to waste another second on pointless chatter.
"If you value your life you'll leave Camelot right now," he said, grabbing hold of Merlin and steering him towards the door. He assumed the I value your life, so leave now part was implied.
"She is a troll. She's trying to set me up."
Arthur paused, holding back a sigh. "We've been through this."
"I'm telling the truth," Merlin insisted, sincerity etched so deeply into his voice and written across his features. Arthur paused, unsure of what to say. It was true that Merlin had never deliberately lied to him and in fact had only proven his loyalty and trustworthiness time and time again. But to claim Catrina was a troll was a little much, even for Merlin.
"I saw her," he added forcefully, apparently taking Arthur's silence as a cue to keep talking.
The sudden knock on the door startled Arthur into action once again, swiftly reminding him that they didn't have any time for this right now.
The fact that he was deliberately and consciously disobeying his father to protect Merlin was not lost on Arthur. But what he found most surprising was not the knowledge that Merlin's guilt was still to be determined, but the fact that he simply didn't care one way or the other. Arthur sincerely doubted that Merlin had stolen anything, though he couldn't figure out why Catrina would accuse him of it. However, if Merlin had done it, then Arthur had no doubt he had valid reasons for doing so. And for some reason, that was enough for him. He realised that this was quite a significant move on his part, even if Merlin didn't understand what it meant for the Crown Prince of Camelot to disobey direct orders from the King, but was struck with the knowledge that Merlin was worth it. And that he'd do it again in a heartbeat, if he needed to.
"I don't care," he admitted, and was a little surprised to hear the words so carelessly tumble out of his mouth. The comment had been made in response to his thoughts about Merlin's innocence or guilt, and not about Merlin's claim to have seen Catrina as a troll. But he was suddenly grateful for the alternate explanation. "You need to leave Merlin."
"Go," he commanded softly, but with force.
Merlin glanced frantically between himself and the antechamber door several times, almost as if weighing the options in his mind. But there was only one option in Arthur's mind. If Merlin stayed, then someone would have to arrest him, and he would likely face execution, guilty or not. If he left, then it was possible that he could still get away safely, even though Arthur might never see him again. The thought made him feel physically ill, but in a competition between life and death, life was the only option, regardless of Arthur's own attachment to the bumbling idiot.
The yelling outside his chambers became louder, and Arthur knew they were running out of time. He was suddenly filled with the strong desire to pull Merlin into his arms and assure him that he would come to find him when it was safe again and the whole mess was worked out. But they didn't have time for any of that.
So instead, Arthur shot Merlin his most commanding stare and prayed to the gods that he would listen to him for once in his life. "Go!" he urged again, louder and more desperate this time.
And finally…finally Merlin listened and darted out of the room as Arthur watched his retreat, a mixture of sorrow and regret pooling in his stomach.
"Merlin! What are you doing here?" Gaius cried upon seeing Merlin slip into the room. He rushed over to the warlock as Merlin shut the door behind him. "Uther has ordered your arrest."
"I know," Merlin admitted, striding across the room to meet Gaius halfway.
"Then how did you get here?" Gaius asked, eyes glued to the door behind Merlin's head, almost as if he was worried that, at any moment in time, guards would come bursting into the room.
"Arthur told me to get out of Camelot."
Gaius' eyebrows shot up so high on his forehead that Merlin thought they just might disappear completely. "Arthur? The same Arthur who was ordered to arrest you?"
Merlin nodded. "Yeah. He told me what was going on. Sort of. He was more concerned about getting me out of there then having a full conversation, though," Merlin admitted.
Gaius stared back at him with a slightly dumbfounded expression on his face. "Well, I guess that explains this morning," he mumbled, almost to himself.
Merlin quirked a single brow quizzically. "What?"
"It's nothing. Don't worry about it," Gaius informed him distractedly.
But Merlin suspected there was more going on in Gaius' head than what he was saying. Of course, Merlin was not as much of an idiot as most would like to think. He knew that Arthur's decision to disobey the King and save his life made a very bold statement, even if the only three people who knew about it were Arthur, Gaius and himself. He briefly wondered what thoughts were running through his mentor's mind at the moment, but was snapped back to reality once again when Gaius patted one of his arms.
"We need to figure out what to do now," Gaius decided.
"I'm not leaving," Merlin declared obstinately. There was absolutely no way he would abandon Arthur. Especially right now. He was actually surprised, though, when Gaius very blatantly rolled his eyes at him.
"Well of course not. But you can't just hang around here. They'll be back to look for you. Especially if they have no reason to suspect that you've left Camelot."
"Sounds like you might have a plan?" Merlin questioned hopefully, shooting Gaius a lopsided grin.
Gaius just sighed. Merlin took that as a good sign.
Arthur hadn't been able to sleep very well the last couple of nights. He couldn't exactly say why, specifically. Though he suspected it had a lot to do with the fact that his step-mother was a troll who was apparently trying to run Arthur out of Camelot while simultaneously trying to take over the kingdom. That and the fact that he kind of, sort of, really missed Merlin. Already. After a couple of days. And he was worried about him. Where had he gone? Had he made it safely? Would Arthur ever see him again?
With these thoughts running through his head, he climbed into bed and blew out the bedside candle, hunkering down for what he expected to be another long night. No sooner had he closed his eyes, he heard a soft voice calling his name. The voice sounded distinctly familiar, but it couldn't possibly be who he thought it was. Arthur clambered out of bed and reached for his sword, ready to face whatever intruder had decided to invade his bedchambers.
It was then that Merlin suddenly appeared from beneath his bed, announcing his presence, and Arthur almost jumped in shock. "You're back," he said, doing his damndest to disguise the sudden thrill he felt upon knowing that Merlin was here again.
"I never left," Merlin announced casually, stupid grin plastered across his face.
It was not the least bit surprising, of course. But Arthur had no doubt that Merlin had his reasons for sticking around. Though why he was under Arthur's bed at the moment, Arthur couldn't be sure. And just like that a horrible, embarrassing thought came to his mind. He didn't want to even ask it, but he quickly came to the conclusion that not knowing might just kill him. "So you mean to say-"
"Yes," Merlin interrupted.
Arthur ignored him. "You've been under there this whole time?"
"No! Of course not, no." Merlin looked shocked at the mere suggestion.
But Arthur still wasn't convinced, as he pointed his sword in Merlin's general direction. "'Cause if you were..."
"I wasn't. I swear."
He sounded sincere, Arthur decided. Plus, he was pretty sure Merlin wouldn't have been able to lie about something like that if he had, indeed, remained under his bed this entire time. He felt oddly violated all the same. But it was obvious that Merlin was here for a reason, and so Arthur was determined to get right down to business.
He graciously allowed Merlin a moment to gloat over the fact that he had indeed been correct about Catrina before Merlin launched into the real reason that he was there – to help break the spell that Catrina had over his father.
About ten minutes later, Gaius had joined them in Arthur's chambers and was helping Merlin explain their "brilliant plan" to him.
"So your great plan is to kill me." He felt the need to clarify exactly what was going on and make sure he had this right.
"No. Well, yes." Merlin paused. "Not exactly."
The plan wasn't actually the worst idea Arthur had ever heard. But it would be incredibly dangerous. Namely, for him. They wanted Arthur to drink a potion that would lower his heart rate and slow his breathing enough to simulate death. Gaius would summon his father and once he'd cried his tears of remorse, the antidote (damn Merlin for not mentioning that little detail sooner) would be administered.
The unfortunate part was the fact that it had to be administered within half an hour, and that Merlin – his lazy, incompetent, slow as mud servant – would be the one to ensure that the drop was administered in time. Arthur would be dependent on Merlin for his survival. The same Merlin who was late for work at least a couple of times a week. The same Merlin who could barely provide him with hot bath water half the time. And yet, in spite of all of the highly unconvincing evidence, he was oddly okay with this.
If anyone had told Arthur a couple of years ago that in the not too distant future he would directly disobey his father's direct orders to save the life of a servant, and that he would willingly and readily place his life in the hands of said manservant – all because of his incredible attachment to that person – Arthur would have laughed in their face. And yet, he was faced with that exact situation at the present moment. Part of him knew that he should be putting up more of a fight. Demanding that Gaius be the one to administer the antidote to him. Yell at Merlin for not fleeing Camelot while he had the chance. But as he stared into Merlin's eyes, filled with affection and trust and assurance, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that Merlin would never let him die.
So when he said the words, "Don't be late," he was really saying, I trust you with my life.
Merlin's response of "Am I ever?" was not particularly reassuring. But Arthur knew what he meant: I won't let you down. And it was enough for him.
Merlin knew it was stupid. But he couldn't seem to help himself. As he watched Arthur drink the potion that could potentially kill him, Merlin felt his heart swell with pride and admiration for his Prince. For all his prattish, arrogant, arse-like behaviour, Arthur was a man of strong character and strong convictions, willing to do whatever it took to protect the safety and security of his people. To risk his own life in order to preserve a future for Camelot gave Merlin just a small glimpse of the king Arthur would one day become. It was bold, daring, dangerous, noble and so bloody like Arthur.
He also noted with extreme joy and humility that Arthur trusted him with the antidote, and that meant more to Merlin than words could even express. He had often claimed that he trusted Arthur with his life, and Arthur had never let him down in that regard. But the fact that Arthur willingly placed his life in Merlin's hands spoke volumes about his level of faith in Merlin, and Merlin would not let him down. He would never let him down. He was suddenly filled with a strong desire to wrap his arms around his friend and tell him just how proud he was of the man. Except for the fact that Gaius was still in the room, and Arthur had just collapsed into their arms.
Together they lowered his body to the floor, Merlin cradling Arthur's head more gently than was probably strictly necessary. And if he mostly did it as an excuse to wind his fingers through Arthur's hair, well Gaius certainly wasn't saying anything.
"Time to break the bad news to Uther," Gaius said a moment later, handing over the vial with the antidote. Merlin nodded and headed out, knowing what he needed to do.
* * *
Merlin awoke to a throbbing pain at the back of his head, feeling groggy and confused. All he knew at that very moment was that he was in pain, lying face down on the cold stone floor, shards of shattered glass scattered around him.
But it only took a few moments for his memory to catch up with him and he noticed with vague horror that he was no longer holding the vial containing the antidote for Arthur.
Arthur would die without the antidote.
It was enough of a realisation to push Merlin unsteadily to his feet. He would not let Arthur down. He would not let him die.
Arthur left the dinner with his father feeling both confused and disturbed by all the recent events. He decided the moment that he left the dining hall that he was going to pretend that none of this had ever happened. Except there were a couple of things he needed to do before he was able to completely let go. First and foremost, however, was finding and speaking to Merlin. Much as his servant was generally a bumbling idiot, Merlin had been right about Catrina the whole time. And he had done everything in his power to help Arthur and save Camelot. Arthur owed him a great deal.
He was grateful when he ran into his manservant on the way to his chambers. For once, Merlin was in the right place at the right time.
"Merlin..." he started, the other man instantly taking notice of him. "I want you to know that I never doubted you." The incredulous look on his manservant's face told him exactly how much he believed that statement.
He tried again. "All right, maybe I did. But it's your own fault. You've got a suspicious look about you. Shifty. Like you've got something to hide." And all right, so maybe it wasn't exactly the whole truth. But Arthur was still learning the fine art of humility and where he had not been able to admit his mistake with the whole Cedric incident, he figured he owed Merlin at least that much now.
Merlin grinned impishly at him. "I am an open book."
Somehow Arthur doubted that very much. "I don't believe that for a second," he retorted, biting back a smile of his own. "However, I do know that without your help, I'd still have a troll for a step-mother."
And that was the end of that.
Or at least it was supposed to be. Except for the fact that Merlin continued to stare at him expectantly, as though he was waiting for something else from Arthur. He knew that he should probably step back and move away from his manservant, but there was something in his gaze that held Arthur firmly in place.
"Well, thanks," Arthur finally mumbled, knowing he had to break this staring match before he did something really stupid, and reached up to clasp Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin, however, seemed to take this as a sign of something else, and started leaning towards him with arms outstretched.
"Whoa! What are you doing?" Arthur demanded, pulling back and raising his hands defensively, hoping that he didn't sound as freaked out as felt.
"I thought you were going for a hug," Merlin admitted. And if there was an element of hurt or disappointment in his voice, Arthur pointedly decided to ignore it.
"Noooo!" Arthur retorted quickly, shooting Merlin his most convincing look of denial.
It wasn't so much that Arthur didn't want to hug Merlin as it was that he very much did. He longed to pull Merlin against him, feeling the warmth of his body and the beating of his heart against Arthur's chest. To bury his hand into his dark mop of hair and press his face into Merlin's neck, breathing in the scent of him. But the fact of the matter was that he couldn't do any of those things. Because he was also quite sure that he wouldn't be able to stop at just a hug. And if the way Merlin was looking at him now was any indication, the other man felt the same way too.
But to lose control like that...well, it was something he couldn't allow. At least not here and not now. Not in the hall where anyone could stumble upon them. Arthur's affection for Merlin ran deep, deeper than perhaps he was even willing to acknowledge. But if anyone were to find out, it had potential to destroy them both.
So he lied...put up a wall between them. Because even something as simple as a hug had repercussions. And if Arthur was willing to defy his father over Merlin now, he didn't even want to think about what he would do to protect Merlin if the nature of their relationship were to change.
They remained like that, staring at each other, for quite some time. Until Arthur finally forced his legs to start moving again and he headed off down the hall and back to his chambers, the feeling of Merlin's eyes on his back disappearing only after he turned a corner.