Disclaimer: As much as I would wish to, I don't own Merlin. Tis an unfortunate turn of events.

Beautiful Torment

Chapter One –The Masochist's Dilemma

Depraved work of Valeria H

The beauty that lay in this kind of finesse was criminal. Holding the fate of a creature's life and death in his hands was something that Arthur had long grown accustomed to, even if at times it still unnerved him. Arrow notched in place and bowstring drawn back beyond his ear, he contemplated how long the ignorant creature would remain in his sight. For how much longer could this forest remain untainted from the hunter's bloodlust? No, he had to stop thinking of things like that. This was no innocent Unicorn that would curse his kingdom and hurl it into turmoil. A humble deer that paused in its frolic posed him no problems but it needed to learn the harsh lessons of reality.

Dainty ears twitched as they recognised the first signs of danger and he felt his own heartbeat quicken accordingly. Something was coming and it made no secret of its presence meaning it was either dangerous enough not to care if the forest knew it was here or too incompetent to mask its approach. He needed to end this game quickly in order to prepare for whatever was coming. Drawing slightly more on the string to get the shot perfect he then proceeded to loosen his grip, only to be left disappointed as his quarry followed its base instincts and fled the scene, the released arrow embedded into the earth scant seconds afterwards. Turning to face the growing sounds Arthur began to back up cautiously. Pressing himself deeper into his the forests shadows he lay in wait for the possible predator, prepared to hinder its progress for the benefit of his escape if necessary and feeling the adrenaline rush wasted when it finally burst into view. He released a sigh of relief as he recognised the idiot. Standing and stepping from his cover he waited until the "great threat" registered his presence.

Calming his rate of breathing after such excitement had always proven to be somewhat difficult so Arthur instead focused solely on the haphazard approach of his manservant. Arthur had become accustomed to his lanky servants ways. This included the late wakening, the door bursting open without a single knock, the endless enthusiasm for anything that wasn't a chore assigned by Arthur. Though still at a distance he knew those bright blue eyes were burning with energy and exuberance as always, possibly marred by a small degree of caution in attempting to walk towards his prince without falling and humiliating himself. Tousled black hair reflected his sleeping habits and made him appear like he had just awoken, not an unappealing image but...

He was at least dressed for the right situation, worn but serviceable clothing being his attire. Still, something needed to be done about the youth's choice of colours on a hunting trip as anything that wasn't colour blind would see a certain accessory from a mile away. That red neckerchief he reviled sat in place just under the Adam's apple and seemed to have the sole purpose of concealing every inch of desirable flesh beneath its hideous form.

The only thing more distracting was those ears, protruding adorably to either side. No, he did not just think that. His descriptions were becoming tainted, possibly a side effect of spending an increasing amount of time with his Father's ward. Morgana had always had a way of making him say something completely uncharacteristic that still managed to speak the truth. There was nothing about Merlin, least of all his ears, that was adorable. God, he should cover them with the neckerchief and help relieve some of his curiosity.

Nobody should ever hand Merlin a sword and expect him to not innocently injure himself and others, not after that night on the way to Ealdor. And yet, when deciding who to bring on a hunting trip Arthur had thought that Merlin, of all people, would be the most helpful addition to the party. Curious. On the bright side they had brought along their own entertainment. Helpful considering they would require something to cheer them when an overenthusiastic idiot frightened off all of the game.

Looking at his clumsy manservant stumbling over his own feet while navigating a path towards his liege, Arthur was once more struck by that inconceivable fondness he had for his fellow youth. Merlin really was a dreadful servant. He was disrespectful, incompetent and too damn nice! Whenever he decided to involve himself in something it was guaranteed to be an ordeal, one he would no doubt invite his master to be part of. But it could have been worse; he could have been a bootlicker. There was just something about the rise Merlin could get out of him; he challenged Arthur in everything, something nobody had dared to do before. When Merlin spoke to him he received the impression of that he was struggling to forge Arthur into a better person. Of course tutors were usually supportive yet distant, while this one seemed to believe in the art of affectionate insults to get results.

But the most unbelievable part of all was that Arthur was aware that Merlin cared for him, just a little. The fool had been prepared to give his life in service in the past and would do so again with little hesitation. And Arthur found it frightening that he felt the same. He, the Crown Prince, or "Crown Prat" as Merlin was growing fond of referring to him as, actually cared about the welfare of his servant. The only one who treated him as if he were a person, involved him in events that others would consider beneath him. He included Arthur in his everyday life like it was where he should have been all along, all while wearing that ridiculously contented smile, the one that warmed him from the inside and always made him feel better than he was. He didn't just care anymore, he...

Aargh, this was precisely the kind of thought he was trying to escape from. It had all seemed so simple when he'd considered his options last night. Escape was necessary; obviously he was stressed and needed some time to himself. Rationale had added that the Crown Prince would not be permitted to just take off on his own for such a flimsy excuse so a quick reassessment was in order. The plan was still fundamentally the same. He'd get away for a few days; take his knights away for some training and appreciation of a more primitive style of life. Then the sun had risen, Merlin had walked in and obviously his treacherous mind had thought, great I'll take the knights and the problem along with me for this little jaunt. Clearly when fleeing an issue the first order of business was to command the problem to accompany you and invite an audience for the sake of drama.

'Arthur.' No title and no respect. Still, how could he possibly have the strength to deny that asinine grin. It had made stronger adversaries than he cave within minutes to what Morgana had informed him, in all seriousness and with great pleasure, was "cuteness". Definitely not a word he ever wished to use or hear used to describe his manservant.

Arthur was not ignorant of the fact that his servant had been scanning the surroundings during his approach for the accurate tale that had occurred here. The gaze focused on the arrow embedded in the earth, a shinning declaration that seemed to be screaming to the world that he'd missed, before returning to face him again. But there was no accusation or any kind of critique and it was unnerving him.

'Well?' A little more defensive that he would have liked but he was here to hunt something, not sit down and confess all his innermost thoughts to it.

'I'm actually kind of glad. It would have been a shame to end the life of something that's only crime was how it was born.' Lord, he had no idea his servant was a romantic. How had he been landed with the idealist? Oh, that's right, he'd been saved by the girl. Still, he had to make the mistake of looking into those eyes in order to seek the hidden meaning that had lain in those words. Perhaps he should have steeled himself for the onslaught in advance as those eyes were open for the world to see just how expressive they could be. There was happiness there, the standard Merlin emotion, as well as frustration at having been dragged on a hunting trip. Shyly peeking out from behind the norm was a completely unjustified fear, companioned by too many questions for him to comprehend. It wasn't the "cuteness" he had been warned of, but the complete impact was overwhelming nonetheless.

How different it was now that the ignorant deer was staring into his eyes. Suddenly the desire to draw back the string just a little more and release it was gone, replaced by the need to rush forward and shelter it from the horrific reality it had yet to see. No longer was a unicorn a precious creature to idolise, not in comparison to his humble deer. His beautiful torment.

'We should return to the camp.' This hunt couldn't have been a total travesty so there was still hope for dinner. No doubt his knights had fared better without the troubadour entourage declaring their presence. The sounds that trailed behind him, heralding his approach to all, conjured the image that his hapless assistant was bounding. Trying not to make it obvious that he was fascinated, Arthur looked around for his servant to find that those leaps to keep on his feet and up with his master were indeed reminiscent of the deer before. Creepy. Why, of all things did it have to be a deer? He would have loved something, anything, remotely fierce but instead he got the frolicking idiot.

Seeing signs of life ahead he hurried to escape his companion to the welcoming sight of Camelot's finest. It seemed his assumption was correct as they had managed to secure a meal and had begun to roast it in anticipation of the return of their liege. The quarry he had found so elusive earlier was strung over the fire, flames licking higher onto that glistening coat. Instead of making his mouth water, the scent left only a corrosive taste on his tongue. Was this the only fate available for the defenceless innocent, at the mercy of a glory seeking hunter? No, Merlin would have no cause to be in such a position to begin with. But the memory of those eyes before came to mind, so endearing and pleading for his protection, for his forgiveness. What could he possibly wish for Arthur's forgiveness from?

Light flickering across his face, Arthur knew he would not sleep. It wasn't just the grating snores from his knights that made him flee to this sanctuary, but then he'd never suspected that they were the problem. So tonight, like previous nights, any entrance to slumber would be stalked by his treacherous mind recreating certain events of his past with a new creative twist. They were no longer truth but a fantasy that made him crave that it was real, so much so that he became immersed in the fiction only to wake disappointed and left wanting. Best to avoid sleep altogether.

In his peripheral vision, a glimpse of red fabric was all the warning required to signal there was another late night wanderer. Crunching of leaves signalled the approach as well as identifying who was approaching him. There was only one member of this party that would dare disturb the prince. Looks like tonight would be no less troubling than its predecessors.

'Arthur?' Ah, so softly spoken, as if they were afraid to disrupt the reverie. How very un-Merlin. Turning to once more face that captivating gaze, Arthur was struck by the difference. Before he had faced a childish innocence that revealed every intimate detail but here in the darkness it was transformed to one of mystery, like Arthur was being denied the most intimate of secrets but still asked to discover them. And who was he to deny such a challenge? He sighed at the acknowledgement, knowing that a part of him clearly wanted to suffer.

Taking silence as consent, Merlin sat to his left and settled slightly closer than protocol dictated. The warmth now emanating from that side was comforting but then it was chilly out, he must have gotten cold while being consumed by his thoughts.

'I couldn't sleep.'

'I guessed that Merlin.'

There was only silence left now that they had uncovered the others intentions, but there was comfort within that silence. Neither felt the need to fill it with useless chatter or meaningless formalities, content to return to wallowing in their own self pity. In this moment Arthur could almost forget that he'd come on this trip with company as he felt so distanced from the others, the ones his duty declared he should trust the most. All that reminded him that he had company was a vivid red fabric that refused to be forgotten. There had been times in the past when Arthur had wished for nothing more than to wrench that neckerchief from his servant's throat to see if Merlin could live just one day without it. Of course there were other reasons for removing the accessory that concealed far too much skin from view, but they needed to be quickly escorted back to their dungeon.

Suddenly a very scruffy head had made its home in the crook of his neck. Warm breath stirred the hairs there, replacing any hope of melancholy with a nervous energy that he now had no way to dispose of. Apparently his companion wasn't as against sleep as he'd made Arthur believe and had used the silence for that instead of self-pity. Traitor. Still, it was nice that at least one of them would get some rest tonight even if Merlin would regret this choice of sleeping position in the morning.

'Why me?'

In the end none of it mattered. There were still plenty of things he wanted to do in life but that which he had to do would always come first. Soon he would have to return to his duties but till then all he could do was try not to regret the subjugation of his desires.

AN: I'd like to thank my lovely Beta MidnightSky101 for reading through my work. I figure she's had enough little messages from me to last a lifetime so I'll just sit the dedication here.

Please reveiw. Comments are always welcome and I do take them into account to improve on my writing. There is still time to stop me! Chapter Two has been unhelpful so far as Merlin is demanding more screentime and Arthur is in agreement. They've already forced it up to 5,000 words and they're still not satisfied.

Coming next...

Not-so-Sweet Dreams