Merlin walked in stiffly. He made an attempt to not flinch every time he stepped on the ground and felt it jar. His eyes were tight and the skin on his face was stretched taut.
Gaius will notice, he thought to himself, half-worried and half-hopeful. He'll notice.
But Gaius was hunched over his research, his white hair covering his face. He didn't look up. And Merlin did not dare call to him.
Merlin hobbled to his room to get some sleep. By morning, he would be back to normal.
"Arthur, I'm telling you!" Merlin snapped. "Agravaine is not who you think he is!"
Arthur's handsome face darkened as he strode forward, roughly grabbing Merlin by his right shoulder. He pulled Merlin closer to him, angry.
Merlin nearly quailed, but he set his teeth and let it happen.
"I told you," growled Arthur, "to shut up." He opened the door to his chambers and tossed Merlin into the hall. The door slammed.
Merlin's shoulder crashed into the opposite wall and he felt pain flare there. His fingers reached up, massaging, trying to rub the pain away before it took up residence there.
Ow, he thought. Ow.
He said hello to Gwaine after training when he passed him. Gwaine gave him a friendly punch to the alarm, and Merlin cried out. His hand shot to his arm.
With familiar alarm, he thought, Gwaine will notice.
Gwaine did not notice, just gave Merlin a curious look and smiled before moving on.
When Arthur woke up in the morning, his breakfast was prepared. It was sitting on his desk, nicely made. Merlin had woken him up gently, and the room wasn't too cold: the fire was stoked.
Merlin stood back, the picture of the perfect servant, waiting for Arthur to notice how responsible he'd been this morning. He kept a small smile on his face.
Arthur got up, groaning with sleepiness. He plopped himself down near the food, and when Merlin gave him his shirt, he put it on. He began to eat.
Arthur didn't look up.
Merlin's smile quirked and failed, and he looked down at the floor, feeling like there were stones in his stomach.
"Gaius, do you have any salve that can go on bruises? Get rid of them?"
Gaius looked up. "I think so, why?"
Merlin shrugged. "Oh, Arthur hurt himself during training." He hadn't even thought of that before, but it came out easily.
Gaius stood, sighing. "I believe I have some… Here. It will take the salve several days to take full affect, though it should do the trick."
Merlin took the bottle. He smiled, relieved. "Thanks, Gaius!"
"I didn't ask for your help!" Arthur told him firmly.
"I know you didn't," Merlin said, standing his ground. "But I think you're making a mistake! Please, you know I'm rarely wrong about things like this!"
Arthur's arm almost moved of his own accord as he grabbed the goblet from his bedside table and let fly. Merlin moved but not quickly enough—the metal slammed into his hand. Merlin bit his lip.
"Why can't you accept that I don't want you to tell me what to do?" Arthur said, turning away.
Merlin blinked the tears out of his eyes. He curled his hand into a fist. It wasn't broken.
"I'm your friend," Merlin said, walking forward, and then he tripped over seemingly air, looking ridiculous. Arthur scoffed.
"You never do anything right, do you Merlin?"
Merlin flushed but smiled. You never notice when I do.
Merlin didn't own a mirror, since he couldn't afford one. Instead, he grabbed one of the silver plates from the kitchen and ducked into his room, hoping no one accused him of stealing it, since he planned to return it. And then he looked into it, seeing a tired, pale face with prominent cheekbones and ears—himself. He lifted his chin and found the dark mark on his jawbone.
He dipped his fingers into the orange salve and began to rub it in.
"Merlin, what's that?"
Merlin's blood went cold. He looked at Arthur expectantly. "What?"
"That." Arthur pointed to his own hairline to show Merlin the relative position of the oddity, and Merlin lifted his hand to his dark hair. The pressure sent a wave of pain through him. He pulled away.
"A bruise," he said quietly. This one was stubborn and wouldn't fade.
Arthur smiled a little mockingly. "You fall and hurt yourself again?"
Merlin's answering smile was a little late, and Arthur's faded. "What happened?"
"I… fell. Like you said."
"You are not a good liar," Arthur noted distantly. "Really, what happened?" Merlin's evasiveness and flaming cheeks confused him and worried him. When Merlin didn't answer, he prompted, "Was it an accident?"
Too long a pause. "Did someone do that to you?"
"No." He was beginning to straighten, look convincing, but Arthur was watching with his eyes narrowed. He stood up out of the chair and walked closer to his servant.
"Who was it?" No answer. "Someone did it on purpose? What happened? I want to know." Merlin's face was pointed at the ground, and Arthur reached for his arm, but Merlin pulled it away. "Who?" Arthur nearly yelled, his temper getting the better of him.
"You!" Merlin yelped, drawing back from his anger before he recovered. He saw Arthur's shocked face. "It happened when you knocked me down a day ago, remember? I hit the armor."
Arthur winced. His full attention was on Merlin now, but the warlock didn't like that look on his face. He didn't like it at all.
"We should get some salve to put on it," Arthur said presently.
"No," Merlin said, brushing that off. "I keep some for times li…" His voice faded when he caught a glimpse of the way Arthur's eyes had gone wide. His swallowed.
That had been the wrong thing to say.
"Why didn't you quit?" Arthur said with some surprise.
Merlin shrugged. "You need me," he said. "You need me, and I want to help, even if…" He stopped, nervous about continuing. But Arthur didn't look angry. "Even if you don't want me to."
"Really," Arthur said flatly, sitting back down on his bed. He looked at his pillow for a second. Then, not looking at Merlin, he said, "Would you leave, please?"
Merlin's mouth opened. But he didn't want to argue. Instead, quivering just a bit, he turned and left the room.
Arthur remained sitting on his bed for a while after Merlin left. He stared at the floor or his pillow for a good deal of it.
Then, he dropped his head and brought his arm up. He rubbed his forehead with the palm of his hand.
"Arthur Pendragon," he said out loud, "you are an idiot."
And then he sighed and stood up. How many times had he told himself that? How many times had he decided to do better? So why didn't he? Why did he always forget?
He keeps salve just for situations like this? Cursing lowly, Arthur slowly made his way back to his desk to get some more work done.
A/N: Tell me I'm not the only one who is beginning to see this relationship as more abusive and less banter-with-bromance-hidden-in-it. It's beginning to alarm me how mean Arthur is to Merlin. And last episode (4.11) really just cemented it for me. So this is my one-shot. I tried to make it emotional. I'm not sure I succeeded. But please drop me a review and let me know what you think.
~Kitty O, out.