Title: Catch and Release
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin
Summary: There can be no right answer here: either way, it will not, cannot change the outcome. But Arthur can’t bear the idea of facing all the years without Merlin and not knowing.
Word Count: 1000 words
Prompt: #246 Bruises
Author's Notes: I felt like indulging the angst-bunnies today, apparently XD
Merlin is still unconscious when Arthur reaches his cell - yet another inconvenience. With tense fingers, Arthur uncorks a bottle of smelling salts stolen from Gaius’ storeroom and waves it under his manservant’s nose. His head jerks back; Arthur catches it with his free hand before it strikes the wall, scraping his knuckles on the rough stone, and feels Merlin stiffen as he realises that he’s not alone.
“You’re in the dungeons,” Arthur says, reading the fear in the slender body without effort. His hand drops back to his side, clenching unbidden into a fist, fingernails digging into his palms. “It’s all right. There's no one else here.”
Warily, Merlin’s eyes blink open. The pupils are huge and dark in the dim light, and Arthur can’t decipher his expression.
“How are you feeling?”
Merlin considers. “Sore,” he rasps. He puts one hand to his head, wincing at the clank of chains that follows the movement. “Why am I here?”
“Don’t you remember?” Arthur watches his face. “You’re a sorcerer.”
Something flickers in Merlin’s eyes, then disappears. “I’m pretty sure I remember that,” he says, with a creditable attempt at sarcasm. “What I meant was, what did I — how did you — ?”
“The feast,” Arthur says. “There was an attack.”
It’s obvious the moment memory returns: Merlin’s eyes widen, his mouth dropping open as he sucks in a sudden breath. To be fair, the duel had been quite impressive, the more so because it had taken place in front of several hundred witnesses. Naturally, however, Merlin manages to focus on the single least relevant fact at this particular moment.
“You hit me!”
“It was that or watch you be executed on the spot,” Arthur snaps. “I won't apologise for choosing the former.” He pushes to his feet, tucking the bottle back in his pocket. At any other time, he might have teased Merlin about having to be revived like some fainting maiden, but there are more important matters at hand, and they don’t have much time. “Get up. We have to hurry.”
“Why, what are we doing?” Merlin asks. He sounds suspicious, but he nevertheless does as he’s told, swaying a little as he stands. Arthur resists the urge to help him, and reaches to unlock the manacles around his wrists.
“We’re getting you out of here,” he tells Merlin’s hands. It’s easier than looking at his face. “Surely that's obvious?”
“But — your father — “
“As far as the king is concerned, I’m sulking in my chambers because my manservant turned out to be a traitor to the Crown,” Arthur says evenly. “Gaius is waiting in the lower town with some horses and enough provisions to last you both until you reach the border.”
Merlin goes still. “You’re banishing me?”
“I’m not banishing anyone,” Arthur corrects him, scowling. “You are escaping from the citadel and fleeing for your miserable life.”
This makes Merlin’s balance falter once again, and Arthur has to move hurriedly to catch him, steadying him with both hands on his narrow waist. “No,” Merlin says blankly. “No, I can’t just leave.”
Arthur inhales. “Listen to me,” he says, looking directly into Merlin's eyes. “My father isn’t interested in your loyalties, or what you can do, or even what you want. All he knows is that you have magic, and that you’ve used it to get close to me. If you stay here, he will have you executed. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
“But — “
“No buts!” Finally, Arthur loses his temper. “This isn’t up for debate, Merlin, so for once in your life will you just shut up and do as you’re told?”
Merlin’s Adam’s apple bobs in his throat. “You’re angry.”
“I’m not angry, I’m — “ hurt, furious, betrayed “ — concerned, and if you don’t stop arguing, the guards will catch us and this whole discussion will be pointless. Now will you please go?”
Perhaps it’s the please that does it; perhaps it’s the desperation in Arthur’s voice, he doesn’t know, but after an excruciatingly long moment, Merlin nods. Before he can make it to the door, however, Arthur stops him with a hand on his arm.
“Just — one last thing,” he says haltingly, hating himself for the sudden flush in his cheeks. “Was it — was any of it real?”
“Real?”“What I felt. Feel.” Arthur’s face is burning, and he has to grit the words out. “Was my father right? Is it because of magic?”
There can be no right answer here: either way, it will not, cannot change the outcome. But Arthur can’t bear the idea of facing all the years without Merlin and not knowing.
“This would be so much easier if it were,” Merlin says finally, and Arthur closes his eyes. The castle bell is tolling the hour, the usual signal for the change of watch; the guards will come to check on the prisoners soon, and both of them must be gone before that happens. No time to decide if Merlin is telling the truth, or if it's just another convenient falsehood – no time even for a proper goodbye.
“You have to go,” Arthur says, steeling himself. Merlin nods, but lingers, gripping Arthur’s arm.
“You’ll be all right?”
“I’ll be fine.” Merlin’s fingers are digging painfully into his skin, but Arthur relishes the thought of bruises, of having something of Merlin’s to keep for just a little while longer. “Even if Father suspects me, he’ll have no proof. Now go,” he says roughly, prising himself free and stepping back. “Take the third passage on the right, it will lead you out below the citadel. I’ll keep my father off your trail for as long as I can.”
“Thank you,” Merlin whispers back. “Arthur, thank you.”
“It’s fine,“ Arthur says, summoning up the shadow of a grin. “You did save my life earlier, after all.”
That makes Merlin smile. “You still haven't thanked me for that, you know.”
“Go, Merlin,” Arthur growls, and Merlin laughs; leans in to kiss him briefly; and then he’s gone.