Title: The Substitute
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin
Summary: Merlin gets the evening off, and makes good use of Arthur's absence. Unfortunately, Arthur comes back early.
Word Count: Um... 2130... I'm really, really sorry, I got carried away. *runs and hides*
Prompt: 77 Shocked
Author's Notes: Thanks to deinonychus_1 for the beta. It's filling another Trope Bingo square, 13/25 done now.
Arthur hadn't expected to be back so early. In fact, if the truth were known, in the early part of the evening he had wondered if he'd even manage to get back to his room at all.
It was how things were supposed to go. He was king, he was supposed to choose a high-born woman with good connections as his queen. The latest of those were King Cradelmant's daughters. And nieces. And sisters. Twelve of them in all, brought to the court by their father/uncle/brother with the intent of an advantageous marriage, a union of the two kingdoms.
None of them were what Arthur wanted in a queen. Most giggled stupidly in response to every word he uttered, and the others were just plain scary. The younger sister in particular absolutely terrified him, and made no secret of the fact he'd be welcome in her chambers later.
When it became clear Arthur wasn't drinking and wasn't going to be tricked into a liaison, the Welsh king and his entourage had retired extremely early and Arthur gratefully made his way to his own rooms alone, taking up Leon and Elyan's amused offers to post extra guards at the end of the corridor.
He wasn't supposed to be back for hours yet, and had given Merlin the night off because he wasn't expecting to need him. But really, he was the king and Merlin probably wasn't doing anything that couldn't be disturbed because Merlin never was. And Arthur was bored and wanted some entertaining company.
Not that he would ever tell Merlin that he was entertaining.
Arthur passed his own door and carried on down the corridor, then suddenly stopped and listened.
There were faint sounds coming from Merlin's room.
Since Arthur had become king, he'd moved Merlin to the servant's room adjoining his own. It had seemed sensible, and certainly cut down on Merlin's occasional lateness in the mornings. Arthur thought it was a good move from Merlin's tiny room with Gaius. The room was bigger, the bed was far better and there were numerous cupboards - not that Merlin ever seemed to use them. Plus it was quite convenient, in the middle of the night if Arthur needed something, to go and wake Merlin up and get him to see to whatever it was.
Arthur was the king, after all. It was perfectly acceptable to do things like that, and he swore he took no pleasure in watching Merlin blink at him in endearingly sleepy confusion in those moments before he fully woke. Besides, Arthur always made sure that he gave Merlin some time off to make up for it. Well, perhaps not always. But sometimes. Once or twice.
He'd given Merlin that evening off, anyway, that was something, even if he was about to cut it short. But it sounded as if Merlin was making good use of the free time. Actually, it sounded as if his manservant had someone in there with him.
Merlin never had anyone in there with him. Arthur knew that, he slept in the room next door, he would hear them. In fact, Merlin had never shown any interest in anyone, he was totally devoted to Arthur. Arthur had never realised just how much he wanted things to stay like that.
He needed to know who it was. Merlin was manservant to a king now. He was the most senior of all the servants, although you'd never know it the way he behaved. It wouldn't do for him to be pairing off with some inappropriate girl who was probably just taking advantage of him and trying to further her own position within the palace. That was Arthur's excuse and he let himself believe it. He wasn't jealous or anything.
The door was bound to be locked because not even Merlin was that stupid. But there was a side passage leading directly to Arthur's room that had no lock, so he went back to his room, locked his own door in case one of the women got past the guards, and stood gazing at the inner door.
For a moment he hesitated, suddenly nervous about what he might find on the other side. He tried to push the feeling down, to remind himself that he had every right, and that he was protecting Merlin against his own naiveté.
There was laughter from the other side of the door. That wasn't Merlin's voice, he was sure of it. Not a girl then. The fact of it being another man cut at him. It wasn't envy, or jealousy, it was just... Arthur didn't know what it was. But of course it wasn't those things...
He shouldn't go in. He told himself that if the door was barricaded then he'd leave it. Carefully, not wanting to make a sound, he pushed the handle down and felt the door give. Silently it swung open.
He could just turn away, it wasn't anything to do with him. He could hear the voices more clearly now, a low, intense conversation.
"I love you."
That wasn't Merlin.
"You're everything to me." But that was.
Hearing that reply was like a punch to the gut. He'd never, ever had to compete for Merlin's attention or affection before. His manservant had always been unswervingly loyal to him. It was Arthur who was everything to Merlin. Nobody else.
Arthur had to know who it was. He slipped through the door and crept along the passageway just far enough that he could see into Merlin's room. There he stopped, stunned at what he saw.
It was Merlin, but as he'd never seen him before. Stripped bare, the shadows created by the fire and candlelight dancing on his pale skin. He was sitting on his bed, leaning forward, hand outstretched seemingly towards Arthur, his expression nothing but pure, undisguised love and affection. In that moment he looked so beautiful to Arthur that he just wanted to go to him.
Of course, it wasn't Arthur he was looking at, it was the mysterious lover who was standing right next to Arthur's hiding place. But now Arthur had felt what it was like to be looked at with that much love. He tried not to admit to himself how much he wanted it.
It was Gwaine, it had to be Gwaine. Arthur had seen how close the two of them were, and Gwaine would bed anyone who gave him half a chance. If he did that, if he hurt Merlin then Arthur swore he was going to kill him.
The man moved into view, carrying two goblets of wine. It wasn't Gwaine.
Arthur knew he shouldn't be watching, but he couldn't tear himself away. The man was blond, toned, around his own height. He couldn't recall ever seeing anyone like that around the castle. It had to be one of Cradelmant's men. That made this a security risk. Arthur knew he could ban Merlin from seeing him, but the way his manservant was gazing up at the blond man told Arthur that doing so was going to break his heart. He couldn't do that.
"Come back to bed," Merlin whispered. He'd taken one of the goblets, but just put it down on the bedside table, intent only on the man in front of him. The man laughed, put his own goblet down next to it and climbed onto the bed, straddling Merlin, capturing his mouth and pushing him back down onto the mattress, his hands running freely, possessively over Merlin's body as Arthur's manservant moaned and arched against him.
Arthur didn't want to see any more. He could feel his body reacting to the sight, reluctantly acknowledging that he wished it was him who was pinning Merlin to the bed. He knew he was going to go back to his own bed and jerk off, thinking about that pale, writhing body beneath him.
Then Merlin's lover pulled away and turned to reach for the little jar of what looked suspiciously like one of Gaius's ointments. And Arthur saw his face.
He'd exclaimed and stepped forward, forgetting in his shock that he'd been hiding, that he wasn't supposed to see. But this. This! It was beyond belief. He stared at the man before him, whose features he saw reflected back at him every single day. The duplicate stared back in equal shock, but only for a moment and then he was gone and there was just Merlin sitting up in bed, mortified, making little distressed noises and trying to cover himself with the sheet.
"What was that?" Arthur demanded.
Merlin looked as if he was going to burst into tears. "I'm so sorry," he gasped. "I was going to tell you when... when I thought you were ready."
"Really? When was I likely to be ready for that?"
Merlin hung his head, ashamed. "You're supposed to be the one that lets magic back."
"Magic?" Arthur was trying to get his head around what he had just seen. "You seriously think you've managed to hide your magic from me all these years?"
"I don't care about the magic, Merlin. Now, again, what was that?!"
Merlin made a little whining noise of unhappiness. "You weren't supposed to be back."
"Evidently. You're still not answering the question."
"You were supposed to be with the princesses." He was curling up, his face buried against his knees, rocking slightly, misery rolling off him. Arthur fought the urge to hold him close, comfort him. He needed the facts first.
"They've given up," Arthur told him more gently. "Apparently there are more willing kingdoms to marry into."
"Their maids said you'd be sleeping elsewhere tonight. They said..."
"Merlin, look at me."
His manservant raised his head again, and Arthur saw a single tear run down his face. "I'm so sorry! It was just this one time. You weren't ever supposed to know!"
Arthur's mind was still reeling from what he'd seen. He needed Merlin to tell him, because he was king, and he couldn't, wouldn't get this wrong. It mattered too much. "But why? Why not Gwaine or Leon or someone? Someone else? Why me?"
"Because I love you," Merlin whispered, covering his face with his hands. "I don't want someone else. You're everything to me. Everything."
"I'm sorry! I'll never do it again!"
There was no stopping him now though. "Don't banish me! I have to be here!"
"If there was a magic attack and I wasn't here, you could be killed! If there was..."
He didn't mean to snap, but the other man just wasn't going to stop. Merlin paused in mid-sentence, his mouth hanging open. He looked desperate, and Arthur couldn't help himself, he reached out and stroked Merlin's cheek, brushing the wetness away.
"I'm not going to banish you, or dismiss you or punish you in any way."
For a moment Merlin stared at him in that way he sometimes had when he thought Arthur had done something particularly clever. It didn't happen that often. Arthur loved that look.
"Shhh. Tell me again why it was me."
Merlin covered his face with his hands again, but Arthur pulled them away, holding them in his own.
"No. Look at me. Tell me."
"Because I... I love you."
Merlin just looked terrified. It wasn't the way he'd looked at the other Arthur. So Arthur let go of one of his hands, pulled him close and kissed him. Merlin froze, but only for a moment, then he was kissing Arthur back eagerly, hungrily, letting himself be pushed back down onto the bed again, helping Arthur struggle out of his clothes so they were both naked. Then there was no thinking or talking or anything except blind want until they were both lying in a tangle of limbs, sweaty and sticky and sated, the firelight throwing patterns over their skin.
"Tell me again," Arthur murmured into Merlin's ear, his hand trailing lazy circles over his lover's chest. "Tell me why."
This time Merlin had no trouble facing him, unafraid. "I love you."
It wasn't the same look of open adoration that he had given the fake Arthur. This one was interlaced with a little wonder and more love than perhaps it was right for one person to bestow on another, and that made it even better.
It was everything Arthur had never had and never realised that he'd needed. He thought he might spend the rest of his life trying to live up to it.
Faintly there was the sound of someone rattling Arthur's locked door. Merlin grinned at him as they both heard Leon and Elyan dealing with whoever it was.
"You'd better stay here. Just to be safe."
Arthur had no intention of going anywhere.