In the past two months, Merlin has broken and then re-broken his arm, limped for three weeks for reasons he won’t admit to, and been constantly bruised and cut up all over.
Arthur knows Merlin is clumsy. He’s always let Merlin brush his questions off, let Merlin laugh about his injuries, and let himself believe Merlin’s excuses. But this is beyond belief. It isn’t humanly possible for someone to injure himself so frequently. Arthur shouldn’t have been ignoring this, and he’s going to stop now, because…
Because someone is hurting Merlin. Merlin. Who would do that? Sure, Merlin is annoying sometimes, but he’s kind and brave and perfect and most importantly, he’s Arthur’s. Arthur is never going to allow Merlin to be hurt again; he’s not going to let this continue. Whoever is hurting him will be stopped and made to pay.
The only problem is that Merlin won’t admit he’s being hurt, let alone tell Arthur who’s doing it. How is Arthur meant to protect him if he doesn’t know who he’s supposed to protect him from?
Arthur honestly isn’t sure, but the next time Merlin wakes him up and the first thing Arthur sees is his black eye, he decides he’s absolutely going to figure this out.
“What is that from?” Arthur demands.
“What? Oh, this?” Merlin touches the bruise. “Hit it on a table yesterday.”
“You used that excuse last time,” Arthur says, getting out of bed and stalking toward him.
Merlin’s shoulders move uneasily under Arthur’s hands as he gives a fake laugh. “It’s not an excuse, I just… keep hitting the same table.”
“Merlin,” Arthur says. He squeezes Merlin’s shoulders, gently, because he’s never sure where there are bruises hiding under Merlin’s clothes. “You can tell me anything. You know that, right?”
Merlin laughs again. “What do you think I should tell you?”
“Who’s hurting you?” Arthur asks. “Just - tell me who keeps hurting you, and I will give you any protection you need.”
Merlin blinks, and Arthur reads the honest surprise on his face, and that - that hurts.
“How can you not know that?” he asks. “Merlin, it’s obvious that you’re being hurt. I’ve noticed. And I don’t know why you’d doubt that I’d keep you safe. But if you tell me what’s going on, I promise you, no matter what I have to do, I will make whoever’s hurting you stop, do you understand?”
Merlin’s eyes are wide and he’s clearly flailing for words.
“Just tell me,” Arthur says gently.
“It’s really not what you think,” Merlin says. “Nobody’s hurting me, honestly.”
Arthur nods, realizing they’re at an impasse, and decides to leave it. For now.
Instead, Arthur starts looking into figuring out who’s hurting Merlin on his own. If Merlin’s not telling him, it might mean whoever’s hurting him is a noble, or that Merlin thinks Arthur wouldn’t believe him, because Arthur would never suspect them. So Arthur rules out absolutely no one.
He looks into the lords, the knights, the servants, even the stableboys and the washerwomen. Anyone he thinks might’ve ever raised a hand to Merlin.
When he questions the knights, Gwaine is incredibly indignant he hasn’t looked into it before. Lancelot looks horribly shifty and guilty, and Arthur shoves him and starts shouting in his face because he clearly knows something. When he (carefully) asks Merlin about it later, though, Merlin swears that Lancelot would never and has never hurt him. Arthur’s still unsure until Merlin swears on his mother’s life, and that convinces him, leaving him with both relief that it’s not Lancelot, and renewed desperation to figure out who it is.
When Arthur’s questioned absolutely everyone he can think of, and then gotten distracted by a plot to remove him from the throne (during which Merlin disappears for hours) - after that, Merlin hobbles into his chambers hours after the sun has risen.
He looks to be in so much pain he can hardly stand, and his eyes are bloodshot like he’s been crying, when he hoarsely requests a couple days off.
“Sit,” Arthur orders.
“Sire, I - Gaius said I shouldn’t be out of bed long, so I’ll just -” Merlin points at the door, and tries to make his escape, but Arthur’s significantly faster right now and blocks his exit.
“Into bed, then,” Arthur agrees, carefully herding Merlin towards his own bed, barely brushing him because he doesn’t want to hurt him worse. He pulls Merlin’s boots off and gently pushes him down. “What happened? Who, Merlin?”
Merlin shakes his head, but that’s not okay because he looks like he was beaten horribly and it’s not happening ever again, because he’s going to tell Arthur how to keep him safe.
“Merlin. Do you trust me?” Arthur asks.
“Of course, I just -”
“If you’re being threatened,” Arthur says quietly, “You know the knights and I will protect you. If you’re being extorted, if you have debts - I don’t care why, I won’t ask, if you need money you can have it. If they have blackmail on you, I don’t care, alright, in fact, I hereby pardon you for any crimes you’ve committed or will ever commit. I won’t hurt you, not for anything, and I hate seeing you beaten like this, so just tell me how to protect you, Merlin,” Arthur begs. “Please, Merlin, just trust me. Please.”
“Arthur, I can’t -”
“Arthur, I trust you, but -”
“You can’t do anything!” Merlin cries.
“Let me try, Merlin, please.”
“It’s not what you think at all!” Merlin says. “I’m fine-”
“You’ve been beaten!” Arthur yells. “You’re bloody and bruised all the time! You don’t do it to yourself, so someone is doing it, and you’re going to tell me who so I can stop them.”
Merlin shakes his head.
“Fine!” Arthur says. “But you’re staying here, where no one can hurt you, until you heal.”
“But -” Merlin starts.
“Just get comfortable,” Arthur snaps, and stalks out of the room.
(He’s not really sure how ordering his manservant to get comfortable in his king’s bed is in any way a winning argument. But with Merlin, anything is possible.)
Arthur watches Merlin closely, these days. So when a visiting knight shoves Merlin into a wall, and Merlin yelps as his head cracks against the stone, Arthur sees.
And his sword is immediately kissing the knight’s throat.
“Merlin? All right?” Arthur asks. He doesn’t look away from the knight, however.
“I’m fine,” Merlin says, except his voice is high with pain and he’s definitely hurt and -
Arthur throws his glove at the knight’s feet.
“Over a servant?” the knight demands.
“Arthur, no,” Merlin gasps simultaneously.
“Yes,” Arthur answers both of them.
The knight picks up the gauntlet - he has no choice - and Arthur fights him to first blood on the morrow.
A skilled warrior can inflict a lot of injury on his opponent before making him bleed.
Arthur also takes Merlin to Gaius and promises him, as Gaius whips up something for the headache, “You can tell me, you know, if anyone else treats you that way. I’ll protect you, Merlin, I give you my word.”
It’s still not enough to make Merlin believe he can confide in Arthur.
The next time Merlin sneaks away from Camelot in the middle of the night, Arthur follows, even though there’s a griffon in the woods again and in the morning Arthur has to risk his life fighting it.
Saving Merlin is more important than a good night’s sleep anyways.
Arthur follows Merlin’s tracks into the woods. He stays far enough away that Merlin won’t hear him, but when he realizes where Merlin’s heading, he starts running, caution forgotten.
Merlin’s heading towards where the griffon was last spotted. Is he stupid? Suicidal? Arthur isn’t sure, he just knows he needs to catch Merlin before someone, or something, else does.
Arthur finds Merlin at the same time as the griffon does.
“Look out,” Arthur screams, as the griffon charges at Merlin. He shoves Merlin out of the way and the griffon thunders past. “What are you doing?” Arthur demands. He sees Merlin’s dropped sword, horrified. “What were you thinking?”
“Arthur,” Merlin gasps, eyes wide.
The griffon skids to a halt, and turns to face them again. Arthur pushes Merlin behind him without hesitation, and draws his sword.
The griffon charges. Arthur braces himself. And from behind him, Merlin yells something incomprehensible.
Arthur’s sword glows blue just before he sinks it into the griffon’s thick hide. The griffon disintegrates into dust. Everything is suddenly quiet.
The stillness magnifies the snap of a stick breaking behind Arthur. He turns to see Merlin backing away from him. He’s pale, his eyes are huge, and he’s shaking, and Arthur is horrified to realize that Merlin is scared of him right now.
“I’m so sorry,” Merlin says. “I wanted to tell you, but -”
Arthur doesn’t think relief is the correct response to finding out his manservant is a sorcerer. But. Merlin has been sneaking out to fight magical battles, not being abused. Nobody’s hurting him, and now Arthur knows what’s going on and can protect him.
Merlin is still babbling apologies and excuses. Arthur cuts him off by wrapping him up in a tight hug.
“Shh,” Arthur says. “Shh.”
“But,” Merlin starts. “Aren’t you mad?”
“This is what your injuries have come from,” Arthur says.
“That’s what you want to ask about?” Merlin demands. “Not how long I’ve been using magic, or what I’ve done, or how long I’ve been lying to you? But-”
“You’re safe,” Arthur says, petting Merlin’s hair, gently.
“O-kaaay,” Merlin says. “If you mean you’re not going to cut my head off, that’s good? Very reassuring.”
“Well, obviously,” Arthur says. “But I meant you’re not allowed getting yourself hurt anymore.”
Merlin pulls back from Arthur’s embrace far enough to look Arthur in the eyes. “You followed me here to protect me, didn’t you?” he says.
“...obviously,” Arthur repeats.
Arthur is dressed in cold, clunky chain mail but Merlin manages to snuggle into him anyways, tucking his head into the side of Arthur’s neck.
“I love you, too,” Merlin says.
Arthur slides an arm around him and drags him back to Camelot.