Merlin hesitantly stepped up to Arthur's apartment with the annoying paper brown bag holding the bunch of sweets he'd just bought.
He had absolutely no idea how he was going to apologize or make it up to Arthur for just leaving him like that earlier. He still saw in the back of his mind the hurt look on Arthur's face, how quickly it changed to a mask of support and understanding. Arthur had very clearly been hurt in the past, and here Merlin was, possibly doing the exact same thing.
He trudged up the stairs with a sigh, glancing down at his phone to check the time. 19:37, meaning Arthur should still be awake then.
Merlin dully noted in that moment that Arthur hadn't returned his calls or texts ever since he'd left. That was encouraging enough for him to pick up the pace and hurry to his floor.
He held his breath as he walked up to the door, the method helping him to keep his thoughts rational. He knocked on the door in a pattern; his subconscious had embedded it into his muscle memory.
"Whose there?" a voice beguilingly recognizable to Merlin came through. Gwaine, he bitterly notes. He was alone in there with Arthur and the thought of that angered Merlin more than he liked to admit.
He grabbed the door handle and opened it immediately, glad to know it was unlocked, otherwise he'd have kicked it down. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him, hearing various sounds coming from the living room down the hall. He walked down and rounded the right corner to the living room, greeted by a sight that made his heart sink.
Arthur was on the couch, clothes disheveled and noticeably dirtied by blood. Gwaine was kneeling in front of him and pressing a damp rag to Arthur's cheek, where Merlin could see blood from split skin seeping through.
Someone had hurt Arthur.
"Arthur! What the-" Merlin cut himself off and quickly dropped the bag onto the table. "Are you okay? Love? What happened-?" he abruptly paused as Gwaine stood up the second Merlin entered the room and now stood in front of Arthur, protecting him, from Merlin.
"Did you have something to do with this?" Gwaine snapped, nodding towards Arthur. Merlin was beyond caught off guard by the accusation, especially coming from Gwaine. For someone who was so laid back and friendly all the time, he looked borderline homicidal.
"What?" Merlin's expression twisted between shocked, angered and offended. "Did I- no! Why the fuck-"
"Merlin-" Arthur tried to interrupt.
"-would you even think that I would hurt Arthur?!" Merlin ignored his boyfriend, instead his voice rose and his patience deplenishing. He had come home after calming down only to find his boyfriend bloodied and bruised, being taken care of by the one friend Merlin wasn't fond of and being accused of having part in it. His jaw tightened and his eyes hardened as he held Gwaine's gaze, his posture was matching Gwaine's own protective/defensive stance.
"I'd say it's pretty coincidental that Arthur suddenly starts getting attacked right after he starts going out with an Emrys." Gwaine's voice remained the same; steady and strong, but he wasn't hiding his disgust in that sentence.
"Gwaine!" Arthur's face briefly reflected the betrayal he felt. The last thing Arthur had wanted was for Merlin to know about this, he wasn't a damsel in distress that needed help every time someone acted up. It wasn't bad, it wasn't anything new and it certainly wasn't his friends place to tell.
Gwaine didn't acknowledge him. He couldn't. This entire situation was out of control, he certainly wasn't backing down anytime soon, but surprisingly... Merlin did.
The statement had Merlin's shoulders loosened, his face briefly flashed to horrified as his gaze darting to his lover.
"What? What is he talking about?" he frowned, his voice softened when he spoke to him...always when he spoke to him.
Arthur found he couldn't hold Merlin's gaze. He lowered the rag from the side of his cheek and looked out to the window, his vision focusing between their reflections within the glass and the tall neighboring buildings outside.
He watched in the reflection as Merlin took a step towards the couch, Gwaine copying out of protective instinct, the two almost standing shoulder to shoulder.
The tension was still in the air, but the anger between the two had dissipated.
"You didn't know?" Gwaine mumbled.
"No." Merlin's eyebrows furrowed, his thoughts and emotions all over the place were disorienting him. "No I didn't."
Gwaine raised a hesitant hand to his shoulder, giving it a small squeeze before letting go and stepping forward to leave the room and disappear down the hall to his own room.
Left in silence, the two had way too much to say, but couldn't find the words.
After a few minutes, Arthur noted the movement behind him, but he couldn't bring himself to look at Merlin. He squeezed his eyes closed and clutched the rag in his hand, feeling faintly grounded by the feeling and distracted. He flinched when he suddenly felt Merlin's cold and gentle hand resting on top of his own, muttering an apology as he loosened his grip and allowed thin fingers to push their way between the rag and his palm to hold his hand.
They quietly sat together, Arthur's eyes opening when he felt Merlin tentively stroke his thumb along the back of his hand.
"I didn't want to tell you." he kept his gaze averted, "I wasn't planning on telling you."
"Why not?" Merlin had paused, his voice lowered similar to how he'd sounded when Arthur told him about Valiant. He was taking this seriously.
"Because it doesn't matter." Arthur gripped Merlin's hand, instantly the gesture was returned. Arthur knew that Merlin wasn't going to handle this situation well, considering what happened before, and it made a strong hesitation rise in him. "It doesn't matter to me and it shouldn't matter to you." He finally looked at Merlin, meeting gentle blue eyes that momentarily swept his problems away.
"This," Merlin let go of Arthur's hand and lifted his chin, tilting his head back to observe the contusion on his cheekbone, "is because I let that bastard walk. He that decided it was okay to put his hands on you." his face twisted to a scowl, "Do you know how it makes me feel to see you like this?" he spoke through clenched teeth.
Arthur frowned, his eyebrows furrowed as he lifted his hands, one gently taking hold of Merlin's wrist, the other pulling his hand back to entwine their fingers.
"I'll be fine, my love. The bruise will be gone by next week and so will Valiant. He's being transferred, remember?"
"Yes, you will be fine. Valiant however will enjoy receiving the same injury the next time I see him." Merlin's eyes looked unconfused for a moment, usually his tell-tale sign that he was in thought. After a moment, Merlin relaxed eventually, lifting his eyes to meet Arthur's again, "I'm here to protect you, you're mine, Arthur." he lifted Arthur's hand to his lips and kissed it.
Tentively, Arthur's lips tugged into a small smile. For the first time that night, he was finally able to relax.
Merlin was here, and right now, that was all he needed.