The problem with working for MI-6, Merlin thinks, is that all your co-workers are bloody spies.
He and Arthur were bundled up into one of the standard issue black sedans before Merlin had even had the chance to ask Arthur why he's shot the nice man with the Canadian passport in the head. Merlin was nearly certain that Arthur had a very good reason and one that wasn't that he just enjoyed ruining Merlin's careful planning and research and schedules. He looks over at Arthur who is scowling out the window at passers-by and cradling his right hand in his left while he gently flexes it. Arthur seems to sense Merlin's gaze; he turns his head and gives Merlin a grim smile.
"Won't M be happy to see us so soon?"
He turns back to his window.
Stupidly, Merlin hadn't even begun to consider M's no doubt epic rage yet. All he wanted was an hour to debrief with his team — namely Arthur — to figure out what the fuck went wrong on what was meant to be a nice easy spot of recon.
* * *
They arrive at South Bank and are actually escorted into the lift — something which riles Merlin no end.
"We aren't children, for fuck's sake," he mutters at the impassive agents. Arthur just gives him that grim smile again and they all stand in silence until they reach the seventh floor where Villiers is waiting.
"Pendragon, you now. Emrys," he hesitates, "don't leave the building."
Merlin stands there a little dumbstruck as Villiers leads Arthur to M's office. The door closes behind them and there goes his last chance of figuring out what happened before he's marched before M. He heads to his desk which has been buried under a sea of paperwork since they've been in Austria. He pushes as much as he can to the sides and rests his head in the space he's created. He closes his eyes and runs through the last 72 hours in his head. He's just reached the part where Arthur got totally smashed with the now-deceased Canadian when he hears someone walk up to his desk.
"I have no idea why this time. That's the difference."
He raises his head and there's LeFay with yet another grim smile and two cups of coffee.
"Here." She hands him the mug. "You'll need it before you face M."
"Nothing is going to prepare me for that. In my six years of service, I have not once been prepared for a dressing down by M."
"True enough." She stands up for her perch on the edge of his desk. "Gwen and I are both around when you're done." She heads off down the corridor.
Merlin gulps down the truly terrible coffee and starts gathering all the paperwork for this assignment.
After twenty minutes and one very furtive cigarette in the toilet, he's gathered together everything and is no closer to understanding why his agent decided to take out some fucking canuck. His phone rings.
"My office. Now."
The phone goes dead.
* * *
"You're his handler."
"So, why don't you do your job and bloody well handle him? This is the third incident in the last four months and all on the one assignment. I know he is very good at his job but they must be extraordinarily daft to not realise that the same person has taken out three of their people. Soon, there will be nobody left for him to kill and we won't have any leads on the upper levels of the organisation. Fix it, Emrys."
"And your entire team is to stay in London for the next week."
"Ma'am, I really think that -"
"If I find out that any of you have left the City of Greater London in the next seven days, there will be serious consequences."
Merlin turns and starts heading for the door.
"I will find out. I am a spy, you know."
* * *
He heads straight to the locker-room on the third floor and finds Arthur squeaky clean and damp from the shower, doing up the buttons on his fresh shirt. He nods to Merlin and reaches for his tie.
"She seemed oddly attached to that Canadian and she hadn't even met him." He's executing a perfect full-Windsor and meets Merlin's eye in the mirror. "She told me I was being reckless and rash and bunch of other words beginning with 'R'. I told her I was doing my job by ridding the world of scum. Do I need to shave?" He runs a hand over his chin. His left hand, Merlin notices.
"We've been grounded."
Suddenly, this annoying, devil-may-fucking-care Arthur is gone and the serious, intense Arthur is back.
"But we'll lose everything. We have to get back out there as soon as possible."
"We are all limited to London for the next week and after that is up to M's discretion." Arthur looks shattered. "You've obviously killed someone important for a change."
"But he was no-one. He knew nothing." Arthur's puzzled and, if Merlin didn't know him better, he'd say that Arthur was also a little distressed. "Send someone else, send Peredur if you must but get someone out there."
"We're all grounded."
"Well, what's the fucking point of me risking my fucking neck and going to all the bother of shooting people if we can't even use the fucking information that I get before I shoot them? Jesus Christ, Merlin. It's your fucking job to make sure I can get things done."
"I'm well aware of what my job is. I thought perhaps you'd forgotten. You went off course. You sat there with me in that room and together we decided that this guy wasn't worth anything, we decided that you wouldn't shoot him and you fucking did it anyway because you can't stand to leave well enough alone."
"Well enough . . . fuck you, Merlin. He was a fucking gunrunner who was working against us and he should have known that working for the drug dealers and gangsters would end badly. He was working for the enemy and I believe I was doing what I get paid for by shooting him in the head."
Arthur's glaring at him and Merlin is pretty certain he's glaring at Arthur and whilst Merlin is still pissed at Arthur for shooting the Canadian without clearing it with him, it seems pretty stupid to yell at each other in the locker-room. Arthur seems to reach the same conclusion as he starts to gather his things.
"Let's go and get a drink."
* * *
Merlin isn't entirely convinced that Arthur doesn't have some sort of psychic connection with Morgana and Gwen and the fact that they are waiting for them in the foyer doesn't dissuade him from the notion. Arthur leads them all to some fancy wine bar, the sort of place Merlin tries to avoid when he's off duty because they are always filled with people who remind him of the people he works with; glorified fakes. It is very Arthur though – all leather couches and glass surfaces and hundred quid bottles of wine and, as always happens with Arthur, crowds part, tables appear, a waitress with sparkling eyes arrives with a bottle of something ludicrously overpriced and Arthur just smirks at her and Merlin can tell they're in for the long haul. They drink glass after glass and the rest of their team arrives — Lance and Peredur and Elaine — and they all look angry and frustrated about being grounded and Merlin watches as Arthur goes to them one by one and does his thing, all flattery and reassurance and soon everyone is half-drunk and happy and are as social as a group of MI-6 employees ever really are with each other. Even Villiers appears to help drown their sorrows and everyone manages to not talk shop for a couple of hours and Merlin is starting to think that being grounded isn't the worst news they've had in a while.
Another hour passes and their numbers have dwindled and they are all beyond half-drunk now. Merlin keeps an eye on Arthur because it is hard to stop doing what you are paid to do and he's whispering something in the waitress' ear which is, no doubt, filthy from the way she's blushing. Arthur grins at her and Merlin just rolls his eyes.
He watches as Arthur follows her to the bar.
* * *
The final few — Elaine, Gwen, Tristan — look up at him and say their good-byes and Merlin finds his coat and starts the walk back to his apartment. It's not until he's at his front door that he sees the figure loitering in the hallway.
"Well, you took your time." Arthur is not as drunk as he's acting, and he's still worked up about the way this whole thing has ended up.
"I was unaware I had anyone waiting for me." Merlin unlocks the door and motions Arthur inside. "I was unaware you even knew where I lived."
Merlin's flat smells stale from the three months away and there's a large stack of mail on the sideboard and half his plants are dead because his neighbour Will is even worse at garden upkeep than he is. Merlin looks at Arthur and he looks out of place, like there isn't enough room for him. Merlin tries not to buy into the myth of Arthur, the myth of the MI-6 operatives but, on this occasion, Arthur is all those things and Merlin believes them all completely. Arthur looks at Merlin, puzzled and all Merlin can do is put the kettle on.
"Office work tomorrow then." He feels the need to fill the silence that Arthur has brought with him. "Nice big piles of paperwork for all of us."
Merlin turns and Arthur is right there behind him and he pushes Merlin back up against the kitchen bench and just stands there, blocking him in. Merlin studies his face and he can see that this is as far as Arthur will take this without Merlin doing something to signal his consent to pretty much the most ill-advised thing they could do. Merlin laughs softly.
Merlin loops his arms around Arthur's waist and pulls him in, closing the space between them. "I'm not entirely certain this is what M meant when she told me to fix it."