Just to be clear: this was bound to happen eventually.
And, quite frankly, Merlin was kind of surprised that he had managed to keep up the pretence for so long. See, it was just bound to happen at some point, and with Arthur’s enemies being so numerous, it was already a miracle that Merlin hadn’t revealed his little arrangement earlier.
But now – now, he had simply had too much. Seen too much, heard too much, endured too much… and at this point, let us just say that Merlin hardly cared anymore. He only wanted to get this over with so he could finally have some peace. That’s all he was asking for! Peace and quiet. He was a simple warlock. Did people just assume that protecting Arthur was a hobby of his? Sure, it was funny a few times, and quite refreshing when trolls or fairies were involved, but most of the time, it was a terribly redundant task, and after a dozen bandit attacks in the same week, Merlin grew weary. And weary, in his case, meant irritable as well. Arthur acting like a prat in the morning had certainly not made matters better, making Merlin mad at both the king and his assassins.
The cheek of some people, though! To come directly to their camping spot, all weapons and threats, and just expect Arthur’s life to be served to them on a silver plate! Some assassins just thought they were alone in the world… Honestly! Did they think they were the only ones who had it after Arthur? Big news: they were not! Merlin humbly placed himself on top of that list, in the top five, maybe – he had kindly allowed Morgana to pass before him –, and so they would have to wait for their bloody turn! Where had they been raised, exactly? This was civilised world, and in civilised world, people waited for their turn.
Besides, they could have contacted Merlin beforehand to warn him of what they were planning to do. Should have, too! At this point, it was pure disrespect. Did they care to know whether Merlin would be disposed to defend the prince? Because, as a matter of fact, he most definitely was not. Merlin was absolutely mad at Arthur right now, and it was frankly disrespecting towards his feelings to have picked that specific moment to make an attempt on his life. It was typical, too. Not to mention, rude. The assassins from Uther’s time were much more civilised, Merlin reflected. These ones were… they had no notion of courtesy.
And so Merlin would have to be rude in return. Had things been normal – and by normal, he meant, had Arthur not been irritating him senselessly since the morning and attempts on his life been repeated excessively for the last couple of days, resulting in his servant suffering from a terrible lack of sleep –, then Merlin would have dealt with this the clean way. He probably would have hidden behind a tree, dropped tree branches on the enemies’ heads, and tried to talk to their leader later to deal with this the civilised way. And although dropping tree branches was actually very tempting, since surely it would humiliate their foes and give him permission to joke about the trees being able to accomplish what Arthur could not, which was to disable his opponents, Merlin simply did not have the patience to wait behind a tree, nor the spirit to hear Arthur’s mocking comments afterward. And he was sick of people being so damn disrespectful when perfectly simple rules existed. Again, was a little warning beforehand too bloody much to ask for? Damnit! One. Peaceful. Night. That was all Merlin wanted. But did anyone care? Of course not! All they cared about was killing the king, never mind the consequences on his poor manservant’s mental state!
Let us just get this over with as quickly as possible, Merlin thought, sighing, before entering the clearing where Arthur and the knights seemed like they were about to engage in a swordfight with whoever it was who was trying to kill them this time. Merlin hardly even bothered to look at the assassins – he just took a quill and a piece of parchment out of the pocket of his coat and quietly strode to them, naturally placing himself between the two groups. Vaguely listening to their opponents’ conversation, he heard something resembling, “We shall proceed to kill him,” and rolled his eyes in exasperation. As he had said earlier: typical. Had these men no notion of originality? Couldn’t they at least pretend to possess an ounce of charisma? The way their jaws had dropped as soon as they had noticed Merlin’s presence was also quite unattractive, and Merlin glanced at the knights, who surely would have more composure than their assailants.
He was wrong.
Arthur was blinking repeatedly in his direction, his face saying all that Merlin needed to know – please don’t be here, please let this be a hallucination, I can’t deal with that right now –, and when he seemed to come to the conclusion that this was most definitely real, he buried his face into one hand, clearly at his wits’ end. Merlin smirked. It had most definitely been worth it to intervene.
Gwaine, however, didn’t seem that surprised to see him; he simply shrugged, beamed at Merlin as if he had just seen a plate full of apples – Merlin was very flattered by the analogy –, and cheerfully waved at him. Merlin returned the wave and felt Arthur’s level of exasperation increase significantly. This would be fun.
Lancelot had a slight smile etched to the corner of his lips, even though he was doing his best to appear disapproving, and Percival, by his side, seemed more worried than anything else.
Elyan, chin lodged in the palm of his hand and legs comfortably stretched in front of him, looked like he was watching a particularly entertaining theatre play and was excited to see the rest. Idly sat against a tree trunk, he still had his bowl of stew resting into his lap, obviously not intending to take up arms against the aggressors, at least not until he had had proper supper. His eyes had brightened at the mere sight of Merlin, as though he hadn’t expected the events to unroll in such a way, but was glad about it anyway. He winked at him and raised a thumb up in the air, and Merlin mouthed, ‘thank you’.
Finally, Leon, glancing at Arthur nervously, was very probably whispering words of comfort, at the same time trying to contain his own apprehension at what Merlin was planning to do. He didn’t seem all that panicked, though; only fatalistic, as he let out a defeatist sigh and did his best to remain stoic. He knew better than to try to talk Merlin out of whatever it was he was going to achieve.
The king’s face was still in his hand, Merlin noted, very amused. Until finally Arthur glanced up, directly at Merlin, probably reading the amusement on his servant’s face, and shot him a knowing look saying: are you going to make me pay for this forever?
Merlin plastered a wide, fake smile onto his lips. Know that I hate you.
Then, glancing at the bandits, or sorcerers, or whatever the hell they were, Merlin rose a hand up in the air to demand silence. A few of the aggressors cracked a smile at the sight of him.
“Right,” Merlin said, resisting a sudden urge to yawn. He could already tell that these ones would be boring. “Kill him. Erm…” He made to glance at his notes, and then offered the opponents an apologetic expression. “You’ll have to wait a little longer for that, I’m afraid.”
Arthur’s condescending tone was quick to interrupt. “Don’t mind him, he’s just a servant,” Arthur said, his voice irritatingly dismissive, and Merlin rolled his eyes in annoyance when he recognised the Merlin’s-just-a-servant tone. He hated it when Arthur did that, something Arthur very well knew.
After all these years, he should know not to irk me.
“Sorry?” Merlin said, glancing around him and pretending he hadn’t seen Arthur. “Did any of you say something?” He smirked. “So, as I was just saying–“
“Now, that’s just brilliant!” Arthur was chuckling, his laughter nearly hysterical. “Great time to be making your little rebellion, Merlin. Truly excellent timing. You couldn’t have waited a little longer, could you? Goodness, I can’t believe it.”
“– there will be no killing today,” Merlin continued, happily ignoring Arthur. “See, there’s what one would call a list. A waiting list, that is. On top of that list? A charming woman going by the name of Morgana. Might have heard of her?” He shrugged, clicking his tongue. “Sorry, friends. You’ve got some serious competition out there.”
Arthur’s enemies – and therefore Merlin’s as well – were now staring at Merlin in apparent disbelief, hands on their weapons, but making no movement to unsheathe them. Merlin concluded that they weren’t exactly what one would call clever. He had better make this simple for them.
“Let’s just get this over with,” he muttered, taking a few steps towards the apparent leader of the group and handing him his quill and parchment. The quill was enchanted, therefore needing no ink to write, but they all seemed so stunned by Merlin’s intervention that none of them cared to notice that tiny detail. “So if, in spite of the competition, you do want to kill Arthur, I’ll invite you to sign in your name on this piece of paper, please. On the bottom, of course, I shall allow no cheating. Just because you’re assassins doesn’t mean you can permit yourselves to act all high and mighty. Your name, please?” The man kept staring at the paper and quill, making no move to grab it, and so Merlin softly asked, preparing to write himself: “May I have some names to write there, gentlemen? And before you ask, yes, you are allowed to put in false names, or even a group name if you want to. Though I should let you know at first that some names are already taken, such as the Cunning Dragoons or the Uther Hate Group. Huh. I always liked that group. They had some very solid arguments, you’ve got to give them that. And that sense of humour that they had… The Cunning Dragons were awfully arrogant, though. They once attacked on a Sunday! Ah, I hate them.” He cleared his throat. “So, what should I call you? I always like to keep records, you see. Makes my job considerably easier. Permits me to know who’s out and who’s not.”
On detailing the aggressors more precisely, Merlin noted that there were four of them. One of them shyly raised a hand, asking for permission to speak.
“What’s your name?”
“M-Mark,” the man stuttered. “Say, c-could we be called the Angels of Fate?”
“Sounds nice!” Merlin complimented him. “The Angels of Fate it is, then!” He beamed, scribbling down the name. “And there are four of you…”
A member of the group, impatient, took a few steps towards Merlin. “I’ve heard enough of that fool’s chatter. Let’s just get rid of ‘im.”
The knights reacted immediately, yelling threats at the man, but Merlin remained immobile, still processing the man’s words. “Chatter?” he murmured, barely containing the anger in his tone. “You call that chatter? That, my friend, is called civilised talk. That is how you deal with your problems! By politely stating your aim and waiting for your turn to come, instead of coming here with your weapons and no word of warning! D’you reckon it’s easy for me? Not only do I have to deal with the mess he,“ Merlin pointed at Arthur with his chin, “leaves behind him, but now I also have to deal with unplanned assassinations? This world has become a crazy place, isn’t that right, Gwaine?”
“Perfectly true, mate!” the knight exclaimed, supportive as ever, even though he didn’t seem to understand all that Merlin was saying.
“Don’t encourage him!” Merlin heard Arthur hiss at him.
“You people are so rude,” Merlin sighed, shaking his head. “Can’t even plan an assassination correctly.” When the man took another step closer, Merlin sighed and raised a warning hand. “I’d advise you not to take another step closer, dear gentleman, otherwise I’ll be forced to toss your body against that tree over there. It won’t be pleasant for either of us.” The man halted. Merlin resumed his tirade as though there had been no interruption. “And to come here directly, with no word of warning – the nerve of some people, I swear. You know, I miss the Uther Hate Group. They were the best, and you – you’re all just so plain. It’s as if assassination had stopped being an art to you – as if, all of a sudden, you had lost all your grace. Assassins from Uther’s time were much more creative, and at least they took their time! They planned! Planification is the key to success, and innovation the key to progress – that’s lesson one in murder! Remember the whole troll business?” Leon nodded, looking disturbed by the memory. Merlin knew that the knight had never completely recovered from the trauma, and sent him a compassionate nod. “That was fun! People had imagination back then! They were resourceful! Ingenious! I actually learned a great deal from many of them. I’ll never forget Nimueh, who introduced me to the powers of lightning…” Merlin glanced up at the sky, and sighed. “Peace to your soul, sister.” He was sure that wherever Nimueh was right now, she must be glaring particularly sharp daggers at him, but he didn’t mind. He was suddenly feeling quite nostalgic. “Nimueh, Morgause, Valiant, Cornelius Sigan, Sophia, Catrina… Great people, they were. They had spirit! Now… now all the best ones are gone.”
He glanced down at his feet sadly. He’d never thought he’d come to miss these people, but now that he found himself confronted with this new generation of incompetent killers, he realised how animate life was back then. As much as he might have loathed or feared these people when they were alive, he had to admit they had great panache.
“One of them raised two immortal armies! Two! How many of you would have thought of that, eh? Wanna hear what you seriously lack? Boldness. If you don’t take risks, you’ll never achieve anything. If you want to kill him,” he gestured at Arthur, “you’ll have to be a little more original than that. Take inspiration from your predecessors!”
Arthur cleared his throat soundly, shooting Merlin a glare of warning.
Merlin bit his lip. “Oh, erm, yeah. A little too committed, sorry.” Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to give these men tips on how to kill the king, given that Merlin’s job was to actually stop them. “Well, my point is, you’re all sort of pathetic. Last word of advice: learn from the best, okay? Look at Morgana! There’s a reason why she’s never been eliminated from the list! She’s the only one left here who’s got style! Morgana innovated and she never gave up. She even possessed me once, and that… was not fun on my part, but it must have been on hers. She’s clever, she’s got strategy. Sometimes, the most obvious solution isn’t the best. You’ve gotta be inventive. Morgana’s resilient… and, to be fair, I think that’s an admirable quality. And endearing.”
Once more, Arthur cleared his throat.
“Right, maybe not endearing. But you can’t deny it’s nice to see her every now and then, have a little chat, see what the other has become… from the look on your face, you can and will deny it. Well. Forget it. Just remember that some of your predecessors were true legends, and that you’re lucky Morgana and I are still here. If we weren’t, this world would seriously lack some style,” Merlin mused, chin in his hand.
Somebody Merlin was most determined not to name cleared their throat once more, but this was pure provocation, so Merlin ignored them, even though he resented them for ruining the end of his great tirade. Honestly, why did he keep interrupting him in such an uncivil manner? Kings were supposed to be polite and courteous, weren’t they? But then, Arthur had never been your typical sovereign, and Merlin begrudgingly admitted to himself that he would not have him any other way.
Mark took a few steps forward, hesitant. “So what you’re saying is... we should join this Morgana?”
The king snorted, visibly torn between despair and mockery, and applauded. Merlin did his best to ignore him. “No, no, no, no! Absolutely not! What I’m saying is, you need to innovate.”
“But you just said Morgana innovated and was the one most likely to success, so technically, if we join forces, then we’ll increase her chances of success–“
Arthur, the infuriating prat, was still clapping his hands. “Well done, Merlin,” he chanted. “You’ve just added four more persons to our enemy’s army. Maybe she ought to hire you.”
Merlin turned to glare at him and sniffed as condescendingly as he could. The result sounded more irritated than haughty, alas. “You’re just jealous you weren’t admitted to the legend group. Not all of us can make it, so please don’t take it personally, Sire.” Merlin was getting better at faking smiles, and it seemed to infuriate Arthur immensely, thereby bringing Merlin great joy.
Arthur scoffed. “As if I’d want to be part of your miserable, novice group.”
“Am I allowed into the group?” Gwaine hopefully asked.
Merlin smirked. “You’ve got style, so obviously you’re in, Gwaine.”
“Love you, mate!”
“Pardon me?” Arthur stared in disbelief, suddenly outraged. “He’s allowed in, but I’m not?”
“It’s to do with the hair, Sire,” Leon said.
“I’ve always liked his hair,” Elyan reflected.
Merlin resisted a sudden urge to laugh diabolically. “Plus, Gwaine likes me, so he’s got good taste.”
“Has he got a prophecy written about him?” Arthur pettily asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Course I do! Haven’t you heard? ‘Tis called the prophecy of Sir Gwaine of Camelot–“
Arthur huffed. “I don’t need anyone to call me a legend to actually be one.”
“Is that jealousy I hear?”
“E-excuse us?” Mark blushed. “C-could we go back to the c-contract?”
“Right.” Merlin shook his head, becoming professional again. He could hear the knights mutter behind him. “So, the Angels of Fate… now all we’ve got to do is establish a date.” He drew the list. “Yours is the sixty-fourth spot in that list. What you should do now is casually wait for your turn as the list diminishes. Don’t worry, you’ll have your turn soon enough. Morgana’s not made an attempt on his life for a while now, which means she’ll probably try again some time in the week, fail stylishly,” he briefly glanced at Arthur, “and go back to the bottom of the list… and as for the rest of the candidates, well, I’ll deal with them quickly enough. Which should bring you very likable gentlemen to the top of the list in approximately…” Merlin brushed his lips with the feather of the quill, thoughtfully. “Say, two weeks or so? Let’s say that we meet again some day between March the sixth and the twelfth? Please do avoid Mondays, he’s always an ass on these days, I personally wouldn’t recommend. And in the future, I’ll ask you to avoid Sundays as well – Sundays are my resting days, and I would hate to be in a bad mood when you come to visit. Before you ask, no, I don’t get a day off on Sundays, the prat won’t allow it, but I simply refuse to perform my daily duties on this day of the week. That’s why he’s so pissed off. Among other reasons.” Going back to the main matter, Merlin leaned towards the leader of the group and said with an air of confidence: “If I were you, I’d pick March the seventh – we’ve got a hunting trip planned in the afternoon, which should make the killing easier. Besides, it’ll ruin Arthur’s hunting trip, which I think is only fair. Or I could hand you his timetable for the week of the sixth if you like, and you’ll get back to me on the date? It’s perfectly up to you. You know what, I’ll just put March the seventh for now, and you can contact me to confirm or change your mind.” He quickly wrote down the date, all the while muttering: “I’m the prince’s servant, so really, you’ll have no difficulty finding me. I’ll be glad to see you then.” He cleared his throat professionally and gave them an indulgent smile. “Until then, I’d recommend you revise your interaction with the prince. Improvisation is nice, but terribly lacking in originality most of the time.” Merlin yawned, feeling a bit tired. “How does that sound for you boys?”
“Perfect! Now, may I please have a motive?” Merlin sighed when he saw their expressions of pure discomfiture. “A motive is the reason for your crime. Or rather, attempt of, since there’s no way I’m letting you kill him.” He smiled cheerfully. “Oh, c’mon, surely you must have one! Was it for the money? Diplomatic pressure? Very unlikely, from the look of you. Alright. You know what? I’ll just put in hatred of Uther. Everyone hates Uther anyway, so it works every time. Best motive ever. Although, why you would choose to harm his son instead of going and spitting on the man’s grave or something is beyond me… but, oh, well. Who am I to question your life choices? I was once this close to murdering a child, so you’re right, I shouldn’t judge.” He raised both arms apologetically. “My bad.”
“Merlin,” Lancelot warned him, quite unsubtly glancing in the direction of Arthur and the rest of the knights.
“Oh. Right. Forget I ever said that.” Merlin turned back to the aggressors. “Would you care to tell me how you were planning to do the murdering? Oh, c’mon, surely you must have had a weapon of choice! Did you know that seventy percent of Arthur’s assassins were planning to use poison? Most people don’t believe me when I tell them, but I swear it’s true! Well. If you have no weapon of choice, I’d personally recommend that you use a war hammer. It’s never been used before, and, quite frankly, I think that’s unfair. The hammer is a very underrated weapon.”
“Love using a hammer myself,” Gwaine piped in.
“Everyone should be like Gwaine.” Merlin grinned. “Another question. I promise we’re almost done. Do you associate yourself with any group in particular? For example, I know that the Knights of Revenge are recruiting, and the Demons regularly sell weapons to independent assassins. Don’t look at me like that, please. I warned them not to use that name, but did they listen? Nope. Does anyone ever listen to me?” He vaguely gestured towards Arthur and the knights. “Still nope.” He coughed. “So. No association whatsoever? Oh, I do love small independent groups. If you’re a personal fan of any renowned group, do tell me, so I can arrange a meeting. It’s always nice to meet people with the same centres of interest as yourself. Better two heads than one, eh?” Merlin bit his lip, suddenly taking into consideration the men’s shocked gazes. “Unless… oh, no, please don’t tell you’re just bandits. That’s terribly dull. Have you any idea of the number of bandits I’ve had to deal with for the last couple of days? Eleven! Bandits are definitely the worst. They never care to warn me. I’m telling you, the worst.”
Merlin cleared his throat, and his tone became more serious.
“Last thing. You are aware that what you are doing here is illegal, right? It’s called regicide… but if you do manage to touch one of his hair, I swear to you, the punishment I’ll have in stock for you will be much worse than that of regicide. Do you understand that?” They nodded. Tone lighter, Merlin grinned. “Now, I don’t tell that to just anyone, but, this man over there? He is to become the greatest king Albion will ever know, so you killing him would just put a bummer on all of that – and by all of that, I mean prophecies that were written centuries before you lot were even born. Prophecies that are being preached by one dragon in particular, a dragon who would get really mad if you were to put an end to that future, since he speaks of it approximately every day. It really means a lot to him, do you understand? Fun fact: he actually set fire to Camelot once. He won’t be happy with you if you kill the object of his favourite prophecy. So, there’s that. Also, if you do harm Arthur in any way, I will do things to you you can’t even begin to imagine.” He smiled widely, staring deeply into the men’s eyes. He was happy to see doubt in there. “Not to mention that murder is punishable by the law.” Assessing the aggressors’ appearances, Merlin winced. “I’m sorry, I’m just doing this for the procedure. It’s obvious that you lot are already perfectly aware of the immoral and unethical nature of your actions, thank God. But for other assassins, you see, it can be much harder to tell sometimes. Some of them act like they’re so entitled to murder that one could think that they didn’t actually get that murdering their king – murdering anyone, really – wasn’t permitted. So I prefer to keep them informed. To avoid any unfortunate misunderstandings.”
Merlin smiled politely, then he glanced at his papers one more time. He could feel the knights and the aggressors’ stunned gazes on him, but ignored them.
“Have you got a little more time?” he enquired. “You see, I’m doing this survey, and I’d be very happy if you were to participate. I swear it won’t take much of your time.”
The shiest member of the group, Mark, who also appeared to be the politest, consented to the survey, even though he seemed a little uneasy. Merlin noted that the rest of them were now staring intently at Merlin, their eyes attentive, and seemed quite enthusiastic at the prospect of a survey. Merlin guessed they must be happy with the extra attention.
“Thank you ever so much, dearest gentlemen. First question. Were you ever indoctrinated in any anti-Pendragons group during your childhood?”
They shook their heads.
“Alright. So you’ve definitely got no excuse for what you’re attempting right now. Great. Next question. Is this your first attempt at murder? Third? Tenth? And if so, how do you always manage to get back on track after each failure? Because I think it’s truly admirable, and I’ve always wondered how Morgana managed to keep the faith.”
“Nope, it’s our first time,” Merlin’s favourite member of the group stated somewhat proudly.
“Good, good. Congratulations. Welcome! Third question. Have you any link to Morgana?”
“I guess that answers my question. Any personal link to Arthur Pendragon?”
“Never met him.”
“Right. So no direct reason to murder him. Good. Do you think it’s ethical to go around killing people?”
They shrugged. Merlin wrote a ‘they don’t care’.
“Did you or did you not prepare a speech?”
“Oh, it’s just that some assassins like preparing speeches. Somehow makes them feel like their claim is more legitimate than others, which is absolute bollocks, of course. No speech, then. Good. After a while, all the speeches start sounding the same. I mean, it’s funny once, like that first time in Camelot, but now it’s just boring. Except for Morgana’s speeches, of course. I do like her speeches.” Ignoring Arthur’s haughty snorting, Merlin looked up from his paper. “Also, something I ask all my young murderers… do you deem yourself redeemable?”
The men exchanged perplex glances, as though they’d never been asked such a question in the past. Merlin grinned.
“Because if so,” he explained, “there’s that great support group that I can totally recommend. The Uther Hate Group created it a few months past, and it’s a great way to deal with traumatising matters in a mature and grown-up sort of way, throughout discussion. People just share stories of how Uther Pendragon has wronged them, and since we’ve – err, they’ve, hum – all agreed that he is the devil, you can basically share stories about each bully you’ve ever known. Really good for those who suffer from anger issues or unresolved trauma due to shocking memories they’ve been forced to keep inside for years, unable to share their grief with anyone because one secret leads to another, and God only knows how many secrets they’ve gathered over the year, therefore resulting in them being unable to properly mourn and becoming a huge mess once they reach adulthood.” He cleared his throat, biting his lip. “That’s just an example, of course. Anyway, it’s a great group. They meet once a week and organise great, recreational activities. For instance, once a month, there’s this huge hay-made Uther figure that we place in the stocks and throw fruits and vegetables at.” Merlin chuckled at the memory. “It’s brilliant. If you ever do go there, I’d recommend you go and talk to Mike, he’s the one who’s in charge with creating the stuffed figures–“
“Merlin?” Lancelot called. “There’s the king of Camelot standing right beside you. Maybe you’d better speak of this some other time?”
“Fair point. Thanks, Lance.”
Glancing back at the men he was interrogating, Merlin asked one final question. “Finally, would you say that it’s ridiculous to wear a scarf in Spring?”
Almost choking in surprise, Arthur coughed loudly. “Don’t do this here, Merlin,” he finally muttered under his breath.
Merlin smiled innocently.
“Is this – is this part of the survey as well?” Mark asked, his tone hesitant.
“Nope, that’s just for me, and for any other people who may have a misconception on the matter of scarves. After all, when one does not wear any scarf themselves, it is terribly easy to judge others, is it not?” He heard Arthur sigh loudly in the distance, but ignored him. “Do you, then?” he asked the men.
They exchanged hesitant looks.
“And, hypothetically, if you met someone wearing a scarf in Spring, would you call the said scarf stupid and hideous, and the one wearing it idiotic? Would you describe the scarf as being unsophisticated? Unstylish? Prone to disintegration at the mere gust of wind?”
“Well – erm – Spring can be a little chilly–“
“Exactly!” Merlin triumphantly exclaimed, grateful for the support.
“–and the throat is quite a vulnerable part of the body, from what I’ve experienced–“
“That’s what I keep telling him,” Merlin sighed.
“–and I suppose scarves are quite fashionable.”
“That, too!” Merlin beamed.
Arthur snorted. “Depends on the scarf in question.”
His tone was teasing, and Merlin knew that the retort had come naturally to Arthur, with no second thought, like all those times they bickered and snapped retorts as naturally as they drew breath.
But Merlin was overwhelmed by the emotions, and so he took the retort close to heart.
That – that was too much! Had Arthur been showing any remorse, maybe he would have found it in his heart to forgive him, but this – this attitude…
“Could you… please… tell the man over there that his opinion is not desired?” Merlin said.
He heard Arthur sigh once more behind him, this time in resignation. “So we are going to do this here,” the king said, pushing back some strands of golden hair in a familiar gesture that Merlin knew all too well.
A gesture that meant: I’m doing this. While usually, Merlin quite liked the gesture, at this instant, he wasn’t very fond of it… nor very fond of the determined glint dancing in Arthur’s eyes, playful yet grave, somewhat similar to that of the hunter who had seen his prey and had his strategy already written, wide and clear.
Taking deliberately slow steps in the direction of Merlin and Mark’s band, fully composed, the king continued: “In front of everyone. My, you’re full of great ideas today, aren’t you, Merlin?”
Merlin kept his eyes firmly fixed in front of him, arms crossed and head held high.
The fond laugh that came from Arthur confused him slightly. Soon, he could see his king’s silhouette from the corner of his eyes as Arthur was standing beside him, gaze resolutely focused on Merlin. “If the man wearing the scarf had been listening more intently,” he began, patiently playing along, “then maybe he would have understood that the other man was not criticising his choice to wear the scarf in Spring, but rather his choice to wear it in the first place. And had he waited instead of instantly taking offence, maybe he would have understood that the man was actually offering to buy him a new scarf.”
“And what if the man didn’t want a new one? What if he was perfectly content with the one he currently owned? What then, eh?”
Merlin knew he was being petty, and childish, and many other things that he usually let Arthur be, but he felt he was no longer in control of his emotions. He could even feel tears stinging in his eyes, and all of that just for a scarf!
Arthur, not yet noticing his current state, shook his head and waved at the piece of fabric wrapped around Merlin’s neck. “Honestly, look at his scarf! It’s got more holes than fabric!”
“That is a lie!” Merlin exclaimed, cheeks flushed.
“’Tis not,” Arthur stubbornly retorted. “Any sane human being would tell you as much.”
Tugging at his hair, suddenly feeling at his wits’ end himself, Merlin cried: “I don’t want a new scarf, Arthur! The one I have now might not be pretty enough for you, but it is for me! Besides,” he sniffed, “you have no say in what I choose to wear! None! Just because you think I shame you doesn’t give you the right to–“
“Shame you?” Arthur was silent for a few seconds, visibly having difficulties processing the words. “Is that really what you think this is about?” he finally asked, blanching.
“Of course that’s what it is about! You disapprove of the way I dress! Disapprove of my scarf, which is not fancy enough. Well, excuse me, Arthur, but I’m not fancy enough either. Criticising my scarf is like criticising my very essence! And whether you like it or not, Merlin and the scarf will forever come as a pack! So deal with it!”
“For Heaven’s sake – I wasn’t criticising the scarf, damn you!” Lowly, Arthur added for Merlin’s ears only: “I didn’t want you to fall ill.”
Merlin’s eyes widened as he instantly forgot the retort he had been about to utter, instead trying to decipher Arthur’s words. Arthur didn’t want him to fall ill?
Arthur must have seen the tears in his eyes then, as well as the vulnerable expression he could no longer refrain, because his eyes considerably softened. Concern and fondness seemed to battle on Arthur’s mind and face alike, until finally fondness won, and Arthur leaned close to Merlin’s ear and said in a whisper:
Involuntarily, a shiver ran through Merlin’s whole body, and at the same time he felt his entire being relax, as though the mere sound of Arthur’s voice had sufficed to create some sort of fragile harmony that was only maintained by his presence. Merlin was not surprised – it wasn’t the first time his body reacted in such a manner to Arthur’s, after all –, but he couldn’t help feeling amazed by it all the same.
An infuriatingly smug grin was etched to Arthur’s lips, clearly content, but there was also fondness to be found in his smile. It made Merlin’s heart flutter pleasantly, and almost caused him to forget what he had originally been angry about.
Arthur hadn’t forgotten, though. Tenderly pressing a kiss to Merlin’s earlobe, he murmured:
“I know how fond you are of the scarf, and I would never dream of taking it away from you.” He chuckled softly, his eyes shining in mischief, and Merlin braced himself for the words to come. “Let us be clear: that scarf you’re wearing here is a monstrosity.”
Vexed and letting out a huff of offence, Merlin instantly tried to escape from Arthur’s grip, refusing to remain here another second when he had just insulted his scarf, damn him, but Arthur had inconspicuously wrapped his arms around his waist and was now tightening his hold, holding Merlin’s body close in a fierce and yet somehow tender embrace. He had Merlin right where he wanted him to be, and had no intention of letting go. Merlin sighed exaggeratedly, trying to maintain a certain sort of composure while, undeniably, he was perfectly content here, in Arthur’s arms. Arthur, as though he had read his thoughts, chuckled fondly before pressing another kiss to Merlin’s head this time.
“Yes, it is, and you can’t deny that,” he insisted, all the while brushing the fabric of the cloth with one bold hand.
He touched the skin underneath it, and Merlin instantly leaned into the touch, all the while glancing at trees to pretend that his attention was focused elsewhere. But he didn’t fool Arthur, and, as the man pressed another kiss on his forehead, Merlin could practically feel Arthur’s insolent grin.
“But,” Arthur deliberately slowly continued, his kisses just as slow, “it’s you.” At that, Merlin glanced back at him, and their eyes met. Arthur’s were sincere. “The real Merlin. Merlin with the scarf and the jacket and the boots.” The hand that had been wandering near Merlin’s collarbones ran up his neck to finally meet Merlin’s chin, and it remained there, one thumb brushing Merlin’s jawline with deep tenderness. “Look at me.” Merlin was already looking at Arthur, but he slightly nodded, promising he wouldn’t look away. “You would never shame me,” Arthur seriously said, his face just as serious. Merlin quickly understood that he was waiting for him to acknowledge his words, to accept them, and so he nodded. Artur nodded back, satisfied. Then a slight smirk, meant only for the two of them, brushed his lips as he leaned even closer to murmur: “Actually, the way you handled those thugs, and your tone, and your charisma – Merlin, I’m prouder than words can express. Angry, yes. But proud.” Then, breathing in deeply, Arthur reluctantly stopped with the kisses and closed his eyes for a few instants, trying to concentrate. When he reopened them, they were determined. “What I wanted to do was buy you a new scarf,” he gently explained, “one with less holes and more fabric, to make sure you did not fall ill.”
“You did?” Merlin hated how uncertain his tone was at this instant, almost timid, but there was nothing he could do about it.
“Oh,” Merlin said weakly, and he heard Arthur chuckle.
“I didn’t mean to – it’s just that – scarves are a sore subject for me,” he sighed, leaning into Arthur’s embrace and allowing his head to go rest on his shoulder.
“I know, love.”
Merlin knew he was blushing, and he tried to hide his face, but he could tell by the way Arthur’s chest vibrated with laughter that he knew. The thought didn’t upset Merlin as much as it should have. In a way, he liked the idea of Arthur seeing him like that – liked the idea of allowing himself to appear vulnerable in the other man’s eyes and to be comforted for once.
Arthur’s thumb brushed his cheek, and Merlin sighed contentedly. All the tension that had been held in his body for the first part of the day was now slowly evaporating as a feeling of genuine comfort replaced it, making him forget about everything surrounding him. Arthur’s presence had this power on his mind, it seemed: to make him forget about all the rest. Therefore, Merlin was losing some of his former irritation for the assassins’ lack of civility – that is, until one of them had the terrible idea to speak.
“Oh, we were talking about that scarf? Horrendous, that’s what it is! Might as well not wear any, if that’s what you’re gonna wear–“
“Pardon?” Arthur’s head suddenly jerked up, his eyes glaring daggers at the man’s face. “It’s a perfectly decent scarf, so mind your words. Besides,” he sniffed in that condescending way only he seemed to truly master, “with your clothing, you’re hardly one to talk.”
Merlin heard cheering in the background, and looked behind them to see Gwaine and Elyan cheering for them, raising their thumbs up in support. Leon and Percival were giving their opponents disapproving glares, and Lancelot… well, Lancelot had apparently been plucking a dozen of violets while Merlin had been talking to the men, and he was now admiring the result, ordering a few flowers as he saw fit, probably ready to give Gwen the bouquet once they got back to Camelot. Merlin grinned at the sight of it, but then his attention was back on Arthur, whose eyes were filled with seriousness once more… and fixed on him. Uh, oh.
“Also. About that list of yours… you’ve got some serious explaining to do.”
Swallowing nervously, Merlin nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Those things I said about your father – oh, but Arthur, everyone does hate Uther,” he said plaintively in a vain attempt to defend himself.
“He’s right!” Gwaine exclaimed. “Say, Merlin, d’you think you could put me in touch with that Uther Pendragon support group of yours?”
“Yeah, me too!” Elyan said.
“And me,” Percival softly admitted.
“The troll incident did cause me some serious trauma,” Leon murmured, eyes cast towards the ground.
“Sure,” Merlin said, shrugging. “They already know about the troll incident anyway – I couldn’t resist telling them, it’s such a nice anecdote to share! But I’m sure that they’ll be glad to be able to talk to another witness.” Suddenly remembering that Arthur was in fact standing right beside him, he bit his lip and hesitantly looked up to meet Arthur’s very unimpressed gaze. “Err, yes. About this–“
Arthur sighed. “I am not mad about my father, Merlin.”
“You’re not? Oh. Oh! Is it about the child I nearly murdered, then? Because I’ve got some solid arguments for that. And I’d like you to take into consideration the fact that I did not, in the end, kill him.”
“I’m not mad about the child either, Merlin.” Arthur seemed to be trying really hard to remain calm, and as much as Merlin appreciated the effort, he really wished to know what was going on inside the king’s mind.
“Really?” He frowned. “What is it, then?” If it wasn’t about his father or about the child, then what on Earth could Arthur be mad about?
“What is it–“ Pinching the bridge of his nose, Arthur took a deep breath, visibly exasperated with Merlin. He still kept his arms firmly wrapped around Merlin, though, which was quite nice. And his hand had come back to Merlin’s chin, urging Merlin to meet his gaze. “Merlin, we’ve talked about this before,” he patiently stated. “You can’t just go around talking to common criminals.” He said it as if it were obvious, which only served to irritate Merlin and make him want to irritate Arthur in return.
“Why not?” Merlin asked, all innocence.
“Because they’re criminals, Merlin!”
“Yeah,” he deadpanned, staring at Arthur as though he were an idiot, “that’s why I talk to them.”
Arthur shook his head, looking like he could not believe his ears, and Merlin grinned innocently.
A cough interrupted their conversation as Mark took a few hesitant steps forward. “Err, excuse us?”
Swiftly slipping out of Arthur’s grip, Merlin smiled at the man kindly. “Yes?”
“I – I don’t mean to interrupt anything, but the thing is… I think we had a sort of mis – misunderstanding. We – we’re not actually after Arthur Pendragon, you know.”
“Never seen the man in my life,” another man assented.
“What?” Merlin glanced at Arthur, but he seemed to be as confused as he was.
“I’d still be interested in that support group, though,” Mark hurriedly added. “But, the thing is… we never meant to kill him. The man we’re actually looking for goes by the name of… what was it again, John?”
“Emrys,” his partner grumbled.
“Ah, yes, that’s right. Emrys. Any idea where we might find him?”
Slowly, as he registered the words, a wide grin began to spread onto Merlin’s lips. He could not believe his luck!
Arthur, probably sensing what he was about to do, grabbed his arm in warning. “Don’t you dare,” he hissed. Merlin turned to look at him briefly and quirked an eyebrow, cocking his head to the side and offering his best puppy eyes. Ow, c’mon! “Merlin, no–“
Once more slipping from his king’s grasp, Merlin beamed at the men and took another piece of paper from his pocket. “You’re looking for Emrys! Oh, isn’t that thrilling? I’ve got another list for that. State your motive, please, so we can set a date?”
Behind him, Arthur buried his face inside his hands, and Merlin saw Leon come to stand beside him and give him a supportive pat on the shoulder. “You can’t say you’re surprised, Sire,” he was saying. “You knew what you were getting into, did you not?”
“D-do you think you could write d-destiny as a motive?” Mark shyly asked.
Another surge of emotions rising inside his chest, Merlin shook his head heatedly. “That, no, my friends. You don’t know shit about destiny. You wouldn’t know destiny if it were right under your nose. Destiny,” he gestured at Arthur, sniffing condescendingly, this time successfully, too, “is protecting that great prat year after year, with no break, Sundays and Mondays included, from bandits, trolls, faes, sorcerers, high priestesses, and, most of the time, his own idiocy. No one but me is allowed to use that word, got it?” Softening when Mark bit his lip guiltily, he gently added: “Very sorry. Pick another?”
“I won’t allow this,” Arthur was saying, arms crossed in stubborn refusal. “I won’t.”
“This is Merlin we’re talking about, Sire,” Leon replied as gently as he could. “Merlin and commands do not bode well, do they?”
“You can’t give orders to a legend, Princess!” Gwaine happily stated.
“I’ll ask you to remember that you’re still my knight, Gwaine,” Arthur sharply replied, “so I can give you orders.”
“Ow! Is this you acknowledging that I’m a legend?”
“Can’t you just – go to your support group or something?” the king muttered, exasperated. When Lancelot tapped on his shoulder, he groaned. “What is it, Lancelot?”
Offering one of his flowers, the knight asked: “Would you like a violet to lift your spirits, Sire?”
The look on Arthur’s face, halfway between outrage and bewilderment, was not one Merlin was likely to forget.