Merlin had to give it to Gwaine. The knight seemed to possess an almost magical ability to transform any boring situation into an amusing one. With his wit, clumsiness, and remarkable ability to inadvertently cause trouble wherever he went, not a soul could complain of a dull moment in his presence. Yet, even he had a hard time making the cold tension-filled nights in the forest more entertaining.
It was alright in the beginning. The first few weeks after they had left Camelot to travel to Mercia were lovely. They had spent the nights chatting and laughing at the bonfires, eating roast deer and roaring out peasant worker songs. Even Arthur who couldn't stand the taste of deer and didn't know a word of the songs would hum softly to their out-of-tune singing, a small smile on his face as the light of the fire danced in his azure eyes. But riding with the same little group for days on end had its downsides. Soon, they were spending their days riding in complete silence that was only broken by occasional grunts at meal-times. And then, when an accidental detour made their trip even longer, the lull at the nighttime bonfires turned into bickering. All of them would eat in silence, prodding at the muddy ground with sticks, listening to the wind blow through the leaves, not having a single word to say to one another except insults and blame.
But Gwaine's magical ability came into play soon enough. It was a warm night, and Merlin was cooking dinner quietly, while Arthur was still washing up in his tent. On a normal night Merlin would be helping Arthur wash up, but that morning the two had had a terrible spat, which had caused them to bicker tirelessly throughout the ride. As soon as they made camp Merlin had stormed off to find a river, leaving Arthur to fend for himself amidst the balms and the hair tonics. It had been years since the king had washed himself, which was probably why he was taking longer than usual to come for dinner. It was at that moment, with Merlin furiously wondering how long Arthur was going to take as he stirred the pot of beans, when Gwaine broke the awkward silence - grinning like a scheming monkey - and insisted they all play his new game.
"It's very simple," he said, his brow furrowed in mock concentration which was an immediate clue to the deviousness of his intentions. "All you have to do is give me the names of three maidens."
"Alright," Elyan said skeptically, instinctively not trusting Gwaine and his far-too-innocent expression, "then what?"
"Then," Gwaine continued, brightening up, "I get to pick which one I'd rather bed, which one I'd rather wed, and which one I'd like to behead."
There was a moment of silence until Percy burst out laughing, a big rumble that rang through the night. "What the hell, Gwaine? What kind of a stupid game is that?"
The other knights started laughing too, and soon all of them were practically rolling on the forest ground, too weak to stand. Merlin tried to stifle his giggles as he continued cooking supper, but he couldn't help but let out a small snicker when Gwaine turned to him with a wounded expression.
"I'm telling you!" He insisted, "It'll be fun! Here… let's try. Give me the names of three girls."
"Alright then," Elyan said, his eyes shining with mirth. "I'll play along. How about… Keela, Annabeth and Doreen."
"Keela from the stables?" Gwaine asked. He paused for a minute, then snorted. "Behead her of course. Wed Doreen because she's got access to the kitchens, and bed Annabeth because…" he grinned, "… well, you know."
Merlin shook his head, affection glimmering in his eyes as the other knights burst out laughing again. "This is a cruel game, Gwaine. You're so mean to poor Keela. She's a lovely girl."
"Of course Merlin would say that," Arthur's haughty voice immediately broke through the laughter. "He fancies that one."
The knights were now crying with laughter, unable to even greet Arthur as he squatted down beside the bonfire, sticking his hands out towards its heat. Merlin glared at him, suddenly far less amused.
"I don't fancy her!" he said, a little more forcefully than he intended, "I just think she's sweet."
"Alright then Merlin," Arthur said teasingly.
Merlin blushed and opened his mouth to voice a retort when Gwaine thumped him hard on the back, almost sending him toppling into the pot of beans.
"It's alright, Merlin. We've all had our fair share of affections for… less than comely women." He sent a wink towards Percy who choked on the water he was attempting to drink. Leon burst out into a fresh set of giggles.
"I don't have affections for Keela!" Merlin muttered, his face bright red now. "But at this very moment, she's far better than the person I really do have affections for," he mumbled sourly, but no one seemed to hear him. He tried to think of a clever comeback to wipe the self-congratulatory smile off Arthur's face, when suddenly it hit him. He stood up, dusting the mud from his trousers and coughed. "Alright," he said, "it's my turn."
Gwaine turned to him, suddenly confused. "Huh?"
"The game." Merlin turned to Arthur, a smug smile ghosting his lips. "We're playing a game. I'll give you three women, and you decide which one you'd rather bed, wed or behead."
Arthur bristled, his face flushing. "What? That's ridiculous… I don't want to play th…"
"Gwen, Elena or Sophia."
Arthur frowned, "Now hold on a minute." He shot a quick look towards the other knights, who were leaning expectantly towards him, and then gave Merlin a knowing glare. "You're purposely giving me bad options so I'll have to pick Gwen!"
Merlin blinked his eyes innocently at the king. "I have no idea what you mean, sire."
"What's wrong with Gwen?" Elyan demanded suddenly.
"Nothing's wrong with her," Arthur stuttered, "I just…"
"Come on then Arthur," Merlin wheedled. "Will you wed Gwen or bed her?"
"Her brother is sitting right there!" Arthur said, the pitch of his voice rising with every word.
"That doesn't matter," Merlin practically sang as he crouched down before the steaming pot again, "you have to pick, those are the ru-"
"Alright, alright," Gwaine said, waving his arms. Clearly he hadn't anticipated that the game would cause this much tension between them. "How about we change it a little, hmm? Merlin's right. This game is cruel to the poor girls who aren't here to defend themselves. How about…" he scratched his beard thoughtfully, "how about we only play with lads?"
There was another pause, but this time it Leon broke the silence by letting out a loud snort.
"With lads?" Percy asked, appalled, "Like… you want us to give each other…"
"I'll start," Gwaine said, cutting him off brusquely. "Merlin. Your options are Leon, Percy and me."
Leon shook his head, almost as though indicating he believed the entire game was childish and he couldn't care less for the outcome, but Merlin saw him scoot closer towards him, a certain expectedness in his movements. Even Percy was suddenly at attention, looking towards Merlin with interest.
"Oi!" Merlin protested weakly, "that's not fair! I can't behead one of my friends. Or bed them, for that matter."
"Oh come on, it's just a game," Gwaine said, sounding a lot more excited than he ought to. Percy and Leon nodded, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.
"Still…" Merlin insisted, but he forgot his words when Arthur suddenly stood up, his trademark smirk back in place.
"Yes, go on Merlin. You have to. Those are the rules." Merlin felt a bolt of annoyance at Arthur's words.
"I'm not going to do it"
"I'm your King, I command you to pick."
"No," Merlin said, petulantly.
"Aw come on, Merlin!" Elyan burst out suddenly. The other knights broke out into a cacophony of similar sentiments, and finally Merlin screwed up his nose, worn down.
"Ugh fine," he said, giving in with a sigh. "Um… well I guess I'd wed Leon. Because you'd make a good husband." He said, nodding towards Leon. The sandy-haired knight beamed brightly, as though he'd just won a medal. Gwaine however, looked absolutely affronted. Merlin laughed.
"You'd be a terrible husband Gwaine, and you know it," he said, his voice playful. In response, Gwaine simply put on his best puppy-dog eyes, and Merlin grinned. "But I supposed I'd bed you."
The smile on Arthur's face vanished in a flash, but Merlin didn't notice as he turned to look at Percy, suddenly sheepish. "Sorry, Percy."
"I didn't want to bed you or wed you either, mate," Percy said grinning.
Elyan was practically bouncing with excitement now. "Alright, it's my turn!" he said. "Gwaine, I have three options for you…"
And so the night went on in a similar fashion. Merlin dished out the beans, and the men sat around the bonfire, laughing and giving each other the most ridiculous options from the stable boy to King Bayard of Mercia. By the end of the night all of them were roaring with laughter, telling stories about the time the Head Guard took a piss in the stables in middle of the night when he was drunk, or the time the stable boy tried to steal a piece of chicken from the kitchens and ended up getting whacked on the head by the cook. The flames had almost completely died down, and the knights were spread out lazily across the leaf strewn area, when Gwaine turned to Merlin. "Alright then Merls, your turn again. Me, George… or Arthur."
Arthur, who had been draped across a tree log, suddenly perked up. Even though the men hadn't shied away from giving him the worst options they could think of, not a single one of them had offered him as an option to one of the others. It was obvious why. The extended trip had turned the king, who was already enough of a grumpy child as it is, into a firework. It was hard to tell what would set him off. But then again, Gwaine had always been one to take risks… particularly when he knew the outcome would be entertaining.
Merlin avoided eye-contact with Arthur as he considered the options. He didn't have to consider them for long. He knew what he wanted, of course, but he wasn't going to tell the truth. He wasn't about the give the dollophead the satisfaction of finding out just why they had been bickering so much lately. Finally, giggling at the image of him and George lying in bed together, Merlin decided upon his choices.
"I suppose…" Merlin sent a quick look towards Arthur, and then turned back to Gwaine. "Um… wed you, bed George and behead Arthur."
"What?" Arthur yelped, and then immediately coughed, trying to lower the register of his voice. "You'd pick George over me?" He spluttered. "I mean… that's just ridic… I mean… you'd want to spent the rest of your life with Gwaine?!"
"What can I say, my lord?" Merlin said, turning to Arthur with a sigh, "I've always wanted to behead you."
Arthur frowned, deep lines forming on his forehead. "Alright fine," he grumbled, "I'll give you one then. Me, the stable boy and the head guard."
"Um, well… I think I'll wed Tomas, bed Christian and um… I think I'll behead you again sire."
Arthur was sitting up stock straight now, his expression disbelieving. "You'd bed the stable boy?"
"He's cute," Gwaine offered lazily. Arthur shot him a glare. Gwaine grinned.
"Alright," Arthur said, turning back to Merlin. "Me, and those two idiot guards who work in the dungeons."
"Well, I've always thought Lazarus was a real gentleman."
Arthur let out a small yelp of protest but before he could say anything, Gwaine stood up, giggling amidst yawns.
"As fun as this has been lads, I think I'll be heading to bed. Who'll take first watch?"
"Merlin will," Arthur said immediately. Merlin groaned loudly.
The knights sent him amused, sympathetic looks as they got up and wiped the dust from their trousers. Percy even sent him a grin and mouthed 'good luck' as the others scrambled to their bedrolls, mumbling their goodnights. As soon as they were out of sight, Merlin turned to Arthur, frowning.
"I've been cooking for hours!" he protested, "I'm tired!"
"Too bad," Arthur sniffed. "If you have the audacity to behead me twice in a row, then you can stay up for a few more hours."
Merlin mumbled a few curse words under his breath, but refrained from protesting anymore. For a second a heavy silence settled over them, and Merlin was suddenly startlingly aware of how close Arthur was sitting to him. Trying to ignore the heat that was starting to tinge the tips of his ears, he got up and began gathering wood. It was only when he was stoking the flames of the fire, watching it roar to life again, when he realised Arthur was still sitting there.
"You aren't going to bed?" Merlin asked. He simply meant to sound curious, but there was an excitement in his voice that he was surprised to hear.
"I have another one for you," Arthur said abruptly, ignoring his question. Merlin raised an eyebrow.
"King Bayard, me, or that horrible man who sells fruit who spits all the time."
"Well, I think I'd wed Bayard, and bed that…"
"Why are you doing this?" Arthur demanded and Merlin giggled, sitting back down beside the king, his eyes fixed on the dancing orange flames.
"Because you react like that," Merlin admitted, honestly.
Arthur was clearly flustered, with some sort of confused energy pent up inside him that was making his face red, but at Merlin's words his breath puffed out of him like deflated balloon.
"You were just saying that to irritate me?" Arthur asked, disbelievingly.
Merlin shook his head, turning to him with a smile. "You're a clotpole, but I'd still rather wed you than King Bayard. Give me some credit."
Arthur laughed, a short relieved gasp of a laugh. "Well…"
"Though it is odd that it bothered you so much."
Arthur froze, his eyes wide. Merlin finally turned to him, smirking.
"Why did it bother you so much that I'd rather wed Gwaine than you?" Merlin's eyes were twinkling now, relishing Arthur's speechlessness. "You weren't… jealous... were you, my lord?" He could no longer help himself. Finally, everything he'd wanted to ask Arthur for so long was pouring from his lips and he was unable to stop them. Maybe he didn't want to stop them. Because he knew the minute he stopped talking, he'd have to hear Arthur's answer. And he wasn't sure he was ready for that. "Come on, Arthur. Don't tell me it bothered you that…"
And suddenly Arthur's lips were pressing against his, stealing the words from his mouth and causing him to let out a soft gasp. And then Merlin's hands were on the king's face and Arthur's fingers were curled in his hair and they were kissing hard, breathlessly, tongues desperately sliding past one another, fingers tugging at tunics. Merlin could feel his heart thudding hard in his chest as his arms wrapped themselves around the king they'd yearned so long for. Eventually they broke apart, red-faced and breathing hard. For a second they just stared at each other, panting, their hair tousled and their tunics in a complete state of disarray.
"I think you have your answer then?" Arthur said curtly. He stood up quickly, straightening his shirt. "Well, goodnight then."
He skittered away then, leaving Merlin beaming and suddenly wide awake for his next few hours of vigil.